Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I Am Mine

Lawrence Weschler re-printed a passage from Calamities of Exile in Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences. It is, without a doubt, one of the most astonishing images I’ve ever seen captured in words. I suppose it’s the sort of thing that can only happen when a poet and painter talks to a man with a true gift for understanding the written word.
One evening in Paris he described that wing of the Pretoria Central prison to me. “The hanging room – the actual chamber where they executed the prisoners – was, of course, the central characteristic of the place. Even though you never saw the room, you could hear it – you could hear the trapdoor opening. It would send a short of shudder through the entire building the mornings people were being hanged. And before that you hear the singing with all its different qualities. You could definitely hear when someone sang – and there’d be singing every evening – that that person was going to die in a few days, as opposed to a few weeks or months. And the interesting thing, or the touching thing, when one person sang alone like that in the middle of the night and you knew he was due to be hanged in two days’ time, was how you could actually hear the quality of the listening of the other people, because you knew that everybody else in that prison was awake, lying there with their ears cocked close to the bars or the walls, listening. You could hear the listening.”
This was the experience of Breyten Breytenbach, a poet and painter famous in his home country, exiled in France after the rise of Apartheid, brother to a government propagandist and a war hero. This was the experience of a man who had no talent for anonymity sent out to be a subversive. He was arrested, sentenced to nine years, and left in solitary confinement for two, surrounded by those being put to death. It is a fool’s errand on which I find myself, attempting to explain how I feel a strange sense of sympathy for, empathy with, and connection to someone put in Breytenbach’s position. I have already pointed out how I, a former evangelical am now cut off, exiled from, if you will, the life I once knew. For while I know what it’s like to be rejected by those who once claimed to love me and know the feeling of hearing someone say, “Repent of your words against us, be accepted once again, make yourself a public spectacle for our benefit,” that is where the points of commonality end. I, after all, have lost no freedom. My life has gotten better. In fact, the true irony is that the thing I was so worried about being exiled from turned out not to be the open spaces of Veldt or the Transvaal for which Breyten so longed, but the jail cell in which he rotted. For Christianity proudly proclaims a restricted freedom, destruction of the self, enslavement to the whole through a “personal relationship.” It is the very nature of the atomization and homogenization of the totalitarian regime. The problem is, though, if I was in jail, who was my jailer? Who held the key that locked me in place, night after night listening for the listening? If we set aside for the moment the question of whether god does, in all actuality, exist, and take on a more mundane question the answer becomes simple, startlingly clear. For, you see, whether there was a god or not, whether he came to Earth in the form of a fellow named Jesus and walked about for a few years, that god is not the one that spoke to me. Such a creature would be so indescribably vast that it could no more comprehend me than I it. For what are my thoughts, limited as they are, to an infinite being? What are my actions to one who could create and uphold a cosmos? Truly it is impossible to conceive of a god that big that’s concerned with a creature as limited as me. There are also the varieties of religious experience to consider. God so often spoke to the people I knew that he must have had them on speed dial. But the things said were a mishmash of silly instructions, misdirection, and complete, out-and-out attempts at allowing the hearer to make self-aggrandizing or self-serving decisions. The simplest conclusion to draw, then, is that no matter the answer to the question of the existence of god, the god experienced by the believer is all in his or her head. The follow-up, then, is equally clear. The one who held the key to my prison was me. In the end I was my own judge, jury, and executioner. This, I suppose, is not a particularly fluffy or cuddly insight. It’s, I’d assume, cold comfort to those who have chosen or are considering the same path I now walk. It’s also not going to convince those benighted souls who keep trying to convince me to head back to my cell. But it is the truth as best I can tell. Again, though, Breyten Breytenbach allows me to understand the last few years of my life.
In prison, being woken up at four in the morning and marched through the yard on your way to work, yes, it was dehumanizing, but on occasion you’d look up into the sky and you heard that star – you heard it! – and to an extent you continued in that state of heightened awareness for months after your release. It could get to be too much, of course. There was so much more stimulation on the outside that it got to be physically exhausting, and sometimes I almost longed to be back in my cell.
