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January 28, 2006

Living Scripture

I was a six-year-old in the darkness of my bedroom. I lay in a room with a wooden floor on which any ball would roll unaided. I was in a five-hundred-year-old house; the walls were made of beams, woven sticks, and cow dung. I could feel a dark presence near me; I felt very scared. Inside my body, I started to say, "I love you god, I love you god, I love you god." Then I felt safe.

I was eleven years old. All the kids at school were grouped into houses: beech, oak, elm, and pine. I was the beech house captain. The color for beech was red and inside I was a lion. House members would earn points for their house and each week they would be tallied; we were being taught to compete. Each Wednesday, the four house captains would sit a row in front of the morning assembly and give a speech.

One Tuesday I was called to the head mistresses office. I had submitted my pre-written speech that morning. The vicar was in the room. "There's a problem with your speech." said the headmistress. "What's wrong?" I asked. "Well, you shouldn't use the word God like that." said the vicar. "Like what?" I asked. Beech was doing poorly and I had started the speech with, "Oh my God!" and then I had written a rousing and somewhat chastising rant. I had used the G-word in another place in the speech also. The headmistress responded, "The vicar doesn't really like it, and he's coming to the assembly tomorrow. We'd like you to remove it." So I took a pen and angrily scribbled over the first line and the other part also. I remember being quite angry: why does he have the right to use that word and yet I'm not allowed to?

I was twenty years old, and was living in a flat in a housing estate near Bristol. The benefit was that the business park where I worked was within walking distance. The trouble was that our neighbors thought that we were strange because we read books. I was reading a thick book entitled Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, while sitting on the grass in the sun. The book was written by some dry scholar with no practical experience. Once in a while I picked up my three-pound juggling balls and dropped into infinity. I watched my reflection in the window of one of the ground-floor flats; my defined stomach muscles were undulating with the cyclical motion of my arms and the balls.

I was twenty-two and staying in an apartment in Santa Clara. I was temporarily in the San Francisco Bay Area, helping to develop NVIDIA's fate changing product. I had brought the Bible with me and I read it cover-to-cover. It was unbelievably boring but I felt that I had to do it. I felt like a monk: working, eating, and reading the Bible.

I was still twenty-two and I was getting married. I was in a thousand-year-old church is Sussex. Quiet, cool, old, echoing stone surrounded us. The vicar had placed his sash over our joined hands and was looking upwards, praying. I imagined a light coming down from above and onto our hands. The sash started to slip and the vicar didn't see my hand reach out and adjust it.

I was twenty-seven. I had just installed Yahoo! Messenger. I noticed the chat rooms and I'd heard about them being addictive but I was curious and I picked a room to walk into: a Christian chat room.

I started talking about God and Christ; I caused quite a stir. "Duncan, are you for real?" someone asked. "Duncan, where do you get your authority?" another asked. "I don't know, I guess from inside me." I responded. I would say things and then they would all scramble to find it in the Bible. They would discuss what I'd said amongst themselves and then finally find how the Bible agreed with me. It was so much fun.

"Duncan, you heathen!" came a shout from someone. "What's wrong, monksarse?" I asked. He quoted back to me something that I'd written five minutes previously: "There is no difference between God and Love, She's just love." He was totally freaked out that I'd refer to God in the feminine. So I responded, "Do you think that God really has a penis? Do you think that God's this big old man in the sky with a beard and male genitals?" I continued, "The Bible was written by people who were very patriarchal, they would tend to write He. And anyway, do you think they should have written He or She, or It?" there was no response.

One character took me aside to have a private dialog with me. "Duncan, why do you believe?" he asked me. "Because I've seen Him." I said. "What's that like?" he asked. "It's hard to explain, you have to experience it. Why do you believe?" I asked in response. He seemed to change the subject and started to tell me about Peter.

He told me about Matthew 6:18, "And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." He said that for the catholics, Peter was the first in the line of pontiffs and that Jesus meant that his church would be built on the authority of the pope. And he told me that it was a lie and that Protestantism was correct. Protestantism looks more widely at that chapter (Matthew 6:15-18):

He saith unto them, "But whom say ye that I am?" And Simon Peter answered and said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered and said unto him, "Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

He told me that for protestants, the understanding is that the "rock" on which the church was to be built was not Peter or the Pope, but Peter's experience. So, according to protestants, Jesus was saying that his church would be built on the witness of the apostles, which became the Bible.

So the Catholic Church is based on the authority of a person: the Pope, while the Protestant Church is based on the authority of the account of the apostles: the Bible. The Catholic Church used to give sermons in Latin and didn't even allow lay people to read the Bible. With the printing press and the mass distribution of the English King James version of the Bible, Protestantism came about.

So I asked him this: "Mucchogoodness, back in the days of Jesus, they didn't have churches did they? They had temples. So, what was the actual word used in the original text, which has been translated as 'church'?" There was a long delay and then, "In the original Greek, the word used is [some Greek word]." I said, "Did Jesus talk Greek?" he said, "Yes." I said, "I thought he spoke Aramaic." There was no answer. So I said "What does that Greek word mean?" So he said, "It means assembly, or gathering, or following." I said "So, how about this? The other interpretations make sense to me and what about considering this one also: perhaps Jesus could have meant that the 'rock' on which his following would be built would be that of direct experience of Him inside, like Peter had experienced. Now, I can imagine someone getting tortured and denying the Bible. But how could someone deny their own experience? Surely that would be something that would prevail even against the gates of hell." Mucchogoodness didn't respond. I said, "May I suggest that you go ask your teacher about that. See what they think of that." We said goodbye.

I was twenty-eight. It was Callum's Christening. I was in the same church where we married. It was a different vicar. He talked about a boy martyr but he never got to the point. Afterwards, I figured out that he was trying to explain that the word martyr is Greek and it means literally "witness". Martyr came to have a different meaning after so many "witnesses of Christ" were persecuted. Callum's middle name is Mohandas, after Gandhi. Gandhi's name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi; Mahatma is a title. I don't know if he was having a crack at that, but during his talk he mentioned an Indian Christian who put his hand on the top of his head and said, "I am a Christian." I'm not sure if he realized that pretty much anyone on the planet could put their hand on the top of their head and honestly say that. Why is that? Because we're all seeking to avoid suffering; because we all want to be happy. And that's all it's really about. That's all that any spiritual practice or religion is about. So every one of us is Buddhist, and Muslim, and Jewish, and Christian, and Capitalist, and Intellectual, and Hedonist, and Athiest, and Druid, and Witch.

After the Christening, I chatted with the vicar. He asked if we went to church in the US. I said that I was kind of associated with a spiritual group but I felt more that I had my own practice and I don't really espouse any particular belief system. He asked, "You read the Bible though?" I responded, "Oh yes, the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, and many other scriptures." He looked concerned, "I think that you should be very careful." I said, "Okay. I will." When I got back to the US, I sent him a letter and a copy of Paramhansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi. I got no response.

I can do a very good impression of a Church of England vicar. In fact, I can create caricatures of several different types of vicar. I was doing this recently in front of a friend and he said that I would make a very good vicar. I have been thinking about that for a few years, actually. I've been thinking that it would be very funny to infiltrate the Church of England. It would be so cool to become a vicar. I could pull it off very easily really.


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