Monday, December 5, 2011

On Kneeling in Doubt

Earlier today I spent about nine hours working on a problem set for my dynamics class. That in itself isn't too bad, or too strenuous, but given that today has been a more relaxed day than most for classwork and the end of the semester is fast approaching, I'm not really at my best right now in terms of rest or responsiveness. When I left midway through deriving the Lagrangian equations of motion for a double pendulum (because I'm cool and do that kind of thing in grad school) to head to the evening mass at St. Mary's, Zach asked the obvious. Was I Catholic? I said "no," which is true, and brushed off the question of why I would do such a thing since I didn't have a good response.

It bothers me that I don't have a good response to this. When Augustine was going through RCIA last year, we talked often about Catholic whatnot and I was generally intrigued by her insight. Now that she's out of College Station, the only thing keeping up my momentum to learn more about religion and general and Catholic-flavored Christianity in particular is my own stubbornness, and I'm starting to realize the limits of that drive. Stubbornness is good for keeping up a mindless plod forward, but is quite weak in the face of the complexities and mysteries of life and religion. I keep sitting and genuflecting and kneeling in church, but less often than I used to. Those equations aren't going to derive themselves, after all, and in the meantime the question of why I should be there when I don't share the creed haunts me.

I'm tired of feeling out of place at St. Mary's. I'm tired of standing silently, like an idiot, while everyone else gets on with the Nicene Creed. I'm tired of feeling like a clockwork Christian, doing the motions, understanding the arguments, even feeling the right emotions at the right times, and not having a damn clue if any of it means anything at all. The reality is that I understand Christian theology and arguments better now than I have at any point in my life before, and I still don't find it convincing, on balance. Catholicism is a beautiful idea, but for all my effort to unstick my paradigm and see if it'll shift, I can't see it as anything but an idea. It makes zero sense to continue acting as though I were Catholic, a part of my mind concludes.

Yet I find something compelling, something alluring about this faith. Faith itself is something so exotic and incomprehensible to the workings of my mind that I can't help but find some allure anywhere in organized religion I look, I suppose. Maybe it's just an effect of the soft blue walls and the pretty Catholic choir girls, but I feel a sense of calm kneeling among the faithful. It's not clarity, which I'd like, but even among the murk something just feels right about being there. I feel stupid during the creed, but then we sit down and sing "Hosanna," and I don't care about feeling stupid anymore, it just feels nice. So I go back, wondering what I'm doing or where I'm going, but in the pews for now.

I can't imagine anyone, atheist or faithful, would look on this story with anything but pity. Listening to many, it sounds as though it should be obvious one way or the other, and only a poor pitiful fool would hem and haw the way I've been doing for over a year now. I'm so sick and tired of being something to pity. I wish that I could shelve everything academic and focus all the solution techniques I've learned in engineering school on this one single issue. Are the Christians right? This question lingers long after I grow weary of the endless dynamics and continuum mechanics problems.

With the crunch of finals bearing down I don't expect to post again until after December 14. My experience in grad school so far merits discussion of its own, but for now I'll just mention that I'm dissatisfied enough with the environment to be looking elsewhere. I've applied for a job in Washington, DC, and I rolled the thought over and over in my head after receiving my blessing, Should I go east, if they want me? Once communion was done and we sat back in the pews, we sang the closing hymn, "People, Look East."

I'm not superstitious, but sometimes I wish I was. It would make major life decisions so much easier.


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  2. I apologize for the long gap between you publishing this post and I this comment... Sometimes aerospace engineering is enough to occupy the whole mind for a week or two.

    I, too, often think about the difficulty of the paradigm shift that you mentioned. I'm on the other side of the wall, but I frequently ask myself whether I could give up my faith in Jesus if I was compelled to by some reason. It would mean deep, sweeping change in every aspect of my life. All my hopes, my ideals, the way I make decisions are all rooted in this supposition that the Bible is God's word. It would change my relationships with all of my friends, reset my goals. It would take away such a big part of who I am that I feel like I would be an empty shell. Sometimes I doubt that it is even possible for a Christian to abandon their faith or for someone who has lived without faith to take it up after so long operating without it.

    The really reassuring thing though is that it appears that God changes people all the time... He takes those most hardened against Him (I'm not saying that I think you are particularly hardened or anything) and turns them into His most powerful witnesses. Paul started out as the leader of the conservative religious resistance against early Christianity. He was an all-star Pharisee, trained at the best religious schools and bent on defeating the new heresy of Christianity (Galatians 1:13-14, Philippians 3:4-6). But of course (you may know the story), as he was on his way to take some Christians as prisoners, God knocked him off of his horse, temporarily blinded him, and changed him (Acts 9). He had his whole life invested against Christ, but he was changed. And although he immediately began professing the gospel, it is not as though he immediately went from being a persecutor of Christians to a missionary - he went to the desert for years to think this all over before he began his ministry in earnest (Galatians 1:17 ish).

    Another good example is Clive Staples Lewis. His conversion took years of pondering and fighting, but by the end, God had changed him and he went on to become one of the most influential Christians of this century. Lewis really reminds me of you because he was an intellectual. I've never actually read his book "Surprised by Joy", but in it describes being "angry with God for not existing" (see Wikipedia)... it seems that you might find someone who feels the same way as you in Lewis.

    Of course I haven't been through anything similar to a stark conversion like this, and I haven't read much of C.S. Lewis' body of work, but it seems to me that these conversions are most fundamentally a change of a person's heart rather than a change of their minds. Of course their minds change too, but in Paul's New Testament writings, he certainly talks more about how Jesus frees his heart from bondage to sin, rather than being convinced by the idea of Christianity. So, as you are seeking truth, I would say that it may be wise to seek the rebirth of heart and spirit described in John 3.

    I guess there is a good chance that you have heard all of this before, and I'm not sure if any of it helps, but it is what I thought of when I read your post, so I thought I would write it. Good luck in Washington, and I guess maybe I'll see you again in the spring.