Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Rain

I stopped crying when I was about twelve years old. I would play hide-n-go-seek-tag with my neighbors. The Older Girls developed a handicapping system for the little kids, so that they wouldn't be it for more than a round. I wasn't the fastest, but I was too old to get a handicap, so I would often be it for several rounds. Frustrated, I would cry. There were other things that I cried about that maybe I didn't need to. I was told to stop, that it was childish and annoying and manipulative and bratty. I suppose I've only cried twice since.

The two times that I've cried as an adult were similar. Both times, I was driving, and both times, I was feeling a certain kind of sad, and, both times, I had similar thoughts. The first time, I was driving home from the job I hated, going down I-95. I was listening to the pop radio station, and a treacly song came on, I think it was I'll Go Wherever You May Go, and I started tearing up, thinking about how God is with me everywhere and relates to me and feels with me. I went to the grocery store and bought a lot of Gatorade and Theraflu because it turned out that I had a very bad cold. I think it had put me in a weird mood.

The other time, I was driving up route 29 from Washington Bible College; I'd visited there for a one-day conference for Christian grad students and faculty in the area. Ike's job is to help start and coordinate ministries and communities for scholars. I have very good feelings about Ike, I look up to him a lot. He introduced me to Joe Versus the Volcano, one of my top 6 favorite movies. He's a geek like me, when he moved into his new house, he had a cabling party, and ran all sorts of cables, ethernet, phone, coaxial, all over the house, even into the bathrooms. He figured it's cheaper and easier to run a lot of cables now. If, in a few years, it would be handy to have a little robot in the bathroom that talks to the internet, it would be easy to just plug it into the wall.

After the conference, some of us went out to eat at a Mexican place; I'm pretty sure I had fajitas. I sat next to Ike. We talked about ADD and snoring and sleep apnea. We also talked about starting a grad fellowship at UMBC. Ike thought this was very important, and I did too.

After supper, I was feeling sad and guilty and I started thinking about how Ike was probably disappointed in me for not already starting a fellowship for grad students, or, at least, for not being more intentional in making friends with non-Christians in my department, to be able to communicate with them about faith. I don't think that Ike was actually disappointed in me, but, at the time, I was feeling very guilty. I wanted to impress Ike.

So, I was driving home, up route 29, and it started raining. I was feeling inadequate, worthless. Then, I started thinking about the stories in Luke 15 about the lost sheep, coin, and son. I was thinking about the lost sheep, about how the shepherd left behind ninety-nine sheep to rescue one sheep. I thought, "I'm like that one lost sheep, and God rescued me. God seems to be bad at math, in a very good way." And then I started crying.

I used to journal. I used the Mead composition books, the ones with the black and white splotchy covers. I gave titles to each journal. The first, starting right after the big snow, I called it "Engineering Life, The Universe, and Everything." The second was "Fish Stories". The third, starting a month or two after the second time I cried since I was a kid, I called "Lost sheep found". I only wrote 27 pages into it and stopped. When I started journaling, I thought that God was communicating with me in a personal way. I stopped journaling when I stopped feeling that way, that I had important personal spiritual insights.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Funny prayer voice

"Oh, God," (inhale) "we just wanna thank you, God," (inhale) "for bringing us together here, God," (inhale) "today," (inhale) "God." I don't know many people who pray like how they talk. I'd never say to a guest, "Oh, Gerald," (inhale) "I just wanna thank you, Gerald," (inhale) "just for coming over, Gerald," (inhale) "and eating nachos with me, Gerald," (inhale) "today, Gerald." I'm a pretty good prayer-in-public, I don't do the "just" thing, or the Lord-every-other-word thing, or the sharp inhale thing. However, when I talk I tend to talk very quickly, but when I pray, there are a lot of umms and ahhs and I'm slow and I try to load what I say with symbolism and I bet I sound very boring. I've had a lot of people tell me that they like it when they hear me pray, but I think that's due to our low expectations for coherent extemporaneous prayer.

I have friends who lead worship; a lot of them, when giving an intro to a song, sound completely different than when we're hanging out together. These are generally people who are decent public speakers, and they don't sound artificial when they're doing regular public speaking, but as soon as they're put in front of a group of people and they have to talk about how "we are in God's presence" or something like that, they fall apart.

In churches where they call the talky part of the service a "message" or a "talk" or a "pow-wow", the speaker tends to sound reasonably authentic. In churches where the talky part is called a sermon, the preacher's voice becomes strangely distorted, but not uniformly so. Some pastors who are ordinarily loud get very quiet, or vice-versa. Some pastors try to sound very soft-spoken, or some try to talk very quickly. I rarely hear sermons, though, where the speaker doesn't, at least at some point, speak with a strained voice, sounding like he might be picking up a heavy box or passing a bowel movement.

I think I've met one person who is capable of praying in his regular speaking voice. He would pray prayers like this. "Hi, Dad, what's up? We're hanging out at camp. Thanks for supper, it smells pretty good. We're pretty tired, so if you could help us wake up a little, that would rock. I love you. Amen."

Some friends invited me once to check out the jujitsu club at UMBC. I stuck around because it's a martial art that's designed for people who are kind of short and scrawny, like me. One of the things that is cool about jujitsu is that you can tell that you're doing a move wrong if you're straining or grunting. I find it very satisfying to practice a throw on a guy who is bigger and stronger than me; if I do the move right, it's effortless.

I've heard that master bricklayers can lay bricks much more quickly than their apprentices. The masters don't move extra fast, they simply lay the bricks very precisely, automatically; they don't spend as much time fixing mistakes and estimating and leveling and so on as the more junior bricklayers.

It's more important to pray to God in humility and hopefulness than it is to use the right words or spend a long time praying or to use a magic voice. God loves you and will give you what you need. You might need to accept that God isn't your manservant. You might need to accept that God's will is inscrutable, such that when you ask for something good, and the opposite happens, that doesn't mean that God doesn't love you, rather, he's working things out in an unimaginably good way for you.

When I was a kid, I learned three things about how to get what I needed from my parents.
1 Ask them.
2 Please and thank you are magic words.
3 Go to the less cranky parent.

I don't think that prayer needs to be any more complicated than that. There certainly isn't any Bible verse, "Yea, if thou prayest in a strained voice, verily thy Lord shall grant unto thee thy petition."

I know that all of these things about prayer and humility and acceptance and asking are the right answers, the answers that would earn me a gold star sticker on the chart in Sunday School. Prayer is a little off-putting because when I talk, God doesn't talk back in an audible voice. It's a bit more awkward when I pray and my prayer has no discernible effect on reality. The thing that I know for sure that prayer does for me is that it gives me that I've Prayed feeling; it's like the I Voted sticker. I wonder how much my funny prayer voice is spiritual passive-aggression; I'm a little annoyed at God for not being sensible, so I pray very slowly and deliberately, so that I'm sure to be praying in a way that I won't be misunderstood.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Distrust

I spent a lot of time in the school library when I was in high school. I had an unreliable dial-up Internet connection at home, (boop boop boop)-boop boop boop-boop boop boop boop kshkshkshksh ptang ptang ptang kshkshkshksh, my parents wanted to avoid paying for Internet access, so we used NetZero, surfing the web with an adbar at the top of the screen for a maximum of forty hours a month. So, every morning during homeroom, I would get a hall pass and go to the library and use the computers there and check my email and play Tank Commander on Pogo.com.

My classmates enjoyed my theory about the library computers. (You must know that the computer desks in the library were quirky. They were glass and the monitor would sit underneath, so, rather than the monitor being at eye level, one had to look down through the desk at the screen.) I suggested that the glass desks with the monitors underneath, sitting in neat rows in the library, were actually an array of lasers designed to annihilate Soviet satellites. For this laser bank to be useful, of course, the library needed a hinged roof that could open to expose the laser monitors as the enemy satellites would pass overhead; this secretly hinged roof would prevent our enemies from finding our secret laser battery.

People would ask me questions about the hinges and the lasers and whether the Soviets were still active at the end of the nineties, when I was in high school, and I would contrive answers to keep the story afloat. It was a great conspiracy theory in that we all felt that it explained some things about the deviousness of our school establishment, it captured our sentiment and expressed our shared symbols and values, with the advantage that none of us actually believed the story about the hinges, and, thus, suffered none of the ill effects that accompany delusion.

I would go to the library at other times, too. The library was where you would go if your parents didn't sign the permission slip saying that you could be exposed to controversial course material. For example, my parents pulled me from health class for the unit on human reproduction and sexuality, and so I sat in the library, alone or perhaps with one classmate, and did bookwork instead.

My English teacher transcended her humanity and represented all of secular culture to me, a conservative Christian kid who had been homeschooled. People like her are the reason that devout Christian parents send their kids to Christian colleges and teach them about having a Christian worldview. One time, my teacher wanted to show The Breakfast Club, an R-rated movie, in class, during our unit on "Young Adult Literature", and Mike the Jehovah's Witness and Dave the Baptist and I sat in the library and had to read a short story about an Asian teenage boy dealing with issues of race and generational difference with his parents, and then we each had to write our own continuation of this story. We were in the honors class; the students in the next-most-prestigious English class got to watch Star Wars.