This is what authoritarian religion offers us. A cold cell, but a cell that offers the comfort of abrogated responsibility and programmed stimulation. For, you see, the certainty with which we build the walls around ourselves in a church is comforting in and of itself. It is the comfort of freedom traded for answers, the comfort of inquiry cut off before it leads down disturbing paths. It is the comfort of equilibrium, of stasis. Leaving that cell creates a wholly different form of stasis. To the ancient Greeks the term stasis denoted a time of chaos. It was when there was no head of state and the powerful squabbled among themselves to try to gain authority. It was only with the imposition of at tyrant that stasis could be subdued. Of course in the Christian walk that tyrant brings about the other form of stasis. The world no longer turns, inquiry no longer leads anywhere. Stagnation sets in. The believer sits in a self-made cell and whiles away the hours until it’s all over. But it’s comforting. It’s the comfort brought about by routine. Go when the jailer says go. Stay when the jailer says stay. Nothing could be simpler. What that world brings with it, though, is starvation. The mind, the emotions, the spirit are so bereft of nourishment that they begin to wither away, all the while straining to find anything of substance. The tiniest thing allows heightened perception, the senses jumping to the alert at the hope of the transcendental, that moment where the physically entrapped can hear the quality of listening. There’s an adjustment period after the jailer finally opens that door and says, “You’re free.” The world is impossibly bright, the universe filled with an infinite collection of opportunities piled one atop the other. It is here where the dangers the evangelist and the madding crowd hiding in the sanctuary look to take advantage of the newly released. They warn of the dire results of freedom: alcohol, drugs, licentiousness, corruption, disease, and death. In truth, it’s not so bad. I suspect that most people who make that transition do it with the minimum possible amount of self-destruction. I also suspect that the ones who do engage in dangerous acts do so more because they suddenly find themselves set free instead of choosing the time and place of their own release.* But there is recidivism for those inmates of totalitarian Christianity. What else is can be expected when the freed prisoner brings the jailer with them? Because that’s really what happens. Declaring some form of agnosticism, atheism, or apathy might seem like the only thing that’s necessary. But that ignores the fact that god is not external to self, but a part of the self, an artifact of a certain way of thinking. It’s the obverse of the new convert's belief that the flesh pursues the new creation in Christ. For we are not held captive by flesh and blood jailers. We are not released from the sway of powers and principalities of the spiritual realm. The struggle is not against wickedness in the human soul, the satanic scourge, or the godly decree. We struggle against ourselves, the very endarkenment of the human mind not much evolved from that of the ape. The rush of excitement in the mind of the newly secular is no different from the rush of godly joy in the mind of the newly religious. Both are attempting to answer the important questions: “Who am I?” “What do I want?” “Why am I this way?” This new mode of thinking seems to provide all the answers. “Aha!” the newly baptized says, “I felt bad because I didn’t know god!” “Aha!” the newly irreligious says, “I felt bad because I was enslaved to an imaginary god!” In truth, these sentiments are one and the same. Just as the new convert carries the burdensome flesh in to the Christian covenant the newly freed carries the worrisome jailer right back out. Without reflection and understanding both will engage in the fallacy that the thing that matters is the label we attach to ourselves, not who we actually are. The natural impulse with any new change is to evangelize. In the euphoria of the early moments it only makes sense to want to share this new, profound understanding of the universe with others. Everyone should be able to see the simple truth of the Bible. No, that’s not it, everyone should be able to see the simple truth of the importance of logical deduction based on evidence.** Over time the impulse to evangelize wanes. For Christians this is seen as a character flaw, a sign that the believer does not love Jesus enough to tell everyone about him. I don’t think that there’s an equivalent negative attitude on the other side, since there isn’t a credo of the non-religious. In truth, that lack of desire to tell others is simply a sign of a certain level of comfort with the lifestyle. It’s a sign of the maturation of a viewpoint. The zeal is gone because everything is routine. And there’s nothing wrong with that. No one can live on the mountaintop at all times. A journey to the valley must eventually be made. I kind of wish I had a larger point here, some summation of my thoughts that leads to an amazing new understanding of how to deal with the vast gulf that separates the skeptics from the credulous. I don’t. I don’t know that there are any answers. And the ones I can come up with are mostly built around a conciliatory attempt to say, “It’s everybody’s fault,” followed by a pointed finger that says, “But it’s more their fault than ours.” Because, um, it kind of is. It’s just that the particular line of reasoning that leads to those twin conclusions will fall on deaf ears. The strident non-religious are too eager to equate all believers with the loony