2015 in Review

Lately, there haven’t been any really easy years for me. 2015 is no exception. It began for me in Brazil and ends in the United States.

Professionally:

  • I left a job I loved with great people in Uberlândia and found a job with a terrible startup with underhanded and ultimately untrustworthy people in NYC.
  • Renewed my ScrumMaster Certification.
  • A couple weeks before my family joined me I was laid off in order to save the startup the placement fee to the agency that was coming due.
  • Spent 3 months job hunting before landing at Viacom. Burned through everything I’d saved for our resettlement in the process.

Personally:

That was my year. How was yours?

Trade In Your Calvinist Tulip For A Humanist

Heartsease

For perhaps a year when I was around 20 I considered myself a five-point Calvinist. This are summarized in TULIP, which stands for:

  1. Total Depravity – The corruption of sin extends to every aspect of each person’s life. Reason, compassion and every other capacity of a human being is damaged and thus unreliable.
  2. Unconditional Election – God has chosen who to save, and there is nothing an individual can do to add to or otherwise change that. A clear implication of this, not accepted by all, is that if God has chosen who to save, he has therefore also chosen who to damn.
  3. Limited Atonement – The death of Jesus on the cross was as a substitute, atoning for the sins of God’s elect. Christ did not die for all people in any sense, but rather only for those predestined for salvation.
  4. Irresistible Grace – There is no doubt that those who God elected for salvation will both be called and will respond to his grace.
  5. Perseverance of the Saints – The called of God, redeemed by his grace through the atoning death of Jesus on the cross, will never fall completely away. It is impossible.

While there is a strong internal logic in this theology, and there are passages of the canon that can be taken to justify it, it is far from the theology of the early church. Until Augustine of Hippo such a theology would have seemed alien, and moreso the further back in time you go. Further, it seems to me that these five points hang together of necessity, and each one is necessary to the others. It makes no sense to me that there are so many Southern Baptists in the United States who have adopted ‘Perseverance of the Saints’ but not the other points.

Rather than provide a point-by-point response from the Bible to the above, I’d rather address this to former Christians and those on the edge of leaving. There are other options for your mental flower garden than the dark TULIP of Calvinism. If you are ready to leave behind faith in the unseen and pursue a life of meaning and value that embraces reason, why not consider Humanism. As the American Humanist Association describes it:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

Now, I offered you a specific flower in the title of this post. The

Heartsease (also known as a pansy or viola). It’s the symbol of Fellowship of Freethought, a Humanist community in Dallas that, like Ethical Culture, Sunday Assembly, and Oasis, brings non-theists and others together for friendship 

image

From their About page:

Four petals make up our pansy, representing the different facets of our organization. From the left (clockwise) we begin with Freethought. Atheist, Skeptic, Agnostic, Humanist, non-theist, Bright, or yet uncategorized non-believer, we all have the desire to live a life free of dogma. At the top of our flower is what we think has been missing from many secular organizations and meet-ups to date – Fellowship. It goes beyond socialization. It encompasses outreach, volunteerism, advancing shared goals and enriching the lives of our communities.

Although we don’t always agree, as freethinkers tend to be opinionated, we think Friendship and respecting each other as individuals, is important. We hope our gatherings allow for the fostering of meaningful relationships between people of like (and sometimes “not so like”) minds. Our last petal is the representation of Family – defined by your own situation. We do not judge. We come together as a family, a family of families, with diverse cultures and unique backgrounds. In the center lies a unifying childlike representation of our future. It is owned by all and serves as a reminder that what we do has an impact on those that come after us. Together this union of ideas creates our unique brand of fellowship.

If you are a clergyperson who no longer believes, consider connecting with The Clergy Project. It’s completely anonymous, in that no one outside of the project will know you’re involved unless you tell them (I’m openly a member).

Whether or not you’ve ever been in formal ministry, you don’t have to go it alone as a former believer. There are options out there, some of which I listed in this post from a year ago: ‘Church’ Options for Non-Theists. Have a look as well at my Secular Resources page. 

They Dream of Land

In a beautiful short video entitled ‘Down the Stream,’ we get a glimpse into life for children in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. They live their lives on boats, yet dream of land. 

It has been well-argued by many that it is deeply ethnocentric for Westerners to judge lifestyles elsewhere in the world by their own cultural standards. What works in one society may not be for all. And yet, there are some rights that humanity has formally agreed upon as being for all people everywhere. Hearing these children talk about what they want for themselves, it’s clear that their hopes are for what is most fundamental to human dignity: education, health and professions.

One of the key aims of Humanism that has attracted me since first I came out of theism is to promote human flourishing. Many people struggle to survive. Others merely live. As a Humanist, I want to help people flourish.

Videos like this one call for two responses from those who care:

  • Promotion of human rights through international organizations. 
  • Direct action.

