Thursday, March 27, 2008

The words of a mystic

What is the definition of a Christian Mystic? I feel that to try to box in and define it too closely would be one cruel irony indeed. So in the spirit of mysticism, instead of a definition, here is a poem. It was written in the 1500's by a Spanish Mystic called St John of the Cross and even though 500 years old and translated from the original Spanish it still seems to me the most beautiful explanation of what Christian Mysticism is. Its not an attempt to quantify and define God but rather it embraces Him, explores His depths, longs for Him and loves Him. What better definition could I offer than this?

The Dark Night

By St. John of the Cross

One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
- ah, the sheer grace! -
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
- him I knew so well -
there in a place where no one appeared.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

From: THE COLLECTED WORKS OF ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, revised edition (1991).

Copyright 1991 ICS Publications.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What we have here is failure to communicate

After spending some time now in the Creation vs Evolution debate I noticed a funny thing after a while – the two sides seem to simply not be hearing one another. I have tried to figure out why and here is my theory:

Young Earth Creationist theology is like a tower of bricks. Every belief is like a brick, each one balanced carefully on top of the other, each one in perfect and complete support of one another. Therefore, no brick can ever be moved, removed or shifted in any way because then the entire tower will collapse from top to bottom. That is why every brick must be defended at any cost – because if say there were no dino’s in the ark then you are also saying that Jesus did not die for our sins.

Science on the other hand is more like tiles being laid out to form a mosaic on a floor. Thing is, no one knows exactly what the pattern is supposed to be, but the scientists piece it together as best they can from the data they have (in this metaphor, lets say the shape and colour of the tiles). Now they know its imperfect – in fact they expect it to be – so every now and then they will try rearranging some of the tiles or someone will notice one of the tiles has a flaw and is starting to crack so they remove it and use a new tile in its place. But none of this destroys the entire tile floor. At no point will someone say “Wait, this tile doesn’t work, let’s dig up the whole floor and start from scratch.”

I think the miscommunication arises when one tries to use the tower way of thinking on the tile way of thinking. How many times in these types of discussions do you hear a creationist saying something along the lines of “Hah!! I just moved one of your bricks, now your entire tower has collapsed!!! Lol!!” and then the other side goes “Huh??? What does that have to do with the point I’ve been making??”

Also there is the matter of character and founders. Creationists often attack Darwin, as if destroying Darwin would destroy evolution. Once again this proves that they are using an entirely different paradigm than the people they are debating. Lets say you can prove without a shadow of a doubt that Darwin was a drunken racist, does that destroy his theory? No! Honestly, if you were to learn that the inventor of the wheel was a cannibalistic pedophile serial killer would you go back to walking? Surely not! A person’s scientific achievements have nothing to do with strength of his character. Besides, no one follows Darwin – not like Christians follow Jesus. He just made the discovery, he is not the foundation stone the entire field is built on.

Until everyone learns to understand the way the other thinks I think we are all doomed to go around in the same old circles for ever.

Think this is a valid theory? I am open to correction!


The Christian I am not - Part 1

Creation Science Evangelism

As it has come up a couple of times during my posts I think the best place to start will be with Creation Science Evangelism (CSE). First, here is a brief introduction to Creation Science. These people insist that the entire Bible and especially Genesis should be taken as literal truth. Like I said in some of my previous posts, I have no problem believing in God and therefore some supernatural events and miracles – however I don’t think the Creation Poem of Genesis was supposed to be taken this literally. But these people insist that it has to be and that any deviation from that is tantamount to denying Christ. Therefore (by tallying the genealogies) the earth must be around 6000 years old, there was a global flood that killed everything on earth except those in the Ark (4500 years ago) and evolution is a lie cooked up by godless scientists to destroy Christianity. Also included are not just biological evolution but also the Big Bang and any other piece of science that may show them to be wrong. Now it would take an entire blog – never mind one post – to actually discuss this in real detail. I have no plans to dedicate my blog to this however. Besides, there are already some very good blogs out there on the subject and I will list them at the end should you care to do some more reading. Besides, I’m not a scientist so if I go into too many details then I will only end up quoting large amounts of the work of others. Rather, in this post I will merely outline why I do not agree with creationists. I disagree because of some intellectual reasons but mostly for moral ones. I’ll start with the intellectual ones. Again, since I’m not doing this as a scientist, I’m rather focusing on four common sense areas that make it impossible for me to agree with creation science:

1. A 6000 year old earth

Creationists (although to be fair there is also a group of creationists called Old Earth Creationists who do not say this but according to the rest of the creationists they are heretics. Not exaggerating, that’s the exact word they use) have a lot of “proofs” for saying the world is 6000 years old. However all of these are based on really bad science and completely collapse on closer inspection. At least the most honest of the Creationist organizations – Creation Ministries International – actually admit this:

Creationists admit that they can’t prove the age of the earth using a particular scientific method. In reality, all age-dating methods, including those which point to a young earth, rely on unprovable assumptions. Creationists ultimately date the earth using the chronology of the Bible.” (http://www.creationontheweb.com/content/view/3837)

