Sunday, 18 January 2009

Do Not Go Gentle: Searching For Truth

Exrelayman, this post is for you. It is the story of my journey towards truth and knowing. I have not completed the journey, but I have found the source of all that I am looking for.

For I am confident that given a choice between a warm and comfortable delusion and a cold and harsh reality, we want reality...

There is a bliss in ignorance - but that ignorance walks with innocence, and it belongs to children. A willful ignorance knows no such bliss. To those of us who speak of knowing, and who have tasted the rich delight there is in understanding, there comes a longing only Truth itself can satisfy. All other bliss is wrecked on reason's encircling rocks.

So truth is the principal thing. Furthermore, we can each see in the human experience evidence that, while truth is not without beauty, it is rarely comfortable - at least to begin with. Thus the seeker of comfort rarely finds truth.

My education is average, and my knowledge of all things scientific, philosophical, historical, and theological, must be called a "smattering"; and while I don't know what is my IQ, I know that I am no genius. I have no great apologetic that will convince the atheist that God does, in fact, exist. That said, I will attempt to tell how I, an unremarkable person (except perhaps in laziness!), am coming to know One who is called Truth.

People speak of faith, and by that they often mean the belief that God exists. Why there should be particular merit in believing that a God exists is incomprehensible to me, especially since the ideas of most of the "faithful" about who that God is are so widely varied as to be hardly the same thing at all, save for two qualities: of those who believe in a God, most agree that he is all-powerful, and that he is invisible. The invisible part is understandable, since if God were visible, then their faith would hardly be warranted. The all-powerful part becomes problematic when other qualities, such as goodness, are added to the mix: all sorts of troublesome questions arise, like "Why does a God who is both all-powerful and good allow the evil we can clearly see around us?" It is at this point that such "faith" again becomes necessary. The real question is, can this be called faith, or is it simply a very human cowardice and a willful gullibility?

I was taught from before I could speak about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He wasn't the warm, cuddly God in circulation today, but he was both all-powerful and invisible. I was taught to fear not his power, but his holiness - clear and blinding and unassailable and impossibly pure. My mother read me stories from the Bible, and I knew that its stories about people encountering angels didn't have them shivering in warm delight, but falling on their faces and shaking with fear. And so behind my sense of God was a fear of his holiness - but it was his holiness that could be trusted, too. He wouldn't lose his temper, or change his mind, or fail to keep his promises, as my parents, being human, sometimes did. I also knew that to my grandfather, (who spent long hours reading while we played, but always had time to tell a story or teach my sisters and me to fly paper airplanes; whose beliefs about God were rarely spoken but often evident) God was both father and ever-present friend. Later, when my grandfather's mind was ravaged by Alzheimer's disease and he couldn't recognize my grandmother or remember how many children he had, his sense of God remained unblurred. On the subject of God alone he was lucid and sure; unchildish; reasonable. Near the end, he had a series of heart attacks, and I spent long hours with him in the hospital. He was often confused, but there was no confusion when he prayed aloud or spoke of the Bible.

So as I child, with my child's thinking, I didn't question God's existence, or my need for God to rescue me, even though I hardly knew what from. I accepted easily the truth that I was a sinner - not that sin made me something to be loathed, but that I, made to be more, was trapped by some evil that separated me from the good I could imagine but failed to do and become. I hardly understood what sin was, but I didn't have any trouble understanding that I wasn't exactly heaven-material. From age five until about age nine, I tried to "have faith" in a God whose existence I had never questioned. At the last, I was running out of hope and patience. I pleaded with God, asking him to tell me how to "have faith"; how to do what he wanted me to do. I can't quite explain how the answer came - whether I heard something in my mind, or if it was an comprehension as sudden as if someone had spoken, but in my mind was this understanding, at once clear and relevant: "You don't have to do anything. It's all been done."

That settled my restless searching and pleading for some years. I had asked, and had received. I was content that Jesus' death and resurrection meant that nothing more was required to make me acceptable before a holy God. Though I had struggled and failed, he had satisfied his own terms on my behalf.

But then came university, and my introduction to philosophy. I felt a new urge and a responsibility to examine my knowledge, to understand as well as know. I was shaken by Descartes' questioning of the basis for knowledge, and oddly, both comforted and disturbed by Anselm's seemingly circular answers. Looking back, it wasn't really God's existence that seemed so shadowy, but my own ability to know an invisible, un-prove-able God. In any case, a great cavern of questions unasked opened up in my mind.

