Not long ago, I discovered the writings of this amazing woman. Pema Chödrön is a Buddhist nun who has written books, lectured around the world, and shown many the beautiful teachings of Tibetan Buddhism.
I was reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown which was recommended to me a friend. While that was a terrific read which I highly recommend, its was Brené’s recommendation of Pema writings that I will be forever grateful for.
If, like me, you have never done any reading on Buddhist philosophy, I can’t overstate what you are missing out on. Even if you are a firm believer in what you would consider an opposing or simply different belief system, you will find their teachings, especially with Pema’s amazing gift for articulating them, to be challenging and life affirming. You may even find that it will enable you to appreciate your currently held beliefs in a new and fresh way as a result of the unique light they shine upon universal truths.
I’m currently reading Pema’s book The Places that Scare You. While it’s a short book, I’m taking my time reading it a few pages at a time because its so good. Each page is packed with depth and wisdom. Like a fine wine, you have to allow it time to roll over your palate to catch all the subtle flavors and beautiful notes. To read it quickly would be a disservice.
Her presentation of the principle of bodhichitta is one that deeply moved me. Bodhichitta is that soft spot that we all have. That vulnerable, open, compassionate place that we all too often build up protective walls around to save ourselves from being hurt. A bodhisattva is one who choosed to be a compassionate warrior for bodhichitta. One who choses to allow the difficult experiences in life to soften rather then harden them. They fight to tap into the bodhichitta in themselves and all those around them. The introduction of this principle into my life could not have been timed more perfectly and it has changed the way I do life on a daily basis.
Its my hope that we can all learn to see the beauty and truth in the wise teaching of all those that have dedicated their lives to the service and mentoring of others, indiscriminate of the religious label under which Barnes and Noble choses to shelve their writings.
If you are interested in reading Pema, her books are published and available for purchase at Shambhala Publications.
The Sinful Pursuit of Joy
Growing up, Christianity taught me to fight my instincts. If I wanted something, it was probably my sin nature leading me astray. I should never do something or want something only because it gave me joy or pleasure. Pleasure is evil. Seeking my own joy leads to sin. People that chase pleasure, that selfishly seek what brings them joy, are the ones that turn into evil dictators and self absorbed rock stars and drug addicts and child molesters. In fact, if I allowed myself to exist in my natural state, without constant upkeep of my defenses against my own desires, I would slowly and irreversibly degrade into some kind of Batman villain.
I couldn’t just be myself, I had to be BETTER then myself. Jim as he was born into this world was bound by his sin nature to seek only the wanton, evil fruits of this world. This, left unchecked, would lead to my ultimate destruction. I needed to remold my wants and desires to what Jesus wanted, not what I wanted. I couldn’t pursue happiness and joy and expect to come to the end of my life and have accomplished something praise-worthy. The more faith I had, the more successful my battle would be, and the more obvious it would be to all those around me. I would be a beautiful shining example of God’s work in my heart by being a selfless Jesus follower.
So, I studied my Bible. I got a Bible degree at a Bible College and hung out with other Bible-believers. I figured if I could just truly learn the Bible and live my life according to it, I would be happy. I learned to talk the talk and I became a good Christian and good Christians don’t mess up, so I learned to hide it when I did. But I wasn’t happy either, so I learned to fake that too. I learned to wear a mask to hide my failings and my lack of joy rather then confront them. And I became my very own Batman villain.
I was a douche-bag on the inside with a perfect pastor’s kid mask on the outside. My “mask” wasn’t scary like the Joker’s but it felt just as destructive. I had shallow relationships with nearly everyone because I couldn’t let them close enough to see beneath the mask. I was constantly exhausted from trying to be someone other then who I was. I was terrified of messing up because I was supposed to be better then that. It wasn’t okay to be wrong or not know the right answer. Jesus gave me all the answers and there was no excuse for living without joy or messing up.
But that isn’t how I find joy and it isn’t how I learn. I don’t learn by memorizing a set of rules about life or having other people tell me how it should be done. I learn by doing. I learn not to touch fire by getting burned. I learn what brings me true joy by following my gut, being true to myself, and doing what comes natural to me. I only learn by putting myself out there and trying new things and risking being wrong. Christianity taught me to avoid putting myself out there and risking the shame of screwing it up. It taught me to avoid the very thing that would make me a better person and bring me true joy.
Am I saying that all Christians are unhappy and joyless? Not at all. Nor am I saying that Christianity is intentionally set up to teach everyone to approach life the way that I did. I’m simply saying that, for someone that processes life like me, the idea of being born with a sin nature that will lead you down a path of self-destruction unless kept in check, didn’t work with the way I need to live my life. It left me a joyless fraud. I’m not interested in debating about universal human nature, but I can speak to my own experience and I can say this with certainty. I’m a good person. Left to my own devises, I eventually figure out what is best for me. When I do what brings me joy, when I’m willing to risk being wrong and learn from the process, that makes it the “right” thing for me and those around me. Sure, I touch a few flames from time to time, but I’m a quick learner and a fast healer. Chasing joy isn’t selfish or wrong, it’s the only way for me to truly live.