Another area they love to hammer on is the supposed inaccuracy of all dating methods. The simple fact is that these methods are very accurate and the horror stories about bad readings are due to contaminated samples – but that’s the part they don’t bother talking about. My question is – why spend all your time and energy tearing down the methods of others? If you truly feel all dating methods are wrong, why not rent a lab (if you can spend $8 million on a “Creation Museum” then surely there should be money for it) and develop and new dating method that is accurate and can be proven accurate? That would clear up the whole mess! (Or it could prove you wrong so you would have to shut up so I guess I have my answer…)

2. All animals were vegetarians

While Genesis most certainly does say that no animal ate meat before the fall it is completely impossible for me to take this as literally true. At this point Creationists love to pull out some slides of bear teeth and go: “See these long sharp teeth? These animals eat plants with those! So surely it’s no stretch to believe it was true for lions and tigers too once!” Except for the very obvious problem – bears (along with pigs and humans) are omnivores and while they may have sharp teeth they also have grinding teeth and a digestive system that can handle plant material. Not so for true carnivores. They only have cutting teeth (so they can’t chew plants) and their digestive system doesn’t break down plant material very well. Actually, even though panda bears are often used by creationists to prove this point they actually prove mine. Panda bears are not true herbivores so they cannot completely break down plant cellulose. Therefore, just to get enough nutrients they need to eat a LOT of bamboo – that’s why they are going extinct, they are running out! So don’t show me a bear eating plants to prove your point, show me how a crocodile can eat plants with just a row of sharp teeth and without the ability to chew!

3. A worldwide flood

I have no problem believing the flood account really happened – just not the way creationists insist it did. I have no problem believing in a local flood in Mesopotamia and for that there is plenty of proof. However I see no proof of a global flood. The creationist claims regarding the flood is: The entire world was covered (mountains included) with several meters of water, the flood lay down the entire geological column, fossilized all the fossils, created all the fossil fuel and completely change the shape of the world. Now besides the obvious questions (like where did all this water go afterwards?) here are some things that make this impossible for me to believe:

  • How did germs survive? They would need hosts, did Noah and his family carry everything from flu to syphilis? Even that wouldn’t have worked – lets say Noah had the flu, he infected the others on the ark and they all got better – where would the bacteria go? After all, all the human hosts are now immune to that strain!
  • Then of course there is the logistical nightmare of redistribution and survival after getting of the Ark. Forget about how the kangaroo got to Australia from Ararat, wouldn’t whole species (considering we started with only 2 of some) go extinct every time a carnivore fed?
  • Then of course there is the small problem with history… We have ancient documents and building older than 4400 years that curiously show no signs of water damage…

4. Scientists aren’t stupid liars.

Of all the claims of creationists I have some difficulty with the one I have the hardest time wrapping my mind around is the suggestion that the vast majority of scientists are just WRONG. There are 4 times more historians who deny the holocaust than there are scientists who deny evolution and an old earth. For this many people in this many fields to be wrong - and not simply wrong but so glaringly obviously wrong that anyone with a dash of common sense and a bit of high school science can see it - is a staggering claim. Especially considering the hours of study and lab work they put in! Was it all for nothing? Think about it, for the Young Earth Creationist (YEC) claims to be right, 99% of the most learned people in the world have to be either complete morons or consciously lying as part of the biggest conspiracy of all time. I find both those options a little hard to swallow. I have some friends with PhD's so I know (a little bit) about the hard work and endless hours that go into reaching that level of education, so I have a hard time buying the idea of them being idiots. Likewise, I have a good friend who is not only one of the most committed Christians I know but also a highly qualified geologist - so I find it very hard to think of him as a part of an evil conspiracy to deceive us all about the age of the earth. To be fair, there are some rather intelligent creation scientists (with real PhD’s) but one can hardly call what they do science. For one thing, they do little to know lab work and instead spend all their time either debating (usually about fields outside of that which they studied) or writing articles criticizing the work of scientist who do work in labs. Most damning however, to work for one of these organizations you need to sign a statement of faith swearing:

By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.” http://www.creationontheweb.com/content/view/43/61/

In other words any evidence that disproves their work must be disregarded – that is simply not how science works.

These are the intellectual reasons. Again, I do not require proof to believe every single thing in the Bible. In a case like the virgin birth or the resurrection there is no evidence refuting it. Sure, its not natural and there is no precedent for it but anyone is free to believe that something supernatural happened here. However regarding the flood and the age of the earth you are not free to believe what you want, not if you want anyone to believe you! In these cases there are mountains of evidence showing that it absolutely could not have happened the way creationists claim. I found a quote by St Augustine that actually makes a very good point about this:

In short - don't make stupid, patently false statements and expect people to listen to you. I would think that if I – with very little training – could see so many holes in creation "science", most people should. Unfortunately they have a growing number of supporters across the globe. The problem is that most creationists have very little understanding of science and while the Creation Scientists may not be the best scientists, they are fantastic debaters/salesmen. This brings me to my main objection to creationism - the moral problems.

