Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday 07

I wrote this on Ash Wednesday...here I am at 2 Lent and have not returned to it; as usual, I began with a personal reflection and ended up in the infinitely deep sands of the problem of suffering. I decided to wrap up what I have and post as is :)




A dark day, with our first real winter storm coming in, heavy clouds and cold rain sure to follow. By morning, snow. I went to the little parish near my campus, not my usual haunt, for services at noon. I had to leave before communion, but got the critical piece: remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

An excellent reflection for all, theist or non.

I have not been thinking about my faith as much lately. This is perhaps good. I find, after 10 weeks spending of too much time in the hypnotic interface of Second Life (though this does seem to be balancing out), that I still have faith. Ash Wednesday did what it did for me last year: shook me out of my fat complacency and forced me to look within, to confess, to bow my knees and let the tears come. And that, friends, is pretty fucking First Life.

Yes, it was good. Oddly enough, today in my American Lit. class we discussed Stephen Crane's dark, naturalistic and surreal poems, an incredible accident that these little gems fell on the first day of Lent, and I was surprised how much of me identifies with his vision of nature (or Nature) as a random, non-sympathetic force. My own Christianity has become something close to 'God has acted in history to save my ass,' and what he's saving it from isn't so much his own wrath and judgement in Hell...these are things I cannot see or understand--an anthropormorphic emotive-symbol attached to what may be an eschatological manifestation of our need for retribution (or Not). No, He's saving me from This World, from Nature, from emotional and physical suffering, and above all from the awkward accident which will someday be my death.

And I cannot stress enough how absurd this claim is: that the Creator God entered history to save my ass.

Absurd. I must know this. If I as a Christian cannot face the absurdity of my faith claims, I am not reflecting in depth. For it is a fair rule of inquiry that I, that we, should be suspicious of conclusions we need to be true. I know Lewis' argument from desire, and in rough outline Augustine's; their experience reflects that of billions including my own. But the tenet that God must exist because I need him so much, because human experience is at its heart absurd without God, this must be balanced against the fact that humans sometimes hold as true what they want or need to believe. Apparently not all need to believe in God...there are plenty of happy atheists, but my experience is that the happy atheists have often left a faith that somehow repressed them, or they have simply not thought existence through. Death and suffering are not good things; a God who has acted to intervene on my behalf in the Face of both...surely, if anything, is a Good Thing. I must look carefully at any such claim. And simply using the dark threads in religious experience and doctrine, legalism or everlasting punishment, to argue against any wish-fulfillment in our faith, as Lewis does in his first book The Pilgrim's Regress, is far from a full response.

No, Christians believe the absurd: The Creator of this enormous, random and energetic Universe came down, in some manner, to complete His action in human history and draw or reconcile individuals (some or all?) to himself through the life and death of Jesus, a first century Jew. And not just reconcile or draw them close in this life, but in the next. Although all physical evidence seems to be that my conscious mind simmers in essential symmetry with the meat we call brain, that the death of the brain is the death of the individual; still, somehow, Christians believe through the preservation of a non-material piece of me (soul), or simply the resurrection, or better, re-creation of the essence of me into another form/body (complete, we assume, with memories and feelings from this life!) God will preserve us through even the death-oblivion and elevate us to His Love-Presence as conscious beings.

That, friends, is Absurd. I cannot attempt anything like a full response here, nor do I have answers to all my questions, some of them serious questions.

But I would argue this: Christian belief is absurd primarily in the face of the random suffering we experience in nature and the fact of Death itself. It is easy to use quantum theory, or biological complexity, to argue for a transcendent Creator. Childhood leukemia, cancer, death of the innocent and the beloved...these are another thing. All theists have to address this tension, and as Christians do not (generally) resort to samsara and karma as explanations, the Puzzle remains.

Yet it must be admitted: the relationship between the Creator (assuming there is one)and the Creation, including biological us, must be complex beyond human comprehension. If saying God loves is anthropomorphic, so it is anthropomorphic to imagine what I'd do if I were God...and bloody hell why doesn't he tow the line! We cannot know what the extent of God's power is over human experience, nor what His plans were, if any, when this universe was made, nor why he does some things and doesn't do others. It is quite possible we evolved through a blend of amazing Principles designed to foster life in this Universe and gross Accident into beings with enough moral preoccupation to require a savior, an ambassador, the Son of the Landlord himself. To use a lame analogy (and I hate any sci fi or fantasy analogies in apologetics with a bias) the warp signature went out and the Vulcans came calling. Only instead of Vulcans, it was God himself.

