Category Archives: Love

Scapeygoat

“Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another — physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion.” — The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

‘Twas beauty and romantic love
Did gyre and gimble in her heart:
All mimsy was the dreamed-up stuff
That caused her dreams to smart.

Beware the mythic blue-eyed Doll!
The hair that’s blonde, the cheek that’s white!
Beware Maureen, she comes in Fall,
bewitching folks she’s right.

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the diz’ying drink he drought.
To rape his girl was not his plan;
To love a doll he’d sought.

And as in uffish state she cow’red
Old Soaphead Church, with eyes ablaze,
Came promising an iris flower,
But doll-eyed death, the gaze.

One, two! One, two! The blood is shed!
Pecola’s self-esteem and child,
She left for dead, and dropped her head
Gone crazy for a smile.

“And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come, give an answer, Miss Pauline!”
Our sons and daughters in the stocks
Condemned; the Doll, serene.

‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.’  — Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

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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.

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?

The abuse of sharing “my testimony”

Christians love to share their testimonies, or life stories, or whatever you want to call it. These stories range in depth and scope depending on audience but they usually cover before you choose to believe and follow Christ and after, centering on Christ’s redemptive work in the middle. Christians share testimonies for a few reasons: to share their faith with a non-believer, to bolster the faith of another believer. What I have participated in most has been sharing testimonies for the purpose of getting “real”, being vulnerable with a small group I was participating in through choice (e.g. a Christian ministry) or compulsion (e.g. mandated by work or school). The intention is that, through showing who we all really are, we will better understand and love one another.

The intentions – increased love and understanding – are well and good. But the means? Is it really necessary to share my testimony in the way it is generally expected to accomplish these ends? Or do the ends even justify the means? Allow me to argue that small group testimony sharing as generally practiced is abusive.

It is abusive because the expectation is that you will give others some means to understand you better whether they merit this personal knowledge or not. That you all accept Jesus as Lord does not qualify you all to know each other personally. The idea is strange: we share the same presuppositions, we claim to have a mutual friend named Jesus, so we ought to spill all our beans to each other.

I am not arguing that privacy or secrets are somehow better than disclosure. The inability to let others into your life must surely be problematic for anyone desiring to thrive as a social being. Furthermore, there may be something powerful in confession, or at least discussing our inner thoughts with others, to help us reform our peccadilloes or idiosyncrasies. I am arguing that the information of who touched you when you were younger, or what makes your heart sing or why your father went to prison is information no one else has a right to, and thus small group testimony sharing operates on false and potentially destructive premises.

In small group settings there is a lot of pressure to perform, to be real, to expose your dirty laundry with all of its stains. The result is that many people feel pressured to say things they should not have to say or simply should not say or they end up spinning yarns that deceive others and conceal themselves. I love honesty. I love truth. But I’ll echo Bonhoeffer and say that truth belongs to those who deserve it.

I like Duke’s small groups and I like the idea of creating a vulnerable, authentic community. But I think the idea of “testimony time” needs some re-thinking. What would you recommend?

Accepting homosexuality: Millstone? Freedom?

The issue of homosexuality has been a major stumbling block in my faith since coming here.

I’m coming from a background which has not historically accepted any physical-sexual practice outside of marriage between one man and one woman. I believed that tradition’s teaching and was comfortable with it. (Perhaps I believed it because I was comfortable with it?) I’ve entered a place where some of my peers are homosexual and in homosexual relationships and practicing Christians. Anymore I don’t know what I believe although I have to confess I’m not fully comfortable with Christian homosexuals (or non-Christian homosexuals). (But I still want to be friends!) I’m sure it’s part of my upbringing and preferences, just like I was verbally and non-verbally raised to avoid parts of downtown because there were “blacks” there, probably “with guns”. I won’t even completely pass the buck — I continue to entertain thought and affection patterns which reinforce my biases. If only I didn’t!

I am glad that it’s not up to me to solve this issue for everyone. But, it’s an ambiguity I may need to solve for myself before committing to any philosophy.