I wasn't quite sure what to do with it. My grandfather was dead. I appealed to my parents. They had encouraged my siblings and me to think and to ask questions as we grew older, so I felt that I could trust them - but they didn't offer me the answers I wanted. They advised me to read the Bible and ask God whatever questions I had. I am thankful they didn't ask me to stop reading philosophy, because it was from Plato that I came to understand that empirical knowledge is not the only, or necessarily the best, kind of knowledge. From then on, I began, half-subconsciously, to put my knowledge of God to the test. I wasn't looking for miracles or empirical proofs - instead I wanted anwers to all the 'why's. I asked and waited for him to answer. One by one, the answers came. Sometimes the 'why' became clear with a new piece of knowledge or a fresh perspective; other times I realized that the question had been based on a flawed understanding in the first place. I gained confidence in God. The realization at nine years old that my relationship with him wasn't based on my own ability to have "faith" but on his own provision, made me less afraid to ask questions, and bit by bit, I was coming to understand that there were answers. Even the ones that were beyond my intellectual grasp were not unreasonable. (For example, I spent a long time trying to wrap my head around infinity and mostly failed, but I had no trouble accepting infinity as a rational concept.)

It was not until after university that my world came crashing down. It wasn't one thing, but many things that converged at a single junction in my life. I had moved far away from my family and friends. I took on a job that was too big for me and that stripped my confidence in myself and in humanity. I stepped out with big dreams of making the world a better place, and was shocked to find myself full of selfishness and other flaws, and with nothing worthwhile to oontribute - certainly nothing that would offset what I found myself greedily wanting to take. I was hit hard by depression and the seemingly impossible struggles of everyday life. I had no friends, and neither energy nor motivation to maintain relationships or build new ones. I felt that there was no one who could understand. Desperate, I went running to God, but he, too, had withdrawn.

It is hard for me to explain the terror and extreme loneliness I felt. It lasted for over a year, and ebbed but didn't entirely lift for almost three years after that. During that time, almost every relationship I had was strained to breaking. I was a deadweight. Most days, I was struggling just to get through the day. I felt unloved and unloving and unloveable and abandoned. My thinking became negative. I gained weight. I was out of control. These things sent me spiralling into self-loathing and a deep hopelessness.

Worst of all was the absence of God. I read my Bible, but its words went flapping and cawing like flock of crows through my head. I prayed, and I could almost hear the clang as my pleas bounced off the ceiling and fell clattering back down to mock me. I had no reassurance that anyone was speaking to me; no sense that a living God could hear my calls or take pity on my hurt and bewilderment. I longed for a way to die without hurting my family. In my darkest night, God was nowhere to be found.

I couldn't understand what had happened; why he had disappeared. I had trusted him and tried to please him. I had asked him for answers - wherever they had come from, they were meaningless to me in the bleak dim fog that had wrapped itself coldly about me. Had I been naive, believing I knew God? After all, wasn't it kind of arrogant to think that I, among so few, could know and be known by God? Suddenly, I could see myself and my motives clearly. I had hoped to help people, thinking that was love - but really, I was seeking approval and appreciation. I was terribly disappointed in myself and in other people. Was it possible that we had been wrong about God, too?

Deep down, I wanted to know the truth. If there was nothing more. Since I felt myself powerless to do what I wanted - either simply cease to exist or find a way to make my life enjoyable - I wanted to know what was so that I could begin to deal with it. How quickly the things that had comforted the young me became empty platitudes that highlighted my emptiness. In my mind, I heard the reproaches of Job's friends: 'If you had tried harder to please God, this wouldn't have happened.' 'You must have done something wrong, and this is your punishment.' But despite my fear and self-hatred and the newly-discovered selfishness within me, I knew that I had sought God and followed him. I had tried my best to please him. It seemed that he simply wasn't there.

I began re-thinking what was there. I considered the possibilities. Christianity as it is generally presented in our world seemed not implausible so much as irrelevant, empty. It sounded nice, but faded away to nothing in the face of the vast, howling wilderness that gaped at me. I was falling. I could throw it all away, but one thing remained: the God my grandfather knew. He was the One I both feared and longed for. I had seen him in my grandfather's eyes, suddenly sure in the midst of his confusion. I knew simply and surely that if there was anything worth having in life, it was what my grandfather had found. It had given him peace when his own mind became an enemy. He had had joy when his life was stripped of all its meaning. He had known love when every human relationship had been forgotten. Whether it was God or something else, that was what I wanted more than anything. I determined to find it, or to die searching. If I failed, my life wasn't worth much to me anyway.