My English teacher also had us read Of Mice and Men, which supports euthanasia. Another time, she taught us about ethics. We had to consider, for example, a situation in which there are ten people in a cave, and they're trying to get out, and the fattest goes first and obstructs the opening to the cave and cannot be extracted from said opening. Would the people in the cave be justified in blowing him up with a stick of dynamite if it were necessary for their escape, supposing they would die of hunger in the cave, otherwise? We had to write essays giving our opinions on such contrived scenarios. I had been taught, in my Christian worldview education, to be wary of such lessons, because they are designed to erode belief in an absolute moral truth.

Basically everyone agrees that my high school's library doesn't have hinges on the roof for the anti-Soviet satellite lasers. Basically everyone agrees that water flows downhill and the earth is round and Amway is a scam. I dismiss flat-earthers out of hand; I don't even trouble with rhetoric. So many people believe so many wacky little things that it's not worth the time, generally, to investigate something that only a few people believe. Most people aren't existentially troubled by Jehovah's Witnesses because they know that the Jehovah's Witnesses are a cult and there are oodles of cults, and they can't all be right and it's not worth the effort to do a lot of research on every cult that exists to see if it might be right, so it's probably not worthwhile to investigate the beliefs of just one cult to see if that one happens to be the lucky one. I'm not saying that the majority's always right, but it's often passably close enough to being correct.

Growing up, I had many opinions that conflicted with the majority viewpoints in American culture, I was pro-life and creationist and anti-feminist. I didn't have many opinions that diverged from those of Dr James Dobson of Focus on the Family. I felt like I was part of a persecuted minority as an evangelical. The persecution was minimal, but evangelicals who take stances as extreme as mine are, indeed, a minority among Americans.

People are biased and easily swayed and duped; when we form opinions, our attitudes and desires play as much of a role as observation and reason, but I like to think that I'm better than average at observing and reasoning and being impartial. I bet you feel the same way about yourself. I bet most people do.

I'm a vegetarian, and not just to be stylish. I object to the way in which animal agriculture is conducted in America. Most people aren't vegetarians, and I think I need a good reason to justify to myself why my minority viewpoint isn't a wacky one like belief that colonic irrigation is helpful. I've looked into how animals are treated on farms, and it's bad in a handful of ways, and I think that if most people knew how we treat animals, they wouldn't eat meat, either, unless the conditions would improve. I think that most people are uninformed about the horrors of modern mass animal agriculture. The only pop culture reference to factory farms, that I can think of, is the scene in Napoleon Dynamite in which Napoleon works at moving chickens from one cage to another.

When I believe something unusual, but I know that it's because I happen to have some extra information, I can understand why people would disagree with me. As a creationist, I had trouble believing that evolution is a false but popular belief simply driven by factual errors. I knew that most biologists are evolutionists, and that they are more educated than I was. I needed a way to distrust them to be justified in disagreeing with them. I needed to believe that evolutionists believed in evolution because they were rebellious and wanted to avoid God. I needed quotes like this one by George Wald:
"There are only two possibilities as to how life arose. One is spontaneous generation arising to evolution; the other is a supernatural creative act of God. There is no third possibility. Spontaneous generation, that life arose from non-living matter was scientifically disproved 120 years ago by Louis Pasteur and others. That leaves us with the only possible conclusion that life arose as a supernatural creative act of God. I will not accept that philosophically because I do not want to believe in God. Therefore, I choose to believe in that which I know is scientifically impossible; spontaneous generation arising to evolution."
(Wald, George, "Innovation and Biology," Scientific American, Vol. 199, Sept. 1958, p. 100) [It turns out that this quote is fake. I had seen it as a creationist and it was important to my thinking, though.]

I grew up in an environment that distrusted the majority. I remember one gathering of homeschooling families, at which some kids taught others to make fortune tellers; my parents don't mind fortune tellers, but some of the other parents were afraid their children would become occultists, and there was a brouhaha. On the other hand, I wasn't allowed to watch Captain Planet or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because they espoused eastern mysticism. Before I saw Pochahontas, I was given a disclaimer that trees and rocks do not, in fact, have spirits in them.

I dismissed the pro-choice movement as a bunch of eugenicists who wanted "sexual freedom" outside the confines of marriage. I saw feminists as women who just wanted to push men down out of greed and thirst for power. I believed that Catholics and Muslims were basically hell-bound, they chose wrong beliefs because they were trying to earn their salvation by works, they wanted a sense of ownership of their destiny. Hindus were right out.

I am the oldest of six kids; the next oldest is Spencer. He told me tonight that he used to think that people with acne had it because they had AIDS; we were under the strong impression that people with AIDS got it from having sex outside of holy matrimony. I'm glad that Spencer was corrected about the cause of acne before I had my first outbreak.

Growing up, we were taught that our media is driven by things that are cheap and corrupting, and we were banned from watching The Simpsons and The Golden Girls as a result. I didn't even want to watch The Golden Girls, but we had a rule against it just in case. We were encouraged to listen to Christian rock instead of secular rock.

One time, Spencer was at a friend's house, the friend happened to be the son of our pastor. He played "All the Small Things" by Blink-182 for Spencer, he'd downloaded it off of Napster. Listening to it, Spencer thought, "There's not a single bad thing in this." He realized that he'd been taught to distrust secular music, as a uniformly corrupting influence, and he thought that maybe it's not as bad as he had been told. He downloaded a lot of songs on Kazaa, (boop boop boop)-boop boop boop-boop boop boop boop kshkshkshksh ptang ptang ptang kshkshkshksh; that's how I got introduced to the Barenaked Ladies. Spencer had been previously satisfied with Christian music, but, comparing it with the mainstream music, he realized it wasn't nearly as good. He noticed and reconsidered other ways in which he had been taught to disagree with mainstream culture, and it wasn't long after that that he stopped believing in God altogether.

The summer after I had my big existential crisis in which I got a haircut and a cellphone and became a vegetarian, I realized that I had drifted, over the previous two years, from being an avid young earth creationist to not caring very much one way or another about evolution. I went to the library and got a big stack of books about evolution, written from various perspectives. I was in the mood for change.

People trust the beliefs of their own tribe over those of another tribe, even if they don't have any good reason to think that their tribe is more honest or better at logic. When Spencer started listening to secular music, he was learning this. My problems with anxiety, and my realization that I had faulty motives for having long hair and not having a cell phone and so on, led me to trusting myself less, in a good way. I was humbler. I am prone to thinking that my opinion is correct simply because it's mine, I suppose a lot of people are like this, but at that point in my life, this tendency was weaker. I had trusted myself a lot when it came to having opinions about politics and doctrine and evolution, and I found that trust in myself to be limiting because it could only be as big as me. I wanted to find something else that I could trust, with more insight than myself about these things.

I read the big stack of books about evolution. I realized that the scientific community strongly affirms that the universe is very old and that there's a fossil record that's consistent with evolution and that biology has some good answers about where the first cell came from and how mutations occur and percolate through populations. What was more important to me, I think, was that I stopped seeing the scientific community as having insidious immoral ambitions; I saw no signs of a mass conspiracy to hush creationists so that abortions and gay marriages can be so common as to be passe. I started believing in evolution, and not even liking that word "believing" in "believing in evolution" because evolution is scientific and I don't talk about believing in gravity or neutrons. I had changed my opinion about evolution because I figured that the scientific community is more trustworthy than my own intuition when it comes to things that I'm not an expert on. I was looking for experts on other things too, like how babies should be baptized and how miracles work and how to become holy and why a lot of my fellow Christians act like wingnuts and how I could know that I'm not a wingnut.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

All-nighter

I figured I should probably get a haircut and buy a cell phone to treat my problems with anxiety. At that point in my life, I had long hair, down past my shoulders. It was named Rodolfo. I hadn't cut it since the start of the summer I spent in Philadelphia, teaching kids to eat vegetables, this was a novel idea to them. I suppose that I had grown the long hair to make a statement, but I still don't know what that statement was supposed to be. I think it looked like the sort of hair that someone who cared about social justice might have, and I wanted to care about social justice.

I didn't own a cell phone because of a story my dad tells. He talks about how, back when people wrote with quill pens, a writer would have to take a break at the end of writing a line to dip the pen in an inkwell. During this little break, just a fraction of a second of not-writing, the writer would have rest. Ever since we started using ball-point pens we would just keep writing, and we lost that little bit of rest. It used to be that you had a break in dealing with someone as you waited for your letter to get to them and theirs to get to you, and telegraphs took that break away. You could have a break from answering the phone if you were away from home, until cell phones were invented. Now, people are expected to be available, on the phone, at all times. I would tell this story whenever I would explain why I didn't have a cell phone.

