Anyone who’s read even the first few pages of Genesis knows the Bible is riddled with contradictions and questionable behavior written about someone we assume to be an all-knowing and loving God. In the first two chapters alone, the authors can’t agree on what day plants were created, or if man arrived before or after the animals. Throughout the Old Testament, God assists in genocide, He burns people to death, and He orders severe punishments for seemingly innocuous crimes like wearing dissimilar clothing material or being careless with menstrual discharge.

Non-believers often seize upon the Bible’s apparent inaccuracies and atrocities when casting doubt upon God’s existence, and it’s difficult to argue with them. If these are the divinely inspired Words of God, why should there be any mistakes at all? Have such mistakes been placed there to test our faith? Is God’s mysterious behavior a conscious act on His part to separate His true followers from the pretenders? And if so, what would be the point of such a test? Surely God must know well ahead of the rest of us who will succeed and who will falter.

Questions of this nature have plagued man for as long as he could conceive of himself having been borne from supreme beings. Biological at the source, but philosophical in practice, nearly all of us carry doubts about the reasons for our existence. Are we here for some purpose? Is there order to the universe? Are we alone?

We do not want to be alone.

And so, in ways too numerous to count, we seek spiritual peace. Some of us read only the oldest, pre-Christian writings of the Tanakh. Others follow the iron will of the Catholic church, at least until one day some of them decide there is a way to be closer to God. Some of us move across the ocean, far from the original holy land, and find guidance in a reinvented Christianity with new holy lands much closer to home. We pay enormous sums of money to an organization founded by a pulp science fiction author and try to find the ancient alien inside each of us.

For most of my life, I was a lukewarm Catholic. My childhood attendance at Mass was reluctant, and once I left for college, I swore I’d never go again. But then I married a Catholic woman who gently encouraged me to return. Soon enough I’d fallen back into the routine and gradually became immersed in the community of my church, chairing fund raising events, playing basketball in the school gym, hitting the links with some of those same buddies. On Sundays, the Father would select a story from the Bible, usually the New Testament, and deliver a homily that challenged parishioners to be tolerant of their fellow man. Judging by the various conversations I either participated in or overheard among my friends there, most folks listened politely to the Father and agreed with him on principle because he was, after all, discussing the Word of God. I don’t know many who studied the Word with any level of detail, though. Being a member of the church was simply a fact of life, no different than a native Bostonian being a fan of the Red Sox.

My rejection of Christianity and organized religion in general coincided roughly with the election of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI on this very day six years ago. Ratzinger’s positions on homosexuality and condom use caused me to reexamine my own, and coupled with America’s (too) slow acceptance of gay rights, I began to seriously doubt the authority of religious figures whose basis for morality was scripture I already knew contained many structural and moral ambiguities.

I became angry with the Church for what I perceived to be hypocrisy. The Vatican coddled ordained sex offenders but condemned a wide swath of humanity who chose to employ birth control or engage in consensual sex with adults of the same gender. But soon I realized these individual political positions were symptomatic of my larger problem within organized religion, which was to conceal prejudice behind the unassailable rules of a magical supreme being. And it wasn’t just Catholics. Or Christians. Or believers in various Abrahamic religions. It was anyone who brandished spiritual belief as a weapon, no matter the source material.

And once the curtain fell, all the absurdities I’d ignored for years mushroomed into unavoidable obstacles. How could adults in the 21st century, with so much information and contradictory evidence at their disposal, still believe in a magical man in the sky? When did we decide it was acceptable to merge pagan symbols like bunny rabbits and colored eggs with the rebirth of God’s zombie son? Why did Christian Americans, so proudly individual, so unworthy of charity and state support, advocate a spiritual belief system whose core message was eternal salvation? How on earth could capitalism and Christianity coexist? Even thrive?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I doubt I ever will. But after a period of spiritual readjustment, I realized those answers were not important. The path to personal enlightenment and self-actualization was not to understand why others do the things they do or believe what they believe. And it was certainly not my place to judge others for what they believed.

What matters to me is what I believe. Nothing more.

Every one of you reading this has been blessed with the miracle of life, with consciousness; you are privileged to be a member of the only known animal species on earth capable of asking such questions. But with that privilege comes a curse, the knowledge of your own mortality, and the possibility that life is nothing more than a tiny, accidental mutation of cosmic evolution.