After more than a year of jarring loneliness and bewilderment, I picked up my Bible again to read and something - or Someone - spoke softly from a small verse in the book of Psalms:

You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy... (Psalm 16:11)

That was what I needed: a purpose and a path for my life, a kind of joy that wasn't related to my situation, and a living truth that was more than a maxim - something I could trust no matter how I felt. I didn't want any empty religious rags, or the equally irrelevant measurements of things I found in reason without God. I needed a truth that could reach to the very bottom of life and remain meaningful.

I sought that truth in the Bible because that was where my grandfather had found it. I couldn't pray as I had before, but I went outside and looked up into grey skies and spoke to the One I longed to know. I begged him to speak to me. I no longer knew who he was; sometimes I was simply speaking to that great energy evident in living things, the Goodness I could vaguely sense in trees and sky and sea. I asked him to reach through my expectations and my preconceptions and let me know him. (I use the masculine article here not because I looked for something masculine - but I was looking for something personal, so "it" doesn't suffice.) It wasn't God I was looking for. I wanted to know what was Real - I only called him God because my grandfather had called him that.

How can I describe that way he came to me? Shall I tell you my feelings, my thoughts? Shall I tell you what sorts of things I was doing when I knew him present? It all seems trivial and immaterial. The real difference was that my concept of God had been blasted out of the little corner I called my "spiritual" self. He cared about me, but my comfort was a small thing to him compared to my knowing, growing, being. He was concerned with the dusty details I would never have expected him to bother about, but he was far bigger than I had imagined, and his priorities rolled right over mine like a train over a penny placed on the track. He wasn't contained to Sundays and hymns and my evening prayers. He was secular. He was warm earth and wild wind and deep, restless sea. He was Love and Light and Life and Truth. The majesty of trees, the austerity of mountains, the bleakness and the purity and the silence of snow were all his. He had revealed himself to human intellect in the measured meter of words and history, but he could never be comprehended by those things. The Living God is not a comfortable truth, nor easily understood - but comfort was paltry and my understanding meagre when I placed them next to truth.

To my surprise, it isn't answers, smooth and pat and carefully arranged, that come with knowing God. There are answers, to be sure, but it was the questions that came springing that shocked me. If God is really-real, not what we think of as spirit-real, then things have to make sense. And if things have to make sense, then the Bible is a book full of questions to be understood rather than divine incomprehensibilities.

I had asked to know God, but I hadn't understood the foolishness of wanting to know Love or Truth with my intellect alone. I had opened my mind and asked him to come in, but I had left him room only in a box marked "religious". Why had he deserted me? To show me that the God I had allowed him to be was too small, too unreasonable, too inadequate; that what I needed wasn't a spiritual mascot, but Truth; Love; a Father; a Mother; a Friend. It was when I came to understand my own need that he came rushing in to fill that void.

And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. “For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. “Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. “In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says,
‘YOU WILL KEEP ON HEARING, BUT WILL NOT UNDERSTAND;
YOU WILL KEEP ON SEEING, BUT WILL NOT PERCEIVE;
FOR THE HEART OF THIS PEOPLE HAS BECOME DULL,
WITH THEIR EARS THEY SCARCELY HEAR,
AND THEY HAVE CLOSED THEIR EYES,
OTHERWISE THEY WOULD SEE WITH THEIR EYES,
HEAR WITH THEIR EARS,
AND UNDERSTAND WITH THEIR HEART AND RETURN,
AND I WOULD HEAL THEM.’

(Matthew 13:10-15)

Like the Jewish people, I had decided what the truth was, what it had to be. I gave more credence to the things I "figured out" than to the knowledge that imposed itself on me without being courted by my intellect. Let me give you an example of the difference. I knew, as we all know, that careful study leads to learning. Somehow, though, when I entered university, I thought I was smart enough to beat the system. I thought I could get by on my ability to understand rather than on gathered knowledge. I put my trust in my intellectual ability rather than in my knowledge of the way things are. For a while, I did beat the system, but eventually my poor study habits caught up with me. I was in a strict program: I failed a course, and was dismissed from the program. That shook my thinking and humbled me, but it didn't completely change me.

My concept of truth had a lot to do with my concept of myself. Without knowing it, I was full of arrogance. God had to show me that truth before I could ever see him. He didn't want me to keep trusting him just because he answered the questions my intellect asked. He wanted me to learn who he was, and he stopped answering so that I could understand what I really needed.

Does truth require faith? Knowing it does not. It stands on its own. Finding it does, but not faith of the sort that ignores questions, trampling on reason and denying the observable. It is not the kind of faith that decides what the end ought to be and then sets about making it so. Rather, the sort of faith that is required is a refusal to deny what we know, no matter how uncomfortable it is. It is this sort of faith that spurs people to throw off their "hope-so, maybe-so, think-so" beliefs. It sometimes leaves us without something to call "God", but it is the way to knowing Truth.

