Past is Prologue: Part 3

Remove the foundation and the building must crumble. I could feel it going within the first week of my arrival back at PHC. New students and their families swarmed across the campus, as idealistic, faithful, and naive as I had been three years earlier. Daily chapel, which had been a chore before I left, became a lie: I would sit silently in the back corner while my fellow students sang, unable to participate, a sick pit in the bottom of my stomach.

I no longer knew what I wanted from my life, but the dread of another year of playing pretend was increasingly unbearable. I quietly withdrew from my classes, getting as much money back as I could. Then, one late night, I wrote an essay. In their last two years at PHC, students are required to write a “Faith and Reason” paper, a personal understanding of how rational thought and religious faith can work together. In my essay, I wrote that the honest application of reason to the world I saw made it impossible to continue to believe. Faith and reason, I wrote, could become mutually exclusive. They had for me, and I had chosen reason.

There’s a peculiar feeling I get when I write something I know to be true. My hands shake, my head buzzes, and my throat goes dry. Maybe it’s because true things come from a deeper place than the surface, or maybe it’s just because true things are dangerous. At three in the morning, staring at my heretical Faith and Reason essay, I felt that shake, that buzz, and knew this was a turning point. Publishing it would mean making my private change public to the world, would mean telling my friends and family, the vast majority of whom were Christian, that I no longer fit.

I made a decision then that has remained a central part of my approach to the world ever since. I had been hedging my bets, keeping my options open. I spent so much time maintaining my bridges that I never found the time to actually cross one.

If I wanted to move forward, I had to burn those bridges. I had to make graduation from PHC, and a life of pretending to a faith I could not hold, impossible.

I published the post. By the next day, I had over seventy comments, some sad, some aggressive, most concerned and prayerful, a few, from non-religious friends I’d made while traveling, enthusiastically supportive.

A week after that, my boss in the PHC tech department called me in and asked me to collect my things. He and my fellow co-workers regretted having to let me go—we’d all genuinely enjoyed working together—but PHC had a statement of faith, and denying that faith ment expulsion.

And just like that, I was cut free, no longer a student, no longer employed.

Messages continued to stream in. One condescendingly informed me that my reasons for leaving had been addressed in full by various theologians, and gave me a book list to read. Another agonized that Satan was winning the war for my soul. My mother called and said that, while my decision made her very sad, she still loved me and always would. One wedding even came of it, the result of an all-night prayer vigil turned romance; my apostasy is currently responsible for at least one brand new human that I’m aware of.

The emotion was too much. I was pulled between congratulations, condemnation, disappointment, encouragement, sadness, worry. I felt numb, like the world was going mute around me. I retreated into my apartment, where, surrounded by my books, I continued to read and learn and analyze. The decision to question my faith now blossomed to encompass and undermine every cornerstone of who I was, a process of deconstruction that would reach its zenith three years later, in the port city of Brighton, England.

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  • Bridget Ervin

    Hey Tim,

    as an introduction, I am Jacob’s little sister and close friends with Jenny, Michael, and your Mom (I also remember you from when you both were in first-grade at the Hamilton Christiam Academy). Jacob has mentioned you multiple times in our various philosophical discussions and your Mom has mentioned your adventures, physical and philosophical, to me before. Jacob brought this series of blog posts up in a recent conversation we had and, after reading, I really wanted to respond (not quite sure exactly why).

    I currently attend Hillsdale College, which has some similarities to Patrick Henry (although it isn’t specifically Christian and *definitely* offers the opportunity to challenge the way you think about things). I am a Philosophy & Religion and Psychology double major, with hopefully a minor in English.

    I mainly wanted to let you know how much I appreciated your raw-ness in these posts. Jacob, I think, has a similar story, although my family was never particularly evangelical about our faith. I am somewhere in the middle of my own exploration of the religious and also spiritual side of Christianity, along with every other paradigm that I’ve come from, and truth in general. I’ve tried questioning my faith several times throughout my youth. I agree 100% with what you said: anything that is true will remain true regardless of how you question, examine, poke, prod, or analyze it. If it’s true, you don’t have to “worry” about asking ANY question of it, because it WILL hold. If it doesn’t, it’s either wrong, or at least your conception of it is not entirely accurate. I tried to stop believing in God when I was 15 in order to satisfactorily prove His existence back to myself (which I eventually did). I did not, however, really experience a true crisis in my belief system until last fall when I took a fantastically challenging and ruthlessly personal “Philosophy of Mind” class. We discussed a plethora of topics, including the socio-evolutionary theory of religious development, multiple concepts of selfhood – especially thrashing the concept of dualism, and psychological/materialistic/reductionistic explanations-away of the idea of a conscious “self” to which a soul might be attributed (although we also noted that the Bible never mentions a “soul” as such or life outside of embodied existence, despite allusions to a “kingdom of God” and to knowing us before we were born). In various other classes we have discussed topics such as the historical development of Western Religion, analyzing texts and documents such as Hamurabi’s code and various Babylonian and Egyptian myths with close similarities to the Bible, the philosophical context of the New Testament, the history of the church and codification of the Bible, Gnostic and other early documents which diverged from what Christianity was accepted as and is today, etc. I am currently in a sociology class on “Religion, Society, and Culture,” examining religion as socially-entwined meaning-system which has a particularly powerful influence because of it’s association with a belief in some sort of transcendent – and therefore inexplicable – element of reality. The concept that societies (and the individuals which comprise them) absolutely require some sense of meaning in order to function has been a recurring theme in my studies (I’m sure you could think of both an evolutionary and a Christian/religious explanation for that).

