Monthly Archives: March 2014

Chat with a Pastor

So I’m a guy.

I’ve probably done a poor job hiding that through these posts, but that knowledge is going to be essential for what follows, so, let all doubt be removed: I have X and Y chromosomes (or so I’m told).

In former work I’ve been asked to do “hot” (immediate) feedback and then “cold” (24-hours-later) feedback regarding events I had planned. I’m going to do that now; this post being the hot feedback and either a comment or post to follow being cold feedback.

Today I talked about my faith issues with a pastor I had had while an undergraduate. My first reaction after our conversation was “Wow – that’s kind of trippy”. Indulge me to explain.

I told him my faith story, focusing on what has led up to my current place. Then he shared about crises of faith he had had at nearly the same stage of life. This part of his history, these crises, were why I had contacted him in the first place. Sometimes I want to return to faith; sometimes I don’t. I thought the most meritorious thing for me to do in the circumstances was contact someone who had been in similar circumstances himself.

So, towards the end of our conversation, he, as would be expected from a pastor, urges me to get involved in a vibrant church. I have heard this advice before, from other pastor-ish people. As a cynic I would say “Of course, you’re going to “find God” if you surround yourself with people saying they have “found God””. But at the same time, we often fail in our pursuits (whatever they are) when we go them alone, and as he said trying to find God outside of Church would be like “trying to study the stars without a telescope”: if God exists, and God chose a group of people to proclaim God and God’s messages on earth, that group of people might be the only way I can learn of God.

At this point the conversation took a strange turn. Porn. Masturbation. The presence of these things in my life had come up earlier. I had mentioned I had had difficulty reconciling my being a Christian, supposedly having God at work in my life, and these things being a consistent presence. This disconnect was one thing leading up to my agnosticism.

The pastor said something weird to me. He said “You know why men are so obsessed with breasts?” It got weirder. “Because they represent the maternal!” What? He explained that, by his reckoning, men need the maternal, and even more, “the Feminine”, in their lives and this is what drives them to porn. They get some pleasure out of porn itself, but even more what they desire is connection to the Feminine. In his understanding, a healthy desire for the maternal and the Feminine (however these terms relate…) gets twisted into an eroticised obsession with breasts.

I’m pretty sure this all comes from his study of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. I don’t know much of that theology or its strengths and weaknesses. But I want to share a paraphrase from John Paul II he shared with me: “The problem with pornography is not that it shows too much, but too little.” The idea here is that what men are seeking is a fulfilling of their need for the Feminine, but porn only offers the tiniest slice of what true feminine-ness is. And I think that’s right: when I’m reflective I realize the sensuality of porn and masturbation is all well and good, fun, but what I am really looking for is a woman, a wife, someone to share life with. Lewis says something to this effect in Surprised By Joy: that as a young atheist he enjoyed the pleasures of sex but found them to be missing the point; what he was looking for was joy, what he was finding in sex was momentary delight. (To be sure, for Lewis dabbling in sensual pleasures demonstrated desire for a transcendent joy found only in God rather than “a need for the Feminine”.) I imagine this goes both ways: women, too, might go to porn but looking for the Masculine? I have no idea how this works for gays, lesbians, bis or others (and I just read Hays’ chapter on homosexuality in The Moral Vision today so I won’t even begin to try to work on that).

What does finding a vibrant Church community have to do with this? And where am I going with all this? For this pastor the Church, “Holy Church” as he called it, is the maternal, the Feminine. Thus, what I have been seeking will be found in the Church. Do I buy this? I don’t know. He said this was true in his own life, that as he got more involved in church and received the laying on of hands and prayer he found some healing and relief from his sexual struggles, without even directly confronting them. I don’t think “church” is the answer for me or even an answer book or guide to the answers. I have come to dislike and distrust all notions of “answers” to philosophical, psychological, theological problems. (What a good little post-modern I am!) But to be fair I will have to take him at his word and give his advice a shot. After all, that’s why I went to him: to seek advice. If I don’t take it, why did I ask in the first place?

