Sunday, May 17, 2009

On God and Ants

It's been an incredibly stressful weekend, at the end of a stressful week. Quite suddenly, I realized I haven't had anything to eat since lunch yesterday. I've simply forgotten. Outside of Mountain Dew and a handful of chips while I graded a stack of papers and tried to listen to the Celtics-Magic game, I've accidentally pulled off a nearly forty-hour fast. So, maybe that's what's got me thinking about theological questions, and my own religious insecurities. Maybe it's just hunger, or maybe it's the long human tradition of fasting to center one's self, which I've twisted into the post-modern accidental corn-syrup and caffeine variety. Who knows?

Regardless, I've been contemplating my... well, my loss of faith, frankly. Over the last year, perhaps the last couple, I've been going through a slow process of disillusionment, doubt, and emotional disconnect from God and all things Christian. After the years of the Bush administration, where I watched my faith used as a motivation or a pretext for a few hundred thousand acts I find abominable, and bending myself into contortions of all kinds to separate my own faith from that of every other Christian who disagreed with me on any particular day for any particular reason, I found myself drained of any emotional response to religious questions. They still served as interesting thought experiments: as dry, logical puzzles wherein the goal was to reason from interesting but unprovable tenets toward the political positions I wanted to reach in the first place. God became about as important as Sudoku, and, just as my interest in Sudoku waned, I could feel that the fad of the curious-about-God-game was running out of steam.

Kierkegaard, if I remember correctly, held that if a person could lose their faith, they never had a real faith to begin with, i.e. if someone had truly known God they would lose the ability to deny His existence. Calvin, on the other hand, would probably have felt that if a person lost their faith they had always been predestined to do so by God, which seems particularly cruel to me. Why would God make a person believe in Him, then make him do otherwise? Calvin held that all kinds of actions were outward expressions of our predestination, from our ethical behavior to our ability to make lots of money, so I would assume he would include verbal expressions of faith in those outward signs. But we know that some people claim to believe at one point in their lives, then claim not to later on. So, is God making an outward expression of a person's damnation by turning them away in this life through expressions of doubt? Is God so cruel? I'm no Calvinist, but I thought I was very much in line with Kierkegaard's view of the faith experience. I used to be damned sure I knew God, and that I'd felt real moments of connection with Him at points in my life, reaffirming all kinds of theological, cultural, political, and even aesthetic beliefs which really had nothing to do with those specific experiences. I used to be certain God connected with me, and, in retrospect, those moments calcified so many other assumptions which were unrelated. God reached down and said, "I'm here," and all I chose to hear was, "Everything you believe can stay the same." Now I realize that the God who reaffirms my beliefs isn't real. That doesn't mean I don't believe in God, but I don't believe in the one I wanted to believe in back then. So, does that mean Kierkegaard is right? Did I never have real faith to begin with, because I chose to believe in a god of veiled convenience, or did I have a real connection to a real God, and I simply dressed Him up to make Him more bearable?

As you can see, what little faith I had was undirected and tenuous. You might say, as it hung by a thread I wondered if the thread was there, which didn't really bode well for the faith hanging on the other end. I wanted to hold onto Jesus, just Jesus... or really, just abstract and distant truth derived from Jesus' teachings or about His place in the geography of Christian theology, but I wasn't sure I believed in believing anymore. At least not in any complete way. I made assertions about religious things, and continuously re-evaluated those claims. That was my faith. As such, I didn't know if I believed in maintaining it, because the claims themselves did not dictate that it required maintenance.

Then, yesterday, (perhaps 10 hours into my fast, so take any conclusions with that grain of salt) I had a truly religious moment. Now, I want to be clear. I hate the term "religion". I think it's too all-encompassing and not nearly descriptive enough. It's better than "Spirituality" when spoken by some dead-behind-the-eyes celebrity, but only by inches. What is a religious experience, after all? The rites of a given faith are certainly religious experiences. But then, so is the reading of scripture, or time spent in prayer. Solitary moments of communion with God are religious experiences, as are corporate ones. If someone tells us we have God on our side and we all head off to kill people in some distant land full of heathens, isn't that a religious experience? Everything a believer does could be described as a religious experience, and yet, so much of what they do is identical to the behavior of a non-believer that the term isn't helpful without a lot of clarification. And yet, I choose the term carefully here. I had a religious experience. That's all. Not necessarily a spiritual one. I'm still not even sure about my questions of the spirit yet. The experience certainly wasn't formalized in any way; nothing about this would be found in any Presbyterian Book of Order. But it was religious in a way that embraces my dislike of the term, that even subverts that and shows the word's usefulness. I didn't like the word because two guys could be sitting on the bus, reading the same newspaper, both not only doing the same thing but even thinking about the same things, and then the religious man allows thoughts about the divine to color his perspective on the article he's reading. In that moment, he feels something, something which cannot be proven to be God in any scientific way, but which he recognizes as distinct from his thoughts about God. Who can say what the atheist sitting next to him would make of this feeling? Who can even take some measurement and know if the atheist feels it at all? And yet, the experience for the man of faith has shifted from a intellectual exercise to one that is... different. And maybe that's as specific and articulate as I can be, but my experience was a religious one in just that way.

