Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Observations from a Men's Retreat Part II

This first issue is where I think I stood alone in the men's group the most. It is regarding the belief that the predominate way that we know that God is there and how he directs us day to day is via tissue paper miracles.  What I mean by tissue paper is that they are so very frail that any rational, outside observer would instantly see that it is just wishful thinking.

During the men's retreat we had several testimonies.  In practically everyone, the almighty God who created the 14 billion light light diameter universe proved that he was there through things like a homeless man being on the street begging, then two hours later he wasn't there, proving he was an angel.  Sometimes it is a rainbow that intersects with a tree that had two long limbs at the top, making it look vaguely like a cross.  But most of the tissue paper miracles had to do with the autonomic nervous, endocrine or limbic systems.  Over and over I hear that God spoke to someone very loudly and clearly because they felt this warmth in their bellies, or euphoria or a chill that goes up their spines.  The great problem I have with this is that I've heard the same type of testimonies from Muslims, Buddhists, various cults have the most profound experiences plus many other types of people including schizophrenics to say the least.

So, in these situations, when I hear someone saying that God spoke to them in a profound way through a strange odor that they smelled in the woods . . . and they just knew it was the very personal smell of God (actually heard this at the men's retreat) and based on that smell they made a major decision in their lives, I am profoundly skeptical.  But every single time I raise questions about it, I am looked at like I really am Judas . . . the great betrayer of the faith.  Denise always gets frustrated when I question these miracles and she asks me, "Who are you to judge?"

But this is where I say that I'm more fundamental than the most severe fundamentalist.  I believe that we should stick to the Bible much more than we do.  How does this apply in this situation, where most evangelicals would see me as less Biblical?  It is because the miracles, attested to in scripture were NOT on tissue paper (or burnt toast). They were seas dividing in two, or a person blind from birth seeing, or someone dead coming a live, or someone speaking a language fluently who had never, ever studied it or even have used Rosetta Stone.

Also, I am more of a fundamentalist because I don't see in scripture the mandate that we should completely trust those funny feelings, or the shady things we see floating softly behind the holes in the fabric of reality.  Where people bend spoons with their minds, or a breeze is felt on the neck in a darken house, or the ray of the sun shines through the clouds forming a Chi Ro symbol . . . so you completely change the religion of an empire. I see scripture telling us that we can't trust our senses. Our hearts (or psyches) are more deceitful than anything else in the universe and can not be trusted at all.

I still give the men's retreat a 70%, but of the 30% that I criticize, this area was where I stand the most alone.

To question these things as being God's celestial cell phone calling us, is to offend almost every Christian. Whom am I to question that God spoke to them through their goldfish's moving lips?  Who am I to question the healings of their colds, four days in, but just before they went to the Christian concert?


Jaimie said...

This is a difficult concept for me. I agree with you, but I also think about the verse where the Holy Spirit speaks to us with a still, small voice. Not to mention the dozens of other verses about the Holy Spirit living "inside us."

In the end, I choose to believe God speaks to me in these small ways, but they are in no way anything that anyone else would understand, unless they had been inside my body at the time. So I think it's silly to share them. Or if I do, I speak of it in vague terms. Like "I prayed." Or "I felt God."

I'm referring to times when my endocrine system is acting up, as you say. As far as physical acts (like a beggar not being there two hours later), that's crazy. You don't know anything, like how you know you're getting chills in the middle of a prayer. You don't know it's not a coincidence. It's a self-centered way to look at the world too, as if God is doing magic tricks with people's lives for your spiritual enrichment.

jmj said...

I know that feelings are good and designed by God for our enjoyment. So, if you look into the Grand Canyon and feel overwhelmed with the presence of God, I don't see that as a bad thing, but healthy and maybe that's what you mean (a private feeling when touched by God in a private way).

But I think that Christians tend to be very superstitious. Those flaky superstitious start to be the foundation on which their faith sits. So I think building your house on toilet paper it is very shady.

PRS & ALS said...

I too think that too often people automatically attribute to God things that just happen or that are caused by something else. But when I encounter people who say these things I proceed cautiously with my comments because I might be pulling the rug right out from them. Of course, I also deal with my own concerns about being viewed as some type of heretic. I agree that there is a need in the Christian world for more authenticity and more struggling with issues and asking the hard questions. But I generally find out more about the person and why they believe as they do and what they would lose to even open the door to another view. I do try to speak up when I see that what they're saying can adversely affect someone new to faith. I remember after 9/11 people kept saying "God's in control" like God caused the tragedy to happen. So I began to questions people about what they meant and they didn't at all mean that. I was able to tell them that's how it came across to some people. Anyway, I appreciate your willingness to speak up and not sit back and let people glibly say statements that can be questionable.

shallowfrozenwater said...

i completely agree with you. in many ways we see eye to eye on these sorts of situations. i just call it an existential reaction to a situation; individualistic, emotional, modernist, where minor things that happen around you become the fulcrum where God is speaking to your life. i have significant problems here too and i'm also very grateful to have found a church home where i can express things that may not be what the majority hold to and yet still be safe at home there.

jmj said...