minority. In claiming anyone who says, “Jesus is god,” is as deluded as Ken Ham or as insane as Pat Robertson, the non-believer does the non-Christian no favors. This, I think, is a rare viewpoint, but it comes up and is assisted by the fact that the anti-Christian crusaders focus on the predations and peculiarities of churches and self-declared mouthpieces for Jesus, allowing a sort of selection bias. But the larger problem is that those who call themselves non-Christians are a minority in America. Most just want to be left in peace and to see the Establishment Clause honored and actual science taught in the classroom. Yet the loudest and most strident of the religious see this as a threat to their very ways of life. Or, and this is actually far more likely, they see it as a chance to fill their wallets with the spoils of hatred and fear mongering. They don’t speak for all Christians. It’s entirely possible they don’t speak for a number of Christians larger than 1. Chances are that the self-proclaimed messiahs are rejected out of hand by their supposed constituencies, assuming that constituency even knows they exist. But back to the original hand, this is a fine point that’s often missed by the non-Christian who wishes to imagine that there’s a single, monolithic Christianity. Protestations of, “That’s not the Jesus I worship,” are dismissed with statements like, “So why do you get to speak for everyone’s theology?” that miss the point completely. Most Christianity in America is an intensely personal choice for the believer in exactly the same way atheism and agnosticism are personal choices for the non-believer. It helps to understand that when the believer says, “That’s not the Jesus I worship,” in response to the latest stupid pronouncement from Pat Robertson, they actually mean exactly that. Pat Robertson sure as hell never spoke for me. Mark Driscoll and John Piper never spoke for me. My god was a jackass, yes, but that’s because I didn’t like myself. I was my own jailer. I had no particular urge to force anyone else to join me on death row. The question should be, then, “How do we help people realize the key to their cell is in their own hands?” Threatening, yelling, and belittling only forces the incarcerated to side with the jailer. It’s safer inside, after all. ------------------------ *I.E. the stereotypical image of a college kid who was more or less good at home, then goes wild first semester of freshman year when all of the sudden there are no restrictions. **The inherent problem, of course, is that the “simple truth” of the Bible can’t be reached by logical inference. Quite the opposite. So the two sides talk past each other, endlessly frustrated by their opponent’s inability to really understand and just give up their untenable position already. This, by the way, should not be taken as me attempting to take a relativistic position and say, “Meh, both positions are equally valid.” I think I’ve made it quite clear that I’m firmly on the side of logic, reason, and using evidence to draw conclusions. My main argument here is that the newly converted on either side of the divide are often indistinguishable in their conclusions and methodologies. Most movements, meanwhile, are built on the energy of the zealot and the zealot is usually the least able to actually to take on the role of evangelist with anything resembling skill. The zealot simply lacks the necessary empathy understand the opponent and the emotional stability to handle confrontation with those who do not share a way of seeing the world. Meanwhile, this is where Christianity has (and will probably have for quite some time) a leg up on its competition. The acolyte is often paired up with a mentor, an older Christian who is supposed to mold a shapeless lump of clay in to a proper Christian according to the credo of that particular group. The absence of an equivalent Church of Non-Belief or whatever means that no parallel structure exists. The newly secular is generally left to his or her own devices. This, often enough, isn’t a problem in the long term. But in the short term it allows a certain unchecked zealotry which, in turn, results in a lot of burning anger directed at the former life and any who represent it. The charge that atheists can be just as nasty and closed-minded as the Christians they revile is often quite true. What those who level the charge don’t understand is that the issue is asymmetrical. The closed-mindedness of the Christian is a symptom of the system. It is set on a shaky foundation that requires ignoring large swaths of its own teachings to be consistently applied. The closed-mindedness of the non-believer is a symptom of human nature. It’s often manifest in an individual who is still recovering or would be a jackass no matter what the belief system.

3 comments:

jessa said...

Yes.

Abelardus said...

Beautiful.

Jay said...

You make an excellent observation on the fact that there is no systematic "mentoring" structure that can help ease the transition for the newly secular (I like that term, by the way).

I know a lot of folks have found some help and support in various on-line venues, but that's no substitute for a patient and compassionate friend that one can talk with and rely on.

But for folks who have been taught all their lives that the secular world is a dark, scary place inhabited by dark, scary people, it's not a given that they'll have such a friend to engage with, or if they do, they don't realize it.

It's a tough nut, really.