It gets trippier. Without his knowing, his words mesh with the experiences of my last 18 hours. Last night, I was partying. All I wanted was to make-out with some girl, or kiss some girl. I had someone in mind. Nothing really came of it. Afterwards, going to bed, I was feeling sexually frustrated, sad, alone (as I imagine many do after they party: It’s fun while it’s happening but only serves to underscore your emptiness, singleness, alone-ness when it’s all over).

That night I dreamt of my Grammaw. She died several years ago. I miss her. The dream was her and me riding in a car somewhere, and during the drive I opened up to her about my agnosticism. She took it very calmly. No judgement. In fact, nearly no words. I could tell she still accepted me but she wanted us to be silent and not cheapen the exchange with tawdry words. I could not tell exactly what was coming next. Soon we arrived at a building, a kind of barn or something that may have had other people but if they were there I didn’t really notice. I gather that we were there to build something, a kind of chair, from pieces of burning wood that were lying around inside this barn. I don’t know why they were burning or why we were building the chair or what it was for. We just worked in silence. I would go around collecting pieces of wood and bring them to Grammaw and she would position them until we had our chair. I handled the wood with tongs, but Grammaw used her bare hands. I don’t know why, or how she could bear it. And I had the sense that Grammaw was using even this silent process of chair-building to teach me something, to show me something, but I don’t know what.

I woke up today and talked about this dream with a housemate. I think, like myself, he felt lonely and empty after the night. Possibly we had had similar hopes and desires for the previous evening; possibly not. Anyway, he asked me what the dream meant. “Hell if I know!” I thought. “I don’t know” I told him.

But now I wonder if there is a strange connection underlying the partying, my frustration, the dream of Grammaw and the conversation with my former pastor about doubt, porn, the Feminine, and the Church.

Am I reading too much into these events and today’s conversation? Is this merely a coincidence: everyday sexual desires brought front and center in a discussion of “mother Church”? Does this all predicate on an erroneous theology of sexuality? Has the pastor cleverly spun my words and experiences as “signposts to God”? What more would you point out to me about my dream? Is God speaking?

I really appreciated the pastor’s time and concern. He was also wonderfully frank. I will continue to mull his words but wanted to quickly record my positive reaction to his words and affirmation of both my past Christian experiences and my present agnosticism or doubt, a tension many Christians deal with by either denying the former or negating the latter.

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Drawn

Recently I heard our beloved Willie Jennings speak about Acts. He said one of the recurrent themes is Christians being drawn by the Spirit towards people they really want nothing to do with. Peter is drawn towards Cornelius. Phillip is drawn towards an Ethiopian eunuch. Others are drawn towards Greek Gentiles. I suppose even Paul is drawn towards those who want to kill him (how willingly he goes, though)! This is one of the beautiful workings of the Spirit, bringing vastly different people together under God, showing that the God of love receives anyone.

Or so Jennings puts it. Whether his words and Acts have historical truth I table for now. But the theme he identifies really seems to be in the text.

I was caught by that idea because (again, tabling the question of God) I have found my being here to be a similar situation. I did not come here entirely enthusiastically. I wanted to be in the best program I could, but I was dismayed by the people I knew I would meet. People who thought women in ministry-leadership and homosexuality in the Church were just givens. People who didn’t affirm the Bible’s inerrancy.

Then I became what I most feared – an unbeliever. But, strange enough, this hasn’t solved my social issues. Rather than make me receptive to all types, I still just don’t know what I think about people here.

I can’t accurately put it into words because I can’t accurately comprehend it. At times, the words “And Jesus did not trust himself to them, because he knew what was in the heart of man” come to mind. Wow – Can I get a messiah complex here, please? Anyway, something about that textual detail resonates for me.

I just don’t know if I trust these people. Why not? Well, although I am not calling myself a believer right now I would say I still have ideas about what the “right things” to do with Scripture are and what the “right ways” to live as a Christian are. Frankly, these ideas are quite different from many of my fellow students’ ideas.

Sin? Evangelism? These are just two things massively under-emphasized by many people at Duke, and I don’t really get it.

