Category Archives: Agnosticism

It is finished

Well. Hello again. This is embarrassing. I mean, it’s just been a while. Anyway, yeah, I finished a Master’s at Duke – finally. Not the one I came in with. That was the Master of Theological Studies. But I finished a shorter degree called the Master of Arts of Christian Studies. Besides joking with people that I have become “divine” on completing Divinity school (and seriously I look more like traditional portrayals of Jesus now than ever before in my life – getting close in age, too…), I have told people my MACS degree means I “study the Christians”. Which may not be so far off, especially since I consider myself at least somewhat apart from that designator, but what I did with my MACS and the tone of the program is much less judgmental and removed than “studying Christians”. Duke Divinity would probably like it better if it was described simply as it is named – a Master’s-level education in the arts of Christian studies – those (academic) pursuits that people tend to be drawn towards due to (their) Christian faith.

I think that’s about all I want to say at this point. I am far less “gung-ho”, for lack of a better term, about my “agnosticism” now. I don’t want to say I’m a Christian, but I don’t want others to say I’m not a Christian, if that makes any kind of sense. And not because I want an “in” so I can bone Christian women, though, that would be a decent reason. But because neither of those are fully accurate. I am different now, but also very much the same as I ever was. Certain beliefs and values have gained vastly more or less importance than was true before, but I don’t feel there has been some entire kind of severance from the old – read, pre-doubting (~2011?) – me.

I’m not in any kind of rush to see where I will go next, or what I will think next, though I would like to return to “the fold” some day. I’m also not in any kind of rush to self-improve, which, meh, kind of bothers me, should probably bother me more. But then, I was burning the “All for Christ” torch of self-mastery for most of my life before all this, and I think I’m just tired. Teaching middle school will make you tired too. Really tired. But more on that for another day. For now- cheers!

And, Duke – meh. You were really not my favorite place. Your students were extremely pretentious, fairly profligate, and riding the environmentally/racially/gender/politically/theologically/socially-conscious train frequently less consciously than they should have. In contrast, your professors were largely brilliant, decent, even kind human beings. But stop trying to be an Ivy-league school. Your education just is not worth the price you put on it. Especially when I know thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of my dollars went unnecessarily to building campaigns and athletic programs.

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House of Cards

The following are writings of C.S. Lewis on faith and understanding. He reached these realizations through great suffering, but you don’t need to suffer like Lewis to hear his point: our perceptions of reality are often skewed and unfounded, in need of razing (He writes “All reality is iconoclastic.”). Hence the beauty and truth of, and opportunity for new creation from, a scattered house of cards.

“Bridge-players tell me that there must be some money on the game ‘or else people won’t take it seriously.’ Apparently it’s like that. Your bid — for God or no God, for a good God or the Cosmic Sadist, for eternal life or nonentity — will not be serious if nothing much is staked on it. And you will never discover how serious it was until the stakes are raised horribly high, until you find that you are playing not for counters or for sixpences but for every penny you have in the world. Nothing less will shake a man — or at any rate a man like me — out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.

And I must surely admit — H. would have forced me to admit in a few passes — that, if my house was a house of cards, the sooner it was knocked down the better. And only suffering could do it. But then the Cosmic Sadist and Eternal Vivisector becomes an unnecessary hypothesis.

Is this last note a sign that I’m incurable, that when reality smashes my dreams to bits, I mope and snarl while the first shock lasts, and then patiently, idiotically, start putting it together again? And so always? However often the house of cards falls, shall I set about rebuilding it? Is that what I’m doing now?

Indeed it’s likely enough that what I shall call, if it happens, a ‘restoration of faith’ will turn out to be only one more house of cards. And I shan’t know whether it is or not until the next blow comes — when, say, fatal disease is diagnosed in my body too, or war breaks out, or I have ruined myself by some ghastly mistake in my work. But there are two questions here. In which sense may it be a house of cards? Because the things I am believing are only a dream, or because I only dream that I believe them?

…. God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.

…. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.”

— C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

AGNOSTIC FINISHES FIRST YEAR AT SEMINARY

Meaningful bench.

Meaningful bench.

That is the headline on my paper today. I did it! I can’t believe I did but I did!

The photo I’m posting is a picture of a bench. But it’s not just any bench. It’s the bench I was sitting on when I resolved to stick through the rest of the semester that day I wrote Rough Day; the day I made a game plan for how I would manage it.

I created and attached meaning to my life on that bench. When you’re an agnostic, that’s a big deal. But now that the goal, getting through the first year, has been met I will need to re-evaluate what the hell I am doing.

