Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sympathy and prayer

I've been writing stories about spirituality for me in chronological order. The next step in the narrative is the time that I almost became Orthodox. The large amount of information I would need to convey about Orthodoxy for the story to make any sense to someone who doesn't know a lot about Orthodoxy makes the writing difficult enough; I think there are other complications, as well. I'm pausing posting about that story for a week or two. In the mean time, I might write shorter essays, like this one.

I have noticed that I've become less devout in some ways; I don't pray very much, I don't read the Bible devotionally, I still go to church, but it doesn't feel the same. I was more excited about getting an espresso machine at Christmas than I was about the religious root of the holiday. I've found other things that sort-of replace some of my former practices; I read the existentialists and some Buddhist texts, I meditate some. It's not the same, though.

One of my brothers is having some troubling medical problems, he was hospitalized yesterday. When I found out, I didn't feel particularly sad or wiped out, I didn't feel connected to his problems. The was no difference in my mood before and after finding out about my brother's hospitalization.

I felt kind of bad about how little I felt about him, but I think that, in general, I'm a little less prone to empathize than average. I think that's okay, the more important thing is actually doing something.

Just now, at five PM on Monday, I got an email from Dad; he had stayed up all night with my brother. I'm sure he's exhausted. I thought, "I want to call home and let Dad know that I'm praying." All of a sudden, I teared up, which is unusual for me. I was sad for my brother. I called home; Dad was out, but I got to talk with my sister. I reminded her to pray.

A few minutes later, I got a call from a friend, he's having a crisis today, and asked me to pray for him. I've tried previously to explain to him that I don't think God exists and I don't pray very much any more, but that didn't make a difference, he kept asking me to pray for him. Now, when he calls and asks for prayer, I quickly pray a silent prayer. This makes me feel like a slightly-more-honest person, rather than not praying at all. I know that I'd forget to pray after the conversation.

When I got the email from my Dad, I saw that a lot of people were CC'd on it, relatives and friends of the family. Dad hadn't specifically asked for prayer, but I knew that was the implication. And, I wanted to pray, genuinely, not just for my parents' sake. It feels more productive than just feeling sympathy, even though I don't think God exists.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


At UMBC, I had talked to a lot of non-Christians, and had had difficult conversations with them about God. One time, an atheist got spitting mad at me, because I had the gall to believe that the Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt but had become free; this atheist was expecting some historical evidence for millions of people escaping slavery, and, given that there isn't much outside of the Bible, he wasn't compelled by Christianity. I had talked with that spaced-out guy with long hair who waved his hands over his yogurt and prayed before he ate it, this guy had a spirituality that was made out of several parts, including Hinduism. I had a classmate who was a militant atheist, but converted to Islam. I even had a roommate who thought God exists, but didn't want to become a Christian; he's happy just being an ethical person.

I had read a lot of books on apologetics, so none of these people were particularly troubling for my faith, I knew how to rebut their arguments. The difficult non-Christians were a couple of guys, Zach and Graham, who wanted to hang out with me and a fellow Christian every week and talk about why we believe what we do and why they believe what they do.

Most non-Christians were so ambivalent about Christianity that it was difficult to get them to talk about it at all; most of the rest were so angry that it was difficult for me to be friends with them. Either way, until I met Zach and Graham, I hadn't been friends with smart, independent, non-Christians who would give me challenging, original things to think about on a regular, long-term basis.

Zach was interested in talking with Christians because he had taken a class on the history of genocide. He saw how much of it was motivated by religion. Not only that, but the stories in the Old Testament about the Jews entering Canaan and driving out its inhabitants, Zach saw those as being stories that glorified genocide. With the war in Iraq in full swing, and with the religious right largely supporting it, he wanted to make sure that Christians weren't plotting a fascist take-over. Most non-Christians would avoid deep conversations with Christians, but Zach realized how important understanding us is. I think Graham's interest wasn't too different, but who can say?

I had been trained to focus on connecting non-Christians with experiences of God, rather than getting stuck in quagmires about fossils and manuscripts. I tried to tell stories about God leading me in my life. I didn't think that God talked to me with word-for-word clarity, but that God did work on me in substantial ways. However, when I tried to tell Zach and Graham these stories, they weren't persuaded. I didn't blame them; what sort of profound spiritual experiences has a grad student had that demonstrate God's existence in a powerful and new way? My stories could just as easily have been explained by natural maturing and personal development, or confused by the complexity of human emotions. I didn't have any secret knowledge.

We wound up talking a lot about things like intelligent design. We read together Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman; we talked a lot about textual analysis of the earliest Greek manuscripts of the gospels. I was having some doubts, not because they had great arguments that dismantled my belief in God, but because the only demonstrations of God that I could give them were very pedantic.

