Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ministry of Love

It always comes back to Weschler. It’s crazy. I forget how much I love how he writes, then something happens and I say, “Oh. That’s right.” I finished Klosterman’s IV yesterday, so I needed a new book to read. Since I linked to Weschler yesterday I realized that now is probably a good time to get around to reading Calamities of Exile. He calls the book “three nonfiction novellas.” Each novella is a different story about someone who tried to fight a totalitarian regime and was forced to go elsewhere as thanks for their troubles. I haven’t even made it past the Preface. I already love the book. That’s what Weschler does to me. I hit on a particular paragraph and had to stop, think, associate.
It is not within the compass of this preface to posit some vast unified (totalizing) field theory of totalitarianism; in fact, it is the essence of my approach to insist, rather, on the revelatory aspect of the specific, the particular, the quirkily individual. One might note, however, how in all three of the totalitarian situation surveyed in the text – Iraq’s, Czechoslovakia’s, and South Africa’s – the regime’s dominance depended, paradoxically, on both the atomization and the homogenization of the subjugated population. Dictators want their subjects both to surrender all sense of themselves into the national (or class) mass and, simultaneously, to experience themselves, qua individuals, as utterly alone, cut off, both endlessly suspect and unendingly suspicious of everyone else. Pithed, in short, of even the fantasy, let alone possibility, of any sort of independent agency. In a sense, the regime intends that its subjects experience themselves as exiles in their own homes – isolate, ineffectual, and utterly contingent. For the conditions of actual exile ordinarily dictates a similar sort of double movement in the victims, towards simultaneous atomization and homogenization and this wearing down of the potential for agency. Edges get shaved away and subjectivity is continuously shorn until individuals experience themselves as little more than abject objects, tossed by a cruel and senseless fate.
I suppose it would insult my usual crowd of witnesses if I were to stop here and point out that in talking about corrupted, totalitarian, earthly regimes Weschler reminded me of my own time under the thrall of the heavenly regime. It’s especially true now that I live in exile from those with whom I grew up and, in many cases, still love and miss. It really is a form of exile, one that’s easy enough to return from. All I have to do is take the route of Winston Smith. I just have to accept that 2 + 2 = 5. It’s simple, really. It’s the way the attempts at evangelism I occasionally receive end. “We’re not going to try to make you come back,” they say, “But if you decide you want to you’re always welcome.” But it’s the cost. It’s always the cost. I gradually learned to look around and see twos and more twos and make fours. Somehow, though, I was supposed to add another element that I see nowhere in the equation and come up with a five. What’s the element? Subjugation. Homogenization. So much of my church experience was ritual. There was a ritual for everything, even as they tried to say it wasn’t. Liturgy and ritual were the place for the high church, or the liberal church. The church that wasn’t really a church. Still, there was ritual. Our personalized prayers always sounded the same. There was that which was acceptable to bring up before the congregation. There was that which was unacceptable, dirty, shameful. In making sure everyone saw the same things as acceptable the group defined itself. We sang songs of praise and worship, engaging in a congregational orgasm of praise to join together, hands lifted high, eyes closed except when opened to sneak a peek to see if everyone else was experiencing the same thing. There was power there. We called it the power of the holy spirit. But I’ve felt that same power outside the church. It’s the power I’ve felt when amongst any group of humans united for just a moment in common cause, common purpose. I’ve felt it equally when at church singing “As the Deer” and when at the Vic singing “The Green and Red of Mayo.” Still, it’s supposed to be special. It’s supposed to be a feeling we can only receive in church. It’s supposed to be heaven. But all that is needed to create that feeling is humans. Together. United in purpose and vibrating the room with the power of common cause and shared experience. Still, it’s supposed to be something different, something special with Christians. In that those who go to church are homogenized. That’s the purpose of all ritual, after all. It creates cohesiveness, group consciousness. It creates a place of comfort, a special place. Once in the place of ritual and warmth the desire to stay is powerful. The idea of leaving – worse, the idea of being sent away – is intolerable. It’s terrifying. Ritual is a drug. The homogeneity of the group is something to be sought after. Loss of the group results in a jones, a withdrawal. Still, there are those, even within the church, within the culture as a whole, who don’t actually understand why the homogenization is happening, what it’s all about. They’re generally easy to pick out. They’re usually the ones who are honest. See, there are things that Christians just don’t admit they struggle with. Various things involving sex are usually the last things to come up, whether it’s about homosexual urges, going too far on last night’s date, or masturbation. Those things don’t get discussed much. But there are other weird ones. Doubt rarely gets discussed. Fears about not evangelizing enough don’t come up, but I know lots of people have them. There are others, but, really, it’s been a while. Perhaps someone else can think of something. The fact is that the specific sins that don’t get discussed really don’t matter. What matters is that they don’t get discussed. What matters is that sometimes people do decide to discuss them. Most of the time they’re brought up by someone new or someone who usually hangs around the outskirts of the group and says little. Most of the time when the unspoken and unspeakable sins are brought up everyone else backs away. They don’t want to think of their own sins. They certainly don’t want to admit them. So the individual suffers in silence while trying to fit in with the group. In the act of ritual atomization gives way to homogeneity for a bit, but the doubts are always there. The doubts always creep back in. It’s possible that when you see a group of Christians joined together in praise every one of them is thinking, “If only they knew.” Because it the group truly knew what was in the heart of the individual then the individual would surely be ostracized. This isn’t to say that every single moment of a church service, every word of a praise chorus, is the masquerade of the poseur. Most of the people in that group are actively looking for that moment of homogeneity, that moment when the doubts can be sublimated in to the orgiastic ritual of worship. I think almost everyone in those places is looking for the transcendent. The problem is that they’re looking for a way to cure the sins they wouldn’t have otherwise known they have. Even Paul admitted that without the Law he wouldn’t have known how to sin. When that comes up in church it’s generally used to damn the system of the Law and elevate the forgiveness of Christ. That, I’d assume, was Paul’s original intent. In truth, though, that realization damns the whole system. For what is the Biblical law but a list of often arbitrary rules? And what law do we need beyond “Don’t be an asshole?” What does god care if we do so because it respects the deity, the nation, or the other? In calling each other “brother” and “sister” Christians often condemn each other to exile. It’s the nagging, lonely exile of the one who is not an expatriate but not really a part of the group. The worst part is, though, that there is no Big Brother forcing conformity on all the Winston Smiths. There is only O’Brien acting as an agent, bowing to the will of the constructed party head. Everyone in the church is an O’Brien. Everyone in the church is a Winston Smith. They are the thought police and the criminals, the sheep and the wolves. They atomize and homogenize. In the end everyone chases everyone else away. In the end everyone becomes an exile. I am an exile. I have always been an exile. At least now I get to be honest about it. I can take control of my life, my destiny, my thoughts. In exile I’ve found freedom. Yet there are those who try to convince me it’s punishment. Two plus two makes four. Big Brother is blind, deaf, and mute.


