As of this moment, I am about 40,000 words into this project, having made a January 2021 resolution to write this book. So far, these words are just notes and ideas, links to other thoughts and ideas, all jotted down and often in the sequence that I encountered the thought in the material I was reading at the time. I had no coherent plan, just a nagging thought that this endeavour needed to be started. I had no specific goal, other than to sit down and to write a story of personal discovery, and perhaps hoping others might find in it an echo of their own journey in spirituality. I hoped to be disciplined enough to write something daily, in whatever form - an anecdote, a story, a critique of a news article, a thumbnail sketch to illustrate an idea, a point of view etc. Every time I sat down at the computer in my Hobbit Hole (my creative/pondering space), I wanted to write something. So far, it has been spotty and haphazard, but if starting was the first goal, I can now check that box off.
Whether it all ends up as a book picked up by a real publisher, or becomes self-published (or as I jested with a few friends who inquired how it was going, I replied, that if I get this done by Christmas I can say it was "Elf-Published") or remains a gathering of more random thoughts published on the internet as blog entries such as this - that all remains to be seen. So far, it is going much slower than I anticipated - much like the way I clean the house.
I wanted to title this writing effort, Beyond Dogma, writing from the perspective that passing on a body of knowledge, especially religious or spiritual knowledge, as though it were the be-all and end-all of human understanding in this area, and that this is not doing people any service, rather it is keeping some people stuck. Unfortunately for me, the Dalai Lama has a book called Beyond Dogma. I hope that is the case of great minds think alike! For me, dogma, should more rightly be viewed as, “What I think I know and what I believe to be true at this moment.” It should not imply or confer any claims to absolute authority or to be any sort of summa: a compendium of knowledge relevant for all people and and all time.
I also wanted to explore the idea that faith and belief, if that is what someone chooses for themselves, cannot be as complicated as the Church has historically made it out to be. Faith is not in the rituals, the stained glass, the building and the robes, and crosses or even the music and language of hymns and prayers. Those are merely symbols of specific brands of traditions but, somehow, we have allowed them to become guardians and custodians of faith (not only in Christianity, but in other faith traditions too). For example, some divisions arise because we are told we have to read a specific translation of the Bible (King James, anyone?) or to listen to this specific preacher, or to attend that church or denomination, or to pray this way, or to use these words or to sing these hymns or use this style of praise music. These structures keep us all stuck, and they are often corrupt, though expressing good-intentions all the while. I have come to the belief faith can't be this complicated. In other words, engaging in a personal relationship with God was never intended to be ritualized or formalized into the religious traditions we insist others follow. If it was this complicated, we'd all be lost, in my opinion.
I wanted to explore how the Church has seemingly been corrupted by a slow slide into the "only we have the truth" factions within the church. Creating institutions is the result of making exclusive truth claims, and that is an anathema, I think. Anytime we forbid anyone else by invoking exclusive truth claims we're not following the essence of Jesus' teaching, "Forbid them not to come unto me". There are no preconditions for faith. You simply come, "Just As I Am, Without One Plea..."
Though this is where my thinking is at the moment, I am aware that I was part of the institutionalization of belief. I was propagating the very ideas that kept me stuck. Now, I am interested in exploring how I changed my views on faith, rituals and tradition as frameworks within which my personal faith was supposed to be functioning. I no longer embrace the comfortable pew, the hymns, the scripture readings, prayers and rituals, as purveyors of the infallible, inerrant, immutable truth that God wants everyone to know - a truth for all people, for all eternity. Fear that this may not be the case, that we may be wrong, is what keeps us adhering to dogma that no longer serves up meaningful belief in the 21st century. It may not adequately and critically address the ongoing conflicts between faith and science.
Finally, I wanted to stir the waters around the concept of God, and wonder aloud whether God can be confined, defined, and known fully, in the 66 books of the volume we call The Bible. I will not go into questions concerning the existence of God, but will instead begin with God's existence as expressed in the Prime Mover cosmological argument found in western philosophy. I wanted to launch into this exploration using an idea in a book I encountered in my seminary days: Grace Unlimited (Pinnock, 1975). Regardless of the rules that officials of the various spiritual traditions declare must be followed, and irrespective of the beliefs and doctrines that are supposed to be strictly adhered to, Grace , I think, has always been more than sufficient to overcome any personal deficit in these areas of life. I wanted to explore my growing awareness that any teaching that restricted, or acted as an intermediary to, our direct access to the divine and the work of Grace in our lives, was placing an impediment before us, limiting our experience and understanding of just how great God is. Though I am reluctant to throw Jesus away with the used baptismal waters, I am finding adherence to the literal "Red Letter" words purporting to be the actual words of Jesus (as uplifting as they are) to be an unnecessary encumbrance upon individual faith. Is it the historian in me that wonders both about the doctrine claiming that the Scriptures are "inerrant and infallible in the autographs" and about what purpose such a doctrine may be rooted in?
Throughout the entire book, I am trying to explore myself, and my own history of personal belief, from my baptism as an infant and confirmation into Anglicanism, to the idea that immersion as an adult may be a fuller expression of God's grace and may be a superior belief, followed by a need to find and express the gifts of the Spirit through Pentecostalism, dabbling with perfectionism and holiness in the Nazarene tradition, and finally arriving to where I am now, living apart from organized faith traditions altogether and choosing my own adventure in spirituality. I also want to infuse the story of my journey with my experiences as a young person enveloped by the zeal of a “born-again” evangelicalism, and later as an adult, through my various roles of “service” within the institution and community of the Church, serving as an evangelist, a worship leader, or an elder, for instance, and weave throughout this spiritual tale, the years of my career in public education, especially trying to find meaning in my final dozen years in the classroom, trying to teach abused, addicted, and marginalized youth.
So, too ambitious? Too vague? No audience interested in such a tale? I think I have answered, to my own satisfaction at least, the question of the purpose for attempting to write anything at all, and that is simply because, as with recording music, I simply want to try. Now, as with my music, there is never a guarantee that anyone else is interested in what I create, whether music, visual art, or literature. But that is an entirely different question. The worst possible outcome (that there is no one interested or who cares) is still a validation of the process, at least to me, because, in the end, a book will exist that did not exist before, and this will be a legacy. Long past the time when I am able to be coherent and engage in reflective, memory-based writing of accounts of a life lived, there will be this document for the record. Will it be cherished and read? Hopefully. But whether it is read, or cherished, or set aside on a dusty shelf until it is eventually discarded, it will exist.
Although I have tried to retell the personal moments with accuracy, there is no guarantee that the details are a fully accurate historical record. Rather, the anecdotes and stories are only as accurate as I can make them told from my perspective. Some things will inevitably be omitted from this history, by design or by accident. Such is the privilege of being the writer, though I am aware that, for whatever reasons, aspects were intentionally omitted, there is grace sufficient for the stumbles in life.
So, back to a working title for this effort – since "Beyond Dogma" has been taken. What about, “Abandoning Dogma and Embracing Uncertainty”? Or this one suggested by my dear cousin who has come along for much of the deeper, meatier parts of this adventure: “Led by curiosity: how the study of dogma took me down the rabbit hole. “ Or perhaps this one, and idea that seems to be forming through the mists of thought: The Grace of Uncertainty – A Journey Past Dogma Into Agnosticism
Audio version found here :