It's a nice story to tell while at a party or while driving around with a friend, it's a meaningful story about how technology changes our lives.

I was feeling anxious, I had had problems with anxiety for almost a year, so I looked up anxiety about Wikipedia and I found a related article about existential angst and decided that that's what was bothering me: I was overwhelmed with how to be defined, how to have an identity. I realized that I was telling the story about the cell phones and quill pens not because I didn't want a cell phone, but because I liked telling the story. Actually, I didn't even like the story that much, but I was afraid that if I got a cell phone, everyone that I had told the story to would think I'm inauthentic, which is a big word for fake.

My hair, Rodolfo, got a lot of attention, and I was afraid that if I cut it, people might not recognize me. I mean, my friends would be able to tell that it's still me, by my prominent nose and well-defined cheekbones, I wasn't afraid that I'd walk in the door and people wouldn't know that I'm Alex; I was afraid that people would stop giving me the extra attention for having my friend, Rodolfo, living on top of my head.

Not only that, but a couple of people had given me negative comments about Rodolfo, saying that he was unkempt, which he was. I didn't want to keep the hair, it was a big tangled mat but I didn't want to admit that I didn't actually like my long hair anymore.

Previously, I had been in a Bible study with Rodolfo's most ardent critic, Alan; we were studying faith. I complained that I didn't feel like I knew how to make friends with non-Christians. Do they have parties or something? Alan told me, "Dude, it's no big deal, just wander around the apartments, walk in one with an open door, and grab a cup." "Do I need to bring anything?" "Nah, dude, just show up." Alan calls everyone dude.

(You must understand that at UMBC, the apartments have an ill reputation. The students who live in apartments move in on the day before the semester starts, they move in on a Tuesday morning. By Tuesday night at nine, an ambulance has arrived to give a student a ride to St Agnes Hospital for treatment for alcohol poisoning. The apartments are three-storey brick structures that were constructed as "temporary buildings" four decades ago. I was bewildered as to why anyone would want to live in them until I realized that rules against underage drinking and public debauchery are more thoroughly enforced in the dorms than in the apartments.)

I figured the only way to deal with my anxiety about what everyone, including Alan, thought of Rodolfo was to get a haircut. I donated Rodolfo to Locks of Love; I'm sure there is a child somewhere with a wig with many split ends. Sure enough, no one, not even Alan, hassled me about changing my mind about Rodolfo's merits.

I bought a cell phone, a cheap Virgin Mobile with a pay-as-you-go plan, I wasn't sure what would happen if I bought a cell phone. I didn't want to sign a contract on a new lifestyle.

I was realizing that a lot of the things I was doing, I wasn't doing because I liked them, but precisely because they made me anxious: I had some anxiety with Rodolfo on my head, but just thinking about Rodolfo, to the point where I could decide what to do with him, made me more anxious. I was enduring two dozen sources of anxiety in my life, rather than asking what to do with them one by one.

My existential crisis started with cheap things, like buying a cell phone and donating Rodolfo to an alopecia patient, but as I realized that I liked having a cell phone and that I liked not having a spare identity as a hat, I might want to try some new things and abandon some old things. I felt release and relief as I took these small, concrete steps, and I wanted more freedom.

***

At this point in my life, I would often walk around on the hills of our campus to talk to God. Our campus has a lot of hills. I would walk up the hill with a lot of fear or frustration and confusion, and walk down the hill with some sort of peace and direction, with prayer happening in the middle.

Late one Friday night, a little before midnight, during this existential crisis, I decided to wander around the apartments. I had planned on walking up one of my regular hills, but I thought that, perhaps, as I was rethinking my place in the universe, I might try something different, I might try Alan's idea of getting to know non-Christians by finding them in their natural habitat. I might get some enlightenment that way.

Out front of one apartment, I ran into a guy who I'd seen perform at a big theater event at UMBC. I'd heard from a friend in his major that he'd recently gotten rejected for an honor in the theater department. He's very talented as an actor, but, the word is, he didn't do much bookwork and that cost him. I said hi to him, but he had had a couple of drinks and just grinned and laughed a lot.

Another guy offered me some Pabst Blue Ribbon. I was underage at this point. Other beers, I knew from television commercials. All that I knew of Pabst Blue Ribbon is what a friend from California had told me, that PBR is not so much a drinking beer as a get-drunk beer. This guy, offering me the beer, was yelling about how he was going to get totally wasted, as if this was a good thing. He was very excited, but I don't know that he was happy.

I never entered any of the apartments that night, I just wandered around, watching people, and feeling painfully confused. Who was I, really? What does that mean? Why is that picnic table upside down? What should my job be? Where should I live? Who should my friends be?

The apartments are on a woody hill, and there is a clearing in the center of several of them, a little service road forms a circle in this area. There are some grills, not good grills, the sort of grills you see at state parks, grills designed for unstealability. People would occasionally grill hot dogs out there. The RA's would give you charcoal if you asked. People would sit at picnic tables and eat food that was rarely any better than the dining hall would make it, and for more trouble, they would do this to have the experience of a cook-out.

I sat at one of the picnic tables, the other was upside down. A student walked up near me, stumbling. I know a trick to help with talking to strangers: when they ask you how you're doing, you tell them the truth. That's how the conversation with Rob began. I asked him how he was doing, as he hobbled, swaying, past my picnic table, and he said "Fine, how are you?" and I said, "I don't know. I'm doing a lot of things because I thought my friends want me to rather than because I really want to, and I feel anxious and I don't know what to do."

"So get new friends," he said, sitting down. He was rambling, he'd start sentences and trail off before he started the predicate. "That picnic table, why is it upside down?" I had seen the upside down picnic table before, but not really noticed it, I just assumed it was inverted in some frat boy prank.

In InterVarsity, I learned that it's best not to evangelize by telling people up front that they're sinners and need to accept Jesus to be saved. It's better to make friends with them, and learn to care about them. Then, eventually, somehow, they realize that your love is truly Christian charity, or they see that you're a good example, or they ask you questions or you ask them questions, and they realize they're in need of a relationship with Jesus. They might not realize that they need Jesus to atone for their sins, they might just need Jesus to help them on this next exam, that's okay. I had tried every form of evangelism that didn't require friendship with the subject; I figured I would try making friends, and not worry about immediate results and see what happened.

Following good evangelism technique, I sat and listened to drunk Rob rambling. After a while, another walked up, Lisa. She had tattoos and wore a bandana and had a nose ring. I could tell that she cared about social justice. She was an environmentalist.

I was trying to get Rob to talk about God and Lisa told me about how she doesn't think that God is this man in the sky, she thinks that God is in everything, there's God in you and me and animals and plants and rocks. She told me that when she feels lonely, she goes outside and finds a tree to talk to.

She told us about how she's a vegetarian, she doesn't want to eat other living beings. I asked her about free range chicken and she said, "Sometimes, free range isn't so free range." She explained that chickens are raised in barns with no room to move around, the barns would just have one window, and that that these chickens are sold as "free range". They have their beaks cut off so they don't peck each other to death.

"Why would anyone do that to chickens?" I asked. "Why don't more people care?" asked Lisa. "And why is that picnic table upside down?" asked Rob.

Our conversations meandered. I was uncomfortable. I was talking with two non-Christians at the apartments, in the middle of the night, and I didn't know what to say to them, let alone what to do about my own problems. Rob got up several times that night to go pee, not in a bathroom, he'd pee on the closest tree.

Sometimes, while sitting with us, he'd slip his hand down his trousers, as if he forgot that Lisa and I were there, or as if he knew and didn't care. I didn't know what to say about that.

Lisa was telling us about how beautiful it is that everything is connected, everything has God in it. She told us about dolphins. "Dolphins are $&*@ing smart." Rob said, displaying his Discovery Channel knowledge of marine mammals. Lisa told us about how dolphins have rescued swimmers, how they like swimming with people. She told us that sometimes dolphins have sex with people. "So, like, a girl dolphin can get a guy off?" Rob asked, enthused. Lisa told Rob about the ways in which sex with dolphins is better than sex with people.

I asked Lisa what she thought of Jesus. "I don't think he was the son of God or anything," then, her eyes lit up, "I think he was a revolutionary!"

We kept talking, until it started to get light, it wasn't so much a sunrise as the whole dome of the sky getting brighter. We asked big questions together. How do we know what right and wrong are? Who is God? Why is that picnic table upside down? Who is Jesus? Who am I? What should I be up to?

A couple of weeks later, I drank my first bottle of beer on my twenty-first birthday. A month after that, I became a vegetarian. I found that Rob had some good advice for me, too, "Get new friends." I was a lot less anxious.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Whole Gospel

Pretty quickly after I began my studies at UMBC, I got involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. By pretty quickly, I mean I was rescued from the charismatic fellowship two weeks into the semester, and, by rescued, I mean I don't know how long I could have been a part of a group where my inability to cry on cue would have been distractingly conspicuous.