PersonalFailure said...

I think that's the best way of describing it I've heard in a while. All these people trying to convince me 2+2=5. Atheists are simply holding up two fingers on one hand and two fingers on the other saying, "Count that- there's only four."

I think agnostics are people who see four, but are somewhat swayed that most everybody else on the planet sees five.

big a said...

"I think agnostics are people who see four, but are somewhat swayed that most everybody else on the planet sees five."

Or people, like myself, who see 5 (or maybe more like 4.5), but recognize that the 5 everyone else claims to see is a largely or entirely a fiction of their own making.

I'm functionally an athiest in that I do not hold a belief that a supernatural entity directly controls any element of my existence and I do not have any assumptions or expectations about what may or may not be present on the other side. But at the same time, try as I might, I cannot deny that I feel something acutely inside myself that I can only describe as a "soul". It is an extra element within myself and at least some of those around me that, to my perception, cannot be accounted for as simple electrical impulses of the brain. Moreover, I have experienced times in my life where I genuinely believe my "soul" resonated with others - and these have been some of the singularly most beautiful experiences of my life.

I believe it is wise to acknowledge these experiences and seek a greater truth (whether or not one is actually present).

Just because Christianity is a lie doesn't mean spirituality necessarily is.

jessa said...

Big Brother is The Who's Tommy?

Occasionally I was that newcomer who brought up the things that "we just don't talk about". But usually, it wasn't just a silent room. I guess the difference is that you are talking about struggles that you know that everyone else was having, but weren't admitting to, whereas I was bringing up struggles that I was having and no one else was actually having, but believed they should be having. None of these people actually felt any sort of desperation or depravity, but they believed that they should, so when I said that I did, they said, "so do we, it is such a relief to be able to be REAL" (where REAL is being how you believe you should be even if you aren't). I suppose it makes sense that if someone brought up a struggle they were actually having but believed that they shouldn't be having, admitting to that struggle wouldn't qualify as being REAL, so they would deny it. Those people are so obsessed with being REAL but they certainly aren't very good at it.

I hope that made sense. It is confusing because everything is in reverse, but that is because E/Fs have a very strange definition of REAL.

