Last weekend I attended a Christian retreat about an hour from home. It was unconnected to a specific denomination. I’d characterize the themes and theology as moderate and vaguely Protestantish. The attendees were mostly college students from campuses around New York state. Format-wise, there were a series of sessions bookended by meals. The sessions started with Jesus jam band style worship. Next we listened to a speaker address a particular subject. Then we met in smaller groups of around 10-15 people to discuss our chosen topic- different from whatever the speaker talked about.
First I’ll discuss some of my favorite occurrences of the weekend. A lot of things ranked very high for me on this trip. I will give them all points based around an imaginary scale.
I was asked to hold a baby by someone I barely knew who barely knew me. That’s about 4000 points for trusting me with a baby and 1000 points for noticing I really want to hold a baby.
I was taught how to hold a ping pong paddle by an extremely patient and friendly student. 700 points for humoring me.
I had a great conversation randomly with someone about the ethics of harming or killing animals. 800 points for rationality.
Kim asked me to check a baby for a dirty diaper. 400 points for knowing I am capable and willing to check diapers!
My small group delivered its summary of out topic discussion including this line, “It’s up to us to make up our own minds.” 20,000 points for individual thought! I cannot agree more and wish this was the way most questions of faith ended.
Kim asked me if I believe in God. 1000 points for asking me this excellent question!
I don’t know how many that is because I’m too sleepy to do basic math, but it’s a lot!
You were probably wondering what I answered Kim. I said “Yes, I’ll totally check a diaper!” Oh you meant how I answered about God? Well I said that I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s a thing anyone can really know for sure. And maybe God isn’t defined the same way for me as for others. For instance, I don’t think it’s possible that God is interacting with us all personally on a minute to minute basis. There are too many times he seems conspicuously absent. If he is really micromanaging everything, bad things that happen would imply God either sucks at his job or he’s a jerk. I don’t think either of those is true. So God must be functioning some other way that is either minimal or no longer active. It could be that God did creation and then said “Laissez Faire! Hands off! You guys figure it out on your own.” Or maybe he (or she (or zie)) is working on Earth in a minimal way, perhaps to allow us the chance to help each other. Or I’m even willing to consider the idea that God is the goodness found in all of us when we help each other. God is good, God is love, right? I see no problem at all with calling it God in our lives when we do good things one for another. Does this make me agnostic? Maybe. I think openness to being wrong is good and I’m all about continuing to question.
Perhaps this begs the question: why are you still doing this church exploration project? I like religion. I like people and I like stories about life. No one is ever checked with a belief-o-meter to gain entrance into a church. I would venture to guess that many church members aren’t 100% ‘sure’. And none of this really conflicts with my original description in post #1 of what I want to gain by this adventure.
Since I’m still talking about my weekend, I’ll tell you what my small group talked about. Our topic was “are Genesis and evolution compatible?” I think it’s interesting that we didn’t actually talk much about which to believe over the other one. Even without this key point it seemed obvious that a few of us favored evolution and a few of us favored the bible. Those who were expecting a final answer would have been disappointed. One of our conclusions was that we weren’t sure. And our group leader did nothing to give us an ‘easy answer’- I think part of his point was that Genesis 1 is confusing. God creates light first, but doesn’t make the sun until day 4. God creates plants even before the sun is around. So what are we to make of this? Even in biblical times they must have been aware plants need the sun. The Genesis writer may have been making a poetic point rather than a logical point. God is big and can do anything. No one in the group seemed inclined to believe these ‘days’ in the beginning were 24 hours long. We noticed other things too. One student remarked that no dinosaurs are mentioned- perhaps they aren’t real? I responded by noting that rabbits aren’t mentioned either, then disavowed belief in rabbits!
Several in the group came to the conclusion that evolution is possible only within a species, and that one creature turning into another makes no sense at all. As a corollary they saw man as somehow different and special- created separately. We talked about this briefly in a small small group of three. Myself and another fan of evolution wondered/wandered into a chat about the big bang and the universe. He had the thought, ‘If life was found on another planet, the bible would collapse.’ Maybe it would. So much hangs on humans being special. How would we react if this was not the case?
In the end, we didn’t all agree on how to take Genesis. Really the only conclusion we could make was for each of us to decide what we believe. I think it was a good conclusion.
The rest of the large group lectures were alright. One in particular was very disappointing though. It was called something like “How can I know what the bible really says- won’t people twist it?” The talk was rambley and unclear. I think the points are summed up as follows: 1) God’s understanding will always be higher than our own 2) pray about it, and 3) read the words and you’ll get it. That last point was articulated the worst. In my notes I wrote “nouns, verbs, therefores” and I remember it was pretty disjointed at the end. Clarity was not my only complaint however. Our speaker was obviously not a fan of what’s called biblical criticism. Biblical criticism and biblical scholarship seek to find historical information about a book of the bible. They try to answer questions about when and why a book was written. Sometimes it reveals an author you weren’t expecting. This was not in the talk, but I’m familiar with letters from ‘Paul’ that biblical scholars think were written by someone else as an homage to Paul. Well this talk made it clear the biblical scholars were the enemy. They determined John is less reliable than the other three gospels. How dare they! And our speakers refuted this by… saying it was wrong. That’s not much ammo for me if I was interested in arguing down the atheists and religious softies.
