Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On Rosenbaum's Agnostic Manifesto

On An Agnostic Manifesto by Ron Rosenbaum:

This article is frustrating. An excerpt:

In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" I can't wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.

I… I didn't know that was a thing that atheists were concerned with this. Do atheists, in general, say that we know why there is something rather than nothing? They certainly don't infer an unknown cause and call it God.

It's amazing how the New Atheists boastfully stride over this pons asinorum as if it weren't there.

Rosenbaum uses a latin phrase to make atheists look unsophisticated. He's made the discussion between agnostics and atheists boring, because he's removed it from what human beings are concerned with, meaning, morality, purpose, joy, and posed the labels in terms of an obscure philosophical problem.

I've heard various self-described agnostics describe their label as any combination of the following:

  1. I have no knowledge of any God.
  2. I don't know if a specific God exists.
  3. I don't know if an unspecified God exists.
  4. I don't know if something exists that someone calls God.

I use the first definition. I don't mind atheists calling me a "weak atheist" and lumping me in with them; ever since I was kicked out of the bat club in first grade, I've been looking for acceptance. Rosenbaum seems to follow 3 and 4. I'm sure that Rosenbaum and I agree about most things about magic and meaning. The divergence between agnostics and atheists is a subtle philosophical one. We have the same challenges, it is sensible for us to be cultural allies. Rosenbaum's critique of atheism is nit-picky and detracts from this cooperative relationship.

The cool aunt

I think everyone has an aunt who, when in her twenties, had spent a few years studying Hinduism at an ashram in India. At funerals and family reunions, her eccentricities get glossed over in conversation. Now, she wears a lot of scarves that look "ethnic" and she's a vegetarian, and she peppers her speech with words like "lifestyle" and "mojo" and "flow". She's been divorced, twice, and is now dating a guy who has a pony tail and calls pot, "cannabis". The only people who think she's cool are the people in the family who weren't born yet when she was in India, but, for these nieces and nephews, she's the coolest relative that there is.

In a family where everyone grew up Lutheran, everyone's been a Lutheran, going back to Luther himself, the only sort of person who would convert to something as extremely different as Hinduism would have to be sort of a doodle, like Aunt-so-and-so. She went to India to get real Hindusim, not just white-people yoga-studio Hinduism. She wasn't looking for the word, Hinduism, she was looking for truth or transcendence or meaning. I think that a lot of these aunts would have stayed home if the Vietnam War hadn't happened.

So Aunt-so-and-so ran off to India, alone; nobody else in the family did, they were concerned with graduating college or getting married or getting partner at a law practice. What's striking about Aunt-so-and-so is that she eventually came back from India; she doesn't call herself a Hindu. So, while she was in India, everyone in the family would mutter about how irresponsible she is, and when she came home, everyone would look at her, "Told you so". It's just that Hinduism seemed to her to have something real, in a way that it didn't for anyone else in the family. She's a realtor now, though.

As I'm thinking about my Aunt So-and-so, I wonder if she went to India to go to India or to leave the US. She told me that when she was watching coverage of the march on Selma, with kids getting teargassed on the bridge, Grandpa said something about how he thought that black people should be treated better, but that these demonstrations were more trouble than they were worth. She talks now about how the war in Iraq is cleaner than Vietnam, but no better. I found out about the Japanese internment camps from her.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


I had grown up Presbyterian, and my denomination placed a strong emphasis on the belief that God had power over absolutely everything. We were contrasted with, say, the Baptists, who emphasized our free will to choose to trust in God or not. The problem with the Presbyterians, the Baptists would say, is that they don't treat humans as beings who are capable of meaningful actions. The Presbyterians would criticize the Baptists for undermining the sovereignty of God. When I was discovering Orthodoxy, I wanted to learn the Orthodox stance on free will versus God's sovereignty. I found it very difficult to accept the Orthodox church's teaching on how free people are, but when I did, it didn't feel like I was rejecting belief in God's sovereignty at all. Not only that, but I didn't even understand why there was a conflict about the matter in the first place. It just seemed like the Baptists had gotten a little confused in one direction, and the Presbyterians had gotten a little confused in the other, and they went back and forth, arguing, and drifting apart.

