Saturday, June 28, 2014

the legend of miraculous resolve

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried. —G.K. Chesterton
When I've mused on my dismissal of my faith-beliefs, I've usually emphasized the intellectual and philosophical causes. I've avoided a narrow focus on the minutiae of my own history with religion, which is intertwined with tiresome sectarian details. But by doing so, I wonder if I'm leaving the wrong impression. I dismissed my faith-beliefs after living them. I wasn't a disembodied being of pure thought. My dissatisfaction wasn't confined to the logical consequences of an abstract set of theorems and counterexamples.

Despite appearances, the dismissal of my faith-beliefs was the end of a story. Fortunately for me, that story was admittedly dull in its lack of drama or plot or trauma (I once described my apostasy as "reluctant"). The primary antagonist was neither oppression nor hypocrisy but the creeping meaninglessness of my faith-beliefs. While I found meaninglessness embedded in the underlying ideas, around the same time I found it in the story of my sincere attempts to comply with the rules of conduct. A prime example was an empty theological promise which I'll grandly name the legend of miraculous resolve.

This story's setting was hardly original. I suspect that my experiences were extremely average among the American subculture of weekly churchgoers (including attendance at midweek and holiday events). My parents devoted their family to a traditional strain of evangelical-ish Protestant beliefs. We presumed the eternal existence of the Trinity, positive and negative destinies for souls after biological death, inborn sin, salvation via faith in atonement, authority of scripture, etc. Outside of church itself, we prayed together, consumed a lot of Christian-themed media and products, performed some charitable activities, and tied morality to God.

On the other hand, we didn't live in isolation. We attended public schools. We weren't outspokenly political. We weren't forbidden from "secular" stuff, although in practice much of it was off-limits due to content. Roughly speaking, our understanding of the Bible was neither extremely literal nor extremely metaphorical. I don't remember being taught creationism. All of us read regularly, though I chose scientific topics more often than the rest. I was generally permitted to read any educational book because facts weren't considered dangerous or objectionable like sex/violence/swearing/blasphemy. In retrospect I realize that the tenor of our Midwestern Christianity was indeed midway between the stereotypes of hard-line domineering churches in the South and flexible lenient churches in the Northeast.

Oddly, this middle road even pertained to prevailing opinions about miraculous divine intervention. Everyone believed in the miracles that happened long ago on unique occasions in the Bible, yet they never assumed astounding miracles would ever happen to them. It was common knowledge that heavenly intervention was understated and mysteriously fickle. They offered off-putting rationalizations such as the following three. First, the most saintly believers praying the most faith-filled prayers seldom got beneficial coincidences, much less stupendous miracles; why would anyone arrogantly presume God's favoritism in their situation instead? Second, salvation from depravity/sin/Hell was already a huge undeserved gift; to start further negotiations was like pestering God for cheap trifles. Third, unwavering contentment was a sign of a mature believer who valued the spiritual realm more than the temporary physical realm; endlessly begging for instant improvements of one's circumstances was both a sign of unreasonable greed and a missed opportunity for building character. Praying on behalf of cancer patients was proper; questioning why the cancer didn't always go into sudden remission was not.

However, they were less tentative about supernatural adjustments in the broad category of subjective phenomena. I covered this a bit when I criticized treating mood shifts or epiphanies as informative evidence. But in my particular past, notable episodes of "spiritual transcendence" weren't a major occurrence or pursuit. They didn't match my stuffy personality. And they weren't encouraged by the teachings and style of my family's stuffy church tradition. That tradition would've tolerated them while still tending to view them as frivolous distractions from substantial activities such as Bible study or altruism or rejecting temptations. Its preferred manifestations were more down-to-earth and methodical and productive. In place of mind-blowing mental fireworks, the recommended plea was superhuman aid for living a "more Christian" life: a miraculous level of resolve.

To reiterate, miraculous resolve was much more significant than an respectable wish. It was a prerequisite for the expectation that authentic Christians should be changing perceptibly over time. Christianity was portrayed as a thorough commitment with dynamic consequences. Just as Christ's love for humans entailed horrendous self-sacrifice, really loving Christ in return entailed dedicated effort too. Officially, mere salvation was a designated starting point: it was a follower's initial connection to the Trinity. From then on the follower's ongoing godly connection implied that they were constantly molding their souls and lives closer to church ideals (for the curious: the term was "sanctifying"). Of course, like the opening Chesterton quote said, this project was difficult when taken seriously. No wonder casual followers were glad to settle for their unambitious moderate religiosity...if they were aware of the more challenging doctrine at all.

