Tag Archives: Religion

Faith is Not Feeling: An Essay

It was Good Friday, Easter’s gloomy but necessary prequel. The sanctuary was bathed in the dusk of small-town Iowa, with nothing but low rolling hills between the church and the horizon. Listening to the pastor, I stared at the cross and recalled a line from a short story I’d read recently: You know this was a torture device, right?

For the first time in too long, I felt good. I recognized the irony of feeling good while staring at a torture device, and felt even better. It was a virtuous cycle.

My thoughts were no longer dominated by my failures as a friend and student, by my vices, by the memory of all the time I’d wasted. I still knew that things were far from ideal, but my center of consciousness had shifted away from the negative. I felt a respite.

I had been going to church for only a few weeks, and suspected that this feeling, the awe and the bliss, were what I’d been looking for. This must be what draws people to worship, I thought. This must be what faith is all about.

After the service, I left in silence and retreated to my dormitory. The awe and bliss proved short-lived. Without the cross and the sunlight, I was once again defined by brokenness, my own and that of the things I’d broken. I fell back into junk food, pornography, and online punditry. (I spent a lot of time skimming the Huffington Post just so I could feel superior to something.)

I’ve been a Christian, or have been trying to be one, for the better part of a year now, and have yet to relive that feeling I felt on Good Friday. Even during communion or the Lord’s Prayer, my psyche does not reach new realms. When I clear my head of distractions I reach blankness, not bliss.

I worried that this blankness meant I was doing something wrong. Perhaps I wasn’t focusing well enough, I was breathing too hard and fidgeting too much—or, more plausibly, it was all a delusion and my last sane sliver was telling me to stop kidding myself.

I’ve learned that this blankness is absolutely okay, and means little one way or another. It’s just there. It’s what’s left in what my brain when I’m not thinking.

Though strong feelings often accompany faith, Christianity is not built on feeling. Rather, it’s built on the acceptance of an absurd truth and the mission that follows:

There is a benevolent intelligence behind the universe—let’s call it God. In our pride, humans wandered away from God and the universe turned corrupt. God kept trying to reach us, but we rarely listened. His most radical intervention in human history came in the form of an itinerant rabbi who performed miracles, placed love over law, and spoke about the Kingdom of Heaven, a kingdom not of conquest but of God’s love being made a reality on earth again. The rabbi was murdered, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. He’ll be back someday, though, honestly, we were hoping he’d be back by now.

In the meantime, it’s our job as disciples to set the groundwork for this Kingdom. Nobody, of course, can give as God gives or love as God loves. But we can spend a few hours a week at a soup kitchen. We can litigate and rabble-rouse alongside the downtrodden to help them win their rights. And we can set aside our own concerns and listen as our friends and family share their burdens with us.

I suspect that there are many who are in the position I was in on Good Friday. You’re in church and don’t know why. Perhaps you’ve been so defeated that you feel no choice but to stumble toward faith, hoping for its comfort despite your skepticism. Faith, you may imagine, is ecstasy and comfort and certainly, which we could all use. It means feeling good.

But it doesn’t. It’s okay if you don’t feel anything, because belief—as proved through good will and good works—is the core of faith. That’s good news, because doing things in the realm of reality is much more feasible than chasing after an emotional state.

The first disciples, as recorded in the Gospels, didn’t spent much time basking in bliss and awe. Instead, they tried to figure out their rabbi’s parables—What does the seed mean? What about the sheep? They stole a donkey. They questioned their rabbi for talking to women and Samaritans, and got scolded for their arrogance and lack of faith. They ran errands. They doubted. They walked.

They may have felt awe for some brief moments, as recorded in Acts, when they squinted at the sky after Christ’s ascension. But even that didn’t last long.

As they were straining their eyes to see him, two white-robed men suddenly stood there among them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing here staring at the sky? Jesus has been taken away from you into heaven. And someday, just as you saw him go, he will return!” (Acts 1:10-11 NLT)

In other words: The heavenly stuff will take care of itself. Don’t you have work to do?

(Scripture such as the Gospels and Acts, written years after the events they describe in an era before modern historical methodology, shouldn’t be read with the same literalism we’d apply to a history textbook or reportage. While acknowledging that they’ve been filtered through centuries of Christian tradition, we can use them to glean broad outlines of history. The resurrection takes a leap of faith to believe. But there’s no denying that Jesus walked and changed the world.)

