Monday, March 28, 2011

what I think about when I think about faith, part one

So I started this post about three weeks ago, and, man. It's really hard to gather my thoughts, which is why it's so late. But here you are.

So it's Lent, which is when I get all contemplative and stuff. Of course, it also means that I'm probably going to ramble, so please forgive me in advance. Mea culpa.

The reason that I tend to ramble when I think about my faith is that I'm usually rather conflicted, and so my thoughts get...complicated.

In any case, some background to begin, because, to be honest, I can't separate out my personal history from the way I think about faith. I was raised Protestant--evangelical, specifically. My parents, by contrast, grew up Catholic. I grew up in Baptist churches, one on Long Island, one in Massachusetts. They were...well, they were very different from each other.

Our church on LI was big. It had programs. It had people to run those programs. I don't have a lot of clear memories--we moved when I was 13--but I do distinctly remember being in huge Christmas pageant productions. Apparently, I had a gift back then for memorizing large chunks of text, so I ended up with speaking roles a lot.  I was in Pioneer Girls, the church equivalent to Girl Scouts, and I ended up going to a Pioneer Girls camp (which I wrote about here). And the Vacation Bible Schools were enormous--300, 350 kids. Side story: I got the chicken pox one year in the middle of VBS and ended up exposing those 300 or so kids. (My youngest brother one-ups me, though: he got the chicken pox right after going to the Children's Museum in New York. He must've exposed thousands of kids.)

I remember being known as one of "Pete and Dianne's kids." My parents were married in the church, and they were really involved in the community there. So I spent a lot of my time growing up at church or with people we knew from church. And that's not a bad thing, for a kid. You grow up around a community of people, most of whom are kind and good and loving.

There's anxiety, though, about "being saved." You get sort of bombarded from the time you're young with this idea of Asking Jesus Into Your Heart, as if that's the be-all, end-all of Christianity. I think I was...7? when I said the Magic Words, and I remember the Sunday School teachers being thrilled. Strangely enough, I can't really remember my parents' reaction. Looking back, I think this is probably because they take a dim view of the idea that saying the Magic Words will somehow save you.

We moved to Massachusetts when I was 13, leaving Long Island behind. I was unhappy, to say the least. And can you blame me? To a kid who'd grown up in a town of 70,000, Westboro, MA, with its population (back then) of 16,000 seemed like rural Iowa or something. During my first week of school there, one of my teachers said that she'd had a coyote in her backyard. I thought, where have my parents moved us?

We ended up at this church called Chapel of the Cross, this tiny little place where you walk in and people want to know you, even if they'd never seen you before in their lives. It was sort-of Baptist, by which I mean it was Baptist, but no one really called attention to that fact (Baptists in New England are a whole diff'runt breed, lemme tell you). And I made friends, because there were a lot of kids my age, and I really needed friends at that time. (Middle school, as I'm sure you all recall, is brutal.)

As an adult (what? I'm an adult?), I recall two things from my high school years about church and about faith. The first is the emphasis that was placed on feeling. You couldn't just believe--you had to feel it in your heart and soul. I specifically remember going to an event in which the speaker said you had to separate your head from your heart. I remember going to events where the "worship leaders" would deliberately try to get you worked up and then tell you it was God.

I bought into it, for a while, but in general, I was pretty screwed up emotionally.* When I look back, it seems that when I attributed feelings to "God," it was really my own mind. And really, I've never been a feeling person (despite Myers-Briggs telling me that I'm a slight F). I've always been a thinking person, which is why looking at texts and analyzing and studying appeals to me. So trying to get me to feel things--that's like sticking a square peg in a round hole, or whatever the analogy is. That's not to say I don't feel. Obviously, I'm human. I feel. I have emotions. But--and again, hindsight's 20/20, or at least 20/40--I look back and feel like I was manipulated a lot.

The other thing that happened was that our church changed, slowly but surely. When we started going there, it was small, tight-knit--the type of place where people actually cared about one another. It was chaotic at times, and there were tons of jokes about "disorganized religion." This extended to the youth group, of which I was a part. If it had stayed that way, I might have been okay, because the stuff I talked about above wasn't happening then.

When I was in high school, leadership in the church changed. My mom, who was on the church board, said once that she felt like they'd picked her because they needed a woman, and they thought she'd keep her mouth shut when she disagreed. Oh, how wrong they were. My mom is a spitfire when she wants to be. And much later on, my dad said that he was at a meeting in which the pastor said that he thought the church should cater to the upper middle class. My dad, being my dad, had a bit of a conniption, in the "Are you reading the same Bible as I am?" sense.

