Everyone’s probably heard or read the David Foster Wallace story about the fish…old fish swims by two younger fish…old fish says to the younger fish, “How’s the water this morning?” The two young fish look at each other and say, “What the hell’s water?”
Sometimes we swim in something for so long, we are no longer aware of what it is we’re swimming in anymore. I’m not sure if I’m the only one who wrestles with stuff like this. And, I guess I risk further alienation for saying so. But, I have found a huge difference between my natural take on things and my professed ‘beliefs’. I put beliefs in quotes because my real beliefs are how I look at things without giving it any thought. My ‘beliefs’ are how I am supposed to look at things or how I wish they were, whether I admit it or not. The first is natural and requires no thought at all. The latter is a second or third move, isn’t natural, and requires me to force it over my actual beliefs. If I force them enough, over time, the hope is they would actually become my actual beliefs. And, at 50 years old, that discipline never has worked for me. There’s a huge chasm in between these two things, in some cases.
Since I was old enough to think, I have breathed in the same air you have. I have come to discover how to think in the same ways you have. And, as a result, my view on things isn’t that different than yours. Part of that process has involved coming to understand and accept, without question, some things that may not even be expressly taught. I have been expressly taught that the ultimate goal in life is to be a useful member of society. Useful member is more of a catch phrase. If you asked me to define it, I would probably struggle. And, the words that came out would ultimately be about my being part of some economic order. I am a useful part of a society that exchanges goods and services so that life goes on…the wheels on the bus go round and round. I’ve been politically conservative as well as liberal in my short 50 years of life. But that definition of my purpose hasn’t really budged. I’ve believe that I am either to be someone who uses my gifts, talents and sweat of my brow to produce and provide, building assets to leave my progeny a larger balance sheet than when I arrived (conservative)…or I am to be concerned about making sure everyone’s balance sheets are increased at equitable levels, as an objective of ultimate justice (liberal). Both are ultimately interested in the economic order...because that’s all we can see and all we find of ultimate importance, regardless of what we say we believe. What’s ultimately important? Food to eat. Roof over our head. Reliable transportation. Working cell phones. Sending kids to college. Things like meaning, God, heaven, community are all nice thoughts. We may even preach on these things. But, when the rubber meets the road, they are nice thoughts. Ultimately, it is about survival and getting through the day. That’s very modern. And, by modern, I mean the way things have been viewed for about 500 years. Personally, it’s the way things have been viewed by me since I was old enough to think.
Whether before or after Christianity, my natural thought is that this world is all there really is. The important things are necessarily immanent. As an atheist, there is no supernatural anything. There is only science and outside of science, dangerous conjecture. As a deist, god created everything and let it go. As a Christian, I have believed that heaven is out there in a place beyond the reach of observation…that God is a Being who lives in that place beyond the reach of observation, called heaven. He popped in the natural world here and there and left us with some spiritual lifelines to help in pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. He, also, seemed detached, except when it came to our behavior. Our job is to make sure everyone believes all the right things as he watches our behavior in that process. When we die, we get to go to heaven, if we haven’t messed things up. In the meantime, we fall back on being that same useful member of society within the ultimate goal of an economic order of some kind.
The common denominator in all of these positions in life is the focus on this world swallowing up any other thoughts outside of it. And I credit that as modern thinking. What I mean by modernity, is the belief that this world….this economic order we participate…is all there is or is the only thing we should really bother ourselves with while we wait for heaven.
As an atheist, modern thought entails we are ultimately animals, here by chance, doomed to extinction. There are things like morality, purpose and value, but they are useful fictions for us so that we can make the society comprising the economic order bearable while we wait for the inevitable.
As a Christian, modern thinking entails we try tack on new beliefs that Jesus died for our sins and if we accept what He did for us on the cross, we will go to heaven when we die…as an overlay to our natural take on reality. These beliefs don’t replace modern thought. They are only sort of like adjunct extensions to it…sort of enhancers. We use this new bit of information to help us be better useful members of the economic order, as we wait for heaven or the second coming. There is a supernatural, god, angels, demons, heaven, hell…they are just located far off and have little to do with this world. We may even believe they do have lots to do with this world. But our actual behavior reflects otherwise. Our behavior reveals that we are immanently focused only on this world as practical reality.