    Your posts really resonate with me and I think that you have stated your story beautifully and poigniantly. I hope it wouldn’t be out of line to post a few of the ways I have struggled with the same question, with the hopes of getting your thoughts back, if you have any.

    I have – as alluded to above – personally experienced dipping into and out of a complete loss of my spiritual paradigm and if you really, truly want to do what’s “right” from the core of your being, it is incredibly painful and shaking to lose that structure by which you have always judged/interpreted all things (a good psychological argument to not bother going through that). My big question that I couldn’t get over was: I can see with absolute equality how both of these paradigms/ways of understanding the world explain things equally satisfactorily. If they both explain it equally – and I can offer powerful counter-arguments on either side of a question – then as a good and proper, scientific enquirer, shouldn’t I assume the least rather than the most? In other words, if I can look at the world and say “stuff” or I can say “stuff + God,” AND if questions that seem to contradict God are easy to find (i.e.: how could a loving God allow so many abhoring things to happen to innocent people?), doesn’t the clear answer seem to be “no God”?

    The cognitive dissonance that I underwent (and am still going through a bit) was incredible. I lingered there for a while, truly wanting to not settle until I could be confident that my decision was “right.” To tell the truth, it didn’t even make sense to get dressed every day, because I had lost all conception of why I should do anything at all. What was the point if all I was was “stuff”? I’ve experienced enough depression in my life to not cling to dearly to existence for its own sake.

    There are two steps that began to bring me in the direction that I currently lean. The first is that: all else being equal, which paradigm produces better results? (A totally pragmatic approach – since I’ve sworn never to end my life, I might as well be practical). Now, you can look at things like the Spanish Inquisition and say “uh…yea – exactly” with a cocked eyebrow and I would understand. But I’m not referring to the way Christianity as a religion (a social institution with a spiritual element) has manifested itself politically, etc., but the way that I’ve seen dramatic changes in people’s lives who believe as a spiritual fact that Christ died to save them (and it worked). Obviously you could explain this from the purely psychological or sociological standpoint that creating meaning or legitimation for circumstances is a cognitive reaction/coping technique to produce strategies for overcoming adversity. To that argument, though, my response is: a) why is meaning so important if nothing “has it” (if it’s just a social construction)? What would be the evolutionary purpose? (I realize that’s not water-tight) and b) even if that’s the case, if there is no meaning in anything, but believing in meaning produces results, why not do that out of a completely pragmatic attitude? (And why would believing in meaning produce results if it didn’t line up with reality?).

    That basically got me through Christmas break without being in too dangerously low of a funk, but I wasn’t satisfied. When I got back to campus, I sat down with my PHL-Mind professor for three hours to get him to talk more on that specific issue. While he has never revealed to me his beliefs and will always argue either side powerfully, our discussion led me to these thoughts concerning that question of “why more than just ‘stuff’ if uneccessary?”. If you’re into English, I presume you’ve read Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” In my freshman English class, my final paper concerned Dante’s ultimate conclusion (derived from the influence of Aquinas) that reason was fundamental on the journey to truth, but faith is the final step beyond that (the transition from Virgil to Beatrice in going to Paradise). Faith is not UN-reasonable, but SUPRA-reasonable. I can offer you a perfectly “rational” explanation for every aspect of faith (which may or may not be accurate or “true,” but would be “reasonable”), but reason can only take you so far. I put that part together after our discussion, but my professor specifically talked about Kierkegaard’s argument for faith, which I think follows Dante nicely. I haven’t read Kierkegaard yet, but the gist (along with other ways I understood him) was basically that Reason is INcomplete for the precise reason that it is “complete.” To untangle that: the fact that reason claims to be able to explain everything, leaves something wanting. It is, in a way, audacious and therefore limited. It refuses to acknowledge the potential for a reality which is in a larger dimension than it. Reason is like a two-dimensional figure saying that a three-dimensional one is impossible, simply because you can try to explain or describe a cube in two-dimensional terms, but certain aspects of it are simply impossible to communicate in that language. The Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” completes the picture precisely because it doesn’t fit – it allows for expansion into something bigger than itself. (If you can tell I don’t think that faith is more narrow-minded than atheism). This argument resonated with me primarily because I want to devote myself to something that I can give my WHOLE self too. All of it. If I always stand where I’m at and refuse to budge unless I can explain something “rationally,” then I can’t give that last little bit of myself that doesn’t want to jump out of the plane in case the parachute has a tear or something. Not to say that I don’t retain a prudent skepticism (I don’t just go jumping off of every high place I find, just to prove something to myself), but to me, a purely “reasonable” explanation is lacking in savor. It has no life or zest. It’s too two-dimensional. Think bigger.

