Category Archives: Decisions

Meaning?

Here I will begin substantively responding to my questions about purpose (offhandedly addressing “the role my privileged and carefree life plays in my metaphysical quandaries” from my last post).

Viktor Frankl, a Viennese Jew, survived the horrors of Auschwitz and other camps for four plus years. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl writes about the grasp on meaning in life that made it possible for him and others to survive the camps.

One’s current life meaning (“current” because changed circumstances bring about different life meanings) can be discovered in three ways: “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” (Frankl 133).

This would put me in some kind of crisis, I suppose. Hmm. Well, Frankl would say I have to discover my meaning in one of those above ways, implying that surely for at least one of them I can conjure up some life meaning (he doesn’t let people have no meaning).

(1) Creating a work/Doing a deed. For now I can stay on top of my research language skills and reading to give me the most options for the fall. Either I will continue trying to succeed in Divinity School or take time away from it to pursue test prep tutoring. Both of these seem good steps towards a future in education/teaching, something I believe I enjoy.

(2) Experiencing something/Encountering someone. I’ll focus on experiencing something (or encountering some people) here. I hope to deepen friendships made here. To do this I think I will actually open up about being agnostic. It’s time. And, I don’t think I can really get close to people without disclosing this part of me. I also am looking forward to tutoring, and the very, very faint chance of doing some international travel this summer. Lastly, I look forward to lounging about, hiking, sex, children, marriage and such things. All in due time, all in due time.

(3) Attitude towards suffering. I feel this third way, finding meaning in suffering (though my suffering is minuscule compared to others’), probably strikes a chord with me the most. For the summer, my meaning would be to discover how a person who has everything up in the air and is thousands of dollars in the hole can succeed and thrive. Finding meaning might need to be through enduring, yet again, my depressive tendencies and state of total ambivalence about my life’s direction, while trying to remain optimistic, joyful, selfless all the while. Damn. I guess I have my summer’s work cut out for me.

Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square/Pocket, 1985. Print.

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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.”

Rough day

Today is a rough day. Last couple days actually. Defeated, discouraged, unmotivated. Running in circles. No God to turn to or hope in or invoke as giving my life a meaning transcending the random events that occur inside of it.

I have no idea what the hell my professors are talking about. I guess some of my classmates don’t either, but then they are generally looking to futures in ministry, not the academy. My reading assignments, worse than being crushing in amount, are impenetrable in content.

Content. Discontent. I am discontent, the removal of contents. I don’t feel empty. I feel the things inside of me becoming confused to the point they no longer make sense, have no meaning.

Saw my therapist today. A good man. We talked a little about these kinds of things. Today was partly a pep-talk: he gave me encouragement about my body image, he commended my character as persistent, not giving up. There’s some truth in that but it does little to help my motivational issues now, in the moment.

I see what he’s doing. I know he would like me to return to faith. We don’t usually talk about God but today he invoked God as a god of love that would approve my honesty and questions, doubts. I don’t know about the truth of those claims but it felt good. At least, very, very briefly. Back to the grindstone now, the Sisyphean task of studying shit I don’t believe anyway and couldn’t understand even if I did.

Also, in naming my persistence, he’s trying to call forth persistence. He wants me to stay here, perhaps because he thinks it’s good for me (and wants me to return to faith), perhaps also because he wants my business. Hard times for people with PhDs. Little demand. He wants to secure his job. I sound cynical but I won’t begrudge him that – I like meeting with him and may start meeting with him more often. (See how institutionalized I am – no escape!)

I will be a bit more critical of professors and the university enterprise. Honestly, probably a number of professors at the Divinity School are busy doing scholarship for the purpose of securing their job. They are creating niches for themselves with words. Writers do similar things, but then, writers generally don’t wield institutional power to judge the intellect and morality of their readers. People don’t follow shape-shifting scholastic chimeras into tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt because they read someone’s book: they do it because they were bewitched by a professor’s economic success, which they’ll call “brilliance”, “insight”, or “prophetic witness”.

Do you see why I am having motivational issues here?

But then, do I? I’m sure there are much deeper things. Or shallower ones – I’m just feeling depressed today. Time for me to realize depression doesn’t just come in “seasons”, it’s something present from day to day, some times more visible (exacerbated) than others.