No one dares, whether as a skeptic or a Christian, to honestly admit there is a difference or chasm between what we think we are supposed to believe and what our natural take on reality actually is. That would be social suicide. So, we create the age old hegemony of making sure we protect each other from having to talk about it or wrestle with it by instituting boundaries with punishments and rewards, so that we stay away from this dangerous thinking. But that has left us, whether Christian or skeptic, in a predicament that hasn’t really been that sustainable. We are fragmented people, insulated in an inadequate take that tries to be a good economic citizen and let in a little transcendence and enchantment in controlled doses, as needed….but only in very safe, predictable dosages.
As an atheist/deist, I found this universe haunted. The mind seems mysterious and far more than just a brain. Morals seem to be as much of a hard cold fact as scientific facts. There doesn’t seem to be a way to escape or stand outside of thinking in terms of value or meaning. The more we try, the more we sneak them back in. And, as a good secular economic member of society, this is more than a bit unnerving. It’s just like living in a haunted house. That’s probably why we love horror films so much. It’s sort of a voyeuristic pressure release. But outside of entertainment, I’ll create ways to buffer myself in a bubble that is as uninterrupted by these hauntings or enchantments as much as possible. Because it is impossible for me to completely eradicate these mysteries from my consciousness, I’ll redirect them into the outlet of appreciating art, music, literature. Those are my measured doses of transcendence.
I also look at the material universe and find it very difficult to find a place in it. I seem to stand out as an odd observer without a place to belong. No other type of animal seems to think about these things. No other life form appears to aspire, fear death or search for significance. I’m more of an alien, alone…a wart on the universe, trying to play it as cool as I can, minimizing the schadenfreude as much as possible. That’s why I think comedy is such a salve to our soul. We get to laugh at ourselves through a Will Ferrell movie or someone’s observations in a standup act.
As a Christian, there doesn’t seem to be much of what I have been taught in the church that has much relevance. My sins are forgiven. If I stay true to my faith in Christ, I will go to heaven when I die. All that’s left, in the meantime, is behavior modification and doing it with a saccharin smile. And, although I tend to sway towards the cynical, I have a very strong suspicion that almost all the more visible Christians I see are hopelessly trying to pretend they’ve found a happy place, hiding pain and disappointment behind the smile. Misery loves company. If I was uncomfortable trying to live out my non-theistic beliefs, I’ve just added more baggage onto it with this narrative. There doesn’t seem to be much good about this Good News…and it certainly doesn’t seem like an ‘easy yoke’, no matter how often that verse is recited. Even within the church, the same sort of permutations happen between fundamentalists, evangelicals and progressives. All are hopelessly breathing in and exhaling modern presuppositions about life and either separating themselves from the economic order or diving head first into it as if it, rather than anything transcendent, is the only important thing. Everyone is defining the boundaries and using the same border patrol tools to keep us all comfortable and familiar.
My problem wasn’t so much the content of the beliefs I have tried to embrace as much as the hidden beliefs I didn’t know I had. That hidden belief is my buying into unspoken assumptions about reality that hardly anyone questions…beliefs I have held to without question since I was a child. And, those hidden beliefs are geared to make this world…this economic order…far more important than the transcendent aspects that continue to haunt us as we work very hard to keep ourselves insulated from it. Modern thought is soldered into our brains and sticks with us no matter what external or vestigial belief system we wish to overlay on it. Christianity is not an exception. There are some basic aspects we are taught from the time we are in diapers…this world is all there really is…survival is entirely up to us…what goes on in this world doesn’t point to anything else beyond it…mystery and uncertainty is a disease to be eradicated no matter the cost…never show uncertainty if you have it. I struggled to find a safe harbor to live these presuppositions out in a haunted universe, as a non-Christian. It was a very hard life. But I brought them into my Christian life as well. It wasn’t any easier.
The reason why I say the universe is haunted is because it seems to point beyond itself in order for it to make any sense. And I have an increasingly sneaky suspicion that whatever it points to seems to somehow be in it as well. Heaven and the supernatural isn’t so much a place somewhere else, but the weird and inexplicable parts right here and now. God isn’t living in that place way out beyond observation. The world doesn’t hold itself together on its own. It is sustained by something…or Someone. All of my categories of god, supernatural, are intertwined in this material world, all the while thinking of heaven as somewhere out there and God being way out there in it. The miraculous isn’t just sudden breaks in natural law but natural law itself. Being is a miracle. The supernatural realm stabs my senses at the birth of a child as well as the death of a child or the love of my wife or the good times with a dear friend. It invades my settled and familiar categories and understandings without permission. My job, as a useful modern citizen, is to ignore or explain away these things away as best I could. At the very least, minimize them as something we can talk about, but only up to a point, before it gets weird. But those bonds of understanding are weakening more and more. When I read the Bible for the first time, it was so radically different from my modern view of reality. And, with few exceptions, I tried to superimpose my modern view on scripture, albeit uncomfortably. I would turn to a modernistic apologetics to help me ease the tension. But it never really addressed the root problem.