The first of those involves communicating with elected officials and encouraging active participation by one’s nation in the United Nations, as well as advocating for immigration and refugee policies that are more favorable to those who need them.

The second is the sort of thing Christians have been doing for years, and which many Humanists and religious liberals have avoided in favor of seeking government action. With groups like Foundation Beyond Belief we are seeing a rise of interest among secular people in taking direct action to alleviate poverty, promote human rights and eradicate oppression.

Down the Stream shows us only a brief moment in the lives of a handful of children in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. There are many more like them there and around the world. Kids whose dreams are like those of any others, if only they could establish themselves on solid land.  

Secular Communities Discussed on Mormon Stories

Mike Aus and Helen Stringer were guests recently on Mormon Stories, a podcast focused on the ex-Mormon community. Mike is with Houston Oasis, and Helen with Kansas City Oasis. These are secular communities similar to Ethical Culture or Sunday Assembly. Being interviewed by John Dehlin was almost ideal, because as a former Mormon he shows very little familiarity with other Christian denominations, and his knowledge of the history of Humanism seems about as foggy. What this means is that he asked great, fundamental questions that make this interview accessible and worthwhile for a wider audience. Not much in the way of prior familiarity with the subject is needed to get a lot out of the discussion.

The first point that I drew from the interview is that Oasis is weekly, and this is a requirement for their communities. Helen and Mike explained it as necessary for people to see each other on a regular basis for connections to be made and community to form. From my experience organizing for Sunday Assembly NYC, I can definitely see how this is the case. We only meet once a month, and attempts to use other events through the month to maintain connections were not terribly fruitful. It turns out that a lot of people will show up for a gathering with a talk and singalong, but not much else.

Second, that brings me to ‘singalongs.’ Personally, I never cared for singing in church. I only started joining in on congregational songs after I left the Catholic Church and joined a Protestant congregation. I only sang then because I felt obligated to God somehow. Now I’m good with it, and actually get irrated most about visiting Christian churches because I can’t sing along to their hymns (it would imply agreement with the lyrics). That said, there are actually a lot of people who want congregational singing, even in secular gatherings. At every assembly in New York City for the past few months, different people have eitehr asked if there would be ‘singalongs’ or said they wanted more singing than we have. One man actually stormed out with his daughters when he realized our special assembly with a guest singer wasn’t a singalong. Just this month a man came in late, asked me whether we would have ‘a singalong,’ and left almost immediately because he apparently thought he’d missed it. He hadn’t.

All that said, Oasis doesn’t plan congregational singing into their gatherings. While this is supposed to be a key activity in Sunday Assembly, it’s nearly absent in Oasis. They say it only happens if the band playing on a particular Sunday happens to play a familiar song that people know, and they join in. This makes me wonder if Oasis could ever be established in NYC, given that we have an abundance of song-free Humanist gatherings.

Third, this question of competing events is a major issue for New York City. This is a Meetup town, with every topic under the sun available to be discussed or celebrated. From tech to religion and everything in between and beyond, you can find your niche in NYC. The trouble is that this abundance of activities puts constraints on the time and attention of potential attendees.

However, within the atheist/Humanist/Freethought/Skeptic community of NYC, nothing else like Sunday Assembly exists. There are plenty of Humanist and Skeptic groups and events, but none that do what Sunday Assembly or Oasis do. This is important, because as Helen commented in the interview above, when she and her husband started looking for a secular social group for their family, all they found were ‘old white men’ and ‘activists.’ This is very true of what’s around in New York.

Fourth and finally, though some atheists complain about the idea of a secular community that resembles church, it’s incredibly important to note that if they don’t like it, THEY DON’T HAVE TO ATTEND. No one, so far as I know, is arguing that Sunday Assembly, Ethical Culture, Oasis, or any similar group is for everyone, or a necessity. For some of us, it’s deeply meaninful and worthwhile to get together with like-minded people for support, encouragment and service opportunities.

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Being Protestant

Late one evening, shortly after Christmas 1992, I walked into my parent’s bedroom. My father was taking a shower, but my mom was in bed reading. I’d been working up the nerve for this moment for weeks. I almost chickened out. But no, there I was. Unfortunately, the well-rehearsed statement I wanted to make to my mother escaped me in the anxiety of the moment. I’d carefully weighed my words and selected the best turns of phrase, and now they were gone. Instead, what came out was this:

‘I think I have to be a Protestant.’

That night was followed by years of me trying to discern God’s nature and will from the Bible. My commitment to doing what this God required, in response to the free grace I believed I’d received from him, led me from the Roman Catholic Church to the Presbyterian Church (USA), then to a nondenominational community church and on to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). While a member of the community church but away at college, I was baptized by immersion. It was during my time at Bible college that I got in with the independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. Then with my transfer to Harding University, I established a connection with the a cappella Churches of Christ that stayed with me until only a couple of years ago.

