Thirsting for God 6 – History

Posted: December 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 6 – History

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

It seems to me that in his journey, it took Matthew Gallatin a lot longer than it took me to turn to history. That’s really something that continues to surprise me in all facets of life — how little most people seem to look to history. I’ve had a love of history of all sorts — especially ancient history — for virtually my whole life. When I explored a religion or practice within a religion, it had always been normal for me to dive into its history. So my encounter with modern Christianity was always two-pronged. On the one hand, as I learned what modern groups taught and practiced, anachronisms — things that could not have fit in the context of the ancient world — tended to leap out at me. At the same time, I was reading and discovering what the actual ancient beliefs and practices were.

As Matthew Gallatin began to study the ancient Church, rulership (in the form of Bishops) was obvious. But the rulership of one man (the Pope of Rome) can’t readily be found. That was a problem for him when he considered Catholicism. (The actual basis for it flows from the fact that the West was largely frontier and was all part of one ancient See — that of Rome. As politics and other circumstances began to divide the See of Rome from the rest of the ancient patriarchates and as increasing chaos developed in the West, the Pope became a rock of stability in that patriarchate. Even though Rome was not the oldest patriarchate or even the oldest associated with Peter and Paul, it had always been accorded a special honor because of the importance of the city in geopolitical terms. From the hindsight offered by a historical perspective, it’s fairly easy to see the interplay develop over centuries.)

However, his main problem with all Western churches, Catholicism included, was the same one I always had. Love had drawn me inexorably into Christianity. And I felt powerfully drawn to the Jesus I read in the New Testament. But I was always repelled by the various Western doctrines of the atonement. As a rule, they all hold that Jesus was offering some sort of payment to the Father on the Cross — that for one reason or another, God had to be paid off. God had a problem with the very forgiveness he demanded from his followers. But at the same time that I was hearing these modern ideas, I was reading St. Irenaeus and St. Athanasius — who offer a very different picture of what Christ was doing. I read St. Gregory the Theologian who flatly rejected the idea that Jesus was offering payment to either the Devil or to the Father. I believed in their God, not the one I was hearing from both the Protestant and Roman Catholic sides of the debate. For me, it would be years before I discovered that Orthodoxy actually still believed what the ancient Church had believed, so I largely set that to one side. I refused to accept the picture of a God who had to paid or satisfied, but I didn’t really know what to do with that rejection.

Beyond that, by studying history Matthew quickly discovered several things about the ancient Church.

  1. From Pentecost on, the worship of the Church was liturgical, not spontaneous of free-form.
  2. Early Church worship centered on the Eucharist or Communion. … In fact, one of the earliest heresies in the Church was the teaching that the bread and wine were not the real Body and Blood of the Lord.
  3. The early Church honored departed saints as members of the Church who are alive and worshiping in heaven.
  4. Infant baptism was the standard practice in the Church and was recognized as a doctrine received from the Apostles.

There is much more you can discover, of course. But the above are clearly true. We can even trace much of the first part of the liturgy leading up to the Eucharist to the liturgical synagogue worship from which they were adapted.

In the New Testament, Paul exhorts “the believers in Thessalonica to stand fast and hold to the traditions that they had been taught — those that came through epistles, and the many that came directly from the mouths of the Apostles.” In Ephesians, he says the Apostles (not Scripture) form the “foundation” of the Church. Paul writes to Timothy that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. Either the proper worship, practice, and truth about Jesus of Nazareth has been preserved in the historical Church, or it’s lost and like a mosaic shattered into a pile of tiles, I see no way to somehow reconstruct it.

To know what is the truth, therefore, does not first require theological interpretation of the Book. Rather, it simply takes looking at the actual beliefs, practices, and experiences of the Church of which Christ is the Head, which the Apostles served, lived out on the pages of history.

A Fractured Mind

Posted: April 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

A Fractured MindI have a difficult time knowing where to begin with my thoughts and reactions to A Fractured Mind by Robert B. Oxnam. That task is further complicated by a need to carefully edit what I should and should not say in a public forum. But I found this a powerful book and I want to encourage others to read it, so I’ll do my best to walk that particular razor’s edge.

Robert B. Oxnam is, by most measures we tend to use, a highly successful and accomplished man. Ivy League education. Scholar and academic in Asian studies from a time when that was less common than it is today. Head of the prestigious Asia Society for nearly a decade. Appearances on the Today Show and other media outlets. His curriculum vitae is quite impressive.

Robert B. Oxnam also discovered late in life, as everything crumbled around him, that he suffers from dissociative identity disorder or DID. That’s the clinical DSM-IV name for the disorder formerly (and still popularly) known as multiple personality disorder or MPD. This autobiographical book captures the story of that journey in an unique manner. Robert records the experience of his discovery of the disorder and his journey through treatment from the various perspectives of each personality. It’s a glimpse into the inner world of those who have a disorder which is difficult to understand from the outside.

The book also includes an excellent epilogue by Robert’s therapist, Dr. Jeffery Smith. If you read the book, don’t skip the epilogue. Dr. Smith provides an excellent overview of DID as well as a description of what he was trying to accomplish in the various stages of therapy and how he approached Robert’s disorder and his various personalities.

Dissociative identity disorder is not as bizarre or strange as people often consider it. Rather, all of the elements which together create it are normal pieces of the way our brains function and protect themselves. It’s just that in DID, each of those pieces is pushed somewhere close to its maximum extent. I want to take a moment to examine the primary two components.

