Posts Tagged ‘Breaking the Spell’

SERMON: “Splitting the Hairs of God” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Attempting to see the world in a materialist, scientific sort of way (which is a formal way of saying “See the world for what it actually is”) has a sort of cumulative effect on one’s perception of life.  One of the more interesting of those are the moments of rather startling clarity about former beliefs.  It is the nature of such insights that they can only come after a certain distance is put between one’s self and the spell of belief (assuming that the spell of belief has been “broken”).  This makes sense: we rarely, if ever, see things very clearly in the heat of the moment.

And so it was that I was suddenly able to see the astounding quality of fantasy that attends such notions as a creator God that has — literally — numbered the hairs on our head.  Now I can assume that this includes eyelashes and beards, but what about the some five million other hair follicles on the human body (times the bodies of some 8 billion living humans)?  And what could possibly be the point?  Such a statement of religious devotion is clearly intended to be poetic, and, like poetry, it goes straight to the heart in a warming sort of way.  That is all well and good, but both you and I know that a whole lot of our fellow humans actually believe this sort of thing on some foundational level.  Of course they don’t analyze it or dissect it — to do so would to rob the poetry of its sweetness.  So we just sort of nod in approval whenever someone repeats this chestnut, savoring the warm feeling it gives us.

And here comes another wag (me) — like that kid who pees in the pool — saying it’s all rubbish!

Now I have a conservative Christian friend who is convinced that I am deeply angry (what is it about the archly conservative that makes perceived-anger-as-instant-argument-invaidator such a fetish with them?).  But I’m not angry.  I’m incredulous!  For how can it possibly be more believable that the God of all the Universe devotes his vast energy to keeping track of the status of, say, lower back follicle number 3,452,789 than it is to accept the vast amount of scientific evidence of the evolution of life on earth?  This doesn’t make me furious — it leaves me almost speechless.

Loads of people try to dismiss champion of evolution Richard Dawkins as "angry" and "arrogant", as if that proves that his arguments are invalid.

But of course the answer is as obvious as it is perplexing:  the notion of a loving heavenly father is far more palatable to our vulnerable psyches.  It is an idea we are already familiar with from our own experiences of having had a father (or at least a loving adult in our lives).  Belief is warm and familiar, like a teddy bear.  Science is cold and unfamiliar, and snatches our teddy bears away from us.

The progression from childhood to adult belief is generally seamless.  And little wonder, really.  What is clearly the exception are those that break away from belief (generally, but not always, due to trauma or a betrayal of some kind).  This serves to confirm my own view that we humans are natural believers, and that it takes a certain amount of effort (be it catalyzed or self-motivated) to move us beyond the believing world view.

To me the answers — or, I should say, the lack of answers (in the case of religion) — are obvious.  The scientific evidence (the only “testable” kind) is overwhelming.  So why do so many of us not just fail to accept the evidence, but actively and fervently oppose it?  This is not rational.

Ah, but it is human.

I’m beginning to realize that science is challenging to internalize because it is describing phenomenon that — though truly a “part” of us — have no sensory connection to the way in which we actually experience life.  Some scientific concepts are comprehensible through our body, such as our own weight in relation to earth’s gravity, or the feeling of the wind on our skin that can remind us that air has mass.  But no matter how hard I smack my hand against a table, it’s almost impossible to really grasp that my flesh is not actually touching wood, and that what is stopping the widely-dispersed atoms in my hand from passing right through the equally-widely-dispersed atoms in the table is a bunch of electrical bonds between those atoms.

In practical terms it is much easier to just say that my flesh is solid, but flexible, whereas the table is just plain solid.  This is how we live our lives.  And when it comes to the “why” of it all, we’d rather cast our lot with a God who numbers our hairs than a scientist who splits them.

