Sunday morning sermon

This started its life as a journal entry written about a week ago, and for whatever reason I think it’s good to open up this side of me to the blog. Vulnerability helps, even when it terrifies. Beyond redacting some names and cleaning up typos, I’ve left it as is, potential blasphemies and poor understandings of Christian theology and all. Oh, and for something that ultimately reveals a complicated faith in Christ, there’s a whole lot of swearing in this one and a paragraph about child abuse that frightens even me, so don’t read it aloud at work, okay?

church sign

For Bec Norton, who asked to read this in the first place.

No hope in Christ, no hope in God, no hope in love, no hope in me. I can’t focus, can’t do much but move flickering screens around, replay old loops and imagined arguments in my head, and concentrate on internet porn and bemoaning the lack of intimacy and sex and non-familial love in my life. It’s all so selfish and soul-deadening. I want to believe, I want to have faith, but it’s like I told L—— about J——’s breakup with me: “I can’t convince her to continue on. I can’t convince her it’s worthwhile.” That’s true of all kinds of love, and faith is the overwhelming love in God. And you can’t force faith; it has to come freely and openly, and I’m unable to be vulnerable to it right now. I guess I believe in God, and I believe that the Christian path is one good road for approaching God, and thus approaching the grace and wisdom required to care for and love the world and my neighbors. But it’s just one path, and increasingly I think it’s not the path I’m destined for, or maybe I don’t understand the path. Who knows? It makes me all sad, the weight of no hope for large joy in my life. I know part of this is just the inevitable part of the breakup process. But a bigger part of it’s a longstanding sadness and sense of utter loneliness.

It’s not that I don’t believe in God; that’s not true. It’s that I think God is a punitive asshole, the worst kind of father—somehow both negligent and micromanaging, and with the unique ability to blame His creation for the human shortcomings He imbued us with. No matter what happens, sin is our fault, and we’re laden with sin at our core, and our root, from the beginning to the end, but God is somehow—as our Creator—not responsible for any of it.

I’ve been circling this thought in my head for a long while, and I think I’m ready to say it out loud:

1)      God is omniscient, which is to say He’s all-knowing.
2)      God is omnipresent, which is to say His presence is imbued in everything on this Earth and made of this Earth in some way. The world is His divine creation.
3)      God is omnipotent, which is to say all-powerful.

I think most Christians would align with this. But then there’s part #4…

4)      God is not all-perfect, which is to say that, as humans were designed in God’s image, and humans are inherently flawed (whether by Original Sin or just because we’re fuckups), then God must be flawed, too. Deeply so.

After all, he’s full of genocidal wrath—he destroyed his entire Creation in the Flood, basically because they didn’t do what he wanted them to do. If any other father or authority did something so appalling and desecrating (again, to the Creation He made and designed) to his family, we’d call it horrible, and would be justified in exiling that person from our community of love. But the problem goes deeper.

God created us all, and all of Creation. Which means He made Eden—supposedly a world of perfect design, for His perfect human creations (Adam and Eve) to hold dominion over, care for, and to love. Okay. So, he plants a tree in an area in this perfect Creation that is flawed and has the power to corrupt us all. His two subjects (Adam and Eve) are tempted by, and eat the fruit of, that tree. If that possibility is in them, then they aren’t perfect. Furthermore, if Eden is a world of perfect, divine order, why’s the tree there at all? And why is there a need for rules to abide by, and a place that’s intentionally off-limits, in the first place, if Eden’s order is perfect and unflawed? Let’s take this further: The Serpent tempts Eve, who tempts Adam. But, by any interpretation of Genesis, the Serpent is God’s creation, too. It can’t not be. If God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, then from the outset He has created every element of this situation (imperfect humans, apple, serpent)… and then blamed his Creation for doing exactly what he created it to do. We live with the consequences of sin, always, but somehow none of that is God’s fault.

Much, maybe most, of Christian theology and Sunday sermonizing consists of attempts to circumvent that obvious, problematic scenario. We twist and contort ourselves into moral pretzels and theological monographs ad infinitum, so as to avoid the idea that God’s at fault in any way, that God is not perfect and therefore neither is his Creation. That imperfection, in my view, does not negate the Creation’s holiness, and the sacred reverence in which we should act in it and treat it. But I do feel like the constant and overwhelming emphasis on our “brokenness” and the “fallen world” and the anguish over a return to the “perfect design” and its concentration on the promise of eternal heavens (“but only if you play by our rules”) over the world in which we fucking live… Well, I feel like it’s an attempt to defuse or downplay the obvious: God fucked up, from the get-go, but we’re the ones who pay the price from the Genesis to the Last Judgment.

