The future contains the present that the past was preparing for. Consider that for a moment. For all the time and resources spent preparing for a potential future, it will never be more than what was possible in the present. For all our lamentations and considerations about the past, it held within it the potential of the present we’re experiencing. The past and future are indelibly connected to what the present holds or becomes, yet we typically spend more time considering either than being thankful for the moment we currently reside in.
Bring to mind driving and, if that doesn’t have too many anxious associations, remember a time when you suddenly ‘woke up’ and realized several miles had gone by without full conscious awareness. Whether it was a focus on what was coming, that meeting or event, or what had happened previously, a missed opportunity or action unfulfilled, the present in which all that thinking was occurring slipped on by without your noticing. What sights were missed? Who passed us by? What dangers did we ignore? An entire section of life, a whole area of living, passed in a blur of contemplating everything but what was happening right in front of us.
Without a clear sense of where we currently are, what shape our life is in, it is profoundly difficult to engage in that nourishing practice called gratitude. Rather than simply a declaration said over the dinner table or engaged in on Thanksgiving, gratitude can be a lifelong practice reminding us to not lose sight of what’s directly around us.
The past is a recall of events seen through the lens of our current situation, removing us from contemplating what we already have. The future is a projection of our current hopes and concerns, removing us from consideration of our current situation. Both cast our vision away from the grounded reality of our current relational self, the very narrative that holds the potential to travel these roads in different ways. Think of turning a telescope to look upon a night sky, it is precisely where the lens or present is located that will determine what is seen through the other end. If we forget how powerful the present is, we may never shift our imagination to contemplate the rest of the sky above.
To start with gratitude is to begin with Value, the identification of what we hold to be important. It is to recognize our capacity to care, to connect, to hold the strings of our relational lives in our mind’s eye. To pause in that relational present, to refrain for just a moment from losing ourselves in the past or future, is to hold the now and everything it contains. That now provides all manner of lessons to be learned from what has come before and a growing list of potential outcomes out of what has yet to happen. It is precisely within the universal human process of Value-ing that gratitude springs eternal.
Being lost is not seeing the paths all around because of looking for the ‘right’ one. We encourage freedom of imagination in our kids because we want them to not get locked into bad habits. We entreat each other to think outside the box when confronted with adversity and seemingly insurmountable struggles. Corporations hire coaches and gurus to help make the stagnant, movable again. Our very existence as a species is due to the variations possible within the seeming limitations of genetics. Life changes, expands and manifests in new ways precisely because it is not caught in a singular way of being.
As in life, so then in each and every human being. Living is ever-expansive because our potential is not limited by any single identity or story of who we are. Being trapped, stagnant, and confined is what occurs when we get locked into a narrow way of visioning who we are and therefore what we are capable of achieving. This is true of ourselves and, given the interconnectedness of relational reality, of those we look upon.
A Restricted Vision
Sin, within the framework of conservative fundamentalist religious traditions, is a way of framing humanity within a restricted vision. It is a declaration that the wholeness of humanity is found within a story of depraved, immoral and inherently self-serving boundaries. It removes intent and will, replacing it with an assumed knowledge of what lies beneath or at the core of a person. Behavior ceases to be a window into the multiplicity of human rationale, of the varied reasons, thoughts and stories of justification, and becomes an empty expanse unworthy of exploration. Why did the person do what they did? Well, we can look at what they say, but really it’s this thing called sin, the insurmountable evil at the heart of humanity.
The problem of sin is not simply that it’s a false idea, but that it separates us from looking at our potential. Our varied lives of layered thought and emotion become lies and obfuscations hiding us from our ‘true selves.’ This process of singular-visioning inexorably leads to shame and doubt, shame of who we are and doubt about our capacity for change and growth. Unfortunately this process is not limited to the notion of sin, it occurs any time we select a rationale for our behavior, separate it from the interactional and reciprocal reality of our relational lives, and make it the unalterable core of who we are.
How often have any of us faced failure and in the midst of defeat, callously declared “I’m just a loser” or “this is just who I am” or “I’m only ever going to be this way”? We may not be thinking of sin, but we are most certainly embarking on a similar path of limitation. Similarly, when we break someone else’s behavior down to a singular reason, we are artificially limiting our understanding of their humanity.
By selecting merely one potential rationale for our decision-making, we have cut ourselves off from the complexity that is our story-making, the formation of our identities. Instead of the multiple interconnected layers of a full life, we are crushed beneath the weight of simplicity and the desire to forge a clear direction forward. This process is not concerned with health, well-being or truth; it is a means of razing the trees to the ground to save the perceived forest.