I have not, and do not, find solace in the Fall. It seems a simple human guess, even when articulately laid out as in Lewis' "free will experiment;" the Jewish mythic belief that Adam's fall and original sin are responsible for suffering, for me, remains a guess. If I ever get an Answer...I will have to wait past my own death for it.

And when reflecting on suffering I always end here: Jesus healed. Shitloads. Attempts to compare him to other ancient healers and thereby dismiss the miraculous element in the gospels remain tenuous and weak. There is no record in human history, certainly not ancient history, of an individual like him. If I am wrong, please direct me. And no, Apollonius, for me, doesn't cut the mustard (sorry Penn and Teller). I am not being facetious; at this time, I find Jesus unique in the ancient world. Scores of healings are attributed to him...and not for show, nto as displays of power. The best reading of the evidence seems to be he healed because he felt compelled to alleviate human suffering in his presence.

And there, for now, I park this essay. If I get time, I'll tinker with what I have. In the meantime, this felt pretty good to write.

Peace to all in this season of suffering.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

In the Land of the Lotus Eaters

It is not quite that, O my brothers (just taught Clockwork Orange again). Second Life is not quite like eating the lotus. It has been recreation without purpose or goal, and that has been generally good. Is there a hypnotic component? Yes, as there is to general web surfing and television; while SL generally lacks the rich art of good film, it is certainly more interactive than tv or general web surfing. I'm part of a community there now which has bloody nothing to do with anything intellectual; I spend most of my time sword fighting.

Sl is deeply immersive, in a way I can't describe. For some, it just doesn't work. For others, those of us closer to fantasy moment to moment perhaps, it works very well. The early hypno-immersion is passing, though, and I'm getting more balanced in my use of the Grid as the Wonder dissipates. Frankly, you can do just about anything there...what you can't do yet you will be able to eventually, you just do it through an avatar, a little cartoon you. I've taught Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash before, and I think of that novel often, or did, at least, my first few times in.

I know that I have friends who blog, people I care about whose blogs I have not been reading anymore than I've been writing in my own. This does make me sad, and I hope to 'catch up' someday. The dark side of blog always was, as other bloggers have noted also, that I'd spend an hour or two writing my brains out...digging deep into my life or mind, and get a single comment, or two...for some time now it's felt a little like waiting for a parent to arrive home when I was alone in my room. Waiting. Or like emailing, almost, between myself and Sandalstraps (whose work I miss dearly...I'll trot by and read a bit after this). In short, the effort and return ratio reminded me a bit too much of my childhood. I don't think I'll ever fully quit blog, but it feels good to take a break from a hobby which was more like graduate school than a hobby.

Oh, I still have my questions about the human experience, about my faith in particular, I'm still in EFM (though I miss once a month or so to be with my family) and my mind continues to churn over spiritual questions at a lower chew-rate. Frankly, I'm not going to think my way into closeness with God. At least not solely or primarily. And I want a further spiritual experience than historical inquiry can give me. Taking a blog-break is also about that.

I will say that my son is doing well, my wife also, though school has started for her again and though she is near the end of her graduate program, she and I both feel the pressure. Another reason, incidentally, I've put seminary into the warming drawer, even off the back burner. My job is fine...I underappreciate it all the time. We want to move down the hill a bit, even 15 minutes closer to civilization would help us; we'd be closer to church and the martial arts gym (where I've hardly been...my torn ligament is healing, but slowly...thank God for physical therapy). If so, we won't move until summer. It's a weird market, and I can't predict if or when, but we'd like to. Sure I'd miss the snow...but I also wouldn't miss waking up at 5 to shovel my wife out or driving on steep ice covered roads in the dark. It's been a grand adventure, but it might be time to leave Walden.

You know, it does feel good to write here. I had forgotten.

Peace and love to all. My heart, my heart.