I wouldn't dare tell someone else why they have searched but haven't found God, but I know why I didn't find him right away. First of all, I was searching for my idea of God, which didn't exist. Such a search, though it be for something called "God", ends nowhere, because it is usually a search for something else entirely - intellectual satisfaction, comfort, tradition. I wanted the truth, but in the beginning I was unwilling to accept the truth that made me uncomfortable. When I was desperate enough to search for Truth, whatever it was, rather than my too-small conception of God, I found Truth - and it was God.

Do I have bullet-proof evidence to lay before the skeptic and show him where he is wrong? No. Neither truth nor God is a precept to be pounded in. Moreover, my own understanding of those things that offer evidence even of material truths is far too lacking to offer anything to the educated person.

What can I offer, then? Only hope for the one who seeks truth, refusing to deny that truth is worth all that must be sacrificed of comfort or pride. I can only tell that I have found what satisfies not merely my senses, or my intellect, or my spirit - but my whole being. I don't ask that you believe that it is God, but that you believe it is what you need, too.

9 comments:

exrelayman said...

Hi Jennypo,

Wow! Very eloquent and very beautiful post. I applaud your bringing it over here, as it deserves a post of its own. And I very much feel humbled by all the effort that was clearly put into it. The person that I discern in this writing has been a joy to experience, even though I am pretty sure we will likely never see eye to eye about things theological. To such extent as we actually make acquaintance here in cyberspace, I am honored.

The poem on your home page has been a favorite of mine for years. My unbelief can nonetheless appreciate and thrill to the power of feeling in it. Just in the unlikely event that you have not yet experienced it, I will mention that the song 'I will sing His wondrous glory' by the Gaithers is very powerful also, and I would expect you tube to have it.

Now to the business at hand. In fact there seems little we can do constructively. It at least appears we can be win/win in our dialogue, both willing to make ourselves vulnerable, but with neither losing anything because of our risk. (Because we both choose to treat the other the way we would wish to be treated - seems like I have read something saying that is a good idea somewhere!) So what I shall do here is put my finger on what I perceive as our differences, and why neither of us can persuade the other.

By the way, I am exceeding what I generally consider proper comment length as I feel that the fullness of your response to me merits a well thought out reply, and thus being brief as is my wont would not be doing you justice.

In something parallel to your experience with your grandfather, I learned of something about my great grandmother that affected me powerfully. I was not present, but family members who were present at her death bed reported that her dying words were, 'Isn't Jesus beautiful?' Knowing about this was staggering for the young child that I was, and served as impetus for a long period of seeking Jesus and God (I mean who would want to be on the wrong side and be cast into Hell). So maybe my motive was not the best, as I am sure fear was more motivation than love.

But even with this youthful impetus, and a true desire to align myself with God rather than against God, I could not hold onto my attempts at faith. I cannot believe because I want to believe, or am afraid not to believe (nor do I say your are doing this - I paid attention). I am constrained by the evidence that I have at my disposal, and an epiphany of the power of that you experienced was not given to me. I think that you and I and Slapdash as well as many others, are all doing the best we know how to do right now. Like Martin Luther: 'Here stehe ich, ich kan nicht anders'.

I choose not to go into the evidence that dissuades me, as I know from experience with my brother who also has had some epiphany that has been denied me, that no evidence of facts or reason can dent his belief (he is fundamentalist, I don't think you are). Also from your story I grasp that you are likely aware of any skeptical evidence that influences me, and that going over it would be futile and frustrating for both of us.

So what I think I see is, for you 'God has come into your life, speaks to you, and comforts you'. Who the heck am I to say that isn't so? Well, now I am going to say that isn't so for me, though it be so for you. This is not to argue or persuade, it is just laying out why we cannot really reach each other.

FOR MY PART: 1)If there is something I want very badly, and seek and seek it, my brain will try to deliver it up. If I am deluding myself, of course I don't know I'm deluded or I would not be deluded. 2) God apparently grants epiphanies to Mormons, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus also. The fact that all epiphanies do not agree is quite a problem for me. 3) Having sung 'Jesus wants me for a sunbeam' and 'I've got that joy, joy, down in my heart' before going to kindergarten, how can I know that this influence isn't helping me simply know something that was ingrained before I had any say so or critical judgment. This would be on a feeling level, from somewhere unobserved by the conscious mind.