One of the strongest fears I have had to overcome in truly understanding reality or, at the very least, how my brain is wired, has come from the outside threat of humiliation and shame. In skeptic circles, there is no thinking. There is only prescriptive dogma. You question evolution? Shame on you for being so ignorant. You think it is a bit speculative to be certain the universe is 15 billion years old? You think human beings may be more than just material bodies with a brain and nervous system? You believe in supernatural beings, let alone God? You should be socially quarantined and have no influence on anyone, for the sake of society. Just take the old church persecution of anything that contradicted the Magisterium and you have captured the sort of hegemony our secular culture wields today. Christian circles isn’t that much different. Questioning any point in the Synod of Dort or the Acts 29 church model is frowned upon. The common thread is a fear of being wrong and a bigger fear of people possibly finding that out. So, the task is for everyone to be sufficiently kept in the dark by using fear of shame and humiliation as useful tools for effective border control.
So, is it even possible to know the truth? Is the Gospel true? Is our secular culture correct in all its dogma? I think so. In fact, I am very comfortable in knowing what the Bible affirms is the best explanation for reality…in fact, it’s the only one. When it comes to some of the huge questions that culture used to ask, no one’s got an alternative outside of Scripture. Am I 100% certain I am right? Nope. In fact, that whole idea of being 100% certain is phooey. I am sure. And, yet, I could be wrong. What I have discovered is that, so could you. That goes for everyone. The ideal situation isn’t to start with some psychological positive-thinking that your beliefs are accurate and then work backwards from there. The ideal situation is to risk everything to find out what’s true and what’s probably not…and adjust accordingly. It is a risk because you don’t know where it could lead. Where it will most likely lead you, as it has lead me, is the fact that I am not the Messiah…and I am not in control of anything. I can have an impact on others. But there is so much mystery between me being a real agent in this world and having no control over outcomes, appearances or circumstances. It has forced me to accept that embracing mystery is actually refreshing. The idiotic Cartesian Anxiety of requiring certainty is replaced with a part common sense, a part reasonableness and lots of wonder.
I have peace in so many areas that I never thought I would have. And they are all due to my faith and walk with Jesus Christ. He alone has opened my eyes and thoughts to not only what’s real out there in the world, but also what’s real inside of me. He has shown me specifics of how many of those natural beliefs that I accept without thinking are actually wrong…as well as some of the other ‘beliefs’ I have adopted even as a Christian. He’s shown me how much of the chosen ‘beliefs’ I accepted were done out of a reaction against someone who harmed me. I wanted no part of whatever they believed and associated those beliefs with them. In other words, I chose beliefs as a reaction, out of a motivation of vengeance. Them being true or not had little to do with it. Then there are also those ‘beliefs’ I chose because they could be exploited to benefit me. In other words, I could exploit my situation, relationships, in order to get what I wanted, whatever that was. Again, it had little or nothing to do with whether those ‘beliefs’ were accurate or not.
In other words, Jesus has not only made Himself real to me, He’s taught me (and continues to do so) about myself as a way to help me better understand others and the world around me. One of those lessons is that I really haven’t been that interested in reality. I have only been interested in bending it to meet my insatiable demands. I’m not just talking about before I became a Christian. I am talking about after as well. He is showing me those basic assumptions I have carried with me, without questioning. And, as a result, those basic natural understandings or natural take on things have been severely challenged. The concept that this world is all there really is, regardless of what I wish to be the case, has far less power than it used to. The idea that mystery is always a bad thing is also weakened. I realize I am very small and finite. I don’t need to understand anything. In fact, mystery tends to make room for wonder, which is something that dies inside you when you reach middle school (or earlier). The idea that the point of my life is to be a useful citizen and contribute to the economic order is actually somewhat Satanic. It’s Satanic because it requires that I believe there is no one there to help me in life but myself. “If it’s to be, it is up to me.” I have to believe I am ultimately alone with only whatever good fortune I have to build up my balance sheet. That’s the essence of what went down in Genesis 3. Those are lies. God is there. He isn’t silent. And He loves you more than you could even love your own children. And if you let Him in to your life, He isn’t ever going to leave you or forsake you, even if you can’t understand what’s going on.