Navigating such a universe is not an easy task, and none of us should be blamed for the paths we choose to peace, as long as those paths don’t infringe upon the rights of others.

When I think of my own path, I think of Genesis 2 and 3, which introduce the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit from this tree, which opened their eyes to their own nakedness. In return, God banished the two from the Garden of Eden and cursed them to a gritty, mortal existence. Their rebellious behavior constitutes our original fall from grace.

But to me, in these opening chapters, the Bible tells me everything I need to know about Christianity. Given the choice between nuanced knowledge and simple bliss, between rebellion and obedience, I’ll take the rebellious knowledge every time. In my estimation, humankind’s questions about the nature of itself, our rejection of the status quo, our ever-upward understanding of our tiny-yet-significant place in this beautiful universe, is the true miracle.

Grace isn’t something from which we’ve fallen. Grace is something to which we aspire, that we strive toward every day. If we ever manage to get there, ever so humbly, God will be waiting for us, a welcoming smile on his face.

Because in the end, God is us. He’s the best we have to offer.

That any of us have to offer.

You.

Me.

Anyone who aspires to grace.

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THOMAS PHILLIPS is a screenwriter living deep in the heart of flyover country. During the day he's a bleeding edge thought leader who reaches hungrily for low-hanging fruit. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter. He also just published his first ever short story on Amazon.com.

32 responses to “Aspire to Grace”

  1. Becky Palapala says:

    Well, really, biblical inconsistencies would represent a problem with Christianity, not any sort of evidence for the non-existence of God.

    Then again, often–usually–that is what people who have a professed problem with God (at least in America) actually have: A problem with Christianity. Or at least certain interpretations thereof. A struggle with their own moral/ethical/cultural roots, etc. Rarely, at least in America, will you find an Atheist who gets quite as outspoken or upset about Hindus and/or their 300 million Gods as he/she will about Christianity’s one. It’s ironic, at least I think so, since it technically represents a kind of monotheistic atheism. A scenario in which the Christian God is not the only God who exists, but the only God worth insisting doesn’t exist.

    Anyway. Point being that problems with the Bible are not necessarily problems with the existence of God at all. If someone rendered an inaccurate picture of your life story or personality or personal history, it wouldn’t mean that you didn’t exist.

    How on earth could capitalism and Christianity coexist?

    Max Weber theorized that Christianity–or at least one flavor of it–is directly and rationally responsible for capitalism as an offshoot (however ironically) of Protestantism’s discouragement of ostentatious outward displays of wealth. Therefore, people had a mindset in which wealth should be discreet, hidden–invested–not spent on visible things (commodities). The end result was capital.

    The work is quite conspicuously titled, if you’re ever interested in looking into it: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Shit. Totally wrong use of commodity. Anyway. You get my point.

      • Thomas says:

        Thanks for your comment, Becky. You are correct to point out that my path to rejecting God as I previously understood him is only my own. Though I could have researched other religions and people to understand what concerns might cause them to reject or alter their own religious beliefs, I felt it was important to only describe my own experience, since I believe these experiences to be highly individual.

        Though my wording at the end seems to indicate I am an atheist, that isn’t exactly correct. I think it’s impossible to know if there is a God or not, which puts me closer to agnosticism. In any case, this essay represents only how I feel, not any sort of claim to objective reality. (Although, interestingly, my friends in other Western-based societies report that religion is nowhere near as prominent as it is in the U.S. While, on the other hand, God and religion are clearly integral to the lives of many in central and southeast Asia and other areas.)

        A discussion about capitalism is a whole other essay, but Weber’s theories do sound intriguing. The idea of capitalism surely sounds better on paper than the way it often seems to play out. From personal observation, the cycle of credit and debt seems to have caused almost the reverse to happen here in the U.S., as conspicuous consumption and ostentatious displays of wealth and pseudo-wealth are not exactly in short supply. I’d love to have a longer discussion about these ideas but I fear my understanding of economics might not be up to the challenge. Maybe I should read the book first.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, I guess I meant it more in the spirit of the earlier bits of your essay.

          What “people” do and “some people” say.

          Just wanted to make sure that everyone’s clear that there’s a distinction between taking a religious stance and taking a stance on the existence/non-existence of God.