There was also a very discouraging point in the talk when the speaker addressed the ills of ‘rationalism and scientism’. As far as I am aware scientism is not a word. He said these two evil forces dismiss miracles because science doesn’t allow miracles like resurrection. Instead the resurrection is treated like the spirit or idea of Jesus living on. According to our speaker that is very very bad. Personally, I love, new wider interpretations of the mystical stories. I don’t think it necessarily means the stories with lose their power. If anything that power is more accessible. I heard a version of the loaves fishes miracle told this way: Jesus begins passing around the bits of food they have. As the baskets go past people they begin pulling food from their pockets to add for those with less. So many are inspired to add to the baskets that the bits leftover are more than when they started. What a great testament to human goodness. Almost the stone soup story. According to our speaker, this type of story is dangerously wrong.
The speaker then addressed the fixing of the biblical canon. I know some of this story. There was no fixed bible for the early church. They used any number of scrolls or books which were floating around at the time. I suppose you could pick your faves. The church decided to pick certain books to keep and throw the rest out the window. As this was a human endeavor, my assumption would be this was done by folks arguing and asserting power and so on. Our speaker contends that no politics were allowed in and the church fathers were guided solely by the Holy Spirit. Which is funny, because you’d think God would consider doing that for us today on even a single issue- letting the Holy Spirit guide us all to harmony without political bickering. Unless of course politics were in play back in the day, which I suspect.
Our speaker also talked at some length about biblical rules and what their importance should be. He rightly said that Jesus had a few run-ins with the rule-obsessed Pharisees. Jesus and his disciples skipped washing up before a meal. Because that’s in the Jewish law, the Pharisees called Jesus out. Jesus told them that cleanliness doesn’t come from from stupid little rules. Jesus said we cannot leave people high and dry when they are in need. These points I actually think are well taken. We should toss the cleanliness rules that bar us needlessly. Among these are restrictive sex rules dictating how, when, and who to sleep with. We also need to take care of those in need, in poverty, or in other terrible situations. I will not put words in the speakers mouth. But many religious groups seem to miss these key points when it comes to say, gay marriage and welfare programs.
So this particular speaker wasn’t my favorite. But the topic of gay marriage (is this like my new favo topic?) brings me to another conversation I had with a student. It was brief but pretty interesting. I was wondering to him whether God really wants us to wait until marriage to have sex. In at least a few cases married people may find out they aren’t compatible. Are we so obsessed with waiting that we believe God wants us to be unhappy and stuck? If God is a nice guy he doesn’t want us unhappy right? I also said that speaker (the one I described already) was being naive or stupid when he asserted the biblical rules are not about controlling women. I wasn’t there in biblical times, so it’s possible they aren’t meant that way, but that’s what they do. Just based on pregnancy ‘proving’ a woman’s transgression this seems obvious. Not one single man will ever be pregnant, so they already have less worry about being ‘caught’. The student I spoke with seemed a fan of marriage. The last thing I said was, “Now that gay people can marry, we can all just accept them I guess.” He seemed surprised at the statement. Maybe he hadn’t considered the juxtaposition of the ideas together. His answer was ambiguous; he seemed to be truly thinking about how to answer the idea of homosexuality as ok inside a committed relationship. And that was basically it.
The weekend was a lot of good talks and interesting folks. I remembered some of the reasons I like retreats. I think the normal church crowd is going to include those who are wondering, those who don’t care, those who are thinking deeply and those who aren’t. A retreat has the bonus of being all people who want to answer questions of faith. They are all interested and nearly all will be rather engaging to talk to. They really want to deepen their faith and be a better human being by being a better Christian. No one ambivalent is going to take the time from their busy life to go on some retreat they don’t care about. And I got some of the in-depth talks I was craving. I think size helped too. If I can find some relatively small retreats to attend in the future those will go to the top of my effort list.
PS: It had slipped my mind, but I was part of a really hilarious game of life. You know, the board game? I was the banker for the game. The other players made some observations about the nature of the game. It’s really about making money. And they force you to get married and have kids. A bit of a narrow view I always thought, which is why I banked. One of the players made an extremely low salary, constantly landed on squares for babies, and spent money (again landing on squares dictating this) like it was going out of style. I told her she had a shopping addiction. At the end of the game we all reviewed our ‘life tiles’ and hers included a Nobel prize. How she had the time stumps me, but at least she made the world a better place.