Saturday, October 31, 2009

Event Horizon

This time of the semester is awful for writing; I notice that last spring there was a similar midsemester lull in my blog entries. Life is full of rhythms, which has been something of a theme with me lately. There are microrhythms and macrorhythms, daily routines and seasonal variations. We can dance with time gracefully or we can wrestle it for a blessing. And maybe that choice, too, has its own rhythm.

One of those rhythms, in my life, is the rhythm of depression. I don't struggle with depression because struggling doesn't help. I don't suffer from depression because as corny as it sounds, suffering really is optional. I prefer to say that I have some experience with it, assiduously avoiding any kind of value judgment. Mine is admittedly mild; I'm remarkably productive, even when I'm in a funk, and I'm not (currently) on medication. There are steps I take to help manage it, but the reality is, in my experience, that it comes in waves and rhythms, and I'm learning to recognize them.

The idea that I might be depressed came as a shock to me when I first confronted it -- or was first confronted by it. I'm rarely sad, so it never occurred to me that I might be depressed. Stressed out? Sure, sometimes. Unstable? Duh -- have you met me? (I'm a musician, for God's sake. We are not normal.) But depressed? This did not come to mind, at least not to mine. I equated depression with sadness, and I had elaborate mechanisms for keeping negative emotions, like sadness and anger, at bay. It certainly didn't occur to me that this might itself be a symptom.

What I've discovered is that, for me, being genuinely sad is a luxury, and this is precisely what makes me susceptible to depression. Depression is not sadness but a kind of affective fog, a numbness that nothing breaks through. An insuperable case of the blahs. And my normal emotional baseline is relatively inert. I'm not easily moved. What this means is that it's not really a far cry from here to a bona fide depressive episode, where the fog rolls in and I feel like I'm staring into a gaping existential maw.

It's easy to think, in these cases, that what I need is something to believe in, some kind of hope, but that does not seem to be true. What works better, for me, is to simply roll with it. To embrace it. To lean into the rhythm when it comes: Yes, I'm depressed right now. Yes, it's quite possible that life has no intrinsic meaning. Yes, it's kind of hard right now to maintain the patina of social acceptability. But if life is meaningless then it always has been, and I've felt better in this meaningless universe and will feel better again. And if it's not meaningless, then what I'm experiencing now is simply the perception of meaninglessness, and it will pass. If it gets too bad, I'll get some help; in the meantime, let's not make any major decisions.

One of the things that has helped me a lot is to give up the quest to find meaning and accept responsibility for the task of making meaning. To embrace the gaping existential maw, to fling myself into the void and reverse my assumptions: depression is not some exception to my usual and better-adjusted self but a quite understandable response to my apprehension of our utter contingency. It's not that life is meaningless but that we can't know, and therefore have no way to tell which kinds of meaning might actually obtain and which bits we just made up. In which case, what we consider the normal range of human emotion is basically an arbitrary response to the vagaries of life based on a sense of meaning that has no foundation. A flattening of affect is a perfectly reasonable response, if you ask me.

Except that it's really no fun, and not that interesting, and all other things being equal I prefer the times that I can ignore that and appreciate the wondrous diversity of life. Being in a depressive episode simply means I've temporarily lost my mojo, that I'm off my groove a little bit. It is my psyche at rest, and maybe sometimes I need that rest. It is indeed a rhythm, and maybe somehow I need that rhythm.

I'm also a very religious person, so this has (of course) manifested in how I think about God, and something I've found very helpful is to recognize that I'm what's called a theological non-realist. This marks a kind of d├ętente between my atheist and believing selves, mostly by denying either of them the last word. The gist of it is that none of our God-talk apprehends the "really real." We're all shooting in the dark. God could not exist at all, or God could exist and be nothing like what is taught by our favorite religions.

There could be an infinite number of Gods, creating each other like some nested set of ontological Russian dolls. Our universe could be utterly and starkly alone, a cosmological fluke. The "really real" could be God, or not-God, or any number of variations of God or not-God. We have no way of knowing, no vantage point that allows us purchase on the answer. Some of our speculations could be correct -- even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes -- but we're still clueless as to which bits those might be.

Instead, our God-talk is usually about something else, often having to do with ethics or justice. We bind up our sense of what is right and good and true and we project it into the ether and call it God. Sometimes we do it almost that baldly. And yes, even my theological non-realism is likely a product of something else, some artifact of my personality or upbringing or cultural conditioning -- and this might tank my assertion if it didn't follow so neatly from that assertion. That's actually one of the things I love about it.