Hence miraculous resolve was the counterpart to the intentionally fanatical standard. The method to obey God better was as predictable as a one track playlist set on repeat: "more God". It was another ramification of the Trinity. Not only had God died in order to appease God, but God was the key to remaking oneself to love God through relentless obedience. The wellspring for "victorious" living wasn't natural human willpower but supernatural deliverance. A duty of faith was to seek greater faith. In fact, the theological system stated that external reinforcement was necessary. The innately "depraved" earthy self couldn't suffice for attaining abnormal God-pleasing conformity. The sinful self, the flesh, had to symbolically die to give way to a replacement spiritual self that communed with God; that was the ritualized symbolism of adult baptism. Strict as they were, these specific ideas weren't especially exotic or far-fetched or controversial. The contrast of living by the spirit versus living by the flesh was a recurring theme in the rather dry "church correspondence" section of the Bible. It was reflected in the similarity between the words "carnal" and "carnivorous" (and carne asada, but that's not important right now).

Summing up, if I trusted the accuracy of my church tradition, then miraculous resolve was neither an unreachable dream nor an optional attachment. It was an indispensable tool. It was a defining characteristic of earnest followers. It was integral to acting on the basis that the god in my faith-beliefs was a reality. Therefore I began trying to embrace the concept. I had plenty of flaws to target. I asked God for miraculous resolve. Then, when I didn't feel any powerful help forthcoming, and so I failed again, I asked again. Later, when my mentality and motivations remained the same, and so I failed again, I asked again. Afterward, when I defied the limits of my talents and predisposition, and so I failed again, I asked again. By my estimation, reliance on miraculous resolve had yielded...nothing. There were no spectacular long-lasting transformations. I didn't sense an infusion of mana or chi to fuel my decisions. The routine pull of negative emotion wasn't neutralized or counterbalanced. Sometimes the outcomes corresponded to my notion of God's will, and sometimes not. In either case, my resistance hadn't multiplied. The sides continued a close see-sawing rivalry.

Obsessive begging for miraculous resolve was shown to be useless. I was apparently assigned full self-responsibility to be the best individual I could. As I write this now from an outsider's viewpoint, I certainly recognize that this plight isn't as devastating as I thought back then. It's, well, just ordinary human self-management, familiar to anyone who has tried to reverse bad habits like unhealthy eating. Many generalized strategies abound: 1) planning beforehand to handle contingencies and to dodge tough situations altogether, 2) tweaking the options so that the right one requires less effort than the wrong one, 3) contriving rewards and punishments for oneself, 4) diverting attention to a harmless alternative, 5) anticipating and responding to future satisfaction or disappointment with oneself, 6) rehearsing or pre-committing the decision, 7) leveraging social pressure, 8) developing self-denial in less weighty contexts, 9) visualizing goals repeatedly, 10) self-monitoring by tracking and recording progress, and more. Faith-beliefs are independent of these strategies. Christians frequently use and spread them, albeit along with hazy religious allusions and warmed-over Bible quotations. When old-fashioned Christians have a craving to ridicule popular forms of Christianity, they may suggest unfavorable comparisons to insipid inspirational self-help.

No matter how useful and sensible these practical strategies were, I couldn't stop noticing that they were substitutes nonetheless. I'd been led to believe that I was supported by an omnipotent god which longed for me to succeed at the task of not angering it. Moreover, all the tales indicated that it had invigorated numerous humans historically; it had done it so much that one of its names was "Holy Ghost". It demanded nothing more than the faith of eager recipients. It didn't have a good excuse for turning down this small-scale self-contained petition: no subtle negative side-effects were applicable. Empowering a follower would have the side-effect of definitively confirming the follower's belief in its current existence, but surely that qualified as a positive. One of its principal long-term objectives was extending its rule over humans. Facilitating the subservient decisions of a willing follower was an outright fulfillment of that objective. An opposite approach of indirectness or aloofness was pointless and potentially counterproductive. Forcing a human to build an autonomous reservoir of resolve would risk the discovery that their god wasn't essential to moral action...

