Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Angst

Allow me to be honest online. 

I doubt. I struggle emotionally and philosophically to make life make sense, I always have done. But I also believe. I believe deeply and wonderfully and passionately, I always have done. 

I don't know why I live with these two opposites so often. Maybe it's a personality defect, maybe I'm just not clever enough or well informed enough to figure it out. Whatever it is this is the headspace I live in and here's how I process some of the angst it creates.

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I was helped recently by reading something Chris Evans (the TV personality & DJ) wrote in his new book: 'What to Do in a Midlife Crisis' (actually named 'Call the Midlife' but my title sums it up better). In his chapter on religion he wrote 
'I've often wondered - and when I say often, I mean several times a day for as long as I can remember - whether I'm a man of faith or not.
It helped me since it told me I'm not alone; non-religious people worry about religious questions too. This may be a silly thing to say, of course they do, but then people give off this 'we've got it all sewn up' kind of attitude when it comes to belief and rarely show weakness in this area. That's why Christians jump all over any statement of faith/uncertainty made by a celebrity or media mogul: aha! It's not just us. See, you do have questions! Retweet, repost, share link...

James Smith wrote in his book 'How Not to Be Secular' that:
ours is an age where believers are beset by doubt and doubters, every once in a while, find themselves tempted by belief.
I don't know what goes on inside other people's heads, I can only see life in my eyes, but I find it very encouraging that people of all creeds share some anxiety in this area. I don't know why I do but I do. I like it that I'm not alone, maybe that's it. 

'Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist' wrote Dawkins and it seems like most popular believe this. I don't for one second think evolution = no God but a lot of people take it as read that it does. People act like, since we have an alternative origins story to Genesis we have all the answers we could want. Everything can be explained along a purely naturalist and materialist way of reasoning. Paul Hollywood in the introduction to his bread baking book comments that 'even neanderthal man baked'. PaulflippinHollywood for crying out loud, (in a book on baking) felt it necessary to throw in the 'our shared ancestry gives credibility to my profession' line. We've defined ourselves so sharply now that credibility can be given to anything just so long as we can draw a straight line from cave dwellers to the present. The reverse is true as well, if you can't then it's not. 

Such is the power of an explanation of our origins and this reductionist way of explaining human existence is everywhere. The 'Big Story' or meta narrative that our life fits into has nothing to do with God and purpose any more; but we're not supposed to let that phase us.  

Comedian and writer Tim Minchin in a speech at UWA said:
13.8 billion years worth of unguided events. Leave it to humans to think this universe has a purpose for them.
and also:
it's an incredibly exciting thing, this one, meaningless life of yours. Good luck.
I hear it more and more: life is meaningless but that's ok, just enjoy it. It seeps out in everything we make and do and buy and break. 

The grave looms ever closer therefore cycle that exercise bike like you're getting somewhere!

I spoke with a friend once and admitted that 'in the moments when I doubt I wonder if I'm not better off doing something that adds more obvious value to society than being a pastor and preacher. I mean, what if there's no God. I've made a life out of deceiving people. Maybe I should become a teacher and contribute that way.' My friend responded by saying:
if there is no God then nothing really matters anyway, there is no meaning in anything. We only pretend there is. 
I think he's right. Meaning is up for definition once we've first agreed there is no real meaning, no instruction manual in the first place. Do whatever the heck you want and convince yourself it matters, that's what's really important isn't it?  

Nihilism (extreme pessimism and meaninglessness) may be reasonable but it's not practical mind you. No one lives like that and besides which, it's still an attempt at meaning. Perhaps Minchin is right though, we all ought to just: exercise, teach, love, respect etc. 

I can identify with Steve Carrell's character in 'Seeking A Friend For the End of the World'. He gives this bemused, existentially desperate and yet quietly resigned portrayal of what it would feel like if you knew your world was ending and yet you still wanted life to mean something. It's a good film.

Have you ever just stood back and watched what we humans do for fun? 

What am I to do then? There are so many voices telling me 'the answer':
Empirical evidence only... except where love and truth and beauty and morality are concerned.
God's not interested in us: pain, inequality, injustice and an unimpressive church prove it.
God does love us, he does care, he is involved, we must trust him.
My God wants me to blow up people who don't fall into line with my interpretation of what he said to my religion's founder.
Eat, drink and be merry - for tomorrow we die anyway. Play golf anyway and enjoy it.
We're nothing more than evolved animals. Our meaning comes from our shared ancestry and primate commonalities.
I think a lot of us are just after consensus. 

We surround ourselves with people who think and believe the same as us, people who reinforce our values. Or maybe we just believe the things that cause us the least resistance: Ok so I can do what I want then? So I can square that circle like that then, that works? Ok so they'll stop calling me names then? And then I'll be allowed to have tea at that table then? And people won't think me weird?

Mind you, I must to stop making assertions about 'we' and 'us'. All I really know about is 'me' and 'my'. That's why I find 'angst acknowledgement' so encouraging, especially from people perceived to be in a different tribe to me.

The real lie I think I tell myself is that 'everyone else has got it sewn up.' The real lie our intellectual and celebrity elite tell us is that 'they have it all sewn up.' I believe that tension and mystery cannot and must not be squeezed out of life. Fundamentalists flatten our landscape into binary, on or off, right or wrong stuff and life doesn't neatly get boxed like that.

Don't get me wrong, I believe what I preach. I'd say I believe it strongly. I believe that a personal knowing, enjoying and trusting God the Father, Son and Spirit is what we were all made for, that it's the meaning of life even. But being convinced about something is not the same thing as being certain of it. No one is certain, not Chris Evans, Paul Hollywood, Tim Minchin nor Richard Dawkins and anyone who tells you they are is possibly worth avoiding. 

Life is a lot more colourful than that. It contains a lot more adventure and daring and mystery and uncertainty. The real challenge is trying to keep your head and forge your path while grappling with all these questions along the way.

I think Jesus was/is right. I think so because of Easter Sunday and because the Universe had a beginning. But that doesn't mean I don't have plenty of questions still. My worldview allows for it, answers for it even. Existential angst, bizarre as it may be for outgrown animals, is part of life. Sit in silence long enough and you'll feel it. 

Sure it's uncomfortable this oscillating between boldness and uncertainty, truth and doubt. It's uncomfortable but it's not unusual; at least that's what I'm learning.

Let me end this post with this, a beautiful description of how Sheldon Vanauken (American writer) became a Christian whilst at University in Oxford:
There is a gap between the probable and the proved. How was I to cross it? If I were to stake my whole life on the risen Christ, I wanted proof. I wanted certainty. I wanted to see him eat a bit of flesh. I wanted letters of fire across the sky. I got none of these... It was a question of whether I was to accept him - or reject. My God! There was a gap behind me as well! Perhaps the leap to acceptance was a horrifying gamble-but what of the leap of rejection? There might be no certainty that Christ was God - but, by God, there was no certainty that he was not. This was not to be borne. I could not reject Jesus. There was only one thing to do once I had seen the gap behind me. I turned away from it, and flung myself over the gap towards Jesus. 
I hope that in 2016 you find what you're looking for.

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