I don't why being here would bring with it such a palpable sense of peace, but it does. The fact that I love working for a church does not need to make some kind of deep ontological sense because there isn't any such thing. There are any number of very human reasons that I love it and those are good enough. Being on a church staff is not, at the end of the day, intrinsically any more ironic than getting up in a good mood -- or getting up at all. I'm not there to undermine or challenge what they're doing, but to help them do it, even if I can't sign off on the metaphysical assumptions behind it. People need it, and I need it, for various and varied reasons most of us don't think about and don't want to. And none of us gets to be in charge of what those reasons are supposed to be.

A 14th-century English mystic described God as being within a "cloud of unknowing, " which is quite possibly a bridge between my skepticism and the mystical path. For the author of the Cloud, the way forward is direct experience of God rather than the pursuit of knowledge, and I'm just as skeptical about direct experience as anything else. On one hand, I recognize the validity of the mystical experience and there are a number of my own experiences I'm rather fond of.

On the other hand, I'm a lousy mystic. I've dabbled in centering prayer and even chanted Psalms, but I'm not interested in the kind of discipline required to take the mystical path seriously. Plus, I find some of it a bit dubious; as sympathetic as I am to the value of the experience, I don't usually buy the explanation of what the experience is supposed to be. Union with the Godhead -- or an induced brain-state? Transcending the self -- or suspending the process by which we define the boundaries of self? Tell me that meditation helps you cope with the world, and I'll believe you. Tell me that you've seen the face of God or become one with the universe and I'm liable to change the subject.

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing assumed that there was a "really real" God in the center of that cloud. I'm not so sure, though of course I can't rule it out. Years ago, as my conservative theology began to break down, I could feel my assumptions about the Bible slipping away. It dawned on me that if the Bible were true, it was in the sense of pointing to Something Else, and at the time this Something Else presented itself in a kind of vision, of something stark and terrifying -- not exactly malicious, but not warm and cuddly either. Somehow I knew that if I continued to play out my curiosity, it would mean facing whatever this was. Later, when belief in God failed me as well, it was like I looked to the place where God used to be and there was nothing there, just a stark desert landscape -- which is why I use a desert landscape for my Facebook profile.

Scientists use "event horizon" to describe the theoretical boundary of observation, a place beyond which we cannot see or measure or explore. It's the point in a black hole where light bends in on itself and can't escape. It's almost as if the the universe insists on keeping certain mysteries to itself. I feel the same way about this "cloud"; it's not so much that God is hidden behind it as that we simply can't see or know what lies beyond. When I first encountered the desert landscape of my soul I thought maybe I'd just call the empty place "God" and get on with things. Robert Jensen, in All My Bones Shake, says that God is the name we give to the mystery of the universe. This is not, for Jensen -- who is both an atheist and a Christian -- a "God of the gaps," but a way of recognizing our inclination, in the face of wonder, to form praises on our lips.

And maybe, in a nod to my English mystic, I can decide that the "really real," whatever it might be, is God -- even if God doesn't exist. I'm not sure I'm ready to go there, but it's an option. It might serve as a way to remind us of our smallness, our contingency, our unknowing. Most of us strain, somewhere, for a glimpse of the numinous. I can't tell you how you're supposed to do it, or where. But sometimes, on that desert landscape, I can see a bit of a breeze, if I don't try to look too hard.

And that's enough.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Canning Pickles

Had coffee with a friend of mine last week, whom I hadn't heard from in awhile. He's a (very) part-time music minister at a small church not far from us, and while we're not exactly close, he sometimes seeks me out for counsel. In the right conditions, it's something I do pretty well, and I enjoy it. Part of my psychological makeup is a need to feel useful and competent, which I don't think is terribly unusual, but since I'm being transparent about my dysfunctions I might as well confess that I often enjoy the feeling of being useful (which includes the feeling of being very smart and insightful) more than the person's company. Sick, I know. This is my life.

My friend has a Yoder-inspired "radical discipleship" kind of theology similar to the one I tried to have before I stopped bothering. This tends to get him in trouble. There's a bit of a game to navigating an evangelical church when your theology doesn't quite match up, and he's so adamant that there shouldn't be a game that he refuses to play it. Plus, his situation is interesting: he gets a very meager stipend to lead music, which he thought was basically a staff position, until he learned recently that the elders mostly think of him as a benevolence case. That has to hurt a little.

Recently, his Sunday School class was studying the passage in Numbers about the 12 spies. The spies are sent into Canaan and 10 of them report that the Canaanites are a bunch of preternatural badasses and they might as well turn back, whereas Joshua and Caleb come back convinced that YHWH will fight for them and this will be a cakewalk. 10 were bad and 2 were good, as the old song goes, a conspicuous numbering that probably comes to us (perhaps along with the rest of the story) from the southern tribes somewhere around the 6th century BCE.