Our brains evolved according to the iron laws of natural selection, which means that there is little room for the frivolous or unnecessary in any animal that must compete for resources.  There has never been a need for us to see life at an atomic level.  For one, we are not naturally equipped to either see it or sense it in any meaningful way.  For another, we will never find our dinner or mate “there”.  Our living happens in the world of things that we can control, avoid or domesticate.  And yet (without meaning too!) we have developed these large, complex brains and the capacity for language that have brought us science and microscopes and space telescopes that have, in turn, opened up to us a world incomprehensibly more vast than we ever thought could exist.  And, frankly, our brains aren’t up to the task.

Seriously: they aren’t!

As I continue to read popular science, I find my brain stretched to its limits to comprehend what I read.  And I can almost feel our collective minds (and even the minds of the most brilliant humans) being stretched when I read about the frontiers of current research.  Maybe it has always been this way with us (at least since the start of the Neolithic “revolution”).  After all, there was a time when no human had ever seen (much less even imagined) a wheel, and yet someone thought it up.  Everything about us and our culture and our knowledge came about in that way.

But science has always, in a way, been the work of the outsider who upsets the calm of the tribe, pissing off the witchdoctor who has held sway over the minds of his followers for generations.  But it’s not just the witchdoctor who fights knowledge (he or she out of obvious commercial self-interest), but the individuals who find themselves forced into thinking things that are, frankly, very close to impossible to understand.

And yet…evolution makes sense.  In fact, it is the only explanation for life on earth that does make sense.  It’s hard to wrap your mind around, yes, but it’s not impossible with a little time and attention.  Ideas of divine creation are far more familiar to us, to be sure, woven poetically (and through tradition) into our consciousness, but they are laughable as actual theories (despite the intellectual contortions that creationists put themselves through).

But the science of our reality will always be a challenge to internalize, as it will always suffer from the internal conflict between the precision of description that science demands and the use of imprecise metaphor that is needed to make it understandable to the non-scientist.  I think this conflict is one of the foundational reasons that believers in the divine story feel less than confident about jumping the ship of belief.  For us humans, it would appear, it’s not enough that something be true.  We need to be able to believe in it too.
t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Second Epiphany” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

Merriam-Webster lists one definition of epiphany as: “a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.”

When I think of epiphanies of a certain magnitude, I think of conversion experiences.  I’m guessing most of us have at least one good conversion in us.  St. Paul sure did.  We can assume that he was raised in the religious beliefs that he held when he was struck blind by that heavenly light on the road to Damascus.  That most famous of epiphanies led to his conversion from a (born) persecutor of Christians to a (born again) follower of Christ.  As far as we know, he had no further conversions after that, and any epiphanies that followed were of a scale to fit within his “new” system of belief.

I think that the course of most conversions follow a pattern similar to Paul’s.  Listen to most “testimonies” from the converted, and they’ll refer to a previous life that consisted of early beliefs about the “essential nature or meaning” of life that had never been questioned.  Suddenly a triggering event causes them to re-think their beliefs.  In my case I was simply presented with the basics of Christian salvation that — although I had been raised in a nominally (at least socially) Christian home — were news to me.  And so I converted.

As readers of this blog will know, I later converted again.  Not back to my previous beliefs, but to a completely new understanding of that “essential nature or  meaning” thing.  I have often borrowed from evangelistic jargon and referred to this as my having been “born again…again”.

It’s not unusual to find someone who has had a conversion experience (though there are many who manage to skip this step without any noticeable injury to their life experience — but I was not cut from that genetic cloth).  What is more unusual is to find those that have had a second conversion — an epiphany of a magnitude to re-set the orbit of the intellectual planets yet again.  Yet the potential is always present, and is recognized as a true danger by the major monotheistic religions.  In Christianity, it is condemned as “apostasy”, and those who go down that road are viewed with deep suspicion and considered highly dangerous to other believers.  In Islam, they simply condemn apostates to death (a rather extreme version of the non-compete clause in an executive’s contract — for no-one wants a former “insider” working for the enemy).

