03/24/13

Fear and Faith: Faking Conversion?

Screen Shot 2013-03-24 at 4.03.52 PMIn the past, citizens of Western societies had their religious beliefs affirmed directly through a  socio-cultural system that extended religion through most areas of public life. In the United States and Europe in the present, Christianity is treated—rhetorically speaking, at least—as a private affair. In my own experience, people who claim to be Christians do so on the foundation of a profound religious experience, be it that of a conversion, communication from God, an unexplainable series of events, etc. In other words, belief in God is founded first on an emotional understanding. This is important not because of the standard reasoning of naysayers that emotion is false and cognition true. Rather, because people know that society places a higher value on reason than emotion, they tend to privilege reasonable justifications of beliefs or world views over emotional ones, even when the latter have a greater sway.

I caught a TV show by British illusionist Derren Brown called Fear and Faith in which he shows by various means how religious belief can be reproduced through a series of psychological and emotional manipulations. The clip is forty-seven minutes long and worth watching in its entirety. Pete Rollins has a brief discussion on his blog about the very first portion of the show, when the vast majority of audience participants, even though they do not believe in the devil, were unwilling to participate in what they thought was a Satanic rite where they had to stab the picture of a family member. Brown suggests that we are “hardwired” to believe, to draw connections between our actions and some greater scheme of meaning. Rollins argues that, despite conscious disbelief, religious belief is still operative on a repressed level. This claim is particularly important in Western society where it is culturally normative to distance religious belief from public daily life; consequently we are encouraged to disassociate religious belief from our normal operation even when it is influential. This, as I’ve argued before, plays out in dangerous ways in the way we interact with other groups of people on a personal and international level.

What I found even more interesting, though, was the main focus of the show. Brown takes an avowed atheist and attempts to induce a religious conversion experience in her in order to show that religious experience can be manufactured and can occur outside our logical and volitional processes. In the course of a fifteen minute conversation, Brown speaks with a stem cell researcher named Natalie while sitting in the aisle of a large church. He first associates Natalie’s feelings about her father with the idea of an all-caring and loving father figure, and connects that idea with the tapping of his fingers on the table they are sitting at as an aural cue, much like a favorite song that helps one recall a significant event. He speaks with her about awe-inspiring experiences and subtly suggests the possibility of their orchestration for her personal benefit, like the idea of God or Jesus. Brown then gradually brings these two ideas together, both through hand gestures and his speaking to suggest to Natalie the possibility that a loving figure was arranging events in her life and watching out for her. Then, at nearly the end of the conversation, he says he has to leave the room for a moment, but reiterates the conversation by tapping on the table again to bring back the powerful feelings and suggesting that sometimes we may find “things” right in front of us that were with us all along. Brown then leaves the room and within less than a minute, Natalie has an emotional reaction as she takes in the conversation and the religious environment she sits in. She begins to sob and speak to God. When Brown comes back, she speaks of having an all-encompassing feeling of love. Only later on the show does he explain to her the cues he introduced to help manipulate her experience.

Watch the clip to get the full effect of this process, since it may seem staged on reading it. We are highly emotionally suggestive, naturally anthropocentric, and we want to make sense out of nonsense. Brown’s point is that we don’t need the supernatural to explain the scenario he created through a series of replicable manipulations. Though the emotional experiences are quite real, they come from within us and are not prompted by an outside force. It is interesting in that sense that many would rather attribute their actions as re-actions to a deity, rendering themselves automatons, rather than attribute to themselves the power to create experience. Even after explaining to Natalie the orchestration of the events, she still (understandably) could not immediately give up the reality of her emotional experience.

