Tag Archives: doubt

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.

 

Voices from Beyond

Recent messages I have received from people from my alma mater. The first is a response from the alumni office about whether there were any alumni groups for non-Christians (I had offered to form/lead one if not). The second is from an acquaintance from my time at college.
“Hello, ____.  My staff passed your note along and I wanted to take a minute to respond.  Since all alumni events and groups sponsored by the College are representative of the College’s commitment to the Christian faith, we don’t have a formal group for people who no longer consider themselves Christians.  That said, I hope you’ll stay connected with ______ no matter where your faith journey takes you.  You’ll always be part of the ____ family, ____, and I wish you the very best.
Take care,
______”

Interim Vice President for Advancement & Alumni Relations
———————————————————————————————————————
“Hi ____.
I don’t know if you remember me from being in ___ at _____, but I wanted to tell you that I really find a lot of comfort from the blog you write. One of my former roommates from ______ sent me your blog because she thought I could relate to it, and I can. I went to _____ because I was losing my faith and I never really recovered from being on the fence. I wasn’t raised Christian, but became Christian in high school. I found a lot of meaning, comfort, and friendships in Christian circles and from what I thought was God. Its still something I deal with and can’t really walk away from or embrace. Its not fun to go through, but it is comforting to know that I am not the only former _____ kid who is dealing with this type of thing. Its really hard to find a niche to have doubts and not be ready to move back into Christianity or entirely away from it. So thank you for sharing your thoughts on your blog. I feel creepy reading it, so I thought I’d tell you I was a fan haha”

the fidelity of betrayal

My dream has been to live a comfortable life as a Christian family man with Christian friend groups in a nice suburb. Being a professor became part of that vision in the last couple years. Living in the vicinity of great natural beauty would be nice as well.

The kicker: one could say I have “betrayed” myself, my loved ones and the faith. Yes, apostasy is betrayal. Yet as I see it, I have risked all those things (“crucified my flesh”, to use biblical language) in my pursuit of truth and my aim to obey my conscience. By saying the tenets of Christianity cannot be proven and are difficult to believe, I have risked and am risking my friend groups, my potential desired mates (conservative Christian women mostly), and my future dreams and plans. I am actually taking the claims of Christianity very seriously, probably moreso than many of my peers at divinity school. Inevitably some of them will find themselves in my shoes in the future, only they will have a ministry, a church at stake. I hope they can be true when that time comes.

I said I have crucified my flesh; I could have said “lost my life for [truth’s] sake” as well. I am not using these flippantly. In a context of cultural Christianity, perhaps forsaking all for the sake of truth, or even Christ, looks exactly like what I am doing. How else could I know how committed I am to truth than to risk all the external forms of Christian-ness in a culture where being a Christian — going to church, having bible study friends, upholding “Christian” values, claiming the Christian god — is the norm, the status quo? (I’m speaking specifically of my own Christan sub-culture here, but contrary to popular conservative Christian belief, Christianity is even a dominant way of life in our wider public sphere. Trust me. Living abroad or becoming an agnostic will show you how dominant Christians are in the American public sphere.) When put like this, the title of Peter Rollins’ book — The Fidelity of Betrayal — actually makes some sense (though I have yet to read it or know its contents in the slightest). Do not Jesus’ words about hating mother and brother and father for his sake make more sense in this light as well?

Shusaku Endo’s Silence is about this idea in my read: The greatest expression of the protagonist’s internal commitment to Christ comes ironically through externally denying Christ. Endo writes a historical fiction about the life of a Portuguese priest who comes to 17th century Japan to provide leadership to a persecuted underground Catholic church. Through Endo’s fascinating book, the relationship of Christ and Judas becomes a motif. If I have it right, Endo provides a beautiful read of what happened between them. Christ commands Judas “What thou doest, do quickly” knowing Judas must do it, and wishing for Judas’ pain in his action to be as quick as possible. Though it looks like Judas spurns the love of Christ through betraying him, in fact, he obeys Christ in a way that is necessary and that breaks both of their hearts. Prima facie, it seems Christ then dies “on the tree” (Gal. 3.13) for nothing. Does the reader not have similar misgivings about Judas’ death on a tree, that he dies a miserable failure, misgivings that might belie the truth?

I seem even to myself to be a traitor. For most of my life, Christ has been in some way real to me and my relationship to Christ has been central to my self-understanding. Right now, I do not affirm Christ’s resurrection. Nor do I deny it. Perhaps before all is through I will deny it. And perhaps, much as I wish to the contrary, Christ didn’t resurrect. I think the takeaway is that what I am going through is a difficult process of discerning who I really am that highlights what my deep-rooted values are and how much I can risk in allegiance to those values. Not that I have ever once narrated my life to myself through the story of Wolverine (eyebrow raise — doubtful frown), but like him I am a survivor who has endured much. The scars are invisible to others, remembered only to me. They remind me how much I have taken and that I can still take more. Though I wish to come through this by being a Christian again, believing in Christ again, I will be glad that I have been true to myself and risked much of what is dear to me towards that effort regardless of my future positions on faith.

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.

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?

I don’t quite know
How to say
How I feel

Those three words
Are said too much
They’re not enough

— Chasing Cars, Snow Patrol

How do I feel? Do my feelings really matter?

A friend recently saw through something I have known for a while. My questions and philosophizing about faith are pointless.

Everything hinges on the resurrection. Either it happened (for which there might be decent arguments), or it didn’t (for which there are decent arguments). I have decided I cannot reason my way to God, I can only Jesus my way to God, meaning I can either historically and spiritually accept Jesus’ resurrection and arrive at Christianity or historically and spiritually deny Jesus’ resurrection and arrive at non-Christianity. This seems to fit Jesus’ words on the subject (“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” — John 14.6). A third option for now would be to continue as an agnostic.

But the point is, all these “intellectual” questions I’m asking are not going to accomplish anything. Philosophers have both “proved” God’s existence and God’s non-existence. As mentioned in my post “Miracle?“, I think Donald Miller is right on about people not converting for intellectual reasons but for emotional ones.

“Emotional reasons” may be too much of a reduction. Our relationships (as I argued last week), bodies, wills, locales, education, hobbies, habits and choices surely factor in as well. How arbitrarily and complexly we are formed!

Henceforth I want to examine these non-rational issues regarding faith and life. I want to look at the intersection(s) of feeling and thought and belief and decision, etc. If mental disorders have taught me anything, it’s that many pieces constitute the whole given whenever someone drops the question “How’s it goin’?”. The same goes for “What are you thinkin’ about?”.

What are you thinkin’ about? Does this make any sense? Should I give “reason” another chance?