04/7/14

“Getting Things Done”

In the last few months, I’ve read more “life organizing” literature than I ever have before. I read and reread Getting Things Done, a book my wife read years ago and had on-hand. At the time, I probably poked fun at her, but I’ve been surprised to see how typical (and ineffective) my task management is. I’ve always been resistant to having a book or a method tell me how I should organize things. What I typically tell myself is that I really know best how to do everything, from planning my daily activities to knowing what my long-term goals are and what progress I’m making toward them. What I’m consistently finding, however, are that the things I think are important to me are not the things I spend the majority of my time on.

When I was in my late-twenties, I hosted a college-age small group at our house. As a Christian group, we would usually be reading through some text such as The Purpose-Driven Life or Wild at Heart. Of course, we also read frequently from the Bible, trying to discern what life lessons we could learn from the reorganization of the temple under Hezekiah for our contemporary existence.

We held the group for a couple years, and the most recurring theme in our discussions was the question of what we were all going to do—what we should do—with our lives. I was in my late-twenties, working at a good job that I was nonetheless unsatisfied with. We owned our house, we had just had a child, we had a dog, etc. We had followed the American dream formula, and it had seemed to work out well. Yet I, like many others, found myself constantly asking, “Is this it?”

The other group members in their early twenties were at the beginning of that same spectrum. The future was open; they could do anything they wanted. But what should they do? Depending on which paradigm one followed, there were ready-made answers. If the middle-class response was go to college, the evangelical response was “Go on a mission.” Most of us there were to trying to reassure ourselves that it was okay that we didn’t want to abandon everything and move to Africa for six months.

The great conceit of the small group was that if we came together and talked about and to God, we would get that clear vision of our lives’ goals and purposes. Or at least we would get the next step. Yet we kept returning to the same questions. On reflection, the group wasn’t large enough or fervent enough for any of us to convince ourselves that we could get a revelation from God about our lives. Instead, we fumbled around with the questions but supported each other along the way with the more practical aspects of life. When I needed to build a fence around the yard, for example, several of them (who knew more than I ever will about construction) came over and helped out. When someone moved, we all showed up to help. But we never got any bigger answers. We just lived life and moved on.

When faced with the innumerable choices and directions our lives can go, we are overwhelmed. Religious traditions fill a definite need in that respect, providing a simulation of knowing what you do not know. That is not to say faith cannot provide psychological/existential relief for people; it can. It does so, however, only to the extent that you ignore the very tenuous connection it has to the way we actually live our lives. If a divine being is ultimately in control, then I am relieved of the burden of ultimate concern about the environment or the consequences of my consumption.

For my part, I exited one system, thinking myself much more authentic for having gotten rid of it. However, at the same time I was being inculcated into the system of higher education, which provides a rival structure for goals and purpose. For six years, I had the goal of earning a degree. It was only near the finish that I began to experience the openness that accompanies life with no tradition, no trajectory, to tell you what to do and where to go. I can’t yet speak to what comes next.

It is, in these cases, easy to allow yourself to go on auto-pilot, so to speak, and let the roles you are in dictate my day-to-day existence. That seems to be what many of us do. While on the outside it looks like an organized life, it is only a coordinated backdrop that overlays an uncertainty that never really goes away. Why? Because there really is no certainty other than that which we construct.

The key, then, seems to be to construct purpose for life or for the day’s affairs that has as little collateral damage as possible, either for your own life or the lives of others. There will be collateral damage, and it must actively be minimized. Anxiety will remain, and it is managed with the systems you set up arbitrarily for yourself. There is more Nietzsche than Sartre here. We establish roles for ourselves, all the while knowing that it is just a play. And yet we must play.

There were several years where, when I realized that I was merely playing a role, I resisted playing it because it was not “real.” But not all roles are the same, not all require the same depth of self-deception about oneself and the world. I have always relied on the top level to dictate the actions for everything underneath, but this doesn’t create a life. If followed unthinkingly, it extinguishes life. We often know this, but we prefer the familiarity of traditions, with all their contradictions, to uncertainty. Uncertainty, however, is a level playing field. We will make mistakes, but they are conscientious ones, and not the unthinking destruction of traditional institutions. In the end, we must actually get things done.