My bathroom has been overrun by ants. They are tiny, and from a distance they elicit a revulsion I can only assume to be genetic. However, when I looked at one very closely, I realized they are kind of endearing. They go about their work much as I do, filled with a sense of purpose which satisfies them. I don't understand it completely. They're getting food and water to stay alive. I understand that much. They follow chemical paths left by little scouts. They greet one another and pass chemical messages. I understand these things on one level, and yet I don't really relate. But then, I go through my little life getting food and water to stay alive; I call that work. My particular work as a teacher fills me with a sense of fulfillment beyond the paycheck (ha ha, teacher's paycheck), but then, perhaps walking down that chemical path convinces the ant that he is doing something good and noble as well. I interact with my friends, my students, my colleagues, my family in ways that both bring me great joy and make my life functional. Do the ants pass their chemical versions of clever jokes, bank card pin numbers, "I love you"s, and exasperated sighs? Why should I have such clear beliefs about the nature and character of God, and why should I demand of myself such strong conviction about His every characteristic, when I have such a superficial understanding of the thousands of little buggers eating the cat food in my bathroom and drinking from the bit of water I left in the glass after brushing my teeth?

These are thoughts about God. Someone who does not believe in God could ask these same questions, either about themselves or about me, and come up with the same unsatisfying lack of conclusions. But then the experience changed to one an atheist couldn't share. And here's the thing: I don't know that God was involved. It could be a manifestation of a mania. I can't deny that. If there is no God, I experienced a momentary delusion in which I felt an emotional reaction to something I could not sense with any of my five sense. In other words, if there is no God then I am not only crazy, but the least creative crazy person in the world, who experiences an imaginary friend but is too lazy to attribute any characteristics to that delusion beyond an accompanying sense of peace and joy.

But afterward, I felt, and have continued to feel, a huge sense of relief. And I know why. I had come to believe that my faith experience would, for the rest of my life, exist only in the intellect, with no emotional component, and I'd even begun to resign myself to that. I am pleased to report that I am still capable of feeling something related to God, and maybe even feeling a connection to God Himself. Somehow that feels like I've hit bottom, and am now on the up-and-up.

None of this probably makes a lick of sense to anyone in the world, and publishing something so convoluted should make me feel ashamed. And yet, this seems proper, like a birth announcement without real information about gender and height and weight and the number of fingers and toes. Hey, everybody! I've finally had a feeling! Pass the cigars.

Now let's just hope it doesn't go away when I go grab a bite to eat.


Anonymous said...

Ben - First of all, forgive anything here that sounds like pat truisms; I don’t discuss this stuff much and don’t have much in the way of original language. That said, I do like the distinction between religion and spirituality. The latter gets a bad rep from the new age crystal junkies, but I think it represents a more organic experience with a reality bigger than what we can see with our eyes and understand with our minds. I’d go so far as to say that spirituality is the point of religion. Religion is a practice, a bundle of ideas, rituals, and behaviors designed (at least in theory) to allow you to experience a spiritual connection with whatever it is that created all of this. Spirituality is the sense that you got watching the ants...and embarrassingly something I first experienced (or first paid attention to at my first Phish show (and no I was not “chemically enhanced”)); namely, a sense that you are a part of something greater than yourself that you can’t even begin to understand but are in awe of.

We’ve been sort of struggling with the same issue. We both believe in something bigger, though I’m a bit fuzzy on the details. We started attending a church about a year ago in hopes of using religion to get closer to spirituality, or at least to find a community of folks who felt that the struggle for that experience was a worthwhile pursuit. We found a community alright, but one that needed our time and money and only sought to find what we could do for it. Maybe a different church would be a better fit for us, but I can’t help but feel like the experience has crystalized in my mind the distinction between religion and spirituality. Some people need religion to experience the wonder of the universe; it sounds to me like you don’t, and for that I am very happy for you. For myself and for the time being, I find far more joy and wonder at the simple act of walking to work along the Boise river and watching all the animals do their animal things.
All this has led me to some serious thinking about what we are “designed” to do. My thoughts on this are still in a fetal stage, but I think our ability to reason has taken us farther away from a spiritual state of living. Only 100 years ago (give or take), most of us lived in an agrarian society, where some natural flow of things just happened...we worked hard all summer to be able to eat all winter. I don’t know where I read it, but in a hunter/gatherer or agrarian society, people only worked about 20 hours a week (I think that was close) in order to provide sufficient shelter and food. I do believe that we are probably better off now, but the cramming in of constant work and activity has (I believe), led us to have less time to contemplate and experience anything spiritual; we are either working or exhausted from working and thus miss or do not pay attention to what’s around us.

I hope this wasn’t too much of a free-flow rant (hi Wakefield), and am interested to hear your thoughts. In any event, I think we are getting at the same thing and any disagreement is a semantic one (i believe that religion is a tool to experience spirituality, but it sounds like my "spirituality" and your "religious experience" are the same).

Hope all is well! - Bill

Anonymous said...

Bill again - I was walking to work this morning and saw a row of adult geese lined up, single file, on the shore. Swimming up a creek then out into the river in front of the adult geese was a gaggle of young goslings accompanied by a few adults on each end of the "pack." I immediately imagined it was some sort of parade, or gosling graduation...which in turn reminded me of your post. I wonder what they were really doing...

Benjamin Gorman said...

Sorry I haven't replied, but we're in the midst of a whirlwind move into our new house. Your thoughtful replies deserve likewise, and I promise I'll get to them. As I've been hucking around boxes I've been thinking about what you said, and I want to give a full reply, because I think you're spot-on.

Anonymous said...

Sweet! I look forward to it. It'd be nice to have this conversation live over some bread pudding at the Apple Barrel at an ungodly hour. We are so excited for you guys making this move. One of these days we'll get over there to see your new place. - Bill