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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3 thoughts on “Chat with a Pastor

  1. devilatdivschool Post author

    So, here’s my “cold” feedback. I have gotten to process this conversation with a friend since yesterday. I’ll try to cover the main take-aways I had from my conversation with the friend and my own musings.

    To be sure, inability to reconcile sin in my life with supposedly having the Spirit inside me was only one factor leading up to my agnosticism (“Here. Allow me to convince you I’m not a pervert”). I have mentioned the problem of trying to reconcile a communicative god and a “divine silence” in my life as more of the immediate cause. But though the sin piece is just one factor it’s one I haven’t thought about much so it may be just as well that it came up yesterday.

    My biggest push-back (to use Div school language) to what the pastor had to say is against the notion that my metaphysical needs, be they psychological, spiritual, relational or other, could be met by engaging in a vibrant church community. To be fair I think he might agree that these needs would not be totally met pre-eschatologically. But one of my deeper convictions is that we have these metaphysical needs and that many if not most won’t be met on earth. This might be strange for an agnostic to believe, that we have needs or desires for things that can not be satisfied in the course of normal life. On this point, Lewis might poke his finger in my side and say “Ha! You see?” (more likely Chesterton would be so brash). Well, I suppose an agnostic can hold these beliefs, but they might get trickier the closer you get to naturalism. Anyhow, I think a lot of the needs or desires I sense that I have are going to be left unsatisfied through my lifetime.

    This means that the Church will not fulfill my needs for the maternal or the Feminine. But moreover it means that a wife will not fulfill my needs for interpersonal connection. It means that belief in God would not sate any divine hungers I have. And with my belief in unsatisfaction as basic as it is (which is probably a problem and may explain a lot about my outlook) it even means God wouldn’t fill that “God-shaped hole” in my life. (“I have a great god.” “Well, my life has a hole greater than your god!”) But I think a lot of this makes sense. For one, Bono seemed to affirm the notion: after all, he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. For another, Augustine said his heart was restless until it rested in God. I imagine that was something he repeated to the day he died.

    I guess what’s important about this for me is that it means I can believe and be unsatisfied. To quote Paul, “For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?” (Romans 8.24). The point of hope is that it is something ahead of us, unrealized. I could hope in God and feel impoverished in God’s absence and still ask why God chooses to wait, to withhold the fulfillment I need. Being able to hold belief in God and the suffering I experience together in this way would be a big step for me.

    Being able to doubt and call oneself a Christian was another thing my former pastor affirmed which I really appreciated. I asked him whether that was OK and he probably made a very wise pastoral move by saying yes (or brought us one step closer to a sale for the Jesus brand!).

    Returning to my conversation with the pastor, I want to highlight a few more things.
    One, is that I have learned that I am extremely impressionable and should best continue to weigh and scrutinize his thoughts in the time ahead.
    Two, in that vein, and the vein of my own agnostic self-actualization (“self-absorption”, I read it very well (and damningly) described today), I am not going to let his pronouncement that I am not ready for a girlfriend or wife determine my romantic decisions: as opposed to large tracts of my life, I actually feel pretty good right now about my ability to start a relationship with someone in a way in which I could love them and not just myself through them. (Sloughing off his words could be hard because of my impressionability, my trust in male authority figures, and his role as pastor – take care in issuing such words yourselves, pastors-in-training!)
    Three, after telling him about my struggles and successes with evangelism he said he thought God might be calling me to be an evangelist: before you laugh, know that as a late teen I sensed a three-part call on my life, to be a naturalist, a husband/father, and an evangelist (the first and last of these different than perhaps how we would normally think). Really the pastor and I might just be taking my own driveling output and reinserting it as “divine” input to create a delusional positive feedback loop. But it’s got my attention.

    Reply
  2. devilatdivschool Post author

    Here’s an email I sent the pastor a week after the conversation, reflecting some further – uh, – reflecting:

    Hi, __!

    This is __, the agnostic __ grad you talked with last week.

    Thanks again for calling and chatting with me.

    I have included positive reflections on our conversation on my blog, adevilatdivinityschool.wordpress.com . The blog is anonymous, and you are not named/designated, so in a sense it is doubly-blind for the readers (of whom there are few) regarding your identity. I don’t imagine you would object to any of my reflections but feel more than free to check and advise me if need be.

    I have thought about your words and your pieces of advice, to get plugged in to a vibrant church community, receive the laying on of hands and receive prayer. At the end of our conversation I agreed that these – especially the church community piece – would be good things for me to pursue.

    I think I will try to find ways I can be more involved in a church community going into this summer, especially knowing I will need a social outlet anyway since school will be out of session. Though I receive prayer from friends and pray with a congregation or class when it is led, I still have not sought out prayer or the laying on of hands and am a bit reluctant to do so. Because of my history of depression, anxiety, guilt and so forth I largely distrust my emotions and any circumstances which I think will play on or incite them, which includes a lot within church services and liturgy in general. Though I love something about the ceremony of ___, it freaks me out at the same time. I am not sure how I will deal with that.

    In a similar vein, I want to hear and appropriate your words but be cautious as well: I think in part because of my strong relationship with my Dad I have an exceedingly high trust of male figures who impress me and I naturally would trust you even more because of your official role as church leader. I am trying to critically push against those tendencies in order not to mis-appropriate good words, as I have done before, and be disappointed. In other words, I want to take advice like yours slowly.

    To the same end, I am trying to avoid foreshortening what is a very real and probably important and formative season in my life. My latest move has been asking about the experiences of a ___ grad atheist to hear ___ side of things. I think it would be very easy for me to return to the faith simply because I am surrounded by Christians and I think that would be a really vacuous, demeritorious reason to “believe”.

    I will continue to ponder your words, ___. In the mean time, pray for me when you remember to. All the best to ___ as it anticipates Holy Week!

    Thanks,

    ___

    Reply
  3. devilatdivschool Post author

    Thoughts from a friend on the post:

    First of all, I loved the writing! I loved the vulnerability! I loved the relaxed lack of need to find answers or connections!

    I don’t really have any other thoughts than that. I am really lonely too these days and find myself wanting a girlfriend pretty bad. I also have a lot of my own thoughts on porn that I should share with you at some point. I don’t have any connections to the myriad of ideas in the piece though.

    The one idea I did think of is that your grandma may have wanted to help you build a new ___, to be with you as the post-Christian ___ figures out how to be whoever he is becoming. Maybe that’s what the chair represented, a stronger version of you who is able to support others and is very different from the old ___. I don’t know why you handled it with tongs though (or if I am just totally off my rocker here…get it, “off my rocker!!!”)

    Anyway, we should talk about this later!

    Reply

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