          The two are easily and often confused. One is a theological question, the other is a philosophical/logical one. If that makes any sense.

          Anyway, the beauty of Weber is that he was not an economist. He was a sociologist. So it’s relatively high-theory and really only requires the ability to think critically about ideas.

          I suppose it could be talked about in terms of economic theory, but it’s really more of a sociocultural/historical theory about the ways in which sacred ideals and ideation can indirectly and unconsciously manipulate profane socio-cultural concerns (as opposed to direct attempts to impose religious values in secular arenas, say, via legislation).

        • Thomas says:

          It totally makes sense. Thinking about the Bible is what led me to look outside of religion and think about the existential-type questions.

          Something could be out there. Can’t dispute that. It just seems to me the explanations we’ve come up with so far seem inadequate.

          To me, anyway.

    • Dana says:

      http://religions.pewforum.org/reports

      I’d say that American atheists are most likely to take on the Bible and Christianity because that’s what we know. If Hindus start showing up on my doorstep with their version of The Watchtower, I’ll start ridiculing their Gods too.

      Ha!

      Also, it’s boring only being able to argue with .4 percent of the population.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Sure. Like I said. Arguing with their roots and their culture.

        But none of that changes the fact that an argument against Christianity OR Hinduism doesn’t suffice as an argument against the existence of God/Gods, which is the problem with any argument for Atheism that focuses narrowly on one religion or religious text or group or another. It’s logically bereft. It can’t function in that capacity.

        That’s more the point.

        The only arguments in favor of Atheism that deserve serious consideration are necessarily non-denominational and fairly objective, always favoring logic and sometimes bordering on the scientific–or at least the theoretical scientific.

        The second one starts railing on the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Westboro baptists or whoever is contemptible in America today, s/he’s not talking about the existence or non-existence of God any more. It’s a simple expression of disdain for a particular belief about God among a group of others. At that point the discussion has nothing to do with the existence or non-existence of god. That’s just politics.

  2. Brad Listi says:

    This is great, Thomas. I, too, was raised Catholic but haven’t been to church since I was a teenager. I never remember liking it or feeling comfortable with it.

    I go back and forth on how I feel about it. On the one hand, pretty much all religions, at their best, in some way point to a higher level of goodness and awareness somehow. And religion can perform an aspirin-like function. If it’s a generally benign observance, a belief in God and a religion can make life less painful and more tolerable–sure. It can “remove the headache.” I can see that. I can understand why someone would want to go that route.

    But I also read guys like Hitchens and listen to guys like Bill Maher and find myself nodding. So much of religion is patently absurd, and so much of it causes such dysfunction and destruction and so on.

    My wife and I had our first kid last year, and I wondered if becoming a father would change my feelings any — if I would feel some sort of shift, some sort of obligation to bring my daughter up within some sort of spiritual tradition. Answer: not at all. Not in the traditional western sense, anyway. My wife and I are probably going to have her take some meditation classes or something when she’s four or five — but then that has little to do with any religion, per se. Really we just want to trick her into being quiet. 😉

    • Thomas says:

      Thank you, Brad. I agree that religious belief at its best can grease the wheels of the daily grind, so to speak. I suppose this is part of the reason I fell back into the habit of attending Mass. The community aspect reels you in, and then you sort of naturally (for me, lazily) assume your belief in God takes care of pesky existential questions.

      Others take a much more proactive stance in their beliefs. My marriage was torn apart as my wife and I went in different directions about religion. Feelings about this sort of thing can be understandably strong.

      Interesting what you say about becoming a father. I’m sure a lot of lazy churchgoers pick up the habit again when they have kids. It makes sense. I like the idea of taking your daughter to meditation classes. 🙂

      I often wonder how many of us take the time to really examine our beliefs, versus just doing what we’ve always done? Like voting for the same party as your parents. Or never changing your clothing style after college, etc. I guess I’m of the opinion that an unexamined life isn’t worth living. If I’m going to hold a strong point of view about something, I’d like to understand it as well as I can. That makes me think of the Tree of Knowledge again.

  3. Dana says:

    “I guess I’m of the opinion that an unexamined life isn’t worth living. If I’m going to hold a strong point of view about something, I’d like to understand it as well as I can.”

    Exactly.

