The guy with the crutches.

2003-11-20 23:37

When I was younger, I used to go hiking with my father. We liked mountains, especially. We could never pass up a hikable mountain. I’m not talking mountain climbing here; just friendly, walkable, paths. When we were in Lassen Volcanic National Park (my favorite of the national parks), one of the trails available was on Mount Lassen itself. Well, we couldn’t pass that up. So, up we went. We brought snacks and drinking water, because it was a longish hike. We took a few rest breaks. We struggled to cross the one place where a snowfield covered the trail; my father’s balance wasn’t all that good.

But we made it. We made it to the top of the mountain. And there, among the small crowd of people hanging around and enjoying the view, was a guy on crutches, with his leg in a cast.

There is something humbling about this. However hard it seemed to us to get up this hill, this man had made it before us, and under circumstances under which we would never have tried it. I’m not sure whether it was harder for him, or whether he was just so much better a hiker than us that it was easier. But it was very different.

This memory has often come to me when I do something hard, only to find out that other people found it easier.

Anyway, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by religious questions. I was taken to a Lutheran church as a little kid, but once I realized that the word “God” didn’t refer to someone or something in the ceiling over the alter, I sort of lost interest. Confirmation class was very disappointing. The first year was actually pretty good; the pastor handling the class was really compelling, and did a good job of talking about his own beliefs, rather than just reciting doctrine. The second year, it just wasn’t useful to me. I remember being very frustrated at being unable to get a straight answer as to whether or not I was expected to believe that the world was only 6,000 years old. I told them I wasn’t going to do the confirmation ceremony; after all, I wasn’t convinced, so why should I say I was convinced? If memory serves, my parents were directed to try to ensure that I went. I have no idea why. The impression I had at the time was that going through the motions was more important than actually believing, or even understanding, the questions.

It’s not as though I “lost” my faith. I just never had any. When I stopped going to church, well, I stopped. No big deal. I didn’t miss it; it seemed strange, formal, and arcane. When I went to college, at St. Olaf college, I found religious people disconcerting; the end impression was one of near-universal hypocrisy. Religion was an excuse to attack people who were different; it seemed to have no other purpose. At its best, it was merely empty ritual. There may have been a few exceptions, but they were rare. I spent a great deal of time, however, on the standard foundational questions of philosophy, especially morals. At the time, I insisted on restricting the question to ethics; the distinction I drew was that ethics were things you did because they were right, and morals were things you did because everyone else said they were right. Cynical little bastard.

Nonetheless, it was arguably progress; I went from the pure, unconcerned, amorality one associates with children and animals to a kind of gradual adoption of a set of ethical rules designed, originally, largely in utilitarian terms. At one point, I had identified five virtues which I was pretty sure were sufficient. I don’t even remember what they were, now.

Did I believe in God? No. The question was, it seemed to me, self-evidently unanswerable. Indeed, the perfect unanswerability of the question rather appealed to me. I became a militant agnostic, attacking both theistic and atheistic arguments with equal fervor – a hobby I retain to this day.

However, part of the key to this position is the recognition that the arguments are inherently empty, and, perhaps more importantly, that their emptiness is necessary. I gradually developed competing worldviews; I could interpret everything according two ways. One of these I now recognize as metaphysical naturalism; nothing exists but what you can observe with your senses. The other was its contrary; the claim that there are things you cannot observe.

There’s something you can only learn by doing this, which is that the systems are beautifully, perfectly, symmetrical. Each has ways of disregarding the other. The metaphysical naturalist can dismiss nearly anything as “hallucination” or “confirmation bias”; other tools exist when you need them. The supernaturalist, because the supernatural are mostly sentient spirits, can happily ignore any particular failure to perform on command.

Each system is perfectly self-consistent. Each has an explanation for everything; sometimes, the explanation is unsatisfying, but it’s still an answer. You never have to leave that comfortable little box. Essentially, neither system is falsifiable.

This leaves very little reason to prefer one over the other. You could argue from something like Occam’s Razor; don’t believe in anything you don’t need. I did that for a while. However, I gradually came to distrust this. After all, there are a number of cases where you can’t really measure something, but it’s still reasonable to assume it exists. Self-awareness is a good example. I can never know whether or not other people are really aware, but it seems to me that it is only polite to act as though they are, and not unreasonable to conclude that it is so.

