Category Archives: Identity (formation)

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.

Spectrum of spectra

Right and wrong, black and white, male and female, salt and pepper.

If you’re like me, you grew up thinking in binary; something was either one thing or the other.

My liberal arts education, even at a Christian college, helped rattle that notion, that things like morality were black and white, but the binary thinking is largely still there. I suppose another part of the reason it lingers is my hatred for ambiguity. Whatever the case I propose that we think more along a spectrum than we seem to about many things : politics, gender, race, etc. Here I want to consider sexual orientation, mental health, and belief.

I owe my housemate on this one. One night I was talking with a friend and my housemate at a bar about sexual orientation and my housemate offered up that he thought of sexual orientation as on a spectrum. This was some time ago, and initially I balked against this; my knee-jerk reaction was to think “No – what’s natural is for men to be attracted to women and women to men. Our society is pulling up its own anchors in the name of freedom and confusing its citizens by giving them the freedom to choose to be attracted to something unnatural. There is no spectrum; only the choice of affirming the natural heterosexual desire or denying it.” But, since then I have come more to agree with my housemate. The things we observe seem to support him: there are people who are attracted to people of the opposite sex, same sex, both sexes, neither, etc. And he used a helpful analogy. He said though he had a low score on the Kinsey scale he knew if he had to have sex with a man he would pick a man he thought was attractive (in this case, Brad Pitt). That he has an idea of who are and are not attractive men does not support his spectrum view of sexuality but that we can conjecture about the strength of our own attraction to men and/or women with something like the Kinsey scale does.

Thinking about sexual orientation in terms of a spectrum makes more sense out of human experience than the traditional binary I was raised with. Adopting this view raises many questions but it can also help someone (in this case a man) with an upbringing like mine (conservative Christian) to be at peace with a thought like “Wow — that is a handsome guy” and not worry that I have become homosexual or been abandoned to sin by God or something like that. I don’t think many conservative Christians intentionally push those messages, but they don’t try to eliminate them either. And, of course, “homosexual/gay” do not have to be bad words or be equivalent with “abandoned to sin” either. The American church, especially the conservative church, absolutely needs to abolish moral judgments made on others solely based on their orientations.

Depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder. All these are words we attach to certain sets of symptoms. We then typically define ourselves or others by them. People become “depressed” or “OCD”. Using labels we or others become the illnesses we have. And then, through Baconian-inspired evaluations of human bodies and minds, those with mental illnesses become inferior, lesser, worse, even more wicked than those “without”.

I talk with others about “my depression” to the point that I hate the sound of the words as they pass my lips. I think its helpful to call things what they are and speak frankly, but I say “depression” as if I am lumped in some category setting me apart from anyone without clinical depression and putting me in with everyone with it. Is my story as boring and simple as that? No, in fact I experience life in ways that could be common to anyone from Rasputin to Norman Rockwell and particular to no one but me. It seems the truth is that we all have ways we think or feel which are not ideal, which are harmful or debilitating to some extent. Because of this, I probably shouldn’t even use the word “depression” to define my own experience: I must be defined by something else. (That’s for another post.)

Lastly I wanted to address belief. Again, “my agnosticism” are words I have come to hate the sound of (the way I pronounce them is particularly grating to the ear any way, and I’m particular about sounds). But besides being discordant, perhaps such terminology is wrongheaded. Sexuality, emotions, thoughts, beliefs — these things are so personal and individuated. Rather than thinking in terms of either belief or disbelief/unbelief, would it not be better to think across a range? We would have to agree on the content first; the easiest example is god, or god’s omni-benevolence. But then rather than asking “Do you believe?” we could ask “How do you believe? What do you believe less? What do you believe more?” And talking about belief, or any of these matters, as if it’s something static, unchanging seems puerile too. We each have our own individual paths of belief and who can say where they’ll take us?

We’ve discussed the “spectra”; now for the “spectrum”. (This is where it gets meta.) I don’t want to get nominalistic or abuse our entire language of abstract ideas. But I want to consider some linkages. Sexuality, mental health and belief. Could these things not be each other? More than merely affecting one another, can I talk about sexuality as mental health and belief, and mental health as sexuality and belief, and belief as sexuality and mental health? Rob Bell talks such in SexGod, and better still, Rowan Williams writes beautifully about sexuality and faith in “The Body’s Grace.” We could tease these ideas out further but a benefit of this view is the integrating factor it bears on the individual.

These are just some thoughts I’m exploring. Feedback welcome.

 

New blog?

I am getting ready to shed the skin of this identity: the devil at divinity school. I don’t want to be “a devil” anymore. I don’t want to be “a divinity school” student anymore.

