Why I Am Not An Atheist 2 – Experience

Posted: May 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ll start with the central reason I’m not an atheist — my personal experience and perception of reality. That also happens to be the most difficult aspect to capture meaningfully in words. The most likely reaction to this post in the series will be that those who have experienced reality in a similar manner will understand what I am trying to express and those who haven’t will be less likely to understand. Nevertheless, I have to start here. I don’t uncritically accept my own experience. I’m not sure I ever really have — even as a young teen or preteen participating in something like the past life regression seminar my parents once hosted. Subsequent posts will explore some of the other aspects I have considered about an atheistic perspective. But it does seem to start here.

Those who have read my blog for a while know that I was well into my adult life before I would say my journey reached a point where the label “Christian” became one I associated with my core identity. I recognize that’s a much more complicated statement than the ones many people employ. In large part that’s because I refuse to simplify my story to make it fit some template of conversion. In a sense, one could say I became a Christian as an adult, but that statement would not carry the same meaning for me that it would hold for many. For instance, I have only been baptized once. I was baptized as a child and I hold that baptism valid, even if there were years in which I rejected it. In truth, my life held many intersections with Christianity, some positive and others negative. (The negative side includes being told to leave a worship service as a teen parent because my sleeping infant daughter was “disturbing” the service.) But my first three decades of life, as intimated in my opening paragraph, also included intersections with a number of other religions and expressions of spirituality as well. My journey doesn’t fit any simple paradigm.

I cannot remember any time in my life when I did not have some sense of the transcendent. I’m not sure if there’s any other way I can express that idea. By and large, most atheistic perspectives (and contrary to the way some Christians speak, there is hardly a single atheist perspective) are materialist in nature. Now, that’s not universally true. Some people describe Buddhism as atheistic and it’s certainly not a materialistic perspective. (Personally, though not named, the underlying ground of Buddhism in general — recognizing there is a lot of variation — looks a lot like the Hindu Brahman to me. But that may just be a reflection of my own past practice of a sort of Hinduism along with the fact that I’ve never actually practiced any form of Buddhism.) I can’t really say how personal experience plays out in the lives of anyone else, but that sense of transcendence meant that materialistic metaphysical perspectives never jived with my perception of reality even when I explored some of them. As a result, while I sometimes describe myself as a reluctant Christian and accidental Baptist, I never “struggled” with atheism the way I’ve heard some people describe their journey. A specifically Christian perspective did not and does not come easily to me, but atheism plays¬† no significant role in that difficulty.

Along with that underlying sense of general transcendence in reality, I have also had a number of specific experiences over the course of my life. Before I was Christian, I clearly remember the times in meditation when I would perceive the web of threads interconnecting reality with my own being. I’ve encountered spiritual powers and even when I was anything but Christian I had a sense (and I believe some more direct encounters) of the personal being I would now describe as a guardian angel. Even before I came to identify as Christian, looking back, I encountered and experienced Jesus. And though none of my experiences have been nearly as dramatic as Frederica Mathewes-Green’s conversion experience, I have heard the voice of Jesus. I’ve struggled finding any place in modern Christianity and if I had not personally heard Jesus, I’m not sure I would still be anything like a Christian. Those who have not had such encounters and yet believe are stronger by far than me. I have a deep and intuitive appreciation for the Celtic perception of thin places.

Of course, some atheists will classify such things as a part of our genetic makeup, something that was selected for survival. While The God Gene appears to have been based on some pretty shoddy science, I have no problem with the basic idea that there are genes that facilitate certain types of body and brain function. The fact that our bodies and brains mediate and shape our experience and perception of reality has always seemed self-evident to me. After all, I am an embodied being. I have no “self” apart from my body.

I suppose I could say that I don’t have a body as some sort of externalized attribute; I am my body in every meaningful sense. I would also say that I am more than the sum of the parts — that in some sense what I call “I” transcends my body — but interconnected with and flowing from those parts. The experiences that shape me are mediated through my body. My perception of reality depends on my body. And even my personality and internal being rely on my physical brain. Alter my brain and you change everything I would call “me.” Specifically, I do not believe I am a sort of “ghost in the machine” the way that Plato and others have hypothesized.

The fact that I am a fully embodied being in every sense does not then prove the metaphysical assertion that I am nothing more than the sum of my physical parts. Nor can my reality as what I would call an embodied spiritual being be extrapolated to assert the non-existence of unbodily spiritual beings. (I’m not really sure what word to use for that category.) And it certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or non-existent of any sort of “god,” much less a panentheistic, transcendent source of reality such as that described in Christianity and Hinduism. (Christianity and Hinduism are very different from each other and in the “god” they ultimately describe, but they do both describe a panentheistic ground of reality.)

I do not find an assertion that since we can associate spiritual or mystical experience with activity in certain parts of brain which is facilitated by particular genes (assuming, of course, we are eventually able to demonstrate those relationships) that therefore those experiences aren’t “real” (which begs the metaphysical question about what is “real”) a convincing argument. It’s simply not a logically valid assertion. While I could probably construct a response from a variety of perspectives, there’s a simple and straightforward Christian response.

We are created as embodied spiritual beings in the image of our creator God with the potential for communion with God — a potential realized for all humanity in and through the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and the union of the whole of human nature with the whole of the divine nature. As embodied beings, that potential is expressed in and through our bodies. So naturally, as we come to better understand our bodies, our genetic makeup, and the function of our brain we discover things consistent with our nature.