07/17/13

Missions and Margaritas

I went on several mission trips to Mexico in my teens and twenties. During each, I experienced something of a culture shock as I saw firsthand the comparative poverty of the areas we visited. The “mission,” of course, was to convert people to Christianity through a variety of means, ranging from building projects to children’s workshops to passion plays, which dramatized the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The last trip I participated in was in 2003, and rather than drive over the border, we flew into Central Mexico. We spent most of our time in Tepic in the state of Nayarit. After we spent a week or so there, we had the opportunity to spend a night in a resort in Puerto Vallarta before returning home. A couple friends and I decided to leave the resort and go to dinner in town at a place that was recommended to us. On the way there, it began to pour. It seemed like the water was coming down in sheets and it continued to rain all night. It took some trouble to find the restaurant, and it was on a block so steep that the cab had to take multiple tries to get up the hill to it.

450px-Blended_MargaritaIt was worth it though. We entered the second-story restaurant soaked, but had an excellent meal out on a covered balcony overlooking the city with live music playing in the background and margaritas that grow in size each time I tell the story. (They are currently the size of fish bowls.) We had the restaurant call us another cab to return to the resort, and this time as the cab driver was winding through the dark, drenched streets to get us back, we somehow got around to the topic of religion.

The poor cab driver didn’t know what he was in for when he asked us what we were doing in Mexico. He was fairly open about his religious beliefs once we explained our trip, which probably involved phrases like “sharing the love of Jesus.” He told us he had a Bible on the shelf at home but never really read it. His mother was religious but it didn’t hold a lot of interest for him. He was busy trying to provide for his family. I don’t remember the whole conversation, but I know that my friends and I spent the remainder of the trip back, slightly buzzed, trying to convince him how great Jesus was. Despite our efforts, the ride was too short for us to change his mind and we arrived back at our hotel.

I was, in retrospect, disappointed by the exchange, thinking if I had only said the right things, we might have effected the man’s (re?)conversion to Christianity right then and there. I was acutely aware of how many people don’t “know God,” and how sad their day-to-day lives had to be. In part, that was just the mode that I was in, having spent a week evangelizing the “unsaved,” and it probably involved some guilt at partaking in the typical American resort vacation, tucked away from day-to-day life in Mexico. But there was always a tinge of sadness that mixed with the earnestness when we returned, because it was much harder to evangelize at home.

For church groups, particularly of teens and young adults, taking missions trips to Mexico is fairly popular for a variety of reasons. It’s close and relatively easy to get over the border. But there is also some time-tested institutional logic involved.

If the primary directive of Christianity is the Great Commission—to convert as many people as possible so as to usher in the end of time—as many evangelicals think it is, why do most spend so little time trying to complete this task? Why instead do they venture out mostly in large groups to faraway places rather than evangelize in their immediate surroundings? I think that it is in part because they base a vibrant spiritual connection on evidence in socio-economic well being. We went to Mexico because the poor are more vulnerable, and consequently more open to the Christian message. It helped also that we believed there was a connection between their state of poverty and their spiritual status.

This preference for “vacation evangelization” is not unconnected to our marginalization of the homeless in the United States. Most comments I have heard about the homeless reflect the belief that they are ultimately responsible, not only for getting themselves into the situation they are in, but in wanting to stay there, because surely if they wanted to get a job, they could. Similarly, middle-class Christians often tend to think that physical poverty is a reflection of spiritual poverty, and an improvement in the latter will effect an improvement in the former. In addition, the proximity of homeless in our own communities is unsettling and more important to rationalize than the existence of poverty elsewhere.

I didn’t often think about this connection as a Christian. My motivations were out of pity, although it did cross my mind that we didn’t focus as much attention on the poor in our own community. But why the poor? Why not evangelize those of our own socio-economic background? Perhaps because without a socio-economic disparity, there is no justification for convincing someone that their life would be better off with Jesus. There is no metric of measurement to justify religious belief among our peers.

The lack of urgency to evangelize one’s peers is a reflection of a level of disbelief that “they” are actually better off than “we” are. It is easy to go elsewhere and observe living conditions that would be terrible to experience. The knowledge that you have it better off in social and economic domains  transfers readily to a spiritual domain. After all, Christians understand that their good position in life should be attributed to God. And if someone nearby is experiencing a tragedy, it is easier to step in, assuming—aside from a genuine desire to help—that his/her situation would be more manageable with religious belief. But how do you convince someone for whom life is going well that they are actually not well at all? One might do as Nietzsche suggested Christians do, make others sick in order to make them well. I, like many, convinced myself that others must be more unhappy than they seem in order to justify my worldview. But few have the heart to seriously act on that conviction, to find out if that’s really the case. And if not, it might be beneficial to consider whether Christians are actually better off, and by what standard—other than a Christian one—that might be measured.