Sorry/not sorry for the ranting. I thought it might be helpful to try a different kind of post today. I do like my therapist and appreciate what he did today and even his underlying hopes – that I return to God and have romantic success – though I may not share both of them, all the time. I appreciate them because those are what he believes are best and he wants them for me and I think C.S. Lewis is right in saying that that is love, to earnestly desire what you believe is best for another person.

I’m just gonna cut out here. No resolution. I hope the rest of the day is better, and tomorrow and Friday, too. Somehow I’ve got to keep on keepin’ on. When you don’t have God, when everything you study is impossible and when you think it may all be for nothing even 2 months from now, where do you find that strength?

I don’t quite know
How to say
How I feel

Those three words
Are said too much
They’re not enough

— Chasing Cars, Snow Patrol

How do I feel? Do my feelings really matter?

A friend recently saw through something I have known for a while. My questions and philosophizing about faith are pointless.

Everything hinges on the resurrection. Either it happened (for which there might be decent arguments), or it didn’t (for which there are decent arguments). I have decided I cannot reason my way to God, I can only Jesus my way to God, meaning I can either historically and spiritually accept Jesus’ resurrection and arrive at Christianity or historically and spiritually deny Jesus’ resurrection and arrive at non-Christianity. This seems to fit Jesus’ words on the subject (“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” — John 14.6). A third option for now would be to continue as an agnostic.

But the point is, all these “intellectual” questions I’m asking are not going to accomplish anything. Philosophers have both “proved” God’s existence and God’s non-existence. As mentioned in my post “Miracle?“, I think Donald Miller is right on about people not converting for intellectual reasons but for emotional ones.

“Emotional reasons” may be too much of a reduction. Our relationships (as I argued last week), bodies, wills, locales, education, hobbies, habits and choices surely factor in as well. How arbitrarily and complexly we are formed!

Henceforth I want to examine these non-rational issues regarding faith and life. I want to look at the intersection(s) of feeling and thought and belief and decision, etc. If mental disorders have taught me anything, it’s that many pieces constitute the whole given whenever someone drops the question “How’s it goin’?”. The same goes for “What are you thinkin’ about?”.

What are you thinkin’ about? Does this make any sense? Should I give “reason” another chance?

“You are who you hang with”. Must I be?

It would be worthwhile to explore the effect community is having on my beliefs even while it is happening.

I mean this:

I came in as a conservative, inerrantist-leaning believer. Then I found Christian pluralism and the silence of God in my life too hard to reconcile with my presuppositions. So I dropped belief and became a skeptic and agnostic.

Skepticism provides no m.o. so I have defaulted to certain patterns. To name them, I would say I am operating under pragmatism, self-interest, and Christian-informed ethics.

My skepticism allows me both to question the point of divinity school in general if there is no god, but also opens me to the idea that, if there is a right way of believing and practicing, Duke — with its mainstream, sola scriptura sed non nuda scriptura (idea I take from Daniel Treier, that Christians best use Scripture as the only divine authority but not divorced from tradition) approach to scripture and tradition, historical-criticism-informed biblical interpretation, and narrative based ethics — might have it. (I should probably drop the idea there is one right way of doing anything…)

If I do not come into contact with communities I can trust and identify with that hold different belief systems, I will probably eventually accept some version of Ducal Christianity. It would be the only option I have; there is nothing else before me.

In fact, I’m calling it now — I am going to become a Christian believer again. Considering my background and environment, the community of friends I most identify with here, I just see it so plainly before me. And that excites me; I’m happy about it: frankly, agnosticism/skepticism, while eradicating much of my guilt, have a metaphysical emptiness resulting in an existential sadness.

But I’m not at that point yet, and I also find this fated “return to the fold” sad, a failure on my part to push the skeptical envelope.

What could I do to avoid merely “becoming who I hang with” (to paraphrase dear old Mum)?

1) Drop out (problems here — I need a job, I want to teach something in university someday, Mum and Dad would not be happy).

2) Study somewhere else for a semester (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), for example – I could be comfortable in that environment if simultaneously frustrated with the foreshortened scholastic inquiry. However, now that I’m in Durham I don’t want to move).

3) Temporarily associate with a church or religion quite foreign to me (I don’t want to do this).

Questions: What other options do I have? Should I reconsider any of the above three?

How can we avoid being conditioned by the ones we most trust into the beliefs we have and hold?

If we can’t, how can we really believe Christianity is truth?

If people’s beliefs are determined by those they most closely associate with and if Christianity is truth, how can people growing up in non-Christian societies be faulted by God, a long-held soteriological position?