This essay is an amalgam of five earlier essays I wrote in 2005 with minor modifications that will hopefully enhance its readability. In it I discuss four philosophical factors that I accept as givens not only when writing for this website but also during life’s journey, particularly when contemplating my Christian beliefs. Following each section is a brief commentary about my current perspective on the topic as of September 2008. These days I may not totally agree with everything as I wrote it originally, but the concepts still ring true enough for my experience.
As I grow older, one of the glaring realities of life I perceive is the myriad of moods each person experiences, how these utterly shape our interactions with each other, and how they affect every aspect of our lives, whether we want them to or not. The very material I will be writing about in the months ahead is on one hand already planned out—I think of these things constantly, and these thoughts carry me through dreary days as well as nostalgic afternoons. They free me from the mechanism of routine, yet how I have allowed these thoughts to languish unwritten, unloosed!
On certain days, I am inspired to carry out my ambitions without a care. On others, I am weighed down by the collective motivations of everyone around me—I cower in silence, or boredom, or disdain. Isn’t this true of all of us? We know what we should do—we should take control of our emotions with our mind and our free will. But the struggle is difficult, and as old as time. Is this not what Paul was writing about in Romans 7? Is this not what Jesus told us about ourselves when he said, “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak”?
Those biblical allusions serve a dual purpose for this essay, as I will certainly be confronting certain issues about Christianity in the future. I want to be able to address questions that I sometimes feel are forbidden to ask, but I know in my heart that God does not dislike when someone searches honestly for truth. As a Christian, I believe firmly in God’s existence and in the claims made by Jesus Christ, who alone is the fulfillment of a person’s quest for truth and joy. I will, however, pose questions in the months ahead regarding the inspiration of the Bible. What exactly is the extent of it, and what do people mean when they use the term? Can we satisfactorily explain anomalies such as the conflicting accounts of the thieves on the cross in Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Should we accept Paul’s teaching about women and head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 on the same level as more prominent doctrines in the New Testament? I vehemently believe that the Bible is the most valuable item we can tangibly possess on earth—in my mind, the reasons for believing the Bible far outweigh any reasons against it, but as a Christian I cannot just avoid the fact that certain parts of the Bible seem as though they might simply be the words of devout men, rather than God-authored revelation. Did not Martin Luther wrestle with the subject when he debated the veracity of James in his own mind? This is an issue I should be allowed to address freely, and I will in the months ahead.
Returning to the primary issue of mood swings, I have desired to begin this most recent journey of writing for months, but only now am I taking the initiative. As a college student, I am swamped with work, and I have a natural bent towards detached observation rather than enthusiastic initiative. But eventually the time comes, such as tonight, when I realize that all of my observations are perhaps meaningless unless I commit them to writing. Thus, my mood has swung for a time in a beneficial direction, and though I feel like I am taking some measure of control tonight, the fact remains that moods are most like pendulums in one primary way—timing is everything.
The first thing that strikes me is that I failed to mention the concept of doubt and how it ties directly into mood swings. I seem pretty sure of my beliefs in these paragraphs, but the fact is I go through periods of doubt. Certainly the past year has contained such moments, which is probably why I haven’t written on religious matters in a while. Perhaps my later section about apathy implicitly includes doubt as a contributing factor, but it certainly deserves to be mentioned as a mental counterpart to the physical manifestation of mood swings.
On the other hand, I sat in on a pretty powerful church sermon the other day, one that I sorely needed in light of the lifeless meetings I’ve attended (less and less frequently) in the town where I currently reside. The message addressed the topic of discouragement and how to snap yourself out of it. Most of the time our churches tell us just to pray about it, or worse, accept it, but this pastor read from I Samuel 30:6: “Moreover David was greatly distressed because the people spoke of stoning him, for all the people were embittered, each one because of his sons and his daughters. But David strengthened himself in the LORD his God.” It might sound vague, but on closer inspection we can see that David simply made a decision to move forward with confidence; he “strengthened himself.” And God happened to be his inspiration. Maybe that part is easier for David than some of us, but the point of the sermon was that David didn’t settle into the comfort zone of despair. He took control. And that’s something I needed to hear since I sometimes bestow too much power to mood swings and fail to retaliate appropriately.