Firstly there are the lies. A lot of the info used by Creationist speakers has been proven wrong a long time ago. Yet they continue to use this (Duane Gish is a famous example) and publish this information even though they know it is false and it has been pointed out to them repeatedly. When you know information is false and you give it anyway you are a liar, end of story.

Secondly there is the deception. Kent Hovind is a master at this. He loves to speak about the giants of old and then show a giant thighbone that reportedly belonged to a 13 foot human. Very convincing if I say so myself. Except here is what he is not telling you – that’s not a bone belonging to a 13 foot human nor is it a copy of a bone belonging to a 13 foot human. It is in fact an artist’s rendering of what a 13 foot human’s thighbone would look like. And its inaccurate – if a real 13 foot human tried walking on it, it would snap, it’s not thick enough.

Thirdly there is the quote mining. Creationists of all flavours just love to take something said by an evolutionist out of context so it appears to favour their cause. There are countless examples of this but arguably the most famous of these is Darwin on the evolution of the eye. Darwin starts his chapter with a rhetorical discussion questioning how the eye could possibly have evolved – creationists love to quote this part to show that Darwin admitted evolution was flawed. Of course the fact that Darwin then goes on to answer that rhetorical setup is not mentioned at all. That is what the Bible calls “bearing false witness” yet it doesn’t seem to bother these “Christians” that they are blatantly lying. Even though if an atheist were to do the same and claim David said “There is no God” in Psalm 14:1 they would probably start frothing at the mouth!

So then, this is why I oppose Creation Science. For one thing, it is intellectually and morally bankrupt. They lie, they deceive and they bear false witness and they do it knowingly – to not oppose it would be to condone such abhorrent practices. It therefore betrays the basic tenets of truth and honesty a Christian should stand for. It promotes ignorance and makes all Christians look like throwbacks to the dark ages. They are dishonest and are turning otherwise good, intelligent Christians into liars when they naively repeat what they are convinced is “scientific proof” for creation and against evolution. They cause people to lose their faith by creating a false dichotomy – either Genesis is 100% literal truth or the whole Bible is a lie – and then they wonder why so many young people lose their faith in college… Not only is Creation Science not science, creation science evangelism is not evangelism. I know if I converted after hearing their evidence I would de-convert on the spot when I found out how I was lied to! Also, why would an intelligent non-believer even be tempted to join a faith represented by such ignorant arrogant liars?

For more information:

Analysis of Kent Hovind and CSE

Why do people laugh at Creationists?

From the Big Bang to us made easy

The foundational falsehoods of Creationism

A critical analysis of popular Creationist videos

Creationist Astronomy claims debunk

Proof that evolution is a fact

Talk Origins

For more about Creationist dishonesty:

The Quotemine Project

Creationist dishonesty exposed (videos)

Ignorance and lies from Way of the Master (videos)



The Christian I am not - Introduction

If there is one thing Christians are famous for in this world, it’s the fact that they really do not get along with one another. For some reason, even though we all have the same God and the same Bible we never seem to agree on anything. I know by now that I shouldn’t let the human capacity for pettiness and cruelty surprise me and yet I can’t help but to be sickened by this. It is the complete opposite of what Jesus told His followers to do:

Joh 13:35: "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."

Sadly, that’s one command we are not doing very well with. The worst part of all is that so many splits between groups and denominations happen for the dumbest reasons. Now the last thing I would like to do is add to the already divisive nature of the Christian community. I believe only grown-ups should be baptized, you may believe that infants should be baptized – is that any reason for us to hate one another? To fight tooth and nail? To show the world just how unchristian we can be? No, a million times no! Just because we may differ in doctrine doesn’t mean we cannot love one another. Well, fair enough, we are human and as such we often fail at loving our neighbour in any case. Nevertheless doesn’t give us any right to persecute one another instead of getting along. After all we do serve the same God and we do follow the same Bible. I’m all for remembering what we have in common and celebrating the fact that we are diverse.

But there is a line that I do feel I need to draw in the sand. Some people out there do not simply have different doctrines, they are actively pissing on everything Jesus taught and stood for! What makes it so incredibly disgusting is that they are doing it IN HIS NAME! From these people I need to distance myself and I need to do it in public. They are calling themselves Christian while doing these things and if I don’t speak up against it I get painted with the same brush. Like I said before, I do not wish to add to the division already present. But there is a difference between being divisive and standing up for what is right. Because sometimes saying nothing and agreeing can sound awfully similar.

Especially to those outside the faith.