I'm no saint, but I was by E/F standards because I felt the right things, the things that everyone believed they should be feeling. Basically, you have to be mentally ill to actually be feeling all the things they believe they should, and I happened to be quite mentally ill at the time. I was completely losing my mind. Paradoxically, it was this same attribute, being mentally ill, that made so many E/Fs believe that I was possessed by the devil. According to these people, I was both demonically possessed and a saint at the same time for the same reasons, but I don't think any of them noticed this contradiction.

Jay said...

Jessa -

E/F = Evangelical/Fundamentalist?

Geds - I think you nailed it when you bring out the "if only they knew" bit. And all of the people standing around thinking that have somehow managed to rationalize their secrets and doubts away so that they don't have to own them.

Paul said...

First and foremost; all I can say is wow, "Geds" is a brilliant writer! I must admit that yes, for the most part the man is correct - the church does tend to atomize people and yes, a lot of people who are there don't admit their problems (I must confess that I, at times, have done the same). Ritual also tends to be a downer (however there are exceptions to this where tradition does play a positive role): locking people into a set way of thinking or twisting itself into the form of a piece of duct-tape that holds one's beliefs together.

I suppose this is where my mind begins to deviate from the heart of the blog: to quote Geds: "there are things that Christians just don't admit they struggle with". This statement is a fallacy, pure and simple: there are things that PEOPLE don't admit they struggle with. I struggle with things that I might never tell other people about, you struggle with things that you'll probably never mention to a single other soul. I know both atheists and fundamentalists that struggle with issues that will never come to light. To be human is to struggle, to simply pin this on one group or another would be in error. In essence, what I am saying is that it is not the fact that one has faith that condemns one to be hypocritical bigot who fails to share one's feelings - it is the work of man, not good which does this.

Another comment also stood out a bit:"They don't want to think of their own sins. They certainly don't want to admit them". I don't think anyone likes to admit their own flaws - it is a simple human trait to want to look desirable to others. We don't want people to know the darkness of our hearts and minds. We want to be liked, we want to be accepted, we want to be loved.

As for my views: from the way I see the world God has given all of humanity a simple (or at times not so simple) request - love others as I have loved you. After that, I don't think that differences of law, creed, or moral code matter. To modify a line from C.S. Lewis (from the book, The last battle) "whatever you did in the name of love, you did for me". I think this is why I think that "the power", as Geds calls it, can be felt any time people are united under one banner. Simply put, God is too big to be confined to a mere congregation, denomination, or even the scope of our imagination. When we try to put God in a box we simply box in ourselves, as we close our minds from the fullness of reality.

Nevertheless, I stand by the Church.

(Continued in next comment... ran out of characters)

Paul said...

Why? First and foremost because of the potential the church has to do good. Yes, there have been many atrocities committed in the name of God; yet the Church has potential to do much good. Consider the possibilities if even 15 people within a Church group decided to put doctrine behind them and simply go out and show God's love to others. In my opinion this should be the role of any church or religious organization: to help people figure out how to translate the love of God into a human form by helping those in need, crying with those who grieve, and by serving all people - from the highest social caste to the lowest. Yes, this can be done without the church, however the church provides a sort of common ground within the members of the group; just as other social groups can provide a common background of experience, social status, etc.

Secondly, I stick with the Church as a way of expressing my love for God. Yes, God loves me (and all other people for that matter) enough that I could hurt him again and again and again (which I must admit, happens all to frequently) and he would still care for me. Likewise I could show my thankfulness for his mercy equally as well at home. However, I enjoy taking even just a few hours out of my week to go to a service that has absolutely no merit in the long run. No, a church service will not feed the poor, heal the sick, or make God love anyone any more or any less. Yet nevertheless it is another way for me to pour out my soul - just as much as doing something I love would.

Finally, I stay with the Church so that I can meet other people who are willing to think about finding answers. Yes, a lot of people within the church have very concrete views: that doesn't make them any less worth talking to or less valuable. Honestly, often the only things I agree with people in the church are 1) God Exists 2) God is all loving - after that my theology is usually far too left wing for most. Yet I still gain something every time I talk with another person about philosophy, I may not agree with their point of view, but it still helps me to see where they are coming from and allows for me to add just a little bit more to my own view of the world.

2+2 = 4 for everyone; however the answer is often hidden under one of the many masks we all wear.

P. S Sorry about going off on a rant... The article sorta inspired me.

The Woeful Budgie said...


This whole post is gold. And you've touched on something I'd been thinking about for a while, but hadn't really been able to put to words.

