Why Am I a Christian?
Here’s the story of how I went from atheist to Christian heretic.
First I must state how strange it is to describe myself as “a Christian.” It feels much more comfortable to call myself “someone interested in Christianity” or “someone fascinated by Christianity.”
My fascination is like a religious anthropologist. I am interested in religion in the way the philosopher and the scholar are interested in religion. I am interested in the cultural evolution of religion and its impact on the development of human consciousness throughout history.
Did we evolve to be religious? Was religiosity an evolutionary adaptation? Did God somehow breathe an intelligence into the process of human evolution such that, via a mechanism of unknown spiritual nature, He gave us a cognitive faculty to experience Him?
Imagine the most enlightened monk to ever exist: more or less constantly in a mental process of perceiving and feeling the subtle Light of Divinity wash over and through her. What would happen if neuroscientists stuck her in a brain scanner and compared her with “normal” people?
Now suppose there is a special network or neurons specially activated whenever the monk says she is in a state of satori, nirvana, enlightenment, spiritual awakeness, or whatever you want to call it.
Would finding this neural evidence of religious experience amount to an argument for atheism, skepticism, and physicalism?
No. The evidence is compatible with both hypotheses.
The one hypothesis says that the monk feels the special presence of God because she is truly in touch with an ontologically real spiritual aspect of reality.
The other hypothesis says that the monk is merely hallucinating and the brain scanner evidence proves that the experience is fully explained by merely giving a functional account of the brain activity, describing it as a physical mechanism and specifying in physical language what the brain cells do.
Call the first hypothesis the “God framework” and the second hypothesis the “Physicalism framework.”
It is important to realize that the God framework is also interested in a physical account of the physical activity that correlates with the monk’s reports of her experiencing spiritual states of elevation.
But they just have a different explanation for why the monk’s brain looked different on the scanner from the normal person’s brain.
The God framework says that the brain activity looked different because God made it such that the human brain evolved a special receiver in the brain that is specifically tuned to the frequency of God’s spiritual reality, allowing for direct perception of that spiritual reality just the same as the brain also directly perceives the physical reality.
It’s important to say what is meant by “direct perception” of physical reality, because it is often described in contrast to a “representational” view, which I believe is a false dichotomy.
It is direct because as I am typing these words into my laptop, the light from the monitor is literally filling up the room, settling into an ambient optic array. As I perceive the laptop the light is physically entering my eye and making physical contact with my body and affecting me in a real way. This physical contact with the light itself sets off a chain reaction in my body that leads to the construction of an Image.
This Image is like a picture: it presents a world. Some neuroscientists call perceived reality a giant three-dimensional hallucinated reality. They would say the only difference between a hallucination and veridical perception is that some hallucinations are more or less untethered from empirical evidence about the world.
Philosophers would call this a “representational” view of perception. According to this theory, the brain creates representations of the world. Kant famously said we only have access to the phenomenal world, the world of appearances, and that we can never cross the veil of perception and perceive the world as it is in-itself, the things-themselves, the noumena.
Kantian philosophers would say we are always and forever trapped within the world of phenomenal manifestation. We always see the world through filtered glasses, except the glasses encompass our entire mode of experience, including our perceptions of ourselves.
Other philosophers like Heidegger tried to counter this Kantian view of ourselves as being “locked inside our heads,” forever trapped in a mental prison of interiority.
They argued instead there is a fundamental way in which we are already “amidst” the world, a kind of being-in-the-world, an in-dwelling with and among and throughout the world, of the world, not separate from it. The separation only comes from intellectual and conceptual abstraction.
Ok, keep this idea of “representational perception” in mind; we will return to it below.
Why Believe in the God Framework?
My position is pure agnosticism. I do not think compelling evidence exists such that either the Physicalist or God Framework becomes “the only game in town.”
In fact, I think the concept of there being “the only game in town” when it comes to the question of God’s existence is spurious.
But for me, the question is not really about Truth. It is not about “getting things right.” It is not about having the Ultimate One True Conception of the World.
For me, the God Framework is simply a beautiful Myth.
But I take a Jungian perspective to Myth insofar as I do not think myth means “unreal” or “untrue.” Nor does Myth mean “only in your head.”
For the Jungian, the fundamental basis of human experience is mythological or archetypal. In other words, our experience is fundamentally based on Images. Fantasy. Imagination. Even the hard-nosed atheist’s worldview is teeming with Fantasy, whether they acknowledge it or not; it’s part of our collective human heritage in what Jung calls the “collective unconscious.”
This is an analog of the idea of the Kantian idea that we are “always living within a representation” or “hallucinating our 3D reality.”