As I write, we’re inching into January. The thrill of the holidays has faded, replaced by the banality of yet another year. Life is, more often than not, boring. And while our creator loves us, a quick scan of headlines and even a cursory study of earth science tell us that his creation certainly does not.

Under these circumstances, emotional blankness makes more sense than any strong feelings–ecstasy would be inappropriate, and despair would paralyze us. Christians may not have a reason for constant bliss, but we have a savior to keep faith in, and a kingdom to help build.

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And That’s the Gospel Truth

harpercollins.com

harpercollins.com

I

The phrase “Good News” evokes more unease than joy, at least in a reluctant Christian such as myself. It brings to mind the secular caricature of a Christian, which the faithful often prove true: a small-town preacher waving around a Bible, telling people to forgo fun and freedom and the wrong kinds of sex so that they can reach a palace in the clouds.

So it’s indeed good news that celebrated Scottish theologian N.T. Wright has written Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good. Here, he sets the gospel in its proper context as the fulfillment of God’s promises recorded in the Old Testament, and refutes both those who see it as a key to an entirely personal, otherworldly salvation and those who emphasize Jesus’ earthly works at the expense of his divinity. (By the gospel, Wright refers not as much to the four stories in the Bible as to the events at their center.)

Wright makes clear that the goal of Christianity is not to escape into heaven, but to begin God’s work of rebuilding earth in the image of heaven, without the violence or hatred or corruption that plague it today. “We cannot stress too strongly, or too often,” he writes, “that the whole message of the New Testament—the whole point of the mission and message of Jesus, of his life, death, and resurrection—is the coming together of heaven and earth, not their separation.”

This “coming together,” he continues, was made possible by Jesus, particularly in his resurrection, which was a sign of a larger defeat of death to come. He was not the sacrifice demanded by an angry, “quasi-pagan” God that many imagine, but an agent he sent into the world to take up its sins and inaugurate the work of rebuilding.

Wright wisely refrains from trying to prove the truth of the resurrection on purely historical grounds. The resurrection was not merely an event within history, but a starting point of a whole new history: that of earth being prepared for the Kingdom of Heaven. “[T]he good news,” he writes, “comes knocking on doors we didn’t even know we had; it flings open the curtain on windows we didn’t know existed to reveal the rising sun flooding the room with glory when we had imagined that all light came from candles.” (Wright makes this point with greater depth in his essay “Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?” from Surprised by Scripture.)

Like C.S. Lewis, Wright lays out his arguments in clear, friendly prose, striking a good balance between the abstractness of theory and the condescending simplicity of much Christian writing. He spends a long and fruitful passage unpacking common phrases, like “Jesus died for your sins,” which represent only part of the gospel but are often taken as its entirety. He makes liberal use of images, anecdotes and imagined dialogue to strengthen his points, and occasionally takes a turn for the rapturous, as in the quote above.

II

Wright’s emphasis on the gospel’s transformative nature has forced me to confront a part of my faith I’ve been embarrassed to acknowledge despite its obviousness: It’s not rational. I believe in something supernatural, which cannot be proved through science and reason, and is no less absurd than the innumerable faith claims I reject.

My love for and knowledge of Jesus has tended to focus on his teachings and subversive actions, and downplay the miracles and resurrection. It’s tempting to see him as a liberal table-flipper who, as an afterthought, just happened to be the Son of God. That way I can tell my inner atheist, he was a community organizer! Like Obama without the drones! Sure, he calmed the seas and rose from the dead, but that’s not the important part. Don’t worry; I’ve just made some minor modifications to our materialist worldview.

But Jesus’ this-worldly significance is inseparable from his divinity. He was not a human revolutionary, because human revolutionaries, even at their most idealistic, use power and coercion. By contrast, Jesus’ revolution comes through love, and, if only for now, is left to humans to carry out voluntarily. The final coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, though, will not be a human accomplishment. Faith without works is dead, but works without faith—faith that God will eventually finish the job—are vain.

Now that I’ve said that, my inner atheist asks, Are you really waiting for a hand to reach down from the clouds and set things right? Are you eagerly anticipating doomsday? No. I’m pretty sure any magnificent intervention is a while away. In any case, it doesn’t relieve humans of the responsibility to work for change. And I’m looking forward not to the end of the world, but a better world—one where people are provided for and stand together, much like the imagined utopias of both left and right which have failed under human control.