So then this is the first of (what I plan to be) a series of definitive statements of who I am NOT siding with. These are people who are not only different, they are destructive and wrong in every sense of the word. I am not God and therefore I’m not trying to judge them. I am however saying loud and clear that I do not agree with them, I do not stand with them, that they are wrong and that they need to make some changes. They are turning the Good News into something repugnant to those who could use it the most.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Into the mystery

I consider myself a Christian Mystic. Now I’m willing to bet that the word “mystic” conjures up some very interesting images in your mind. I’m also willing to bet I won’t fit any of those. I don’t wear sandals – ever. I don’t say things that make me sound like Yoda after a few bong hits. I don’t use words like “chi”, “chakra” or “transcendental” unless I happen to be explaining why I don’t believe in such nonsense. I don’t fast, I don’t live in isolation in a desert cabin, I don’t have any desire whatsoever to walk on hot coals or sleep on nails, I don’t hear voices and I don’t see visions. I certainly don't go into trances. Well not unless I'm standing in a very long queue at a bank/post office/city department. Also, I can’t meditate – I've tried it and it turns out I fall asleep everytime I try. To most people to today, the term “Christian Mystic” refers to some kind of fusion between Hinduism, Buddhism and Jesus. That’s not what I’m referring to at all. I use the term in the original sense.
I first came across Christian Mysticism in an assignment I had to do on the different movements in church history. In the 14th century a movement arose among Christians that moved away from the attempts of Scholasticism to reason out, figure out, quantify and understand God. Like I mentioned before, the term “mysticism” may conjure up many different images today, but the Christian mysticism of the middle ages had nothing to do with the occult or with the mystery religions of the east. Its followers thought of it as the "scholasticism of the heart”. Where scholasticism sought to understand God, mysticism sought to experience God. It was about adoring God, not analyzing Him, spiritual feelings rather than thought and intellect. The main focus of these mystics had been an intense desire to experience God and His ways. They were on a quest to draw closer to Him, simply for the sake of drawing closer to Him, not for the sake of figuring Him out.
Now for some reason this just resonated with me. This was a little surprising since at the time, I wasn’t very pro-mystery at all. I had studied engineering and the main complaint I had about Christian books was that they were nothing like physics books. I wanted things neatly laid out by subject with concise definitions for everything. Christian books, to me, were way too airy-fairy, full of anecdotes and they never really seemed to make a clear point. While I would never have admitted it out loud, I kind of thought the Bible had that very same problem! (Clearly I wasn’t the only one, the theologians of the world seem to wholeheartedly agree and that’s why we have Systematic Theology. ) Also, I thought the whole “spiritual feelings rather than thought and intellect” idea was exactly where Pentecostal Christianity (the movement I called home at the time) went wrong. After all, how could you expect people to take you serious when you spoke about ridiculous things like feelings over reason?
Yet at the same time I could not shake the feeling that of all the different church movements I studied, I would have felt most at home with the mystics. At the time however I didn’t see any place for it in my life – I was after all happy where I was – so I didn’t really think on it much. Yet at the same time, I could never really forget about it completely either. Which was a good thing as it turns out since I might have ended up agnostic without it.
As I explained in the previous topic on skepticism I soon became more and more conflicted about my faith. I grew up in church and as a result had a very strong, rigid faith. All my life I had been taught that only the church knew the truth and the only place you could find truth was in the church. I mean they usually said “Bible” but they usually meant “church” instead. Compromise was a swear word, the absolute worst thing a Christian could do. Basically, what the church said was right (because they heard from God) and everyone else was wrong (because they didn’t). Problem was that after spending time in the real world I started to see a disconnect from what the church was telling me on the one hand and reality on the other. I don’t know why that happened to me and not to everyone around me in church. Maybe it was because I didn’t just hang out with other Christians, didn’t only listen to Christian radio and Christian music, maybe it was because I didn’t shun all things worldly like books, movies and television. (OK, I get that from all of this I must sound like I was Amish. I wasn’t. But the Christian community can be pretty insulated. You just don’t always realise it from the inside. ) To give you an idea of why I felt the church was out of touch with reality, a leader once told us that “A Beautiful Mind” (the film) was nothing short of a diabolic deception since it suggested that people can overcome adversity without God’s help. It was as if the fact that it was a true story never even entered into the equation! I ran into another prime example of this line of thinking just recently in an online discussion on Noah’s Ark. Someone asked how they could claim that the flood happened 4400 years ago when we have the pyramids and other monuments that are far older than that without a trace of flood damage. His brilliant rebuttal? The flood happened 4400 years ago therefore the pyramids cannot be older. Those who claim they are older are wrong or lying. End of discussion. It was around this time I realised that the very people telling me that faith and reason go hand in hand were very disconnected from all reason and logic indeed!
