Category Archives: Purpose

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!

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?

“Theology!” said Mr. Straik with profound contempt. “It’s not theology I’m talking about, young man, but the Lord Jesus. Theology is talk – eyewash – a smokescreen – a game for rich men. It wasn’t in lecture rooms I found the Lord Jesus. It was in the coal pits, and beside the coffin of my daughter. If they think that Theology is a sort of cotton wool which will keep them safe in the great and terrible day, they’ll find their mistake. For, mark my words, this thing is going to happen. The kingdom is going to arrive: in this world: in this country….”
That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis

These are the words of the Reverend Straik in Lewis’ “Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups”, That Hideous Strength. This novel is set in mid-20th century England (a fictionalized Durham, England actually) and about a husband and wife who find themselves on opposing forces as N.I.C.E., the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, and a motley crew of Christians strive to win Merlin (yes, the wizard) to their respective sides. Here Straik is talking to Mark, the husband, about his eschatological beliefs and, in a sense, explaining why he is part of N.I.C.E., the force of evil in this novel.

Through these words we see that Straik is right about the coming divine judgment; but hinted in this section and more explicit elsewhere we see he is wrong about how the Judge works and who, in fact, the Judge is. Straik is ergo an antichrist. He knows some of the right words and even preaches them. But his god is not God. His god is one of might and wrath. His god gives signs of power. This is why Straik sides with N.I.C.E. – the being, “the Macrobe”, N.I.C.E. has established contact with performs tricks and seems to transcend our physical dimensions and even death. And this god’s demeanor fits what many of us know of power: he is merciless and bloodthirsty, demanding service and death even from his most ardent servants. But unfortunately for Straik, the being he has pledged to, though appearing all-powerful and the arbiter of justice, is merely a con, a trickster, the devil himself. [SPOILER! – His power pales in comparison to that of the true judge, who destroys N.I.C.E. via its own treacheries towards the novel’s end. In the end, the Macrobe demands a blood sacrifice and Straik, who as a shepherd should have died trying to save others, ends up fighting to save himself and eventually being overcome. – END SPOILER!] In more ways than one Straik shows the ironic truth of his words that merely knowing the truth about Jesus does not serve as a surrogate fleece to save a person on judgment day.

Before entering divinity school, I penned this quote into the cover of my journal. I did this to remind me of my beliefs before entering what my version of Christianity saw as a liberal theological school. Conservative Protestants love to emphasize faith in Jesus over external religious acts: it’s not going to church that saves you, but believing Jesus died for you, repenting and professing him. This quote can serve as a helpful reminder for theology students of any background to keep their focus on Jesus, a focus I have come to decide the New Testament encourages and demonstrates the more I have read the NT.

But I think this quote does something else. It challenges studying theology for the sake of increased theological knowledge by saying that knowing about Jesus is not enough. I am still tempted to think I will come out of seminary with some greater grasp on truth than when I entered, and that I will be “the better” for it, much as I know this is false. I think many of my classmates believe the same. This is worrisome. Not so much because I am currently concerned for our souls. It is worrisome because I fear inactivity, egoism, service of the self, waxing theologic in towers of ivory. Even if I do not return to Christianity or organized religion I want my too-self-centered life to be made of use for others. I want to teach and encourage students and help them feel good about themselves and their abilities. I want them to pursue truth.

This quote challenges me to strive towards a larger goal, one not of merely forming my own beliefs and thought but of using what I learn to better serve and love others.

Questions: A) Is the Western, academic theological pursuit – studying significant historic and contemporary claims about God to earn a living teaching others significant historic and contemporary claims about God – useless or morally bankrupt? B) If so, why and how should the pursuit be changed? If not, how is studying theology beneficial to serving others, spiritually and/or non-spiritually? C) It seems easy to love humanity and simultaneously hate humans. How do we apply our grander magnanimous aspirations to daily interaction with individuals?