A note about community. You know, although in Drawn I said I was not sure I could trust myself to the people here, I think I find myself feeling very different now (who would have guessed, seeing as place forms person (integrating yet another post — “You are who you hang with.” Must I be?)). As I see it now, I have started a journey with these people. And now that the first year is done I would feel a little as if I was abandoning them if I gave up. But I think I could lose any guilt or qualms over that. What’s more significant is that I feel like if I quit I would be missing out on the adventure. Though even my closest friendships here are not super close, I feel invested in seeing our collective class succeed. I am very curious about what will become of these people, how they will change (or “grow”, to use a Christian word).

A note about the wild. The outdoors are a great love of mine and somewhere I have grown accustomed to spending summers. Though I wanted to spend the summer in a beautiful place in the forest where I can hike and such things, I was doubly rejected from such opportunities because of my agnosticism. Tell the truth and get what you don’t want. Whatever. I hope friends of mine doing field placements (summer ministry internships at churches) in the mountains have a good time. I will try to visit them 🙂 (my first emoticon in this blog — what solipsism is this blog coming to?)

This summer I should have time to think about the important things. Part of my task will be identifying what exactly those are. Preliminarily I will do that here: plans for the Fall/Spring ’15 (almost certainly I will be in Durham regardless of whether I continue studies), community/lack thereof in Durham, career potentials, ambitions, beliefs, identity formation, the role my privilege and carefree life plays in my metaphysical quandaries. Beliefs will be important: During an exam I was taking this week I realized I have proved to myself now that God cannot be proved or disproved. I think. I feel like this is some kind of starting place as I form my new identity.

I’ll also need to ask when I have been happy, what I was doing, and what the hell it is I think I want in life (these are certainly related to the questions above).

And another thing: I need the freedom to be agnostic. Who would restrain me from such choice? Honestly, my counselor could. I trust older men so much that I might find myself chained by his judgments. I think this is something I’ll have to talk with him about — I need to know that he’d be OK if I stayed agnostic and never came back, or wanted to come back, to the faith. Because as our sessions have been going he speaks about God or assumes God’s love and work in my life quite freely and I just don’t know if he would be OK with me choosing to remain agnostic.

That’s my update for now. I am just really excited that I am all done with year one. I had a lot of odds against me. Being an agnostic in seminary ain’t easy. And not only did I complete the year, I think I ended it really well! I’ll have to see once my final work gets returned but I felt pretty good about all of it. Hurray!

Why did I ever (stop) believ(e/ing) in the first place?

Recently I was writing to someone who became an atheist while at our undergrad. They had asked me when I started doubting and why I went to seminary. I wrote an email in response explaining not only when I started doubting, but why I believed in the first place. I’ll reproduce that email in part later on.

Interesting though that a couple days later, perhaps even the next day, I talked with one of the foremost metaphysical philosophers in this country about faith and he, too, raised the question before me of why I started doubting. However, when I mentioned that I felt like for every intellectual argument for God there was a tantamount counter-argument, his insight to share was that there are no knock-down drag-out arguments in many spheres of life. Politics, for example. Thus he finds it strange that people get so worked up about these things in the area of religion. And that got me to ask myself the opposite question: If there aren’t any wholly convincing arguments for naturalism (or a closed universe or what have you), why bother leaving theism?

This doesn’t positively yield a reason to believe but may remove reason for having jumped ship to begin with. I know in “You are who you hang with”… I said I could see myself coming back to the faith. Actually, I think that verdict is out (again). If anything, I feel many more intellectual/emotional/spiritual moves are going to have to happen before I could call myself a Christian again.

The philosopher’s right that intellectual alternatives to faith probably are not necessarily superior: there are good arguments both ways. But what of the tensions I had had: A god that sanctifies me yet I seem to be getting worse? A god that “speaks” to his people but I hear nothing? These tensions are very real and seem easier answered/dealt with by rejecting the premise of god than anything else. But, then again, my assumptions about God’s sanctification, my moral dynamism, God’s communication, and my reception could and probably should be called into question (that is, if I want to make my Christian friends happy).

Again, we’ll see. Too much thinking/writing to do for the end of the year for now.

 

Excerpts from email to atheist fellow alum:

“I think I should start with why I ever believed (I’m writing for me prob’ly more than you now but I will answer your questions later – skip this if you want!). I believed because as a 10 year old thinking on my own about my grandmother’s death no coping resource was available to me but belief in a god. I had other issues – S.A.D., ridiculous amounts of HW, loneliness -then driving me to seek help beyond myself, beyond what I thought my parents could give. The idea to believe in God came from the church we attended I imagine. That summer I went to a summer camp which reinforced my new belief-choices; it was a positive experience from all I can recall. At that time I felt that I had or was experiencing God. I changed somehow between 10 and 11 and became more intentionally social and friendly; a lot of behavior issues went away.

