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
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