In any case, things changed, as they do; the church got bigger, and with it, the services seemed less personal, more performance-like. We moved to an auditorium, which only served to enhance that. And really, 45-minute sermons (sorry, "messages")? I zone out around 15 minutes, people. When I was in high school, I thought that made me a rather crappy Christian. Now, though, I realize it's 'cause I am not an auditory learner. Give me text. Give me something to do. But jabber on, and you'll lose me completely.

Anyway, even though I didn't know what was going on behind the scenes, I felt uncomfortable. And I was spending a lot of my free time with church friends and doing things at church. Have you ever ignored your feelings by throwing yourself headlong into whatever was making you uncomfortable? Yup, that was me to a T here.

At the same time, I had good friends, many of whom were confused by me, but who, for the most part, stuck by me. I had a great mentor who pushed me, gently, into getting help when I needed it. I went on missions trips, which helped to solidify my interest in social action.

I don't know if this explains anything about where I'm coming from, or if it explains it particularly well. As I said, I tend to be conflicted about my high school years and my experiences.

In other words? It's complicated. More Complicated than That, if you will.

I suppose my next post on this will be on my college years and kind of looking at where I am now. It took me a while to write this one, though, so we'll see about the next.

*This is another story for another time. Really.


  1. The older (says the 27 year-old, haha) I get, the more absurd the thinking/feeling dichotomy that we've all been taught to believe in (in some way or another) seems. Just for an example, I'm sure the same church that was teaching you to really feel Christ and believe was also teaching young men and women that following their feelings will lead them into sin.

    But can you really separate how you feel from what you think? When I am rationally convinced of an argument, I get excited and emotionally invested in it. Or does that feeling, born out of other beliefs/conceptions/feelings, help to convince me that I have been rationally convinced? Do not my thoughts direct my feelings as much as my feelings direct my thoughts?

    We are trained, perhaps because we are secretly neo-Platonists, to believe that whatever is transitory is less than whatever is eternal. And we believe that thought is eternal, where feelings are transitory. But that strikes me as false. I feel my most deeply held convictions as well as I think them. And while the intensity of feeling may alter (just as the substance of my conclusions, if I pursue knowledge with any sort of humility), I'm not sure I could separate thought from feeling entirely. And while moments of JOY, intense fleeting beautiful, are no basis for a complete worldview, I think they nevertheless have a place in one, as much as does more staid, reliable "contentment." I do not think the fact that I feel JOY when I see my wife after a long day at work, for example, is evidence that I have been disingenuous in following my emotions into sin. And I wonder if thoughts aren't, once you strip everything down, just more articulate feelings.

    In contrast, in the moment when I am in a rage, I need to take a deep breath. But how do I know this is the case? For one, I understand, intellectually, that anger can harm another person emotionally or physically, and that as that person is Christ, I harm Christ. But for another, I feel deeply terrible and hurt whenever my anger hurts another person. Which comes first? The thought, or the feeling? And if the feeling is second, does it not still play a crucial role in reinforcing the thought? And if the feeling is first, who do I harm by reinforcing that feeling with a worldview that fits it? Isn't that the very basis of any moral worldview?

    I am reminded of a discussion with an acquaintance about homosexuality, wherein he was trying to argue that homosexuals do not /think/ with their higher faculties that they are homosexuals, but instead are responding to lust, and why should his revulsion at sin be construed as homophobia? To this day, I remain curious about any philosophy that degrades the emotion of love as a trap for sin, while elevating the emotion of revulsion, as a justification for alienation and rejection.

    All that said, I am deeply suspicious of the "movie trailer" conversion-style of many churches, which try to use manipulation to create what they believe is the real feeling of faith. I believe feelings are potent and that something deeply felt is an important component of belief; but (and perhaps, this ultimately is why so many traditions are so suspicious of feeling) feelings are not dogmatic. One person's mountaintop experience is not the same as another's. You cannot catechize feelings, nor can you truly impart them, except to try to describe them, which is no longer the feeling you are imparting but a grainy black and white snapshot of the feeling.