And so then it was with the whole creation debate that things finally reached breaking point for me. Now from a very early age I was taught that everything in Genesis was literally true – the Earth was 6000 years old, everything was created in its present form and about 4400 years ago a great global flood killed everything in the world save for those who were on the Ark with Noah. This was true because the Bible said so and because all real science backed it up. Everyone who disagreed with that was wrong and deceived by the devil – or actually working for him to deceive the world. Basically it came down to this: Either you believed all of that was literally true OR you don’t believe in God, Jesus or anything else in the Bible since it is all firmly rooted in the book of Genesis. This put me in a rather awkward position. I mean I really and truly believed in God and Jesus but the more I looked the more I saw that science did not in fact back up any of that. Quite the contrary, science gave solid proof that the Earth was in fact older than 6000 years (much, MUCH older), there was no global flood and that all life on earth continually adapts to its environment and is therefore in a constant state of change. So when you are burdened with a black or white, right or wrong, on or off kind of outlook on your faith, this puts you in a very bad spot when you simultaneously refuse to believe that all scientists are devil worshiping liars. According to everything I had been taught up to that point I had only two choices: reject everything I knew to be scientific fact and continue believing or give up the faith and become agnostic.
Neither was really an option. There was no way I could become agnostic, I really did believe in God. At the same time I also, in the words of Galileo, did not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." Can you say crisis of faith? So one random day I was spending some vouchers in a bookstore and needing one more book to use up the full amount I decided on a whim to pick up a book I knew nothing about but I vaguely remembered a friend recommending I read it – Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell. Funny how you sometimes run into the exact thing you didn’t realise you were looking for exactly when you need it.
Right from the introduction page, I was blown away. Here was a pastor I had never heard of who obviously loved God and the Bible deeply and yet spoke about the Scriptures in a way I have never heard done before. He wasn’t treating it as something rigid at all, he was talking about questioning it and wrestling with it. In the very first chapter he spoke about how there are two kinds of faith. On the one hand there was brick wall faith – every doctrine solidly built upon the other, rigid and unmovable. Take one piece out and the whole thing collapses. In other words, they faith I was brought up to have. On the other hand, he spoke of trampoline faith. Here the doctrines were more like springs. They could stretch, they could move and if they didn’t work you could remove it without destroying the entire trampoline. See the difference was that unlike with brick wall faith, the doctrines weren’t the point, they were only there to support the point (the trampoline) which was God. Doctrine should be our servant, never our master. Reading these words were like coming up for air for the first time.
Well, there is no way you go back to brick wall faith after tasting trampoline faith. Calling it “trampoline faith” was actually a fantastic analogy. It was liberating, it was welcoming, it was inviting and most of all it was fun. It was at this point that I grabbed a hold of mysticism like a drowning man grabs a hold of a life raft. I realised that there was a good reason that the Bible wasn’t written like a physics textbook. I don’t know how many Christians would agree with me but I think it’s because faith is supposed to be mystic, that’s why the Bible is instead full of stories, poetry, parables and allegory. It was like I saw the Bible for the first time and I realised just how deeply mystical the Christian faith really is! Just look at the trinity for instance, how does that work? Its not a term used in the Bible but we use it because it’s the only way that works. Yet no matter how many supposedly simple and “clear” explanations I have heard for it I have never actually run into anything that can actually define it in a way that makes sense. But then, why does it need to make sense? Why does there need to be a simple, concise definition? After all the term “mystic” comes from “mystery” and things like faith and God and spirituality are deeply mysterious things (whether you like to think so or not). We glibly talk about knowing God but how on earth can we begin to grasp Him? If even a fraction of what we believe about Him is true then He must be infinitely more than we can ever truly get our minds around. And why do we have this pathological need to make God fit our minds, our ideas, our definitions, our limitations? Why is it so terrifying to see Him as free of that?
I am a mystic because mysticism actually allows God to be just that – God. Unexplainable, mysterious, wild, scary, indefinable, indescribable and without a man made cage to keep him in our image. I am a mystic because I have found that it is not the scholars that feed my soul but the mystics (though I guess they won’t refer to themselves as such) – John Eldredge, Rob Bell, Donald Miller – these are just some of the men who have introduced me to the wild unfettered beauty of the God I’ve known since childhood. I am a mystic because once free from the burden of having to understand God I am finally free to search and seek and wrestle and learn and discover and explore the mystery that is God, Life, Faith, Love and Hope. It is amazing how much you start to learn when you no longer have the need to know all the answers. I am a mystic because – surprisingly – it was mysticism that allowed me to have and fully embrace both faith and reason. As Don Miller said in his book Blue like Jazz:
"Sooner or later you just figure out that there are some guys who don't believe in God and they can prove He doesn't exist and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove he does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it's about who is smarter, and honestly I don't care. I don't believe I will ever walk away from God for intellectual reasons."
I cannot begin to explain just how freeing this is. But then, I shouldn’t have to. It’s a really good mystery though. Wouldn’t you like to explore it too?