I think it becomes personal for me in a couple of ways. When people testify over and over in the church setting that the way they knew that God exist and that Christianity is true is because of very flaky miracles (sunbeams, butterfly landing on the flower you are looking at)and then my kids' generation start to think that the whole thing is silly and walk away.

The second area is where so called miracles and signs to manipulate other people. For example the man who led me to Christ and discipled me got a woman to marry him because he used a series of flaky miracles to proved that it was God's will for her. It happened very quickly. Fifteen years later she did divorce him and he sent out a newsletter she had gone over to Satan's side.

I guess one more is that when you create a very superstitious sub culture, then that whole subculture starts to loose touch with reality.

Anonymous said...

In SoCal, we call such things "Seeing Mary-in-a-Tortilla Syndrome".

Wasn't one of the big beefs the Roman Empire had with this Christian cult was that they WEREN'T superstitious enough to be a REAL religion?

Headless Unicorn Guy

Anonymous said...

For example the man who led me to Christ and discipled me got a woman to marry him because he used a series of flaky miracles to proved that it was God's will for her. It happened very quickly. Fifteen years later she did divorce him and he sent out a newsletter she had gone over to Satan's side. -- JMJ

I can only repeat what a Wiccan explained to me why she WOULDN'T do Love Spells/Love Potions. (Yes, a practicing Witch. Deal with it.)

According to her, Working Magick to make someone fall in love with you is a Working that manipulates the emotions on a very deep level, forcing their emotions to do something they normally wouldn't. According to her, it takes a LOT of energy to keep that clamp down and it always wears off. Always. And when (not if) it wears off, there is an opposite reaction, flipping from Love to Hatred.

That was from a practicing Witch with professional ethics. Take that for what it's worth.

(Hint: Do you see any resemblance between JMJ's account and the witch's statement?)

Headless Unicorn Guy

Anonymous said...

And as for the main subject of this posting, I can only quote a Father Brown Mystery:

"Miracles do not come so cheap."
-- G.K.Chesterton, "The Miracle of Father Brown"

Headless Unicorn Guy

jmj said...

Another point, which I'm not good at making sometimes, has to do with this whole monist Vs dualism thing.

The dualists see human emotions, the autonomic nervous system etc. as part of the "flesh" thus "worldly" and not very good. So, to give them any merit, the dualists must say it wasn't natural emotions causing that chill up my spine, it was the good unseen "spiritual" thing of God's supernatural hand touching me.

But in a monist view I see things like what Einstein said (my paraphrase) is that you can only look at the universe in two ways. In the first, nothing is a miracle in the second, everything is a miracle. I actually believe that everything is a miracle. That the universe exist because of a miracle. That we exist because of a miracle. Our emotions are miraculous as is all of our bodily functions. So a butterfly landing on a rose I'm looking is a solid miracle, BUT, I don't think that God created that butterfly out of thin air, caused it to land on that rose as a sign for me to take a job in Anchorage or a sign that God want's so and so to marry me (like my friend Tom did).

If I boiled down Tom's thinking to its very, very honest level is that the girl he got to marry him was beautiful. He was infatuation with her and there was no way in a normal world she would give him the time of day (and was engaged to a very successful handsome man until Tom came along). So Tom, with a gift of gab and manipulation, was able to convince her through these silly tissue paper miracles that God intended for her to marry him . . . and they closed the deal in about two months before she had the chance to come to her senses.

So the real problem, in my view, is the downgrading of the natural emotions and the natural order of nature (butterflies like flowers)to being worthless so I have to imagine that it is something much more.

Anonymous said...

Wellllll...if we go by the Bible to show that superstitious/magical-thinking type behavior is NOT okay, we're not going to get very far. I mean, *how* did God speak to the people God spoke to in the Bible? Often times, we don't really know. For all we know, it could have been a smell. We are just told that it happened, and then that major life decisions were made.

When we ARE given details, it is full of visions (hallucinations?) galore. Seeing angels, hearing voices, having dreams experiencing things that usually only that one individual saw, who then goes on to make some major life decision based on the vision/hallucination/etc...

So I'm not sure that sticking to the Bible is a good remedy for calling out for the use of caution here.


Dana said...

As anonymous just said, it's not always helpful to simply go to the bible. In Orthodoxy, if something happens and you sense it to be "unusual", you are to check in with someone wiser, who helps you decide the nature of the thing. This is usually your confessor (who knows your foibles but is bound to keep silent about them), or a monastic, male or female, who acts as your spiritual director (also ethically bound to not divulge anything).

Mike, you might be interested in this series, from anoter weekend retreat :)


If you listen, be sure to include the Q&A; good stuff there, too.


Brendan said...

What kind of churches do you go to? The smell of God in the forest...? Holy crap man!

I'm very familiar with tissue paper miracles. The one I get sick of is when people leave a church for the stated reason "we feel God is leading us in a different direction." But what they really mean is "this church is boring" or "that church will pay me to do what I volunteer here for" or "our kids have more fun over at that church.."