    The most troubling number on the link above re: Religion in America is near the bottom: “12.1 Nothing in particular.” While I can see that some people might respond that way out of laziness or off the cuff, I would bet you that there are plenty who just never gave it more than a passing thought.

    “Grace isn’t something from which we’ve fallen. Grace is something to which we aspire, that we strive toward every day.” That’s lovely.

    • Thomas says:

      Thank you, Dana. 🙂

      I checked out the link. It’s interesting to see more people self-identify as Mormons than atheists. Non-belief has been around for a lot longer than Mormonism, which was invented by a convicted crook who mixed a lot of Masonic symbolism with the Bible and claimed it was a divinely-inspired work only he could read. With his magic glasses.

  4. dwoz says:

    so the big question:

    Is Grace more like gymnastics, where you’re scored DOWN from a perfect start value…

    …or is Grace more like bowling, where you start at zero, and work up to a perfect score?

    • Thomas says:

      Good question. I’d prefer the latter, I suppose. I don’t like to think of my infant self as perfect, and the first false move begins a long, downward slide toward sinful death.

      What are your thoughts?

      • dwoz says:

        my thoughts?

        that it’s wrong to think of “grace” as being a destination.

        • Thomas says:

          I guess we’re being a bit too literal here. Not a destination but perhaps a way of being one might hope to achieve?

        • Zara Potts says:

          I think ‘Grace’ as a destination is perfect.
          If life is a journey, then grace should be the destination.

        • dwoz says:

          I’m just going with the theme of the piece. Bailing out of religion. I think people pull the ripcord on their faith because they come to the (perhaps valid) conclusion that Heaven (“grace”) as some other place that they will get to and live out eternity, is a fool’s errand.

          That grace is your state of being RIGHT NOW. Happiness isn’t something you can get, it’s something that you have to BE.

        • Zara Potts says:

          Oh, see -that’s interesting to me.
          I don’t think of ‘grace’ as being heaven at all. Perhaps that’s because I was raised with no religion and don’t have the concepts. Grace to me has always been something that I would like to achieve. A perfect acceptance of the world and all its flaws and magnificence. A merciful and compassionate and kind disposition.
          I’m working on it. I still have a mighty long way to go, though.

        • dwoz says:

          additionally, I don’t really think that it’s even about aspiring to mercy, compassion, kindness, etc. either.

          It’s more about being “impeccable.” About doing EVERYTHING in an impeccable way, from how you tie your shoes, to how you breathe, to how you think. Once you’re approaching that state of being impeccable, the qualities of mercy, compassion, kindness, unconditional love just become necessary. They cease being optional.

          As if once you reach a particular plateau, you can no longer leave a wake behind you, it becomes imperative to eliminate the drag…the anchor of ill thoughts and upset people. Which, in a dispassionate and neutral sense, are “obstacles”. Part of making yourself impeccable is making your local sphere of influence impeccable too.

          Then again, maybe it’s time for a beer.

        • Thomas says:

          This is an interesting thread. I can see both points of view. I definitely get that you should strive to make the “now” count, that putting it off or waiting for Heaven is in a way wasting your life.

          I also think that the best way I can be today is hopefully not the best I can be tomorrow. Surely I’ll learn something between now and then, find a slightly better path.

          Either way, I certainly hope grace isn’t something from which we fall before we even have our first conscious thought.

        • Dana says:

          dwoz – definitely think it’s time for a beer. 😉

          I’m with Zara as to the definition of grace. Of course, I’m not and never was Catholic… maybe that’s where the difference lies.

          But beer is good. I hope you’re feeling better dwoz…. you seem really down. Sending anonymous internet hugs. But I really mean them.

        • dwoz says:

          I think most practicing Catholics would find my description of Grace to be way out in the weeds.

          And of course, it’s really not at all in disagreement with Zara, just a bit of semantic hair-splitting perhaps.

          …and thanks!

  5. mutterhals says:

    I’ve never really had any use for faith of any kind, even when I wasn’t an atheist. Actually, I was probably always an atheist, it just took me a long time to admit it. I’m far more comforted by reality, even if it’s the shittiest, worst case scenario imaginable. I am completely devoid of any sort of spirtuality, and I’m sort of fascinated by people who are spiritual, not in the typical sense, but people who claim a belief in a high power or some benevolent force or even man’s inherent goodness. It’s like they are speaking a completely different language.