Out of the darkness and into skepticism

Skepticism is a rather recent move for me. You see, when it comes to believing in the occult, the paranormal, the supernatural and the pseudosciences of the day I had a running start in the wrong direction. For starters, I was born and raised in Africa and this is one superstitious continent. Now some would argue that this applies only to the black people of Africa – utter BS. One only needs a superficial insight into the history of the Afrikaner people to know that we are fully African in this regard, superstition and belief in the supernatural runs thick in our blood. Added to this was the fact that I was not only raised Christian but that I was brought up in a Pentecostal, Charismatic church to boot. So it should come as no surprise that for a very large part of my life I fully believed in all things paranormal and supernatural. Sure, due to my strong Christian upbringing my beliefs tended to be divided rather sharply between supernatural events attributed to God and paranormal things that were the work of the devil. Miracles and everything in the Bible fell into the first category while ESP, mediums etc fell into the latter. To be fair, I did reserve a tiny sliver of gray for things like astrology (which I believed was just the influence of the planets, nothing supernatural) and aliens. By and large though my views on the occult were pretty black and white and I think that this has in a sense followed me to this day. I’ll get back to that later.

Now I believe I always had an inner skeptic who was just dying to be heard, but considering where I started off, he had a lot of barriers to break down before he was finally in earshot! I left High School as what skeptics refer to as a “true believer” – I fully believed in all things supernatural and there was nothing you could say to convince me it wasn’t all true. Skepticism at that point equaled closed-mindedness in my eyes and at that point in time I was rather proud of how “open minded” I was. Now you may think that going off to varsity to study something as scientific as Chemical Engineering would have changed that. You would be wrong. See, by some odd line of reasoning, the housing department decided it would be a good idea to house the engineering students and the art students in the same residence. Now please don’t get me wrong on this point – that was probably one of the coolest and most defining moments of my life and I will trade it for nothing in this world. But it was one giant leap backwards for my inner skeptic because suddenly a boy from a small town was all alone in a big city surrounded by strange and interesting people full of strange and interesting ideas.

But then, around my second year, a breakthrough for my inner skeptic came from the most unlikely of sources. I became involved in a hyper-charismatic student church. These were the kind of people who proudly referred to themselves as “charismaniacs” and they took things to such incredibly ridiculous levels that cracks finally started to appear in the walls of unreason that had been imprisoning my inner skeptic. For the first time I started to wonder why “prophesies” and “words from God” given with such confidence and conviction turned out to be utterly wrong. I started to have some doubts about people getting “slain by the spirit” (falling over when prayed for) when I realised the only force pushing me down in the prayer line was the pastor in front of me trying to push me over. I still clearly remembered the defining incident though. The church didn’t have an actual building and used one of the auditoriums on campus for their services. Now as it happened this was not the space they would have liked and they had their eyes on a larger, more luxurious auditorium. Now they prayed for this, believed the Lord for it, named it, claimed it and “prophesied it into being” – all very publicly, all filled with confidence that this is what God told them to do. Few weeks after that the campus authorities decided that no religious services of any kind could take place on campus grounds any more and suddenly, instead of moving on up they had to move on out and scramble to find a new venue somewhere in the city. Now had they at this point admitted that they were wrong in the first place, the damage would have been minimal. But no, they instead chose to ignore every stumble and without missing a beat told the church that this was what they had been planning to do all along. At this point I finally started to hear the first whispers of skepticism in my heart.

Of course it was still slow going after that – after all, you don’t simply lose over a decade of superstition in a few days. I found myself a less charismatic church and things went well for a while but the cracks were there and soon the drips of skepticism soon became streams. The more I looked the more some of the things I was so sure was true seemed completely detached form reality. (I’ll try to get back to this in another post – it’s a story all on its own. )

Over the next couple of years, every patently false statement and sweeping generalisation made from a pulpit kept making me more and more skeptic but the sledgehammer blow to my practiced unreason happened when I came across a little show by two Vegas magicians who loved to debunk the paranormal called, Penn & Teller: Bullshit! Suddenly I came to see that mediums, psychics and pretty much every other paranormal thing I was once convinced was the supernatural work of the devil was in fact simply fake. They were brash, they were anti-Christian, they cussed and they were against almost everything I held dear but in Penn and Teller I found something I had trouble finding at church – a strong commitment to knowing the truth.

Thanks to Penn & Teller I went from being a true believer to being a doubting believer. The final straw that took me all the way into scepticism was when I ran across the video on Youtube of the dishonest televangelist and faith healer Peter Popoff and how he was exposed by a venerable looking stage magician and skeptic named James Randi*. In that moment I realised that had I been in Popoff’s congregation I would have been truly and absolutely fooled by his lies and deception. It is at that point that started reading various skeptic websites and I ordered myself a copy of The Skeptic’s Dictionary right away.

Now if you had read up to this point you would be forgiven if you were under the impression that I was outlining my journey from Christianity to agnosticism. I am however still very much a Christian, I just happen to be a very skeptic one these days. Now this begs the question, can I be a man of faith and a skeptic? Some would say: Sure, you can. Just because you think chiropractors and homeopaths are quacks and just because you don’t believe in ghosts, psychics and Bigfoot doesn’t automatically mean you don’t have to believe in God. After all, the dictionary definition of “skeptic” is “doubter” so if you have doubts then you can be a skeptic, even if you don’t doubt everything. On the other hand there will be those who say: True skeptics are dedicated to living in a real world without having any sort of magical thinking in their lives. If you want to be a skeptic you need to accept only that which is real and provable. Well both of these make good points. Me, I don’t really need a label, in fact I rather detest them. In fact, The Skeptics Dictionary lists 5 types of people and yet not one of these types feels like a good fit to me.

There is the true believer. These believe in all things supernatural and no amount of fact or evidence to the contrary can sway them. This I used to be but am no more.

There is the believing doubter. These are the people who are prone to believe in the paranormal but they have some doubts. At this point in time I’m not prone to believing paranormal claims at all. In a move that is a long time overdue I’m training myself to ask questions, look a little deeper and seek for a real world answer instead of jumping to supernatural conclusions. For instance today, should I see someone move a pencil using (supposedly) psychic powers, my first thought is no longer “Whoa, he is using the power of demons!!!” but rather “Wait, is he maybe just blowing on it?”

