Sunday, March 26, 2006

An Opposite Is Often True

In the mental health biz, a guy who walks in wearing a BIG cross sends up red flags. Judgement is reserved, because some Christian groups encourage laity, and especially clergy, to sport dramatic jewelry. But our first thought is that this guy is either a) a child molester, b) self-taught and self-appointed clergy of a congregation with no affiliation, or c) both.

Sad women brought to the hospital for suicidality will tell us "my children are everything to me." Well, yeah, except that you spend the rent money on drugs, won't leave the boyfriend who beats them, and overdosed where they would be the most likely ones to find you. Other than that, I see that your children are very important to you.

I have occasionally made myself unpopular at Sunday school classes when people will conclude a sweeping, prejudicial generalization with a protestation they don't mean to be judgemental by interrupting "Yeah you do." (This technique is not likely to be successful, BTW)

I spoke this weekend with a young man I have known since he was a child. I have always been very fond of him. He marshalled very effectively the abstract intellectual reasons why he is now agnostic, after having been brought up in a Christian home. There were eight of us there, including his parents, and I didn't want us to gang up on him or pound on him. Intellectually, I think he could have fielded most anything we were likely to bring up. But I did worry about the aura of rejection we would give by trying to argue with him instead of discuss.

The specific points he made, or I made, are unimportant. The reasons he was giving were not the real reasons. I tried to drop in fragments of ideas which I felt might answer his real objections, but kept it mainly in the realm of the abstract intellectual discussion, as that is where he clearly wanted to return the discussion at every turn. He wants to believe that these ideas of his are driven mainly by his intellect -- a powerful, abstract, math-degree intellect -- but his real reasons keep leaking out.

He lives back-to-the-land in a yurt, in a community both physically and psychologically near the VT border, among people who have respect for Christianity only in its most dilute forms. He mentioned several times that he knows Buddhists who are wise. (Well so do I, but not many -- most of those I meet in psychology are pretty condescending and full of themselves. But I digress.) He likes these people. They are his people, his community.

He speaks as if he could be intellectually persuaded, but he demands that he be intellectually compelled to believe. God doesn't work that way. Christians often do, trying to prove God -- a sort of compulsory baptism of the intellect. But neither proof nor disproof is ever offered. My intellect was very involved in my conversion; I fancied myself an intellectually superior being, who needed better reasons than that which would satisfy the mere Common Person. But in the end, I still had reasons which would allow me to disbelieve (or nominally believe) if I chose. I had come to believe that a rather simple and orthodox Christianity was more likely to be true than anything else.

I overstated the intellectual influence then, quick to assert to others that I had, like C.S. Lewis, been convinced of the truth and then followed it. I presented first what I wished to be true: that my capacious mind had weighed the possibilities and chosen. That should have been a red flag -- perhaps it was to some wiser folk around me, but I didn't see it. What we present first is seldom our real reason. An opposite often is.


Jerub-Baal said...

This is a very challenging post. I have been part of several people's study of the Bible and conversion. I have also watched many people who are maturing in their faith question "why do I believe this?"

Self-examination is a lost art, if it ever was an art in American culture (we do so tend towards a manifest-destiny confidence, and that's mostly a good thing). I have often seen people essentially panic when they hit an internal question of their motives or character. Most of us just don't know how to deal with it. I'm not very smooth at handling this myself.

When it comes to faith, specifically Christian faith, there is a need to first 'count the cost.' (Luke 14:25-35) What is it going to take to follow God? Will I be able to be like Abdul Rahman and willingly face death for my faith? Or more likely, will I be willing and able to choose to do what is right over what is easy in my day-to-day life? When I was coming to my decision and was asked (confronted, actually) about whether I could actually follow through, the first thing that came to mind was Peter's reply to Jesus, "To whom else shall we turn? You have the words of life."

I am not a perfect person; I'm not even a "good" Christian. Faith is a crutch, as many a faithless person will point out. Yes, I am lame; I decided to find faith because I felt lame and alone. Now I am older, hopefully wiser, and a lot better at dealing with life and a lot more socially adept than the nerdy twenty something with no friends who decided to start going to church. My initial need for a crutch has been healed. I still need that crutch for far more than that original emotional vulnerability.

Realizing that I have no worthy alternatives has helped stabilize my faith and belief.

GM Roper said...

WOW! What a post this one is. Having been raised by a PK (preacher's kid - my mom!) and a veteran of (then) WWII I was raised in the church, and even sometimes heard my beloved grandfather preach. But two things influenced/convinced me in my early adulthood. The first was reading Isaac Asimov's "The Left Hand Of The Electron!" Asimov, a self proclaimed atheist discusses why ice floats and notes that a solid of any substance immersed in its liquid form will sink. The exception to this is water which floats. Were this not the case, the oceans would have frozen from the bottom up and life on earth would not be as we know it at all. I'm not a scientist enough to know if this is true, but I always believed that Asimov was.

" on earth would not be as we know it..." Would it be different? How would we know. The other thing was a sleepless night in college and I went outside and was sitting on the patio at my (preacher) grandfather's home watching the sun come up. There was a blaze of light that flashed on a large spider's web with dew drops flashing all through the web. Scientific rationales can explain the web, the glisten, the refraction of the light etc., but the soul appreciated the stark beauty of that early morning scene.

Those two events were the genesis of a core of belief that has expanded over the years to a personal faith that comforts me. If I am wrong (and I don't think I am), no harm done. If the atheist is wrong, he/she is in for a big surprise.

Again AVI, thanks for a thoughtful post, one of your better ones.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That comment of Peter's has always been powerful for me as well. "To whom shall we go?" It strongly suggests that Peter has thought about this precise issue before.

Steve said...

I often think about belief and how one comes to it (or, rather, how it comes to one) as well as how a stated belief is regularly undercut by actions. I suspect that 'the rational intellect' has little to do with it. Even an atheist holds his position by faith.

Interesting post... very interesting.

On another note altogether, AVI, among all the flap over the naming of sports teams after insulted Amerinds, it seems to me to naming your team after a chief or warrior is quite an honor. What team would name itself after a wimp or disrespected entity. In that vein, I was wondering why Boston named their baseball team after a thin cloth covering of stinky, sweaty, fungal infested feet? The only courage that I could see represented there was the red sock worn by Curt Schilling after his surgery. It was still stinky and sweaty, but at least the fungi should have been killed off by his post-surgical antibiotics. Any thoughts? heh!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The Cincinnati Reds were originally the Redstockings, so I conclude that this "you'll know us by our socks" thing was big in those days. Each era seems to have its styles. Harvard Crimson, Dartmouth Big Green; Green Bay Packers, Pittsburg Steelers. In modern times, nicknames have gone more abstract: Spirit, Storm, Revolution.

That should keep Steve busy awhile.

Back to conversion: I think all reductionism fails. It's never a single emotional experience or insight, though we might attribute it that way to make the narrative easier to understand -- to ourselves. As Jesus is very clear that we are chosen instead of choosing, it may be that our pivot point of salvation is not moving from one spot to another, but only the place in our lives that we realized what was Previously Ordained.

GM Roper said...

Steve: blasphemy!!!! :-)

Red Sox will come again as they did in 1918 and 2004.

Besides, regarding St. Curt, anti-biotics do not work on atheletes foot which is a fungus