Of course, I can’t prove my overly simplified statement above either. Once we start making metaphysical statements — even metaphysical statements asserting materialism — we have left the realm of things that can be called science in the modern sense. That’s one of the things that bothers me about at least some of the so-called new atheists. Again, I have not read them extensively, but in at least some of things I have read, I’ve seen them describe certain facts I would also consider scientifically established. And that’s fine. But then they proceed to make atheistic metaphysical assertions as if those assertions were also scientifically established facts.¬† At best, they are not clear when they are describing science and when they are extrapolating from the actual science and explaining why and how that science informs their metaphysical perspective.

I will note that some of the materialist perspectives I’ve seen seem to express a sort of scientific determinism. I must note that I’m not a determinist in any way. That’s not to say that anything whatsoever could happen at any given instant or that I or anyone ever has experienced complete and utter freedom. There is an interrelatedness to all things in reality and that shapes the scope of possibilities at any given moment in any given place. But that does not lead to a deterministic reality where everything is nothing more than the sum of the parts and if we could fully understand all the parts, we would grasp the fullness of all that is. Whether Laplace or Calvin, science or theology, I reject determinism. I could be wrong, of course, but if I am at least I’m in good company.

So my experience of reality informs and has always informed my perception of that reality. And while I do not accept my experience uncritically, that experience has left little ground for atheism. As I warned in the intro, if you were expecting an apology against atheism, you’re likely disappointed. This won’t be that sort of series.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 7

Posted: April 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 7

29. When you are insulted by someone or humiliated, guard against angry thoughts, lest they arouse a feeling of irritation, and so cut you off from love and place you in the realm of hatred.

I have discovered that a dangerous moment for me arises when my ideas or thoughts are attacked or put down. And I am right. And I can prove it.

As we have discussed, a passion in the patristic sense does not necessarily appear explosive, overt, or even wrong — at least at first. Rather, it is the process of taking a step down a path in response to external stimuli without the conscious intervention of our will. What often happens when that begins, at least in my experience, is that our wills can become ruled by the passion rather than the other way around.

People have often called me strong-willed, though not infrequently in less flattering terms. And, in truth, a strong will is rarely a good thing when it is ruled, marshaled, and focused by a passion rather than the other way around. Too often in my life, my irritation at the words or actions of another has been a passion which has merged my intellect and expressive talent with my will for the purpose of destroying another.

Oh, I don’t believe that’s my intent at the time. I’m just defending myself or my ideas. Certainly I don’t hate the other person or want to hurt them! But that’s a lie. And it’s even worse when I am demonstrably right and others around me see and acknowledge that I am right. For now I am justified in my passion! And that makes it even harder to break free.

I became truly and consciously aware of how dangerous and insidious this passion is, at least for me, many years ago at work. I don’t remember exactly how or why it started, but another person on our team either didn’t understand my ideas or strongly held a different idea about the direction we should take. I’m not even sure which one it was or what triggered my passion. It had to be something small at first.

However it began, I look back and see how I began to dismantle his proposals or ideas in our meetings. Oh, I was always careful to focus my discussion on the idea and never the person the way you are supposed to act in business settings. (I would note that our ideas our perhaps more closely entangled with ourselves than we might think.) And I was never directly insulting or otherwise inappropriate. Moreover, my ideas about the direction our project needed to take were actually the right ideas (and that has since been proven over time) and most of the people on the team agreed with me. That created a lot of positive reinforcement, which is not a good thing when it is feeding a passion.

Finally, some weeks or months later, I remember sitting in a meeting having a discussion on something. I was dissecting something that particular coworker had proposed. I had others joining in with me as I often did. Suddenly, as we were laughing at something somebody had said (I don’t even remember if it was something I said or not), I looked over at my coworker and had one of those thoughts that stops you cold. It felt like somebody had thrown a bucket of cold water in my face.

There’s more than one way to be a bully.

Yes, I know that as adults, especially in professional settings, that’s not a word we typically use. But I endured quite a bit growing up and that’s certainly one area where I suffered. There are many reasons that was the case. I went to a lot of different schools growing up, so I was often the “new” guy trying to find a place. I didn’t fit into easy categories. There was the part of me who was the intelligent, shy bookworm. There was another part that was the highly creative actor, writer, and performer. There was another part that loved sports, riding bikes, and exploring the world around me. So I rarely had a “group” and even the friends I thought I had sometimes flipped against me. So the thought that I might have become a “bully” myself was devastating for me.

I went back to my desk, stepped back, and looked at what I had done. Nobody on our team respected our coworker. He had become an object of ridicule and scorn. However, it didn’t end there; such things rarely do. The whole team was a mess. The dynamic between my coworker and me had become one of the dominant dynamics of the entire team.

I did the only thing I could think to do. I crafted and sent an apology to my coworker and the entire team that simply outlined the things I had done wrong. I did not justify them, though I certainly had justifications, as that would have accomplished nothing. And then I said I wasn’t going to act in those ways anymore. An apology didn’t magically fix the problem, but it at least allowed a healing process to begin, especially when I quit feeding the negative feedback loop that had engulfed us.

I’ve noticed that Christians often tend to think of being ruled by passions in terms of the dramatic passions like lust, addictions, and rage. And those are indeed extremely destructive to you and to everyone around you. But the fact that many of us can avoid or break free of such passions does not mean we are truly free. The less overt passions are all the more insidious because they are difficult for us to see. And yet anytime we are ruled by a passion, anytime a passion is able to bypass or control our will, we will think and act in destructive ways.

I think when we begin to recognize the reality of our situation, we truly begin to see how much we need grace, which is to say that we need God.

Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.