    Also, I’m fairly comfortable with the idea that I’ll die some day, but I have yet to make peace with the knowledge that everything ends, whether it’s a song, a relationship, an experience, or a feeling. My all time favorite quote is from Terrence McKenna: “Nothing lasts. That’s one thing I think you learn from life, psychedelics, or just paying attention.”

    • Thomas says:

      What amazes me is how people often look at you like you’ve lost your mind when you tell them you prefer the natural world. Even when it means no purpose and no afterlife. You could admit to being a racist pedophile and some people would be less put off.

      I think the idea of a vast, meaningless void is beautiful in its own way. Certainly more awe-inspiring than the idea of a god who believes it’s amusing to watch humans hate and kill each other.

  6. Thomas, have you read Julian Barnes’ Nothing to be Frightened of? It’s an interesting take on this question, namely that a paralyzing fear of death is perhaps reason enough to retain just enough faith to hedge your bets across the afterlife spectrum. And that acknowledging this hypocrisy and bald self-interest is liberating, if not its own narrow theology.

    • Thomas says:

      Thanks, for the recommendation, Sean. I took a look at the book on Amazon and I think I’ll probably order a copy. Cheers!

  7. I was raised Missouri Synod Lutheran, and I can’t remember enjoying much of it. I dreaded the Sundays we had to go to church, and I loathed the after school classes I had to take to be “confirmed” by the church as a pre-teen. Like Brad above, I wondered if having a child would change my perception, but so far I find I’m mostly disturbed by how early they start to teach children the darker parts of the biblical stories.

    For example: even though my son attends kindergarten at a private gymnastics academy, and not a church, he informed me that they put on a play today about “how Jesus died.” As he told me about it, I cringed. He’s barely five, and telling me stories about death and zombies. It leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. I don’t even let him watch the news, and then I send him to school to learn about a guy getting murdered? Awesome. It will be a relief when he starts public school next year.

    I like the nice Golden Rule messages, but why does it always have to get so culty and heavy? I don’t understand why we can’t all just try to be decent people. Why isn’t that enough? Why do we have to form cliques?

    This piece was really interesting, Thomas. Thanks for making me think tonight.

    • Thomas says:

      Thanks for your comment, Tawni. I think it would get on my nerves, that at gymnastics academy, someone there is advancing an agenda of their private beliefs toward impressionable young minds, and doing so without direct parental consent. It’s like brainwashing.

      I’m with you on the Golden Rule stuff, reciprocity, but I don’t care much for the rest. I love this question you posted:

      “I don’t understand why we can’t all just try to be decent people. Why isn’t that enough?”

      Why, indeed?

      • My annoyance peaked this winter when, while watching a Christmas special on television, my son somewhat angrily corrected the show by exclaiming, “Christmas isn’t about love and family, it’s about Jesus and God!” I was aghast. Had we any other alternative, I might have changed schools immediately. But it is nearly impossible to find a non-religious private school in the Tulsa, Oklahoma area (within our budget/driving range). We hoped that maybe because this school was also a state award winning gymnastics academy, the focus would be more on athleticism, but nope. This semester, the kids memorized the books of the Bible rather than knowledge that will help them in school, much to my chagrin.

        Luckily my son is finally old enough to start public kindergarten next year, where I’m hoping they will be able to intellectually challenge a five-year-old who is reading at a second grade level and learning his multiplication tables. Should be interesting.

        • Thomas says:

          The funny thing is, plenty of people would be aghast at your being aghast that your son was referring to Christmas as being about Jesus and God. The most challenging thing about accepting others’ beliefs is when they don’t also accept yours. A Christian might say Jesus and God come before love and family during the holidays, but you might say, “Well, Christians stole those holidays from pagans and replaced them with new, barely-edited versions. And, anyway, what’s so wrong with love and family??”

          Good luck to your son next year. Seems like he’s a sharp one. Multiplication tables at five??

    • dwoz says:

      What on earth!!!????

      They’re teaching how Jesus died at a gymnastics academy? What do they say…that he died trying a Tsukahara without a spotter? that he lost his grip doing giants on the high bar? That he stepped out during his floor routine and cost the team gold?

      • This comment made me snort into the coffee mug I had raised to my mouth. I think there’s a clever short story waiting to be inspired by your comment. You’re funny, dwoz. (:

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