“My faith interests continued and were nurtured by church through my middle school and high school days. Then my faith got really mixed in with depression, guilt, social anxiety late in high school. My faith didn’t diminish, and probably wasn’t completely the source of my depression, but I really languished as a person.

“Going to [college] I did the orientation program which I felt gave new life to my beliefs, and my self esteem. I “re-dedicated” my life to Jesus and started dealing with my depression more head-on ([the college]’s counseling center was crucial there). Experiences on [my orientation] made me think I was really seeing God at work in my life and the lives of others.

“Believing I was seeing God at work in my life and others’ continued through [college], probably with occasional lapses, certainly with occasional doubts. The real doubts started [later].

“___ died at [camp] in the summer of 2009, when I was working there. It was quite possibly a suicide; at best it was a tragic accident that would not have happened if he had been a little more stable.

“Though only an acquaintance, I had seen that things were not going well for ___. I had heard some stories. And I knew my own history of mental illnesses well enough to see myself in what he has going through that summer. Through the summer I prayed for ___, repeatedly. And with friends. I prayed specifically that God would protect him, and spare him from suffering. Suicide was included in those appeals, if only implicitly because I was afraid to speak the word.

“Well, the end of the summer comes and ___ is dead and I am thinking, “Wow – really pulled through for us there, God. Thanks a lot.” Those events really hurt my faith in God’s goodness, but it eventually rebounded after some time and recommended reading from a prof.

“More or less since that time though I have “felt” God’s presence very little. [Late summer 2012,] I started noticing how “sinful” my life was. I guess I don’t need to use quotes. Whether porn use and masturbation is sinful or not, hatred and lust and anger in my heart are certainly dark things. And all this while the Spirit was supposed to be alive, at work inside me?

“This tension of “sinning but indwelt by God” became compounded by noticing the silence of God in my life. Wasn’t God supposed to communicate with God’s people? And I started discovering suitable intellectual alternatives to theism, in Freudian psychology, in historical-criticism, in Hitchen’s critiques, discoveries only added to by my Duke education. In the end it seemed more sensible to let go of the tensions and accept the alternatives. “Either God does not exist or I don’t have a relationship with him” was one of my last thoughts in the process. Hence my agnosticism.”

Atheists Among Us

Atheists Among Us.

What follows is the text from the above link. Enjoy! (This explains – partly – why I, an agnostic, go to church. And why you should like having me at your church!)

April 9, 2014

Molly Baskette

“For the rest of you who are in mixed marriages—Christian married to non-Christian—we have no explicit command from the Master. So this is what you must do. If you are a man with a wife who is not a believer but who still wants to live with you, hold on to her. If you are a woman with a husband who is not a believer but he wants to live with you, hold on to him. The unbelieving husband shares to an extent in the holiness of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is likewise touched by the holiness of her husband.” – 1Corinthians 7:12-14

There’s a bumper sticker on a car in my neighborhood that never fails to chap my hide. “God is just pretend,” it gloats.

It angers me because the driver of that car is not just trying to state their (non-) belief. They are trying to undermine the belief of others.

But not all atheists are like that, and we shouldn’t tar them with the same brush.

There’s an atheist who comes to our church regularly. He’s married to a committed Christian. I often see him in the kitchen, doing dishes at coffee hour. When his wife joined the church, she said at one of our new members’ classes, “Steven just can’t believe that you accept him for who he is—even though he doesn’t believe in God. You even let him do the dishes.”

Uh, yeah. We’re really liberal that way. We will let absolutely anybody do our dishes.

Some positive psychology research suggests that churchgoing makes people happier, and more generous. Even the atheists report higher satisfaction with life as a result of regular engagement with a community of faith. (Tell that to your 14-year-old when he sulkily insists he shouldn’t have to go to church anymore because he doesn’t believe in God.)

I don’t have stats on it, but anecdotal evidence says the reverse is true too: the atheists and agnostics in our churches make our life together better. When they ask challenging questions, they make believers examine their faith and throw out the fluff. And when the people who say they “don’t believe all that much” pray out loud: well, I feel the power of those prayers more than the pretty words of those to whom prayer is as natural as breathing.

And then: there are those dirty dishes. They won’t do themselves.

Sometimes, our scriptures seem a little incomplete, like this bit from Corinthians. Because holiness flows, not just from the believer to the unbeliever, but in both directions.

Prayer

O Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelievers—and not by making them just like me. Amen.