Sin is at least as obvious of a theme throughout Scripture as the theme Jennings identified in Acts. For the very concept of atonement, sin is a sine qua non. And from what I see here, not only do people not want to confess or announce sin, they often pretend they have no part in it. Sex, drugs, obscenities, bickering – these are just embraced activities of life for them.

Evangelism: sure there are problems with how it is often practiced, and the early church’s context was very different from ours, but I haven’t heard anyone suggest that the Church’s mission (from the Latin mittere, “to send”) is to stagnate, equalize, or wane. So where is the evangelistic action?

These things do not explain why I wouldn’t trust my peers, however. Like I said, I just don’t know. Maybe I just think their ideas about God and faith are really wacky. “Wacky” isn’t really descriptive but it might be all I’ve got.

Theists in general are bugging me right now. They are a strange bunch.

Anyhow, I will continue to inquire what it is that is off-putting to me about many of my peers.

Do these ideas resonate with anyone else? What have you noticed about not feeling like you fit in? Or about feeling like your social “matrix” was not what you wanted or could trust?

Major Life Decisions, or Why I’m Going to (Eventually) Leave Academia

Encouraging thoughts for those drawn like moths to the lamp of academia. There are other options!

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I decided a few months after my first seizure that I didn’t want to pursue an academic career. Reactions when I announced the news to my family and closest friends were varied, though there was a common thread connecting them: an insistence that I’d change my mind. I haven’t. I won’t.

I’m under no illusions as to the academic job market. Things are tough, particularly for those of us who so intelligently chose to do a PhD in the Humanities (no sarcasm intended). If you’re lucky enough to find a position, you have to be incredibly flexible in terms of where you’re willing to go and what you’re willing to do. I’m not: I’m a heavy user of the Canadian healthcare system, and getting comprehensive coverage in the States would likely be hard/expensive. My husband’s career relies on being in an urban centre. Mobility isn’t, of course, the sole consideration…

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Language games

Language is a game. We all play it. We can bend its rules. But if we break the rules too frequently, we are no longer playing the agreed game; we are playing a different game. Only others who are initiated into that game and familiar with its rules will be able to successfully play with you. Those who have played the card game “Mao” know something of what I’m talking about.

These are more or less the ideas of Wittgenstein anyway. And this all makes sense to me: I think it’s a fitting description of what language is: twin systems of rules (grammar) and pieces (words) that we manipulate in order to communicate meaning.

I’m starting to think of this in other ways too, now. Even my studies and the disciplines encompassing them are language games. Cynics would say that’s all they are (I entertain this cynical sentiment in Rough Day).

I write to say that I’m learning to play those games. And, actually, I think this is a good thing. Even if we’re merely spinning words that don’t affect anything outside, I’m learning what the rules of the games are and how to play them. I hope I’m even beginning to succeed, start winning.

This sounds really cynical but I don’t mean it that way. I thought this would be an interesting and perhaps helpful insight to fellow students, that one way to think of our task is that we need to become fluent in the language of our disciplines. That requires gathering all the right pieces, knowing all the rules and beginning to learn strategy, effective combinations and moves.

Who are we playing with? Our peers and future colleagues, and teachers. I can’t say there are no losers. There are. When someone destroys another’s argument, book, or opus using his own words, that is a major loss. Ouch. I don’t know what you can do after that, but fortunately that’s not for me to worry about yet. However, the objective is not necessarily to squash the competition; there can be room (somewhere…) for them and they are needed, too (to write the top review for the book jacket of your next book).

There is a comfort in knowing that (in one sense) it’s all a game as well. Playing does not require you to believe in or love the game. You just have to be good at it. Which is what I’m hoping to do. For now. And if I’m not good, if I’m not “picked”, there are other games I can play. I must take hope in this.

Welcome to our church!

People are awkward.

Several weeks back I saw someone at the church I’ve been attending who I wanted to get to know better (read, was physically attracted to said person). We’ll call this person Jordan. At a church social I introduced myself, got talking with Jordan and their friends, and before I knew it was scheduled to go get coffee with Jordan and some friends of theirs. The day of the coffee outing came, we went and I had a great time. I got to ride there and back with Jordan and found they have some personality/character traits I really appreciate/connect with, we have some things in common, and Jordan still floors me physically.

