Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pride and Shame

I have been given much in life.  My parents had done well in life, and were able to provide well for me.  I am intelligent, tall, and I have a knack for getting along well with most people.  I identify myself first and foremost as a smart person, and I feel proud of my intelligence.

And yet, there is little reason that I should feel proud of what I have been given, any more than I should feel proud of a car that I won in a lottery.  God has granted me a great gift.  He has not granted the same to others.

By the same token, I feel shamed of my limitations.  I am a little overweight.  I have never been in the best physical shape.  I feel awkward and uncertain in many social situations.

In academia, I am immersed in a world of smart people, people who will challenge every idea that I have.  At times I will encounter people smarter than me.  Living in this world has dulled my pride, and perhaps deepened my shame.  After all, I have never identified myself as strong, but my identity is wrapped up in being intelligent.  When I find people smarter than me, it cuts at my very core.

Pride is a great sin, perhaps because of this question of identity.  My identity should be that of a servant.  I live to serve God and my fellow man, and I have not been doing a good job of serving.

Perhaps shame is a sin as well.  It can consume you, if you let it.  If your purpose in life is to overcome your faults (and avoid shame) or maintain your identity (and retain pride), you are not committing your life to service.  It is not a sin to make yourself a better person -- I would argue that God gives us this imperative -- but it should never come before God or before your fellow man.

And so I will work on both humility and acceptance of my faults.  I have a ways to go; at the moment, I am at best sheepishly proud of my abilities.  But better to be sheepishly proud than falsely humble.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Style of Prayer

Coming from a Catholic tradition to Vintage Faith, one of my biggest adjustments was to the style of prayer.  In Catholic mass, our prayers are highly formal.  Everyone knows the words, and if you don't, they are usually printed down somewhere handy.  Even the free-form prayers have a certain formal quality about them.  A speaker will read from a printed card, perhaps something along the lines of "we pray for the suffering families in Egypt...".  The speaker ends with "we pray to the Lord" and the congregation immediately responds with "Lord hear our prayer".

In Vintage Faith services, and even more so in some of the prayer groups I have been in, prayer is entirely different.  The prayers are almost always free-form, unscripted, passionate, and llllooooooonnnnnnngggggg.

I avoided praying with others at Vintage for as long as I could put it off courteously, but there came a point that I needed to join in.  Gradually, I have become accustomed to the style.  It no longer strikes me as odd when people come near to tears in their prayers, and I have gotten more comfortable praying out loud off the cuff.

I'll admit that I still prefer praying in the Catholic style.  When I pass by Holy Cross (the Catholic Church in town), I'll sneak into the chapel, light a candle, and pray to God silently.  I know God does not need the candle, the sign of the cross, or any of the other ceremonious trappings of the Catholic Church.  And I know that I do not need them either.  Nonetheless, they make me feel somewhat at home.

But I've also gained an appreciation for the protestant style of prayer.  Heartfelt spoken prayers bare your soul to your fellow Christians, and help bind us together more tightly as a community of believers.

The difference in style of prayer is not quite as stark as I make it out here.  Vintage will occasionally read the Our Father aloud.  Also, the two most devout Catholics that I know routinely pray out loud in an unscripted form.  God does not demand that we all pray to him in the same manner, so long as we all pray to him.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Reading the Bible

I've made it a point to start reading the Bible on a daily basis.  As a Catholic, I've had the Bible read to me every Sunday for a while.  And having gone to Catholic school, I've also read a fair amount of it.

Now I am attending Protestant services.  And while the Bible is cited frequently, it is rarely ever read during the service.  (Odd, given the 'sola scriptura' view of many Protestants).  I also realize that there are large sections of the Bible that I have never read (particularly some of the more... interesting... parts of the Old Testament).

I've started reading the Old Testament and the New Testament simultaneously.  So far, I've read Mathew and Mark from the Gospels, and through the book of Judges.  And as I have read, something has occurred to me.

The Bible is a difficult book to read for Christians.  If I were an atheist, I could simply shrug at descriptions of the early Jews slaughtering women and children.  It would be easy to write off those descriptions as belonging to their time -- a moral code for a more vicious age.  In his confessions, Augustine seems to take a similar view, arguing that what is right in one age is not necessarily right in another (though there are universal truths that hold in all ages).

Even in the New Testament there are many strange quotes.  In Mathew 15:26, Jesus tells a Gentile women that "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."  In other words, he initially refuses to help her because she is not a Jew.  In another story Jesus curses a fig tree for not bearing figs.