As this was going on, I was still working on ethics. I reached the point where I was pretty sure that ethics was a descriptive science, but an impossible one. The thing measured was real, but close to unmeasurable. But real nonetheless; I grudgingly accepted the idea of moral standards which applied to everyone, but maintained that they couldn’t be known with certainty.

Over time (these things always take time), I gradually migrated towards Deism. Despite their theoretical equivalence, my worldviews weren’t quite on equal footing. Things like morality, self-awareness, and the sheer inexorability of mathematics, led me to believe that the material world was not everything. Eventually, I decided that, the question being apparently undecidable, I was going to pick an answer. The things I experience which I can’t describe are probably supernatural, and may involve God. This assertion, while not knowledge, makes for a good axiom. In fact, it led to a substantial simplification of great chunks of my cosmology, by providing pat (if mostly useless) answers to a number of other questions.

It may seem weird to assign an explanation, but consider: When I fell in love, I didn’t declare the explanation unknowable and refuse to commit to a position; I found a common experience whose description sounded familiar, and accepted it as an explanation.

Over time, I gradually drifted into somewhat more conventional theism. I remained (and remain to this day) formally agnostic; while I think God is the best explanation for my experiences, I can hardly call this belief “knowledge”. I don’t know. I’m not certain. But I have faith, and that seems to me enough.

C. S. Lewis convinced me that Christianity was not quite as horrible as it seemed, in particular, by being genuinely compassionate. I had, until then, mostly only seen Christians who felt they had an unlimited license to condemn things in others. Lewis’s positions, while not always perfectly sound, were certainly more coherent than what I had previously been exposed to.

The defining moment, I think, was when some friends of mine and I were at Minicon, reading bits from the provided Gideon Bible. (See? They do work!) What happened was, we stumbled across a widely-quoted fragment of Paul’s writings… and read the next verse. We kept looking. Time and time again, the most disturbing, obviously-wrong, teachings we’d seen on TV turned out to be fragmentary bits, taken out of context. Jesus was even more impressive; it turns out that He said all sorts of things no one likes to talk about.

This left me with an essential quandry: I like Jesus, but hated Christians. Christians, as a group, are inclined to hypocrisy, condemnation, vanity, arrogance, and just about everything else. Jesus was sufficiently pure that I found it reasonable to imagine that He could have been God incarnate.

Over the years, I have spent a great deal of time trying to reconcile these things; trying to figure out how to compare the teachings of Jesus to the world I live in, and figure out how to apply them. I have found myself at odds with nearly every major Christian denomination. I have been called just about everything, from a false teacher to a liar. And yet… Every so often, when I am unable to understand how anyone could love a given person, or what God could see in some aspect of creation, I open my mind enough to find out. These moments of brilliance are so unlike anything in my experience that I can hardly doubt. I maintain my skepticism; I think God made me a skeptic, because He needs people who will not believe what they are told. But, at another level, I have a great deal of confidence in these things.

I could be wrong about whether or not God exists. I do not believe I am wrong about whether or not we should be kind to people, or how important it is that we do so.

In this, I found myself changing. I am a very angry person, by nature. I anger quickly, I yell a lot, and I don’t listen carefully to what people say. And yet, over time, this has changed. When I am about to lose my temper, some still small voice reminds me that the person I am losing temper with is important, too. See you these billions of people? Every one of them is, in fact, worth dying for. Remember that.

By bits and pieces, in fits and starts, I have developed my theology. Fifteen years or so after I first started being able to really understand the questions, I have found answers I can live with. I have found things I am confident enough of to assert. I cannot assert them as certainty, or as knowledge, but I can assert them as being sufficiently likely to merit serious consideration.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve added a few minor points. A couple of weeks ago, in a digression from a conversation about what exactly “coveting” is, and why it should be bad, I came to realize that I like toys more than is particularly healthy for me, and that I need to work on living more simply. Resources are scarce enough. And, in the last week or two, I have come to realize that the oaths proffered by courts are entirely without merit. The fact is, the people who are going to lie (if they ever read this blog, I’m sure they know who they are) are going to lie under oath too, and the people who tell the truth will tell the truth anyway. The idea that there is a normal standard of honesty, and a special one for the courts, is simply wrong. I reject divisions between religious and secular; if there is truly a God who created all things, what can you point to and say that it is not in some way holy?

On the evening of Friday the 14th, I met the guy with the crutches.

Okay, there were no crutches. There were just people here already. These fifteen years of blood, sweat, and toil, have yielded a set of beliefs which have been known and practiced for hundreds of years. The things I believe, the attitudes I have, are taught by a group of people.

