Crisis, Conversion, and Concern

I’ve never thought of myself or my family as particularly religious. My parents were all over the map: my father, the son of a pastor, was a staunch atheist; my mother’s side is of Jewish background, but my mom was never serious about any of it. Growing up, I remember a Christmas tree in the house at the end of each year. We went neither to church nor temple, except to hear Christmas music or chamber groups now and then. My mother, for her part, preferred her own explorations and quotations out of Jung, Alan Watts, Christian Gnostic traditions, while I grew up rather equally fond of the Gospel of Thomas and the Tao Te Ching. All in all, we’re a pretty good example of that curious syncretism that sometimes emerges when traditional faiths crash into the fragmentation and disenchantment of modern life.

Much of the rest of our family, however, remains at least culturally Jewish, attending temple, forming friendships with others in the community, and so on. Also, the matriarch on that side of the family is a well-known Holocaust survivor, and her formidable presence and story has powerfully cemented the Jewish identity for many in family and beyond.

Very recently, a medium-close relative of mine (let’s call her Claire) abruptly announced that she was abandoning the religion of her side of the family, with which she was raised and socialized from an early age, in favor of a revivalist Christian congregation in Texas. In a long email that seems to walk the line between the ramblings of unhinged desperation and the delirious afterglow of spiritual awakening, Claire announced to the entire extended family that she had begun attending this church over a year before, when “the whispers in [her] head had turned to screams”. Awed by the parishioners’ tolerance of “the terrible legacy” she carries through her Jewish upbringing and heritage, yet filled with pride at being “the root”, Claire announced to us all that her “heart had been broken open with love and grace”.

I find myself constantly trying to make sense of what happened. Others have had much more intense reactions. One family member has already declared, point-blank, that Claire must be going insane, that the conversion can only be a sign of ongoing mental collapse. Others are furious with her, refusing to speak to her. (The matriarch, surprisingly, has taken it in stride.)

Looking back, there were plenty of circumstances that might have nursed this conversion. The birth of Claire’s children was exceptionally difficult and traumatizing, and she was laid low for many months after. She abandoned an exciting career to take care of her children, and grew increasingly unhappy with her marriage as her husband gradually gave up trying to earn a living and became a homebody. In recent years, I would see her rarely, mainly at holiday gatherings–sitting alone, surrounded by an envelope and an expression of pain, or making small talk in a tired, rueful tone.

Yet beyond this, even without these things going wrong, a deep weariness was apparent in her life long before that first journey to the church. It’s related to the same fragmentation and disenchantment I mentioned before. Claire was raised in an oddly sterile, secularized kind of world, where material comforts combine with a strange powerlessness to create a world without certainties and without magic. Her Judaism was conceived solely as a social event to be done once a week, with as little passion, spiritual or mystical concern as possible. Perhaps her jump towards charismatic religion has as much to do with escaping this sterility as with the actual troubles and disappointments she faced.

I have felt similar things, and struggled with them. But my own movement has been far slower, and far more ambiguous, than Claire’s.

Over the years, I have evolved from being obnoxiously critical of all religion–like reading excerpts of Hitchens’ “God is Not Great” in a loud voice to whoever would listen, pumping my fist in agreement–to a kind of cautious sympathy for people of faith. Years of my life spent learning about the powers of science have slowly forced me to consider its limitations as well. I’ve also gradually developed an aversion to people who cheerfully say we are nothing but biochemical machines produced by mindless selection–they seem to be in the thrall of some bizarre game of self-negation, a love of system over soul whose ultimate consequences could prove as creepy as those of religious maniacs themselves.

When you get down to it, life accosts us all with all kinds of existential riddles, horrors and mysteries, and gives us but a short time to come to grips with them in whatever way we can. And so perhaps there is merit in admitting there is something inscrutable and astounding about the universe and our condition, something which science will never nail down–and if you like, calling it God.