The point is not that the emotional experience is somehow fake because it doesn’t correspond to an outside object. That presumption begs the question of God’s existence we are trying to address. Rather, the point is that we are disposed to make meaning out of chaos, and religious belief is one of a number of ways to make meaning. It is not, however, the only way. Brown concludes that, insofar as religious belief makes people happy, there is nothing wrong with it, since we all just want to be happy. I cannot buy this argument because of its tendency to create collateral damage. As Brown suggests, after having a conversion experience, what one tends to do is find additional experiences, to discern additional patterns out of life events that confirm one’s beliefs. The supreme way of doing so is convincing others of your worldview and having them adopt it. The trouble comes when others have equally universal understandings that govern their lives and do not cohere with ours. Then conflict begins, and my happiness comes at the expense of yours. This is historically true with Christianity and with democracy.

It would be much too easy for me now, outside of a religious context, to say that I was always skeptical about God communicating with me. I did often have a sense of disappointment that it seemed to “happen” to others much more often than myself. I do recall one experience at a prayer meeting where I had what I thought was a mental picture from God. I had the picture of an empty ice cube tray being filled under a faucet. If you start in the corner and fill one cube, it begins to spill over and will gradually fill all the other cubes as well. In the context of a prayer meeting about how God was “working” in our community, I interpreted that image as God telling me that the work he was doing in our church was going to “spill over” into the surrounding areas and have a positive influence. I conveyed my image to the people who were present and it was validated by their approval. Our collective belief was affirmed. But, just like Brown’s experiment, it was highly controlled, not by one man, but through a tradition, which is even more efficacious because the responsibility is difficult to place anywhere but with God.

What do you think? Does the fact that we are highly suggestive, that spiritual experiences can be created, suggest the possibility that “supernatural” experiences don’t have to be supernatural?

03/20/13

“Everything I do, Aaahooow. I do it for you.”

ref=dp_image_z_0One hundred points if you can name the artist. It’s a song that I will not be sad to never hear again, but it was the theme song to Kevin Costner’s version of Robin Hood that released a few (gulp!) decades ago. I have been reminded of the key line to this Bryan Adams song every time that I hear a Christian say that it’s “all for Jesus.”

I was reminded again last night when I attended a Volbeat concert. The opening band was a group called Spoken, who I vaguely remembered as being Christian from when I followed the Christian music scene. The name should have been a giveaway. They put on a very good performance (better than the next opener’s performance), and right before the last song, the lead singer said at the end of his monologue (lead singers get very good at monologuing), “…and we do it all for Jesus Christ.” Crunching guitar…click click click “RAHHHHHHHHH!” (He was quite a screamer.)

So here’s my question. What does it mean to make a statement like this, either in the context of a love relationship or a spiritual one? Is it significant or self-deceptive? At first glance, it seems like a deep and honorable level of commitment to someone, being willing to go any distance and do anything to preserve or gain relationship. It’s a common theme of romantic movies, the same ones that appropriately end in a wedding ceremony, which is our cultural conclusion for a dedicated pursuit in a relationship. However, it gives little guidance for maintaining a relationship after the pursuit portion has, for all practical purposes, ended. The other as an “end” for meaning-making is, in the long term, a recipe for disaster, or at best disappointment by both parties. The pursuer is disappointed that the pursued fails to appreciate the significance and depth of the pursuit, and the pursued is unnerved by being the sole subject of such intense scrutiny and wants the pursued to broaden his or her interests.

That is the most charitable case, in which we take the “doing all for” or “giving all for” at face value. More often however, at some point a strongly felt level of commitment lessens while maintaining the original rhetoric. In other words, I do whatever it is I want to do, say whatever it is I want to say, and then dedicate that to the original object. To take an extreme example, a husband might justify his affair as letting out sexual frustration in order to preserve the relationship. It is unlikely, though, that his partner would see his actions as dedicated to preserving his marital relationship.

What, then, does this mean on a religious level? Because Western Christian religion is presented first and foremost as a matter of the heart or spirit as opposed to ritual action (due both to Protestant history and our separation of church and state), the believer expresses his or her affiliation through language, a language that must be received by the hearer, at least at first, on faith. Further, outside of a religious context, there are few if any acceptable, universally recognized religious actions. There was nothing to identify the black-wearing, tattooed, sweating, screaming, head-banging rock band as inherently Christian without the lead singer making an explicit statement of the band’s affiliation. There are other indicators, to be certain: a kinder manner, less profane language, etc. But these aren’t exclusive to Christianity. So then, does or should a statement of that exclusivity make a difference to the hearer?