A few years ago, I stopped participating in worship. It wasn't a principled decision or anything, it was just that I felt uncomfortable with it all, for a couple different reasons. I mean, spiritually, I was doubting, and politically, I had come to disagree with some of their central causes, and here they were singing some smug little ditty: "If God is on our side, who can be against us?" It was scary. Suddenly, I felt like an enemy in their midst.

And I knew that if I just joined in, all my doubts would eventually melt away in some grander spiritual understanding like they always had before. But for the first time, I didn't want to. In fact, the very idea terrified me. I was getting my own mind back, but my grasp on it felt tenuous, and I was afraid of being sucked back in. It was all very Borg.

Anyway. Earlier this year, I went to my first secular concert, and it occurred to me I had no idea how to behave during such an event. The Christian concerts I'd gone to before all looked a lot like a worship service, what with the raised hands and the jumping up and down and the what-all-else. So when I saw people there doing pretty much the same thing, it kicked up a lot of my shit. That gloaty voice that would tell me I was hardening my heart began whispering, "See? Everyone worships something. You're just trading the truth of God for a lie."

I got over it, but it was a conscious effort. Once I did push past, though, I realized pretty much what you just stated. Those transcendent worship experiences had nothing to do with God, and everything to do with being human. And instead of being cut off from those feelings forever, I could now experience them on my own terms, without all the emotional and spiritual coercion. Which was pretty damn cool. (And say what you want about The Killers, but when you've left the Joel's Army movement, standing in the midst in a crowd chanting "I've got soul, but I'm not a soldier" is nothing short of therapy.) :)

Still, there was ritual. Our personalized prayers always sounded the same.

Thank you for saying this. Every time Evangelicals pull out the "empty ritual" trump card to play the whole spit-on-the-Catholics game, I headdesk a little inside. Hey guys! Your gee-shucks prayers and your convention center churches don't make you any less mired in your own traditions, mmkay? (Same goes for couches, candles and labyrinths. I'm lookin' at you, emerging church.)

And what law do we need beyond “Don’t be an asshole?”

Anne Lamott describes her atheist father's ethic as, "Don't be an asshole, and make sure everyone eats." I rather like it.

The Woeful Budgie said...

Er...that should be "midst *of* a crowd", back there.

I hang my head in shame.

Geds said...


I was actually using 2+2=5 in the exact context of 1984. The fundamentalist beliefs in which I was ensconced require affirmation of some self-evidently incorrect things. I didn't want to step right in and say that because I wanted to see if anyone else engaged the idea.

I believe that 2+2=4 and I think there are many (perhaps most) strongly religious and a majority of the religious but not zealous and agnostic who believe 2+2=4. They might simply think the equation 2+2+1 is a more accurate way of looking at the world.

Unfortunately I can't carry the analogy to that point. Five is five, after all. The point is that there are those (like big a and Paul) who think there's something more to the equation than 2+2 and I can't and won't fault them for that. Sometimes I think/hope there is.

jessa: were kind of a special case, though.

Although it is interesting to think about the opposing where someone brings up something no one else thinks about because you seemed like a better representation. But that's a whole 'nother hill of beans.


You're correct about E/F.


No worries on the rant. However, your long comment is going to require a bit more room for me to follow up. You bring up some interesting points, though.


You, too. I might have to go with a new post.

Things are bouncing around in my brain right now...

Geds said...


Oh, I will say this, though, since it has nothing at all to do with the rest of the bounciness:

You're absolutely right that Christians aren't the only ones who have problems and struggles they don't want to admit. I'll never say I'm perfect or without flaw. There are probably things I do and have done that I'll never admit willingly to anyone. In fact, I think I referred to myself as a raging jackass just this morning (although I did so in reference to something I said about myself last week, wherein I called myself a raging jackass, but not in so many words. I have no idea why I felt the need to make that distinction).

The thing is, though, the things I struggle with now -- and I'm sure that Woeful Budgie, Fiat Lex, big a, jessa, and a couple other people who pop in here to share their experiences would have a similar concept to express -- are my own problems. It really has little to do with outside pressure. I do something, then realize, "Wow, that's a sign that I'm just not as good of a person as I think I am." I think I'm kind, courteous, thoughtful, willing to help, then I yell at someone who doesn't deserve my anger or completely ignore someone who could really use help and I think, "Man, I should really fix that about myself."

Most of the sins and shortcomings that I was forced to admit in church were of an external variety. It was of the, "You don't love The Party enough," kind. This external force says that looking at a girl and thinking, "Wow, I'd really like to have sex with her," is a sin. But that's simply the nature of being human. I mean, if it wasn't human nature the planet would be devoid of human life (which, admittedly, would probably be better for the planet, but that's a completely different story).