I was fortunate in that my declension from faith did not incur death by stoning.  But it has, indeed, engendered a certain wariness from my former fellow-believers.  I think I know why.

St. Paul knocked off his ass by revelation.

A conversion experience is a big deal.  On some level it is the animal suddenly realizing it is more than an animal.  For many, it is the moment in which the solitary human suddenly becomes aware that there is more to life than his own selfish needs.  I have no doubt that for a good number of people this is a good thing.  That the higher power they believe in is imaginary is of no practical consequence to the quality (and validity) of their own emotional and intellectual experience of first encountering the “divine” in this way.

This sort of tectonic shift in one’s psyche is naturally felt to be a once-in-a-lifetime, life-changing event.  (The last thing one would expect is that there should be any further need of additional internal earthquakes of this sort).  After all, as the hymn goes: “I was lost, but now am found” never, it is implied, to ever be “lost” again.  Yes, we may “stray” from the one, true path, but the whole point of this life is to achieve an awareness of God.  And having achieved that, the rest is working to improve that primary relationship.

In short, we only need to ride to Damascus once in our life.  Not over and over again.  Yet — in some recognition of the possibility — it is still warned (and guarded) against.

I can tell you that I certainly wasn’t expecting to be knocked off my (spiritual) ass a second time.  Which could be one reason I didn’t recognize that the disassembly of my Christian belief system was well underway during my months as a bible-smuggling missionary in Europe.

Yet if I’m completely honest, was my second “conversion” really such a dramatic conversion at all?  The week before it finally happened, I asked myself — for the first time — the question: “Could I live in a universe without a God?”.  Which meant that, in reality, I had never doubted (or seriously questioned) the existence of God up to that point (even in the years before my teenage “salvation” experience).  So perhaps my departure from Christianity should count as my major “Road to Damascus” experience, and not a second epiphany at all.

However, as evidence that I really did have a “second” conversion I have to consider the long-lasting impact the loss of my faith had on me.  From that day to this, it instilled in me a keen awareness of the tentative nature of belief: I knew that any belief system I attempted to build in place of my previous system would be subject to the next psychic urban renewal project that came to my mental town.  In short: if my Christianity could be shown to be false, what was safe from future revelation?

I therefore made a considered decision to resist my emotional need to quickly fill the void left by the loss of my religion.  I left the lot open, as it were, and allowed myself to drift in the great, terrifying and exhilarating existential deity-less void I found myself in (which felt, quite literally, like willing myself to dog-paddle in the deep end without grabbing for the edge of the pool).  I’m glad I did.  I’m proud of that decision.

Eventually (once I confirmed that the sun would continue to rise and that my self would persist in a familiar form) I formed a new sense of spirituality that was basically new-age in nature.  I brought my same religious zeal to each new “truth” offered me, and tried them out.  Holding on to the things that seemed to work (and the explanations for why they seemed to work), until I got better information.  That phase of my life lasted as long as my Christian life had — about 15 years.  But then, guess what?

Yep.  Another epiphany.  This time I converted not to another belief, but from belief altogether.  In the parlance of Daniel Dennett, the “spell” of belief was broken in me.  (Yes.  It turns out that the loss of my Christianity was not at all the loss of belief I thought it was, as my believing nature simply moved on to greener — though more tentative — pastures).

It’s almost impossible to describe these events in terms that don’t echo the testimonies of the religious.  But be that as it may, I now consider it possible to live a life “beyond belief”.  The religious protest that everyone else operates as much from belief as they do, and that scientists are no different.  There is a taste of truth in this, as we all make assumptions in order to make sense of life as it is happening to us.  But this is not always the same as belief, nor is it the enormous intellectual filtering mechanism that religion is.

But believers of all types will tell you that you can’t possibly understand what you’re missing out on until you have an epiphany of your own and have the hidden revealed to your (previously) blind eyes.  This is true, too.  Well, up to a point.