The difference between Kant and Jung is that whereas Kant focused on the “rose-colored glasses” being the constructs of space, time, etc., Jung believed, more fundamentally, our “rose-colored glasses” have to do with things like anomalous synchronicities, archetypes, myths, mystical experiences, religious experiences, the occult, the unknown, the mysterious.
In the other words, for Jung, the “filters” of human experience are the real depths of humanity that make our experience rich, mysterious, and very much at home in the enriched, spiritual worldview of our ancient ancestors.
So when I say that the God Framework is a myth, I mean in it this full-blooded Jungian sense. It is not just a story we tell ourselves in novels and movies. It is not just something we made up on a whim because we were bored or scared, sitting around a campfire. The Framework modulates the very basis of our experience of both ourselves and reality such that Myth and Reality cannot in fact be disentangled.
We certainly try to disentangle this via the mechanisms of western science, but western science is itself its own kind of actively Imaginal Mythology that structures the basic way we perceive and relate to ourselves and the world.
Among many metrics of success, the Mythology of Western Science “wins” compared to other frameworks or paradigms. In terms of predicting physical phenomena and understanding the mechanistic basis of reality, western science has no parallel.
But I believe it foolish to think this is the only metric along which to evaluate the “success” of a worldview.
What is the purpose of a worldview? Is it merely to become better technocratic controllers of physical reality?
I do not think so. I believe technocratic control is but one of many metrics of success for a worldview.
There are other metrics that I care about such as: Beauty, Meaning, Depth, Purpose, Morality.
For all its “success” at predicting and controlling reality, Western Civilization and its accompanying Industrial Revolution have committed unspeakable horrors against the environment in the name of human progress that are not in fact “rational” at all but simply short-sighted. Short-sighted instrumental reason is by definition irrational from its own standard of Western Logic.
But I hesitate to rest my case too strongly in these sorts of argument, for they require an ability to calculate the counter-factual suffering of the planet if the Industrial Revolution had never happened, an intellectual exercise very difficult to pull off with any degree of confidence.
Having one’s cake and eating it too
The beauty of my Christianity is that I do not have to pick one framework.
I do not have to decide which is ultimately true: the physicalist framework or the God framework.
They are both true, to some extent, for me.
While they seem to make mutually exclusive claims about reality, there is a sense in which the God framework itself is able to “accommodate” this inconsistency by casting its own claims of reality into the realm of poetics, mythology, and archetypal depth psychology.
But a true and deep study of archetypal depth psychology should never leave you with the conviction that “God doesn’t exist” or “the soul does not exist.”
The God framework operates in a transcendental function insofar as it is self-consciously designed to “transcend” any limitation upon it.
The naive logical positivist scoffs at this and says “oh you just meant to say the God hypothesis is unfalsifiable. I have no need of such a hypothesis.”
And to that I say: you and I have different needs, my friend.
I do not need the God hypothesis when I am fixing my car.
But I do need the God hypothesis when I have just had a glimpse of mystical gnosis during a meditative or contemplative session.
I do need the God hypothesis when I am feeling deep gratitude for the utter beauty and wonder of the Starry Night Sky.
And in my view, I have no choice about this.
When I was an atheist and materialist I felt the same longings in my heart. It’s just that my mythology was different. I was operating within the same theater of the unconscious. Also living in a fantasy world that I cannot but help to perceive as “reality.”
And it is no different: I am fully aware that all my experiences are but particular stories with an overall Mythological narrative. My very consciousness is itself directly spun out of such stories.
It’s just that now I am aware and conscious of the Mythological layer of reality and willing to embrace it qua Myth.
An atheist and materialist could also be aware of the Mythological layer of reality but the difference is they dismiss it. They find it perhaps interesting from a purely psychological or anthropological sense. Or maybe they appreciate it at a literary level. Or maybe they just find it interesting.
But for myself, the Mythological layer of reality is real. It is not just a “method of analysis.” It is not just a way to describe the world. It is not just a cognitive abstraction or tool.
Myths are real. And they are not merely products of the brain. Myths are baked into the very fabric of reality. To accept this thesis as true is to say that reality cannot be entirely captured by reference to narrowly defined ontological categories deemed acceptable and “real” by physical science: mass, force, energy, space, time, etc.
It is my contention that at a minimum another ontological category must be deemed valid and real and just as fundamental as mass, force, energy, space, and time: consciousness.
Yes, consciousness is itself a fundamental ontological category of reality. I take this to be my most basic axiom.
And yet we can only speak of it in metaphors and riddles. We can gesture at it. We can point at it. We can hint at it. But using our language and concepts it is nearly impossible to pin it down precisely so that everyone knows exactly what we are talking about.
And yet in a sense, we do all know what we mean.