Am I suggesting that Christians be more evangelistic with all of their peers? In terms of consistency, absolutely. In my last years as a Christian, the rhetoric of evangelization seemed hollow and hypocritical. I wasn’t shooting for conversions, but I did think it the Christian’s imperative to make a positive impact in his/her communities. So part of me wishes evangelicals were more consistent in application of their beliefs. But I’d rather that Christians realize there is no necessary connection between theological belief and socio-economic position. A reliance on social or economic indicators to prove or evidence divine favor would only prove an arbitrary an cruel deity who caused many to suffer in order that a few might enjoy relative comfort.

02/17/13

Atheism for Lent

should-we-give-up-god-for-lentAlthough I’d like to take credit for this, the idea belongs to Peter Rollins, a theologian and philosopher who has been associated with the Emerging Church. Rollins recently posted a link on his Facebook page to an extended critique of his work on Red Letter Christians. Since Micah Bales, the writer of the post, critiques Rollins in a way that appeals directly to the habitus of liberal evangelical Christians, I wanted to respond to his points from my perspective. Given the choice, I would quickly and easily choose the theology of Rollins over Bales’ critiques.

The critique comes out of the context of Atheism for Lent, an idea Rollins has promoted for several years, which suggests that rather than giving up something like chocolate or TV for Lent, we give up God instead. Why? To experience the sense of abandonment by God that Jesus felt on the cross. To fully embody the doubt that Rollins contends is the hallmark of Christianity. It is only by giving up our preconceived ideas about God that we can experience the love that fills the hole left by their absence. I’ll talk more about this in the future, because there is much to like about Rollins’ approach, which draws on Nietzsche, Slavoj Žižek, John Caputo, and others. Bales’ critique here is not directly about Rollins’ theology, though, but his approach.

His first critique is that Rollins is toying with Gnosticism. Bales doesn’t use the term, but suggests that Rollins’ appeal lies in the draw of some special knowledge that others don’t know about or don’t grasp. He asks, “But how does this special knowledge affect how you look at your fellow Christians who do not share your radical doubt? Do you see their lack of doubt as ignorant? Weak?” The questions are irrelevant to the legitimacy of Rollins’ approach. I agree with Bales that Rollins’ approach is crafted toward a more intellectual crowd, but that has no bearing on the authenticity of its content. Gnosticism was a blanket term used against Christians in the early Church who saw the key to Jesus, not necessarily in his bloody death, but in the knowledge he imparted before death. While the term is often used in a pejorative sense now, before the triumph of orthodox Christianity, it was just one among many legitimate strands of Christian thought and practice. In short, the accusation of Gnosticism is a polemical approach that can only be made from the standpoint of the majority. Because a particular version of Christianity holds sway today, if someone like Rollins promotes an understanding that requires rethinking the traditional means and symbols we use to think about Christianity, it is easy to claim that its appeal lies in its elitism. It was the same charge leveled against early Christians by Rome.

Bales’ second point is that Rollins doesn’t talk about social justice enough. He only talks about the personal aspects of Christianity, the ways in which the individual responds (or not) to God. Bales is right that Rollins does not give an extensive summary of ways for Christians to enact social justice, but I couldn’t disagree more with the heart of this point. A great part of Rollins’ appeal for me as I was jettisoning mainstream Christianity was the way in which Rollins tears down the hypocrisy inherent in typical Christian responses to social justice, responses that have little more to recommend them than participating in social justice by buying your latte at Starbucks and knowing that 1% goes back to the coffee farmers. (This is a classic example of Žižek.) Rollins suggests that Christian attempts at social justice are largely playing a role, gesturing at the actions that we think Christians ought to perform through singing songs, putting bumper stickers on our vehicles, and putting an extra $5 in the collection plate for overseas missions. It is true that Rollins’ work is focused on deconstructing Christian norms than outlining a social justice platform. I don’t know that Rollins would argue this, but I think the bigger problem is that Christians believe that theological propositions (God died for me, etc.) are the foundation of social change when they have no necessary connection. In other words, Christianity as it is practiced institutionally does not require social change. It requires maintenance of the status quo.

Bales’ third point is a variant of the first; namely, that Rollins’ message only appeals to those in a relatively comfortable social class, those that have the freedom to play with their beliefs. There is a sociological point here, in that those with other structural supports are less likely to rely as heavily on theological truths to secure their wellbeing. Bales writes that his friend who works with individuals with severe disabilities said, “I would just like to see Peter Rollins come to L’Arche and talk about this stuff. Let him explain to people suffering from schizophrenia and learning disabilities why they need to stop believing in God.” This critique is misleading. If Rollins is correct, then Bales is blaming him for trying to give people a better understanding of Christianity when they have been given misinformation. This paradigm says, “Well, they’re happy now, so don’t bother them.” Which approach values these people as individuals more? It’s also a fallacy to believe that these people need to have the theological crutch they have to survive. Much of the world survives without such a message, a a good portion dies with it. I would argue that this approach is precisely what prevents the social change Bales deplores is missing. Atheism may not the answer for those in need right now, but Christianity may not be either. The answer could be, without touting a theological message, to show the divine to the person in need with love, empowering them to thrive in the world by extending, as much as possible, the structural supports that we casually suggest are our rights.