Every one of us makes decisions based on a variety of factors, explicit and implicit, historical and future-projected, conscious and unconscious. Further, none of us are immune to prejudice, bias, appeal to authority and the myriad of other emotive-logical cognitive failings. To be called out for one stone out of place and have the whole of our identity-structures or personal narratives defined by it is to place the need for righteous judgment above and beyond that of humanistic understanding.
The determination of right and wrong does not occur starting from the assumed superiority of a singular position. This is where culture wars and the relationship fights we later feel ashamed for having gotten into, begin from. An understanding of ourselves and others begins where morality does, within the relational network that is our humanity. Individual actions can still be judged, but they need not overshadow the whole of that person, nor should they become the main or only lens through which we see ourselves and one another.We do not walk the path of understanding those around us if we begin and end with what we disagree with. Separation only furthers itself, it does not rejoin what was sundered.
Growth along the scale of human progress is a waltz between what we believe ourselves capable of being and the depth and quality of the relationships we live our lives through, it is not a sprint to a pre-determined goal. Dwelling in the space of potential means identifying the infliction of pain and move to reduce it by stretching the bounds of our empathy through touching the strands that bind us together.
“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’
I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” ― Lewis Carroll
The humor of impossible thoughts is found in our refusal to consider any of our own thoughts as belonging there. Why of course someone else might think the impossible, but not me, says the self-assured mind of every human being. We are dedicated to our picture of reality. What each of us considers wrong or impossible says a great deal about that ideological perspective. To practice pondering the impossible is to step outside our mental boundaries and see what wasn’t caught in our framing.
Traveling down the road of the impossible is filled with anxiety. The depth to which we rely on our sense of being right and our belief that the vision of reality we hold is wholly accurate cannot be overstated. Consider for a moment a time when you found out you were wrong about something important, that sense of being off-balance and the gut-wrenching concern over what else you may have mistaken. For most of us that experience is short-lived, our minds eagerly moving on to what is more basic to human experience, that of feeling right, even if it is feeling right about having been wrong.
While the road of the impossible is not one of ease, it is an inevitable journey each takes with every realization that a small or larger piece of our worldview no longer is able to shape the experiences we’re having into a workable whole. The anxiety involved can be a seen as a form of aggression, us seeking to hold our experience within a particular set of boundaries and the larger reality pushing back, a bending and bowing out the frame. Which brings us to fundamentalism:
“In its avoidance of difference and diversity, in its turning its back on tolerance, fundamentalism is actually terrified of aggression. In fact, fundamentalism seeks to manage aggression out of existence.” (Samuels, 2005)
Contrary to the picture of the fundamentalist, particularly the religious kind, being a gun or flag-waving belligerent, the outward display hides a deep-seated need for the world itself to no longer be pushing against the boundaries they’ve set up. Let’s face it, if the world completely and utterly conformed to the dictator’s or zealot’s every ideological whim, there’d never be a perceived need to do anything by force. It is precisely because the world and every person in it exists in varying degrees of freedom that some form of force is committed, though always with the hope of eventually creating a world where nothing ever steps outside the constraints of their perspective.
“Fundamentalism offers fundamentalists a chance to avoid the knock-on effects of an encounter with social, cultural and political differences. The fundamentalist self is thereby protected from inner and outer experiences of conflict and aggression within the self. Aggressive rhetoric and pronouncements made by fundamentalist leaders are not the same as the ordinary reciprocal aggression engendered by a real and mutually enhancing meeting with someone or something strange and new… Such pronouncements construct a perimeter within which aggression does not show itself.” (Samuels, 2005)
That world of ease and lack of aggressive push-back is precisely why fundamentalism is a form of psychological escapism. Whether we ourselves are using it to some degree or fascinated by someone else wrapping themselves in it, the enticement is universal. Make no mistake, fundamentalism is not itself constrained by ideology. It is not a force found only in religious circles or despot-leaning political ideologies.
When we come across something that doesn’t fit neatly in our picture of the world, that initial pushback is fundamentalism’s sweet voice. Our avoidance is concerned with not wanting to deal with the aggression of a reality bigger than any one of us. When labeling a person to dismiss them, it is fundamentalism making barriers. What differentiates a ‘true believer’ from a ‘false’ one becomes a way of establishing the echo chambers of personal security. Declaring our personal experience sacrosanct and incapable of being criticized is the force of fundamentalism attempting to limit reality to the confines of our need to be right.
