Sunday, September 25, 2011

An Evolved Baptist

It always happens--"Professor, what do YOU believe?"

So I write it out on the board:

                              Evolved Baptist Blakean Buddhist Methodist.

Which leaves out the Dickinsonian part.  And complicates things maybe a bit over much.  But there it is.  And so as to start this blog off with a statement of belief--a credo, if you will--here's what I believe.

First off, I was born to Baptists who were born to Baptists in a long string that I've traced back through nearly four centuries to Northumbria and Scotland and Virginia.  More to the point, I was born to a Southern Baptist tradition.  I was raised in a string of churches in El Paso, Dallas, Richardson, and Midland and taught the basics of fundamentalist white Baptists in middle-class Texas.

In 1963 or so, at the age of 12, I agreed to be "saved" and was baptized and further indoctrinated in the preacher's four-week course in the basics of being Baptist.  And what I remember from that series is a single joke he told--with his big friendly smile.  "You know that old joke about the guy who goes to Heaven and Saint Peter's showing him around?  And they look over the fence and see the Catholics having a good old party?  And then they walk on and they see the Methodists and they're having a good old party too?  And then they walk on and Saint Peter crouches down and puts his finger to his lips--  "Shhh!  Those are the Baptists--they think they're the only ones here."

And everyone laughed!  And the preacher, he laughed too--then he said "that joke goes to show you how narrow-minded we Baptists are."  And everyone laughed again.  And then he said "I'm even more narrow-minded than that!  I don't think half the Baptists are going to make it."

And everyone laughed again, because we had all been saved!

I don't remember the indoctrination of that course beyond that, but I came to understand (whether in that course or through other instruction or through my own investigations) that the basic premise that split the Baptists off from the Catholics and the Anglicans and the Massachusetts Puritans was the belief that the Bible was the word of God; you should read it for yourself and decide what it means for yourself; and you don't need a priest to explain it to you.

I know, all these years later, that no matter how little I now have in common with Southern Baptists (it approaches zero, as near as I can tell), I started with these premises and they form the basis of who I am and what I believe and why I teach the way I teach to this very day.  But each of these basic premises have evolved:  The Bible may be the word of God, but there are lots of Bibles produced (each and every one of them) by humans in human languages.  I still believe one should read these texts and decide for oneself what they mean, but I now understand that that involves reading in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Middle English, King James English, Modern English, Spanish, Catalunian, and whatever other languages may come one's way.  And though I find I still want no priest or preacher or teacher to dictate to me what I should believe about the texts, I find that my own explorations have been greatly enhanced by the widest variety of masters of these texts.

So first, last, and always, I'm a Baptist born of Baptists born of Baptists.  But first, last, and always, I read for myself, and I decide for myself where the truth of a text lies.

As for the Blakean part, I once wrote a book on William Blake and the Welsh influences on his imagination.  In his book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell I came to read the Proverbs of Hell, and through his satire I came to see Angels as enemies and Devils as friends.  And in these proverbs, I read that "Man has no Body distinct from his Soul, for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age" (Plate 4).  And then, at the very end of the piece, Blake writes "For every thing that lives is holy."

There's a great deal more to the Blakean part, but it comes down to a firm belief that human perception is limited to its senses in this age, and that every thing that lives is holy.

The Buddhist part depends on a simple metaphor from the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is quoted in Scorsese's movie Kundun by the Dalai Lama when he was asked "Are you the Lord Buddha?"  He answered "I think I am like the reflection of the moon on water.  When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself."

It's not a direct quote, but think of the metaphor:  the reflection of the moon on water.  In this life, we are a reflection on water of the moon, which is itself a reflection of the sun.

I don't call myself Dickinsonian in this paradigm because it's long enough and complicated enough as it is, but I am with Emily Dickinson in this that she wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in a letter of 1861:  "My family is religious, except me, and worship an eclipse, every day, that they call their father."

I believe that religion, a contrivance of humans, serves to block the Light.  I think that, at best, we perceive the light through reflections only.  It does not mean there is no Light.  But once it falls into language, it becomes an eclipse.

So finally I come to the Methodist part.  I was married in the Methodist church and when I attend (which is very infrequent), I attend a Methodist church that is open enough to welcome my kind of pagan.  When a Baptist preached shrugged his shoulders at my father's funeral and wondered aloud whether or not such a think-for-yourself sort of guy would be in Heaven, I swore off forever that sort of Baptist.  But the Methodists don't do that.  They welcome me and my gifts, and when I don't show up, they wonder why and ask me back.  I don't buy their creed, but I understand the nature of metaphor and language and reflections and hope and desire and community.  And I appreciate these brothers and sisters on this journey.

They put up with me, and that counts for something.

A Strange Cross-fertilization of Ideas

The latest revelation came from Michael Ruse, in his book entitled The Evolution-Creation Struggle.  Jonathan Edwards, the great New England pastor, is most famous for his fire-and-brimstone sermons following a severely Calvinist model.  But he made a very good point:  "It is out of reason's province to perceive the beauty of loveliness of any thing:  such a perception does not belong to that faculty.  Reason's work is to perceive truth and not excellence.  It is not ratiocination that gives men the perception of the beauty and amiableness of a countenance, though it may be many ways indirectly an advantage to it; yet it is no more reason that immediately perceives it, than it is reason that perceives the sweetness of honey: it depends on the sense of the heart.  --Reason may determine that a countenance is beautiful to others, it may determine that honey is sweet to others; but it will never give me a perception of its sweetness."

So it is with the perception of God.  We do not arrive there through reason--and in fact, reason dissuades us mightily from the so-called perception of the supernatural.  No--this perception is emotional.  It is psychic.  It exists at a level outside the perception of the five senses--it exists at a level that sees when the eyes are closed--what the Buddhists call "The Third Eye."  

Evolution of the rational mind involves exposure to all the ideas one can encounter.  Things change.  And I find that I'm no longer a Baptist, or an atheist, or an agnostic, or a gnostic, or a Buddhist, or anything else but an evolved human being.

Perhaps the single most useful paradigm I've encountered comes from Albert Einstein, whose essay on Science and Religion sets out an anthropomorphic religion as opposed to a cosmic religion.  The anthropomorphic religions (very nearly all of them) create God in the image of humans.  The scientist sees a vastly complex act of creation that continues, and is compelled to explore that in all its complexity.  Most people are satisfied with a god in the image of themselves.  But some of us think infinite creative complexity is beyond the model of Man.

That's where I find myself--in awe of a universe that extends infinitely into the micro and macro levels--vastly beyond my ability to do anything more than to admire the shimmering beauty of this moment's reflection of the moon on water.

The Evolved Baptist Blog

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