Atheism 4 Lent???
Enjoy the 1st 2 weeks of our Lenten adventure into Atheism …and remember these are sermon notes so don’t read with an editing eye, but an open mind!
As the Story for All Ages alluded, Christian churches all over the world commemorate the first Sunday of lent Today — the story of Jesus’ 40 day dessert-deprived dance of discernment into the desert that proceeded his public ministry.
I use that terminology not simply because of my addiction to alliteration, but to reiterate a comment I made a few months ago relating religion to an ice-cream shop.
A place of many flavors where any and all are free to order according to their unique tastes or cravings… where cones of various creamy fillings can be consumed side by side in communion.
…And most importantly, in recognition that dinner is dismal minus dessert, a place that embraces spirituality as the sweet compliment to this meal we call life.
Despite the Lenten lead in, today isn’t about Christianity or any one spiritual path in particular — after all there is no ‘wrong’ ice cream — allbeit modern day sugar, dairy, fat and glutton-free vegan varieties of the uber health-conscious do cut it close…. Instead we approach spirituality on the broad spectrum.
Diets and dessert are actually quite common conversational topics in a contemporary culture
whose secularization of the traditional lenten fast has turned it into a well-timed kickstart to bathing suit season dieting; however, standing on the precipice of a lenten adventure into the world of atheism, we are a far cry from traditional…
But for as poorly as my call to atheism might go over in the Presbyterian pulpits I visit most Sundays— it isn’t as off the wall as would seem —that is once we overcome the stigma of sacrilege surrounding the term.
To understand why we are diving into atheism this lenten season maybe it’d help to know, what it is (or isn’t)?
Contrary to popular perception, Atheism is not a religion. Think of it this way…
Atheism is a religion, as much as not playing basketball is a sport.
Religion attempts to define what is – atheism embraces what isn’t.
Religion is like the paint we put on a canvas, while atheism is the blank space… And the true artists are the ones who don’t feel the need to clutter their canvas, but utilize the blank space to emphasis the other elements of their work.
Unfortunately, because of embedded beliefs, fears of the unknown and biases imposed upon us from birth by family, friends, institutions and media few ever experience a blank canvas — and most wouldn’t know what to do with it if they did!
I dabbled in oil painting during college, but given my budget, or lack there of, I had to learn to reuse canvases.
This prescribed dip into atheism is just that… the whitewashing of our canvases in order that upon picking up a paintbrush following this period of self and soul-exploration and spiritual fasting (or fasting from the spiritual) — we are able to chose colors in a more intentional and authentic way.
My favorite atheist, Epicurus, sheds a bit of wisdom in this regard. The name may be familiar as it remains an adjective to describe rich food — an ironic allusion given the ice-cream analogy!
Epicurus’ taught that the ultimate pursuit of life lies in our embrace and awareness of the present so to choose the path of greatest fulfillment or enjoyment in any give situation…
…and for this he was deemed a heretic! Choose enjoyment? blasphemy!
To this day the Greek word for ‘heretic’ is Epicuric — a term that quite simply means ‘to chose.’
The problem of religion, if I might carry the metaphor, is not that the flavors are limited, but that we limit our opportunity to savor their diversity via the prescriptive or superficial manner we approach them.
The problem with religion lies in our approach… As a society we often blindly accept the one
passed on to us by the loudest voice instead choosing the one that calls to our unique cravings. Choosing is heretical remember!
How often do we clear our pallets and sit with our emptiness long enough to identify what it is we are truly craving?
Instead we repeat religious rituals of others in a routine fashion that relegates the richness of the menu before us.
Thus the Complacent Christian at the counter orders vanilla, Buddhist’s steer towards soy sorbet, Muslims break Ramadan with rum raisin, Quakers call for cookie dough, Mormon freshen their breath with mint chocolate chip (helps with the door to door greeting), and the crazy Universalist Unitarian’s ruffles things up with rainbow sherbet!
