Approaching your beliefs from a completely different perspective
While rummaging through old journals, I stumbled upon this entry from a couple of years ago. This is a pretty accurate account of how and when my perspective towards religion, beliefs, and spirituality began to change. All from a silly premise that turned out to be an amazing book from a guy at Esquire Magazine. Now, two years later, I can say that the sentiment I took from this book was instrumental in how I’ve approached spiritual study and growth.
Entry dated: 2.21.10
I read books the same way a dry sponge absorbs water. I like to read slowly, focusing on the meaning of each of the words and as I am educated or enlightened by those words I begin to swell and see the overflow of their meaning seep into my everyday life. Usually this means finding clever ways to segue into a topic related to the book I’ve just read and then quoting from said book as a way to display my enthusiasm for the subject I am currently enveloping myself within.
The odd thing is that this sensation of wanting to share my knowledge about a particular book or subject matter is, very often, only present while I am reading the book and shortly there after. Once I start reading a new book, then I opt to speak about this new book rather than the former, as it is at the forefront of my mind, and the previous book’s subject matter becomes knowledge catalogued away in the back of my brain, occasionally breaking free at content appropriate moments.
My current topic of conversation is one that I’ve been openly discussing more and more over the last three weeks. The last time I discussed this topic so frequently was when I was in junior high and a leader in my church’s youth group. The subject being the Holy Bible, its scriptures, and their meaning. I just finished reading Esquire Magazine editor, A.J. Jacobs’ book, The Year of Living Biblically, a fascinating and hilarious account of his “humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible” and one of the most interesting case studies I’ve ever read.
In his book, Jacobs attempts to live by the rules and laws of the Bible exactly as they are written without figurative interpretation (including Leviticus 19:27 “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads,” resulting in an out of control, biblical flair of a beard following 13-months of not shaving). What was interesting to see was how Jacobs’ demeanor regarding the scriptures, religion and spirituality in general changes over the course of his biblical experiment. He goes from a state of near-solid agnostic cynicism to a quasi-divine state of spiritual gratitude in just over a year’s time.
What I noticed about Jacob’s experiment and what I’ve started to notice about my own behavior, since reading his book, is how easy it is to start believing and practicing many of the things that each of us reads. In his book, there are moments where you get the sense that perhaps Jacobs is starting to truly believe some of the passages in the Bible he is studying. In a couple of places, I started to believe right alongside him, which was a scary thought seeing how I walked away from organized religion almost ten years ago.
When he returns to his typical New York lifestyle after the 13-month experiment, shedding his beard and finally kissing his wife, Julie (who should be commended for putting up with A.J.’s biblical alter-ego “Jacob” for so long), he walks away from the experiment changed, moving a few of his biblical rituals into his everyday life and showing an appreciative attitude for everything around him, an attitude that was not present at the start of his book.
What I have to ask, then, is this: How easily are we, as intellectual beings, swayed in opinion by merely opening ourselves up to a concept or idea and keeping an unbiased and open mind, while inundating ourselves with it’s message? I, for one, felt infinitely more spiritual over the past three weeks, while reading this book, just studying the Bible vicariously through Jacobs’ words. The only other time I’ve been convinced of the Bible’s truths was during a 3-4 year period where I was immersing myself with the word (”God’s word.” The Bible) on a daily basis, while leading Bible study in my church’s youth group. In retrospect, it was spirituality by proximity. I believed the Bible because I was so immersed in its teachings and only its teachings at the time.
When I left the church and began studying other forms of spiritual enlightenment, thus broadening my perspective, I realized that truth could be found in many texts. The more I looked back on my stint with Christianity, the more I realized that the reason it went wrong was not because the Bible does not hold many moral truths (it does), but because the church I was involved with was adding their own agenda to the Bible’s interpretation. Jacobs writes towards the close of his book, paraphrasing rabbi, Robbie Harris (one of Jacobs spiritual advisors for his book), “You can start to worship the words instead of the spirit.” Which I think is true. The spirit of religion is the real truth, the words can be twisted and used to promote personal agendas.
One of the biggest problems I have with organized religion is that many practitioners give the Bible their own slant to help push their personal or denominational agendas. Many churchgoers are completely oblivious to the teachings of their own religion as they are actually written, much less other religions or even other denominations of their same religion. Many feel they are spending time in the word on a daily basis, but are really just accepting someone else’s interpretation of the Bible. They are narrowing their spiritual perspective, by not coming to their own interpretation, shunning, or perhaps exercising pure ignorance towards, any other point of view.
As I read along with Jacobs’ book, what I found so fascinating was how brilliantly he narrates his biblical journey with an unbiased point of view. Offering insights and opinions from a wide variety of biblical followings, while adding the perfect amount of his own form of bumbling, OCD, comic relief, he never forces any conclusions on himself or his reader. Jacobs ultimately closes out his biblical journey by saying, “The Bible may not have been dictated by God, it may have had a messy and complicated birth, one filled with political agendas and outdated ideas—but that doesn’t mean the Bible can’t be beautiful and sacred.”
After reading The Year of Living Biblically, I can’t argue with Jacobs’ sentiment. But, I think that you could just as easily replace the word “Bible” in that statement with any number of books, texts or ancient scrolls and it would still read just as accurately.
It is easy to get caught up in the latest fad of thought, spouting phrases and quotes from your latest intellectual discovery. It is easy to start to convince yourself that your viewpoint is right if you study only one side of any particular subject matter for too long. What we should try to do more often, instead of drawing conclusions so quickly is look at everything with an objective eye and study both sides of a story before drawing a conclusion. If we would all take this approach with everything from religion to politics to comparative shopping, we’d probably be living in a world much more at peace with itself, and be saving thousands of dollars by buying store brand cola. If nothing else, it’s worth a shot.
On that note, I’m going to slowly wean myself off of the vicarious spiritual high I’m currently on and dive into Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion to balance myself out. To close with God’s word,
“The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” -Proverbs 18:17
(I can’t believe I’m quoting Bible verses on this blog! Jacobs’ book was just that good and really got me to reexamine my thoughts on religion. And while I won’t be heading to Sunday school any time soon, I have certainly shed some of the bitterness Christianity left in my mouth.)
Where do you stand? Step inside someone else’s shoes and walk around a bit. When was the last time you approached your opinions and beliefs from a completely different perspective?
P.S. As I’m sure you’re still Googling yourself constantly, A.J., thanks for a great read!