Having once believed, I can now understand all belief (as an addict can understand all addiction without having to get strung out on every substance or temptation on earth).  I don’t have to try out Islam or Mormonism or Scientology.  I have experienced the activation of my believing brain, which process is the basis for all human belief.  So I find myself (now) in the position of trying to describe to believers (who feel they have already gone from blindness to sight) that there is yet another world which they have never seen: the life beyond belief.

Statistics show that conversions are rare in adults.  This is why most religions target the young.  But late (and second) conversions do happen.  I am living testimony to that.  Which is why I write these sermons.  For surely I’m not the only one who has been knocked off his donkey of belief more than once.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “God Brain, Dog Brain” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

I think that we can all buy into the idea that we have multiple levels of consciousness.  As an example: I’m one of those that can drift off into a thought while I’m driving and suddenly realize I don’t remember driving the last half of a block.  How did I do that without the car suddenly flying into the tumbleweeds?  Well, of course there is physics, with the combined forces of inertia and gyroscopic effects that tend to keep a vehicle going fairly straight most of the time, but there is still a measure of continued human control inputs that were being fed to the steering wheel and gas pedal by some part of my brain.  We tend to call this part of our consciousness “body memory”, or the “unconscious” or even “reflex”.  (Though reflex –as I understand it — is more properly the domain of the deeper part of our brain, just above the parts that keep our heart beating and our lungs breathing).

But if we consider the functions of our brain from the most basic: running the bodily processes that keep us alive; to the most abstract: the part of our brain that allows us to consider our own thoughts (as in: we are having a thought; we are aware that we are having a thought; we are having a thought about that thought; thinking about that thought changes the thought –or the process that generated that thought — thereby literally re-wiring a small part of our brain; whew!), we must come to the conclusion that there are multiple levels of processing going on inside these skulls of ours!

For the religiously minded, these different levels of consciousness are personified as mind, body and spirit (the body being the “lowest”).  So the part of consciousness that we are most familiar with — the one that converses with others and makes the grocery list — is the “mind” (in this organizational system).  For the more severe believer, our ancient animal impulses are labelled as our “sinful nature”, and therefore confined to the “body” where they can (in theory) be isolated, berated and battled (or, more often than not, happily succumbed to!).  But one level of our consciousness — the one that talks back to us when we talk to it — we make out to be God, or the Holy Spirit, the one that hears our prayers.

Science tells us that we have at least three physical, evolutionary layers of brain, meaning we have two additional (and later) add-ons to the primitive, non-reflective, yet reflexive survival brain.  The latest evolutionary addition contains the higher rational faculties, and probably is the part most responsible for our ability to be self-reflective to the degree we are.

Evolutionary psychologists will also tell you that these later developed parts of our brain serve a very important social function in that they allow us to moderate, or interrupt, our natural fearful response to strangers and reach out a slightly damp hand to introduce ourselves (as opposed to attacking them and trying to rip their throat out).

Every spiritual guru or new-age whats-it peddle their own brand-names for our intrinsic multi-layered consciousness.  What is most often sold is the notion that parts of our “self” are actually existing outside of our own heads and bodies.

(My “psychic” told me that my physical body could not contain the full dimension of my spirit.  Now this wasn’t that hard for me to swallow, as I’d spent fifteen years of my life as an Evangelical Christian.  Of course it helps that I live in a society surrounded by support for the notion of the “spiritual”.  You can’t swing a cat without running into someone talking about “spiritual things”)

Now this is not just a question of semantics.  In fact, I think it’s more a question of conception than words, though words matter (clearly, or else there’d be no point in marketing such a variety of names for the levels of human consciousness).

As I described in an earlier sermon, it was while reading Daniel Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell”  (reviewed on this blog) that I finally realized that I had been imagining a part of my own consciousness as being external to my physical self for the last 35 years of my life.  Once I had that realization, I had the very singular experience of feeling my “spirit” re-enter my body.  (For the first time in my adult life, there was no-one and no-thing outside of myself listening in on my thoughts).