The lure of dogmatic belief or fundamentalism is one we are all prone to and it is insidious precisely because the end result, that of feeling right, is so basic to our continued living within a world that constantly and often in surprising ways, reminds us of our limits. Denying those limits through mental escapism will only ever blind us to the expansive reality waiting to be explored.
© David Teachout
Featured image provided by Unsplash‘s David Marcu
Samuels, A. (2005). Fundamentalism – Its Appeal to “Them” and Fascination for “Us.” Psychology, 20(4), 52–55.
“There is really, then, no limitation outside our own ignorance, and since we all can conceive a greater good than we have so far experienced, we all have within our own minds the ability to transcend previous experiences and rise triumphant over them…” (Ernest Holmes, from “Can We Talk To God?”)
More is more, so says the hobgoblin of the American spirit, that creature of capitalist delights sitting on a shoulder, whispering the sweet nothings of one’s lack. A barrage of messages making everything someone else has something one does not. The grass is always greener on the other side in the land of lack. “I have not found myself” is the cliche of he or she who journeys in the valley of loss. Every shopping venture that ends with having bought too much, every sigh at seeing the happiness of a relationship you are not in, sprouts new weeds of self-doubt and misery. We all see it in the endless grappling to reach “the top,” we all feel that niggling question that if only I had “x” then the world would be a place of sunshine and rainbows, of free-flowing streams of love and the constant budding growth of health and energy.
This fundamental perception is self-perpetuating. When one begins with lack, then lack is all one sees. Each new possession, relationship goal met or job found is shaped and molded by the beat and drum of a mind set upon filling an inexhaustible gullet of more is more. There is nothing “good enough” because “enough” is never satisfied, never filled. Lack of love brings forth the notion that all relationships are at some level wrong or deluded. Lack of money promotes the idea that the social pie has already been eaten or taken away by someone else. Lack of wholeness continues to seed a world “lost in sin,” where shame is indelibly linked to existence. This space is not without a degree of comfort. The tyranny of low expectations smothers the flames of possibility effectively and without much fuss, leaving behind a merely vague feeling of emptiness, of a nebulous something that could have been.
“We must find new meanings to life if we hope to create new images which, in their turn, will supply new reflections” (Holmes). What if, for a moment, the thought of lack is replaced with that of plenty? I am not asserting that reality be ignored. There are very real issues of hunger, financial ruin and social isolation which are truly experienced with all their accompanying difficulties. Circumstance is not here what I speak of, rather the perspective that narrows or expands the potential vision of our experiences and acquired meaning.
A mentality of lack sees only limitation and therefore further builds lack everywhere through the paucity of experience. A mentality of plenty sees potential within the experiences that are already being had, with an eye towards responses we had previously been incapable of seeing. Clouds in the sky that used to contain a storm here become canvases of imagination. Finding $5 in the wallet becomes having more than what was known before. Having no plans for an evening turns into opportunities for self-exploration and seeking out social gatherings. Looking at the happiness of other relationships becomes enjoyment in the ability to empathize and feel a version of that joy.
In every notion of lack lies the kernel of plenty’s birth. There is nothing “only” about what one finds in the mirror, in the day planner, and in the account. Instead there is what is and “enough” takes care of itself. New opportunities do not present themselves to the blind, for imagination needs fuel to build new structures on the foundation of reality. We come into this universe screaming and hollering, not out of a sense of loss, but from a bone-deep realization that there is so much waiting to be experienced. Dwelling in the realization that life is a constant unfolding of potential made actual, the fruit of our activity’s labor, can bring contentment regardless of the form our lives currently take. There are always more forms for us to explore, always more potential waiting to be made real.
Ernest Holmes, “What Religious Science Teaches: A New Thought Primer”
As a human being I’m interested in broadening the understanding of my experiences and increasing my knowledge by identifying what I’m ignorant of and then looking to fill in the gaps. My humanity also determines the limits to fulfilling those desires. I have particular interests by virtue of being me, not every subject draws me the same way. I have time limitations so I have to choose on a daily basis what to read, what to study and plan accordingly for the future. I have career limits, in that my professional obligations concerning psychology direct me to continued education along paths associated with it and not, say, that of electrical engineering. I also, though this is controversial and not without a great number of caveats, have limitations on my intelligence; there are items I study which I struggle to understand while other people have already passed me by. All of these limits are part of being human, but none of them determine prior to the inquiry itself whether I could understand by virtue of that very humanity, they are only particular limits of my own.