In my teenage years, I got it in my head that real Christians read at least a chapter of the Bible each day and take some personal time for prayer. That had never been a habit for me, and I'd felt guilty as a result, just not guilty enough to actually have strong personal spiritual practice. When I got to UMBC, I decided that I would get a fresh start, I would make it part of my college student routine to read the Bible before bed. I figured I would start by reading the book of Daniel, because it's basically about a Christian student at a non-Christian university. I think I made it seven chapters into Daniel before I gave out. I didn't intentionally quit, it's just that the only thing that resembled a routine for me in college was watching Futurama.

The idea that God exists was very important to me, but I couldn't make myself care about personal spiritual practice. I was raised Presbyterian, so I was taught very emphatically that salvation is by grace alone, that there is nothing I can do to merit salvation. I was also taught a lot of rules, which I found confusing, because I thought the grace was supposed to be enough. I was told that the rules weren't what saved you, but that they were a sign of God's work in your life. I worked very hard not to break any of the rules so as to prove God's work in my life, but I didn't know what else I was supposed to do. Personal spiritual practice didn't seem important to me, because I was good enough at keeping rules and believing in God without it.

I played a lot of StarCraft.

I majored in engineering because I like math, but I wanted to get a good job without going to grad school. I figured I would move to Australia after I graduated. I like Australia, I wrote a report on it when I was twelve. I had heard that engineers are in strong demand in Australia. I also heard that a lot of Australians aren't religious, so I could evangelize in my off-time.

It was important to me to be a part of InterVarsity, partly because I felt obligated to be involved in the sorts of things that it does, evangelism, Bible study, and so on. I think I was driven to be involved with IV to a big extent because I didn't know how to be friends with non-Christians. I got along well with my less devout classmates, but we'd never hang out on Friday night and order pizza.

February, that year, I went to a conference with IV; the theme was "The Whole Gospel". I didn't know what that meant, I just knew that it was an IV thing and I was involved with IV, so I went. I rode with my small group, crammed into a Subaru Outback, driving into the middle of the woods because that is where spiritual things happen.

The speaker at that conference was Jimmy McGee. He explained that in the 19th century, there was a fracturing in the church between people proclaiming a sort of evangelical gospel of "believe and be saved" and those who said that the church shouldn't worry so much about evangelism, and that feeding the hungry and healing the sick is more important. He said that both are important. Jimmy talked a lot about how, in the United States, white people did terrible things, not just to the slaves in the South, but to the native Americans and to the Chinese railroad workers and the Hawaiians. He talked about how Christians should look for peace, but what Americans often mean by peace is often a mere lack of conflict; Jimmy called for a more Judaic concept of peace, shalom, community wholeness.

The conference was supposed to last until Sunday at lunchtime, but we left late on Saturday night; snow was already falling, and we didn't want to be stuck in the middle of the woods.

The next morning, we all slogged through snow to the dining hall for brunch. I was surprised to see that we were to eat off of cardboard trays and paper plates and plastic forks. The dining hall was in crisis; they seemed short-staffed.

We IV folk hung out together all day, playing Monopoly and telling stories. That night, sitting in the lobby of Chesapeake Hall, we saw about a dozen dining services workers walk in the door, planning on sleeping on the lobby couches. At UMBC, a lot of the people who do janitorial or food services work are bussed in from the city, but the snow shut down the busses. A lot of workers didn't show up that Sunday, out of fear of getting snowed in on campus; those who did show up would be stuck until the plows came.

At the conference, Jimmy had said, "I am not at peace if my community is not at peace." and that phrase was echoing in my mind; I'm sure Jimmy's teaching had affected the others in the fellowship, too. One person gave a couple of tubes of toothpaste, another, some spare bars of soap, and so on. One guy offered his only blanket off his bed. (It turned out that there were spare bedrooms and bedding for the workers.)

The next day, for each meal, we would go to the dining hall an hour before it was supposed to close, eat, then help the workers clean up. We did simple things to help out, we arranged chairs and refilled ketchup bottles. I was taught how to mop properly by the head of dining services. We did this again the day after that.

We were written about in the school newspaper, and I resented that, I think most of us did; we didn't help out in order to get attention. The dining services company offered us some sort of a reward, like a pizza party or something; we declined, and requested that a gift be made to a homeless shelter or food pantry. We didn't help out in order to get free food.

I started picking up trash on the ground, whenever I saw it. I knew it was somebody's job, and each time I would pick up a piece of garbage, I would say under my breath to myself, "I am not at peace if my community is not at peace." I got to know the people who would pick trash off the ground, but I had trouble making friends with them; we never hung out on Friday night and ate pizza. I don't think I knew how to be friends with janitors.

I went through a phase in which I didn't want to call myself a Christian. I saw the church I grew up in as materialistic and uncaring, and I didn't want to be associated with an uncaring movement; heck, I didn't want Jesus to be associated with the church. I believed that a revolution was imminent. The idea of social injustice was new to me, so I thought it was new to the whole church.

One of my small group leaders led the 30 Hour Famine at the start of spring break. A lot of stories about hunger and poverty were told, but what stuck in my head were numbers:
3 billion people live on $2 a day
1 billion people live on $1 a day
29,000 kids die every day from hunger and preventable disease.

I started doing calculations on my purchases; I had just bought Pokémon Ruby for $35 or so; was that worth not feeding someone for a month? I had taken an economics course a couple of years before, in which I learned about scarcity and opportunity cost: the choice isn't simply give or don't give, it's give to people and give up stuff for myself. I felt greedy eating food much fancier than beans and rice, but not guilty enough to change my lifestyle.

I spent that summer in Philadelphia, working at a day camp for poor kids. One day, coming off the subway, going home, my friends and I were stopped by a homeless man named Seth; he grabbed me by the hand, he needed help. He didn't have legs. We couldn't make out what he was saying, on account of his lack of teeth. He was saying something about the Poconos. One of us had some oranges left over from lunch, so we gave those to him, we figured he could eat oranges. As we walked home from the subway station, I thought, "I just held the hand of Jesus."

When I got home from Philadelphia, I was irate at how my church was operating. There was little discussion of missions, not much of poverty; what talk there was, was of short-term mission trips. By this time, I had become distrustful of the ways in which Christians talk themselves out of doing the very hard but good things. I saw things like short-term missions programs as inoculation against doing real missions work. I quit and joined a Mennonite church.

Most of the time, when someone honks a car horn, they do so out of indignation, having gotten cut off or something. One time, I was driving, and the red car ahead of me was stuck right behind an ice cream truck going at fifteen miles per hour; this red car crossed double yellow lines to pass the ice cream truck. I honked. I wasn't inconvenienced, I honked because the red car broke the rules. I cared more about the rules than I did about the driver of the ice cream truck or the driver of the red car.

When I realized how deep suffering is in the world, I wondered what was wrong with the church, my culture, or me; I lost trust in all three. I was more upset that things were not as they should be than I was sympathetic towards the actual people who are suffering.

For me, over the course of about a year, living as a Christian went from not breaking rules to being concerned with people, and I'm glad for that change. I had many dishonest thoughts, then, thinking that I was the only true Christian around, that everyone else was a sell-out; I feel more like this was adolescence rather than spite.

There was something in all of this that was dangerous for me. Growing up, I had felt overwhelmed by the idea of God, and didn't know what a relationship between any human and God could mean. I didn't know exactly what to do with God. In learning about social justice, I got no answers, I just found one more way in which God was befuddling for me; either the world is basically a bad place, or the church is basically too frail or too corrupt to remedy injustice. Regardless, God set things up in the first place, so there had to be some meaning in dealing with injustice. I felt like I was nowhere near living up to the divine standards because I still had sneakers and there are a lot of people who don't. I felt like there was something big having to do with God that I was missing, but, evidently, so was everyone else around me.

For all of my immaturity, I went from being apathetic to devout. I was reading the Bible a lot, praying, sometimes for hours, I would go for walks and have God on my mind the whole time.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

My friend Mike is going to hell

Belief in God rendered me a sort of Christian nihilist by high school. I reckoned that, since God is all-powerful, he doesn't need me for any big projects, he just seems to like having me around. Also, I thought that evangelism was the most important thing a Christian could do; maybe I thought it's the only important thing anyone could do. What could be more heroic than saving someone from an eternity of suffering and offering them an afterlife of happiness and union with God? Compared to that, building bridges or baking bread seemed void. Firemen and soldiers and bone marrow donors can save lives, but they can't give infinite life and happiness. Well, neither can we, it's the Holy Spirit that does the converting, I believed, but Christians are somehow involved in the process.