In our conversations, we were all talking about God in such a cerebral way that belief in God couldn't have seemed compelling to them. If God's existence couldn't be demonstrated in a concrete way, why should I expect Zach and Graham to be convinced, if that would have meant anything risky? I was realizing that everything that I'd tried in evangelism, ever, had led to zero conversions, and this was threatening to me, because I thought evangelism was very important and I had a big zero, which meant I wasn't doing very well at all. (Well, I knew that it wasn't me, but the Holy Spirit, who saves people, that I didn't have too much influence on the process. On the other hand, I was expecting the Holy Spirit to be doing everything that he could; if you had to pick one of us to blame, would you pick me or the Spirit?) People were going to hell and there wasn't anything that was changing.

I was thinking about all of this as I left my lab one Monday night in November. As I walked up the big hill to my car, it was dark, but just a little foggy, so the streetlights had clouds of light around them, they weren't just points of light. I thought, "What of Christianity is really real? What is a good reason for my friends to believe?" Then I thought about the disagreements that all sorts of Christians have with each other. "If I were to expect God to be doing anything real in the world, wouldn't I expect God to be doing something sensible in the church? If God can't keep us together, what can he do?"

At that point in my life, I would often go alone to the theater to watch movies. I figured, I have to be quiet for an hour and a half to two hours, so what's the point in being in a quiet, dark, room with your friends as opposed to anyone else? I drove from my lab that night to see Stranger than Fiction, the Will Ferrell movie in which he plays Harold Crick, a man who finds out he's a character in a novel. Harold Crick finds the manuscript for the novel that he's in, and finds out that it's a tragedy, that he's supposed to die at the end of the story. It's a very existential movie, I was in the mood for an existential movie because I'd been going through an existential crisis the previous few months.

After I saw the movie, I went to Giant, the good Giant, not the one right near campus, but the one with the olive bar and the big produce section. I had just become a vegetarian as part of the existential crisis, and I was looking for soy sour cream so that I could make some sort of casserole involving tofu and peas and chow mein noodles. (I didn't find the soy sour cream. It wouldn't have made a difference, I don't think, the casserole was disgusting. It wasn't my idea. I was just following a recipe as well as I could; I didn't really know how to cook vegetarian food then.)

Anyway, I was at the Giant at about midnight, and I was thinking about the movie. At the end of the movie, Harold Crick decided to jump in front of a bus to save a boy; he knew that this would happen, he knew that he would die as a result, because he had read about it in the manuscript of the novel. I thought a lot of thoughts like, "Did Jesus know that he was going to die? Did he know that he would rise again? What intentionality did he have about his own death? How human was his death?" And I felt very quiet and humble, wandering from aisle to aisle in Giant. It wasn't the Giant that I normally went to, so it had all of the same things I was used to, but they were all in different places, so I walked back and forth across the store looking for the groceries I needed; I was thinking about Jesus, or, more, feeling about Jesus. I didn't have any new ideas about Jesus that I needed to figure out, I just had a very strong sense that he is deeply good and loving.

I had started that evening feeling afraid about how I would show Jesus to Zach and Graham, what evidence did I have? By the end of the night, I felt a deep tranquility and beauty. What happened in the middle wasn't any facts about Jesus, but a movie that maybe wasn't even trying to be about Jesus, but that had some ideas about beauty and meaning. I didn't have any good answers to that theological riddle about how much Jesus knew, but it didn't matter: Jesus was human like Harold Crick or me, he would have washed dishes and eaten fruit and pooped. That idea still makes me tingle.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

How do I know I'm not a wingnut?

Earlier that school year, I had given a talk for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's large group meeting. In it, I talked about how my little brother, when he was a toddler, was a great helper. He would offer mom Oreos that he had sucked on, before all his teeth had come in. He would follow her down to the basement when she did laundry, and she would let him crawl into the dryer to pull out the last couple of socks. Mom thought my brother's soggy Oreos were gross, and it was inconvenient for him to pop in and help with the laundry; Mom could have gotten the socks more quickly. However, my brother helped with eagerness and love, and that's the way we help God, we aren't terribly useful, but that's not what is most important to God.

At another point that year, my brother was put in the psych ward; he was experiencing onset of juvenile bipolar disorder.

Shortly after the time I sat up all night, talking with non-Christians, James came to me after an InterVarsity large group meeting, I guess it would have been about ten on a Thursday night. James was one of the other leaders in the fellowship. He told me that he felt called to prophesy to me. He spoke in tongues, and then would translate into English. He told me that my brother would get better and would get back to being so sweet and helpful.

