Thursday, November 29, 2012


"Did we really go to Grand Canyon?" I asked Emily.  "Did we really fly two thousand miles and see all the uncles and all stay together in the same house just a few days ago, and see llamas?" She smiled and nodded, thinking it was some joke or game. And so it must seem to a five-year-old.  Of course we did those things.  Of course I remember.

I'm mostly certain we did, but not quite.  I spend most of my life in a very few places, you see, but I read about and imagine many others.  Very rapidly, the quality of remembered reality and imagined reality is much the same.  A good portion of my knowledge that one is real and one not is how I have labeled it in memory.  Only secondarily do the qualities which distinguish actual events - the unpredictable, rather random additions to the story, the reassurance that others saw the same things - enter in.

I am a nostalgic person, as you know, and review old events in my daydreaming time.  I don't think I have added any whole items to reality that were merely invented (though I'll wager I have added many details), but I do sometimes question the real memories.  Did I really live there? Did I actually have a class with that girl?  Was that really I who reached into the water?  It all seems unlikely now, as if it happened to another person. There is no longer any verification, just electrochemical flittings in my brain.

Or also, I have had the experience of looking at a common word and wondering if it is spelled correctly. Our.  Strange-looking word.  Is that really the word or is there some other spelling that will suddenly look more real to me?

One of the arguments against the Christian faith, even among those who are trying to make solid, logical, arguments, is that it all looks very implausible.  At least, that is how I read the complaint.  The New Atheists try to disguise that, and a hundred others tip their hand without realising, but to me it just leaps off their pages.  The theistic description, whether creationist or not, just seems so odd to people that it simply doesn't square with their experience.  The existence of evil sometimes comes into play here.  To a great many folks, it just seems that in the face of that much unlikeliness, theists of any sort would have to mount quite compelling arguments to overcome it. It looks less than 1% likely to be true.

Well duh.  Every possible explanation looks less than 1% likely to be true.  Existence is a jarring, puzzling thing.  Falling back on "Things Are," isn't any better than "I Am." Hawking seems quite pleased that he has pushed the question of existence back another step - that universes can be preceded by other universes instead of by nothingness. But nothing has changed. Ah, we found that Sunday doesn't have to be the first day of the week.  There's a Saturday before it. Well, yes, and I am not at all discomfited to imagine there might be a Friday, or even - gasp - a Thursday!

I shouldn't sneer, because folks lose their faith over such things, which is tragic.  If you focus on how unlikely it is that I ever hitch-hiked in South Carolina - I'm sorry, I mean that something vaguely like the Christian God exists, you can get quite caught up in that. It can all look impossible in a flash.  In their discouragement, people who go through that often don't notice that their new belief, only vaguely adopted and not much thought through, is just as unlikely, or more.  There's no way out.  It is easier to just avoid thinking very hard, and believing just a little of everything.

When one is feeling buoyant and optimistic, all currently-held beliefs remain intact.  When depressed, all beliefs come up for question, as changing one might give relief.  This is why both conversions and de-conversions are more frequent at such times.  You may accuse that such conversions are thus suspect.  This I gladly grant, if we will drink the whole cup and note that de-conversions are thus suspect as well. Not to mention all the adopting or non-adopting of other beliefs, popular among our set or no.

Christians don't do themselves any favors in this realm when they try to insist they've got some rock-solid proof that others should attend to.  I've found nearly all such claims tip the balance a percentage point or two and are worth considering.  That's all. Similarly, the criticisms of belief which seem so solid and enormous to the nonbelievers or doubters do indeed tip the balance in my mind back a point or two the other way.  Just not any more than that, because dropping one belief always entails picking up another, and I like to have a look at that before I peel it and eat it.

Amongst the entire array of possible explanations of how you came to be sitting here, furrowing your brow, none looks the least bit likely. Yet each of us has a metaphysic we live by, whether we have thought it through and acknowledged it or not. I am of the belief that if we start from a neutral spot, the Christian explanation slowly noses the others out - not necessarily in a flash, though our understanding may cascade rapidly when we attend to the question rather than evading it.

I take it from what I read of both faith and doubt in the world that I am not very typical in this approach.  But it may help someone out there.


Sam L. said...

That's a poser, for sure. All I can say about my early childhood is my first memory was a little before I was 3, and my second was at the same location. Biology tells me how I came to be was from my parents, though the existential 'why' is unknowable.

You come up with good questions.

james said...

I've often had the experience of waking from a dream that was crystal-clear and thoroughly detailed, and in the morning haze had trouble telling that it was just a dream and not the doings of the day before. It sometimes feels as though the memory slowly starves for lack of connection to the rest of my experiences (and that fact that the cops don't come to take me away militates against its reality). It deceives me for a while, but when I ask the right questions it fades.

Memory of real events tends to become abbreviated: I may remember the words but not the faces, or the tone but not the words, or just the shape of the events. If I dwell on it, repetition can keep some details sharp, but not change the shape of events.

Yet I've had other isolated experiences that stand solid. My parents were missionaries, so of course I became an atheist. But what seem to me compelling reasons drove me away from it as inadequate. As I cast about for other possibilities, I had an "epiphany" in which I understood with a clarity I never had before or since that everything made sense in Jesus. (It was embarrassing to have had the answer under my nose all along...)

It was an isolated experience, not connected to earlier memories; and like a dream I couldn't hold on to it. But it wasn't like the dream; it left a kind of light behind, though even that metaphor misleads.

Though dreams are also electro-chemical like the old memory banks, they're the wrong shape and don't fit. And there's another kind of event that's like walking into a post in the dark. I may only see the outlines of buildings around me, and the shadows like dreams deceive me sometimes, but I know that post was there.