Orthodoxy felt like the opposite of wild mood swings. I was used to either feeling smug when I did right, or guilty when I did wrong, but I was being taught in the Orthodox church to be more concerned with finding life than with judging myself one way or another. Whenever things get too busy for me and I have papers all over my desk, I gather them up in a pile. I pick the top paper off the pile and do what I need to with it: file it, note a to-do, throw it away, whatever. Then I pick up the next paper and deal with it. The feeling of sensibility that I get from doing that with paper, I felt that way, that simple single-mindedness, about Orthodox thought. Orthodoxy felt unreactionary to me.

Even before investigating Orthodoxy, I had felt despair about whether we could know right doctrine confidently. I was thinking of things like whether to baptize babies and how to get saved and what the ground rules are for church government; if God thought these things were important, why didn't he have the Bible written more clearly? I had always supposed that Christian truth was somewhere in a circle drawn around the Bible. I started asking, though, "Why would God leave only the Bible as authority if it can't be made sense of consistently?" and wondering why I hadn't asked that before.

In my discussions with Orthodox Christians, I was encouraged to ask that question. For God to be anything other than cruel, he would have to make doctrine, at least, the very important bits, clear to the church. Not only that, but it would have to be the same truth, for Christians in India and Egypt and Ireland and Bolivia now and in the Middle Ages and during the Roman Empire and through the Industrial Revolution. To me, that meant that Christianity had to look something like the Orthodox or the Catholic church, something like what the whole church looked in the first millennium, before the split.

There was a four-hundred-year-old oak tree in the back yard of my house I grew up in. When I was building forts or gathering acorns or spying, I felt safe near that tree, because it was big and old.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


I'm noticing as I'm writing this that I'm talking about my experience of Orthodoxy in a not-Orthodox sort of way. Prayer and fasting and worship weren't things that I just discovered, these were things that Christians had been practicing since the time of the apostles, and so I was connected with Christians throughout time and around the world. Before that, I had invented spiritual practices, like reading a chapter of the Bible and then writing something about it in a journal, or waking up early to study, or going for a lot of walks to pray, and these were all helpful, but I would do them for a couple of weeks or a couple of years, but intermittently. In Orthodoxy, I was doing old disciplines, I was trying things that people had already tried and refined; I also felt like I had moral support from those who had gone before me.

One Friday afternoon in January, I went over to the home of Fr Gregory, the Orthodox priest, to have a chat. On my way there, I had gone to 7-Eleven for Pop-Tarts and coffee, I ate the Pop-Tarts on the way there, and struggled to finish the hot coffee during the 15 minute drive to Fr Gregory's house. I suppose I woke up around 11 that morning, and was to meet with Fr Gregory at around 2. Buying Pop-Tarts at Seven-11 is a bad deal; I must have forgotten to go to the grocery store for proper breakfast food. I would have gotten doughnuts or something at Seven-11, but it was a Friday, and Pop-Tarts are vegan. Then, I got worried because I was running late, and then, I felt ashamed, because who runs late to a 2 PM appointment because they overslept? I'm sure my disturbed sleep came from my psych issues, but I was blaming myself for being lazy rather than going to the doctor.

Anyway, I got to Fr Gregory's house, and I apologized for being late, I was maybe ten minutes late. Of course, he was forgiving. Most people don't mind if you're ten minutes late. There is a difference between saying, "It's not a problem" and "I forgive you" and I felt Fr Gregory warmly forgiving my tardiness. We sat in armchairs in the living room. I told him that I was interested in Orthodoxy, that I was almost certain that I was going to become Orthodox. He told me that it was good that I was so eager, but that it was important for me to not just have good reasons to become Orthodox, but to practice knowing God through the life of the church.