Although unlearning basic things and relearning truths to replace them isn’t a comfortable thing, I wouldn’t ever go back to how I understood things before. I am not afraid of truth, wherever it takes me, because I trust in what I could never observe with my own eyes. I trust He is the truth and it always leads to Him…and He is love, life and light. So far, that is exactly what I have discovered. So, I accept the discomfort of having to relearn knowing it’s the best medicine. I’ve learned it’s okay to be wrong…even wrong about almost everything. Having to always be right is a very lonely place to be.
It goes without saying that when I am in a political conversation with someone who uses the shame and humiliation tactic to push a political narrative on me, I accept that they have nothing else to go on. Without truth, all you are left with is power and the allure (and illusion) of control. But, I also experience this in much of church. It’s different there because the narrative isn’t bullied on others so much (in some cases it is), but that it’s an environment where nobody really believes all that they preach. Nobody is as together or happy as they portray. It’s mostly a show and one in which everyone is an actor, from the worship on down to the greeters. That’s not a universal thing, but it is prevalent. It’s prevalent because even evangelical Christians eat, drink and breathe in the same modernistic stuff that people outside the church eat, drink and breath in. We just ‘tack’ on a Christian narrative to our natural take on reality and hope it all just works itself out. And, when it doesn’t, we can have our world rocked. But our job is to keep that too ourselves. No one is supposed to find out our world is rocked or else we will be considered outside the will of God. I think that’s sort of why churches split, fight or abuse their own people. Everyone is jockeying hard to protect themselves from the potential exposure of being challenged or outside of the familiar and comfortable.
So, even in church, rather than find a tribe of like-minded people, I try to find friends, wherever they may be. They may not think like I do. That’s okay. And, rather than trying to make anything happen or change any minds, I try to be a friend back. And I let the rest take care of itself. What choice do I have? What choice do you have? The mission field is everywhere. The biggest mission field isn’t Africa or India. It’s inside your own mind. Without that being transformed from being conformed to this culture and age, anything you try to believe is ad hoc and forced. People don’t understand things that way. They understand by being open to reality and adjusting to it. That requires our full mind and will. Any other way is forcing a round peg in a square hole. That describes our culture. No one dares to be real. And the more real we attempt, the more contrived we become. That’s because a basic understanding of survival we learn from this world is that no one should be entrusted with who we really are lest we be hurt or even destroyed. Reality television is scripted, planned, exploited, etc. There’s nothing real about it. Social media is a digital mask to hide our past, perversions and pock marks. We get to become another person we like better than the real us we hope no one ever knows. What a sad world we live in. But we do not have to live in it. Yet, it requires faith…believing or trusting in what you cannot see…in order to save us from being cultural zombies. And, based on what we are taught from a very young age, faith like that is almost suicidal. And, so we redefine it to be something more palatable or safe. Truth isn’t safe. But it is good.
I have no idea who will read this or where you may be coming from in this life if you do. What I can tell you is that there is so much I’d like to tell you but feel inadequate to do so. And it seems so petty and naïve but it is true. I found Jesus. He is what He says He is. He’s not just a historical figure that died on a cross and rose from the dead. He’s the One who met me in my pain and has constantly revealed so much to me since that I can’t see how I ever lived before I knew Him. Maybe your marriage is stressed. Maybe it’s broken. Maybe you suffer from the death of a loved one or a loss of a job or the threat of being utterly destroyed by a predator. Can I just leave you with pitiful attempt at advice? Give Jesus a chance. Open up John 14:6 and read it to yourself a few times. Open up Romans 12:1-2 and do the same. I can’t answer your questions or solve your problems. But I was a skeptic. I let my guard down and let Jesus into my life. And, even then, there was so much wrong about me and about my thinking, attitude. I am still a gigantic mess of a human being. But I am so much better off than I was. And it is due to Him.
Call Him my invisible friend all you want. If that helps you make sense of what I am saying about Jesus in light of your basic understanding of reality, fine. I perfectly understand. I was there. But you’re wrong. I was wrong. And, if you’re like me, you are your own worst enemy, despite your best efforts. I am pointing you to Him, not sage advice. He’ll be the One who can do the rest. Take the first step and just simply admit the paths you have taken are confusing, conflated and with unanticipated results (to put it kindly). Just ask Him to come into your life and start helping you in the great mission field of your own mind. I promise you that you will not be disappointed with anything other than not doing this earlier.
“Once again, Jesus spoke to the people and said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will never walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.’” – John 8:12