Now no actual “spirit” re-entered my body.  That would be ridiculous (but surprisingly easy) to believe.  So what actually happened?  I think that I simply stopped projecting a part of my own mind outside of itself.

If this sounds odd, take a moment to speak out loud to whatever god or spirit or higher self you speak (or pray) to.  Where is that other party in the conversation physically located?  Where do you sense him (or her) to be?  Floating around you?  In Heaven?  Next to you?

Ask the average person that question, and I’d bet a nickel most would prove to be actively imagining a part of themselves out in the ether somewhere (in some diffuse way).

We humans are magical thinkers.  There can be no serious doubt about that fact.  Just look around at the crazy shit humans believe.  At any given time, one out of five Americans is believing something stupid.  One week one in five don’t believe Osama bin Laden is really dead.  Another week it was that President Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery.  The same percentage thinks aliens are flying through our skies at night, crashing once in a while.  So why wouldn’t most people believe in angels and demons, gods and devils?  It comes pretty naturally to us.

We have God in our brain.  We also have our inner dog (or cat — take your pick).  We have our inner “critic” as well (or “the committee” as some folks call it).  We also have the faithful, non-verbal part of our brain that memorizes frequently-needed physical motions, so that we can learn to play the piano, chop an onion, hoist a baby onto our hips, or have sex in a way that propagates the species.  We also have a level of thinking that allows us to analyze our thoughts — looking for errors and false connections.  And that part of our brain can use the tools of reason to manipulate the middle-managers in our brain into correcting (or at least patching over) detrimental connections, bad file storage, and un-helpful reflexes (this is what therapy and counseling are all about).

That’s a lot to fit into a skull, but then, we humans have evolved huge, calorie-burning brains to handle the challenges of managing our three-in-one brain, of coordinating the myriad synapsis that fire off in each multi-layered social interaction.  I can just imagine the frantic communication channels that are buzzing in there as the highly rational, modern brain figures out how to talk to the middle-aged, transitional (dog?) brain that has to find a way to make sure the deep, wet, survival brain is on board with blood to the muscles, energy to the cells, and oxygen to the brain so that the whole circus parade resident inside our skulls can manage tasks such as ordering our steak medium rare at a restaurant.

God brain.  Dog brain.  Love brain.  Beauty brain.  Rage brain.  Chew-off-my-own-limb-to-save-my-life-brain.  Chew-off-your-arm-to-protect-my-child-brain.  Sugar/alcohol/drug brain (MORE!MORE!MORE!) It’s all in there.

I expect we’ve personified parts of our consciousness in order to be able to hold these parts of our self in a manageable, conceptual framework.  Makes sense.  So it probably doesn’t make that much difference whether we call a part God or dog (up to a certain point, at least, as I do think we’d be better of losing the habit of externalizing the God part — maybe fewer people would do mean things under the false belief that “God told them to do it”).

For me, for now, I might try out talking to my “selves” on the level they operate at.  I’ll talk to god-bob like, well, god.  And dog-bob like dog.  Who knows who else is lurking in there (though I expect there’s a limit to the levels of consciousness amenable to carrying on a conversation).  Again, I’m putting a conceptual template on top of a slightly amorphous reality as a sort of practical “bob’s brain” management tool.

In time I expect brain science will progress to a point where new names for the multiple levels of our consciousness will enter the popular lexicon.  Which means I’d better get my seminars and books going before someone finds a better set of names than the ones I’m selling…

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

When I was a nineteen year-old evangelical Christian in the Coast Guard, a youth minister at the Baptist Church I attended in Alameda, California recommended a book to me.   “The Pursuit of God” (by A.W. Tozer) was one of the few books I ever read that I can clearly point to as being life-altering.  Each chapter was an exercise in giving one’s self up to God, and each in it’s way was frightening, challenging and — ultimately — satisfying.  For I was serious about my belief: if this was, indeed, the way to God, I wanted to know it.