Okay. But all this “Kingdom of Heaven” talk recalls Christian fundamentalists’ efforts to prevent gay marriage and the teaching of evolution—or, on a more awful level, the Islamic State’s efforts to establish a caliphate in the Middle East. Like I said, the Kingdom of Heaven will not come through human actions, though we need to set its foundation by working for justice and charity. Anyone who says the Kingdom of Heaven begins with theocracy is after power, not justice.

I’m still a very this-wordly, pragmatic Christian. But Wright reminds us that the Christian faith is not merely in a set of teachings, nor in the works of a social reformer rabbi, but in his divinity, and in the new relationship with God that he made possible.

It is liberating. And it is crazy. And it is true.

–Available January 6th from HarperOne. 198 pages. $25.99

A Scientist Finds Meaning On His Own Narrow Ground

wwnorton.com

wwnorton.com

I

Say what you will about New Atheism: that it requires the leaps of faith it claims to disdain, that it uses the worst of believers to categorize all, that underneath their liberating rhetoric its adherents often harbor bigotry rivaling that of religious conservatives. Much of it is true. But one common criticism of the philosophy—that its view of the universe has no place for morality or awe—is false.

Eminent biologist E.O. Wilson makes as much clear in The Meaning of Human Existence. Wilson doesn’t merely explain the complexity of the chemical signals most species use to communicate, or debunk a once-popular theory on the mechanics of natural selection; he revels in doing so, appreciating the glory of the natural universe and relating scientific facts to philosophical questions. (The scope of this book, of course, should be apparent from its title.)

He explains the tension between our better and worse natures, a central contradiction of the human condition, in evolutionary terms. The answer lies in multilevel selection—in other words, natural selection occurring among both individuals and groups. Selfish individuals tend to be more likely to pass down their genes within a group, while groups of altruistic individuals tend to do better overall. “Risking oversimplification,” he writes, “individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue…So it came to pass that humans are forever conflicted by their prehistory of natural selection.”

Wilson sees humanity, with the help of both science and the humanities, reaching a healthy medium between both natures, as “[t]o give in completely to instinctual urgings born from individual selection would be to dissolve humanity. At the opposite extreme, to surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots—the outsized equivalent of ants.”

This is The Meaning of Human Existence at its best: Wilson explains a scientific concept and applies it to philosophical questions. In doing so, he makes a convincing case that science, like the humanities, can play an important role in our search for meaning.

Too often, though, Wilson denigrates what the humanities and our quest for God can offer to that search, making the leap from science (the process of learning about the world through observation and experiment) to scientism (an unfounded faith in the power of that process to explain not just the natural universe, but everything). Here, Wilson’s book starts to unravel.

II

Wilson calls for a “more fruitful contact” between science and the humanities, which would involve, among other things, the former exploring phenomena traditionally left to the latter, such as consciousness. The humanities, he claims, are limited to rehashing the same topics, and ignore the vast range of senses (such as chemical trails) recognized by science:

“We are a very special species, perhaps the chosen species if you prefer, but the humanities by themselves cannot explain why this is the case. They don’t even pose the question in a matter that can be answered. Confined to a small box of awareness, they celebrate the tiny segments of the continua they know, in minute detail and over and over again in endless permutations. These segments alone do not address the origins of the traits we fundamentally possess—our overbearing instincts, our moderate intelligence, our dangerously limited wisdom, even, critics will insist, the limits of our science.”

In short, the humanities can’t explain how humanity reached its current state as effectively as science can. That’s true, in the same way it’s true that a psychologist can’t probe human fallibility with as much compassion and humor as Anton Chekhov.

The humanities don’t try (not primarily, at least) to answer “How did we get this way?” Rather, they say, “Here we are, full of contradictions—both angels and demons, geniuses and fools, running toward and away from God, the future, and our better natures. What do we do about it?” Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night doesn’t analyze the historical factors that led to the Holocaust, or the evolutionary psychology attempting to explain how supposedly civilized people can take part in such an atrocity. Instead, it captures one man’s experiences in the midst of Auschwitz and his struggles going forward.

Wiesel’s exploration of tragedy is only one facet of the supposedly “small box of awareness” that the humanities grapple with. With each “endless permutation” of the humanities, we push the boundaries further by asking new questions and finding new ways to answer them.

While science can explain how we got here and can give us the tools to move forward, it’s primarily the humanities through which we decide what direction to move forward in.