The problem with James' prophesy is that I have more than one brother; I had told the story about helpfulness about one brother, and had asked for prayer for another. James was no prophet; God would know which of my brothers is which. James had similarly approached other members of the fellowship, offering to prophesy to them. Sometimes he encouraged them, sometimes he told them that God told them to give to James' church.

Around that time, I had broken up with my girlfriend. A couple of weeks after that, after church, Brenda, one of my friends from church, told me that she wanted to talk with me about something. It was private, she said, so we went to the nursery. She told me that I was wrong to have broken up with my ex, that we were supposed to get back together, and that she, Brenda, was supposed to be a mediator for us. I asked her how she knew this. She was timid about saying it, but she said that this was how God was leading her.

On the way home, I thought about whether I had made the right decision, to go through with the break up, and I was sure that I had, I had had no second thoughts until then, even. I only reconsidered because I wanted to respect Brenda.

I spent the rest of the day being mad at Brenda and trying to find appropriate Bible verses. When I was trying to figure out whether to go through with the breakup, I was conscientious. I was concerned about doing right, about making the right decision. I prayed for a couple of weeks. I fasted one day, but I got very hungry, so I took a break to go to KFC, but then I got back to fasting the next day. I talked to some close, wise friends that I trust.

Brenda told me to get back together with the woman that I'd broken up with. She said that God told her. What would it say about God, if he didn't make his will clear to me while I was praying and fasting, but, instead, told Brenda a couple of weeks later?

The Eucharist
During the summer I spent in Philadelphia, we would visit a different church each Sunday, to see a profile of urban churches. The night before we visited The Church of the Advocate, Don and I were up late talking. We sat in Brian's living room. (Brian didn't have air conditioning, so he compensated by having a powerful ceiling fan. Don and I would make jokes about decapitation occurring if the ceiling fan jostled loose from its mount.) We knew that the eucharist would be celebrated at church the next morning, and Don and I weren't sure if we should take the elements.

In the Presbyterian church that I grew up in, we were taught not to take communion at a church that isn't in our denomination. At that point, Don and I both thought that communion is a remembrance, a symbol, but that Jesus isn't materially present in the bread and grape juice. (We both came from churches that would use grape juice instead of wine.) We had been taught that, when communion was observed with an understanding that Jesus is actually being eaten and drunk, it's as if Christ is being crucified again. Jesus died once for all, he doesn't need to be killed in every church every Sunday morning. There were other ways in which we were suspicious of the Episcopalians, they seemed too Catholic. Also, didn't they split from the Catholic church just because the king of England wanted a divorce?

We talked about it, and we prayed for wisdom, and we decided to partake of the eucharist the next morning. This was a big step for us. A year or two before, I had visited an Episcopal church with my dad and we abstained from the eucharist, this was when I had gotten the ideas I did about Episcopalians.

Granddaddy wasn't religious. I suppose he thought that some sort of God existed, but I don't think he went to church regularly. He was a good person, though. He dropped out of school so that he could get a job; his parents had trouble making ends meet, and he wanted to help out. At a yard sale, he found a set of the Harvard Classics, "The Five-Foot Shelf of Books". He read some of them. That was his education.

He was notably scrupulous. He sold insurance, and wouldn't make dishonest deals. Mom has memories of lying in bed, before she would go to sleep: she could hear Granddaddy sitting at the kitchen table, counting coins. He didn't make as much money as the other insurance salesmen, and so he lived frugally. His customers trusted him, though, and would consult him after he retired, to make sure they weren't being cheated.

He was a friendly person; when he moved into a new neighborhood, he went from door to door, saying, "Hi, I'm Floyd Stewart, I'm your new neighbor."

He painted portraits of important people, judges and politicians and so on. Sometimes they'd offer to pay in cash, so that he wouldn't have to pay taxes on that income; he'd refuse, or he'd pay the taxes anyway.

He was a smart person, a good person, but he wasn't religious.

He died a couple of years before I was born. I never saw him. I visited his grave once.

When I was a kid, I wondered if I would ever see him, I wondered if he was in heaven. Of course, there's no way to know, for sure, who is saved and who isn't, but I didn't think that he was. We didn't know of Granddaddy repenting of his sins and asking Jesus to save him; being good doesn't save you, a relationship with God does.

Granddaddy didn't have to give up much to become a Christian, his only vice was smoking cigarettes. Why wouldn't he want to become a Christian? Why wouldn't he want a relationship with God?