I find tales like these to be harder to interpret.  And as a Christian, I cannot ignore them.  I must reconcile them to my faith, or abandon it.

The Bible is rife with challenging passages.  Atheists would argue that the Bible is evidently flawed and wrong.  Logically, I should leave Christianity and the Bible behind and seek truth elsewhere.

And here is where I break from the atheists.  As an academic, my life is full of contradictions and challenges that I must resolve.  If I surrendered at the first hint of difficulties, I would never accomplish anything.  Understanding the Bible is no different in this for me.  While I don't claim to have the answers, I am looking for them.

Monday, January 24, 2011

First steps of my journey

I don't expect this blog to be of any great value to the world.  That expectation is the only thing that allows me to post anything at all.

I have been tempted to write a blog about my religious journey for a while.  The idea of writing something akin to St Augustine's confessions was a glamorous idea.  I fancy myself a capable writer and a sound thinker.  However, when I tried to write something...  it was rubbish.

So, with more humble expectations and no promises, I've decided to start today.

I have been a Christian as long as I can remember.  My family is Catholic, and they sent me to a Catholic grade school and junior high.  This beginning had pluses and minuses for my spiritual education.  I was surrounded by other Catholics and I was taught a great deal about my faith.  But while being surrounded by other Catholics makes you comfortable with your faith, it also leaves you unused to defending your faith.

I went to a public high school -- the local Catholic school was a good school, but no better than the public school, and a lot more expensive.  I had a great time in high school, and I still keep in touch with many of the same people.  I also for the first time encountered a large number of people who were not Christian, and some vehemently anti-Christian.  I did not deny my faith, but I learned to keep it to myself.

To this day, I tend to be shy about my faith.  The popular conception of Christians is not a good one.  Admittedly, some Christians have worked hard to build up this reputation -- through the sin of judgment and through a refusal to listen to opposing viewpoints, Christians have often been, to be blunt, mean and ignorant.  Until people know me well enough to know that I am not mean and (hopefully) not too ignorant, I don't advertise my faith.  Perhaps my strategy is a good one for improving the reputation of Christians, albeit slowly.  Perhaps I am just a coward.  Perhaps both.

I went to Santa Clara University for my undergrad degree.  Santa Clara is a Jesuit university, and typical of Jesuit schools, they required me to take 3 religion courses.  My faith became somewhat more sophisticated, but at the same time weaker.  I stopped going to church almost totally, to the consternation of my family.

In the years since, I sometimes started going to mass again, though usually never for more than a few weeks.  I enjoyed sleeping in too much on Sundays, and Saturday nights I was usually busy.

Living in San Jose, I encountered people from all over the world.  Many of my closest friends were from foreign countries, and most of them were not Christian.  Learning about other faiths can be enriching, but it is challenging to hold to your faith when none of those around you believe as you do.

I decided to return to grad school.  I am now a PhD student at UC Santa Cruz.

Grad school will either make you an atheist or a theologian.  There is little ground in between.  Every idea you hold will be challenged by those around you.  That process will either strengthen or destroy your faith.

I began to go to mass again.  In part, there were Sunday evening services on campus which were convenient.  In part, I was looking to form more connections with other students, since I knew no one.

I did not find the masses particularly satisfying, in large part since the bulk of students were undergraduates.  That was not unexpected, but still a little disappointing.  A friend convinced me to visit her church, Vintage Faith.  It was a protestant church, but several friends were going (including an atheist, an agnostic, and another Catholic) so I felt comfortable.  (My friend is a great proselytizer).

Vintage Faith is....  different.  Coming from a Catholic background, rich in ceremony and ritual, Vintage felt like a town hall meeting.  People brought in coffee drinks (from the attached cafe) and there were giant screens with PowerPoint slides.  I am pretty sure that those things are some kind of sin according to Catholicism.

Vintage's rituals are also frankly hysterical.  "First, I want you all to pat your head, to symbolize your desire for knowledge of the Lord.  And rub your belly, to signify your hunger for His word.  And hop on one foot..."

There is also a bit more of the "Yay God!  Isn't God awesome?!" cheer-leading than I care for.  Nonetheless, Vintage does several things extremely well.  The sermons (when not of the 'Yay God' variety) are very enlightening, and they excel at building community.  I have always considered those to be the two most important components of any church gathering, and so I have made Vintage my religious home.  I still feel out of place at times, but I feel that Vintage has brought me closer to Christ.

My plan for this blog is to serve as a journal of my spiritual journey.  I do not know where it will end.  I hope that it may be a good read for any who come across it, but for the most part, I am writing it for myself.

God bless.