And when, thousands and thousands of years later, God makes it up to by presenting us with Jesus Christ, an actual perfect human (with Isaiah as the Old Testament precursor), we’re supposed to feel grateful instead of suspicious, redeemed instead of resistant, beloved instead of beleaguered. This vision of God reminds me of the abusive husband or child-molesting father. He keeps fucking up and hitting you, baby, because he loves you so much. If you complain to Mommy about Daddy sticking his cock to your mouth at bedtime, then you’re potentially breaking up the whole family just because you’re uncomfortable. Just lie down and take it, girl. And the endlessly self-punishing, self-criticizing Christians who focus so intently on their inherent wickedness instead of their inherent godliness and potential for joy, they’re like the victims of such abuse. The theology becomes an intellectual variation of Well, he hits me but he loves me so much; and he bought me flowers; and he promises not to do it again; and he provides for us, doesn’t he?; and what will the kids do if we break up?; and the stability outweighs the debilitating pain; and there’s so much good in him if only I can get him to see it for himself and if I start acting right; and he’s just jealous because he loves me so much; and you have to accept the flaws of the ones you’re married to and stick it out, no matter what. Anything to cover up or deny how God hurt us, and that hurt is inherent in His design, not ours.

In a blog post, J—— talked about God being a dump truck that dumped love all over you. (I’m unfairly oversimplifying it.) I think so much of Evangelical theology is indeed a dump truck but I don’t feel the love, only the sewage of self-hatred (perhaps justifiable but only if tempered by the fact that God’s grace and divinity is also present in all of us, too) and the endless push to sin less in this life so that we can get to the next life. And the only way to get to that next life, to rid of the sewage, and wash it clean into grace, is to trust and put your life wholly in the dude who dumped the shit on you in the first place. In what other relationship would you find that even remotely acceptable?

God’s response: “Well, Walter, perhaps our relationship to the consumerist, capitalist culture of immediate gratification and endless dissatisfaction.”

True that. We all live in and create that culture, an abusive relationship we freely enter into—our love affairs with Facebook, with our iPods, with People magazine, with money and the status it brings, with our pornographic “understanding” of sex and (more importantly) violence, with personal convenience no matter the cost to other people, with our casual yet systemic racism, homophobia, and misogyny.  We’re charged with protecting and serving his Creation, and we’re failing. Christianity offers a path toward success. In my heart, I believe that’s true. I guess. This would be so much easier if I were an atheist, if I could just reject this entire construct. But I do believe in God, and for whatever reason the Christian construction of Him feels the most resonant for me. Always has, but that’s possibly just because it’s the construct I grew up with. But, because of the imperfection of His Creation, I cannot and will not accept the idea that my chosen path to His divinity is the only path, or that my faith (messy and angry and complicated and incomplete as it is) should compel me to convert others to my path.

In May 1999, I ended up on a train from Paris to Chartres, on what turned out to be Pentecost Sunday. Thousands of singing, joyful pilgrims hiked into Chartres Cathedral—I saw them streaming single-file or holding hands over hills, across creeks, all sliding by my train window. By the time I got to Chartres, that sleepy town was PACKED. The joyful noise was tremendous, and triumphant. Multicultural, multi-lingual, young and old, sick and well, all that joy flowing into Chartres and that iconic cathedral like a river of happiness.

Now, that feeling can’t be sustained continuously throughout life—even in that moment, hundreds of those worshippers must have been having difficult times. But it can be recalled and rubbed for warmth and guidance when things go wrong. What strikes me now is that those Pentecostals swarmed in from all directions, from all over the world, starting from very different lives and contexts, from a nearly infinite multitude of paths, but all of them, every single one, ended up in that particular moment, and in that particular place.

That’s the way I understand religious paths, from Buddhism to Judaism to Islam to Hinduism to whatever else there is. The important thing, maybe the only thing, is this: that you come to a radical and enlarging understanding of the fact that you are part of a Creation larger than yourself, that this Creation is sacred and needs tending, and that you have to be one of the ones tending it, just as others within it are tending to you. You must understand that, as imperfect and stupid and petty and selfish as you are, you are a wonderful and delightful part of this world, a key component of it, and thus you have a responsibility toward it, like it or not, and that this understanding can bring about a fantastic (the most fantastic) grace and joy. That’s what it is all about. Yes, there might be a next world but very few—if any—have come back it to tell us what it is like in any detail, and an unknown abstraction can’t be a responsible framework for living in a concrete reality. You and I live in this world, and we have a responsibility not just to endure this world in preparation for the next but to rejoice in this world and try to fucking take care of it, to love it because it’s worth loving, and that it’s worth loving because it is God’s Creation. Jesus acted in this world. Siddhartha acted in this world. Moses acted in this world. Mohammed acted in this world. They all worked for the betterment of this world—the people in it and the larger Creation that supported those people. Because they understood that this tremendous responsibility is also a tremendous joy, that acting lovingly and intimately toward the world is our best hope for an abiding peace and strength that transcends momentary happiness (though momentary happiness and pleasure are deeply important, too).