Thats great, but the joy of the ice cream shop is tasting the diversity!
So what if we took the 40-day lenten fast as an opportunity to step out of the routine, ritual, perception and practices imposed on us by the world and wandered into the wilderness of our souls instead?
What would it look like if we approached this longstanding tradition of religious observance as an opportunity to fast from religion as a whole?
The word Lent is derived from the word Lenz, or ‘long.’ Originally depicting the progressive length of springtime sunlight, but later was associated with the modern word ‘lens.’
Wandering into the wilderness of self- introspection is not easy… the days might indeed be long and lonely (their supposed to, that’s part of the name and game)
Open reflection, these not always pleasant times of deprivation and longing polish the lens through which we see the world we return to.
The call for fasting and introspection is far from unique to the Christian tradition, nor is the number 40…
Throughout the Judeo-Christian Old testament: 1.In Genesis 40 days and nights of rain caused a
flood which destroyed the earth
2.The Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness
before reaching the promised land and… 3.Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the
ten commandments on Mount Sinai.
However, our goal these next weeks was to shut the cover of other’s stories and edit our own, …so inspired by a statement of the acclaimed AA Milne, author of the one and only Winnie the Pooh we start with the Bible:
‘The Old Testament,” says Milne, “is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief than any book ever written. It has emptied more churches than all the counter-attractions of cinema, motor- bicycle and golf course.’
Amidst these 40-ish days when we shut bibles, gitas, or Korans and maybe we’ll open up one of Millan’s works instead! In all seriousness, one of my favorite personal religious reads of all time is the ‘Tao of Pooh!’
I found myself apologizing to Ben a few weeks ago after getting a message he couldn’t volunteer on our retreat.
“What do you mean?” I asked in an annoyed response.”
Well, I am stuck in China he responded… and if
we get out, we have to lock ourselves in the house for two weeks.
We like to approach adventure in an outward fashion. Where will we go, what will we see. It’s exciting and enticing. Even a vacation…
The Sandals wandered east in anticipation of a culturally rich celebration and exploration of Chinese new year; however, they were thrown
into a much wilder wilderness upon entering Corona quarantine.
Fun fact, I did the math and today marks 40 days since the sandals first boarded the plane!
The Sandal’s trip east got me thinking of a predecessor, a kindred spirit of Jesus who bears a parallel story of wandering; but with an inward focus.
Little did Gautama Buddha know upon stumbling on the Bodhi tree after 6 years of outward exploration, that his true adventure was just beginning!
Thus preceding pooh bear’s taoism, Jesus’s wanderings, and Epicurus’s heresy; Guatama sat down to embark on a 49 day adventure into the unknown — without ever moving!
Fun Fact: Devout Eastern Christians match the over-achieving 49 days of Guatama by culminating lent with a 9 day silent reflection.
Siddhartha Gautama had learned a lot in 6 years of aesthetic exploration wandering lands of India, but true enlightenment came when he wandered within.
This past Wednesday people of all shapes and sizes spread ashes or dust on their foreheads in light of the unifying theme of overcoming ego that both Buddha’s inward and Jesus’ outward wanderings insinuated…
Today I hope we heed the call of the wild…and embrace the uncomfortable feelings, the unanswered questions, the darkness of doubt and instances of isolation that await our turning inward without a spiritual safety net.
I hope each of us is able to set aside a time and space to empty ourselves of ego and embedded distractions so to explore what lies within the covers of our own stories…
To close our eyes and reground ourselves… for of dust we were formed and to it we return…
Dust in the Wind:
I usually split the first Sunday sermon with Russ… but today I am going to split it with myself! I revealed my bi-polarity in a past sermon so this shouldn’t catch anyone off gaurd.!