I’ve thought about continuing blogging in another blog, a new one (you’d have to ask me the url; I might tell you). I don’t need a blog to help me define myself but I certainly may use one. The names I have thought of are “screwed-up, not a screw-up”, “bruised, not broken”, or “ashes”. These names kind of suck — suggestions welcome. The content would be on the same topics and ideas but also more writings about literature, movies. I am a fairly analytical reader, and I might use the blog to post my readings of certain pieces of art and get responses.

I also have some poetry I’d probably post to it. Below is a poem of mine on Endo’s Silence. This book has been pretty significant for me this past year and through this blog. I wrote this poem for a class I took first semester. It should be read after having read the book, but please enjoy even if you haven’t read Silence. (A “fumie” is a small wooden carving or image of Christ or Mary. Fumies were banned at this time in Japan.)

Sacrifice

“He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man…. The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.” — Silence, Shusaku Endo

christ s purest face in dreams i d see
i m christ s i used to comfort me
now christian faces all ablaze
surrender all to god for me

japan s a swampland and a maze
oppressing christ the silent gaze
of padre god are you still here
ferreira tempts my fall from grace

betraying what i ve held most dear
the screams of martyrs in my ear
a hideous christ shouts trample me
i join the mocking spitting jeers

i drop my foot the martyrs free
i m judas yet you died for me
a new life christs inside of me
a new life christ s inside of me

“‘My struggle was with Christianity in my own heart.’” — Okada San’emon, formerly Sebastian Rodriguez, in Silence, Shusako Endo

the fidelity of betrayal

My dream has been to live a comfortable life as a Christian family man with Christian friend groups in a nice suburb. Being a professor became part of that vision in the last couple years. Living in the vicinity of great natural beauty would be nice as well.

The kicker: one could say I have “betrayed” myself, my loved ones and the faith. Yes, apostasy is betrayal. Yet as I see it, I have risked all those things (“crucified my flesh”, to use biblical language) in my pursuit of truth and my aim to obey my conscience. By saying the tenets of Christianity cannot be proven and are difficult to believe, I have risked and am risking my friend groups, my potential desired mates (conservative Christian women mostly), and my future dreams and plans. I am actually taking the claims of Christianity very seriously, probably moreso than many of my peers at divinity school. Inevitably some of them will find themselves in my shoes in the future, only they will have a ministry, a church at stake. I hope they can be true when that time comes.

I said I have crucified my flesh; I could have said “lost my life for [truth’s] sake” as well. I am not using these flippantly. In a context of cultural Christianity, perhaps forsaking all for the sake of truth, or even Christ, looks exactly like what I am doing. How else could I know how committed I am to truth than to risk all the external forms of Christian-ness in a culture where being a Christian — going to church, having bible study friends, upholding “Christian” values, claiming the Christian god — is the norm, the status quo? (I’m speaking specifically of my own Christan sub-culture here, but contrary to popular conservative Christian belief, Christianity is even a dominant way of life in our wider public sphere. Trust me. Living abroad or becoming an agnostic will show you how dominant Christians are in the American public sphere.) When put like this, the title of Peter Rollins’ book — The Fidelity of Betrayal — actually makes some sense (though I have yet to read it or know its contents in the slightest). Do not Jesus’ words about hating mother and brother and father for his sake make more sense in this light as well?

Shusaku Endo’s Silence is about this idea in my read: The greatest expression of the protagonist’s internal commitment to Christ comes ironically through externally denying Christ. Endo writes a historical fiction about the life of a Portuguese priest who comes to 17th century Japan to provide leadership to a persecuted underground Catholic church. Through Endo’s fascinating book, the relationship of Christ and Judas becomes a motif. If I have it right, Endo provides a beautiful read of what happened between them. Christ commands Judas “What thou doest, do quickly” knowing Judas must do it, and wishing for Judas’ pain in his action to be as quick as possible. Though it looks like Judas spurns the love of Christ through betraying him, in fact, he obeys Christ in a way that is necessary and that breaks both of their hearts. Prima facie, it seems Christ then dies “on the tree” (Gal. 3.13) for nothing. Does the reader not have similar misgivings about Judas’ death on a tree, that he dies a miserable failure, misgivings that might belie the truth?

I seem even to myself to be a traitor. For most of my life, Christ has been in some way real to me and my relationship to Christ has been central to my self-understanding. Right now, I do not affirm Christ’s resurrection. Nor do I deny it. Perhaps before all is through I will deny it. And perhaps, much as I wish to the contrary, Christ didn’t resurrect. I think the takeaway is that what I am going through is a difficult process of discerning who I really am that highlights what my deep-rooted values are and how much I can risk in allegiance to those values. Not that I have ever once narrated my life to myself through the story of Wolverine (eyebrow raise — doubtful frown), but like him I am a survivor who has endured much. The scars are invisible to others, remembered only to me. They remind me how much I have taken and that I can still take more. Though I wish to come through this by being a Christian again, believing in Christ again, I will be glad that I have been true to myself and risked much of what is dear to me towards that effort regardless of my future positions on faith.