Friday, July 6, 2012

Shades of Doubt

First, a disclaimer for anyone who came to this blog posting because they thought it had something to do with "Fifty Shades of Gray." It doesn't.

My late husband's nephew is a priest in the Episcopalian church in Florida. He's young, handsome, with a lovely family. I love them to bits. He doesn't seem to post much on Facebook these days, but some months ago he posted comments on an article about Obama being the most anti-Bible president in history, or some such. Among his comments was this paragraph:
But WE all know that atheism is not the absence of a world view. It is a very specific world view with its own assumptions, beliefs, and implications built in. Much like a Christian world view. Atheism is not the blank slate upon which religious persons lay their beliefs about God. Rather, atheism is a competing narrative that is laid out, just like Christianity. Atheism proposes, most notably, that human existence is the result of chance, and that human experience is devoid of any ultimate meaning or purpose.
I felt obliged to comment that I disagreed with aspects of this:
I've been thinking about this for awhile, Matthew, and disagree with you on several points. Predominantly, I don't think it follows that because someone doesn't believe in God, "human experience is devoid of any ultimate meaning or purpose." I see great holiness in my atheist next-door neighbor, who I'm sure would never say his life is meaningless. I think many atheists find other things -- sometimes including aspects of life and behaviors that Jesus told us to pursue -- that give their life meaning. This blog was mentioned by the "Happiness" movement (I will just quote a couple of key sentences to make the point: "Our lives have meaning when we connect with those we value, who also value us.

"Our lives have meaning when we do things for others, sometimes without them knowing it, often without expecting thanks.

"Our lives have meaning when we take pleasure in small, simple joys.

I agree that atheism is not the absence of a world view, but I disagree that it is "a very specific world view" with a unitary set of assumptions, beliefs and implications. I suspect there are an infinite number of shades of disbelief--as many flavors of disbelief as there are of belief;  As many sorts of disbelief as there are disbelieving people, each with their own personally developed (or undeveloped) set of assumptions, beliefs, and implications.

My husband Dave has this great line that he's rehearsed in case he's ever quizzed on how one should speak to a non-believer: "Tell me about this God you don't believe in -- it's possible I don't believe in him, either."

Consider some examples. I posted previously about the Methodist pastor who had suddenly "discovered" she was an atheist. Of course we don't have close personal details of her disbelief, but I don't think I could not-believe in the way she did. My disbelief is more like the creeping low fog oozing across the plains silently during the night, flowing mysteriously into every low pocket. I don't feel compelled to rage against belief, but rather test to test the disbelief, talk to people about it, see how it compares to what others have experienced. See if it's any more solid than belief. I most certainly wouldn't let it close the doors on old friends.

Another hue emerges from the moments of disbelief presented in this blog post from a postulant who examines disbelief through the lens of his recitation of the Nicean Creed. As I understand it, there are some people who are pressuring churchgoers to REALLY BELIEVE IT WHEN YOU SAY THE CREED!!!!! I wonder if the next step after the video will be bringing back the Inquisition to be sure people REALLY BELIEVE.

But I digress. For those who don't click over to David Henson's blog post, here's a bit of it (boldface is his emphasis):
Perhaps it is in the feeble offerings of each voice, giving strength to the crippled, cracked cries of the next, that the Creed's true power lies. That every time we say the Creed together, we create our faith together, spinning it out of the thin, stained light, the musty, moth-eaten faith of our fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters.
How ephemeral this faith is, shimmering on quivering voices, threatening to disappear with its images of God and to leave behind only the smell of stale coffee breath and peppermint gum.
When we affirm our faith with the Creed, are we really simply affirming our faith in the faith of others, past, present and future?
Yet, out of such a beautiful, farcical facade, faith and community can be created, like gold from straw.

Actually, his diaphanous faith sounds almost like my misty disbelief... And I do appreciate his vulnerability in openly sharing his doubt -- much more risky for an Anglican postulant on a widely read blog than for me. I would also claim that faith in community within the church is something that I fall back on when my faith in Faith falters:
 On those days when I disbelieve, I proudly proclaim I am nothing more than a robot mumbling through the Creed and allowing the voices of the saints past, present and future wash over me, like a salve, not to restore my faith in belief, but my faith in community. In these moments, I am much more aware that the community of the church is so much more than the sacred stories that bind us together. And, that somewhere between the two— my faith and the historic faith — lies something holy.
There is laudable equipoise in his conclusion:
The Creed saved my faith, completely, and it continues to as I limp along the path of Christ. But I can't help but feel that sometimes, it damns me just as fully.
Despite these similarities, my disbelief differs. The Creed does nothing for me. Its historic legacy, people uttering it over the eons fails to neutralize the utter dishonesty, the alienation from the community of the church that I feel in saying it. Is anyone in the church looking to see if my lips move? Are they listening to hear whether I actually give voice to phrases I do not believe -- at least not then and there?

I see only the psychology of persuasion at work on Mr. Henson and people in the church over the ages. Keep saying it over and over and over, especially in public and with the imputed backing of the Highest Authority ... and it does transmogrify into truth for some people.

I guess if I had to come up with a recipe for my foggy disbelief, it would include a heavy measure of the scientist's demand that you "prove it;" a few tablespoons of cynicism based on history, politics, power struggles (well, of course the writers of the Bible had to make up details after the fact to "prove" that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah the Prophets had foretold); and, as mentioned, some pop psychology thrown in the mix.

But I'm content to shove all that seems like tosh in a big box, slam the lid down, and slap a "MYSTERIES OF FAITH" label on it and ship it off to others do with as they please. Yet, even after you pack off (what is for me) the tosh, there are still some very substantive, useful, amazing parts of the Christian faith that I can cling to, fiercely, amidst the fog of doubt.

This man, or perhaps it's this mythologized man, Jesus of Nazareth, left us stories and questions and directives (admittedly sometimes confusing and even apparently contradictory) that can help us individually and collectively live lives that would make the world a better place. What he left us, like the Way of Grace, calls us to do things contrary to the Way of Nature: Love your enemy. Set a feast for those who can't possibly return the favor. Visit and heal the lepers. Gather up the bleeding, wounded victim who isn't from your ethnic group, place him on your donkey, take him to the nearest inn, pay for him to stay until he's fully recovered. Go into the wilderness and pray. Count your blessings.

Contemporary "positive psychology" researchers are now finding that many of these practices increase people's happiness. But I think evolutionary biologists and the Way of Nature would say these ways are utterly nutty -- no survival or reproductive value whatsoever. Grace says the world would be a different place if we could behave like this.... Maybe heaven on earth.

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