For this whole experiment to work as planned, I will insist on adopting a freeform style. This basically means that I may not follow any outlines I throw out prematurely, though I will try. It mainly allows me to write as much or as little as I feel I am able about any given topic, and to do so in whatever order I decide at the moment of composition. I can guarantee that my surveys will not be as exhaustive as they would need to be if I were writing this for a more serious purpose than my own record-keeping and amusement.
With that out of the way, I want to clarify a little more about the previous given: mood swings. The entire point of it is merely a recognition that not everyone digests a written work as the author might hope. So much of how we as human beings react to anything is significantly affected by our current moods, and so one would need to be in a certain mood even to read my ramblings, much less to glean anything worthwhile from them.
With these two things established, allow me to illustrate a mood swing that occurred today. Over the years I have managed to discover a few music artists who are dramatically different than those with whom most are familiar. One such group is Plaid, and their CDs have an uncanny ability to lift my spirits. Today was no exception, as two tracks in particular—“Gel Lab” and “Air Locked”—thoroughly purged the day’s frustrations. I remarked in an essay I wrote years ago that music is by far the most effective conduit to the “spiritual realm” that exists in our reality. I suppose I should define “spiritual realm,” but I consider it to approximate a connection with truths that cannot be vocalized. This phenomenon of music can have positive or negative effects on our emotions, so it demands a certain level of caution, but few experiences surpass that of a piece of music carrying your mind and mood to higher levels of awareness. I suppose this can be a contributing factor towards apathy, one of the two remaining “givens” I will cover.
So what was the mood I needed to be rescued from today? A certain shade of frustration will occasionally settle itself into my mind—frustration borne from the fact that the most daunting task in my life is destined to be that of establishing a relationship with a woman that reaches girlfriend status. No matter how many dates I manage to go on, none of them seem to lead anywhere truly promising. To witness the ease with which others achieve this type of relationship frankly arouses a substantial feeling of bitterness and detachment within me from time to time. I apologize for venturing into “personal” territory here, because in a certain sense, no one cares about the love lives of others—indeed I don’t think one should care about others’ endeavors in this area. But few could deny just how much of an impact this “search” has on someone, especially when it consistently fails to achieve the highest level of success. So many factors enter into the equation that I won’t bother discussing them, but suffice to say I have always felt like an outsider in this world ultimately. I consider several people to be friends, but I have always perceived that I am someone with whom people like to hang out, yet not with whom others desire to become close friends. Perhaps much of that is my fault—I spend an ample amount of time lost in my own thoughts. But I cannot state with confidence whether this is a cause or a symptom of my alienation. In a myriad of ways our society is based on specialization, even regarding personality types, and I believe my inability to fit nicely into any established categories has hurt me in the area of forming lasting relationships. The only action I can confidently take is praying to God about it. I know he is fully aware of my internal struggles with this matter. I am unconventional almost to a fault. I honestly don’t yearn to be different due to personal pride or smugness. Many times I have wished to experience life without the constant analysis I conduct in every functioning quarter of my mind. That is my blessing and curse. I realize that finding a girlfriend is the type of thing that depends heavily on timing and much less on my own initiative. I don’t even find that lack of control to be the frustrating aspect. I simply rue the fact that this magical convergence of time and circumstance has not occurred before my 27th birthday. And I tend to have awful thoughts that this event would even lose all of its sense of fulfillment were it to be delayed too much longer. I would be left only with a sense of simplistic relief rather than a true feeling of joy. Should I entertain such thoughts? Only by allowing my mind to travel down this road do I properly flee from its end with haste.
I still agree with what precious little I actually wrote about freeform. I have adopted that style for this blog, and it’s worked fairly well. Concerning the tangent of a meaningful relationship with that special someone, I have already elaborated on the topic adequately. Presently I am 30 and still technically in the same woebegone state, but recently hope has emerged anew. And hope is a powerful motivator.
