Sunday, August 29, 2010

Just Because

Some say they're goin' to a place called Glory and I ain't saying it ain't a fact
But I've heard that I'm on the road to purgatory and I don't like the sound of that
Well, I believe in love and I live my life accordingly
But I choose to let the mystery be

Iris Dement

I have in mind a couple of posts on psychotherapy and meds, but for today just another piggyback on NPR's excellent 13.7 blog, where Ursula Goodenough posts on matters of ultimate questions. Her last name, while not in fact made up for this post, is eminently suitable and must have had an effect on her formative development (unless, oops, it is her married name).

Her post about her own "covenant with mystery" is interesting in its own right, but I was particularly struck by her quote from an unnamed contributor to a listserv at the "Institute on Religion in an Age of Science," for the comment expresses, more clearly and succinctly than I have achieved, the ecology of belief:

While theism per se may seem irrelevant from several perspectives, the impulse underlying it is not. The concept of a personal God is one way of envisioning the ultimate source or organizing force of all that is. Many feel this image has flaws. But unless an alternative is adopted in its place, the absence leaves a Big Question, and gaping holes in understanding/belief are uncomfortable. I agree that understanding or appreciating Reality does not require Theistic causality. But, until a naturalist perspective can offer some type of image of the ultimate that can both be grasped and feel right, it will remain lacking in something essential.

As Goodenough notes, there is an irreducible subjectivity to belief, relating to how it makes one feel; it is a deeply personal matter, as much so as the kind the person one falls in love with. For agnostics, theism does not "feel right," whereas for believers it does, or at least it feels right enough. Similarly, for me naturalism feels good enough, but I recognize that this puts me in the distinct minority, both historically and currently (and perhaps futuristically as well).

Today's loud atheists, the Richard Dawkinses and Daniel Dennetts of the world, are good scientists and philosophers but poor psychologists. Projecting their mentalities upon mankind, they would deprive the majority of their spiritual bread while putting in its place something that, for that majority, tastes of ashes.

I think it was Emerson who wrote somewhere that the genius believes that what is true of himself is true of all humanity. Yes, there is overlap between genius and narcissism, but it is only partial.


Novalis said...

Relayed by Dr. X who was having Blogger problems:

(Part 1)

Upon learning that I didn’t believe in God, an Evangelical Christian classmate in graduate school asked me how I express my religiosity. This fellow wasn’t proselytizing; he seemed genuinely puzzled. I didn’t know how to answer because I didn’t have the faintest idea of what he was talking about.

What I gathered was that he viewed religiosity as something akin to an irreducible impulse that had to be expressed in some way—if not directly than in some sublimated form. At the time, I thought of religiosity as a more purely defensive construction, a way to keep impulses in check and fears at bay.

Thinking while I write now…

My assessment of religion, at that point in my life, was probably based upon the function that the religion of my childhood had assumed in my own psychological life. In Kleinian terms, you could call it a paranoid-schizoid solution to the problem of preserving good, in the face of bad. Lots of splitting and projection. The threat of punishment stood guard over all-bad temptation, while all-good God could safely gratify and fulfill wishes.

These hydraulic formulations of religion are perhaps the easiest to grasp because they can be most easily seen in childhood efforts to deal with the management of good and bad, wish and fear. But I don’t think this view accounts for a need to find meaning and purpose—a need that emerges as mental capabilities mature.

Is the need for meaning an irreducible need of the human psyche? I recognize that possibility. God or nature made meaning-making creatures. Perhaps the capacities for language, abstract thinking, hypothetical thinking and theory of mind make narrative construction inevitable. We build narratives of what is, what was, what might have been, what should be, what will be, what must be.

But I do wonder if ‘larger’ meaning-making is more purposive than automatic, making sense of our lives within the context of inevitable suffering and death. Perhaps the need for meaning and purpose could be understood, in part, as a phenomenon of Klein’s depressive position. Defensive splitting and projection diminish as good and bad mix. The cost of integrating good and bad is lost innocence. The quest for the lost all-good mother becomes a search for the all-good context—some consoling meaning that protects us from a sense of futility and bitterness.
These Kleinian conceptualizations of belief remind me of a study by Northwestern researchers Dan McAdams and Michele Albaugh. They asked both conservative Christians and liberal Christians the question: “what if there was no God?” The conservative Christians worried most about unchecked impulses. The liberal Christians worried more about depression, loss of meaning and the end of purpose. I think McAdams has described these positions, respectively, as Authoritarian Daddy and Nurturing Mommy. Each of these Gods feels good enough for different reasons: one is a God protectively standing guard and the other is a consoling God.

Novalis said...

Relayed by Dr. X who was having problems with Blogger:

(Part 2)

The mystical aspect of religion seems to me something different from the paranoid-schizoid and depressive aspects religion. I’ve thought a great deal about this aspect of religion because it is ultimately what brought me back to religion. The discovery of resonances with the unknown might be thought of as integration without consolation. Rather than worry about unchecked impulses or coming up with a narrative that makes it all mean something, the mystical aspects of belief seem connected with the fractured nature of our mind into conscious and unconscious experience—which is itself a source of continuous disquietude. An aspect of this involves good and bad integration, but it seems to me that it is also directed toward a fundamental rift that cannot find narrative comfort.

Mystical experience is difficult for me to explain, except in terms of a link between the unconscious and the divine—an unconscious that knows deeply and genuinely about truth, good, evil and the mysterious, peculiarity of existence. Could the mystical dimension of faith be more about a consciously alarming, attraction to truth rather than a need to manage good and bad? Is it about seeing and knowing rather than actually managing the tension between troubling oppositions. Perhaps management gives rise to beliefs that feel good enough. I’m not so sure that’s the case with mysticism.

Rather than feeling good, the reintegrating edge of our fractured selves brings disquietude to the forefront of experience. I think of the knowledge of Good and Evil behind God’s lament after the man and the woman’s “eyes were opened” in Genesis: “Now they (humans) are like us (the divine),” in seeing and knowing good and evil. But the lament is that such knowledge was fracturing, leaving endemic alienation from the wholeness of truth as its legacy.

If we regard the divine as “seeing and knowing” rather than a check on impulses or a consoling narrative, readings of religious texts can look quite different. We might more readily notice the seeing and knowing creator, watching his creation emerge--a God of truth and light—the one who sees every sparrow that falls (which doesn’t explain why the sparrow falls or why he doesn’t stop the sparrow from falling). Is mystical experience a kind of participation in the divine view, a participation that is, at once compellingly integrative and deeply disconcerting?

This God doesn’t feel good. This God confronts with a constant decision to keep looking, which, in turn, demands more of the looker. This is consistent with my experience of believers who’ve experienced what I’d call the mystical. They are uneasy and uncertain, feeling a sense of responsibility that they are always tempted to abandon. A man I know, for example, wrestled each and every day for several years with a seemingly impossible project that he wanted no part of. There were many days he had to decide to go forward when all he wanted to do was go back to the person he once was.

It was the mystical aspects of the birth of this project that propelled him at the beginning. Along the way, there was a best-selling book (in its genre), begun as a letter, written nearly effortlessly over a two-week period, sent to a publisher without his knowledge by the recipient of the “letter.” He did not consider himself a writer. Radio and television appearances, newspaper stories and money that hadn’t been sought, forced him forward reluctantly. Reluctant isn’t a strong enough word. This was an intensely private man who hated the spotlight, so it was all quite agonizing. He had no need of the money made on the book, so it all went to the project.

It’s difficult for me to reconcile this divinity with belief that feels good-enough. Somehow it seems that the wrong questions are behind the feels good-enough explanation.

Dr X