It turns out, you see, that I am apparently a Quaker.

Before Friday evening, I didn’t know much about Quakers. I’d heard a couple of jokes about them, I knew they were generally pacifists, and, well, that’s about it. I couldn’t have told you whether or not they were Christians. (Most are.) I couldn’t have told you what creed, if any, they hold to. (They don’t.) I couldn’t have told you any of this.

But when I found it, all written down, it was shockingly familiar. It was very, very, disconcerting. In my debates with other people on Christian web sites, I have not found my positions to be popular or widely accepted. They are widely considered a little weird, a little questionable perhaps. But I never knew of anyone else who believed these things.

You may think I’m complaining. I’m not. Can there be any gift greater than this?

On my own, I had very little support, except for the occasional flashes of the Divine, to tell me whether I was on the right path or not.

Had I stumbled across Quaker teachings a decade ago, I might well have believed them, but I would always have wondered whether they were true, or whether I was accepting them because they were part of a package deal.

But, in this one world, in this one incredibly outlandish chain of freak coincidences, it turns out that I built this theology from scratch. I know every nail, every strut, every piece of support in it. I know it like my own soul. No one convinced me. No flashy arguments, no compelling presentations. I did it myself, but I found company at the top of the mountain.

This is as close to being certain as anyone could ever hope to be. Am I still unsure? Of course. It is in my nature to be unsure. I don’t know why God needs skeptics, but when I see the harm done by people who are arrogant in their certainty, well, I can see the justification.

Wednesday night, there was a nearby Friends meeting. I went. I sat in a circle with people who never knew me before, and together, we tried to find God. No one said anything; words that can meet such a circumstance are rare. After an hour of silent worship, we shook hands. After this, people sat back in their chairs, relaxed for a moment. Then, and only then, they suggested introductions all around. I was not asked to introduce myself first; one of them went first. I was not a stranger, asked to justify myself; I was a friend, made to feel welcome.

It took me fifteen years to get here, but here I am, at last. I have climbed the mountain. After fifteen years of wondering why it is so hard to find God, I have my answer, and it is, as always, an answer so much better than anything I could have suggested or imagined that words fail entirely to describe it.

I am not, technically, a member of the meeting; that’s a process. It takes time. It takes acclimation. There is no hurry in the way the Friends do things. Why should people hurry things like this? Things which are important take time. If it’s important enough to do, it’s important enough to be sure you’re doing it right. However, at the same time, it is clear that I have found what I was looking for. I’ll keep going.

After fifteen years, I have found a religious group which doesn’t present itself as a barrier between me and God. I have found people who are not impatient to ask questions, who don’t demand justifications.

Robertson Davies, in The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, put it very well.

An envelope full of tracts came for me in the mail this morning. Tracts always ask foolish questions. “Are you on the way to Heaven?” said one of these. “Are you prepared to meet God?” said another. “Are you prepared for Eternity?” asked a third. “Are you going to a Christless grave?” enquired the last of the bunch. Really, I do not know the answers to these questions, and I doubt the ability of whoever writes the shaky English grammar of these tracts to answer them for me. I am not even prepared to meet Professor Einstein or Bertrand Russel; why should I vaingloriously assume that God would find me interesting? And I really cannot claim to be prepared for Eternity when I have so many doubts about today. I wish that whatever God-intoxicated pinhead directs these inquiries to me would cease and desist. In the struggle of the Alone toward the Alone, I do not like to be jostled.

A bit of elbow room, a little peace and quiet; these go a long way.

If you want to know what these “Quakers” are, I recommend the semi-official homepage of The Religious Society of Friends. The name “Quakers” may have originally been derogatory, but is widely used simply because it’s less confusing then trying to hear the capital “F” in “Friends”.

p.s.: Contrary to Kevin’s joking prediction, the “Quaker Meeting” was not, in fact, a LAN party.

Peter Seebach

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Comments

  1. MMMMmmmmm... I can taste those Crunchberries already.

    — seebs_lawyer · 2003-11-21 16:16 · #

  2. Uh oh . . .

    Dear Sir:

    We regret to inform you that the Cap'n Crunch promotional program was cancelled several years ago due to financial contraints involving the Snapple purchase. We apologize for any inconvenience this might have caused.

    Yr Most Humble & Obd't Sv't

    Geo. Fox

    — seebs_lawyer · 2003-11-26 23:16 · #

 
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