There is the open minded seeker. They make no commitment to or disavowal of occult claims. Now this seems pretty good on some level I guess – being open minded and all that sure sounds like a virtue – but that fact is that I do commit to some things and I do disavow others so I cannot fit in here.

There is the hardened skeptic. Now these people have a strong disbelief in ALL things supernatural. Since I still believe in God I clearly do not fall into this category.

Then there is the soft skeptic. They are those people who are more prone to doubt than to belief. Now this one actually sounds more like me. In fact I wouldn’t mind awfully if someone labeled me a soft skeptic. (Well, apart from the fact that no one likes being called “soft” when they are a man and not a teddy bear of course...) The whole idea of not simply ruling anything out by default but yet being enough of a doubter to not be easily fooled seems to work for me. The thing is however that “soft skeptics” tend to become “hardened skeptics” after a while so it’s more of a transitional form. The more they learn, the more hardened a “soft” skeptic tends to become. In a sense I have already walked this road. After actually checking the facts and getting in touch with reality I no longer doubt things like alternative “medicine”, cryptozoology, drowsing, pyramid power and the like – I utterly disbelieve them. At the same time I completely believe in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, angels, demons and miracles.

So then, you see my problem? I am hardened skeptic who also happens to be a true believer. And here you thought I was exaggerating about being juxtapositioned!

It seems that my former black and white view of the supernatural has evolved along with me. On the one hand, I believe in God and therefore in the supernatural and I have no problem believing that the miracles recorded in the Bible were real. On the other hand, when it comes to things like psychic phenomenon and the Loch Ness monster I utterly disbelieve it. Does this mean I am guilty of having a double standard? Certainly. Does that bother me? Not at all. For one thing I have mercifully grown past the point where not fitting someone else’s definition of what I need to be bothers me. For another I’m not really interested in believing what is most likely, my commitment is to believing what is true. Since I believe in God completely I accept that some supernatural events can be true. Regarding that, an agnostic friend of mine recently asked me if – hypothetically – Vishnu appeared on the clouds tomorrow and we all learned that he is in fact the true God of the universe, would I accept Vishnu as my God. Now that’s not an easy question for a Christian to answer, but honestly, if it turned out Vishnu was the true God I wouldn’t have a choice but to accept him**. Like I said my commitment is to the truth. Now at this point some hardened skeptics may interrupt me and point out the fact that I cannot prove that God exists and therefore I cannot say I know He is the truth. At this point I would have to point out to said hardened skeptic that I was careful to use the word “believe” instead of “know” throughout for that very reason. I know I cannot prove God exists. I'm not going to try either. In fact I have heard probably all the “proofs” offered by believers from the mathematical to the ethical and I admit that I can see why they don’t sway a whole lot of atheists. Yet I still believe it to be true, even though I know I cannot prove it I still believe it. But I’ll expand on how I manage to have both faith and reason (and therefore skepticism) in the next entry on mysticism.

Oh by they way, I still have a small sliver of gray in this black & white view of mine. Astrology doesn't live here anymore but I am not totally opposed to the existence of aliens. To be clear, I don't believe that aliens are out there experimenting on rednecks. But its a big ass universe - there could be life out there somewhere. I don't expect we will ever come across it (and if we did it would probably not be cool Sci-fi aliens) but if we did I'm certainly not going to bury my head in the sand about it.

This is my journey so far. I am a skeptic because I love the truth. I am a skeptic because I hate deception. I'm a skeptic because I hate to be made a fool off. I am a skeptic because I would rather make informed decisions than ill-informed ones. I have been walking the path of a skeptic for only a short time but so far it has been eye opening and fun. You don't need magical thinking to appreciate the wonder of the world. Quite the opposite actually! I think I am more in awe of the world I live in now that I have a better relationship with reality! They say its easier to believe a comforting lie than a depressing truth. That may be true, but I would rather be depressed and on solid ground than to be comforted by trusting in a flimsy foundation of truth.



* The man is my hero, I wish he was my grandpa! I could sit at his feet and listen to him for days on end

** Some of my fellow Christians would accuse me of blasphemy for even considering such a hypothetical. I however believe that the God who once asked more or less the same question to Israel through Elijah (1 Kings 18:21) would be more understanding than that.