We could put this another way. The reason Christianity is more appealing to those who are young and to those who are in dire straits is that allows them a simple way to distance themselves from their circumstances. These populations have the lowest intellectual resistance to the institution because they are weak and vulnerable. Is that a point to objectively recommend Christianity? Or would it be more valuable to give people the tools to understand their own circumstances in a different way and explore different ways to relate to them?

In short, Bales’ critique serves as a reaffirmation of the status quo. While it looks to me as if he does comparatively more than the average Christian (whatever that means) to practice his beliefs, his message here allows Christians to remain happily static, instead of challenging the dependency of their theology upon social and cultural norms. My critique of Rollins, essentially, is that he is a closet atheist who continues to use the Christian message for political purposes. He thinks he can make greater change within Christianity than abandoning the narrative all together. Or perhaps he does think that the Christian story is an appropriate narrative to understand our existential relationship with the world. Part of me thinks that he may be right. But the greater part thinks that the tradition has done too much damage in the past to be trusted with our existential future.

02/13/13

Even the Bravest…

1888 was Friedrich Nietzsche’s last year as a writer, and was his most productive. He suffered a mental breakdown on January 3, 1889, while attempting to stop a man who was beating his horse. He is said to have collapsed with his arms around the horse’s neck and he never returned to his former self, though he lived on for another decade.

If I had to choose one source that precipitated my departure from religion more than any other, it would be the writings of Nietzsche. I am not alone; many throughout the last century have found Nietzsche as the catalyst for their departure from traditional forms of religion. (It is also important to note that many, past and present, have used Nietzsche to attempt to reform Christianity from within. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen recently published an intriguing book that documents the history of Nietzsche reception in America.) He is a writer I have returned to repeatedly for the simplicity with which he expresses the contingency of modern belief, specifically the problems of Christianity’s role in European culture. If before I thought of Christianity as a largely exclusive sphere within Western culture, it was Nietzsche’s writing that exposed the proliferation of Christian ideology and morality far beyond its bounds into political and cultural spheres where Christians and secularists misrecognize it.

Nietzsche-munchNietzsche wrote Twilight of the Idols in this last year, just before the more well-known Antichrist. The former, relatively short work is written in the short aphoristic style for which he is famous. The second aphorism in the text has become a motto of sorts for me: “Even the most courageous among us only rarely has the courage to face what he already knows.” The short statement expresses how reluctant we are to challenge the “truths” that we hold closely, even when part of us “knows” that they are contingent, based only on our own particular context and not on any universal truth. As Nietzsche expressed elsewhere, there is only a perspective “knowing,” so the “already know[ing]” he talks about is not another universal, but instead recognizing the limitations of ourcontingent knowledge

I’ve had this quote listed as the subtitle of this blog, but the reason I’m bringing it up now is that I am retitling my blog “Even the Bravest…,” and wanted to (briefly) explain why. The decision is largely a political one, the ramifications of which I will be able to explain in much greater detail in the coming months. In short, though, although I thoroughly enjoy the title “Exiting Christianity,” and although it expresses the continuing nature of my own experience studying the tradition that I grew up in, it may give the wrong impression to casual readers. My goal is not to deride all that is associated with the Christian tradition; as I’ve mentioned before, I remain intrigued by the history of Christianity and the extent of its effect on present culture

There exists a certain amount of duplicity in the non-sectarian study of religion. The constitution of Religious Studies as a field is dependent on an unbiased approach. Religious Studies is not theology, in other words, because it does not assume the truth of any religious practice or belief. In its purest forms, it is supposed merely to document and compare religious traditions. People do not usually study religion, however, as one studies the objects in a museum. In my experience many people involved in the study of religion hold particular stancesregarding the traditions they study, whether for or against them, yet they separate those from their scholarship. While this increases the potential reach of their work, it is what we might call withholding information relevant to the case. The “objectivity” inherent to scholarship is uniquely problematic to the field of religion because religion assumes complete adherence, whereas fields such as history or psychology do not. For me, the discord between personal and professional approaches to Christianity was untenable, forcing an eventual reckoning.

