Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else
A Long Conversion
06/25/2014Posted by on
I’ve been using this blog to forward culture-oriented thinking: a focus on the invisible webs of meaning that structure our identities and thoughts, with emergence and complexity as the rule. Implicitly, that means I reject the usual narratives we tell about ourselves and important lives: that our states are the result of reasoning and deep contemplation, or perhaps the intervention of a purpose driven external force. I mean, I don’t reject that totally. I believe that our wills are free enough, and I believe that our choices are real, even if they are also delimited and informed by culture. Who we are and what we think has a lot to do with what others are and what they think. Which causes some conflict when it comes to religious faith. There are mounds and mounds of data that suggest your religious identity is shaped profoundly by what religion you’re raised in, what the majority religion of the powerful in an area is, and the religion of your peers. For Christianity, there is also an overwhelming cultural backdrop that says that Christian religion is about faith, and faith is about the choice to believe in Truth.
I am, I suppose, stuck somewhere in the middle. Let me start at the beginning.
My paternal grandfather was a teacher from the Fujian region of China. He taught physics and later ran a middle school in the Phillipines, where he got stuck after the Chinese Civil War that brought the communists to power. My paternal grandfather grew up in a time of considerable crisis in China. He was convinced that religion and superstition (which I imagine he equated) had fatally weakened China as a nation and as a people, which in turned allowed the Western powers to rape and pillage China. And rape and pillage they had. He was also however, a believer in free thought and self exploration. My uncle, for example, was very Catholic for a while in the Philippines, but as I understand it my father was an atheist for a long time. My father subscribes, or at least used to subscribe to Skeptic magazine, is a huge fan of Christopher Hitchens, and has little more than contempt for religion and superstition (which again, he seems to equate). He too, however, believes in free thought and exploring on your own.
My maternal grandfather, also from the Fujian region, was a member of the Guomindang (nationalist party) and, I suspect related to that, apparently some sort of Christian. When the nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War, he fled with other Guomindang members to Taiwan. My mother also was raised in some sort of religion, and that lasted until she married my Father, who had little patience for such a thing.
So it resulted that I grew up without any sort of religion, and without much exposure to it. My father would occasionally engage in verbal hostilities with the occasional missionary, and my mother would occasionally opine that we should join a church just to be part of the community. But discussion was never a big part of my family life, and the upper middle class Midwestern community was somewhat WASPy and somewhat Jewish. Chances were good for me to end up as one of the nones.
By what I can only assume was happenstance, I was an intensely curious youngster and I was intensely curious about religion, and culture, and mythical literature, metaphor and Star Wars. I know those now to be different sides of a funny-shaped coin. As I dove into books and asked difficult questions in social studies class, I spent a lot of time in elementary school deciding whether or not I was an atheist or agnostic. (The other kids simply said “well, my parents are…). As I started really getting into topic of religion, I found myself naturally opposed to Christian Fundamentalism, but I also found most of the objections to religion uncompelling. The first was the Problem of Evil – the great deconverter, alongside finding out Santa Clause isn’t real. I discarded the problem fairly quickly: I reinvented the free will defense and then shrugged it off because I didn’t feel obligated to hold the priors that made the Problem of Evil threatening. Why couldn’t God work miracles through natural causes? In fact, why wouldn’t he? Genesis is so obviously metaphorical that it isn’t worth arguing about. There didn’t seem to be much conflict between science and religion just poor communication and a lack of imagination.
Somewhere in middle school my religious personality solidified. I was a counter-contrarian, unimpressed by the ease with which the atheists would take down dinosaurs. I became convinced that the problem wasn’t logic, but humility. I wasn’t yet convinced religion was real, but I was curious if it was. I tried to sort out my priors, and discard all but the ones I needed to get by in my day. I became convinced that the arc of the universe is long, but bends towards justice. I became convinced that as terrible and heartless as the world was, things seemed to matter, and occasionally get better when they ought not. I became convinced that when I became angry about things because they were Wrong and when other people who proclaimed relativism acted consistent with people who got angry with things because they are Wrong, and that we were actually all onto something. I was then, and still am convinced that if there wasn’t some sort of external right and some sort of external wrong, the whole thing (life) is kind of pointless, and we should all get off (that is, kill ourselves). I drifted from to the atheism of birth to the eager agnosticism of the student into some sort of non-denominative believer. I observed that I believed in something, but I didn’t know what.
My teenage years were pretty unpleasant, but in purely internal in ways I didn’t understand at the time. In one of those dark moments I felt what I could – can – only describe as a divine presence. Alternatively, a hallucination borne of wishful thinking by a depressed teenager. Alternatively alternatively, both. Perhaps neither. At any rate, I became convinced the thing I believed in was an intelligence (or rather, a person) and that it cared about me.
It didn’t take long to add all of these up, much like C.S. Lewis did (I had not yet read any of his non-fiction, although I consumed all of Narnia but the Last Battle as a child) into a belief in a transcendent person that cares about us, including me individually. When combined with everything else I believed, it made most sense to believe that that being – in fact, the true moral aspect (or symbolic layer that is coterminous with physical reality) of the universe was love.
I struggled with that for a long, long time because I hated Christians. Or rather, I hated what they had done to the world. I hated the way people treated Christians and I hated the way that Christians treated non-Christians, and I hated the way that Christians treated each other. I did not look forward to taking on the sins over 2000 years committed by people who frankly should have known better, from the petty to the gruesome. I could not reconcile however the particular believe that God is real and God is Love with anything but Christianity. I didn’t come up with it myself, I got it from someone else. So, internally screaming and kicking, I found myself coming out as a Christian, embracing what I had long believed, simply giving it the right name. The self-naming was a choice, but the belief was merely observed.
So I made a few announcements among comrades and friends, in what I think was my last year of high school. My homeroom teacher, also a Christian seemed pleased, but not especially over excited, which was the right reaction and I felt more comfortable being associated with the label. Some friends were pleased for me, but otherwise uncaring, others modestly distressed.
Shortly after I told a girl I was close to about this, she kissed me. That was odd, but certainly a bit of positive reinforcement. I eventually started going to her Baptistish church and I became close with her family. I was baptized there, I was uncomfortable there, I earned my deep hatred of youth pastors there, and while I was at college the Church disintegrated, our relationship disintegrated and separately, so did I. I got myself together, went home, dated the girl, got dumped at some point and throughout it all the faith remained. My desire to be in that church, or that sort of church, or anything that reminded me of that sort of church was gone forever. I wandered out, and I’ve been wandering since.
I see my religion as a continuation of both my doubts and my faith, the traditionalism of my mother’s side fused with the skepticism of my father’s side. I’ve left the lush places behind, where there are too many easy answers, conversations already had. I look for signs of something divine, or merely new. There, in the desert, churches and the company of fellow believers are both shelters and traps.
I am a Nomad, forever searching for Christ.