This band is much more talented than I ever was as a musical performer, but I understand well the aim to “draw people in” through music that is culturally compatible in order to have opportunities to convert others, as I’ve mentioned. I see the advantage as a rhetorical tool, but am disillusioned as to its signifying potential as a life-changing paradigm, either to create or maintain a relationship. There are theologians (such as Agamben, who I’ve discussed before) who see a revolutionary potential in the concept of messianic time, living “as if not.” One lives as if there were no distinctions of class, race, gender, etc., while knowing full well that significant work, good and bad, is done with such categories. I value the sentiment, and see some potential for it, but only as it is enacted by individuals beyond repetition of the language. Depending on one’s life situation, remaining where one is might be beneficial, and it might be terrible. My contention is that such rhetoric substitutes for a inadequacy of action, and in fact encourages it because it delegates the heavy lifting to the divine.

What do you think? Does a paradigmatic shift begin with a change in rhetoric, or does language simply mask or compensate for an absence or un-present-ability of action?

Apologies for the excess of music posts.

03/16/13

“Worship something other than yourselves, Mumford & Sons! Geez!”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have the latest iteration of the quasi-Christian band who doesn’t want to be labeled Christian. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, lead singer Marcus Mumford for Mumford and Sons explained that he doesn’t want to be labeled Christian because it carries too much baggage. Though raised in the UK Vineyard church, Mumford says his spiritual journey is a work-in-progress, but that he has never doubted God. It’s not the religious tell-all that Rolling Stone bills it as, but that hasn’t stopped Christian and non-Christian commentary on the interview.

I talked about the importance of music to the contemporary Christian church last week, and this argument flares up every time the beliefs of Christian music lovers may be shattered by finding out that their favorite band doesn’t share their beliefs. Scott Stapp from Creed is one example that comes to mind, and I’m not sure whether his decision to go full Christian has anything to do with his disappearance from the popular music scene or not. I don’t find it particularly threatening to hear music from Christian artists now if the music isn’t “Christian” (particularly hardcore because you can’t understand what they’re saying anyway), but as a Christian it was much more important to know which artists shared my views. I didn’t want to be deceived. The question of Christian identity is important for Christians as an issue of trust. It provides boundary markers, and when we find that the markers are not where we thought they were, we are upset. Thus, some may be disappointed that the band won’t “own” their tradition.

My favorite objection is the op-ed by Lillian Daniel in Relevant Magazine. Daniel is the author of When “Spiritual but Not Religious” is Not Enough, and she ends her opinion piece with one of the most stereotypical phrases of the Christian who cannot see beyond her own views. She concludes that people like Mumford are concerned about organized religion because “you might even be asked to worship something other than yourself.” The presumption that everyone worships something is a Christian construction that forces a dichotomy between self and God. If you are not worshipping God (in whatever particular manner the argument is advocating), then you are worshipping yourself. And that’s bad, because that’s an idol. And everyone knows that idols are substitutes for God. The argument has little traction with nontheists, who aren’t concerned with the jealousy of a nonexistent God, but it might be stinging to the spiritual but not religious crowd. It’s a shallow argument that demonizes anything that’s not a Christian-approved version of collective institutional self-worship.

But what’s the underlying issue? Why would Marcus Mumford not want to associate himself with Christianity, even the cutting-edge version that is the Vineyard, which undoubtedly strongly influenced his musical development? He reveals some common sentiments, that God cannot be contained in the bounds of one religious tradition, and implies that there are some things in Christian history that one rightly would not want to be associated with. In a culture where it’s perfectly acceptable to have a religion of one, why not go that route instead?