So, I guess to make a long story short, you'll get no argument from me about all humans being imperfect. When I write these kinds of posts it's never my intention to say that I am now a better human than Christians. And I'm well aware of the nuance between Christians, too, so I try to limit my personal critiques to the world from which I come or things of a historical nature. I know little about, say, the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, Mormons, or Sunnis, so I don't pretend to speak for or about them.

I can only speak of my little corner of the universe. My criticism is leveled against individuals as infrequently as possible, since I prefer to attempt to illuminate the machinery that does such weird and twisted things to minds and hearts.

I don't pretend to be better than them, either. When I write these it's with as much empathy as I can muster. I am completely aware of the fact that when I talk about Christians from the Christianity I once knew I am talking about who I once was. So there but for the grace of reason go I...

Geds said...

So there but for the grace of reason go I...

...Yeah. That's pithy and all, but it's not nearly the sentiment I wanted to express.

Pretend I didn't say it. Erm, write it.

Fiat Lex said...

In order to have a "relationship with God", us mere humans have to use the same brain machinery with which we have relationships with one another. If there is no real God, that means believers all manufacture an imaginary friend for themselves according to their emotional needs. If there is a real God, the one described in scripture, still, a lot of people make up an imaginary friend which completely obscures said God from their awareness.

A looooot of people either need to believe, or are taught by others, that God is a Panopticon. An invisible prison in which you are always observed, always totally vulnerable, but can never yourself observe or gain any control over your own position. In the words that start out that paragraph in the link, "a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power."

You know that you and everyone else is in the same state of abject helplessness--naked and exposed before the eye of a perfect judge who holds all to the same impossibly high standard. (That Terry Pratchett quote I've got up on my blog says it really well: "He was as naked and exposed as a baby lobster. He hoped he'd covered all the angles, but angles were [...] fractal. Each one was full of smaller angles. You couldn't cover them all.") You know your own inner thoughts, the secret life of your mind, and it becomes so easy to believe that others are seen to be less depraved, less worthy of punishment, under that terrible scrutiny. Especially if they school themselves to act and think and emote as though they were acceptable, not without hope. Many, laboring under the same burden of terror as you, simply could not bear the added rejection of their fellow creatures, on top of the stern judgment of the jailor within their souls.

So you police yourself as viciously and harshly as you can, not seeing clearly the invisible line which must not be crossed, but knowing it is there. You cling to the promises of infinite forgiveness and the soothing sting of your own absolute lack of worth. You will never be good enough--indeed it is impossible for you to be good enough! But what condemns you is failing to do your utmost at all times to fulfill that impossible mandate.

Like Sisyphus with his boulder, you struggle against your own sinfulness, knowing you will always eventually fail, knowing you must never stop, must never slack you pace. Despair, the only sin for which you may not be forgiven, creeps up on you. And you drive yourself to frenzy to stave it off. Again, and again, and eventually--inevitably--without success.

In the words of Bad Religion:

And what I'm frightened of
Is that they call it God's Love

At first, deconverting, that frightened me the most too. How awful a bait-and-switch--to advertise freedom and peace and happiness, and deliver imprisonment and terror and despair!

Then with a little distance and a little more objectivity I began to see it wasn't so simple. Different people had different ideas of God. Some were consumed by the Panopticon. Others had a little divine yes-man on their shoulders, assuring them that whatever made them feel uneasy was evil, whatever made them feel secure was righteous. A very few, a happy few, had something else entirely. I'd seen their counterparts among non-Christians or followers of other faiths, but within Christianity they also existed. Those whose idea of God was somehow bigger than what they themselves could imagine, was something wonderful and peaceful and noble.

Within Christianity, however--none of them could tell the difference. What good is the rare and marvelous experience of this real good thing, if it is absolutely no help in discerning who is enslaved, who is self-deluded, and who is in touch with something greater? Why go back, if the perspective I got from distance will be absolutely useless to me once I'm in it again?

2 + 2 + x = y,
where x = +/-1.
Solve for y.

big a said...

"2 + 2 + x = y,
where x = +/-1.
Solve for y."

y = 3, y = 5

for some reason I can't quite elucidate, I find the fact that you posted an equation with two equally correct answers deeply profound.

Fiat Lex said...

:D Me too. For that is the nature of truth!

Glad I wasn't just being a pompous asshat, as indeed I am sometimes. (Seriously. Just ask my ex.)

See, the average correct answer is four. So four seems right, and works for all practical purposes. Yet it is actually less correct than either of the true-but-incomplete answers on either side of it. 5 being the "my religion is the only true one" answer, and 3 being the atheist/materialist/determinist answer "we are controlled by chemistry and biology and free will is an illusion."