First there is our capacity to, in effect, function as different people in different situations and settings. We all do this to one degree or another. Personally, when I’m focused on solving technical computer design or programming problems I tend to enter into a place where my mind is working at a level of abstraction that renders me less verbal. If you try to communicate with me while I am in that place, you are likely to get a blank stare initially if you get any response at all. It’s not that my ears didn’t hear the sounds you made, it’s that my brain is not engaged and operating in a way that allows me to immediately interpret those sounds as language. Now, I can fairly readily switch gears from that state into one that’s better able to communicate, but those around me can observe the shift. When I’m in the office, I find my coworkers understand that shift (most of them experience something like it themselves) and when they need to talk to me will wait for a moment to be sure I’m engaged with them. When I’m working from home, my family is less familiar with that process and they have a tendency to start telling me something before I’m ready to absorb it. I find I often have to tell them to stop and backup a bit when they need to talk to me while I’m working. They don’t experience that when I’m in the office because they have to call me and the process of hearing and responding to a ringing phone provides me all the time I need to shift gears.

However, while that’s the first example that comes to my mind, it’s hardly the only one. We all tend to present different aspects of ourselves in professional settings, in casual social settings, with more intimate friends, and with those who are closest to us. It’s so easy and natural that we hardly even think about it unless the “face” we are compelled to portray in a particular context feels so alien to us that it becomes a “mask”. Even then, we don’t have any particular problem pulling off the required masquerade. It just feels unnatural. But for every “mask” we notice, we likely have a hundred “faces” that we don’t. So even though we all feel like a single, unified person, the reality is that we are constantly and largely unconsciously rearranging the elements of our personality to meet the demands of particular settings and circumstances.

Dissociative identity disorder is a disorder because this natural function of the mind becomes cast in iron as distinct and divided personalities rather than more fluid “faces”. Those walls between the personalities are built through dissociation. But dissociation itself is a very common defense mechanism. It’s one of the ways our minds protect themselves from trauma.

One of the dissociative disorders that people are pretty familiar with today is post-traumatic stress disorder. While dissociation is hardly the only feature of PTSD, it is a significant piece of it. The dissociation can take the form of a total amnesiac block of the traumatic memory. You will still suffer to some degree from the trauma, even without the specific memory, but it seems to lessen the overall impact and allows the person to continue to function, even if in a diminished capacity. In other cases the dissociation can take the form of some sort of detachment, where you can recall the traumatic event, but it’s almost as though it’s from a third-person perspective.

My father is a Vietnam veteran and by the confluence of a number of events, he served in a particularly dangerous role. I remember a time when the sound of a breaking glass suddenly placed him back in a memory from the war from which he had dissociated until that moment. Dissociation helps us keep functioning in the face of trauma, but it’s not necessarily permanent. The traumatic memory isn’t actually gone. We just don’t have full access to it. (In fact, traumatic memories, by their nature, are the memories least likely to fade. They are seared into our psyche.)

If you’ve been fortunate enough to have never yet experienced trauma of this sort, consider yourself blessed. Try to remember that many of the people with whom you interact each day have not been as fortunate.

While I’m not inclined to share details, I will say that my earliest memories are like the shattered shards of a mirror. I see bits and pieces of scenes, but they are in confusing disorder and slide from one to another without connection or transition. There are also other periods across my childhood where I can see evidence in my mind of dissociation. I will give one example to illustrate my point.

I remember a number of nights at a young age (no older than 7, though I can’t place my exact age or place) when I would lie in bed and imagine that my life was a very realistic dream. I would pick a point in the past where a younger me was asleep and dreaming and I would try to convince myself that everything since that point in time was just a dream and soon the younger me would awake and the dream (or perhaps nightmare) would fade. As an adult, I can recognize that that is not exactly a typical train of thought for a young child. But I can’t remember why I wanted some significant portion of my life at that time to be a dream. Nothing. That part of my memory is simply gone.

And if I’m speaking truthfully, given the nature of much that I do remember, I’m not certain I really want those memories. That’s the sword of Damocles hanging ominously within dissociation. If the memories were not traumatic, there would be no need to dissociate. As a result, at least speaking for myself, there is a reluctance to try to pierce the veil and something of a fear that the veil might one day drop on its own.

So the various elements of dissociative identity disorder are either part of our normal, everyday mental capacity orĀ  pretty common defense mechanisms. But in this disorder, they are ratcheted up to the Nth degree. Typically it’s the result of severe abuse at a very young age with no hope of escape. And it’s often the result of such abuse over an extended period of time. The traumatic memories are divided up between personalities to hold them. Some element of the ethos of the abusers tends to be encapsulated in other personalities. And finally, personalities that do not have any of those memories are created to function in the outside world. It’s a survival response in the face of an otherwise unbearable onslaught. Dissociation forms the walls between the personalities or identities. In order to survive, the whole person shatters.

Usually, the dominant personality or personalities are not aware of each other or of the inner selves who protect the secret. And since the entire construct of personalities were created in the face of severe trauma and typically exist to protect secrets, they are masters at hiding. As such, it’s a notoriously difficult disorder to diagnose.

And that’s the case in this book for Robert B. Oxnam. As “Bob” he functioned in the real world for decades without any awareness of the world within him. He achieved high degrees of success, even if he also suffered a host of chronic problems. It was only as “Bob” burned out and began to collapse that he reached a point where another personality revealed himself in the context of a therapy session. The book records his journey of discovery and healing from that point onward.

This book does an excellent job of taking us into the inner world of a disorder we have a hard time understanding and which, unfortunately, is the subject of much skepticism and humor. Take the time to read it. You won’t regret the experience.