When ultimately my study of the Bible, familiarity with science and observation of reality showed me that the ancient tales of supernatural intervention are myth and legend, my faith ended. It took over 20 years, but I got there. Through it all, I followed my conscience. For this reason, and despite the fact that I’m now a Humanist, I can still consider myself a Protestant. If I’ve understood Richard Beck correctly, he and I may be on the same page:

Protestantism was created when Martin Luther was asked to recant his teachings at the Diet of Worms, asked to submit to the magisterium (teaching authority) of the church. There Luther famously declared: “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand I can do no other.”

That’s Protestantism. The elevation of the individual’s conscience over the magisterium (teaching authority) of the church.

Many Protestants say they are are following Scripture alone, and sincerely mean it. I certainly did. What they fail to recognize is that they are really following their conscience above all else. This conscience can at times find itself at odds with a difficult situation, an archaic and violent passage of Scripture, the desire for acceptance by others, and any number of other factors. The Bible is a library of books and letters which, despite some careful redacting, contains many voices that are not always in harmony with one another.

Ultimately, the Protestant follows her conscience.

I’ve known (and myself been) the sort of Protestant who talks about following Jesus more than the Bible. The argument is that Jesus is the true Word of God. As the sun differs from the moon, so the Son of God is superior to the moon. The latter merely reflects the light of the first, and imperfectly so.

This sort of approach is, to my estimation, utterly meaningless. If the Bible is not 100% factually trustworthy about Jesus of Nazareth, what is the believer’s source of information for understanding him? Warm feelings, good vibrations, personal revelation or simple wishful thinking? People follow their idea of Jesus, and not the man himself.

h/t James F. McGrath


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UU History and Today: American Universalist John Murray

uucorvallis:

In the 1790s, early American Universalist minister John Murray said, “Go out into the highways and byways of America, your new country. Give the people, blanketed with a decaying and crumbling Calvinism, something of your new vision. You may possess only a small light but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men. Give them, not hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.”

It can be difficult for us now to appreciate how truly radical a message this was. In a time when most Christian religions taught either that some were elected (chosen) by God for salvation while the rest of humanity was damned or that salvation was possible for individuals but only through strict resistance of one’s inherent sinfulness and despicability, a message of hope and universal salvation for all stood out. To some this was a message that threatened society – what was there to make people be “good” if not the fear of damnation and judgment? Universalism seemed a catastrophic idea: all those people not alert to their sins, or the sins of others!

Today most of us don’t worry much about damnation and judgment in the afterlife, if there is an afterlife. We don’t think about sin often in our modern Unitarian Universalist churches. But we have kept the deep sense of worry about and personal responsibility for being good enough, which has shifted from “good enough to be saved” to “good enough to be loved.” Our cultural focus is now on questions like, Are we working hard enough? Doing enough with our families? Doing the right kind of work with our careers, and the right kind of volunteering in our free time? Parenting our children the right way, or caring for our elders the right way? Are we thin enough, stylish enough, carrying the right cell phone? Are we love-able?

John Murray’s message today might sound like this: “Go out into your neighborhoods and offices, and make posts on Facebook. Tell the people, made fearful by the messages of late capitalism, something of your new vision. Your light of love, however small, is enough to make a difference in the lives of those around you. Give them, not criticism and doubt, but hope and courage. Do not push them harder toward self-improvement, but instead say, ‘You’re okay just as you are. You’re love-able. And I trust you to know what’s right for you.’”

Because when we are freed, even temporarily, from worrying about whether we’re good enough, something paradoxical and wonderful happens: we have more energy to grow, to make a difference in the world, to help and serve. We don’t need the threat of not being good enough to make us good – we need the trust that we ARE good enough to free us to BE good. To make the choices that are right for us about how to live and how to serve. To love and be loved.

My beliefs have changed dramatically over the years. Raised Roman Catholic, I explored the range of religious beliefs in my teen years before becoming evangelical at age 17. Over 20 years later, having gone from conservative evangelical to fundamentalist to progressive, I found my faith evaporating in the strong light of reason. Now, I’m a Humanist.

Though my core values haven’t changed that much, my concept of sin and what it means to live a full and fulfilling human life has undergone a transformation.

The underlying fear of not being accepted by everyone, someone or just anyone remains there, as it probably is with most people. The post above about Universalist preacher John Murray helps remind me why it’s so important to have positive communities of shared values and people serving as advocates for ‘the good life.’

Can Evangelicalism Be Progressive?

Click through the image above or the title of this post to listen to the podcast discussing this question. As for me, my answer is ‘yes.’ However, I don’t see progressive evangelicals remaining in traditional evangelical denominations. Rachel Held Evans, for example, is a progressive evangelical who found her way into The Episcopal Church. Further, there are congregations like St. Lydia’s that have sort of an evangelical feel, but are affiliated with mainline Protestant denominations.

Am I right, wrong or somewhere in between? What do you think?

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