Jesus has heavy words for both those who would try to lighten his followers’ loads and those who would try to bog his followers down. Check it:

“… whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” –Matt. 18.6

“[The religious leaders] tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger…. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.”  — Matt. 23

Which side is right? Certainly none of us want either option, do we? We don’t want to be condoning something wicked in God’s eyes that could disrupt or jeopardize others’ relationships to God. Nor do we want to force someone to deny themselves in a soul-crushing way. More to the point, we don’t want a millstone tied around our necks and we don’t want the charge of wrongfully morally burdening others.

I hope this post hasn’t been insensitive (though with my luck it probably has). I just want to share one of the hang-ups I have when it comes to faith (or ethics pursued outside of faith). Can anyone relate? What words would you share?

Other questions: To what lengths will we go, and what “biblical/theological” means will we employ, to justify fulfilling our desires or stay in society’s good graces?
It’s been shown, by people like Peter Enns, that Israel’s laws were not particularly unique when compared to those of surrounding Ancient Near East cultures. For example, the Bible speaks to a context in which slavery was accepted; Israelites and early Christians happened to view it as God-ordained. In our world today we reject slavery. Should we also reject “traditional” (heterosexual — etc., etc.) romantic love as the only acceptable kind?

Beauty, love, mystery

A related question to the question of God is whether our universe is a closed or open system, whether there are phenomena that cannot be quantified or logically explained, which have no natural explanation. Here I’m not so much going to consider traditional miracles as the phenomena of beauty, love and mystery in general.

Not long ago, I was exhausted from my studies and decided it was past-time I had taken a break. I decided to take a walk to a nearby park, to enjoy the fall foliage and listen to my Eric Whitacre Pandora station. Once I arrived I found myself drawn in toward a specific spot where I could sit and listen and look at the bright afternoon sun hit bright yellow leaves. As I sat, I listened to what I believe is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard — “Bogoroditse Devo raduysia” by the Rose Ensemble (album, Fire of the Soul).  People have different ways of describing what I felt in that moment: some would say they were “transported”, “moved”. I cried. I had a fucking stupid toothy grin on my face for that whole song and several songs following. My giddiness from the music was intensified when I moved to lie beneath those golden trees, staring up into their fingers of light. I felt, and have felt on similar occasions, that if I were doomed to die soon but could keep the sun and music just as they were at that moment without changing I would die perfectly happy.

I deeply hope you have had experiences like this yourself, what C.S. Lewis called “signposts” and believed were pointers to the joyful reality of God. In my mind now, these experiences – those of beauty – are one of the strongest supports for the truth of a transcendent reality. I say this because appreciating beauty so deeply is enshrouded in mystery. The only natural argument I can conceive of explaining these experiences would be one of stress-relief: that such experiences allowed early humans a way to escape from the dire necessities of their existence of gathering food, protecting their clan, etc. But, does that fully explain the intensity of the experience, the “strangeness” of it?

I know intense love of family and friends. It is mysterious to me, too; for example, my devotion towards my dad seems hardly beneficial to the propagation of humanity.  I don’t have a lot to say about romantic love from personal experience, but this too is strange, especially when it leads to relationships where no children are possible (for example, between elderly persons).

And as I described in my recent Fall experience the mystery is more than just that we experience beauty and love. The mystery is in the essence of those things themselves — who can experience them and be fully satisfied with natural explanations?

Of course, the person who commits to naturalism must be. They must deny that anything ever happens which is empirically inexplicable. For them, there can be no fairies, no dragons, no destiny or fate. Love and beauty, while still special, are merely internal experiences. There is no breathing room for the supernatural.

While I might end up at such a position, I am not ready to close the door to the supernatural yet.

Questions: A) What natural explanations exist for the experiences of beauty and love? (Those I gave are perhaps weak and unrefined.) B) Did I get the naturalist’s position wrong: is there in fact room for mystery for him? C) If there is no transcendent reality, if this visible universe is all there is, then are our existences somehow poorer, diminished, less fulfilling than if there were supernatural forces acting unseen?