At various points in my childhood, I was a member of Pioneer Clubs, which is sort of like Boy and Girl Scouts, except, in addition to earning patches for knot tying, there are patches for various Christian things like Bible memorization and service and so on. One time, the homework involved sharing the gospel with two people that week. I was homeschooled from age six to thirteen, so my only non-Christian friend was Katie, my neighbor six doors down. She said she was a Christian, however she believed in evolution.

I started going to public school in eighth grade. On the first day, I challenged my social studies teacher when she talked about something in human history happening ten thousand years ago. That night, I voluntarily wrote a paper disproving radiometric dating. She told me that it was well-written but, "I question your sources." (My main source was The Collapse of Evolution.)

Because I wore my socks half-way up my shins and I tucked in my shirt, I was excluded by most of the other students, so I didn't have much of a chance to share the gospel with them except for that one time that we had to write compare-and-contrast essays. I wrote about Ehud and Samson, because they killed people with swords. I was thirteen. All the other boys in my class wanted to hear more about these stories.

In high school, my closest classmate was Mike. We rode the bus together, and were in most of the same classes. For most of the year, I thought he was a fellow conservative Christian, because he was a young earth creationist. Eventually, I found out that he's a Jehovah's Witness. I told Mom right as I came home, and she immediately pulled out a map-folded chart comparing different religions and cults; it had categories for things like how old they were, what their holy books are, how many gods are involved. She pointed to the category about the divinity of Christ in the Jehovah's Witness column; it said that they think that Jesus is divine, but he's not God God, he's not the Big Kahuna.

I already knew Jehovah's Witnesses were part of a cult, but they just came off to me as annoying people who knock on peoples' doors. I was afraid, now, though, because I knew and trusted Mike; maybe there's something to the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. Mom showed me a chapter about JW's in a book on cults; I read it, taking notes on a napkin, so I'd be ready to debate Mike. (Mom always referred to Jehovah's Witnesses as JW's.)

We rented a couple of videos, too, from the local Christian bookstore. I learned how Jehovah's Witnesses refuse blood transfusions because the Bible prohibits the eating of blood; on the video, this fact was paired with an image of a corpse on a stretcher. I also learned that the translators of the New World Translation claimed the aid of "spirit messengers". The Jehovah's Witnesses shun people who leave the cult; what would happen if Mike were to become a Christian? Would his family divorce him?

I remember lying in bed, singing Christian praise songs quietly, so I could fall asleep. I recited Bible verses as I walked up the big hill to the bus stop in the cold the next morning.

Mike and I talked some the next day, and the day after that, and more, throughout the school year, and neither one of us converted the other. I'm thinking now about how I felt when I first found out that Mike is a Jehovah's Witness, and why. I was overwhelmingly afraid.

I wasn't afraid for Mike, that he would go to hell. I wasn't afraid of what would happen to my relationships with people that mattered to me, I wasn't afraid that I would lose Mike's friendship by staying a theologically orthodox Christian, or that I would lose my family by becoming a Jehovah's Witness. I was afraid that I would become a Jehovah's Witness and that God would damn me, or that I'd stay a Christian and the JW's were right and their Jehovah would damn me.


I had idealized evangelism into this valiant activity, and I still thought the same way about it, but, in retrospect, I didn't feel heroic. I wasn't motivated out of some sort of love or compassion for my friend. I was afraid that God was out to get me. If I were to become a Jehovah's Witness and be wrong, Yahweh would damn me for denying his union with his Son. On the other hand, in the New Testament, Christians are commanded to not eat blood. Had I eaten blood? I thought so, there was something red that came out of our steak when we cooked it. Is that blood? Gross!

Maybe my family and I were apostates, along with the rest of the church. The Trinity had always struck me as a difficult doctrine; maybe Jesus and the Holy Spirit really are subordinate to Jehovah, and it's idolatry to worship them as God.

At the same time, I had nihilistic, fatalistic thoughts: God's will would be done, regardless of what I did, because I was just a speck compared to him. I didn't feel nihilistic, though; I did the ordinary things a kid would do, I played with Legos and read books and played hide-and-go-seek-tag with my neighbors. I liked God, I didn't have bad feelings about God, I wasn't normally afraid of him or anything.

Growing up, I thought that anyone who wasn't a true Christian was going to hell forever, that's what I was taught. As a believing Christian, I mostly evangelized for my own benefit, in one way or another. I'd "evangelize" because I like arguing, I like proving people wrong, or I'd talk with people from diverse points of view out of an idle sense of interest.



I was more talking to myself, a lot of the time, trying to reassure myself that my beliefs were correct and good to hold on to. I think I care more about holding on to the beliefs that I have than about finding out what's actually true; they're my beliefs, they feel familiar. If I were to live in Portland, I'd own my own bicycle rather than sharing the communal bikes, because I'd feel attached to my bike.

I would evangelize out of a sense of obligation, it was something people told me to do, there were Bible verses telling me to do it, Jesus mandated that I go forth and make disciples. I didn't share the gospel nearly as much as I could have, though. I thought I was a bad person because I wasn't excited about evangelism. If I really thought it could have made a difference for the fate of someone's immortal soul, I should have taken it more seriously. Am I a cold, uncaring slob because I don't cry myself to sleep thinking about what would happen to my non-Christian friends when they died? Am I lazy because I wouldn't go door-to-door, like Mike would? I mostly have Christian friends because I find them easier to get along with; is it selfish of me to not do more to befriend some non-believers? I would have guilty thoughts like that.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Desert island doubt

One time, at the dinner table, I challenged my Dad to pretend to be an evolutionist, and I would prove him wrong with my solid creationist rhetoric. I think I was eight at the time.

I was always very confident that God exists; not just that, but I was, since my earliest years, absolutely certain of all the most important Christian doctrines, creation, the incarnation, atonement, salvation by grace alone, and so on. I think I prayed the sinner's prayer at age four or five.

One time, when I was about four, before we sang "The B-I-B-L-E", Miss Natalie asked us Sunday school kids, "Who wrote the Bible?" Most of the kids said, "God" or "Jesus". I said, "Holy men who were taught by the Holy Spirit," I'd memorized that line in the children's catechism.

Dad declined my challenge to a duel. He knew that I was sure, at age eight, that I could bring the most ardent evolutionist to his knees with my knowledge of creation science, and he didn't want to indulge my fantasy.

***

Another time, I had read a book about whales. It said that whales have tiny leg bones, signs that their ancestors were land-dwelling. I told my brother that this was making me reconsider evolution, maybe there's something to it. This was a terrifying thought to me, because if evolution is true then the Bible is false and Christianity is a sham, and I didn't want to know how terrible it would be to be an atheist. The crushing meaninglessness would probably lead me to suicide.


My brother ratted me out to our parents. Dad talked with me about this, and gave me some good reasons to trust the Bible and not worry about tiny leg bones in whales. I felt reassured.

Kids tell ghost stories not because they think the ghost stories are true, but because they know they're not. Whenever I would hear a ghost story, I would feel scared, and then find a way to not be scared, I would find some courage in myself, and then forget about the story because it's not true and I never really thought it was. The point, for me, was in feeling brave.

I think I told my brother about the leg bones in the whales because I was a little scared and I wanted him to be a little scared, too, but neither he nor I wanted to lose our faith, and so I don't think whale leg bones could have led to our apostasy.

I don't think that my dad was trying to indoctrinate me or anything, it's not like he needed to squelch any doubt in the family; he just didn't want me to be too scared.

There are lots of books that purport to provide good reasons to believe in God, but I don't see a lot of nonbelievers reading them and converting to Christianity. It's mostly Christians that read these books and that are persuaded by their arguments.

***

One day, when I was twelve, I got very worried. I doubted that I could know for sure that God is honest. I believed the Bible to be absolutely, authentically, the word of God, I was certain that God exists. I just wondered how we could know for sure that God loves us and isn't putting on this whole universe as a prank for us.

I was very scared. I slept poorly that night. I was distracted the next day. Through this, I didn't tell anyone about what I was thinking, what was troubling me.

I finally felt relief when two thoughts came to mind for me. One was that people lie when they don't have much power, or are afraid of losing it. Little kids lie all the time. The Lewinsky scandal was going on around then, and I thought of how Bill Clinton was obviously lying about the matter, because he was afraid that he would lose his job, or at least look bad, and he was threatened, so he told a lie, a kind of dumb one. But God, even a malevolent God, wouldn't need to lie.

The other thought I had was that when God speaks, he says how things will be, for sure. He wants light, he says, "Let there be light." I believed, at the time, that the tiniest motions of atoms were governed by God; if God were a liar, the universe would be a mass of conversion, gravity might go up instead of down on alternate Tuesdays or the sun might turn green if God were in a bad mood, or ducks might fly north in the winter.

Most of the time that I hear about people doubting, it's either because they get some new information about God or because something tough is going on for them, personally, and they can't find meaning in that situation. For me, this worry about whether God's a liar doesn't fit in either category, I was just wandering around the house in my socks and it came to me.