Isn’t an Agnostic just an Atheist without any balls?
All joking aside, what do I mean when I say that I’m an Agnostic? It’s a great question and one that I’ve been asked often. Different people have a different understanding of what the word means and it applies to each person a little different much the same as every Christian is not a carbon copy of the next.
First and foremost, I’m not an atheist and that is an important distinction to me. By definition an atheist would say there absolutely is no God and an agnostic would say that we cannot know for sure if there is a God.
…that felt very patronizing…we all know the basic definitions involved here…I apologize. Let’s move on and pretend that didn’t just happen.
To get back on track, the question was, what does it mean that I have chosen this label for myself?
Let’s start with what I’m not. As I mentioned, I’m not an atheist. Is there a God? I don’t know. But I have no problem with others believing that there is a God and choosing to live their lives based upon that conviction. An atheist, by very definition, is diametrically opposed to those that believe God exists. I’m not. My father and both my grandfathers are pastors and have spent their lives dedicated to the service of others and the teaching of the Bible. They are three of the most honorable and upstanding men I have ever known and I have the greatest amount of respect for them and the selfless love they have shown to me and so many others. They taught me what it means to be a man. They pray for me every day. They are true men of conviction and I would die to defend their right to live out their faith and share it with others. In short, I’m not anti-Christian or anti-God (and if you ever talk shit about my dad, I’ll kick your ass).
So if we covered what I’m not, then what am I? Anyone that knows me, knows that I am a person of conviction, morals, and integrity. That hasn’t changed. I’m also still the gangly accident-prone goofball that some of you had the pleasure of growing up with. What has changed is the basis of my moral code and the motivation for the decisions I make on a daily basis. As a Christian, I consulted the Bible and lived my life according to it’s teachings. While that’s no longer the case, I still agree with much of it and my worldview is heavily influenced by my Christian upbringing. For now, I won’t dissect that further. That’s the whole purpose of this blog, telling my story of what it means to be an Agnostic PK.
PK is slang for Pastor’s Kid…DANG IT…Why do I keep doing that! We’re not a bunch of idiots here, DIETZ! End on a high note with a pithy tag-line tying it all back into the name of the blog, not by insulting their intelligence…stupid…
My Spiritual Colon Cleanse
Back when I first began this journey towards agnosticism, regular church attendance was noticeably lacking until eventually it stopped all together. Whenever I would run into a Christian friend, the inevitable “So, where are you going to church now?” would rear it’s ugly head. The assumption being that, obviously, I was still attending somewhere, the only question was where. When the relationship warranted more than a cursory “I’m between churches right now” response, I would whip out my “Spiritual Colon Cleanse” analogy.
While it’s a little scatological and will certainly lend itself to numerous poop jokes throughout this post, I had no idea at the time how apt an analogy it would prove to be. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Here’s the basic gist of my shitty analogy. I was feeling very bogged down in my faith. I couldn’t tell my faith from religiosity and I was tired of Christianity as an organized religion. As a pastor’s kid, I had seen the inner workings since the day I was born, seeing all the nonstop dysfunction and because of it I was spiritually constipated. Nothing was flowing for me because everything I did felt liturgical. I would be praying in church and think, “Why are we talking to God like this and why does this pastor find it necessary to say ‘Father God’ at the beginning of every frickin’ sentence?”
So I figured a Spiritual Colon Cleanse was the only way to get things moving again. I needed to strip everything down to its basic elements and lose all the extra crap. Basically, if the only reason I did something was because that was how I had always done it, then I wasn’t going to do it anymore until I could do it for a genuine reason. I desperately needed my faith to be genuine. Why? Because much of the stuff that I had been taught growing up didn’t apply to the world outside of my little Christian bubble (i.e. gay people are porn-addicts or were sexually abused as children or are pedophiles, etc.). And now that I was outside of that bubble (bartending while trying to find a big boy job) I needed to flush out all that shit and find a healthy functional faith that could work in the real world. If the things that I was stepping away from were genuine, then I would miss them and I would go back to them and embrace them because they had value and not because they were a comfort blanket that I had always carried. I refused to be a spiritual Linus.
Here’s the thing, I don’t miss most of it! Especially all of those things that told me who I should be instead of helping me see who I am. Now that I can see who I really am, I can embrace all of it, the good and the bad. I can play to my strengths and work on my weaknesses. And all of the other beautiful things about the church…community, morality, love, joy, generosity…guess what! They don’t belong to Christianity. Christianity co-opted them and tried to tell me that I can’t have them unless I tithe and go to church and call myself a Christian. But it’s a lie and all those feelings of constipation were just my heart telling me the truth. Over the last couple years, I’ve seen so many beautiful parts of humanity that operate outside the realm of Evangelical Christianity that I was blind to for so many years. And I feel more content and at peace now then I have in a very long time.
In the end, my little cleanse worked in a way I never anticipated. While I thought I was flushing out religiosity, I was actually flushing out Christianity.