The first half of my atheism reflection was partially inspired by a Sufi saying:
We must first travel to god, then from God, then with…
This second half first we journey out, then in, then together:
I will dance lightly through my story in hope that inspires you to explore your own and find parallels that might allow us to wander the wilderness in partnership in the weeks, months and so forth to come…
***Rev Ryan took this time to share his personal story***
Childrens sermon notes:
What does a Banana taste like?
How about a Kiwi?
Which is better… being told what something tastes like or tasting it??
Last week during the old people sermon I compared religion to an ice cream shop where we are able to taste a variety of flavors — pretty much everything but Garlic!.
I didn’t want to put ice cream in Rev Russ’ box because that could get messy… but candy doesn’t melt.
Just like ice cream, candy, or Banana’s, religion is better tasted then explained!
Ruldolf Otto on Worship:
“…it grips or stirs the human mind..The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its “profane,” non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strongest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering.”
And now a mystical and magical dragon counterpart of rounds out Otto’s acceptations… Here is the mighty Puff speaking of that same spirit-
…Now, I’m going to borrow the living thing inside you,” speaks to Jackie Draper (the real boy,)” and place it INSIDE Jackie Paper. Your living thing. You wonder what it is? It is that what causes you to laugh and to cry and to care. It is that which makes apples crunchy and tells your nose to tingle on a crystal winter’s morning. It’s kept in your left ear, you know.
Music break: Puff the magic dragon
15%… That number is exponentially higher than it was when Alduous Huxely first penned the novel “A Brave New World,’ and that was recorded before our response to the recent stock market turmoil and Corona virus fears that have thrown America into an anxiety inducing frenzy. Yes, 15% or 1 in every 6 individuals in our population currently take a prescribed anti-depressant or anxiety medication… and that doesn’t take into account the ‘self-medicating’ masses, who given the prevalence of liquor stores and dispensaries lining many more than 15% of our city streets, likely comes in a bit higher than 1 in 6! Self-medication is a wide spectrum and standing here in a pulpit on a Sunday maybe it is morning mass or a yogaic meditation that provides your fix!
For the non-nerdy, Huxely’s 1932 novel, A Brave New World, is a dystopian satire based on an SSRI-satiated society — quieted and controlled by a happy little make pretend pill, Soma, the precursor to our modern day Prozac!
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God,” proclaims the protagonist, Jon the Savage, from perched with pill in hand in observance of the sheeple and subdued society he had broken away from.
“I want poetry! I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin,” the savage finally screams out in an act of existential extremism as he choses to battle the extremes of pain and pleasure over the happy numbness of a pill.
Jon the savage sought to taste the sweetness of the spirit, to bite into the banana we alluded to in the children’s sermon firsthand, instead of entertain the adjectives another uses to describe it.
Despite his initial hope to satiate the savage, the controller must agree to Jon’s rebellion: “Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course,” he continues, ‘stability,’ [though safe,] isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt.
Happiness,” he concludes, “is never grand.”
I feel it is important to note early on that I do not write in critique of, but as one of, the 15%. Over the years I have been on and off anti-anxiety medications myself…
As a teen doctors sought to ease my eating disorder dance with Paxil; pacifying me for a period via a state of passion-less ‘happiness’, but soon enough I sought the same savage sensations of Jon’s character and gave up the stability of my modern day “soma.”
I made it for a bit, thriving off the elation of endurance athletics and a dose of ego as I allowed adrenaline and dopamine to become my new drugs of choice. I felt I had found my spiritual, social and emotional flow — balanced by bursts of runners high and religious education.
But balance is a fleeting thing, especially when rooted in ego over authenticity, and I found myself literally and physically knocked out of ‘stability’ when my professional running career came to a crashing end along with my confidence upon being stuck by a car. I was thrown into the wilderness, a depressed atheist amidst a Christian seminary and a has-been athlete whose lack of identity and fears of the unknown finally found him a new friend in Zoloft.