All that is to say that I want to be as forthright as possible in my approach to religion, but I also want people to interrogate religion more deeply than they have, particularly those who have grown up in the Christian tradition. To prevent people from making a hasty dismissal of my assessments and critiques from the title of my blog alone, I’ll make it slightly more difficult to nail me down (but not too much).

In short, nothing much has changed. However, I’ll have more to say about Nietzsche in the future.

01/23/13

The Selfishness of the Giving Tree

True love is unselfish, right? It gives generously and asks for nothing in return. When I sense that myself or someone else is playing the martyr, I think jokingly of The Giving Tree, a poem written by Shel Silverstein. There is a legitimate point to explore here, though. For those unfamiliar with the story, a boy and a tree have a playful and symbiotic relationship that grows more and more one-sided as the boy ages into a man. The tree literally gives parts of herself to make the boy happy, first her apples, then her branches, then her trunk, until there is nothing left but a stump. When the boy returns as an old man needing nothing but to sit on the stump and rest his weary bones, the man and the tree returning to symbiosis.

Though a children’s poem, it expresses an issue of existential and social concern. There are many different ways the story can be read, and just in rereading it, I was both saddened and angered. We are intrigued by the poem because we want to be the tree, and we often style ourselves as the tree, but we think that more often, we are actually the little boy.

The poem gets off easy, though, painting love and selfishness in black and white. We should note that there is a vast gray area between selfish and selfless. The first definition of selfish in my dictionary is, “lacking consideration for others.” “Consideration” is deceptively subjective. It means, “careful not to cause inconvenience or to hurt others.” Although politeness is valuable, if you take any sort of a meaningful stance on anything, you will cause inconvenience, and just by living around others, you will be inconvenienced most days. If you’re like me, your first instinct may be to think how selfish those people are, although you have no way of judging if your concerns are any less important than theirs.

But put that on hold and let’s look at the second definition of selfish, which is “concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.” How can this be judged? In the poem, the boy is certainly selfish according to the definition, and the tree selfless, but life never plays out in such a tidy narrative. Even if it did though, you will note that the tree doesn’t want nothing. The tree wants to be happy, and thinks it will be happy if the boy is happy. A psychologist might call the tree codependent, but that won’t really help us. The tree wants something, although it doesn’t know an efficient way to gain it. Is the tree less selfish than the boy? Do we respect the tree more?

I Googled “jesus giving tree” just to see how many people make that connection, and as I suspected, there are quite a few examples. I have no idea what Shel Silverstein intended with the poem, and it really doesn’t matter, but one can certainly map the evangelical Jesus onto the giving tree. He just wants to play and hang out and be buds, but you’re selfish. That’s okay, he’ll be there when you get back and give you a final place of rest. The problem with the poem, or the model of love supposedly given in the Christian portrait of Jesus, comes when we think we can apply it to our own lives. All our actions are concerned with self, and we establish a false ideal when we judge the actions of others and ourselves on the basis of a selfish/selfless dichotomy that can never be determined on the ground.

In debates with others I’ve suggested that all our actions are selfish, but that’s not quite right either. However, we don’t and can’t love without an element of self-calculation. A Christian response is to attack that head on and denounce it with some sort of penance or ascetic practice, or else attempt to ignore it and rationalize it away. These actions distort our understanding of self and cloud our understanding of others in a sort of Nietzschean ressentiment, a resentment that condemns self and other. If, however, we can approach our relationships with an honest assessment of what we want out of them, without stigmatizing our self-interest, we may be able to love more openly. It is better that we take control of what that is and the best way to achieve it rather than ceding our interests and desires to ready-made institutional categories.

This post is as much about notions of the self as it is love, but the presence or absence of self is a traditional defining factor of love that I’m arguing is misplaced. In a well-known passage, the apostle Paul notes that love is not self-seeking, but neither is it self-denying. It is self-identifying. In a gloss on the philosopher Martin Heidegger, one scholar explains that my love of another—and another’s love for me—is found in the shared possibility of a story that is ever exposed and always changing. The shared journey of love requires preference for the other in order to reveal the self to oneself.

So I am not saying we should give full reign to selfishness. The late David Foster Wallace has an excellent speech, This is Water, that expresses the perils of this beautifully. The first seven minutes or so of the second half are the best, but I’d highly recommend the whole thing. He’s giving a speech to Kenyon College about how if we go through life on our “default setting,” we will usually view other people as annoyances that are “in our way.” His point is that if we go to the effort to make a choice about how we will view the world, it can take on an entirely different meaning, the meaning that we give it. I think this can be applied to the way we think about love as well. Ordering our world requires a self-interest that then gives us the freedom to love.