I hope I have not given offense. I love my brother, and from our limited contact esteem you as a person very highly. But in a nutshell, 'God has come into my life' is poor evidence to me for the reasons cited above, and the evidences (I got gobs of 'em) contradictory to the God of the Bible that I have are poor evidence to you, being trumped by a sure inner knowing. At least this is my take on things. Correct me if I have misunderstood.

So we disagree. As amicably as possible I hope. I will be reading more here, but do not intend to be anyone arguing any points. You write interestingly, and I am touched. My very best wishes, and thanks for listening.

exrelayman said...

Jennypo,

Here is a little story that brings a tear to the eyes (a good tear). Thought you and others who come here might enjoy.

http://sports.espn.go.com/espnmag/story?section=magazine&id=3789373

Slapdash said...

Hi jennypo and exrelayman--

Thanks for creating this exchange. It's been an interesting read.

I wish I could say there was something compelling to me about how you've found your truth, jennypo, but there's not much I can point to in what you've described to say "aha! I get it, there's truth!" For what you have described is a personal experience not unlike those described by all kinds of people of other faith. It clearly moved you, and you write about it very eloquently... but your experience and inner certainty about the nature of God is completely subjective and not something you can replicate for me or demonstrate apart from your personal experience of it/him.

I have been through very dark times much like you and have searched just like you... and, simply put, I have not found what you found. It's a capricious it/him god who would remain stubbornly absent and silent to struggling people like me and exrelayman while revealing himself in incontrovertible ways to people like you.

That being said, I appreciate what you've written here, and as always, really appreciate your generosity of spirit and general support of my journey. So I hope you take my comments in the spirit intended even if there's some frustration in my tone. :)

joeyanne said...

I must add a comment to this long list. Jennypo has left out one important detail. -- not purposely, I make haste to add, because it was her purpose to Give Hope, not to reveal a step-by-step plan for finding God. However, the things she reveals are hidden to those who have never come to God through His Son, Jesus Christ. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ for: it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For therin is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith" Romans 1:16,17 It is through Christ that the righteousness of God is revealed!!
Knowing God is impossible without first coming to Him through Christ who died on the cross for our sin. Jennypo did this as a child. I know this because I am her little sister and she tried to help me understand my need for salvation. She accepted Jesus Christ as the payment for her sin, and this put her in a position to learn and know God. Trying to know God without first coming to him through Jesus, is like trying to read a book in a foreign language, without first learning the language. It is a step that can never be "jumped over".
"For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? shere is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolisness of preaching to save them that believe." 1Corinthians 1:18-21

Slapdash said...

I came to Jesus as a three-year old.

And since this is where my own patience wears thin with those who would say that my loss of faith is because I never knew God, I will stop here.

jennypo said...

Exrelayman and Slapdash,

I'm so sorry if I appear to mock your pain and bewilderment. As you both point out, this offers you no answers. Of course it gives you no answers - I wasn't telling about God, but about me.

So why tell it? The first and simplest reason is that exrelayman, you asked. But after all, I wasn't just being polite. The point, in a nutshell, is that I know what it is like to feel that there is no God. There was a reason why I had that experience, although I couldn't understand it at the time. That means that there might be a reason why you each find yourselves in similar positions.

I can't see inside your heads and hearts. I don't know what things are keeping you from knowing God. Maybe he is hiding from you for a time, as he did from me. But maybe you are not being proud or rebellious, and maybe God is not being cold or capricious. Maybe there is something more at work. I don't know. We are more unique than we are often aware of. We each have our own journeys, and our own ways of describing them. No one else can make a prescription for you.

I want you to know that I realize what it feels like, and this was never meant as a "naah, naah, naah". Nor am I trying to say, "just do what I did, and everything will be great."

But above all, let me clarify this, exrelayman: an experience in no way negates the need for reason. What I have described is much more about being lost than it is about being found. Finding Truth is not about shining visions, but about seeing things as they are. It wasn't God that I saw first - it was the truth about what I know best: myself.

I am not advocating an add-water-and-stir, insta-happy kind of faith that lands in your lap complete with shimmering visions and you never have to think again. Truth is not an experience; the experience is just how we get there, and it is as different for each of us as we are different.

jennypo said...

p.s. Exrelayman, I hope that you change your mind and feel free to argue as many points as you wish. I am not looking for a fight, but I appreciate having my thinking challenged. It is dangerously easy to slide into a murky pool of smug narrowmindedness if we are content to interact only with those with whom we agree.

Robert said...

really enjoyed reading your story jennypo you are a deeply caring soul and your waters run so deep stop by my place soon again

Hannah Im said...

Lovely and encouraging!