Friday, July 10, 2009

Come listen, gather 'round

Flowers are not a cliche

On the boat, I kept a little notebook of blog ideas. I've abandoned the practice here, partly because my life ashore seems so gosh-darned boring, but mainly because it's hard work to be constantly alert to those twinges of conscience that say: ah. Here's a story. Follow it.

I'm looking through that little notebook now, remembering how and where my twinges happened, remembering a different life that felt not just sensually rich but also ideologically rich. I know there are as many ideas floating through the air here, but my receptors feel deadened, asleep. Maybe that's why my late posts have been so bombastic and dictatorial. Even though I believe them, I'm annoyed at their tone. Get off your high horse, Melissa, I want to say. Get over yourself. Geez.

So I've been asking myself how I can build that spirit of receptivity into my life here, how can I begin to put out my antennae again. Taking pictures makes me feel alive. Playing Bob Dylan songs on the piano that I couldn't have on the boat. Cooking pad Thai. Growing basil.

Here I am, though, a person who allegedly thrives on adventure, cringing from the thought of it here, even though I know the more adventurous I allow myself to be, the more rich my life feels. David Wilcox, one of my favorite contemporary folk artists is performing tonight here in Chattanooga, of all places, and I'd love to go, but I'm not going to. Why? Because it's too expensive. Because guys assume that girls alone at bars only want one thing. Because I don't have anyone to accompany me.

During the childhood and on the boat, it was my cross-cultural interactions that made me feel alive. In the Bahamas, especially, I came into the culture as an equal. I encountered the middle class, not exclusively the poor, as development workers and missionaries do, or the rich, as we find immigrants in this country to be. I worked alongside Bahamians who had just about as much money as we did, some slightly less, some more. Nappy is still the best non-American friend I've made since boarding school.

Seeing things through other people's eyes makes me feel awake. Here I can get that perspective only through stories, and songs, and art. Maybe I can also begin to find it through adventure again, in small ways. By spending the day at the park or the beach or the library. Which I'm discovering about adventure, though, is that the hard part is doing it alone. The hard part is being alone. That's what's scary.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

All your dreams are on their way


I’ve been thinking a lot about belief lately, maybe because of the response I received to my Lenten blog, which has led to a lot of additional reading. My father also sent me a link to the Evangelical Manifesto, a document produced by a group of evangelicals trying to sort their way out of the political mess they’ve managed to get themselves into during the last eight years. I’m reading Velvet Elvis, by Rob Bell, subtitled “Repainting the Christian Faith,” which I am finding enlightening in all kinds of ways. My favorite quote from today is:
The thing we are searching for is not somewhere else. It is right here. And we can only find it when we give up the search, when we surrender, when we trust. Trust that God is already putting us back together.

I believe that, as you know if you’ve been reading for the last few months. Or I believe some days, not others. Today, I believe, as Paul Simon said so eloquently, all my dreams are on their way. Today I believe that I don’t need to search for what I already have. I can trust that God is ordering my steps, leading me in the way that I should go.

Other people don’t believe, and I see their point, too. It feels ludicrous sometimes. It feels New-Agey, hippie-ish, gullible--or to put not too fine a point on it--stupid. Some days I believe I am nothing but matter in motion. God had nothing to do with that email in my in-box, that day I spent with a friend, those hours on the grass. Those are just moments in time, a quantum mechanical construct. I’m a rat, dying slowly in a cage, and not in a bad way. I’m moving through time, the way an animal moves through time: eating, sleeping, reproducing. Some days that’s all I am.

My whispered prayer, then, is: Lord, I believe--help thou my unbelief.

The thing, though, about belief is that everyone believes what they believe. And they believe it because they believe it, and if they didn’t, they wouldn’t believe it. Whether you believe you’re just a product of your biology and chemistry, or heading on a divinely oriented teleological journey, either way, you believe. At some point, you said, “Here I stand. This I believe.”

My reasoning is beginning to sound circular, because I can’t seem to find a way to put into words the irreducibility of belief. At times like these I take a shortcut, by quoting someone much smarter than I am. Here’s Kierkegaard:
Thus, if someone wants to have faith and reason too, well, let the comedy begin. He wants to have faith, but he wants to assure himself with the aid of objective deliberation. What happens? With the aid of reason, the absurd becomes something else; it becomes probable, it becomes more probable, it may become to a high degree exceedingly probable, even demonstrable. Now he is all set to believe it, and he dares to say of himself that he does not believe as shoemakers and tailors and simple folk do, but only after long and careful deliberation. Now he is all set to believe, but, lo and behold, now it has indeed become impossible to believe. The almost probable, the probable, the to-a-high-degree and exceedingly probable, that he can almost know, or as good as know, to a higher degree and exceedingly almost know — but believe, that cannot be done, for the absurd is precisely the object of faith and only that can be believed with the passion of inwardness.

Beliefs can change, but not because of anything I can do. I don’t believe that anyone really has the ability to change the beliefs of another person. There’s the rub, though: that’s a belief. And beliefs only make sense from the inside.

For an example, let’s consider Osama bin Laden. I’m not a big fan of the guy, but his beliefs have complete internal consistency. He believes that we Americans deserve to die, so he is setting about killing us. It’s rational. It makes sense. I just don’t agree with him. I don’t believe what he believes.

Or that guy who assassinated Dr. George Tiller, the alleged “baby killer” of Kansas. I don’t see why there’s so much confusion about it. It’s not an argument about abortion. It’s simply the just war debate all over again. We don’t think twice about whether or not World War II was a just war--innocent people were being slaughtered, and we needed to stop that. From the perspective of Dr. Tiller’s murderer, his decision was completely rational and justified. It made sense. I just don’t agree with him.

So what do we do with people we disagree with? We can try to convince them that we’re right, but somehow I don’t think anyone’s going to convince bin Laden of the advantages of a secular democracy, and I don’t see many pro-lifers convincing pro-choicers or vice versa.

That’s the thing about belief. The belief and the truth become indistinguishable, even if the believer is dead wrong. That’s one of many reasons that I’ve stopped believing in evangelization, of any stripe. Part of my belief system is humility, that God is in control, and He’ll make happen what He needs to make happen. It’s not my job to tell other people that they’re wrong.

I’ve taken a leap of faith. We all have. And we’re all by ourselves on that cliff, doing the leaping.