A younger Bob in Coast Guard boot camp: the year I gave up my sword.

The chapter I recall the most was called “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing”.  In that chapter I was challenged to think of my most cherished personal possession, and to then surrender its fate to God’s will.  I thought of the antique Civil War saber I had purchased at a junk shop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania while visiting there with my uncle Ben.  My heart was seized with anguish at this act (if it sounds silly to anguish over a sword, try putting yourself in my position by imagining the one thing in your life you would most fear to lose or — to put a finer point on it — the thing you would most resist giving freely to an enemy or a complete stranger).

The theological basis of this exercise was the notion that everything we have is God’s to begin with, which carried within it the understanding that anything we might be desperate to covet is the very thing God himself might take away from us so that we should have “no other god” in our hearts.  (So: better to surrender it now when its surrender could benefit our soul and stave off a potential “book of Job” moment).

I took the challenge seriously, and surrendered my saber to God (a fairly potent symbolic act, now that I think about it).  And from that day my relationship to material things was altered: my sense of ownership of anything physical held to be transitory at best.

This was a moment of grace, of spiritual transformation, of deepening my understanding of my God.

What, then, do I make of such a moment when I now believe that there never was a God to make such a demand of me?

There is a paradox in the whole question of whether God exists or not, because the reality of our experience of the divine, the numinous and the spiritual does not (it turns out) really hinge on whether there is an actual god/spirit/intelligence behind those experiences.  These are our own subjective emotional and cognitive events.  The fact that they are mostly generated within our own consciousnesses has little bearing on the quality of the experience.  So to say that there is no God is most often met with a response along the lines of “But I know what I’ve experienced!  I have felt God’s presence, witnessed His grace, known His forgiveness, etc!”.  And, indeed, I would argue that we have felt/seen/known those experiences.  But I would next argue that they are all events that have explanations in purely natural or mechanical terms (even if those explanations might often have more to do with human perception that tricks of nature).

I’ve rattled on about this notion of a god-less universe for the last few years.  We clearly know enough now about biology, cosmology and every other “logy” to know that our religious belief systems are ancient, archaic (?), but highly-evolved satisfactions of our wish-fulfillment fantasies of a paternal, caring presence in a sometimes cold and threatening universe.  Religion has the advantage of having always benefited from (and, in truth, traded in) those ubiquitous experiences that have always seemed most transcendent and mysterious to our species.

What we have then, basically, is the mountain of evidence that the world, the universe and everything operate on very natural laws that have never required the actions of an intelligent creator, cast into competition with the breadth of human emotional experience which is very loathe to give ground to cold rationalism when the airy-fairy feels so much more comforting to us.

So is there a God or not?

I’ve reached the point where it seems more and more pointless to argue about the existence of God, because even when God is removed from the equation, we will all continue to have “god” experiences, because they are (I would argue) a natural (and, therefore, inevitable) by-product of our evolved mammalian consciousnesses.  In that sense, God will never go away, even though he (or she) never really existed in the first place.

Or did he/she?

What am I really arguing against?  For if I argue against a god that has only ever existed in our experiences of conscious living, then am I really making a rational argument at all?  Am I not really just saying that the problem is that I don’t like what you call your particular collection of transcendent experiences?  Pretty much.

I’m splitting hairs, then: validating the natural human experience of consciousness, but criticizing the false externalized (read “heavenly) conclusions we draw from those experiences.

(There are practical reasons for doing this, of course:  anything that can undercut the legitimacy of violent, oppressive fundamentalism as it heaps unneeded misery upon millions of living humans every day can’t be all bad).

I set out on a course to find God when I was 13 by becoming a Christian.  When I turned 28, God was gone, and I had to learn to be alone in the universe and to make sense of what I had (until then) experienced as “spirituality”.

What has been most striking to me since then is just how little my experience of life changed with God out of the picture.   This led me to the eventual understanding that my (and by extension: “our”) experiences of the “supernatural” weren’t  supernatural at all (see Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell” — reviewed on this blog).  This is how I can now believe the stories people tell me of God, even if cannot concur in their attribution of the source of those experiences.