I think my doubt was a different sort of doubt, the sort one could have while marooned on a desert island. I could have figured out how to live well enough on the island, going fishing and gathering coconuts, I'd have a nice bamboo hut, and I'd go swimming in the sunny afternoons. And then, one evening, while having a pleasant supper of mangoes and bananas, with no forewarning, I'd think, "Maybe God's a liar", or, "How do I know God's moral intuition is sound? Just because he's big doesn't mean he's right." or, "If all human reasoning is folly before God, how do I know that my belief in God isn't folly itself?"

In books on apologetics, I see a lot of material talking about evidence that God exists or defenses against arguments like the problem of evil or various theological nitpicks like apparent contradictions in the scriptures. I see less material addressing these blunt desert-island doubts.

One time, in college, a friend was worried about how he could know that God is honest, and I told him about my doubting when I was twelve and the two ideas that made me decide I could trust God. That comforted him, he felt better, so much so that he told a lot of people what I'd said.

And now, I think that what I told myself to get over that bit of doubt is a little fishy. Just because God doesn't need to lie to get his way doesn't mean he wouldn't lie just because he felt like it. Also, if God were to tell lies, nature would be no more disordered than he would want it to be. He could make it look as orderly as it is as a ruse. I feel bad about having given a leaky reassurance to my friend.

I doubted a fair amount when I was a teenager, but it was truly a fake doubt. I would set up something to doubt about, and I'd find a good-enough-for-me way to get over the doubt, and that made me feel even more confident in my belief in God. That one desert island doubt, the one about whether God is a liar, it sticks so clearly in my mind because, all the other times, doubt didn't feel nearly as difficult. I know that I avoided many difficult doubts because I truly wanted to believe and I didn't know if I might stumble across a doubt that had no resolution.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

See God see stars

When I talk with Christians about how I don't think God exists, many find my unbelief unbelievable. I don't just mean that they disagree with my reasoning or with my intellectual understanding of the world. They don't respond to my unbelief with language like, "You think the earth is flat?" or "You think the sky is orange?"; it's more like, "You don't like cake?" or "You like the sound of nails on a chalkboard?" as if there's something malfunctioning in my feelings about the cosmos.

Last week, I was talking with an acquaintance, a believing Christian. She said that she couldn't understand how I think that God's existence is not obvious; she said, "When I look at the stars, I see God."

"When I look at the stars, I see stars." I replied.

Believing Christians find so many benefits from their practice that they see movement from belief to unbelief as leading to great loss. I used to think this, myself, I was very uncomfortable with my unbelief, and mourned.

I think part of the problem is seeing Christianity as a package bound together by belief. This is faulty. I don't need belief that God exists to experience the love of a community, or to sing songs, or to have a sense of morality, or to be happy.

Now, I think, "If God doesn't exist, I've lost nothing but thoughts since I stopped believing." (That's not quite true, some people think a little less of me, and I thought less of myself for a long time.)

My understanding of nature isn't the same as when I was a believer; for me, nature was an occasion for worship. Worship is more difficult for me now. Even so, if the world seemed beautiful to me as a believer, why shouldn't it still fill me with wonder, now?

This summer, I was having a bad time. I have bipolar disorder, but I didn't know that, then, and I was trying an antidepressant for anxiety. Antidepressants without mood stabilizers can cause terrible problems for people with bipolar disorder. So, I was feeling depressed, I was in distress, I couldn't concentrate. I had been depressed before, but I think this might have been the worst depression I have ever felt; it was unrelenting for weeks.

Chincoteague


Some very nice friends took me to Chincoteague for vacation; I'm grateful to them for this. I couldn't just sit in a beach chair and watch the waves, I couldn't relax, feeling the way I did. Instead, I walked among the dunes and wound up in a marshy area by mistake. I went to the nature center and picked up a horseshoe crab in the touch tank. All the while, I was counting my breaths, in on one, out on two, in on three, out on four, all the way up to ten, when I'd go back to one. I couldn't have happy thoughts about people or myself or ideas or stories or culture, I was too afflicted for that. All I could do was count and look at things.

At first, I felt a little bad for my friends who had taken me on this vacation; here I was, on vacation, and depressed, and not enjoying the good time they were giving to me. Then, I wondered how much pain I would have felt if I had stayed home. I think that that vacation was one of the best ever for me, not that I was the happiest ever, but because the beauty of the place made a difference to me when I most needed something beautiful to appreciate.

From Chincoteague


I swam out past the breakers, and I lay on my back and floated on the waves. The sun was high in the sky. If I stayed out too long, my whole front side would get sunburned, I have very pale skin, but I didn't worry about sunburn. The waves took me up and down and I breathed very slowly and counted my breaths. I didn't feel happy, I couldn't, physically, at that point, but I was comforted by the rhythm of the ocean, even if saltwater washed up my nose sometimes.

Later, this summer, I experienced a hypomanic episode; most of this was painful, too. Depression and mania aren't simply opposites. Most of the time, that I was hypomanic, I wasn't happy, I was obsessive and bordering on psychotic; this episode lasted for about two months. Of these, being hypomanic was only a happy thing for about three of those days.

On the first of the good days, I drank the most delicious iced mocha I've ever had. I had had lunch at Panera, and had an apple left over from lunch. I worked late in the lab that night, but started feeling hyper and got up, around ten o'clock, and took a walk around campus, and I ate that apple as I walked. When I had nibbled it down to the core, I threw the core into the woods. I know this sounds silly now, but to me, then, that was a profound thing, that this apple which came from nature was returned to it.

I walked past the pond up to a high hill on campus and lay down on the grass and looked up at the sky. I live in Baltimore and rarely see stars at night; it never gets dark here, the sky just fades to a dull red. My university is just outside the beltway, though, and it was a clear night, and I looked up at the stars and thought about how far away they are. What would happen if gravity stopped working? Would I float towards them? I thought about how the light entering my eyes had departed those stars decades ago. Every atom that makes my body was formed from the fusion reactions that happen in stars, so we're connected across this great distance. Maybe there are people that live on planets around these stars, and maybe we don't know about them, and they don't know about us, but we're made out of the same sort of matter, and so we're connected.

I was feeling unstable, but, lying on the ground that night, I felt safe. The earth is a tiny rock in space, but it's my rock and it's not about to disappear. The grass was dewey and the ground was cold. I thought about how billions of people live here. Some of the air I'm breathing in now was exhaled by other people before, some from thousands of years ago on the other side of the earth. When I buy things, a lot of them come from Asia, and even though I've only spent a couple of weeks in Asia, my life would be different if I didn't have this contact with people in Asia. I thought about how politics here affect people in Africa, how in villages there, there are some young men named Bill Clinton and some little boys named George Bush and some babies named Barack Obama.

I know that these thoughts of wonder about nature and the world and connection happened when I was in a strange place, psychologically, they sound like stoner thoughts to me, now. I don't feel that sense of wonder with the same intensity as I did that night, but, ever since then, I've found stars to be very beautiful. Even though the universe is mostly empty and cold and silent, there are these little spots where interesting things happen, and stars remind me that meaningful things can happen in the middle of bleakness.

The stars and the oceans are charitable to me; they don't demand any sort of belief from me. They don't even demand that I know anything before experiencing them. When I was a small child, I went to the ocean and played in the sand. Sometimes, my dad would take me to the observatory, I looked at stars, and I saw Jupiter through a telescope, and I didn't need to understand anything about them to like them. Now that I've received some sort of an education, my appreciation of them has increased, but less because I know facts about them and more because I see how connected I am to them.

Halfway through this hypomanic period, I got a pet rabbit, Spots Regina Leonora Bandita Cookies 'n Cream Skeptical Empiricism Obama. I think that just having a small furry animal around makes me into a gentler person. (If nothing else, I'm eating healthier; I keep a lot of salad on hand for her, and she shares with me.) I walk near the pond on campus as much as I can, sometimes two or three times a day, and I think that these walks make me a little more tranquil. The weather makes me more cheerful, and not just "good weather"; even rainy days make me cheerful. I like the idea that things can fall from the sky or not on any given day.

When people get drunk, they find it helpful to put a hand on a tabletop, just to feel stability and know which way is up. I know that nature is real, and that knowing happens on a very basic level. As I've lost some thoughts about God, I've gained more of an appreciation of nature, I've needed to. When I'm not sure what's meaningful or beautiful, or how to live my life, it helps to see things that I know are real, for sure.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Paradoxes and clockses

If I find a watch in the woods, it is reasonable to expect that it was made by a watchmaker. However, I already know that watchmakers exist. Not only that, but watchmakers not much less systematic and orderly and consistent than watches.

One time, I was talking with my friend, Luc; he was arguing that Christianity doesn't hold together because Jesus was not a fit sacrifice. Jesus was cursed, he was hung on a tree, and according to Deuteronomy 21:22-23,
When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.

Luc's argument was dumb. It's not like he's the first person in two thousand years to have read Deuteronomy, it's not as if all Christians are so dishonest that they'd throw out that verse.