I get, and partially agree with, the critiques of Daniel. She contends that the spiritual but not religious take for granted that it was the tradition that brought them the religion that they now pick and choose from like a McDonald’s menu. In other words, “I love Jesus but not the church” begs the question of how much Jesus one is left with when one subtracts the church. But here’s why Daniel’s position is more duplicitous and dangerous than Mumford’s. She writes:

“When people tell me they can’t stand Christianity, they are usually describing a Church that bears very little resemblance to the open-minded church I serve.…No one group of people can carry the blame for all the worst that pervades society. We call that stereotyping. I am not apologizing for a church I am not a member of.”

So while Mumford separates himself from the church in general, Daniel implies that she just has the superior version, or the only real one. Do it like me, she claims, and you can hang on to your Christianity. This may seem like the more accommodating position because she does not make explicit the necessary assumptions for her position. Those Christians who are the reason that Mumford doesn’t want to associate with Christianity aren’t really Christians at all. Would Daniel come out and say this? No. She would say something like they have failed to live up to the ideals of the faith. Comparatively, this is a less courageous position. Any and all of the shortcomings of the institution, past and present, can be excised in one fell swoop, by saying that they weren’t really Christian, at least not in those moments. It is the insanity plea of religion.

The problem is that historical Christianity has never lived up to its ideals. Daniel is right to say that the spiritual but nor religious undermine the institution and still benefit from it without contributing to it, but Mumford is not unwise in gauging that his chances to pursue spirituality outside the church are better, and perhaps with less collateral damage, than within it.

Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist scorns Daniel for her position, seeing the same flaws in her argument I’ve pointed out. Probably calculating that he’d rather have more innocuous religious folks in the world, he doesn’t critique Mumford’s position much. Having understood Christianity much the same way at a certain point in my life, I can sympathize with the idea of “Jesus good, Christianity bad,” and I toy with the idea myself from time to time. The problem is that it is next-to impossible to separate Jesus from the religion that sprang up in his wake. I think it’s a project worth pursuing if done rigorously, but most are content with constructing a Jesus of love and care for the poor while ignoring Jesus who prophesied the end of the world and condemned others. It’s a way station on a spiritual journey, but one where it’s difficult to stay.

As an aside, if someone can explain to me what the appeal of Mumford and Sons is, I’d like to hear it. I don’t understand. I’ve not listened to one of their albums entirely because the radio hits I’ve heard seem to repeat the same quiet-to-hillbilly explosion that sounds a little too calamitous. Okay, I feel older now that I’ve said that. What do you think? Is Mumford’s position legitimate?

03/15/13

Brief Thoughts on a New Pope

Catholics of the world have a new pope. He is the first pope with the name Francis, the first Jesuit (an order that was on the Church’s bad list in the past), and the first from outside Europe. While these seem significant, they probably are not. They may even seem significant to the institution itself, but to the outside world, little will change.

If there is anything I could be encouraged by, it’s the connotations that the name Francis has for poorer socio-economic classes. It would be significant if the Catholic Church invested more effort in aiding the poor from the top-down. Latin and South American Catholicism in particular has been known in since the latter half of the twentieth century for a commitment to the poor, sometimes becoming the sole voice of resistance against capitalist exploitation that was often ignored by the official Church. It would not be new for Catholics to fight against economic exploitation, then, but it would be new for it to extend beyond words for the Catholic hierarchy. The institution cannot help but perpetuate itself, and this has meant an accumulation of wealth in the upper echelons of the church. There have been rumors that the papal transition was in part due to the potential loss of wealth because of impending prosecution.

It’s interesting to me, though, that we are so enamored by the whole process while holding, at the same time, that the pope really doesn’t matter and that we don’t really care what happens. Is it because we enjoy seeing the ceremonies and trappings of power? Is it only because we think that the pope doesn’t matter that we can enjoy watching people who obviously think he does? Or is it because we are worried that he may matter more than we let on? I am interested in the process, particularly because I can still remember when it took place less than a decade ago. I hold very little hope, however, for this pope being a harbinger for major changes either in the institution or the world.

What do you think? Does a new pope mean anything? Why are we so interested?

