Category Archives: Mystery

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.

Advertisements

The religion of Naturalism

Every worldview necessarily has presuppositions that can only be accepted by presuppositions canonical to that worldview. Jenny believes God exists because she believes the authority of Scripture and testimony of others; she believes those witnesses are trustworthy because they exalt the name of God. George believes god does not exist because he believes certain philosophers’ words on the matter; he believes those philosophers because they don’t posit anything as ridiculous as a god. These are facile examples but I really think all reasoning and argument is ultimately circular.

Naturalism itself is a kind of religion. It has…

A myth of origin: evolutionary, non-Big-Bang theory science

A definition of the human “problem”: insufficient knowledge, superstition, ignorance

A salvific event: the Enlightenment

A church: the secular academy

Prophets: the philosophes, e.g. Voltaire; other philosophers; Darwin and other scientists

A means of redemption: rejection of theism, superstition, and ignorance

A trajectory: death after life but hopefully progress and prosperity for future generations

As a skeptic, I cannot even accept a system like Naturalism except as another form of religion.

And unfortunately, skepticism has its own problematic presupposition: that nothing can be known for certain, which is self-defeating, because if nothing can be known for certain, then we can’t know for certain that nothing can be known for certain and thus that presupposition is nonsense.

What I must accept is that life is mystery. In fact, no one knows very much. And little to nothing for certain. So I’m no less able to know what the hell is going on than anyone else. And that’s OK. At least, I need to try to be okay with that ambiguity.

How are you in love? Tell me about that. The big Nikki love. Tell me about it, I wanna understand it.

-Tiffany
Silver Linings Playbook, dir. David O. Russell

Look at me. I am Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) in Silver Linings Playbook. I am hot. I am angry. I have been running after you and I want to know what it is I am missing.

Replace “Nikki” with “God” in the quote.

American Protestants talk a lot about God’s love, as though they feel it. They talk about their relationship with God as if God talks to them.

I used to claim similar things: “Jesus loves you. I know it – because he loves me.” “I think God’s trying to teach me __[humility, trust, patience – insert Christianese term here]__.” Those kinds of claims sound hyperbolic and largely meaningless to me now.

What did I mean by “I know Jesus loves me” or “God’s trying to teach me ___”? At the time I honestly believed in God’s love and instruction. I believed it because of my church’s (and my own) interpretation of the Bible, because I trusted the authority of my spiritual parents and predecessors, because I had certain aesthetic, emotional and/or psychological experiences I interpreted as being ordered somehow by God.

But in the last few years I stopped making these kinds of claims and tried to speak more accurately about my experience of faith. I stopped positing most claims of “Yes, I felt God hug me this morning” or “God made me miss my bus so I could meet an old lady at the bus stop and help her on”. I began to say only what I could derive from the Bible (sometimes tradition). This allowed me to maintain my integrity of proclamation, be true to my experience, say things I thought were true, still engage in Christian conversation, and challenge unfounded notions about the activity of God in our world.

I think many of my friends cause themselves to believe that God is communicating or acting in ways God is not. And I think this is dangerous. There is a reason Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac fills non-Christians with terror while inspiring Christians with hope. The Christians celebrate Abraham’s trust in God’s wisdom and sovereignty. Non-Christians fear what filicide or other tragedy will happen next by someone claiming they hear the voice of God.

I imagine my friends who say they talk with God and feel His love think those interactions are really happening but are misguided. I do not want to project my former (believed) experience of God on others: I simply may not have had that “touchy-feely” kind of relationship with God. I was what might be called a “wintry Christian”. Because of psychological issues I distrust my emotions and try to separate emotional responses from my beliefs.

Perhaps I am all wrong: perhaps my friends really do hear from or feel God and God just never willed that kind of relationship for me (for which I would be pissed, but that is for another post).

So: “Tell me about it”.

Christians, would you say God communicates to you? How? Do my friends sound too mystic regarding God’s communication? Do they sound too restricted, Bible-based? What quality/quantity of communication indicates a person might not have a relationship with God? What quality/quantity of “communication” indicates a person might be imagining things?

Post-Christians, did you (like me) discard the moniker “Christian” because of the “silence of God” in your life? Were there times you thought God was communicating with you? Do you still think God formerly communicated with you?

Non-Christians, have you ever thought it was possible a transcendent being was trying to communicate with you? Why are so many people convinced a transcendent being communicates with them? What criteria should they examine to determine whether they are right or not?

Miracle?

Recently a friend asked me how I would respond if I witnessed a miracle, something that could only be explained with supernatural causes, right now.

I said first it would scare the shit out of me.

Then I would question it: I would want to know why god wanted to reveal a miracle to me, what god’s purpose was in doing that; I would want to know all the details – what really happened, and how, etc. I hate ambiguity. I learned this through studying language – I always want to know why there are the slightest exceptions to grammatical rules. This hatred also explains my very direct romantic attempts/approach: if I’m interested in someone I do not beat around the bush about it (usually).

I had to also confess to my friend that I could become completely bogged down in these questions, perhaps much as I am currently in my faith life. Perhaps I ought to let things be, but I cannot find myself able to do so.

Eventually I told him I would emotionally “shut down” to the experience. My friend said this – the emotional reaction – is what he wanted me to tell him about the whole time. I distrust my emotions. I have a history of clinical depression, anxiety (social- and stress-induced), panic attacks, slight-OCD and paranoia: after this deluge of emotion mixed in with my faith life it is hard to let myself trust or give myself over to my emotions ever. Because of this, I think it is possible I would seek a way to explain the miracle away so I did not have to emotionally respond to it at all.

Donald Miller writes in Blue Like Jazz that people do not walk away from Christianity for intellectual reasons but for emotional ones. I think it is important to recognize the role emotion plays in belief. Anyone who denies emotion affects belief – be they deist or Marxist or naturalist or Catholic – is wrong: it is a Modern dream that people believe things solely because they are empirical or rational. We believe things because of reason, we hope, but also because of the community we were raised in, the community and place we are currently in, the preferences we have, the emotions we have, the bodies we have, the wills we have. I think belief is largely a choice but maybe not even wholly a choice. Perhaps Paul was on to something when he said faith was a gift of God.

I hope to engage these ideas – the role of factors other than intellect, especially emotion or place, on our beliefs; why I have walked away from Christianity; etc. – further in future posts. But for now suffice it to say that I may not be open to a miracle even if I saw one. A different friend of mine said as much happened to him – he saw miracles while in Haiti but did not allow them to affect him or his faith at all. Jesus spoke to this: he said that many will see but not perceive or hear but not understand.

If so, what could I do in the event of a miracle? I think I could only respond as my conscience best dictated, trying to open my mind to the real possibility of the miracle but simultaneously relying on my best judgment and Ockham’s razor. I think I would be an uncomfortable incarnation of believer and devil’s advocate. I think I would be much as I am now.

Questions: A) Why do miracles always seem to be unverified by modern, critical methods? Is it because verifying them would somehow miss the point? Or is it because the only miracles that can persist are the unverifiable ones, the hoaxes? B) Why would God want to avoid verification? C) Can people blind themselves to truth? Or, can/does God blind people to God/the truth (i.e., am I Calvinistically-, soteriologically-fucked)?

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?