I couldn't imagine plausible explanations behind God's everlasting refusal to play an active and caring role in my flailing renovation of myself. I proceeded to check and recheck whether I wasn't doing enough, such as periodic fasting, to express my goodwill and devotion. Eventually I stopped fixating. I figured that, for whatever incomprehensible reason, God was delighted to watch me strive to outwit myself...and lose repetitively when my willpower inevitably ran out or when it just temporarily fluctuated. Based on the disheartening results, I slowly quit hoping that the Christian god would assist my endeavors to follow Christianity.

The next stage was pondering if miraculous resolve was a legend all along. Maybe "God filling and supervising the soul" amounted to a presumptuous mythological description of an exceptional level of compulsive preoccupation with Christian concepts. Maybe it was an ingrained habit of envisioning God more or less continually: a conditioned response wrapped more tightly around every impulse than a "WWJD" bracelet. As long as the follower said their well-trained reactions felt like a circuit judge was in their brain keeping them in line—nudging them to do good and guarding their motives from evil—then they proclaimed a spirit thing was at work inside them. But such well-trained reactions had been introduced and nurtured by unremarkable humans through unremarkable techniques.

By itself, this somewhat cynical speculation wasn't fatal to my faith-beliefs. Yet the importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. It was an additional crack in a cracked structure. I'd allowed myself too much candor while I listened to too many unsettling signals. Knowledgeable experts had no need of supernatural hypotheses in their various domains. Unbiased research hadn't exposed a testable difference between corporeal brains and spooky souls. Cases of divine intervention were unreliable and ambiguous. Worshipers' sensations of exhilaration transparently hinged on their surroundings—they didn't feel spiritual unless the service met their opinions of True Spirituality. Given the loud endless debates among Christian groups, "absolute biblical" morality didn't deserve its supposed reputation of a fixed collection of well-defined rules and principles. In related news, their shared reverence for the Bible's "unchanging" and "unmistakable" message didn't coerce them to agree on the message's extracted contents.

Frankly, the data were pushing me toward the substantiated theory that my faith-beliefs' god turned out to be shockingly indistinguishable from a nonexistent god. This trend was corroborated by the demotion of miraculous resolve to a legend. If the legend were accurate, then the implications would be dazzling and incredible, after all. It was the endorsed direct encounter with the Holy Ghost. It was the foremost evidence that the Trinity was an irrepressible influence on the present. It achieved far more than good intentions, polite manners, and compassionate donations. It was the turbocharged engine that effected the uncanny emphatic goodness of followers in comparison to The Lost, i.e. non-Christians. It was incompatible with the proposition that a profound spiritual link to a god didn't have any effect. It was contrary to the "humble" statement "I'm a sinner saved by grace, so God doesn't mind if I stay the same forever." It was rebirth. It was an inward perpetual fountain of living water. It was the unstoppable progress of the pilgrim. It was the ultimate proof, superior to every type of apologetics and impossible to discredit. It would lead to the question, addressed only in reference to Christianity, "When the followers of this god persistently overflow with an unnatural sacrificial love for humanity, how could this god not be the one that's true?"

Yep. Uh-huh. Right.

Since this saccharine vision sounded nothing like the known behavior of the majority of Christians who existed outside of sanitized stories, the category of "legend" was quite appropriate. Clearly, the inability to obtain miraculous resolve was widespread—not a fault of mine alone. So the defectiveness of my faith-belief went beyond formidable metaphysical objections. It didn't pass its own test. It consistently undershot its own ambitions. It didn't seem to function in accordance with its advertised design when it was put to strenuous use.

An objector might reasonably accuse me of devaluing the entirety of Christianity because of awful Christian individuals, like devaluing Chopin because I heard an awful piano player. In the Gaussian distribution of Christians, some are very good, some are very bad, and the bulk are nearer to the median. That misses the relevant point: if Christianity is actually turning commonplace humans into saintly incarnations of sacred power and control, then the Gaussian distribution of Christians should be drastically skewed. The correlation of "Christian" and "good" should be systemically extreme. If not, then perhaps the Christian factor, and by extension the Christian god, is not a predictor of goodness. Good Christians must be good via their individual resolve, which to be fair was cultivated in the midst of their cultural religious context. When they strive to meet their chosen ideals, they end up relying on their own might (as I said more than a year ago, their religion is their Dumbo feather of ethics). Chesterton's quote could have another line at the end: "But when the difficult ideal had been tried, the might of God was found wanting."

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