03/13/13

What do we owe our parents? A values question…

I like the latest values question from Libby Anne at LoveJoyFeminism. Between she and Daniel Fincke at Camels with Hammers, there have already been questions on civic responsibility, teaching children about sexuality, and the obligation to punish for moral failure. For this question, she refers to a recent article in Slate that documents the difficulties and complexities of attempting reconciliation with difficult parents, parents who may have been abusive or neglectful. In those cases, the question of what is owed may seem misplaced. I think it is a good question, though, because it addresses the attempt to qualify or quantify a felt connection between parents and children, a connection that is present in its presence or its absence. Why is it that, good relationship or bad, we feel obliged to “deal” with the relationship with our parents? Is it an unspoken social mandate to have a good relationship? Is there a biological connection that we must nurture?

In my personal experience, I feel particularly indebted to my parents, in the way of a wholly positive gratitude. In comparison to the stories in the Slate article and my perception of the family relationships of those around me, I have felt very lucky indeed. In the past, I would have attributed their good job to a Christian influence; now I think they deserve more of the credit. As I’ve mentioned in analogous situations, it does them more credit to isolate the unique variables of their parenting, their care and concern for my upbringing and general well-being, encouragement of my strengths and support of my weaknesses, rather than the degree to which they followed Christian principles. Others have tried to follow a religious model and come up short, at least in the eyes of their offspring. I know that my parents likely sought to ground their parenting in a Christian model, just as I did when my son was younger. Yet I know from my own parenting experience that I feel a sense of obligation to him as well, often in spite of his actions. I want him to value our relationship not by the extent to which I adhered to a universal set of rules, but the way that I attempted to seek the best for him, in spite of not knowing exactly what that is.

I owe my parents a debt that will not be able to repay. There are several reasons for this. One is that to attempt to quantify it would cheapen it. More than that, though, and despite my particularly fortunate circumstances, the sense of obligation to parents is a microcosm of our response to being in the world. This sense of obligation is one we are uncomfortable with; modeling our existential lives after our economic ones, we would prefer to have our debts paid. Obligations to others are treated the same way. We are uncomfortable with debt and often see remaining obligated as a weakness. Yet simply our being born into the world entails a whole set of debts that we have incurred before we have the ability to choose otherwise. Of course, those are not unique debts, in the sense that they are common to humanity. This does not lessen the significance of the debt taking its unique form in the individual.

That debt takes its first and most concrete form in the parent, the one charged biologically and socially with enabling a child to survive, and hopefully, to thrive. Most of us can claim the first, though not all the second. What I am saying, though, is that we ought to face our sense of indebtedness in spite of its particular contours in our own lives. We deny this fundamental relationship to the world, obligation, at our own peril. I imagine that many feel that they owe their parents nothing for the poor treatment they themselves received. In terms of financial, emotional, or physical support, that might be accurate. However, I would argue it does not work to discharge a debt simply on those terms. In fact, frustration over a failed relationship with one’s parents is perhaps a greater lesson that obligation is not part of a transaction, but a part of our being. We are thrust into circumstances and situations in which we can neither control the manifold variables or the outcome. We bear the consequences of the decisions of others, just as others bear the consequences of ours. The point is not to neutralize our own position in the game, to pay all our debts and not make anyone indebted to us, but to enter into relationships with a full awareness of the responsibility that just being alive implies, a responsibility that, if avoided, manifests in a repetition of the same patterns we regret in others.

So how should the obligation we have to our parents be manifest? It depends. If the relationship is healthy and desirable, it can manifest in the same interactions as any other loving relationship. If unhealthy, there may not be a relationship at all, and it may be better that way. In any case, though, the idea of obligation requires a willingness to face the fact that none of us are independent. Americans enjoy the image of the self-made man or woman, and particularly in cases when individuals seem to have triumphed over difficult odds, which may have included poor familial relationships. Even these folks didn’t make it without help, and no one wins a prize for shunning relationships the most. We cannot escape the complex web of our interconnection with our environment and those within it. Rather than trying to just discharge or ignore it, we would do well to embrace our indebtedness and move forward because of or in spite of it.