Camus thought that, faced with these hard existential facts and the apparent starkness of the human predicament, resorting to religious belief and mythology amounted to “philosophical suicide”, an abandonment of radical human freedom. Yet I have seen too much of the torments of people of deep faith–the constant quiet struggle with death and doubt, the uncertainty as to which path to follow, the times when suffering stubbornly hangs on despite the best of deeds, the problem of evil in the world. I find it hard to believe any this is inherently less noble or less existentially valid of a struggle than that of Camus’ stoic Sisyphean ideal. Indeed, what greater assertion of will and freedom could there be than to devote oneself to a set of beliefs not out of certainty they or true–indeed knowing they can never be proved in this life–but out of a profound decision to live as though they were true? It surely takes no less determination or courage than does Sisyphus rolling his boulder.

This is not to say all motivations for invoking God are especially deep or noble. Surely much of what passes for religion has nothing to do with humbly seeking the ineffable mystery, struggling with “the silence of God”, or tenaciously affirming a moral law in a world that disregards it; rather, much religion is about putting words in the mouth of God for the sake of one’s own reassurance (or vengeance). One can all too easily hide from God by hunkering down inside one’s own image of God. Voltaire’s remark that “if God made man in His image, man has more than reciprocated”, or the old warning “if you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha!”, shows this practice has a long history.

Similarly, many invoke God out of the need for a formula or recipe, to tame the ambiguity and chaos of life and thus escape from the torment of their own freedom. Camus was keen to point out the singular paradox that genuine freedom is burdensome, and often thankless; for while the abdication of freedom to a higher authority may itself feel like freedom, it leaves one secretly in chains. History has shown too that such a surrender need hardly be evidence of a divine authority at work, since it works just as well with a charismatic leader, an ideology, or a social role. In her email, Claire wrote that she has “never felt freer”. I wonder what kind of freedom she meant.

Holy books like the Bible or the Koran seem to have a lasting charge of that very magical potency that seems missing from our current lives–just look at their ongoing ability to enthrall the human mind in its own need to see the world meaningfully. They invite us to see the world the way we most naturally desire, one filled with reassurance, clear goals, and personal meaning.

Yet while I find much wisdom and even perhaps miracles in these books, there is also no denying their terrifying scenes of and exhortations to gore and barbarism. I am convinced that these darker aspects of warfare and vengeance and sacrifice–though waved away in polite circles, and among outsiders–are as big a part of their appeal as the goodness-and-charity bit. God won’t just fill you with everlasting love, peace and submission; he will also hideously smite your enemies and cast them into eternal fire. But in the minds of those worn raw by dismal life circumstances or constant humiliation, such promises become like catnip to the mind.

At any rate, existentialist stoicism is a bitter and wearying pill to swallow, faith-friendly or not, and most people cannot swallow it all the time. So who knows.

It’s strange how you can’t really know the most basic things about what people will do, or who they are. Growing up, Claire had only ever struck me as a worldly, even-tempered girl, with a unflaggingly irreverent, wry wit. Religious dogma seemed about as unimportant to her general temperament as anything could be. Now, many of the people who grew up with her claim not to know quite who she is any more. It is shocking how a change of label, or going to “another tribe”, can so drastically change what you perceive deeper down.

Perhaps Claire has seen God–and perhaps He has wondrously healed her. Yet I struggle with the idea of finding God out of desperation, or through self-shaming (“the terrible legacy”), and even more with the idea of condemning all paths to God other than one’s own. In these things, I tend to read not God’s work, but an all-too-human desperation for meaning and hope in a world culture that has failed to offer them. But I hope I’m wrong.

Only time will tell whether this conversion experience is just a temporary coping mechanism, or a permanent change. If the latter, it has revealed a whole other self that none of us ever suspected she harbored. Perhaps that really is her true self, the one God intended for her. I don’t expect I will ever find God in the same way, or the same place (though you never can know). But whoever she is, whatever tribe she winds up in, we will be there for her.

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