We mean: soul, psyche, mental phenomena, experience, consciousness, feelings, thoughts, ideas, desires, beliefs, willpower, decision-making, psychedelic experience, mystical experience, spiritual existence, what-it-is-likeness, qualia, senses, sensory, phenomenal, phenomenology, the “software level,” the inner experience, interiority, dreams, fantasies, imagination.
This is all mental stuff. I wrap it all up in a kind of catch-all umbrella term: consciousness.
Who is conscious?
If that’s consciousness, where can we find it? Only in humans? Or in animals too? What about plants? Or insects? Or minerals? Or atoms? Or subatomic particles? Or galaxies? Or the Cosmos itself?
I will say outright I am very strongly attracted to the view that everything is conscious. Everything at every level. Not just like all particles are conscious. Everything.
Every collection of particles. Every galaxy. Every society. Every Planet. Every field. Every ocean. Every river. Every cloud. Every intersection. Every collection. Every layer. Every aspect. Every field. All the way down and all the way up.
As above, so below.
I cannot “prove” this to you.
I cannot build a consciousness-meter that can go out and measure a galaxy to “prove” to you that the galaxy itself is a living conscious being.
But I have no desire to attempt such a proof or build such a device.
It is not only impossible to pull off but it just doesn’t make much sense because proof has very little to do with why I am inclined to mess about with such a worldview.
I love the worldview not because it can be proved but because it is beautiful. Because it sings to me. Because it comports with ancient spiritual traditions, which connects me to the worldviews of my ancestors.
I love it because it has layers of depths and meaning. Because contemplating this worldview enriches my experience, brings meaning and purpose to my life, and makes reality just way more damn interesting!
I am not concerned as much about “cold hard Truth.”
I can get all the benefits of Western Science while still believing the Milky Way is conscious.
Nothing about contemplating the consciousness of the Milky Way has any impact on whether I believe in the science of double-blind randomized placebo-control clinical trials as a method for discovering new physical facts.
It doesn’t take away my appreciation for the physical sciences. It is the physical sciences that constructed the space telescopes that enabled humans to discover new and interesting things about reality. For that, I am ever grateful. But that does not contradict my mystical contemplation of consciousness intertwined with the Cosmos at every scale of reality. Richard Rohr calls this the “Cosmic Christ.”
For me, it is a mutually beneficial relationship of worldviews. They inform each other. They inspire each other. They each make the other more beautiful.
Let many flowers bloom! I am large. I can contain the multitudes of contradictions within myself. I can contain them because I see them in the world around me. Life itself often seems paradoxical. And many smart philosophers have argued there can in fact be such things as true paradoxes.
What Does Christianity Mean to Me?
What my Christianity is not about:
- It is not about belief
- It is not about creed
- It is not about dogma
- It is not about orthodoxy just for the sake of orthodoxy
- It is not an abandonment of Reason and Intellect
- It is not a turn towards blind faith
- It is not disconnected from fighting systems of oppression that prevent there being a Kingdom of Heaven established on Earth
- It is not restricted to any particular canon of literature; many sacred Scriptures can be found outside of the canonical Western Christian Bible
- It is not about bigotry towards any choices made by consenting and rational adults
- It is not about judging other people
- It is not about saying other religions are wrong
- It is not about “defending itself” against atheism or materialism
- It is not about trying to defend itself as reasonable or “respectable” to the evidential standards of Western Materialism.
What my Christianity is about:
- It is about the poetics of Myth
- It is about reconciling my childhood religion and my cultural inheritance as a Westerner
- It is about the beauty of Christ as a universal symbol baked into the collective unconscious and Unus Mundus, One World, where everything is connected
- It is about confronting Archetypes deep within my Soul
- It is about reenchanting my Cosmos
- It is about coming to terms with the gods within my unconscious
- It is about integrating my evolutionary history as a religious creature into a 21st century worldview
- It is about grappling with the cutting edge of physics and what our best scientific theories tell us about the nature of reality and our consciousness of it
- It is about the beauty and depths of ritual, architecture, song, tradition, fasting, prayer, meditation, contemplation, etc.
- It is about longing for those occasional spontaneous glimpses of the Divine
- It is about appreciating the wisdom of other spiritual traditions
- It is about being a good person and pursuing wise and right action
- It is about humility
- It is about Grace
- It is about Peace
For me, Christianity is a framework for contemplation. It is a way of sense-making. It is not about literally “believing in God.” One does not “believe in God.” One experiences God.
If I do have a belief in God, it is intellectual and grounded in the beauty of an argument, not necessarily a dogmatic clinging to some Truth that I cannot prove empirically.
And that is why I no longer call myself an atheist, but a Christian.