A head full of ghosts - an opening scene in 3 acts

ACT 1: There once was a very unfortunate barber

Do you know the story of king Midas? Not the one where he turns everything to gold, everyone knows that one. Well at least they used to. No, I mean do you know the other one? The one where he gets cursed with donkey ears? Well, the story was read to me a long time ago as a child and while I don’t remember all the details, I still remember parts of it. See King Midas was cursed by some supernatural being – probably one of the Greek gods as on the whole they were kind of petty, cruel and it seems like the kind of thing they would do. Now I can’t remember why he got donkey ears but lets face it, those gods could be dicks and it didn’t take much to set them off. Anyway, that’s not the important part, the important part is that the king had donkey ears and didn’t want anyone to know so he hid them. Unfortunately for him there was one person he could not hide it from – his barber. Now the unfortunate barber had to swear under pain of death never to tell a soul about the king’s “condition”. Now over time this became a bit much for the poor man – knowing the biggest secret in the kingdom and not being able to tell anyone – so to keep from exploding, he went out into the marshes, dug a deep hole and shouted: “KING MIDAS HAS DONKEY EARS!!!!” into the hole. With that finally out of his system he covered the hole, went home and went about his business. Of course, this being a Greek myth the whole thing did eventually come back to bite him in the ass. See, reeds grew where he dug the hole and some shepherds made flutes from the reeds and every time they played them, instead of music, the flutes said: “King Midas has donkey ears”. Now I’m a little fuzzy on the ending, there was probably some bad times for the poor barber in there as well as a moral for us all. Hey, when you live in a Greek myth your life will suck so that others may learn from it! In any case, I’m not relating this tale for the end or the moral. The reason this story stuck with me for so many years was because of the middle. It’s because of the middle of that story that I decided to start blogging.

Look, I’m not conceited enough to believe that legions of people will end up reading this, awestruck at my words. Not at all. Plus, what I have to say isn’t the biggest secret in the kingdom either. Still, I have things that I need to say and where better to find a hole in the ground than the internet? A blog on the internet is the most privately public thing you can have (you have to love the juxtaposition of that! I know I do!). Sure, potentially you are talking to the whole world (except North Korea). But in reality I know I’m pretty much talking to no one at all. So then, as there may not be a real you reading this, I am dedicating this blog to the only audience it may have in real life – the ghosts in my mind.

ACT 2: Ghostwriting for beginners

Does that sound like mental illness? I assure you it is not. I was an only child who was often home alone and I learned to keep myself company at a very young age. Talking to yourself may be looked at with suspicion by the psychiatric community at large, but the psychiatric community should feel free to bite me. I’ve never had imaginary friends you see, I always had real friends. It’s just since I was home alone most of the time I learned to have conversations with the imaginary counterparts of those real people in my head (this was back way before instant messaging, cell phones and the internet) so that I didn’t feel lonely. Also, back when I was a kid there really wasn’t that much on TV. I guess old habits die hard. I have so much I want to say and no one to say it to and therefore I decided to come here – the internet, the ultimate hole in the ground. In this way I get to speak to an audience at least slightly less embarrassing than an actual hole in the ground. Also in this way I feel a little bit more heard – even if not by people then at least by the idea of people. It would be extremely hard for me to write to no one after all. How am I supposed to write to a nameless, shapeless being? Maybe others can, but I need to write to someone – even if it is just the idea of someone – if I am to write at all. It may sound weird, but I simply think of it as thinking out loud. Having an imaginary audience of people I know just always helped me shape my thoughts. By the way, if you happen to be real and you are actually reading this, welcome! But I’ll ask you kindly to please remember that we are in fact not in a Greek myth so I’d rather prefer it if you don’t look for a way to make the things I say come back to bite me in the ass. This is a no smite zone. Thank you.

ACT 3: So there I was

Lucky for me, I keep no royal secrets. If only things were that simple… See, I’m not keeping secrets I’m trying to figuring some out. You see, my dear ghostly audience, I didn’t simply choose to name this blog “My life in juxtaposition” because it sounded cool. As it turns out, I really am a study in contradiction. My life is all about juxtaposition. Now this all may sound like the kind of thing someone would say in a vain attempt to sound artistic and conflicted. I can promise you though, I don’t say this for the sake of being cool or different or arty or counter-cultural at all. If I had any choice in this then heaven knows I would have chosen a very different life. But then again, I have never known anything else so maybe I wouldn’t choose any differently if I could. After a while you get used to it. After a little bit more time you can actually learn to love it and I guess that after decades of wishing to be someone else I have finally learned to love who I am. Now, all that I have left is to make sense of who I am and what I believe.

See here is what I know about me so far: I know I am a Christian, I know I believe in God. I’m not the fundamentalist, young earth creationist, incredibly na├»ve Christian I was raised to be, but yet I keep the faith. Regarding my faith I am a mystic – although probably not in the sense you may think when you hear the term. Regarding my outlook on life I am a skeptic – though I haven’t been one for as long as I would have liked to be and there is still a lot I have to learn. I have a white collar education and a blue collar job and I have trouble fitting into either world. I look for symmetry and reason but I believe in chaos, coincidence and mystery. I’m cynical and optimistic. I want nothing more than stability but yet I constantly crave change. I’m a theologian and a heretic (at least according to some). I can fit in almost anywhere and yet I cannot find a place where I belong. I’m a Christian unlike other Christians and a skeptic unlike other skeptics. I’m too old to see the world in stark black and white and yet I’m still young enough to believe that some things aught to be in black and white. I’m too old to still believe I know all the answers but I’m still young enough to want to learn them.

In short - I am a thirty-something man who is trying to figure out his life. So please be patient with me dear ghosts and bear with me for a while.


Picture (c) XKCD.com