The comfort was great, but just as before when comfort corrodes into complacency, that savage voice starts to speak from deep in the soul. So again I weened off the pills and returned to the wilderness…
That was until some recent health hiccups proved a bit to much to handle as of late and a little Ativan was needed to aid in my adventures.
So where does this fit into Sunday morning worship? Outside the fact that you likely need an anti-anxiety med in order to make it through one of my off the wall sermons!
Glad you asked! Today we revisit a call into the wilderness that I introduced last week…
A call to an adventure of introspection and exploration from an atheistic approach of the Lenten season.
A time of which to explore our emotions — which may come as an experience of fullness and elation or emptiness and isolation — or a rollercoaster ride between them!
It may be pleasant or painful, but it is only in these times of which in ditching safety net of our spiritual ‘Soma’ that we might hear the deeper yearnings of our soul in route to finding the proper prescription moving forward.
It is only by stepping back from the comforts of religious routine that we might re-evaluate, relegate and/or reinvigorate therituals of our religious experience.
It is only by shedding the superficial — and that means emptying ourselves as a whole — that we might reintroduce the mystical aspects of what the institution has made mundane moving forward.
That can be scary! It should be! For as Rudolf Otto acknowledged of authentic experience in our reading, “It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering.” But remember, experiences are temporal and the fear is part of the ecstasy.
“What do we do?” Jackie Paper asked Puff the Magic Dragon in anticipatory anxiety of stepping into the unknown.
“Well, have no fear is all,” Puff replied in utter simplicity.
“I am scared to have no fear!” Said Jackie, unable let go of control of fear, but yearning to frolic freely in the Autumn mist on a land called Honah Lee.
The world controls us via fear — and either consciously or subconsciously, as Jackie Paper alludes, we are kind of addicted to it. “We are scared to have no fear!” Or maybe scared of what we will do and feel if we free ourselves from fear!
You see it daily, whether in fear-rooted rallying calls shouted through megaphones of street corner prophets or through newscasts that dramatize viruses into pandemics.
We live in a world of fear, but our adherence to it is a choice. “Be not conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewal of your mind,” declares the similarly savage voice of the Apostle Paul in his Biblical Book to the Roman’s, “For it is only by testing that you may discern what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
I love sailing. And in order to maintain the fastest point of sail one must consistently ‘test’ the wind by tightening all your sails while slowly steering into the wind until the angle becomes too much and you reach what is known as the dead zone. As soon as the sails begin to luff you pull back on the rudder just far enough so that they snap with the sound of the wind and then — VAMOOSE — the boat tilts to its side and leaps forward!
Authentic spirituality, real religion, is alive and unpredictable just like the wind and in order to keep on a relevant and reverent course we must periodically allow ourselves to luff helplessly for brief periods in order to find the best angle.
In freeing ourselves from worldly conformity, comfort, and complacency we must consistently test the balance of:
Ritual vs routine
Elation vs Depression
And Mystical vs Mundane
And in such we cannot fear ‘feeling’ — because we strip the feel of faith if always attempting to define faith with words or satiate our yearnings with a quick-fix spiritual ssri’s.
The best way to to strip the mystical from the majestic, to forgo the fantasy of Puff the Magic Dragon, is to attempt to define, describe, or defend it. In such Puff (the dragon or the existential experience of ineffability that Peter, Paul and Mary were more likely speaking of) loses its magic.
German theologian, Rudolf Otto described the ineffable or ‘numatic’ experience deemed ‘worship’ in our opening reading as a “griping or stirring of the human mind. A feeling sweeping like a gentle tide and tranquil mood passing over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul; vibrant and resonant, until bursting in a sudden eruption of spasms and convulsions that lead to the strongest excitements, intoxicated frenzy, transport, and ecstasy.”
When was the last time you described a church ritual in that fashion? In a society satiated by spiritually-based rituals that have become more repetitious than religious, it is essential to seek out the deeper meaning that these experiences of worship signify in your personal life — and in doing such, to open yourself to new experiences as well.