He also suggested that I pray the psalms, so I did. I'd gotten advice on spiritual discipline before, but I know that I took that tip—pray the psalms—differently than advice I'd gotten before: the advice came from a priest. I was used to the idea that pastors are the same as anyone else, but pastors and priests aren't just like anyone else, they've studied a lot about spirituality, they teach it, and they are noted by their communities for their diligence and perseverance and wisdom. By thinking of Fr Gregory as not just like everyone else, it helped me take his advice more seriously. Having grown up Protestant, I had been warned about priests causing harm, spiritually, leading people to compliance out of fear of their clerical authority. That's not what I felt that Friday afternoon. Fr Gregory wasn't inventing a new rule for me out of nowhere, he suggested that I pray the psalms because he knew it had helped people for thousands of years and thought it would be helpful for me.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


I had a roommate who had depression. Sometimes, it was so bad, he would just hit a wall. He would literally hit a wall, he was so wound up. Sometimes, he would feel washed out, as if he'd just gotten over a 24 hour stomach bug. His mom ran a gym, so she knew some things about health, I guess. She recommended that he try Red Bull, because it has a lot of vitamin B, which, she says, gets burned off by depression. My roommate let me try a Red Bull, and it made me feel better, too. I'd had problems with anxiety for a year at that point, and the vitamin B might have rounded off some of the jitters. This might sound counter-intuitive, it might not even be right, but the caffeine helped me with the anxiety because it helped me focus, to get a grip on reality.

My anxiety was worst while I was sleeping. I would wake up in the middle of the night in panic. I would look out the window, just in case something was coming. I only ever saw the tree, the parking lot, and the dumpster.

Red Bull is pretty expensive, but I found Red Thunder at Aldi for 75 cents a can, so I drank a lot of that. I would pop a Red Thunder first thing in the morning. Sometimes I'd mix it with orange juice, a Red Thunder screwdriver. The caffeine would jolt me awake. You know how, when you wake up in the morning, and you've been dreaming, you sometimes think that parts of the dream are real? The Red Thunder would help me wake up past that.

The first times that I went to Orthodox services, I was mostly confused. I started going to Vespers services regularly, and I found them therapeutic; I could feel the anxiety dripping off my elbows and down through my shoes. My favorite words in the service were in this part that was a call-and-response for intercession. The priest would sing, "For travelers, by sea, by land, and by air," and "For this city and all the people who dwell therein" and "Help us; save us; have mercy on us; and keep us, O God, by thy grace", and we would sing, "Lord have mercy".

That line, "Lord have mercy" is peppered throughout the prayers and songs. To some people, at first, it sounds like the Orthodox are perpetually afraid of a bloodthirsty God, that they need always to be asking obsequiously for a stay of execution. That's not how the "Lord have mercy"'s felt to me, though. Whenever I sang, "Lord have mercy", it wasn't with an attitude that I needed to plead God for mercy, that he would give it to me begrudgingly, but with the faith that that was exactly what he wanted to give me, and that I was praying the prayer he wanted me to pray. There is a prayer, the Jesus prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." I had a prayer rope, and I would count knots on it, one for each prayer; I was encouraged to pray the Jesus prayer a lot. In this praying for mercy I felt safe; the discipline was apt.

I started fasting, too, which wasn't too difficult for me. Fasting, for the Orthodox, means being vegan on Wednesdays and Fridays and during a few fasting seasons. I was already vegetarian, so being vegan a couple of days a week didn't seem difficult. In the protestant church, I had only ever fasted for the 30 Hour Famine, as a sort of publicity stunt for world hunger. There was one time when I had a crisis and needed divine insight, so I fasted, but I got very hungry, so I took a break and went to KFC, and then got back to fasting. Fasting was the sort of thing that was done as a last resort, or I knew some guys who fasted before they proposed to their girlfriends.

I think it's good that we have to sleep, and that we get colds sometimes. We're limited, but we're so used to being limited, that we don't notice it. Fasting dropped the ceiling on me, and it made me feel my human limitation more deeply and I felt ready to be filled by God.