I promised, in my last post, to explain my current spiritual framework. It consists of three principles.
- Practices that connect me to God are more important than beliefs that attempt to explain God.
- I have a responsibility to break the chains of my ancestors.
- I have the right to amend my spiritual practices at any time.
I think each principle deserves its own post, so for now, I’ll talk more about practices vs. beliefs.
When I became an atheist, “orthopraxic” became one of my favorite words. It’s a fancy word for describing faiths and spiritualities that center around rituals, practices, and other stuff loosely categorized as “what you do,” as opposed to “orthodoxic,” which would describe faiths that center around dogma, correct interpretations, and other stuff loosely categorized as “what you think.”
Conservative Evangelical Christianity tends to be intensely orthodoxic. What you do matters a little, in the sense of how it impacts the trifling affairs of the real world, and the slightly more real sense of how it demonstrates the sincerity of your inner beliefs. But really, the most important thing is to understand reality correctly; who God is, what he has done, what happens after we die, what is moral and what is immoral.
Part of what made atheism so comfortable to me, when I was first leaving my childhood faith, was that in a way they agreed. They felt that orthopraxic faith was hardly faith at all. It was hard for them to know what to do with, say, somebody who eats kosher and follows Jewish calendar and abstains from technology during Shabbat, but is honestly unsure what happens after we die and okay with that lack of certainty. Or somebody who wears a hijab and prays towards Mecca five times a day, but is not sure God really hates gays, and figures it’s better to love everyone unconditionally. Or someone who makes spell jars and, when told their affects can all be attributed to self-fulfilling prophecy and placebo, simply shrugs and says, “if that’s how it works that’s how it works, so long as it works.”
Those people drive hardcore atheists crazy. Not all of them, but the ones who are intensely vocal and proud do tend to dislike religion that isn’t founded on a firm, quantifiable set of beliefs and principles. I’ve heard a surprisingly large number of atheists actually admit they prefer bigoted fundamentalists to those accepting, wishy-washy moderates, because “at least with the bigots you know where you stand.”
As a baby atheist who was also queer, and newly cut off from nearly everyone I knew growing up, I couldn’t really afford that. I’m not even going to say I was a good enough person to see through that bullshit; I was just too broke and lonely to turn down genuine, supportive friendship from any corner. So I ended up making friends who were Christians, atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans… people with no beliefs in common, except the belief that how they acted in life mattered far more than what they believed.
Once I decided I believed that God exists after all, I realized that it was the people who defined God least who ended up with the most genuine spiritual connection.
To explain this, imagine the friends of a guy named Joe. Some friends think the most important thing is to have time set aside to spend time with him. One friend does this by texting funny memes back and forth, and setting up in-person hangouts every now and then. Another sees him monthly at a group brunch. One almost never sees him in person, but they meet up online to live-chat and play computer games together. Then there are friends of Joe who think the most important thing is to intimately know everything about him. Whenever they get together, they make him take endless personality tests, recount childhood memories, answer hypotheticals about what he would take to a desert island, and so on. If any one of them finds out something that contradicts the other, it becomes a contest to work out who is right and who is wrong, because the person who knows the most about Joe is clearly Joe’s best friend.
I’d predict that, for your average Joe, the following things would happen.
- Joe is a complicated person. He is always changing. He also is always himself, no matter how much his life changes. He gives up hobbies for years before taking them back up again. His eyesight worsens but his wheat allergy remains the same. He can be very forgiving when people upset him but will never forgive someone who hurts a friend. If you see him at work, you will never hear him swear. If you do a raid with him on an MMORPG, you will think his favorite phrase is “eat my nuts!” So, while Joe is always Joe, no two of his friends will describe him exactly the same way.
- Not every detail about Joe’s life is equally important. It’s sweet to remember his birthday, but if all you know is “sometime in June” and you send a prompt RSVP to his party, it’s good enough. The friends who learn gluten-free recipes to feed him are lifesavers. The one guy who will proudly recite which of Joe’s baby teeth he lost, in chronological order? Downright creepy.
- The people who just regularly spend time with Joe, doing things that make both of them happy, tend to do way better at remembering the important things about Joe and applying that knowledge in ways that genuinely matter to him. They have an authentic, two-way relationship with him. They also never put him in the middle of a weird dispute about which backpack he wore on his first day of kindergarten.
- Are the people who treat him like a walking trivia game even his friends? Because I was cringing even as I wrote about them. A voluntary personality test now and then can be fun, but too many can make you feel like you’re trying to whittle yourself down to nothing. It’s irritating enough when a sheet of paper makes you feel that way. A friend should know better.
I don’t see how anything true for Average Joe is less true for God. Or Spirit, or the Divine Force at the Core of the Universe, or whatever you want to call it. Whatever that thing is, it is far more complex than a dude named Joe. If the goal is to know everything about it, it is an unattainable goal, which ultimately forces the two of you farther apart. If the goal is to have a relationship with it, then, like a relationship with a guy named Joe, the important thing is not to get every detail right, but to develop a connection that is genuine.
You don’t build a genuine connection by memorizing facts. Memorizing your Bible and your catechism and making rulings on an obscure bit of dogma won’t help. Just spend time with God. Do things together. Find the practices.
The past year has been trial and error to find practices that help me connect. I identify as a witch because that word describes the practices that have helped create the most authentic connection. I’ll go more into the specifics of those in the third part. First, I want to go into the one part of my faith that is a bit orthodoxic; my relationship with my ancestors.