If your concentration is mostly (or solely) on washing away the sin in your heart, so that you’re prepared for eternity, you are not only missing the point but actively desecrating the Creation in which you exist, and of which you are a part. If you are holding on to the idea that social justice or ecological care shouldn’t be goals in this life, because this world is “fallen” and irretrievably “broken,” then you are blaspheming against God. If you think the primary reason for your goodness in thought and deed is so that you don’t fall into eternal damnation like all those who you think haven’t accepted your version of God, and that your judgment (to which you have no real right, because you don’t understand the totality of any other God-given human soul, much less God) is morally sound, then you are blaspheming against God and His Creation.

Today, I ate a deli turkey-and-swiss sandwich in which every ingredient probably came from a different state, and which was wrapped in un-recyclable plastic, and thus assembled using thousands of gallons of gas and carbon expenditure, in some small way disrupting the ecological peace of a variety of places and the people living in those places. All this for a shitty sandwich. This is a sin, and it’s one that radiates outward, that affects hundreds. Who I might have fucked that evening, and whether the fucking was premarital or with a condom, is not inherently a sin. But that deli sandwich is. That iPod I use every day, the assembling of which is done by low-wage Chinese children in horrifying workplaces and for which the metallic runoff pollutes rivers and creating a piece of plastic and metal that is intentionally designed to become obsolete in less than two years… that is a sin. That harms the geography, flora, and fauna of real places, and maybe for decades, all so I can play Words w/Friends on a Wednesday morning. Sin is that which is evil, yes, but also that which radiates evil outward, that which infuses networks and communities with awfulness. So, pornography is sinful (and that’s another one that’s on me, and on me in a big, unloving way that I don’t know how to shake) but the intimate, honest, joyful, loving expression of sexual pleasure between two unmarried people is perhaps not. That depends on the context of the lovemaking, and that truly can only be determined by the people within it and God. But every fundamentalist Christian father worries about if his daughter is fucking her boyfriend before they tie the knot but not where her food and gadgets come from, or who’s hurt in the process of making them. The latter is sinful; the former may or may not be.

It’s not that I don’t believe in sin. I do, deeply. I know that I sin every day, often without my even realizing it. But I think that the Original Sin, such that it is, is a condition of our being inextricably connected to the rest of the world. I’m thinking less of Eden, apples, and serpents, and more of the millions of minor decisions we make every day that adversely affect others, others whom we don’t know and don’t care to find out about. That’s blasphemy against Creation, and we’re all necessarily a part of it.

(This entire journal entry may well be a blasphemy. I know that. It scares me. But, if God isn’t big enough to take His lumps, then what kind of God is He? So, hey, another one: I use “He” too willingly and too easily, even though I know damn well that God is greater than our gender, ethnic, and racial constructions will ever allow.)

But here’s the deal. That Creation is GLORIOUS. Despite our sins, the world goes on being beautiful and awful and joyous and terrifying. And we are all of those things within it. God’s design is not that it is perfect but that it is wonderful, more wondrous than any one being can ever understand. Our minor and major decisions are also often good, again in ways that radiate and that which we don’t fully (or even partly) understand. Good has a domino effect, even if the good in the initial context causes sin down the road, and we rarely see where all the dominoes fall. They say smog causes the most beautiful sunsets, after all.