One of the obvious take-aways from the story, at the Sunday School level, is to trust in God despite the obvious circumstances. This is the angle my friend took, encouraging them that with God on our side, we can do anything God asks of us. This was met with resistance, however, from a couple of women in the class, who insisted that sometimes life is just too hard. We're human and frail. For good or for ill, they could relate to the 10 naysayers and weren't afraid to say so. When my friend tried to correct their theology on this matter, they began, rather loudly, to discuss canning pickles.

Later, when they got to the part where Moses falls face down on the ground, the class pondered what this might be about. Some suggested that Moses had simply given up, falling on his face out of pure frustration. My friend pointed out that the Hebrew word used in the passage means to prostrate oneself in worship, and that Moses was probably humbling himself before the Lord and surrendering the situation to God's control. He pointed out that it is a corresponding Greek word that is the one most commonly translated "worship" in the New Testament. The pickle canners responded to this by saying something to the effect of "Yeah right. Like we're gonna do that," whereupon they resumed their discussion.

Now, the story comes to me from my friend, so I'm not sure that you or I would have experienced the pickle ladies as quite that rude. Then again, they might have been. I don't know. But I invited him to look beyond both the passive-agressive tactics and the theological content of their resistance and consider their social context. This is a small town in a downward economy. It might not be terribly surprising that they identify more with the 10 "bad" spies. It's quite possible that, however much they might be faithful churchgoers, their religion has never really offered them the sense that they can do anything, and they don't expect it to.

Instead, it offers solace, repose, and a form of community in the midst of a repressive economy -- not just recession but capitalism itself -- that they're not allowed to see for what it is. What I call oppression, from my academic, leftist, nerdy white guy perspective, they call bad luck or hard times. I'm going to guess, and I'm going to sound like I'm stereotyping horribly, that they're probably more likely to have the country station tuned in while they're canning pickles than they are the local Christian pop station. Their theme song is probably less "I Can Do All Things" than it is "Help Me Make it through the Night."

These thoughts are inspired, at least in part, by a book I read for a comprehensive exam called White Soul: Country Music, the Church, and Working Americans. It's actually a theological work, whose author, Tex Sample (I did not make that up), studied at Boston University and now teaches at St. Paul's in Kansas City. His goal is to help the church understand and minister to working-class culture, using country music as the lens through which to do this, and along the way he offers a challenge to those of us who might look down our liberal bourgeois noses at working-class culture and country fans in general.

I'm totally guilty of this. I remember going to my first demolition derby, on a fluke, and though I admitted to really enjoying it, I qualified this to one of my artsy friends by saying "I felt like I should be eating pork rinds and wearing a wife-beater." The subtext here is that I was allowed to enjoy it only as a form of slumming. I've also made my share of NASCAR jokes. It's true; I confess.

As my friend and I discussed his Sunday School class, "canning pickles" quickly became a trope for the quotitidian, for the daily concerns of people who do not have time for or interest in arcane theological arguments. The pickle canners were saying, to my friend, that his theology was not practical for them. It was literally nonsense. They couldn't see any impact on their daily lives from his reading of things, and being theologically or exegetically correct was not a priority for them. They wanted cameraderie, fellowship, a bit of solace. They wanted their weekly opportunity to check in and be seen, maybe catch a bit of gossip -- to encounter the divine for a moment and then go back home to the roast in the crockpot. This ritual -- from the gossip to the roast, with the numinous in between -- serves to confirm both their perspective on the world and their place in it.

In this, I think they're like most people. Let's face it: the people who go into theology, or ministry, or religious studies, or become militant atheists -- and I submit these people have more in common than they might think -- are kind of weird. They think about religion a lot more than normal people do. It looms large in their minds. I remember listening to A Prairie Home Companion one night and discovering that, as odd as it sounds, I envied the people of Lake Wobegone, not for their idyllic life on the edge of the prairie but because their relationship with religion was so...normal.

Seriously, most people do not think about religion with the kind of frequency or at the level that I do, and sometimes I envy them. In a way, it's been my goal to find a way closer to where they are in spite of the fact that I'm constitutionally unable to be truly irreligious. Hence the turn from theology to religious studies, from being conservative to trying to be radical to admitting that I'm really just a liberal.

This doesn't make a lot of sense to my friend (not that I tried to explain it as such), who takes Jesus more seriously than that, to his credit. I don't find it realistic, and he's constantly running up against the realpolitik of a small-town church. I encouraged him to look at it more like a mission field, and to spend the kind of time learning the culture that a good missionary would, and that this includes the religious culture as well -- even when it clashes with his theology. I encouraged him to think less in terms of what he was there to teach than what he was there to learn. I also told him they wouldn't understand his theology until they knew what love looked like as it flows from his understanding of the gospel. Model that, and teach it, I said, and then they'll have a framework in which the theology makes sense.

In the meantime, he's learning how to can pickles.