Naturally I Facebook friend Jordan and others I went with, writing a short sincere message in friending Jordan.

Immediately Jordan’s friends accept my request and write back. Jordan has yet to accept the request or respond. It’s been a month, and I can tell Jordan’s been active on Facebook. If that were the only thing that’d be fine. And to be fair, I’ve only been to church/outings with Jordan’s friends two/three times since the coffee outing. But Jordan also has not approached me in church during passing the peace and hasn’t made it easy to say hi before or after the service. People can converse with friends in such a way that they are ready to expand their conversational circle, or they can stand pretty closed-off-like which is mostly what I’ve seen. I haven’t really heard anything back from Jordan’s friends since then either.

Well, this hurts. I get it that Jordan is not interested. That’s been made painfully clear. Was it necessary to go so far as to just reject me as a person? I am the new person at the church, I reached out and then I got shunned. Or at least that’s how it feels on a rainy day like today.

Giving the benefit of the doubt, I know interacting with people you have recently met or hardly know can be awkward and difficult. Perhaps no one is really to blame here. Or perhaps it’s all my fault. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so shy and should just try a little harder to include myself in that chatty circle of friends after the service? Perhaps I should not care about how the situation feels and just make sure to say hi to Jordan and chat if we can? Or perhaps I should never have introduced myself, should have known they have a significant other (which I still don’t know), should have known they aren’t into people of my sex (which I don’t know)?

You can probably tell I’m a verbal processor (hmm, not a computer processor: I am a processor of words… I weigh them, spit them out, receive feedback and repeat). My hope is that through writing about this, and getting responses, I can understand the situation better and more clearly discern what I should do now and should anticipate in similar future circumstances. Do you know what I mean?

Chiming in: the red pill reveals that there is no red pill

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It’s been a while. Here’s a brief update of where I am right now.

Still pretty happy in my agnosticism. It took some philosophical hits recently as I was thinking about the ontological and cosmological arguments for God, which I know have their problems but also have some merits. Meaning in language/behaviour and the intelligibility/order of our world – these things too have given me pause. But I think I’ll need sufficient reason to return to faith, and these things, even as a cumulative case, fail to give it.

Depression is moody. I mean, some days are good, some are not. As said in my last post (Rough day – for what it’s worth the following Wednesday was great!), I’m coming to terms with the lifelong daily battles I will have with it.

I also have come to think of myself as having Modernist objectives in a postmodern context: I want some kind of absolute objective Truth in an intellectual world where that whole enterprise has been laughed to scorn, and rightly so. I feel as if I am for the first time running up against the fish-tank walls of my existence and recognizing them for walls, knowing they limit my perspective and capacities for problem-solving and can never be transcended (O, to be a fish with wings!). Up to now, I was swimming in the same tank but blissfully unaware that I was in a tank. You might ask how I can know I’m in a tank – touche. All the same, I believe there are limits to my understanding and reasoning based on what “respected academics” tell me about the world I inhabit. (Is this a reductio ad absurdum within post-modernism? That if one’s perspectives are limited and socially-conditioned, she may be unable to perceive those limits and that conditioning?)

The following quasi-verse (quasi-poem would suggest I actually went to the trouble of reading it back to myself after writing it) intimates what I have been discussing decently well. Bear in mind, I have freely borrowed many phrases and lines here.

In.

Pulling the curtain back, and going through.

Beyond the man frantically at work behind the curtain.

Beyond the machine that makes him more than a man.

Beyond the table, the incense, the ark and its mercy seat.

Going still further back.

“I’m breaking through, I’m bending spoons, I’m keeping flowers in full bloom, I’m looking for answers from The Great Beyond.”

Why must I hunt this wily snipe, chase this wild goose, pursue this damned chimera, as if answers are there to be found?

I don’t know what I think.

I am aware that I am not fully aware…

Damned red pill. Can’t I go back to conservative evangelicalism or even fundamentalism and stay there?