Wilson occasionally acknowledges this, as when he writes that the question of whether humans should use brain implants is “best solved within the humanities, and one more reason the humanities are all-important.” Yet he more often demonstrates his misunderstanding of the humanities through laughable statements such as “the history of philosophy when boiled down consists mostly of failed models of the brain.”

III

Wilson makes his humanism clear early on: “[t]he accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning.” I’ll concede this point to him, not because it’s true but because I can’t refute it. Belief in God requires a leap of faith—something that can be evoked and justified, but not, even in the highest of human thought, explained. (Some philosophy has brought us to the very edge; this is one of the many things other than “failed models of the brain” the discipline has provided us.) I’ll also concede that good works and a semblance of meaning are possible without belief in God.

I’ve made a leap of faith. But Wilson isn’t entirely obedient to rationalism, either, committing the classic atheist fallacies of 1) assuming that mechanical explanations of natural phenomena preclude a creator, and 2) using the most unthinking of believers to characterize us all.

“With the coming of science,” he explains, “more and more natural phenomena have come to be understood as effects linked to other analyzable phenomena, and supernatural explanations of cause-and-effect have receded.” That’s true. I, and many believers more conservative than myself, will readily acknowledge that lightning is a result of electricity building up in clouds, not an expression of God’s displeasure at our sins.

But we don’t look to God asking why lightning strikes, or why the tides ebb and flow, or even why tectonic plates shift. We look to Him for guidance in how to respond to these often devastating natural phenomena, and thank Him for creating a world in which these exist for us to enjoy and suffer through—and explore through science. C.S. Lewis wrote that looking for the presence of God within the natural world is akin to looking for the presence of an architect within the walls of a building. The metaphor can be made a bit more apt, and messier, by adding that the building in question sprang seemingly at random from raw materials lying around.

Wilson also characterizes religion as a “tribal” force that prevents people from working in unity. Religion can be tribal, and human beings continue to do terrible things in the name of God, as a glance at headlines from the Middle East shows. But religion is hardly the only thing that divides people—God’s name is often invoked to justify hatred based on race or politics—and can be used to unite people as well.

And not all people of faith are “led by men who claim supernatural power to in order to compete for the obedience and resources of the faithful.” Religious institutions, like any other, have hierarchies and fallible leaders, but the most honest of these don’t claim to be any more the voice of God than the average citizen. Protestants are perfectly capable of wrongdoing—look at the Klan—but in stressing scripture and faith over the edicts of mortal men, we’ve gotten something right. (Many of Wilson’s arguments in this vein would make more sense had they been written before the Reformation.)

“The best way to live in this real world,” writes Wilson, “is to rid ourselves of demons and tribal gods.” Absolutely! Let’s do this not by losing faith but by recognizing that God is not tribal. People of faith can reach out and work together with those of different faiths or no faith—not because all religion is metaphor, but because God is universal, and we all can agree of the necessity of good works on this earth.

IV

Throughout The Meaning of Human Existence, Wilson makes clear humanity’s potential for progress despite our worse natures. “We have enough intelligence, goodwill, generosity and enterprise to turn Earth into a paradise,” he writes, “both for ourselves and for the biosphere that gave us birth.”

In the same spirit, I think he’d agree with all but the last of Paul’s admonitions to the Corinthians: “Rejoice. Change your ways. Encourage each other. Live in harmony and peace. Then the love of God and peace will be with you.”

Have people of faith lived up to this ethos? Have the secular societies of the last century? Hardly. But we try. As humanity moves forward, we’ll need our quest for God (not just the cultural accouterments of religion) to keep in touch with our ultimate concerns, the humanities to explore those concerns and our relationship with them, and science to provide us tools and a limited measure of self-knowledge. Denigrating any part of this earthly trinity brings us closer to neither truth nor peace.

–Published in October by W.W. Norton

“The Children Act”: An Artful Novel Maligns People of Faith

knopfdoubleday.com

knopfdoubleday.com

I

At the start of Ian McEwan’s latest novel The Children Act, Fiona Maye, an English judge well into middle age, listens to her husband tell her he’d like to spend time with a younger and more exciting woman. The next day, she’s assigned the case of Adam Henry, a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness with leukemia refusing a blood transfusion. The hospital wants to administer the transfusion against his will, for withholding it would kill him, but his parents want the hospital to respect their, and his, wishes.