Luc was also arguing to me that the gospels were ahistorical, Luke, especially, because they were overwhelmed by an early erroneous Pauline influence. I'm confused why the early Christians would construe the gospels in such a way that Jesus would be painted as accursed if that curse would undermine their theology.

What Luc missed, more than the logic, was how little the Christian God seems to care about logic. The meaning of the crucifixion stories is held in Jesus thoroughly absorbing our wrongdoing into himself, and suffering the punishment for all of our vileness, so that that we are made whole and he is exalted. It's not supposed to make sense, it's supposed to be good.

If the Christian God were trying to make sense, the Bible would be shorter, it would be in bullet point format, and all the jokes would have been edited out.

Luc was playing by the wrong rules. He was thinking that there were any rules at all to knowing, when it comes to God. Christianity defies these rules. Polite church people call the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation "mysteries" or "paradoxes". These are logical contradictions, and attempts to reconcile them betray a lack of understanding of their meaning.

I am frequently asked what it would take for me to believe. God is impossible. He's three people, and one of them is also a human being, who died and stopped being dead. God, being infinite, somehow made finite beings who are distinct from him. What sort of science or history would it take to demonstrate with confidence these absurd and beautiful notions?

Watches and belief

Please note Tim's writing on belief, which, I think, is a good coda to the discussion from my post, Impasse or hiking.

Also note MC Graham's post, boeing 747, which anticipates the first paragraph of my post for this week.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Triangles: People, nature, and God

I'm a big fan of dumb arguments. I think there's something cute about this argument that recycling is overrated: if recycling were substantially more efficient than extracting raw materials from holes in the ground, you'd be paid to recycle. I would get lost doing cost-benefit analysis on energy savings and reduction of pollution. The problem is complicated enough that whoever's doing the study can fudge the numbers to favor their personal biases. Recycling might be good, but no one's made it worth my effort, so I can tell that I'm at least not doing a lot of harm by burning all my styrofoam cups and plastic bottles in the backyard.

Arguments for God's existence, based only on knowledge of nature, any of them from the young earth creationists' casting aspersions on radiometric dating, to the denial that abiogenesis could have occurred without divine intervention, to the argument that the universe itself is so fine-tuned it must have been made by an intelligent designer, all of these arguments are hideously complex. I like to think that I'm almost a smart person, and I haven't been able to work out the math on any of these for myself.

I've been on one side or the other of these sorts of arguments, and I now find them dull, to the point of pain. I'm ready to say, "The earth is 6,000 years old, it was made on October 22, 4004 BC, life can't come from non-life, we live in an incredibly complex universe that couldn't have been an accident, and bananas were designed with human consumption in mind." I would say this just to escape from this sort of discussion the next time I'm trapped in one. I'd like to see what happens next. I suppose this would make the argument a lot dumber; I'd prefer to talk about whether a personal God can be known through impersonal nature over talking about abiogenesis and astrophysics and accumulated aquatic aluminum.

From Disorientation


I suppose one could call this uncaused cause God, it's all semantics, that's fine. But, how does one make the jump from this uncaused cause to belief in Hashem or Allah or the Fates or the Triune God of Reformed Theology? When people ask each other, "Do you believe in God?" I don't think they mean, "Do you affirm that the universe results from an impersonal uncaused cause?" (Also, they rarely mean, "Do you believe in a divine essence who hates you?") Whenever I ask the question, I'm not directly looking for information or opinions on God, I'm trying to understand my interlocutor: the implied question is, "Do you try to relate to a god? How?" Nothing about causality or complexity or even beauty in the universe suggests that there's a big something that would care to interact with us.

So why do religious people try to demonstrate that their God can be known from observation of nature? Religious people who came to belief through mere study of the cosmos are rare. Most religious people were raised in their current religion. Most converts become converts not through a systematic exploration of alternatives, but through the influence of their friends.

I suppose that, for Christians in particular, the historicity of the resurrection is enough of a reason for belief for them. Likewise, Jews and Muslims would appeal to other supernatural historical events, the deliverance from Egypt and the giving of the Koran, respectively. (Non-monotheists tend to be less concerned with academic proofs that any God exists.) What stake do the religious have in the idea that God can be known from nature, if, in general, that's not how they themselves came to belief in God?

I first became interested in arguments about God and nature because I wanted to interpret the Bible literally; I didn't care much about proving God to other people, I was trying to reassure myself, that my beliefs about God were compatible with reality. I suppose that's one reason why I've had stake in the relationship between God and nature.

Another reason to talk about knowing God through nature is found in Romans 1:18-21:
18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.

It would be cruel of God to damn people without any warning. Jonah was sent to Nineveh not to evangelize, but to give a portent, like serving a legal summons or posting a notice on a condemned building. Instead of obeying God, Jonah fled to Tarshish because he didn't want the Ninevites to even have that warning. Likewise, those who believe that God is good and condemns some must assert that knowledge of what God requires can be found in nature.

This can be a beautiful idea, that God can be known from nature, because that means that regardless of race or culture or religious background, everyone can have some true knowledge about God; if this is the case, God is rather sporting and egalitarian.

I suppose that the strongest reason why religious people have stake in finding God in nature is that they already want to find him, period. Humans have a strong longing for a relationship with the divine. This attitude shapes our relating with everything.



People look at the Galle crater on Mars and see a happy face. Creatures with faces didn't move rocks into a face-shape to communicate with us. It looks like a face because whenever people see two dots over a line, we see a face. This is pareidolia, seeing patterns where there are none, simply because people look for patterns all the time. That people see a personal God in nature says more about people than God.

"I believe that, if a triangle could speak, it would say... that God is eminently triangular."
Benedictus de Spinoza

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nature can't prove God exists

"Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for."—Douglas Adams, Is there an Artificial God?



Arguments for the existence of God based on observation of nature hinge on the idea that the universe is so complex that it would have taken a powerful intelligence to make it. Suppose that were true: the most that that argument could ever possibly conclude is that something very complex and big exists. I call that complex big thing the universe.

To set up any sort of proof for the existence of God, you have to answer the question, "Which God?"

When I say God, I mean someone powerful, personal, and good, someone who evokes worship from me. Isn't this why anyone would be concerned with the idea of God? If we're just talking about some ambiguous big thing, who cares what we call it or how we deal with it? The questions about God are all questions about meaning.

And, by powerful, I mean powerful enough to make the big bang happen. I don't want to worship Barack Obama by mistake.

That God would be personal is important, too; I think the cosmos is beautiful, but I don't worship it. What do you give a cosmos that has everything?

Well, not all arguments for the existence of God from study of nature try to advance the idea that God must be more complex than the universe. Some try to argue that God must exist because the universe is good. The universe would have had to have been made by something big, complex, and good. I think that this is what deists believe, at least, this is what my rabbit tells me she believes, and she's a deist.

Even if there is this complex, big, good thing, I can't tell if it has beaten or wooed me into good behavior, and I don't know why either of us should be concerned at all with the other.



All of these arguments from nature depend on some sort of embiggening assumption, that if the universe has some property, it must have been made by something that displays that property even more so. It's messy enough to apply that logic inside this universe. If I had an apple, but no knowledge of where apples come from, I couldn't say much about the apple's origin. I could look at the stem, and guess that the apple came off of something stemmish, but I couldn't say whether that stemmish thing was a tree or a vine or a bush or a peduncle emerging from the ground.

In conclusion, I'm going to wander around the student union building. Maybe I'll find some Christian evangelists who use arguments from nature to assert belief in God. I would pretend to be convinced by their arguments, then affirm belief in Waheguru of the Sikhs. Do you want to come with me?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Good news from primordial ooze

When I was a little kid, dinosaurs were my favorite category. They're still in my top ten favorite categories, along with snacks, furniture, and mistakes.

(I like snacks because they're extra food; they're food you eat because you want to, not because you need nourishment. I like furniture because it's a humble category; chairs are for people, cabinets are for dishes, desks are for papers. No furniture exists for itself. I like mistakes because they're things that you didn't do right that you don't have to feel bad about.)



I grew up in a conservative Christian home. When my parents saw that I was interested in dinosaurs, they gave me a lot of creationist books on the topic. To be fair, my parents have always been more open-minded about origins than a lot of conservatives. The books, though, were written with a heavy anti-evolution agenda, and I think this is where my obsession with proving people wrong began. They filled me with wonder, though, and in a sense, they still do. Maybe plesiosaurs are swimming in the Mariana Trench, or what if triceratopses are hiding in jungles in Africa?



These books always went from dinosaurs to Genesis, and that's where my love of the stories in the first bit of Genesis began. I like imagining God carving oceans in the earth with his hands and scooping land together, and people living in an ideal garden, and how the world might have changed in a catastrophe. These stories in Genesis help me form meaning. I think that the idea of people being made in God's image is much more helpful for me than working out bioethics in making sense of modern moral dilemmas. That we are said to come from the dirt, but are pushed back into it by toiling as farmers helps me understand both the worth and the stress of my job.

