Other Rivers

Other Rivers:

An Exit Strategy for a Life After Faith

If this book has stirred some honest and disturbing reflections it has served a purpose.  If the disturbance has led you to consider leaving your community or even your faith, I urge you to proceed carefully, thoughtfully, wisely, compassionately.  The choices of heretics (those who choose another way) are never easy and may take many years to prepare the way for the personal “good news” that will be bad news for the Church.  Your climb out of “hell” or “heaven” might well be, as was John Muir’s, a scramble over some treacherously crumbling walls.  This all takes courage, as well as time, reflection, meditation and even prayer, if by prayer we mean centering and simplifying our lives to make reasoned, meaningful decisions that change our lives.

The writer John Steinbeck once said that when his sons were young they knew of only one river that flowed near the family home.  When they grew up, they would discover “there are other rivers.”  This is the beginning of the wise and frequently precarious path, the watery or rugged road.  It is a pathway out, and it is a pathway in.  Each person must choose their trail, be a pathfinder of their own peace, and, as the ancient Tao taught, let their mud settle.

Truth is, as I think I make clear in this book, any settling in these matters of movement concerning faith, belief and other core issues, never seems to be a complete settling.  It is indeed an often muddy path, even a river, another river, perpetually leading to. . . .  I can’t say for me, I can’t say for you.

Your actions and mine, our decisive alterations in thinking, might just “shake the foundations” of the faith community we have called home.  You might open yourself to be judged, disciplined, shunned, excommunicated, silenced or whatever punishment, subtle or overt, that your former tradition will unleash (in extreme cases, life-threatening consequences).  The point to focus on is this:  If you are choosing the path of truth that makes sense for you, nothing and no one can stop you.  You are following the strongest forces in the universe—Nature, Truth, Freedom (“In the beginning was Logos/Reason. . .and this was the light of all.”).

Along the earthy pathways, it can be instructive to bear in mind the desire noted by the great teacher and ex-slave Booker T. Washington, when he said, “From my early childhood I have had a desire to do something to make the world better, and then to be able to speak to the world about that thing.” Once a choice has been made, a new path has been chosen, chances are the world is already better and we will do well to have the reasons for our decision clear enough in mind to speak–for our good, and for others.

Here I offer some trailheads, or signposts, to consider, on whatever mountainside or shoreline of decision you are facing:

1.   Write down your thoughts and feelings.  Pin down your major issues of faith. List what you believe, once believed, no longer believe.  Articulate as much as you can on each item.  No need to stress over this.  Make it natural and simple.

2.  Reflect, meditate, reason with these matters.  Give it time and space to evolve and clarify.  As the Chinese Tao encourages, let the “mud settle.”

3.  Read some of the “open-minded” freethinkers I refer to in this book, and others you find who think “outside the box” of religion.  You might even read some “prophetic” literature (not future-blinded but present-minded) such as Isaiah or the Sermon on the Mount, listening for the edges, the call for radical change, the “voice in the wilderness” calling out beyond the old.  Beware of the “seven step” people, that is, those who give easy solutions and quick and quotable spiritual answers.  These are a dime a dozen, or a million a mansion.  Sorry to say, there are no gurus or saints to guide here.  As Thoreau and Emerson urged, each must follow their own Genius.

4. If at all possible, try not to do this alone.  Find a few people you trust to discuss this with and keep in mind that few in your immediate circle may understand.  It can be a lonely path, but it is well worth the solitude and effort (while I am not suggesting Atheism per se, remember that only a few percent of Americans publically assent to their un-belief).

5. Expect resistance, disappointment, anger, sadness from others in the community including your family and friends.  Try not to get too defensive.  Let creative tension and agitation work for you.  Simply explain that you are seeking the truth to be honest and show integrity.  Those who question your eternal soul need firm compassion, or let their comments float by down the river with a smile, without judgment.

6. You may choose to discuss your concerns with a counselor or your clergyperson, if they are open to really listen and support your pursuit of truth.  Listen closely to the reasons they may give to stay in the faith.  Ask yourself and them, if it makes sense that All the Truth can be boxed in one tradition, religion or orthodoxy (“right opinion”).  Ask what the mind is for if not to reason, question and explore.  Listen to their thoughts and opinions, and then leave them and trust your own thoughts and feelings.

6a. If you are a clergyperson, we would have a lot to talk about!  You might ask yourself, as I did, how much of your beliefs are dependent on a failed system of theologies and creeds, of institutionalized rituals and external authority.  Can you help someone else to leave, if you are not willing or feel able to leave yourself?  Can you afford to wait to tell the truth to others, to yourself?  There are obvious risks and practical consequences.  I urge you as well to find someone you trust to speak with and I certainly wish you courage.

7.  Seek the positive, the creative, the good.  Keep it positive.  Find contentment in the teachings and guidance of Nature and in the beauty of this world.  If you are able, take plenty of energizing walks.  You are not acting against as much as choosing for.  You are not becoming an a-theist, you are becoming a pro-humanist, pro-life-lover, following a more natural way.  This is liberation, a wonderful new way of living.  It may begin with a shipwreck, but there may be a starship awaiting.

8.  Keep a good sense of healthy humor—you’ll need it!

9.  {Add your own thoughts and experiences to this list}

For Further Exploration and Discussion:

*Call together companion explorers in your community (your church?) to study and discuss this book.  Listen a lot, emphasize honesty and respect, and remind all to keep what Robert Burns called “a light, unanxious heart”—as much as possible.

*While I may not be able to offer much counsel beyond this book, I am open and willing to briefly respond to any comments and questions you may have.

*I wish you all the best on your voyage of truth and honesty.

Chris Highland


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