It’s tempting to call McEwan’s narrative style, which follows characters’ thoughts as they go about their days, “stream of consciousness.” In one passage here, Maye starts a day at court while thinking about global warming, her childlessness, aging, and regrets over previous rulings. This mental meandering is common throughout his novels. In Saturday, a neurosurgeon enjoys a day off while reflecting on turmoil in his family and the post-9/11 world.

“Stream of consciousness” isn’t quite fair, though, as the term brings to mind a fragmented narrative, something pieced together from vignettes. The stream of consciousness in McEwan’s novels flows as smoothly as a good essay. McEwan shows and tells: by what characters are thinking and what their actions mean, he reveals more than he could through action and dialogue alone. (Does anybody really believe in “show, don’t tell”? I’ve only heard that maxim when it’s being refuted.)

McEwan takes the reader into the minds of thinking, perhaps over-thinking characters, as when Maye imagines the children she never had:

“The almost-existing children, the husky-voiced daughter, a museum curator perhaps, and the gifted, less settled son, good at too many things, who failed to complete his university course, but a far better pianist than she. Both always affectionate, brilliant at Christmases and summer-holiday castles and entertaining their younger relations.”

The novel doesn’t take place entirely in Maye’s head, however. The plot follows her relationship with Adam, which begins during when she visits him in the hospital and later takes an unhealthy turn.

The Children Act is not without eroticism—extramarital yearnings are prominent—but it’s blissfully free of the clunky sexuality that has marred some of McEwan’s previous novels. Rather than describing the awkward mechanics of a wedding night (On Chesil Beach) or a man losing his penis to frostbite (Solar), McEwan describes memories of and longings for sexual love. Of Maye and her husband’s first time, he writes: “When for the first time since she was seven years old, she screamed in pleasure.” It’s melodramatic, sure, but not as cringing an image as a philanderer searching for his genitals in the snow.

Like McEwan’s best novels, this is melodramatic to good effect: The characters and their feelings are often exaggerated, but the effect is compelling rather than cloying.

 

II.

My objection to The Children Act is not aesthetic but religious. In previous novels and interviews, McEwan had made his sympathies for New Atheism clear, and they show here as well.

The people of faith in this novel—Adam (at the beginning) and his parents—are doctrinaire, clinging blindly to their beliefs and the institution that imposes them. When an opposing lawyer notes that Jehovah’s Witnesses have condemned blood transfusions only since 1945, the father replies “If there are changes in the teaching it’s because God only gradually reveals his purpose.” Adam practices the violin and writes poetry, yet refuses the transfusion: imagine his potential, the novel asks, if it weren’t for his faith.

However, many people of faith question the institutions they’re part of and the rules they’re told to follow. Among Methodists, many congregations advocate for fuller acceptance of homosexuals—including ordination and marriage—even as the General Conference refuses it. Among Mormons, less known for a spirit of free inquiry, groups advocate for the rights of women (Ordain Women) and homosexuals (Mormons Building Bridges).

After Adam loses his faith in a contrived plot twist, he comments that his old worldview involved “thinking that everybody’s watching and caring and that the whole universe is all about you.” But that’s hardly the Christian worldview. A personal relationship with God may sound absurd, but it doesn’t mean thinking “that the whole universe is all about you.” It means knowing that you’re loved and that you have a place, not at the center of the universe but somewhere within its clockwork.

And not all faith manifests itself through actions like the refusal of lifesaving medical treatment, which place rules above good. More often, faith is manifested through good works and kindness. Jesus said He wasn’t from this world, but through actions and teachings He implored us to get our hands dirty within it, giving to the needy and confronting injustice.

Of the teen’s relationship with the judge, McEwan writes, “He came to find her wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.” Beautifully written, but wrong. McEwan draws a false dichotomy when he implies that either “free-thinking people” or “the supernatural” can give meaning. The supernatural created the world, which makes meaning possible, but “free-thinking people” are left to find that meaning—often through faith.

 

III.

In objecting to McEwan’s portrayal of faith, I’m not denying that The Children Act is an artful novel. I’m only disagreeing with it. Just as novelists have the right to disagree with, upset and infuriate readers, readers have a right to respond.

The Children Act doesn’t have a balanced view of faith, and neither claims or needs to. Rather, it succeeds in telling the story of “[a]n abandoned fifty-nine-year-old woman, in the infancy of old age, just learning to crawl” as she handles overlapping personal and professional ordeals.

–Published September 9th by Doubleday