As an atheist I am confronted often by the simple declaration from religious adherents of “you have faith too” or in its more arrogantly adolescent form: “it takes more faith to be an atheist.” The confusing nature of this argument becomes immediately obvious when I inquire as to just what is meant, resulting in some example of the form: “you have faith that x will happen” where “x” is filled in by the sun rising tomorrow, the continued love of friends and family, or other such. From the days of my own belief, I can recall the apologetic of referencing wind or air when attempting to describe how the Holy Spirit works. Then, as now, the response to such attempts is to point out that the examples being referenced are not at all comparable.
Faith, as used colloquially, is an indication of ignorance that currently has not been resolved. The determination of proving a claim through this version is to gather more information and clarify one’s thoughts. At all times it is accepted that the potential knowledge exists, though in the end any claim will likely be tentative. I can claim to have faith (if I want to use the term) the sun will rise tomorrow due to history of experience, the demonstrated belief of the uniformity of nature and if further clarity is needed, endeavor to study astrophysics.
To believe by faith, in the supernatural religious sense of the term, means to accept that knowledge of who we are, what we can know and how to act, are forever beyond the reach of our understanding as human beings. This is why there is the felt need for special revelation from a Deity. Knowledge and the ethics that come from it are no longer derived from human rational inquiry, but are at the mercy of deistic whim. In other words, knowledge claims and moral imperatives are true not because they are demonstrably true via social consequence or ethical philosophy, but because Deity says so. If at any time it could be stated that Deity declares something true or moral because it is true or moral in itself, not only is there then no need for a Deity to clarify, but there exists knowledge and morality above or beyond the Deity. Such a situation simply cannot be accepted by adherents to religious dogmatism.
Caught in the bind of not being able to rationally justify their beliefs, believers in the supernatural like to use faith in two different ways and then get confused when called on it.
Here’s the clarification:
1) Faith: I don’t know x, but I could know x with sufficient ability and study because the material/natural world is inherently understandable or amenable to rational inquiry. If faced with a situation where x is required, then I have faith that someone else understands x for the situation to have occurred.
Example: I do not understand structural integrity and engineering, but I have faith that driving over a bridge it will not suddenly collapse or turn into a dragon and fly away with me. Given ability and time I could learn engineering, and for the bridge to exist, someone else must know enough about it to have contributed to building it.
2) Faith: I can’t know x, nor could I ever know x despite dedicating time and energy to the study of it because x is inherently outside of the natural universe. I (pretend to) know x is true because I have faith that x exists precisely because I can’t nor ever could understand it.
Example: All claims of the supernatural by various religious ideologies and many metaphysical claims made by mystical traditions that are said to “simply be known” or “known by intuition or resonance with the universe”.
There you have it. The first is otherwise known as standard human ignorance, the latter is what is being used by claimants of the supernatural, of which not all religions claim. This is why I separate out religions that have them from those who don’t.
Let’s be even clearer. One cannot have the faith of the supernatural religionist without first positing the existence of the supernatural. However, the only justification for such a notion is the very concept of faith in the first place. Faith, for such a person, is not the trust of the scientist in the indomitable power of human inquiry, but a tremulous hope, a wish-filled thought, whispered into the dark expanse of ignorance, that the dark doesn’t really exist, instead it has already been filled or in fact has always been filled. Faith, in this sense, is a completely made-up idea, it has no purpose and no meaning beyond propping up statements of belief in things that otherwise are not open to skeptical inquiry. Conveniently, the Grand-Filler, bastardizing Aristotle’s first cause, is always the very deity the believer wants others to believe in originally.
So yes, as an atheist I have faith, but it is not a faith that sets me apart from the rest of humanity. Nothing that I know now or could know in the future is due to some special revelatory experience, there are no ideas I have now or in the future that are not inherently open to skeptical inquiry, criticism and hold the potential for being removed. Faith from within humanity exists as an identifier of ignorance and a push for continued questioning, with a wariness for declarations from an authority. Such is not the case for the religious dogmatist.
© David Teachout
Looking back at the journey of growing up there was never a question of going to church on Sundays, attending Sunday School as a child and eventually graduating to the “adult” experience of sitting in pews, singing old songs and listening to a sermon. Beyond Sundays there was mid-week youth group of some kind, attempting often in vain to bond with other believers of my age group.