But life is what it is, and if God is the sum of our experiences of “God” (spirit, mystery), then I have to say that God does, indeed, exist.  As soon as I say that, however, I feel the need to correct and say: but not really.

So the answer is a qualified yes, or no.  Or, yes and no.  Or maybe god is something that we can only possess in the way that we possess our own experiences of living, experiences which we interpret and then hold on to as memories.  Does a memory actually exist?  Yes, in its way, and for as long as the brain that contains it continues to function.  After that, it is gone.  And so “god” will continue to exist, as long as there are humans to keep him, her or it alive.

Maybe it would be a good exercise to give up our most cherished idea of God, just like I gave up my beloved saber on that tearful, prayerful Summer night in California, and discover the “blessedness” of possessing nothing.

t.n.s.r. bob

POSTSCRIPT: A few years after my dark night of the Civil War saber, a robber broke into my rickety art-student apartment in downtown Denver, and stole (among other things) that damn sword.  Were I to tell that story to a fellow Christian, they would most likely say “See — you hadn’t really let it go, so God had to take it away!”.  But it was that experience (and others like it since) that have shown me just how seriously I took that earlier exercise in my own “Pursuit of God”.  With an actual God behind it or no, it was clearly a lesson useful for life in an uncertain world, a lesson that freed me of being overly burdened by the things I own.  And that sort of thing has value in and of itself, without getting a god who likes to take his kid’s toys involved.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: The “Great” Books in my life.

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

Call it hubris or foolishness, but I thought I had the time to read two books in parallel this week.  Wrong.  So maybe this is the time to answer a request from one of my friends to list the books that have made a difference in my journey from young Christian to middle-age pretend minister to a fake church.

Having read so many books in only the last five months, I notice that several of the most recently read want to elbow their way onto my “Great Books” list.  But it is the books that stand out in my more distant past that hold the better claim to my attention on this occasion.

So here they are, The IMPORTANT books in the life of Bob:

“Mere Christianity”, by C.S. Lewis.  I became a Christian at 13, and found this book at 15, while a sophomore in High School.  Lewis spoke to my temperament, and his habit of using multiple analogies to explain his reasoned approach to belief in Christ assured that I would grasp at least one of them (it also had the effect of making me an habitual user of analogy).  I was one of those that needed to understand, to know why I believed what I believed (even if I couldn’t have expressed that at the time).  I read a lot of Lewis’ books after this (though managing to avoid The Chronicles of Narnia, seeing them as a pale imitation of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy).

“The Pursuit of God”, by A.W. Tozer.  I recall that this book was recommended by an older Navy man who led the young people’s group I became involved in at a Baptist Church in Alameda, California while I was stationed there in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1978/79.  I can’t recall if the book is set up to be read one chapter a week, or one a day.  These were ground-shaking chapters, each of which required of the reader a spiritual action or release of some kind.  The one I recall most  vividly is the chapter entitled “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing”, which instructed me to picture the possession I most loved, and let it go (because if I was holding something too close and didn’t let it go, God would find a way to take it away from me).  In my case, it was an original Civil War saber.  I wept as I gave it up to God.  Whatever I might think of this book were I to read it today, that night of spiritual exercise altered my attachment to belongings ever after (in a good way).

“A Place for You”, by Paul Tournier.  I read this book when, in my mid-twenties, I entered counseling with a Christian Psychotherapist.  As therapy is looked on with cultic suspicion by Evangelicals, I needed Christian perspective on the process.  Tournier is a Swiss Psychologist, and a Christian.   The most powerful passages described growth in  life as a search for a place to belong, finding it, enjoying and occupying it, and then willingly leaving it for the next place.  I, it turns out, have always been searching for a sense of “place”, so this book spoke profoundly to me.  One image stands out in my mind still, where he describes us as individuals lost in a forest, where we call out waiting for a reply and, when it comes, running toward the sound until it is lost in the noise of our own running.  At which point we stop, and call again.  And so on and on it goes, until we eventually find the source of the call — the “place for you”.