    I’m still not 100% convinced, but that train of thought, along with the aforementined pragmatics has kept me leaning towards a life that holds out for something bigger. There’s also the very cynical, pragmatic approach which I admit I do turn to on occasion which goes like: well, if I’m wrong I’ve lost nothing (I’d rather have a sense of purpose than the “freedom” to sleep around without feeling like I’ve done something sub-optimal) and if I’m right, I’ve gained everything.

    Anyways, I realize that’s probably an audaciously lengthy and inappropirately detailed response to your post, but I have no internet-socialization skills and don’t know what’s appropriate and not (you were homeschooled, you can sympathize, right?). Either way, thank you for your raw honesty and your willingness to go out on a limb in life and proclaim the truth inasmuch as you seem to encounter it. Blessings on you and your travels and I would welcome any thoughts, refutations, etc. to my own concerns if you happen to have made it through the above.

    Shalom Aleychem and may the road rise to meet you.
    ~ Bridget Ervin

  • tsraveling

    Hi Bridget! Yeah, Jacob’s told me about you. Wow, there’s a lot of great stuff here! I’ll try to respond as best I can, let me know if I miss anything.

    First, I would say that for me those paradigms aren’t equal. I’ve studied enough history by now to say that, to me, the non-religious explanation for any given strand is generally the most convincing, by quite a stretch. But that’s kind of beside the point.

    What I see in your comment is something I’ve had to struggle with myself. Your mind tells you that there is no God, that we will all of us die and turn to dust, and that, in the long scheme of things, nothing we do will matter. And technically, I think that’s true. We could nuke the everloving hell out of our planet tomorrow and the rest of the universe wouldn’t even notice.

    That’s a kind of terrifying concept, and one that I think is behind most people’s problems with things like “reductionism” (a term I hate). The human mind is “merely” the byproduct of electrical signals in a carbon structure, sure, but in the same way that the sun is “merely” chemistry. Accusations of reductionism are only a facade over our deep-rooted fear that what science tells us about our place in the universe is true.

    There are a few escapes from that apparent nihilism. You can choose ignorance, which is the fundamentalist approach. You can choose Kierkegaard’s route of basically saying “even though I can’t see anything more, I choose to believe that there is, because I can’t be happy if there isn’t,” but I’ve always been uncomfortable with that. It seems cowardly, like a child squeezing his eyes shut against the dark. The fourth option is to be so afraid, so dumbfounded by everything, that you can’t do anything at all. This is what you mentioned when you talked about over-reliance on one’s own rationality.

    The final option is to accept what you observe, and charge forward from there. I’ll be writing about this more in my next few posts, but I’ll tell you some of it now. For science, only objective truth matters, but for living, subjective truth is far more important. I have come to terms with the fact that I am just a speck, alive for an instant, but the thing is, to me, that’s not how it looks at all.

    To my human brain, the universe is constantly streaming in and rebuilding itself in my head, and this process lasts *for all of observable time* — ie, for as long as I am alive. There are these other people here, too, in my universe, who I love dearly, and when I change things in my universe, it affects them. By taking advantage of that fact, I can make them happy! See, meaning is important *because* it is a social construct. We humans are social critters, and that means our brain likes it when we do social things. If I write a story that someone else thinks is beautiful, that makes me happy. If my friend sings a song that brings tears to my eyes, that makes me happy, and my happiness makes her happy.

    And this, this, is what it’s all about. I don’t need a God or a higher power, because meaning doesn’t need them either. Meaning is just us, caring about each other, building things together, telling stories that thread into us from the past and through us into the future. I’ve had religious people ask me before what it’s like to feel alone in the universe; I always answer that I don’t know, because as long as there’s a “we” we can’t be alone.

    See, meaning is subjective. Not “merely” subjective, but gloriously so. I can tell you a story about a cat detective down to his last life, and if I do it right, you’ll get it. You can tell me a story about two men falling in love, and even if I’m the most homophobic asshole on the planet, if you tell it beautifully enough, it will break me. I can tell myself a story that, when I die, other people will read what I’ve written, causing the creation of new neurons that will in some way imitate the neurons in my own brain, giving me a flicker of life after death (maybe on an asteroid, or the moon!), and in my subjective mind, I become immortal.

    Objectively, my life is an infinitesimal fraction of our universe’s available time, space, matter and energy. But am I insignificant? No, because “significant” is a subjective term. And subjectively, there are people who care about me and like me, so why shouldn’t I spend my life pleasing them, rather than some deity that I have no reason to believe even knows I exist, even if it does?

    I want us to spend our lives building things and doing things and loving people in ways that matter to each other, rather than wasting our time wondering what the “objective value” of any of it is; after all, if you like English, you’ll see that “objective value” is a contradiction in terms. ;)

  • http://www.quenchamerica.com Simone

    Very intriguing response in the comments so far. I wanted to comment on the photography, but stayed for the writing. I love the positive message in your comments tsraveling.
    Simone recently posted..#113 – A magnificent waterfall.

  • Rike

    I have never seen anybody explain it any better. Thank you!