I have been confronted with some issues recently that coalesce nicely with the next two “givens” I want to address. One of these concerns the future resurrection of the dead who believed in Jesus for salvation while they were alive. This resurrection is one of several aspects of Christianity that could be termed outlandish—or, if you prefer, miraculous. I have achieved a firm faith in Jesus Christ through the years, but that does not mean that it is a blind faith that avoids considering these “outlandish” claims that hold such a prominent place in the Bible and my thinking. I suppose I could say that my faith has been strengthened primarily by two perceptions. One is that the moral doctrines of the Bible make abundant sense to me, both on an intellectual and emotional level. Certain acts that are declared by God’s spokesmen as sin are almost universally agreed upon—murder, theft, and rape, for example. Meanwhile some are debated—premarital sex, abortion, and lying, among others—but from my standpoint they can be acceptably argued to the conclusion that they are indeed wrong. I will have to save that defense for another day, but for now I will say that simply because we have a strong desire towards something that we perceive as desirable to us and harmful to no one, that alone does not suffice as a legitimate reason to fulfill that desire. I believe feelings of guilt and shame are largely natural (or “built in” to us, if you will) and that people who are virulent in their support for these debated behaviors are in most cases quite obviously attempting to suppress this guilt. I have long felt that the more boisterous and confrontational someone is in defending a position, the less certain they are of its validity. I cannot recall hearing a defense of adultery that was not accompanied by a palpable smugness and arrogance, two attributes to which we as humans tend to have a natural—I would say God-given—aversion. Those who are humble in their argumentation are almost assuredly convinced of the certainty of those arguments. So, much like C. S. Lewis, the premiere Christian apologist of the last century, I accept a priori that an integral part of our humanity is a moral law of which we are all innately aware.
The second perception that strengthens my faith is merely considering the alternative philosophies. I have gained enough knowledge of the theory of evolution to be totally convinced of its utter insufficiency. The lack of transition fossils, the lack of experimental verification, and the lack of any reasonable explanation for life appearing from nonliving matter, or the existence of matter at all—each of these are fundamental problems that still have no consensus among the very people who hold to the theory. Evolution has always seemed to me a blatant reactionary belief system that is more about rejecting traditional religious beliefs than standing on its own merits. The best-spoken evolutionists are quite honest about the deficiencies of the theory, but plenty of adherents to this belief system are jarringly antagonistic.
Obviously the alternatives to Christianity also include other religions, but none of these strikes me as containing the same level of realism as is found in the Bible—for all its quirks, the Bible portrays a realistic human condition in key aspects of sociology and philosophy. For instance many of the statements made by the authors of the Bible are not ones that provide any sort of personal or material gain to them. They were highly controversial, yet at their core they contain a level of truth that is hard to ignore. The theme of these assertions is that we should avoid certain behaviors and strive to conform to specific moral standards while still maintaining an incredible level of individuality. The Bible itself has always come across to me as a book that demands that I think for myself—and unfortunately this characteristic of the book is not often promoted in churches and other religious organizations. On a certain level, this is understandable—people want to believe that the precepts in the Bible have been systematized to the point where those who adhere to the Bible should also readily adhere to this systematic structure of its contents. I believe that many theologians in the past have pursued systemization with the best of intentions while some have not. Regardless, my primary concern as a free-thinking individual is reading the Bible in a straightforward way and attempting as best I can to discard any preconceived notions that I or anyone else may have, no matter how noble our intentions in creating them. This means that a passage of scripture that many label a mystery may not be such a mystery after all, if you strive to view it in the proper perspective—what was the author most probably thinking as he wrote this, and why did he do so?
The main point of all of this is my third “given” that governs what I write on this website—the leeway principle. This principle essentially states that because of the lack of direct clarification from God himself concerning the difficult aspects of Christianity, and because God would be more than capable of this direct clarification if he so chose, we as human beings have clearly been given a certain measure of leeway as we attempt to understand the Bible and organize its doctrines in our minds. Instead of trying to identify God’s ultimate plan with too much precision, I believe that God’s plan fundamentally includes this leeway, which in turn encourages more effort on our part to understand his most important truths. The fundamental assertion of Christianity is plain. All human beings have sinned by violating the aforementioned moral law (as outlined by various biblical commands) and thus need some means of being reconciled to God in order to abide in heaven (an unfathomable yet wonderful existence, whatever that may be) with him forever. Jesus Christ, the essence of God in human form, sufficiently provided this means by living a sinless life and suffering death, thus sacrificing himself on our behalf by receiving the punishment for our sins. We are commanded only to believe by faith that because of this act Jesus is our means of reconciliation to God—in other words Jesus is our Savior. At that point God’s Spirit interacts with us in