“He: Understanding Masculine Psychology”, by Robert Johnson.  This is not really a great book by any stretch.  But it brought me a long way toward beginning the long process of my own self-acceptance, specifically as a man who came of age during the massive gender re-alignments of the “Women’s Liberation” movement of the sixties and seventies.  Johnson gave a series of lectures at a Unitarian Church in California, I think, and cobbled together this book using the myth of Parsifal and the Holy Grail as an allegory of male spiritual and emotional development.  For the longest time I wished any woman I might meet would read it.  (Johnson also wrote a book called “She” and “We”, neither of which were near as good).

“Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus”, by Norman Perrin.  This book was recommended by my first heartbreak for (what I assumed was) my betterment.  I had just returned from a three month volunteer “Bible smuggling” mission to Eastern Europe, during which I had decided that the answer to my troubles and questions lay in focusing solely on the words of Jesus.  This, it turned out, was the perfect set-up for this book which — though written by a “believer” — exposed me to the “form critical” method of textual criticism, which (if you’re not familiar with it) is sort of a morphology of language, enabling scholars to determine if different texts were written by the same person or not.  The upshot of this book (which landed like a silent A-bomb in my chest) was this: only a handful of words, and fragments of sentences, could reliably be attributed to the historical Jesus.  This book, it turned out, was the final nail, the last straw, the end of the line.  Within months, the last frail sticks of the edifice of my Christianity quietly collapsed.

“Men in Love:  Men’s Sexual Fantasies: The Triumph of Love over Rage” by Nancy Friday.  A woman turned me on to Nancy Friday’s popular books (mainly about women’s sexual fantasies).  This book was a great help toward alleviating those feelings we all have that “we’re the only one”.  Of course, not every mens fantasy was one I’d entertained, but I saw enough of myself in there to relax that much more with my own sexual self.  But what sticks with me is the tenderness and understanding towards men that the author displayed in her introduction to the book.  It opened the door to seeing how I, like many men, had only the channels of sex and anger open through which to express an entire range of emotion.  That knowledge helped me on the journey toward changing that restricted state.

“The Civilizing Process”, by Norbert Elias.  This book was originally published in Germany before World War 2, I believe.  It chronicles the transition of human culture (and human behavior) from the isolated barbarism of the “dark ages” into the ideas and practices of modern humanity.  In short, it showed me that our dark and violent past was not that far behind us!  I once heard it said that mankind made his last great evolutionary leap during the last ice age, and this book added to my understanding that everything about us humans adds up to a vast depth of strata of varying ages, accumulated over eons upon which our modern, civilized behavior is but a thin veneer.  This is a great book.

“Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”, by Daniel C. Dennett.  This is the only book from my recent reading list I’ll include, only because I had a palpable shift in my inner architecture while reading it:  I felt that “thing”, or presence that I had always talked to (either as God, Jesus, my Higher Self, or my non-physical spiritual self) shift from something outside of me back to it’s rightful place as an integrated aspect of my own human consciousness.  Dennett’s book did, indeed, break a long-standing spell and — in a sense — gave me my soul back.  Though written as a scholarly argument for setting up Religion as a field of natural studies, it is really much more subversive than that.  For that reason, I like it.  (This book has been reviewed on the boblog — just look under “REVIEWS” on the right).

So. These are the “great” books.  Over the years there were countless self-help books, histories and biographies.  Among them: The Road Not Taken, Shame No More, The Great Cosmic Mother, The Courage to Heal, Letter to a Christian Nation, God is Not Great, and a great Time-Life sort of book on European Mythology that I have not been able to find again at the Library!  Looking back I have think, “Not bad for a kid who rarely finished his reading homework in school!”.

t.n.s.r. bob