To this I find often times that it is the awestricken atheist — entranced in the aesthetic wonder and beauty of the present, the splendor of a wave or sweetness of a rose, to be nearer to the divine and the experience of eternity than a ‘believer’ caught up in formulaic definitions of the divine.
I balanced dual Bachelors degrees during my undergraduate studies — Theology and English — and it was in my junior year that I had the opportunity to read the Bible with one foot in both.
I was in an English class at the time that approached the text from a literary standpoint with a focus on the transcendental elements of the poetic writings of Jewish mystics authors… while at the same time enrolled in an exegetical course that took a dry and dispensational (or literal) vantage point to the same text.
Whereas the secularized English approach emphasized an artistic reading apart from discrepancies over minute details allowed me to feel the emotions and ecstasy of the authors…
the prescriptive fashion and rules that came with the religious reading indeed made mundane its mystical magnitude.
We wouldn’t read Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ in skeptical sogginess arguing over the accuracy of the fall from Edan would we? But wars have been fought over parallel beliefs around the Book of Genesis and Adam and Eve’s accuracy.
We wouldn’t approach the mystical journey in Moby Dick with the same skeptic lens as one would read the Book of Mormon or a Shakespearean sonnet in the same fashion as a psalm (fun fact, Shakespeare was said to have actually translated King James Bible!)
This has been a heavy sermon thus far… and that’s with reason as heavy s more often how we approach Religion.
We too often see spirituality with an overly serious slightly soggy sense! However, as the late great satirical Saint Thomas Aquainas might agree, maybe the trick lies in our gaity… our turn towards the playfulness of Puff the Magic Dragon instead of pains of things such as purgatory!
“Jokes and plays are words and gestures that are not instructive but merely seek to give lively pleasure” he writes of scripture. “We should enjoy them. They are governed by the virtue of witty gaiety to which Aristotle refers (Ethics II28aI) and which we call pleasantness.
“A ready-witted man is quick with repartee and turns speech and action to light relief. For it is against reason,” he continues, “to be burdensome to others, showing no amusement and acting as a wet blanket.
Those without a sense of fun, who never say anything ridiculous, and are cantankerous with those who do, these are vicious, and are called grumpy and rude.”
There is a reason I have and will keep returning to the allegory of religion as an ice-cream shop throughout these weeks… several actually!
First and foremost: Religion is far too important to be taken seriously! For all the big words and philosophical conundrums I’ve created in the last 15 minutes just remember that!
Laugh at yourself and when the road gets rough, remember rocky road is waiting in a cone at the counter!
Second: Lent is a time of fasting… If you were to eat ice-cream every meal of every day it would not be quite as special. It is important every so often that you sit with your hunger and cravings, not seek to satiate them with the first thing on the menu The same is true with our feelings and our grabbing the nearest SSRI. It is only then will you be able to discern how to truly fill your emptiness moving forward and thus figure out what your soul (and stomach) truly crave to fill the void.
Finally, double and triple scoops are welcome! I am a double scoop of Unitarian Universalist and Presbyterian. At least in orthodoxy! In an attempt at a more authentic definition I have actually qualified myself in the past as an ‘Agnostic Christian Mystic.” Say that slowly and it will make sense:
Agnostic – A (not) Gnostic (know)…
Christian – One who finds the whole Jesus-y flavor of ice cream best tickles my taste buds.
And Mystic – One who, all said and done, ditches definitions as a and simply attempts to lose themselves to the experience.
So one who lives by experience, claims not to know the truth, but likes the Christian flavor for the time.
That doesn’t even touch on the toppings we could put on it!
So this week continue into the unknown and explore the emptiness of your soul in order that you can experience the ecstatic experience Otto and the gang alluded to earlier when you return to the Ice Cream store counter…
And though you may hit some scary spots along the way, remember not to take yourself or your spirituality too seriously and it will all be okay!