Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Why I’m a Christian 3: Gratitude


Let me start off by saying that after the first article in this series the remainder is necessarily existential in nature. I am not attempting to offer proofs for skeptics. When I found myself an agnostic I realized that wasn’t a useful pursuit. If there’s a God, which I believe there is, it seems clear to me that He didn’t want to be falsified. There is plenty of work out there in the field of Christian apologetics that provide the historic evidences and if you are interested it’s not hard to find. But the purpose of this set of articles is to invite you sit in while I examine myself and my reasons for belief. You may see yourself in some of this self-diagnostic or you may cringe in horror. Just please don’t misinterpret it as an argument for the faith that is designed to convince you to think or believe like I do.


In the first installment I explained why I can’t accept materialism as a logical premise for living. In the second article I tried to make the case that ultimately everyone chooses their beliefs based on emotion more than any objective measure. I think this is fine since every Truth claim is predicated on circular logic. No matter how scientific and falsified a claim is, you must always end up accepting some authority on the matter whether that be an expert, prophet, doctor, teacher, or your own senses and mind. Every authority can only be self-validated as all other validation for it leads to inevitable circles.

Which leaves us in the uncomfortable position of having to trust rather than Know. And who or what we trust is chosen by our emotional desires to back up what we want to believe. You want to believe you’re a god and will get to rule your own planet after death? There’s an authority for you to cite. Want to believe there is no God and you get to decide your own purpose? There’s an authority for you to cite. You want to believe that lizard men rule the world in secret. There’s an authority for that as well.
Clearly there are more and less credible authorities; all are not equal. But to assume that only the ones from your chosen position are credible and all others are not, does not seem like a fair assessment given our lack of data.


So here I am, the product of a Protestant, evangelical, conservative, middle class upbringing. Raised in a christian (with a small c) nation by Christian (with a capitol C) parents in a stable, loving home. This background provides me with a certain trajectory in life. It set my mind on a particular path with its own set of biases and values. Every kind of upbringing does this, and I’m quite happy with mine. I don’t want anyone to misinterpret my use of the word ‘bias’ here. In our politically correct culture it’s been used as a dirty word so often. But I don’t find bias, or its cousin, discrimination, to be an intrinsically bad thing. It’s good to discriminate against bad things like negative attitudes in life, child molesters in schools, blind people at driving schools, dangerous animals at petting zoos, etc. It’s not good to discriminate against minorities, handicap, etc. But saying discrimination is bad would be like saying swallowing is bad because one can swallow poison or spiders. Similarly, bias is good when one is biased towards things of high quality and substance. I am biased when it comes to who I spend my time with as friends. I don’t hang out with drug addicts, liars, conceited or shallow people. Not because I hate them or think of them as less human, but because I recognize that friends are influences and I want to be influenced in positive ways. But some biases are not so great. Like my bias against pretty people. I’ve had so many experiences that have reinforced this stereotype I have that beauty actively undermines character. So I tend to write off the super-hot as not worth my time. Then there’s a bias I wish I had a little more of: good taste. My favorite food is fast food. My favorite music is goth metal. My favorite clothes are whatever is cheap. I recognize that a lot of people take the bias of good taste too far, bankrupting them in the process. But I simply never cultivated a taste for the finer things in art, literature, food, etc.


This is all to say that my upbringing left me with these biases that also affect what information and ideas I’m willing to accept and what information and ideas never even get processed in my brain. Since these mental processes in large part define who I am, and I like who I am, it’s an interesting proposition to attempt to examine them without disrespecting them. When you ask yourself why you believe x instead of y, it requires a certain amount of deconstruction of x. So how does one deconstruct what one loves? I’m not sure there is an easy answer to this. It’s just that the alternative is to never deeply analyze your belief system. In which case it would seem that you are mostly the product of the system you are born into. I find that approach to life less satisfactory than one where I have to dissect my treasured notions.