The experiences varied through the years with new churches and leaders. Pews gave way to chairs, old hymns and organ gave way to contemporary music and a band, sermons delivered by reading a print-out gave way to emotional declarations and fiery speech. What didn’t change was the often stated and personally lived idea that Christianity and love of God was not only a belief but a life choice. When I was around 11, the exact age escapes me, I wrote a small letter to my mother telling her I was ready to “invite Jesus into my heart.” The last I knew, decades later, she still has it.
While I was “saved” at that tender age, the push to do so was one of fear and concern. I remember asking my pastor at the time about whether I’d still go to Heaven if I was struck by a car before I was baptized. I was assured that my soul was secure and God would understand. I don’t remember the degree of relief I felt upon being brought down into that large bin of water and back out, but I’m certain it was quite great. Water dripping down over my eyes, I can still vividly recall the seemingly endless rows of standing believers who I was told had become my extended spiritual family. Nobody was happier or more teary-eyed than my parents.
As a teen, a few years later, I “rededicated myself to Jesus,” a fact of life for many evangelicals who grow up in the church. Finding myself living a life having “backslidden,” the fervency of “getting right with God” cannot be overstated. I went after this feeling with a dedication reserved for the self-righteousness of the teenage mind or reformed sinner. Being a Christian was more than a statement, it was a living ideal.
In high school, even among church groups I was referred to as “church boy.” That I would move on to pursue ministry as a pastor was more than a felt call from God, it was a foregone conclusion. The world needed to know the Truth. Unfortunately for those around me, this idealistic mania led to a degree of disregard for the feelings of others that I still flinch at when remembering. From high school to bible college I held close to the idea that all truth was God’s truth and therefore to study was to unlock more and more of God’s revealed nature. I was completely blind to the idea that such a mindset would lead to the end of my faith. Had I been told this was the case, I’d have undoubtedly dismissed it. That only happened, so I told myself, to lesser people of faith.
College brought a host of new experiences I had been dreading and wishing for. The dread was the continued perception that even at this level most believers were not interested in truly exploring the extent of their faith. I had thought that certainly at a bible college I would find a similar degree of fiery faith in others that I felt had so far belonged only to myself. In a campus of a couple hundred, I found only a few. Those few, however, became a supportive core.
I’d studied philosophy before, C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, but never to the extent I was now. Similarly with theology, I was introduced to the history of Christianity, studies in biblical literature and the changing history of theological ideas. I ate it up even as more and more the questions I was coming up with were increasingly not being answered. The boy who had written in his senior yearbook picture caption that “to live in Christ is gain” was now beginning to grasp at straws.
9/11 hit with the emotional weight of a freight-train. The towers fell, people died and suddenly I was confronted with this whole other religious faith called Islam. More importantly, I could not shake the similarity their fiery fervor had to mine. Faced with actions I found horrendous, but impressed nonetheless with the depth of their dedication, I had to figure out why they were wrong and I was right.
All of the defenses for Christianity I found could be applied to Islam. Their usage of the term “faith” shook me. I couldn’t determine why their usage was wrong and mine was right, not with any degree of self-honesty. With Christian writing defending the faith having long since been seen as poorly portraying other ideas, even lying about them, seeing the way faith was used to justify any act left me with little choice. Picking up George H. Smith’s “Atheism: The Case Against God,” a book I’d been warned against a year earlier, I became an atheist by page 50.
If that was the end, this story would never need writing. What began in November of 2001 with a declaration to friends changed my life in more ways than I can count. The sense of loss was overwhelming at times. I’d lie awake at night shaking with the deep fear of damnation and the perceived loss of love from a God I no longer believed in. All of my notions concerning politics, sexuality, friendship, morality, career, were destroyed. Feeling as if I’d been lied to by my spiritual family and lied to myself for so many years, there was a lot of anger to work through.
The depth of that hurt and seeing the damage done to self and others by religion, has been instrumental in guiding me to where I am today. The healing took years, but through love of friends and the support of others, I no longer lie awake at night. Rediscovering what it is to truly love life through an appreciation rather than condemnation of my humanity has been a journey of growth and happiness that will never end. I do not want it to. Where Christianity left me with nowhere to go, a dead-end for progress, atheism and the resulting love for life’s infinite pleasures leaves me full and un-broken. Where God could take anything away, his absence means there’s always more to explore.