Sunday, May 29, 2011

not my question

I've been reading this blog Conversion Diary, by Jennifer Fulwiler, and her prior blog The Reluctant Atheist. I find her to be an engaging writer, and I'm fascinated by the process of conversion from whatever (usually nothing) to Catholicism. Hers was an intellectually-driven path, and it seems it's been trod many times, by the likes of Thomas Merton and C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton.

(Attracting, perhaps, a disproportionate number of Englishmen known by their initials.)

I read Merton's book, and I don't understand the hype, because I don't think it's very good or interesting. The depiction of life in the first half of the 20th century is detailed, but as a story of conversion, it's full of vague allusions and maybe some presumption that the reader has already been there before, or something. I didn't learn anything except that Merton circled Catholicism for a while trying to decide if that was his thing, and that's hardly remarkable: I've done that with several religions, as well as a few employers and plenty of girlfriends. So it tells you nothing about conversion except that the Catholic Church and its priests are involved, and really, none of us are that stupid. There's obviously something more to it.

I also read C.S. Lewis's Surprised By Joy, and had a similar experience. Lots of vagueness and allusion, without much substance. Having read a few passages from Mere Christianity, I'm not optimistic about his other works.

The process interests me for a few reasons:
  • Ever since I was tiny, I've been fascinated by the ways and directions human beings change, and respond to our thoughts and emotions and circumstances; in particular, the processes we use to change ourselves;
  • To those converts, "orthodox" Christianity (which to them is the Roman Catholic Church, full stop) is the most intellectually consistent and reasonable thing in the world, which is a bit different from my experience of it;
  • The question of whether God exists isn't important to me, and I want to understand why, and how to better explain that to people.
I started writing this back in November, and let it sit for a lack of direction, but Fulwiler just recently had a column in the National Catholic Register that gives me something to go on.

Some background to synopsize the article: in 2005, Newsweek reported that author Anne Rice (Interview With the Vampire etc.) had re-joined the Catholic Church in 1998. The Catholic public voices were understandably pleased that someone famous had publicly gone to the Catholic Church instead of the many alternatives: the publicly notable Catholics listed above all died at least 30 years ago, and the list hasn't refreshed often.

In 2010, following the Church's substantial support for the anti-gay Proposition 8, she suddenly noticed that the modern Catholic Church is quite hostile to gays (outside the priesthood), and somewhat confusingly left the Church, stuck with Christ, and no longer considers herself a Christian.

Got that?

Back to Mrs. Fulwiler. Here's her theory about Anne Rice's un-conversion:
At the time, I got a lot of emails from blog readers asking for my take on this turn of events. I didn't respond because I was embarrassed to say what I really thought:

It was probably spiritual attack.

It's a subject nobody wants to talk about. Even among fellow Catholics, you risk being seen as superstitious or ignorant if you acknowledge that there is a dark force whose sole purpose is to keep people away from the light of Christ. And, to be sure, some hesitation about the subject is warranted: We've all heard stories of people who became overly fixated on the subject of evil, renouncing personal responsibility with "The devil made me do it!" arguments or seeing demons around every corner. So it's good not to place too much emphasis on the forces of evil. But this is a subject where we want to be very, very careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and I think that modern Catholic culture has done just that.
Uhhh...okay! Let's skip the obvious questions and go with that for a minute...
In my own journey, an understanding of the reality of demonic activity has been critical to my spiritual life. I've been fortunate to have a spiritual director who has helped me learn to recognize when these kind of forces may be at work, and to act accordingly. For example, at one point I walked into one of our meetings to announce that I was quitting a spiritual writing project I'd just started. Agitated and jumpy, I ranted about how I was sick of this and sick of that, I knew everyone would hate it, and, besides, it was all moot since I was going to fail anyway.

"This line of thinking is not from Christ," she said. Christ doesn't accuse. He doesn't fill your heart with resentment of others. He never makes you feel like a failure. She gently pointed out that I needed to wait to make a decision about how to proceed until I was in a place of peace. Sure enough, after going to confession and spending time in prayer, I realized I should continue with the project, and it ended up being beneficial to me as well as others. I suppose that my agitation could have just been that I was in a bad mood or had been drinking too much coffee (though I doubt it, given some of the specific spiritual "symptoms")--but, either way, it was helpful for me to learn to recognize and reject those thought patterns that are not of Christ.
I'm not sure about your (probably non-Buddhist) response to that, but mine is something like "Uhhhhhh what?".

I want to be clear that noticing your thoughts and impulses and treating them with a sense of skeptical perspective is a genuinely fantastic thing to do, and is sort of a sine qua non of Buddhist practice. The teachings give us a dizzying array of tools (of which I honestly use, like, two), but simply "noticing what's happening right now" is really the most elemental. Good for Jennifer!

The thing I can't wrap my head around is the need for our thoughts to have some sort of supernatural basis. There's a perfectly rational, and physical, explanation for it: the same way your ear creates sound signals in your nervous system whether you're trying or not, your mind creates thoughts. Imagine "thoughting" as a verb. It's what minds do. Practice, in one sense, is exercising our ability to treat those thoughts, or react to them, in different ways. But there's no one out there trying to get us. Thoughts come from the mind. Why bring demons into it? (I won't ask how you tell which lines of thought are supernaturally imposed by Christ or Satan and how you tell when it's just, as Scrooge proposed of Marley's ghost, "an undigested bit of beef." I can't imagine how you could convince me of your premise.)

I think that ultimately I just have no patience for unprovable propositions. How does it help? If God exists, what exactly are we going to change? We might change our behavior, change our relationships to other people, change our ways of thinking...

Hmm. We'd be changing ourselves. It would be us, working on us. Why not forget about whether God exists, and just change ourselves anyway?

That's basically what Buddha said. People asked him these sorts of questions all the time, and although they didn't have the does-God-exist question (or its relative, "How does a good and loving God allow the presence of evil?"), there is a short list:
  • Is the cosmos eternal, or not eternal?
  • Is the cosmos finite, or infinite?
  • Does the Buddha/a person continue after death, or not?
  • Are the mind and body separate, or the same?
Here's a roughly condensed version of the primary story where this came up: A monk named Malunkyaputta came to the Buddha and said, "Answer these questions, or I will no longer practice with you."

The Buddha said, "Foolish man, did I ever tell you that if you came to practice, that I would answer these questions?". Malunkyaputta said, "Well, no."

And then we get one of Buddhism's most awesome passages:
"It's just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me... until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short... until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored... until I know his home village, town, or city... until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow... until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated... until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.' The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.

"In the same way, if anyone were to say, 'I won't live the holy life under the Blessed One as long as he does not declare to me that 'The cosmos is eternal,'... or that 'After death a Buddha neither exists nor does not exist,' the man would die and those things would still remain undeclared by the Buddha."
That's why I'm not really interested if God exists or not. I could wonder and philosophize about it forever, and then I'd be dead anyway.
"Malunkyaputta, it's not the case that when there is the view, 'The cosmos is eternal,' there is the living of the holy life. And it's not the case that when there is the view, 'The cosmos is not eternal,' there is the living of the holy life. When there is the view, 'The cosmos is eternal,' and when there is the view, 'The cosmos is not eternal,' there is still the birth, there is the aging, there is the death, there is the sorrow, lamentation, pain, despair, & distress whose destruction I make known right in the here & now."
No matter what our views on the unanswered questions, we still experience birth, sickness, aging, and death; we still experience "sorrow, lamentation, pain, despair, and distress." How we engage with our experience is entirely, utterly, completely about us. Our metaphysics don't matter. How are we going to respond? How are we going to act?

No comments:

Post a Comment