I find so much meaning in the story of the fall. The blame-shifting, the hiding, the shame, I tell this story myself whenever I do wrong. When I was a small child, I would sit on the toilet, groaning as I pooped, asking, "Why did Adam and Eve have to eat the forbidden fruit?" I don't know that I felt at the time like that was unfair. I did feel like my pain was bound cosmically to the actions of naked strangers.

The sin of the people caused thorns and disease and everything that is not-good in the world. (More cynical people than I would complain of how this punishment is not proportional, or would blame God for putting the tree in the garden in the first place.) The problem that I have with the story of the fall is its placement of the weight of intentionality behind everything that's unseemly.



I've spent a lot of time and toil trying to find meaning in meaningless suffering. I think evolution tells a story that helps me deal with reality better. Creation says that everything used to be good, but humans messed it up, but God will make it okay again. Evolution says that everything used to be bland and dead, but that beauty has arisen naturally. The world isn't a bad place, the kinks just haven't been shaken out yet. For something that I didn't pay for, I think life in this cosmos is pretty nice, and if there's no intentionality behind it, I'd say things are working out pretty well, all things considered.



Life is tenacious. All beings are always changing, trying new ways to fit the world better. Evolution is incredibly messy, it's not an organized process. It's not the most efficient way one could conceive of that life could come to be. Natural history is riddled with false starts. There are oodles of examples of great successes, like dinosaurs, that lost whatever advantage they had and then disappeared. The plesiosaurs probably ran out of food.

Evolution doesn't say anything about what an ideal world would be or how we should live or what ultimate meaning is. What I learn from evolution is that life isn't neat, but that progress comes from trying a lot of things, most of which aren't going to work very well. If you stick with what does, and change it a little bit, and keep trying new things, you might wind up with something neat.

When I make mistakes, I think about evolution, and I smile. My mistakes aren't abysmal failures, they're just things that need tweaking, or dead-ends that can be abandoned in favor of five new ideas.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Impasse or hiking

In response to last week's post, Suz asked me, "Have you ever thought that maybe in holding onto doubt you are refusing to believe?"

From Across Izmir


This reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend who is a believing Christian. She asked me what I think of her belief, how I regard it in my agnostic perspective. I told her that, while I respect her greatly and see that her belief has shaped her in beautiful ways, I think that she's holding on to it out of a lack of intellectual integrity. It pained me to say it, to suggest that she was dishonest about the belief she holds dearest.

As we talked, it became clear that she felt the same way about my unbelief, that she respected me as a human being, but she had no explanation of my unbelief, in her worldview, other than that I am intellectually dishonest.

However, I couldn't find to a specific source of intellectual dishonesty in her, and she couldn't pinpoint the intellectual dishonesty in me. The standard Christian line that I've heard is that people who don't believe don't want to believe because they don't want God to be in authority over them. I suppose the Four Horseman of the New Atheism could be explained this way. Most of the atheists I know don't merely not believe in God, they absolutely don't want to.

I stopped believing that God exists two and a half years ago, my response to this was to struggle arduously to believe. I don't feel like I'm holding on to doubt, I feel like I've been holding on to belief. I suppose that, in the Christian mindset, my unbelief could be explained as me, deep down, not wanting to believe in God because I'm rebellious, but that I've cloaked that in feelings of wanting to believe. I thought that for a while, and wound up feeling futile guilt and confusion.

Fundamentally, informed, educated, insightful believers and nonbelievers have to regard each other as intellectually dishonest for their own worldviews to be coherent. At the core, believers understand nonbelievers as not believing in God out of rebelliousness. Contrariwise, nonbelievers understand believers as believing in God out of a fear of a lack of ultimate meaning. I don't know which human tendency is stronger: dread of living in a cosmos with no meaning, or dread of standing before God.

Either way, it feels about as mean to me for my friend to suggest that I'm doubting because I don't want to believe in God as it does for me to suggest that my friend is feeble and fearful and clings to belief in God out of despair. It seemed as if we were at an impasse.

Don't worry, Suz, you've said nothing to offend me; I hope you've taken no offense at anything I've said. It's the nature of disagreement that people with incompatible worldviews can't both have confidence in their own beliefs while having confidence in people who adhere to beliefs that contradict theirs. In general, I'm afraid that there is despair among believers that nonbelievers can offer anything meaningful, and vice-versa.

I don't think this despair is warranted. In fact, I think that people thinking that dialog with the other side is futile are being more condescending than people who engage in dialog and say mean things, because to refuse to talk is to give up on the other party being reasonable and flexible. Oodles of people who believed in God gave up that belief and oodles of nonbelievers have converted to belief in God. We live in the same world, we have access to the same sorts of experiences. I think it's best to talk about things we can describe in real terms, like fruit and hiking and astronomy, and building up from there, rather than working down from abstract ideas about God and meaning.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Doubt vomit angry refreshing

Doubt is the distance between what we expect of God and what we experience in reality. What could be sinful about this?

The act of doubt, that is, the admitting of this gap, this distance, is not sin at all. It is a sort of repentance.

If we're going to doubt, we might as well doubt a God worth doubting. I don't bother expending much energy doubting the existence of Chemosh the Fish-Headed God of the Moabites, or the Mormon God or a god who would have endorsed slavery in the American South, or a deist conception of a God who watches us at a distance. Whether these gods are more plausible than a properly Christian conception of God is irrelevant. None of these God enthrall me. They don't evoke worship from me.

This principle, doubt a God worth doubting, makes doubt so much easier. Would the God I want to believe in hold it against me that he doesn't seem real to me?

I might doubt for terrible, sinful reasons. I might doubt God because he doesn't give me what I want, or because he's not an anarcho-syndicalist and I think I might be, or because of widespread human suffering that might not actually be his fault. Forcing God into a false conception of him is wrong; and it's foolish if I don't even like that false conception. However, the doubt itself isn't the sin, it's a symptom of a sinful attitude towards God. Doubt is the start of how that attitude would get resolution.

When I have an idea of a God I really want to love, one with integrity and mirth and mercy and danger, but I just don't see signs of his work in the world, no matter how hard I look, that's good doubt for me.

I love fights. I love wrestling and jokes and crying and yelling and singing and repentance and screaming. I love a good poop, or when I'm sick, hocking a huge loogie. I haven't vomited in years, but when I get a stomach bug, I wish for a puke-o-rama, to get it all out.

If you're angry at God, you're angry at God. Be angry at God.

If you're angry at God, do it at God, emphasis on the at. The Israelites in the Pentateuch wouldn't get angry at God, their dissatisfaction smoldered in grumbling, and this is sin. The Pharisees in the New Testament behave in precisely the same way; notice how many times in the gospels they grumble among themselves—but they never ask an honest question of Jesus.

If you're going to doubt, I suggest going all the way, doubting as thoroughly as you can. Don't say "I'm struggling to believe in God." If God doesn't seem real to you, just say so! Get used to thinking two things at once. This sounds confusing, but it only takes twice as much thinking as you're used to. Scream "God isn't real!" if that's the way it seems to you. But, think, "If God is real, then he'd certainly know better than to believe me when I say he's not, and if he's not real, there's no God to be troubled at all by my doubts." It's very refreshing.

I'm amused by the particularly angry atheists, who study a lot of anti-apologetics to prove to Christians that God isn't real. I think I'm the only one that I know personally who was wooed by their thinking. They hate being atheists, but they hate the Christian notion of God, too. They become embittered, bile and gall accumulates in their souls. They're very logical people, but they don't see the lack of logic in expending energy in disproving a God they don't even like. It's futile to be disappointed at God you don't like for not existing, that's like Jonah cursing the vine.

(There is a different category of angry atheists that I don't think are goofy. They are angry at the Christians who are worth being angry at. I wish them the best of luck. I also want them to think that I'm cool.)

Doubt because that's what you really feel. Don't doubt to punish God, that's silly, that's like when a child punishes his parents by holding his breath. I know one person who would hold his breath until he would pass out. He is now a black-belt in jujitsu, but that's irrelevant. Wise parents know to let the unruly child hold his breath as long as he likes, but not to budge an inch: otherwise, they're teaching the child that asphyxiation is an effective way to get what he wants. I suppose God, being a good parent, would deal with inauthentic doubt by ignoring it.

You don't even have to know, though, which god you're doubting. You don't have to be consistent in your doubts—the biblical conception of God is gleefully inconsistent, "Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated." The things that everyone in your church says are the really good things about God can seem diabolical to you. You can take your pick of scriptures that you find dull or backwards; I could help you find good examples. Why would God push you away, if you were to meander near him, but with confusing reservations? I'm sure he confuses himself quite often, and won't blame you for your confusion. Christianity has never taught salvation by not being confused by God.