So, that first paragraph way up there is horseshit. Hope, God, Christ, love, I have faith in all of that. Maybe I don’t have much faith in me, at least not me by myself. But the me who connects with the world, who tries to love the world, who’s trying to be vulnerable to the world and how it can change me for the better, that me is doing… well, he’s OK. Not great, not good, but getting there.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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4 Responses to Sunday morning sermon

  1. M. S. Smith says:

    Walter, this is an honest, candid, thought-provoking essay. There’s an old-fahsioned theological argument that goes something like this: when God created Earth and humans, he made them in his own image in the sense that he created rational beings. In order for these beings to be truly rational, they could not be automatons; they had to have free will. And, apparently, God realized that free will had to involve making choices, even if that meant making bad choices (hence the Tree of Knowledge). Therefore, there was the possibility that evil could exist, and then as we know according to Biblical lore, Adam and Eve let it out into the world. One of my former philosophy professors once said that it could have been conceptually possible for God to create free will and choice, but have the choices exist among good things only — that is to say, there’s nothing inherent in choice at least conceptually that necessitates badness, evil, etc. as an option. In that view, the theological argument is ultimately a weak argument. As I’ve wrestled with these kinds of issues myself, I’ve come to learn something. That it’s simply a fact of life that choice exists, and every choice actually entails some kind of loss, even if it’s minimal. Sometimes, though, the loss can be enormous, tragic, monumental. This makes life imperfect, and I think that’s okay. And I think that, despite what Christian theology might tell us, an imperfect universe created by a “perfect” God is okay too. I think that’s one of the ideas you’re getting at here. Because let’s face it: this is the way life is, and there isn’t need — in my view — for the religiously inclined to get defensive about that and resort to facile explanations about original sin to explain the messiness of life and the supposed innocent perfection of God.

    On a related note, I gave up, so to speak, on what I call “American” versions of Protestant Christianity because in my experience they generally focus far too much on the individual salvation of the soul. That’s never been what Christianity was about, in my view. The original message of Christianity, which developed in the deeply stratified and barbaric world of the Roman empire, was about social justice, about creating a better world, about treating others more humanely, about including those who have been excluded — or, as you say, about how Jesus acted in *this* world; or, for that matter, how Muhammad acted in *this* world (for the initial message of Islam was also based on social justice). These were revolutionary ideas. And for the earliest Christians, heaven was something they’d create here, despite Jesus’ statements about his father’s mansions and many rooms and all that. Religion, when it’s good, when it’s at its best, is for our lives here, now, and for the world in which we live. Salvation? That’s the by-product, if it even exists.

    I applaud your honesty here. I empathize with your struggle. And I also appreciate the opportunity to read your essay.

  2. Michael, thanks for your kind and thoughtful words here. Yes, that concentration on individual salvation is part of what makes me cagey about Evangelical Protestantism in theory. In practice, though, I have to admit that American Evangelicalism seems to be the fulcrum for much of modern American Christianity’s sense of social activism and political engagement, in ways both good (Martin Luther King Jr) and bad (Fred Phelps and the “God Hates Fags” folks). Part of me also feels like a hypocrite–I talk plenty about what the Christian life should be in theory, but I rarely volunteer, I’m not really connected right now to any aid organizations; I’m as self-centered as anyone. It’s like Louis C.K. said, “I have all these things that I believe in, and I live by NONE of them.” That’s undoubtedly extreme but I do feel disconnected from mainstream American Christianity, And part of me thinks that it’s my selfishness and adherence to my political ideals that keeps me from engaging with Christian organizations who–though I may disagree with them on big points–are nevertheless doing good in and for the world. I don’t want to join a church where I’m constantly gritting my teeth during the sermon or holding my nose at the theology, but maybe that’s impossible.

  3. M. S. Smith says:

    Yeah, Walter, there definitely is, and has been, a sense of social activism in American Christianity, particularly in the sense that King applied it, not only for civil rights but also for economic opportunity, etc. I think I was using “American” for lack of a more precise term; I’ve encountered that individual-salvation message too much in what might be seen as “standard” suburban churches, which weren’t particularly Evangelical, by the way. The message eventually turned me off to the experience of church-going.

    I empathize with your struggle with disconnection from American Christianity. Perhaps one option might be to volunteer in organizations without going directly through a church at all, thereby bypassing the theological issues within church altogether. I’m not sure, but it’s just a thought. I find resonance in what you say about feeling hypocritical. One area where I think we all might focus, particularly those who truly identify themselves as avid Christians, is within our daily lives. I have this belief that we all (including yours truly) commit small, daily acts of cruelty too regularly: losing our patience while standing in line at the bank, cutting someone off in traffic, getting quickly irate at a friend or family member for no good reason. With that in mind, perhaps we all might attempt daily acts of kindness instead — that might be as Christian as providing charity to the poor. And I will say that I’ve personally known Christians (even dated one once) who wouldn’t know daily kindness if it walked up to them and slapped them in the face (or kissed ’em on the cheek, rather).

  4. Pingback: Everything I write is a love letter | Quiet Bubble

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