Recently I was writing to someone who became an atheist while at our undergrad. They had asked me when I started doubting and why I went to seminary. I wrote an email in response explaining not only when I started doubting, but why I believed in the first place. I’ll reproduce that email in part later on.
Interesting though that a couple days later, perhaps even the next day, I talked with one of the foremost metaphysical philosophers in this country about faith and he, too, raised the question before me of why I started doubting. However, when I mentioned that I felt like for every intellectual argument for God there was a tantamount counter-argument, his insight to share was that there are no knock-down drag-out arguments in many spheres of life. Politics, for example. Thus he finds it strange that people get so worked up about these things in the area of religion. And that got me to ask myself the opposite question: If there aren’t any wholly convincing arguments for naturalism (or a closed universe or what have you), why bother leaving theism?
This doesn’t positively yield a reason to believe but may remove reason for having jumped ship to begin with. I know in “You are who you hang with”… I said I could see myself coming back to the faith. Actually, I think that verdict is out (again). If anything, I feel many more intellectual/emotional/spiritual moves are going to have to happen before I could call myself a Christian again.
The philosopher’s right that intellectual alternatives to faith probably are not necessarily superior: there are good arguments both ways. But what of the tensions I had had: A god that sanctifies me yet I seem to be getting worse? A god that “speaks” to his people but I hear nothing? These tensions are very real and seem easier answered/dealt with by rejecting the premise of god than anything else. But, then again, my assumptions about God’s sanctification, my moral dynamism, God’s communication, and my reception could and probably should be called into question (that is, if I want to make my Christian friends happy).
Again, we’ll see. Too much thinking/writing to do for the end of the year for now.
“I think I should start with why I ever believed (I’m writing for me prob’ly more than you now but I will answer your questions later – skip this if you want!). I believed because as a 10 year old thinking on my own about my grandmother’s death no coping resource was available to me but belief in a god. I had other issues – S.A.D., ridiculous amounts of HW, loneliness -then driving me to seek help beyond myself, beyond what I thought my parents could give. The idea to believe in God came from the church we attended I imagine. That summer I went to a summer camp which reinforced my new belief-choices; it was a positive experience from all I can recall. At that time I felt that I had or was experiencing God. I changed somehow between 10 and 11 and became more intentionally social and friendly; a lot of behavior issues went away.
“My faith interests continued and were nurtured by church through my middle school and high school days. Then my faith got really mixed in with depression, guilt, social anxiety late in high school. My faith didn’t diminish, and probably wasn’t completely the source of my depression, but I really languished as a person.
“Going to [college] I did the orientation program which I felt gave new life to my beliefs, and my self esteem. I “re-dedicated” my life to Jesus and started dealing with my depression more head-on ([the college]’s counseling center was crucial there). Experiences on [my orientation] made me think I was really seeing God at work in my life and the lives of others.
“Believing I was seeing God at work in my life and others’ continued through [college], probably with occasional lapses, certainly with occasional doubts. The real doubts started [later].
“___ died at [camp] in the summer of 2009, when I was working there. It was quite possibly a suicide; at best it was a tragic accident that would not have happened if he had been a little more stable.
“Though only an acquaintance, I had seen that things were not going well for ___. I had heard some stories. And I knew my own history of mental illnesses well enough to see myself in what he has going through that summer. Through the summer I prayed for ___, repeatedly. And with friends. I prayed specifically that God would protect him, and spare him from suffering. Suicide was included in those appeals, if only implicitly because I was afraid to speak the word.
“Well, the end of the summer comes and ___ is dead and I am thinking, “Wow – really pulled through for us there, God. Thanks a lot.” Those events really hurt my faith in God’s goodness, but it eventually rebounded after some time and recommended reading from a prof.
“More or less since that time though I have “felt” God’s presence very little. [Late summer 2012,] I started noticing how “sinful” my life was. I guess I don’t need to use quotes. Whether porn use and masturbation is sinful or not, hatred and lust and anger in my heart are certainly dark things. And all this while the Spirit was supposed to be alive, at work inside me?
“This tension of “sinning but indwelt by God” became compounded by noticing the silence of God in my life. Wasn’t God supposed to communicate with God’s people? And I started discovering suitable intellectual alternatives to theism, in Freudian psychology, in historical-criticism, in Hitchen’s critiques, discoveries only added to by my Duke education. In the end it seemed more sensible to let go of the tensions and accept the alternatives. “Either God does not exist or I don’t have a relationship with him” was one of my last thoughts in the process. Hence my agnosticism.”
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.
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.
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?
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.