Thursday, October 24, 2013

"Darkness as my constant companion"

By Giles Fraser, at The Guardian.  In an online conversation with an atheist not long ago, I said that the spiritual life - worship, prayer, the way of thinking - was one of the primary things that helps me keep myself together enough to function.  (Said atheist proceeded to assure me that "You don't need God; you can stay sober on your own, using your inner strength and with help from good friends."  I told him how much that sounded like every conversation I'd ever had with religious fundamentalists; all fundamentalists, after all, know what's wrong with everybody else and feel sure they can prescribe the single correct answer - their own answer - to people they don't know or know anything at all about - no matter what any of us may have learned about ourselves from personal experience.)

Here's Fraser on the same topic:
There is a deafening voice in my head that keeps insisting I shouldn't write about this. Haven't we had enough of an overly confessional culture that encourages us to spill our emotional misery into the public realm, there to titillate or amuse or sell magazines? So it's with huge reluctance that I approach this subject. But more and more, I find I cannot write about faith without saying what faith struggles with. And why it matters, at least to me.

I try and put on a pretty good public face. And it's easy to become an expert at jokey, middle-distance relationships. But darkness, for a few years now, has been a constant companion. And I am ashamed to say that on a couple of occasions I have scared myself by peering a little too eagerly into the possibility of non-being.

Yes, the Romantic obsession with this sort of thing is total bollocks. But so, too, is the embarrassment that turns life into an endless game of let's pretend. The advantage with having gone down to the bottom of the pit is that the social niceties of pretending don't seem to matter any more. What's left to protect?

Three things help me: writing, psychotherapy and God. Actually, that should read four things. Other people can help, too. Or some of them, at least. And they are a godsend. But some also run away.  Perhaps my own brand of up-front unhappiness reminds them a little too closely of their own.

But it's the God bit I really want to talk about. The Bible is full of despair. Psalm 88 is a classic of the genre. It ends "darkness is my closest friend" – surely the inspiration behind the famous opening greeting of Simon and Garfunkel's The Sound of Silence. Despite this continual refrain from the scriptures – and Jesus's "My God, why hast thou forsaken me" deserves a special mention here, surely – the upbeat nature of so much modern Christianity tends to ignore such cries with an over-easy reference to being loved by God, or finding comfort or peace, or some such. I know nothing of easy Christianity. In fact, I rather despise it.

God, for me, is the name of the struggle not its simple elimination. It is the wound and not the bandage, the question not the answer.

And the crucial point about God is that he is other. Not me. Thus Christianity is a sort of training in dependency. An acceptance that this mortal coil does not supply its own justification. Thus suicide is not just the "only serious philosophical problem", as Camus maintained, it is the only serious theological one, too. To be or not to be is given existential torque by the sense that one's life is suspended from an invisible thread that is fastened to a point beyond one's comprehension or control. In other words, the centre of gravity in one's life is seen to be outside of oneself. Hence the extreme vulnerability.

I suspect the problem is not dissimilar for many atheists, too – it's just that, for them, the otherness is experienced as other people.

I decided to write about all this when I said to my therapist the other day that it really comes to something when it feels like my weekly therapy sessions are the only place and time where I can be open about all this. That even church cannot accommodate such dark thoughts, particularly in a priest. And yet, given the psalmist's cry, that has to be madness.

"We are only here for the medicine," said one of my lovely church wardens years ago.

But there is no medicine for the human condition. Simply mutual kindness, solidarity and humour, and a daily longing (called prayer) to be suspended from that invisible thread, held upright.

I plan to write more, later, about the general difficulty the church has in dealing with exceptions to the rule, as Fraser alludes to here at the end of this article.    In having what can be loosely defined as  "discussions" with people about Topic H over the course of the past 10 years or so, I've noticed that unless human beings fit into certain preferred classifications, they are generally ignored in its "pastoral theology."  This is especially noticeable in recent "conversations" about "same-sex marriage"; the usual reaction to the reality of gay persons is - if you're "defending traditional marriage" is now to move straight to the "Be fruitful and multiply" argument, AKA, the "married with kids" solution allegedly enjoined on everybody.

All that is quite interesting, I think - especially for a religion in which celibates and other non-procreatives have played such a major historical role.  The medieval church clearly had it far more together.

But this highlights a serious problem for religion, I believe; there are many people - perhaps like Fraser and me - who are really not cut out for family life.

This is only tangentially about Topic H, BTW; there are many, many people in this same situation - many who'd be greatly helped by having a faith life, I think.   The church generally doesn't know how to deal with us, though; it's been more interested in the rule at the expense of the exception.   That's because, I think, in its formative stage, it was trying to become stable and to "promote the general welfare."  Nothing at all wrong with either of those things, of course;  the recourse to proof-texting, though, as modern people are wont to do, seriously exacerbates a problem that - again, it appear to me - the medieval church had a far better handle on.

So, more on that later at some point.

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