Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Moments of Clarity

There have been moments in my life when I feel as I know exactly who I am at that moment. One of these moments was the fall semester of my sophomore year of college. I went to university an hour south of Chicago, to a strict and somewhat insane Christian liberal arts school. I would never suggest anyone go to this school, ever. If you are even considering Olivet Nazarene University, stop and turn around.


I had gone up to the city with some friends for the evening. We got dressed up a bit and met up with the boy I was dating at the time. We had a tenuous relationship, and while I believed that I loved him at the time, it was not a good pairing for either of us. He wasn't who I needed, and I wasn't who he needed. He could also be a bit of a prick.

So we had gone to dinner and it was fine, although I felt the strain between him and my friends. My friends at university were almost hipsters, but not quite. Still, they enjoyed the sort of things you'd think hipsters would enjoy: going to art galleries, blues clubs, that sort of thing. My boyfriend did not enjoy those sorts of things in the slightest, and he had a terrible (in my opinion) sense of humor. He and my friends did not mesh.

So we're walking the sidewalks of downtown Chicago and I'm frustrated at him because I'm not having a good time and he's complaining that I spend too much time with other people (even though I lived an hour away) and blah blah blah. And I'm arguing with him in public, which is super awkward. And suddenly I look down and see that I'm in a skirt and heels, walking in the city with a boy I don't even like all that much, and I'm holding a Starbucks cup in one hand and a cigar in the other (I haven't always made awesome choices). And I think, “My god, who am I?” I didn't want to be this snotty girl who looked so incredibly yuppie/waspish holding her coffee and cigar and arguing and wearing uncomfortable shoes and the reality of the situation hit me and left me cold. This is not who I was meant to be. And so over the next six months, I changed. I broke up with the boy and I changed my major and I concentrated on what I really wanted out of life, and it was good. It was a moment of clarity that told me I was headed in the wrong direction.

It took a while after I got married to truly feel like I was an adult. I got married at 22, which is super young, let's be serious. I knew that I was still immature but I trusted that when I felt like a child, Bryan could be the adult in the relationship. I know that sounds silly, but he'd been on his own a lot longer than me, and he was financially independent and stable and he knew how to do things like pay bills. So it made sense that I saw him as the “real” adult in the marriage. It was probably six months after the wedding that I woke up one morning and made my way to the bathroom. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, “I'm a wife.” It seems silly, but all of a sudden I felt the gravity of exactly what that meant, and I finally accepted myself as a grown-up. It was a moment of clarity that confirmed what I should have already known. It told me that I was headed in the right direction.

It's been a while since I've had a startling moment of clarity like that. Now and then, of course, I feel those moments when my world is exactly as it should be. Usually it's something as mundane as Bryan and I driving in the car together and him reaching for my hand and squeezing it three times to tell me in our sort of Morse Code, “I love you.” It seems, for a second, as though everything is as it should be.

But the older I get (and let's be serious, I'm only 27), the more I wish the world was clearer to me. I was so sure of things as a child, especially in high school. Now... not so much. Sometimes I feel like I can grasp the difficult subjects and almost understand them... and then someone presents me with a philosophical query and I just want to go “shut up I don't know.” A friend of mine posed a question recently on Facebook regarding the “problem of pain” which is a huge discussion in the Christian (and non-Christian) world. And once again, I felt like I had a decent enough response, but even in my response, there's huge plot holes. I gave my point of view, but the question still remained there, boring into my psyche. While I gave an answer, it felt flat, even to me. I don't really want to go into the ins and outs of the discussion, because the specifics aren't exactly what matters. What I'm concerned with is the clarity of my position; by this I don't mean whether or not my answer was easy to understand. What I mean is this: do I really believe what I said? When I take a position on something as large and looming as the problem of pain, am I merely appeasing my own need to believe in something? Am I trying to make my intellect and my faith compatible?

The answer, of course, is yes. But that's true for anyone. There are those who like to see Jesus/God/the Divine as a Judge, the ultimate giver of justice in the multiverse (cause there may be more than one, folks). To them, God will balance the books at the end of this life and those who are found wanting will be punished, and rightfully so. Many cling to this idea of God because it appeases their sense of Justice. Wrongs will be made right, the guilty will be punished, the end. There is backing for this in the Bible. There are verses to point towards.

And there are those (like me, I'll admit) who prefer to see Jesus/God/the Divine as the personification of ultimate Love. To them, God knows us better than we know ourselves, and he will judge us not only by our actions and our words, but by our hearts. And for those of us (me, again), who go even further, he will be gracious and loving and forgiving, even when we don't deserve it, even when we don't ask for it. There are reasons to cling to this side of God rather than the Judge side, of course, although my usually comes down to this: I prefer a forgiving, fluffy god to a judging, righteous god. And for those who find themselves with me in this preference, be happy, because there is backing for this in the Bible. There are verses to point towards.

And then there are those that simply do not believe in the Other. And I admit, I have found myself wanting to be in this category many times. I honestly think it would be easier for me to just claim agnosticism and throw up my hands and say, “I don't know.” While a large part of me wants to be right (I'm an Enneagram 1, after all), I would be satisfied to wash my hands of all of it and just not care.

But there is something in me that is drawn to the Divine, that believes in an Ultimate Love that is good and kind and is rooting for us. Many would say that this is an adult version of a fairy tale, and that I simply don't want to conceive of the here and now and that's it. But it would be easier to believe that! If I was to simply not believe in anything besides what I can hear and see and feel and taste, I would have less to worry about. I'm not even sure how my actions would be different from what they are now (although I'd probably be given to more hedonistic tendencies than I already find in myself). However, I feel that there is something inside me that tells me to trust this intrinsic belief in the Divine. C. S. Lewis puts it this way:

And I guess that's what I come back to again and again. Even when I would rather not believe, I believe. And yeah, there are parts of my belief that I find offending that I can explain away with things such as annihilism or inclusivism, and I'm perfectly satisfied to do so. It's when this sort of cognitive dissonance rears its head that I take a chapter from another writer's book. Walt Whitman writes:

“Re-examine all you have been told. Dismiss that which insults your soul.”

So I choose not to believe that those who are found wanting will suffer eternal conscious punishment in hell, because not only does it not make sense when it comes to the idea of a loving Father who cares for us and wants the best for us, but I find Biblical backing that points to not only annihilism but also inclusivism. Or course there is Biblical backing the points to the opposite as well, and this is why the Bible is an extremely dangerous weapon at times: we can all find a verse or two or twelve to point at and say “See, I'm right and you're wrong.” And then we usually tell the other person they are damned, or something like that, and it's all a bit ridiculous at times.

So I am a Christian and I still believe, but I find myself echoing the father in Mark 9 and pleading “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” While I don't think I will ever understand all of my beliefs, and I won't have a set of answers I can point to and say, “There, that's why children are raped and murdered, why women are abused and used as objects, why parents can't afford to feed their children,” I do hope that one day I will feel a bit more at peace with my faith. In the meantime, I'm not concerned with my salvation, although there are those who would disagree with me on this. I try to embrace the idea of mystery, and I allow myself to feel the moments of transcendence when I consider the communion of all saints, living and dead. I repeat the Nicene Creed, I take the bread and wine, and I believe. And I think that's enough for now.