When I tell you that I am a Gnostic Baptist, it’s not a lasting label. I haven’t been anything long enough to safely (and sagely) say, “THIS I BELIEVE,” with any sort of lasting conviction.
In a back-and-forth with my friend Steve, after calling myself a Gnostic Baptist, he wrote, “Gnostic Baptist suits your eccentricity. Would that mean the same thing as Know-it-all Fundamentalist?” And it a little bit hurt my feelings because it sounded dismissive, or that I had been caught in some sort of Divine Contradiction. Any time I feel challenged, I tend to respond negatively. I tried, though, this time, to be matter-of-fact:
(I can handle a little ribbing about my conversion. But I’d prefer it not to be entirely dismissive? My being a Christian is as weird to me as it must be to you, but I’m working on not rising to defensiveness and, ironically, I’m asking for you not to help me practice so much.)
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As I’m prepping for my Wolf Hall lecture series, I’ve been thinking a lot about historical claims and what is “true” in history. I revere Dame Hilary Mantel above all other writers in the known/unknown universe, and I agree wholeheartedly with her stance: Historians tell us what we have — a book, a letter, a speech, a brooch — but that’s about all they can definitively tell us. They can’t always tell us why we have it. We’re all liars. We lie in letters, we lie in our diaries, we lie to each other. Any sort of looking back is done with an agenda more than with any hold on the slippery truth.
I’m still working on how to describe myself, religiously, if I’m ever asked. I haven’t broadcast this New Mike very widely. (I’ve stopped posting to social media. I found that I was using Facebook as a means of emotional gratification, so that I had, in a sense, trained myself to go to Facebook to feel good about myself and that seemed…unhealthy.)
Zach has been wonderfully supportive. He just wanted me to feel spiritually connected/whole in the way he does, and had no care at all how I got there. (He did reveal to me, later, that there were some anxiety attacks when he thought I was going Catholic, only because of his own experience with that church.) He’s also been really good at asking questions that help me better define things.
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I thought I’d share some of my beliefs here:
- I call myself a Gnostic Baptist because I’m pretty against orthodoxy. Were they kooks? Sure. They all were. But I like the communal practice that gnostics encouraged. I like that there is some heavy leaning on Eastern traditions. (One part of gnostic belief: the resurrection simply referred to Jesus’s experience of enlightenment, and that we all can be resurrected as each of us, in our own way, reaches enlightenment.)
- I don’t believe in sin. Or, rather, I think we can sin against ourselves and each other by causing harm, but I don’t think God keeps any sort of score card that he balances when we die. I believe salvation is already guaranteed (and didn’t require Christ’s crucifixion; but more on that in another bullet), so our job on earth is really to care for each other. We do this not because if we care enough, or more than someone else, we will end up in a better part of the afterllife. We do it because it eases our own sense of suffering to do good for ourselves or someone else.
- I don’t think Christ was crucified for us to be saved. I think he was executed for practicing radical politics that centered all the “others” rather than the status quo. (When I see you next week I’ll tell you about an EXHAUSTING Quaker Bible study I went to. I tried to explain my idea about sin and the crucifixion, and I tried to explain how I don’t believe sin exists. “No, sin exists,” I was told by a Very Young Woman who performs her faith more than she seems to live it. By the way, I was told a lot of things, but listened to rarely; it was as if two Wikipedias had trapped me in a Starbucks in Adelphi, Maryland, and I alone was there to hear too much. “It is translated as ‘missing the mark,’ like in archery.” And I said, “You can’t believe that Christ died because we kept not hitting the target in archery, right?” And she said, “That’s not what I said at all.”)
- I think God is just an aspect of some sort of divine experience in which we all participate. My beliefs are no more correct — or wrong — than any other belief. It’s all ways of trying to understand and grapple with the ineffable. All beliefs are valid, but not all beliefs work for all people. I’m not a Catholic. I’m definitely not a Quaker. I like my radical Baptist pastor a lot.
- I think the Bible shows a deity that is learning how to be a deity. Is learning how to love and be loved.