Sunday, 9 May 2010

A Protestant Sort of Angst

I am titling this "Protestant" because it seems to me that this is a particularly Protestant conundrum... but perhaps Catholic people struggle with this, too. Please take no offense at any exclusion I may inadvertantly imply through the title, and also let me know of my error.
I also realize that not all Protestants will share this experience. It's a free will versus determinism sort of thing.

Angst, when used in English, is a term drawn from existentialism. It refers to the feeling (often of horror) that accompanies a person's realization that she is utterly free to self-destruct. Nothing is stopping her from leaping off of a metaphorical (or literal, for that matter) precipice. As much as we all seem to desire freedom, when coming face to face with full free will we experience this angst, a psychological shock. The fear is not that we might fall of the cliff's edge, but that we could leap off of it. This wasn't a feeling I was familiar with. I could imagine it, but I couldn't recall experiencing it.

Many people who were raised Christian, especially those who've had a falling out with the church, report that they feared damnation. This, too, is not something I'd ever felt. (I know. Lucky me.) I have, since I've known the concept of Heaven and Hell, felt fairly sure that I was bound Heavenward. Fearing damnation never made a whole lot of sense to me, since if you believed in such a thing as Hell (enough that fear of it would be worth reporting), you wouldn't have any reasn to think you'd be going there; if you didn't believe in Heaven and Hell, you may well be headed to the latter, but you wouldn't think you were, so why be afraid?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have news: I can now report firsthand the feelings of angst and the fear of damnation.

I was reading the Bible the other night (this was a few weeks ago; I've taken my time getting to this post) and I came upon one of the numerous difficult Old Testament passages. I don't mean "difficult" in the sense of being a cure for insomnia, though there are a few of those; I mean "difficult" in the sense of God-sponsored genocide. If you're not much of a Bible person, that's going to sound a little indicting. Unfortunately, mass murder does come up every so often. In reading, I was faced with the necessity of reconciling the God described here, who insists that every living thing in Town X be slaughtered without mercy (women, children, livestock, pets, pests, and infants all included), with the God I worship weekly, who built a wonderful world and endorses love so much that he underwent humiliation, torture, death, and damnation to redeem a bunch of ingrates. On the one hand, murder; on the other hand, love. How?

Theologians throughout Christendom have given explanations and reconciliations on this point, but that's not what I'm talking about here. The important thing is that the only reconciliation I knew of at the time was Bonhoeffer's, and I haven't found this one convincing. So I could believe that God did this thing, God sponsored hatred and destruction, or I could believe that the Bible is wrong on this count. Not wrong through and through, of course, but wrong about this. Maybe Joshua did kill a bunch of people, but in actual fact God was all like, "Dude, go easy on them, ok?" and Joshua just didn't listen. This last choice is a popular one.

It's also, apparently, a dangerous one. Because if the Bible is wrong about this, how do we know that it hasn't got the rest of it wrong? How do we know it isn't wrong about Jesus, too? How can we be sure?

I've said before and I'll say again that not many people come to Christ through the Bible; usually, they come to the Bible through Christ. It's because they believe in God and Jesus that they believe the Bible has authority. But then what this means is that we believe in Christ by hearsay and by faith alone. Which sounds good when we know that "faith" is invested with such high standing, but is that enough? Very quickly our whole support system begins to fall away. What can we rely on, after all?

So I believe in Jesus not for any reason, but merely because I do. If this is the case, then there's nothing stopping me, nothing at all, from going apostate. I could become an atheist in seconds. The possibility exists, the door is open, and all I need to do is step through. I suddenly recognized my freedom to become an atheist. This was angst.

It horrified me. I felt extremely uncomfortable. I could even see things on the other side of the door, see how life as an atheist would begin. I could see the gateway into that territory, and I already had quite a few of the maps in my back pocket (His Dark Materials, The God Delusion, and suchlike). To an extent it would seem like such a relief to walk through that door. It would be easier, for sure; I wouldn't have to constantly worry about the door being there. The decision would be over. But if I stayed on this side of the door, the temptation would always be there. It would never go away. Never.

But I didn't cross the door, and so I also saw--or at least suspected--the yawning throat of Hell lay that way, too. I'm not certain that Christ offers the only path to salvation, but I'm not certain that there are others, either. From this side of the door, I knew I didn't want to take that risk. But what if, years later or weeks later or minutes later, I went through anyway, a sort of spasm of the will? Could I come back? No longer believing in hell, would I come back? Does the door slam shut? What would happen to me? (You might note that at this point my sense of free will started ebbing away... I feared that I was not in control of my own will. I have to wonder whether this is an element in any feeling angst, this subtle, quiet suspicion of free will's existence even when our realization of that freedom is what brought us to this point.)

It was a fast slope to this point; I was reading the Bible, and bare minutes later I was on the naked edge of apostasy. Was it all this fragile? Was it all this frail?

A passage from Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life came to mind, one which I had previously had trouble with, one worth quoting in full: "In the early years of his ministry, Billy Graham went throuh a time when he struggled with doubts about the accuracy and authority of the Bible. One moonlit night he dropped to his knees in tears and told God that, in spite of confusing passages he didn't understand, from that point on he would completely trust the Bible as the sole authority for his life and ministry. From that day forward, Billy's life was blessed with unusual power and effectiveness." In the next paragraph, Warren writes, "Decide that regardless of culture, tradition, reason, or emotion, you choose the Bible as your final authority."

I could have tried something like this, but it didn't appeal to me at all. I've been skeptical too long to do something as (I thought) deliberately hamstringing as this. Why pray to God for blind belief in the Bible if the Bible does turn out to be ridden with errors after all? I don't think God would want that of me.

I did pray for help, though. I can't recall if I specified what kind of help I wanted. I don't think I did. I think I just asked for help. And, whether it was an act of God or my psychology's refusal to entertain cognitive dissonance, I suddenly felt peace. Free will or no, I realized, I would never give up belief in God. I may have to live forever with atheism a step away, but I would never cease to believe. This doesn't mean that I'll believe in any earthly authority at all, but God... no, God's here to stay. My faith might be lukewarm, too, which isn't a good thing, but it would always be there. Elizabeth Esther has observed of herself that she simply can't not believe, and I feel the same. To an extent, this unrootable belief bothered the skeptical corner of my mind almost as much as Warren's prescription did: was the sense that I couldn't disbelieve justification enough for belief? It's really poor apologetics, barely more than a tautology, but it's there nonetheless. Every a priori premise in philosophy is similarly a tautology, but somehow this is what makes them such reliable proofs.

So I believe, even though that door may always be open before me. I believe, even though I don't know why. I believe, even though I don't always know in what, exactly. What seems in the end to matter is that I believe.

Since that night, I've read more apologetics and am feeling more comfortable with belief. FYI. And I'm also aware that a number of these experiences argue for determinism of some degree... something to think about.


Em the luddite said...

I'll keep you in my prayers. I do think these sorts of questions need asking, and I would never recommend someone have "faith" that precludes doubt.

That makes me think of a movie I saw a while back... did you see "Doubt"? A former-blogger friend of mine (not a former friend, but he hasn't blogged in forever) wrote a review of it a while back that deals with doubt and faith. Either one is worth checking out:

Christian H said...

I have not seen 'Doubt,' though I may look it up this weekend.

Thank-you for your prayers. I just learned today that there are people I have never met, apparently, praying for me. And that's never met even as in never Internet-met. (Intermet. Heehee.) This whole body of Christ thing is amazing sometimes.

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