Friday, March 23, 2012

An Ingenuous Apologetic (. . . or why I still believe that Christianity is true . . . or more true) Why I'm Not an Atheist Part VI


Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I had rejected most of it by the time I was 12.  I loved science and the two seemed incompatible. I was definitely an agnostic. Impossible to know anything about being . . . which I assumed.

The way I became a Christian, I will tell in the ingenuous way . . . not the way I did in testimonies for decades. In my "Personal Testimony" version, I was coached through many of workshops of what to say and what to leave out, and which parts to exaggerate. We wanted to do our best to attack new converts in the same way that a Kirby vacuum cleaner salesman would want to over-state its performance to get you to buy it so he could make more money. The other factor,you know, we didn't want to make Jesus look bad. I'm really sure He is up at night worrying about that (eyes roll here). What eventually led me to becoming a Christian is complicated (emotionally) but I will try to tell it quickly.

I've shared very openly here about my struggles with a general anxiety disorder. My crisis (as I think most teenagers have had some type of personal crisis) was the fact I wanted to be a basketball player and due to performance anxiety, I was frustrated in my attempts.  The coach called it "lack of confidence."  Being in the Bible Belt, he directed me towards Norman Vincent Peale, the "Power of Positive Thinking" preacher. I read Peale's book, desperately seeking a methodology for finding confidence. Peale's technique was memorizing positive Bible verses.

Even though I didn't believe the Bible was God-inspired, I did think it might help me through a form of pop-psychology and the positive thinking that preceded Joel Osteen by a few decades (and I'm sure that there are agnostics who enjoy Joel for the same reasons).

Then, a good friend of mine introduced me to a Navigator group.  He met them as a 17 years old when a teacher invited him to a Bible study. Since this was among college students and we were in high school, my friend didn't want to go alone. He begged me to come and I did.

There was something very attractive about the Navigator group.  Much of this attraction was based on a misleading representation.  The group members all claimed to have solved all their problems through Jesus and were living in bliss (some of them years later got back into drugs, committed suicide, divorced and were arrested for child molestation).  I wanted bliss. I wanted to escape my frustrating world of anxiety. I didn't have a name for what was wrong with me as I had no insight into what it was, but I just was assuming that I was a bad person because I couldn't muster up confidence. I also felt horribly guilty about that.

While I wanted to be a Christian, I still had very serious intellectual problems with it. So I started a long, mental journey to see if there were any doors into Christianity that would allow a thinking person to enter. The Navigator leader kept telling me that good people (the word he used was "mature Christians") don't struggle with doubts but simply trust God with a blind faith.

At this juncture I know that my story is being very vulnerable and that you could easily deconstruct my experience in the name of psychological and sociological phenomena. I'm just being honest about it without its "supernatural" window dressing. However, as I've said before, if you end up on truth, you still win even though if the way you got there was dangerous.

As a side bar, my main point is that we all lie a lot, Christians and non Christians. When Christians tell their conversion stories (testimonies) we take a rough nugget of truth, like a candle wick, and dip it in
vats of "miraculous exaggerations,"   "purer but dishonest motives" and "God did this and that" language and lies. Finally we have this candle that looks nothing like the the wick. I'm not just saying that bad people, such as myself, do this . . . but we all do it. I wish we didn't. Life would be better if we were emotionally honest. But I've found that the more emotionally honest I try to become the more alienated I am.

Now back to my main point. So, I had a lot of trouble sleeping at night as a teenager. Part of it was associated with my constant anxiety but part was also associated with the 2 gallons of sweet (southern) iced tea I drank every day. So I would lay in bed every night exploring the deep caverns of philosophical possibilities.  I didn't know the language of philosophy at the time. But it was the same process that philosophers have worked through for thousands of years. How do we know what reality is?  Does anything really exist?  How can we trust our senses that the world we know is real (vs a Matrix type of imaginary world)? If the world came out of a spontaneous point, where is meaning?  What is good vs evil?  These are some of the questions I've explored before.

But finally I came to the issue of consciousness, or more precisely self-consciousness.  Like an explorer ten miles in an narrow, dark cavern, the thought of self-consciousness was like a huge room full of light and amazing rock formations. I spend months, every night, laying in my bed in the small town of Fall Branch, Tennessee pondering the boundaries of what is self-consciousness. It think it was the same experience and thought that Descartes had when he reached his "Cogito ergo sum" epiphany.

What I mean by this is the notion that I'm here . . . inside this body. I would pinch myself hard and I knew that I felt it. While it was reasonable that every human on earth could be a protein and calcium based robot . . . I knew that I was not. It had a self-awareness that exceeds the possibly of complex circuitry.

You will find the majority of those in the atheistic camp or at least in the empiricist camp (that which can't be observed in the lab cannot be considered) argue that this sense of self-consciousness is simply the result of a long process of evolution and extremely complex circuitry. They argue, that eventually, with enough circuits, abundant memory based on billions of semi-conductors (instead of neurons), that we can create artificial intelligence.  But what they mean is self-consciousness. This whole concept is wonderfully explored in A-I (the movie).  But my argument is, self-consciousness can not be a product of memory, which can be represented digitally with billions of Is and Os, nor is is a product of mathematical computation . . . even approaching infinite computation capacity. They would argue that us simpletons just can get our minds around the fact that we are the sum of neurons, neuro-transmitters and hormones. But, I have spent my entire 30 year career in neurology. I think I know neurons and their workings, better than most and I'm saying that is not possible.

My epiphany was simply the fact that I am. But I am more than the sum of neurons and chemical soups. I am a person. I dwell inside this mortal flesh, but I have this deep, and logical concept that I am real . . . beyond the parts. Now you could be such a robot. A very sophisticated robot could fool us. It could reproduce hearing, speaking, seeing, memory and even imitate human emotions from programmed memory . . . yet it could never, ever experience those emotions the way that we do.

Once you bridge that gap, you then know that an impersonal universe cannot give rise to the personal no matter if you had a billion to the billionth power of years to evolve.  While I reached this conclusion in the privacy of my own mind, in the isolation of my own bed at the age of about 15, it took years later before I heard it expressed in philosophical terms.

The late Francis Schaeffer said it best.  He, as a resident of Switzerland, described two high mount lakes in two adjacent valleys. If one lake was at the same level as the other lake, it would be reasonable to think that the two lakes had a connection. However, if the second lake formed and then rose to a higher level of water than the first lake, it would be illogical to assume that the first lake gave rise to the second one. In the same way, there is a tremendous philosophical problem to assume that a cold, impersonal universe could spontaneously give rise to self-consciousness or self-awareness. The impersonal cannot beget the personal. This was a key moment in my journey back to theism.


Hope T. said...

It is interesting that as a teenager you came to Christianity through philosophical inquiry. I think that is quite unique! Social or community benefits seem the most common point of entry to the faith, followed by genuine experiences of a supernatural loving presence. I've never had a "love bath" like I have heard some describe and I wonder why some are chosen for such a thing and not others. Perhaps it is a neurological difference, along the line of those described in the book "Fingerprints of God". Your experience of reasoning your way in would also seem to depend on a certain neurological blueprint. I would guess that most people don't have the circuitry for such things and therefore it is no surprise that the majority arrive at faith through community pressure or social advantages.

jmj said...

I totally agree that we are wired differently and come through different doors.