Category Archives: Psychology

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.

 

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!

Chiming in: the red pill reveals that there is no red pill

Image

It’s been a while. Here’s a brief update of where I am right now.

Still pretty happy in my agnosticism. It took some philosophical hits recently as I was thinking about the ontological and cosmological arguments for God, which I know have their problems but also have some merits. Meaning in language/behaviour and the intelligibility/order of our world – these things too have given me pause. But I think I’ll need sufficient reason to return to faith, and these things, even as a cumulative case, fail to give it.

Depression is moody. I mean, some days are good, some are not. As said in my last post (Rough day – for what it’s worth the following Wednesday was great!), I’m coming to terms with the lifelong daily battles I will have with it.

I also have come to think of myself as having Modernist objectives in a postmodern context: I want some kind of absolute objective Truth in an intellectual world where that whole enterprise has been laughed to scorn, and rightly so. I feel as if I am for the first time running up against the fish-tank walls of my existence and recognizing them for walls, knowing they limit my perspective and capacities for problem-solving and can never be transcended (O, to be a fish with wings!). Up to now, I was swimming in the same tank but blissfully unaware that I was in a tank. You might ask how I can know I’m in a tank – touche. All the same, I believe there are limits to my understanding and reasoning based on what “respected academics” tell me about the world I inhabit. (Is this a reductio ad absurdum within post-modernism? That if one’s perspectives are limited and socially-conditioned, she may be unable to perceive those limits and that conditioning?)

The following quasi-verse (quasi-poem would suggest I actually went to the trouble of reading it back to myself after writing it) intimates what I have been discussing decently well. Bear in mind, I have freely borrowed many phrases and lines here.

In.

Pulling the curtain back, and going through.

Beyond the man frantically at work behind the curtain.

Beyond the machine that makes him more than a man.

Beyond the table, the incense, the ark and its mercy seat.

Going still further back.

“I’m breaking through, I’m bending spoons, I’m keeping flowers in full bloom, I’m looking for answers from The Great Beyond.”

Why must I hunt this wily snipe, chase this wild goose, pursue this damned chimera, as if answers are there to be found?

I don’t know what I think.

I am aware that I am not fully aware…

Damned red pill. Can’t I go back to conservative evangelicalism or even fundamentalism and stay there?

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?

Self-loathing, suicide, seminary

People hate, hurt, and kill themselves at seminary. I’m not writing this to attack seminaries, but to dispel notions that seminarians have their shit together more than anyone else. We’re broken people, too.

A friend told me last week that she had been considering suicide. Not all the time, but occasionally. She might still be. I love her a lot, she has good friends, and she’s doing better in her classes this semester than last. But all the same emptiness and self-hate surge through her life. She made relationship decisions she wasn’t proud of last semester, ones that reverberate still. Family hasn’t been very supportive. Thoughts of finding work and paying off her amassed debt after graduating are depressing.

A recent study conducted by Duke showed that ministers are twice as likely to suffer from depression than the general population (Clergy More Likely to Suffer from Depression, Anxiety). The reasons for this are many and I don’t really want to get into them all here. I think a lot of it though comes from unreal expectations/thoughts that laypeople have of their “Christian leaders”. And I hope to disabuse them of some of these beliefs.

It seems the primary belief to address is that Christian leaders are qualitatively different from the rest of us. This explains how they can do so much, and have energy to comfort so many hurting people and effectively minister to believers and non-believers alike while still looking good and raising decent children. If this is what you think, you need to think again. I would say look again, but as argued in my last post (The abuse of sharing “my testimony”), you don’t have a right to your leader’s personal life and depending on the situation and leadership style it’s good for the leader to have some distance from her flock.

Christian leaders are just people. Your favorite one probably verbally abuses his children when parishioners are gone or masturbates over hardcore porn when her husband is out or has trouble mustering the courage to ask his neighbors to put their dog inside when it’s barking like crazy. If you have the opportunity to get to experience the hospitality of Christian leaders, I advise you to take it. I have had this privilege, with some “spiritual giants” of our generation. More beneficial than receiving strings of spiritual pearls of wisdom or fare of godly conversation, I came to see my heroes were just as flawed, backwards, broken and normal as I was.

I heard recently that the two groups CAPS, Duke’s counseling/psychological services center (I’ve found it helpful: http://studentaffairs.duke.edu/caps) sees most are Divinity School students and PhD students. Yes, seminarians are messed-up, perhaps more so than other people. But I like that they know it. And I hope we can grow in that knowledge, and the people we serve can appreciate it.

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?

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?