Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On "Life as a Leaver"

In Anna Scott's Life as a Leaver, she articulates the painful effort needed to withstand doubt and judgment. Her husband divorced her, and this suffering led her to doubt. She has been, and is, pursuing a career in ministry, and as someone concerned with being theologically orthodox, she faces the belief on the part of a lot of her fellow church members that, because she is a woman, she isn't fit to serve in the capacity she feels called to. Life as a Leaver is ostensibly in response to The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church by Drew Dyck, but her article stands on its own.

Although Scott will likely remain a believer, as a doubter she certainly has my sympathies. She describes the pat answers she gets, and the frustration of realizing that the intellectual understanding she had of God's love through suffering, that understanding was not as solid as she expected. I recommend reading her article for its frankness and the all-too-rare "I don't know" from a thoughtful religionist:

Surely, I am not the only person to have “crashed” on these “rocks” of sin and suffering, sovereignty and certainty. And I no longer think that it is a sign of immaturity or ignorance that these rocks give birth to doubt; in fact, I think it is immature and ignorant to deny these very real questions: about rape, about mental illness, about earthquakes, about affairs, about divorce, about children born into extreme poverty. Where does sovereignty end and sin begin? And what does that say about God? Shouldn’t this be relevant to any discussion of disbelief?

In Dyck's article, he says:

Over the past year, I’ve conducted in-depth interviews with scores of ex-Christians. Only two were honest enough to cite moral compromise as the primary reason for their departures. Many experienced intellectual crises that seemed to conveniently coincide with the adoption of a lifestyle that fell outside the bounds of Christian morality.

Moral compromise was not a factor in my departure from belief in God, and, if Dyck were to interview me, it would be dishonest of me to cite it as a reason for leaving. The part of Scott's response that was the most relatable for me was:

I want to end this litany of criticisms [of Dyck's article] by acknowledging a point that I found both offensive and mildly insightful, but for different reasons than Dyck identifies: I do think that moral compromise plays a role in a person’s decision to leave Christianity, but I think that the negative influence is actually exerted on the developing doubter, rather than on the moral transgressor. Having attended youth group religiously (yes, I am going with this idiom despite the pun) and a prominent Christian college, followed by years in communities, churches, faith-based organizations and Christian graduate school, I can easily attest to the willingness—even eagerness—of young evangelicals to compromise biblical standards and call it doubt or rebellion. But, sooner or later, these people will find a nice Christian husband or wife and return to the church of their childhood, because doubt is not their real issue. It is those of us who are trying to build a thoughtful, substantive, deep faith who observe this behavior in young people raised in the church and wonder what has gone wrong. What the hell is going on here? I often asked myself, observing this profound lack of authenticity. Why do these people—and, in all honestly, I became one of them in college—bother retaining the trappings of Christianity at all?

As I was doubting, I became more scrupulous in my moral behavior. Knowing that good works could not save me, and that my good behavior might be some vain attempt to pacify God, I tried to find the right spiritual muscles to flex, the ones involving humility and submission and resignation. I was afraid to sin, or even, to have a wrong spiritual inclination, because that would be an indicator that my doubts were inauthentic: perhaps I was doubting my way out of my moral obligations or the challenge of relating to God. I didn't want my honest doubts to be dismissible by others or myself as mere moral compromise. Scott is right in noting that others' moral failings are as likely to lead to doubt as one's own foibles, and right in noting the wrongness of looking to blame doubters. If there were a badge to give to Christians for being relatable to nonbelievers, she gets it.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Response to bittersweet and brave

The following is a comment on Matthew's brave and bittersweet; this is part of an ongoing conversation outlined here regarding secular hope. Here, I want to respond to a couple of points that Matthew raised in brave and bittersweet.

Previously, I posed the question:

Which is the better source of hope: this world, small, and often backwards as it is, but certain, or transcendent meaning and eternal life, known by invisible evidence? What can comfort?

This question is clearly answered differently by different people. I suppose that a lot of people believe that meaning and security and comfort can only be had if there is a God, a promise of heaven, and the assurance that God is acting on the world now. Not everyone wants these beliefs or finds them helpful, though.

Matthew wrote:

A secular hope is a great thing for educated people who have the resources to avoid most of the pain and insecurity that come with disease, hunger, war, and oppression.

Secularism tends to skew more towards people who are well off. That doesn't mean it's inaccessible to people who are suffering. I have been reading lately about the Pirahã people in Brazil, hunter-gatherers who have no concept of God or spirits; life is not easy for them. More broadly, when it comes to existential beliefs, polytheisms tend to have more in common with atheism than they do with monotheisms; people can have supernatural beliefs but be functionally very similar to atheists in their outlook. Ancient Mesopotamian religions were fatalistic; the people believed that gods existed, but were cruel or indifferent or capricious. My understanding is that the structure of their outlook is common among agrarian civilizations. It is not apparent to me that it is the nature of human beings to either expect a paternal God, or to be despondent and hopeless without this belief. It's important to not provide pat answers, certainly, and the beliefs of privileged people regarding suffering are often unhelpful to the poor and oppressed, sick and alienated; this goes for both religious and secular beliefs about suffering.

Matthew mentions that secular concepts of hope are limited in two ways in particular: in secular concepts of meaning, everything is temporary, and everything is relative. These are both good points, and I recommend bearing both in mind. Yet, we don't call bread bad because it gets moldy, or because we get hungry again after eating it, or because there's better bread out there somewhere. Bread is precisely as big as bread is, and I'm glad I have enough bread for today.

Matthew compares secular hope to a lottery ticket and religious hope to the assurance that comes from adoption by a rich man. Belief in justice or wholeness or relief coming from a spiritual domain seems, to me, to be like buying a lottery ticket: there is an offer of infinite payoff, but the factual support for this hope is tenuous. Devout religious people don't live thoroughly consistently with their beliefs because it is difficult for humans to have the spiritual imagination to accept that God's will is perfect and in their interest; spiritual imagination is needed because their confidence is from faith in unseen things. When I say that hope from the material world is certain, I mean that we know for sure that this world exists and that there are things in it that give us some comfort and happiness and security. These things are small and limited and they wear out, but they are what we have for today. This materialist sense of hope can't stop death, it can't eliminate suffering, but it can sustain life for a little while. It's like farming, with modest yields coming from hard work. Sometimes there is plenty of rain, and sometimes there's drought. I can't offer a solution that will eliminate suffering or even death, or something that can transcend them, but adversity can be encountered with courage and dignity.

As I read both Andy Crouch's article and Matthew's post, I found myself unconvinced that my sense of hope is lacking, not because their logic was explicitly wrong, but because I myself feel fulfilled and secure, and I feel like I respond to the small challenges I face in a way that I am content with. I don't feel a need that they say that I should feel. I know that I'm not alone in not feeling a need for a belief in God in order to have a satisfying life in this world.