Here’s what I see different about my approach to deconstructing my intellectual heritage and the approach that many ex-Christians seem to have employed. While it was ultimately emotional dissatisfaction that drove me to start questioning my theological/philosophical framework, I still recognize the good fruit that it has grown in me. I feel like I’m a much better person because of the way I was raised and what my parents taught me. I don’t feel damaged by it or resentful about it. But I do see that resentment and hostility in so many atheist 'deconversion' stories. And I think that drives them to throw out the baby (what is True in Christianity) with the bathwater (What is untrue in Christianity). And then they go on to the grind their boot heel into the baby’s neck while spitting on it. Seriously, they seem that angry. But because I treasure the baby, I’m attempting to transplant it into another bathtub. Because I’m grateful for my heritage I’m being as careful as I can be while attempting to be true to my conscience and logic. Because I’m a fallible mortal, it’s more than possible that my new bath water(my own concoction of hopes, doctrine, and philosophies) will be fatal for the baby (What is True in Christianity). Perhaps my tincture is poison, and any vestiges of my Christian faith will perish in it. But I hope not, because I love Jesus and a lot of Christianity too.


So while my heterodox (or heretical, depending on who you ask) beliefs could easily be interpreted as antagonistic towards Christianity as a whole, the fact is that I have a deep reverence for it and gratitude that informs and moderates my deconstruction of its forms, doctrines, cultures, etc. This probably runs counter to a perfect, dispassionate evaluation of Christianity, but I’m very aware of my bias and attempt to counteract it by exposing myself to the best arguments against my beloved systems.


Besides being thankful for the Christian tradition that I was raised in and the person that it helped me to be, I have another existential phenomenon that is somewhat related. This is concerning an emotional upwelling that seems to come out of nowhere at any moment for almost any reason. I just get this sensation of joy and thankfulness. It could be for the beauty of a tree I’m observing, the parental affection I have for my children, a sudden remembrance of what makes my wife so amazing, or just for my general well-being. These moments are the most religious times in my life though they are not directly connected to any doctrine, ritual, or other institutional form of Christianity. I’d categorize them as mystical. Now I realize that being thankful for stuff is a good trait to have, and that it’s very good to communicate that appreciation to any people who are responsible for these feelings. There is nothing particularly mystical or religious about that. So I do speak my thanks to those involved, but often the gratitude has no human vessel to direct it towards, such as nature. And even when it does, the feeling transcends the person, searching for a cause behind them. So when I’m grateful for my wife, she as a person simply cannot contain the amount of gratitude I have for her. Humans are not sufficient containers to hold this mystical appreciation that is flowing out of me. And oddly, this feeling of gratitude hits me just as often concerning things that really suck in my life. I’m thankful for them, as I interpret them as purifying fires, growing me into a better soul.


This to me is my biggest existential evidence for God. I don’t feel much at church, during sermons, worship, volunteering, etc. But when I’m hit with this thankfulness the emotion searches for a Mind to attach the gratitude to. Again, I want to be clear that I’m not proffering this as evidence that everyone should take as proof for God or Christianity. There is no reason this emotional phenomenon could not be a simple chemical reaction happening in my brain. I know that. But as I build my worldview I don’t make the assumption that this phenomenon is a merely natural thing. I know that if I were to do that it would corrupt it, it would wither and die because I would always be reminding myself that it’s all an illusion. And why would I want to actively work against something in my life that makes me a happier person, better husband, father, and community member? Why poison the well that is giving life to myself and my family? Just because it COULD be a misinterpretation of a purely physical phenomenon? That just seems irresponsible to me.


Of course the Mind I’m feeling drawn towards thanking could be anything, right? It could be mother Gia, Allah, or the Christian God. Why do I call it a reason for being Christian, rather than simply a reason to be a mystic or “spiritual”? Well, I guess I don’t have a great answer for that except that the Christian God of creation and Christ “fit” my feelings perfectly. Now if my feelings are a puzzle piece, and the Christian conception of God is the another piece and they fit together perfectly that would be great evidence. But I’m aware that my cultural/religious bias has greatly shaped my feelings. Like a vine (my feelings) growing around a tree (Christianity), if the tree is removed then the vine is left with all sorts of strange contorted shapes that don’t make a lot of sense. So if I made a project out of replacing the tree that my emotions have grown their shape around with a different religion or conception of God, I may be able to re-conform the vine of my feelings to it. But if my current religious theory (my form of Christianity) provides me with satisfactory proposals to the Big Questions of life and feeds my felt needs for Purpose and fuels my fire to be a blessing to others… why uproot it and replace it with something else? I would only do that if the tree was smothering me or conflicted with my conscience.

So there you have it. Part 3. I’m grateful for the kind of person that Christianity (and of course my Christian parents and wider community) has shaped me to be. And I’m mystically full of gratitude towards a mind that I identify as God: the same Mind that manifested as Christ and said and did all the cool stuff that has inspired my personal growth and shaped my civilization, country, and family.

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