  2. I wonder...

    Has anyone tried using the god helmet as part of a religious induction or indoctrination? (Assume for the sake of this argument that it works.) Would that be a valid thing to do to people? If it's not, why is it valid to use other mental manipulation techniques on them to try to make them feel the presence of God?

  3. Your faith journey sounds remarkably similar to mine (although the big move in high school was away from a tiny town and to a relatively large city) - at present, I identify as a UU Christian (or possible, a Christian UU). It helps me to see that someone else has gone through a similar experience; perhaps it helps you too?

  4. @Rebecca: I guess I'm not so much trying to draw such a stark dichotomy between thoughts and feelings as much as I'm trying to work out my journey (if you want to call it that). That, and why I went from loving where I went to church to dreading it when I came home from college, and why I eventually ended up Catholic. In this context, I think, the separation between "thoughts" and "feelings" is important, just because I felt like I was manipulated emotionally--but no one tried to sit down and say to me, hey, look at this theology. Overall, though, I think you're right; there's not such a distinct separation.
    Also, that's the weirdest justification for homophobia that I've heard yet. I mean, don't we *all* respond with our emotions when it comes to love? What makes a gay person's response different from a straight person's? I don't get it.

    @Firedrake: Please enlighten me on this god helmet? I've never heard of it before!

    @Mike: Yes, it does help, I think, knowing that others have gone through this kind of process. I'm interested in your being a UU Christian/Christian UU. One of my dad's best friends is UU, but he's an atheist--and from what I know, most of the UUs in my hometown's local UU congregation are as well. It seems that there's quite a range in the UU community. (Also, "UU" sounds funny when I say it in my head.)

  5. @Sarah: I certainly did not mean to imply that you were endorsing this dichotomy. Your ruminations just got me ruminating....

  6. @Rebecca: Please keep posting your ruminations. They'll keep me ruminating, too. :)

  7. Sarah, the link I posted seems to be the best summary: in short, many people when wearing this device will have what they describe as a religious experience.

    It seems to me very unfortunate that there's a selection pressure on religions: the ones that don't go out seeking new converts, the ones that don't say "we are right for everyone no matter your mental makeup", are the ones that are likely to run out of members and fade away. So what we end up with is the aggressive ones.

  8. Oh, I didn't see the link--it was the same color as the rest of the text. Weird.

    I've never heard of it as a way to indoctrinate people, but I'm sure there are groups unscrupulous enough to try. That's a scary thought.

    It's a fascinating experiment, though. I wonder how much of your perceptions wearing the helmet have to do with your preconceptions about God (for example, Richard Dawkins versus Susan Blackmore).

  9. There's a book in our Children's Library called Unitarian Universalism is a Long Name, which is true. It's also a lot harder to say than UU. But, I agree, UU sounds very funny when spoken out loud. I'm more of a Universalist than I am a Unitarian - Rob Bell espouses a basic Universalist theology.

    It's a funny sort of religion. We have pagans and Christians and Jews and Muslims (mostly the Christians and Jews are lapsed), and we also have atheists and agnostics and what my wife calls herself - Athinostics. (Agnotheists?) And all manner of things in between. We do tend to attract a lot of spiritual-but-not-religious types.

    Anyway, I wrote up a short version of my spiritual journey about a year ago - it's here -

  10. @Mike: For some reason, your link's not working.

    I don't know a whole lot about my hometown's UU congregation, though from what my dad's friend says, most of the members lean atheist. Or at least agnostic (I kind of like the term "agnotheist"). They do seem to do a lot of justice work, for which I admire them.

    Also, what makes me laugh about my hometown is that the UU building is next to the Catholic church and across the street from the Congregational church, which is, in turn, across the street from a little Masonic lodge. And that's not half of the houses of worship in the town--there are also two Jewish synagogues, an Episcopal church, a Methodist church, two Baptist churches, a nondenominational church, and a Lutheran church. I'm sure there's got to be some sort of Rational society in town. Ah, New England. You're such a mishmash.

  11. Yeah, that's very odd - livejournal seems to be down, which is frustrating. They had a DNS attack last week, this could be something similar. I'll let you know when it's up again.

    The place we lived in Newfoundland was like that too - I don't think there was a UU church there, but Church St was aptly named. All of the major denominations were represented. There were only 4000 people in town, so the number of churches seems a little unusual. In classic small town fashion, once you had attended one of the churches, you could never go anywhere else - people would stop you in the grocery store and say "I didn't see you last Sunday; is something wrong?"