I was raised in a Jewish home, and from a Jewish perspective the III Commandment "thou shall not take the LORD's name in vain" is not about swearing...it's about attributing a cause to God that he would not support. The Crusades would be an example of that, as would the Third Reich.

To some extent, with that background, I feel these tissue paper miracles are a violation of the 3rd commandment. "The LORD is leading me in such and such direction" is to claim God's support and the authority in his name, to cause people to believe you. Gosh it's not only taking his name in vain, but also false prophecy.

Anonymous said...

But limiting the III Commandment to cussing and cussing alone is Sooooo Convenient...

jmj said...

I think you could come up with a thousand examples of this, but I will give one.

Bobby was a good friend in high school. We became Christians at the same time. He had a tissue miracle (something about a Bible verse and a phone that happen to come in at the same time confirming superstition) that God was calling him to be a preacher. Now, this is not to mention that being a preacher was HIGHLY esteemed in that Bible belt community. But we had no insight to that.

So Bobby enters a preaching contest (really existed back then) in a nearby city. In the middle of his sermon he had a full-blown panic attack. We also had no insight that panic attacks while public speaking is very common an is related to anxiety and a sudden release of adrenalin. Anyway, Bobby freezes up in front of the crowd of hundreds. He starts crying and says, "I'd asked God to help me . . . but He didn't."

So, not only did Bobby give up preaching as a calling but almost never went back to church. He was my room mate in college (I also knew him in high school) three years later and he considered himself an atheist.

So, I question the original "sign" from God he was to be a preacher. I also question his total disillusionment when he had a panic attack. Public speaking is one of the most fearful things humans can do because we feel so judged when we are in front of people. It is normal and natural. But he first saw it as a negative "sign" and then gave up the faith altogether.

Brendan said...

I'm preaching on the X Commandments this fall. May I use this post and its comments as illustrations? Since you're a Bellingham area local, you could sit in on that sermon to make sure I give the topic justice. ***Not a sheep steal proposition*** just a friendly "hey lets have a post evangelical moment together."

jmj said...

Brendan, I don't mind if you use it. Don't have to worry about sheep stealing because I'm 25 miles away from Bellingham and it would be too far, plus I'm happy with my new church. I do have a good friend in Lynden, ex-CRC pastor, burned out, deep thinker, now sits in coffee shops on Sunday morning.

Brendan said...

I'm not CRC. I at you typical Non-Denom just outside the city. But your friend seems like a guy I need to talk to.

Brendan said...

...for my sake that is.

Eagle said...

PRS said...

I remember after 9/11 people kept saying "God's in control" like God caused the tragedy to happen.


Oh boy to be a brainwashed fundgelical on Tuesday September 11, 2001. Here's how the day played out for me. I was a student yet was working heavily as well. I had class on Tuesday and had the day off but was up late Monday night preparing for everything. So when 9-11 happened everything was over with before I knew. My Mom called and said, "Did you see the TV, we've been attacked!!" I was getting ready and I sat down and turned on the TV. The images shocked me. Oh my God I thought. I saw the replays of the plane flying into the World Trade Center (WTC), the unknown death toll which was projected to be beyond belief because 50,000 people worked in the WTC. I wanted to be around people. School was canceled and I attended a nearby mass at a Catholic church. People were in shock, some crying, others wondering "what's going to happen next?" The Catholic priest talked about how he remembered where he was when JFK was assassinated, and what that meant to his generation, just like what Pearl Harbor meant to his father. And he told the church that our generation had experienced our Pearl Harbor.

So after that I watched the news and then headed off to Campus Crusade. Oh...what a difference. People were joyful, and some were estatic. I remember the other Crusade leader who told me. "Eagle the rapture is going to happen soon. When it does I hope I'm in a sky scraper toward's the top so I can fly into the sky to be with Jesus!!" It didn't bother me then but today it haunts me immensely.

Where is the empthy? Where was the compassion? There's talk of 50,000 people possibly being killed and you're overjoyed and hopeful about the rapture? What the fuck is that? Are evangelicals by nature sociopathes? People who don't have the capability to show feeling, or relate to others? Do they take pleasure from other people's suffering and death?

As I said Christianity is really fucked up. As an agnositc I feel like I can be more normal and grieve with others or celebrate with others. Sorry PRS your comment brought back some memories of what it was like to be a fundegelical on 9-11.

jmj said...

Eagle, of course you make a valid point. Mark Noll made the same points in his book Scandal of the Evangelical Mind ( http://www.amazon.com/Scandal-Evangelical-Mind-Mark-Noll/dp/0802841805 ). At the time of the book the first Iraqi war was just over. He talks about how sad it was that rather than Christians having a serious conversation about the war, war itself, US foreign policy, etc . . . but instead seemed to have a great joy in the tremendous suffering, because Christians believed it was all proof that Jesus was coming back soon . . . thus proving to the world they were right.