I have heard Christians tell a story about people who are good but who aren't Christians. They say that good people that don't repent are using their own goodness to justify themselves, and that they should be looking to God, instead. They would say that people like Granddaddy don't bow before Jesus out of their own stubborn pride. I know, because I've told that story. Some sort of a story has to be told.

It's easy to tell a story as to why James and Brenda ought not be believed when they say that God is talking to them: they're wingnuts. That's the story. I could speculate further, maybe they want attention, they want to be seen as special, they want control. There are all sorts of stories we can tell about them.

It was harder for Don and me to tell a story about the Episcopalians. Don is a Baptist and I grew up Presbyterian, and we knew that there are very smart Baptists and Presbyterians and Episcopalians. Smartness shouldn't even matter. Jesus said in Matthew 11, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will." I think is a beautiful verse: when it comes to knowing God, there is no priority given to people just because they're well-educated. Does God care more about geniuses than the retarded? Does God prefer the people who could pay to go to Yale over the people having trouble getting loans to go to community college? What would it say about God if he preferred smart people?

Don and I could tell stories about non-Christians not believing in God because they want to do drugs or have promiscuous sex or simply because they want to be number one. We could tell stories about charlatan preachers of the prosperity gospel, who are clearly defrauding their congregations. I don't know what would motivate an Episcopalian to crucify Christ every Sunday if they knew that that wasn't necessary. We couldn't tell a good story about how the Episcopalians could be so bad. We all have the same Bibles. We all have smart people. We all have good people; The Church of the Advocate was a strong center in the civil rights movement. We all want to know God, or, at least, we say we do.

It's easy to distrust bad non-Christians, the drug dealers or the vendors of collateralized debt obligations or the people we're at war with, to say that they don't think that God exists because they don't want him to cut out their pleasurable yet evil behaviors. I have more trouble telling a story about why Granddaddy didn't want to be a Christian. It's very tricky to tell a story about how Grandpa, my dad's dad, who was raised a Lutheran, didn't want to become a Presbyterian.

I know how to tell some stories about denominations and other lines that Christians draw amongst ourselves. There's a story about anabaptists hiding in the bushes whenever Martin Luther would go for a walk by the river, so that they could anabaptize him against his will. It would have been for his own good. There's a story about the anabaptists that more people know of today, the pacifists, who gave up war in a reaction against the anabaptists who would deal with people they disagreed with by means of violence. There are stories about the old line drawn between the Oriental Orthodox and the rest of the church, over whether Jesus had two natures, one divine and one human, or one nature that was divine and human. Today, as the Oriental Orthodox are talking with the rest of Christendom, it seems as if we broke up over a translation error.

I can't tell every story, though. I don't think a story can be told about every doctrinal dispute. There are some things that people disagree about, like who Melchizedek was, that don't matter very much, and that's fine, but there are lots of good, smart, humble people who think that babies should be baptized, and lots of good, smart, humble people who think that they shouldn't; there are lots of good, smart, humble people who think that it doesn't matter very much. I have my opinions, but I don't think that any of the disagreements about baptism can be settled, arguing only from the Bible. You can tell that sola scriptura can't work because it hasn't.

After James and Brenda prophesied at me, I was thinking about this problem a lot. They're extreme cases, sure, but what I find tragic about their stories is that they are so confused that they don't know how confused they are. I didn't think that I was confused in the same way, but once I got to thinking about their problem, how one could be so confused that one can't know that one is confused, I didn't know how I could tell that I wasn't just as much of a wingnut as they are. Sure, I didn't speak in tongues or tell people that God was delivering secret messages to me, for me to pass out to others, but maybe I just found a way to be wrong that looks more polite.

If the Episcopalians are bad, cannibalistic, feasting wrongly on Jesus' flesh, and not only that, but so bad that they don't know how bad they are, how do I know that I'm not just as bad, in another way? James and Brenda seemed goofy, but the Episcopalians that I met were a bunch of very sweet grandparents; after church, we had cake and coffee together. Some are raising their grandchildren as if they were their own; they have a program at the Church of the Advocate for GAPs: Grands As Parents. Maybe the Episcopalians aren't so bad, maybe they shouldn't be blamed for crucifying Christ twice. But, the doctrine about what the eucharist is and means, does that doctrine matter? Saint Paul seemed to think so.

I thought about what it would be like to be a little kid in a church that was having a disagreement about something important. If Jesus treats little kids as if they are just as spiritual as adults, how would he show his love to these kids during a controversy? How would they wind up believing the right thing? Maybe the kids couldn't parse the Greek verbs necessary to figure out what the right doctrine is, but, hopefully, the kids would be safe trusting their parents or other wise adults, really trusting that God is working through them. I was confused, and I wanted to find some wise grown-ups.