such a way that our desires and thoughts become progressively oriented towards him throughout the remainder of our lives, steadily causing us to become more like Jesus himself though never achieving his level of perfection until we are in heaven. One integral aspect of Jesus’s sacrificial act is that he resurrected a few days later and ascended to heaven in some type of perfect (or glorified) state which we will also assume at our future resurrection. Now we come full circle in this discourse and deal once again with this “outlandish” resurrection claim. My own feelings about it include some amount of uncertainty coupled with an intellectual persuasion that it will happen—I don’t necessarily become joyful when I think about it, even though I know it will be joyful when it happens. This I think is natural—anxiety is always coupled with the unknown, and the fact remains that none of us truly knows what that resurrection day will be like. One key to witnessing to those who don’t believe in Christianity is not to use buzzwords like “joyful” or “glorious” to describe certain truths if we don’t truly feel that way about them ourselves. Being honest about our own responses to the lofty or outlandish aspects of our faith can only be beneficial in the long run. I can safely share with others certain times of my Christian life that I consider truly joyful—the day I accepted Christ, and a couple of other days where I felt God’s Spirit inside of me in a remarkable, empowering way. Because I experienced them firsthand, I can express a genuine joy. I can also express my feelings of guilt and depression that I have felt strongly at certain times, but that caused me to grow and learn vitally. But when I consider future events such as the resurrection and seeing God personally for the first time, I am much more possessed by feelings of awe and anxiety than rapturous joy. When Paul addressed the Thessalonians in his letters, he spent considerable time clarifying questions they had about the resurrection, assuring them that it would be a joyous day. But until that day, they were clearly full of questions and feelings of uncertainty, otherwise Paul would not have had to compose the letters in the way that he did, urging them “not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed” (2 Thess. 2:2) and desiring that God would “comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word” (2 Thess. 2:17).
The outlandish aspects of Christianity must be viewed in light of the wealth of moral and practical truths that comprise the core of the faith. The likelihood of the Christian spokesmen in the Bible (including Jesus himself) lying about such events as the resurrection—when their very faith is built upon a foundation of moral integrity—is nigh unacceptable to me. I do not deny that the resurrection and other biblical assertions are difficult to process mentally, but the fact remains that certain practical truths I take for granted are just as mesmerizing, such as my very existence, my ability to philosophize about reality as if I were existing outside of it, and the incredible complexity and variety and order of nature. We are not only surrounded by miracles, we are living a miracle, so the fact that our ultimate destiny is similarly miraculous tends not to bother me in the end.
The only paragraph I’m comfortable reading from this section is the final one, but that’s not to say I disavow the rest. I just feel that most of this section repeats some common apologetics. The next to last paragraph, wherein I actually describe leeway, is an essentially accurate reflection of my current feelings. Leeway is about open-mindedness, free thinking, and being honest about what we really know while acknowledging that most things we take for granted are actually pretty astonishing.
I exist without a total love or commitment to anything. Part of this is to my shame, but the condition seems almost unavoidable to me. If I were to identify one thing that comes closest to earning my total commitment, I would say Truth. Coincidentally, Jesus states in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” So by corollary, I possess a nearly total commitment to Jesus Christ, provided the Bible is accurate, which I believe it is. Yet my past is wrought with failures, and I would venture to say that most of them are due to apathy. My definition of apathy is encapsulated in the opening sentence of this paragraph—it is a lack of total commitment to something, which leads to an often severe lack of motivation. Or I could say the process of motivating myself seems to require intense mental effort most of the time. Perhaps part of this is the result of my aforementioned failures debilitating my desire to press on, but I think most of my apathy is a byproduct of my tendency to analyze every aspect of my reality to an extreme degree. Once I do that, I question the need to pursue a given task with more than a certain amount of fervor, which leads to my attempts to coerce myself with seemingly flimsy logic. A general outcome of this frame of mind is a realization that I can never hope to pursue any undertaking without being sidetracked by that all-encompassing question, “Why?” In fact, I have learned that my chief desire in life seems to be asking why. I know that living a practical life has practical advantages. Accepting cultural norms and conforming to society’s tenets does not necessarily make one ignorant, but that can never be my way. I wish on certain occasions that it could be, but as soon as I think this way, my entire being is repulsed—I simply do not have this ability to conform without asking why.
Let me attempt to paint my apathy pragmatically, as it expresses itself in two ways. One is noticing how much fulfillment others seem to get out of what I consider mundane achievements, such as attaining a certain level of skill at some endeavor, be it sports, music, math, reading, writing, computer programming, or whatever else. One’s own enthusiasm with these undertakings is not necessarily the problem. The problem occurs when others lavish praise and attention on these achievements as if they are remotely deserving of this level of adoration, thereby enforcing the original “achiever’s” own sense of the importance of his accomplishment. This phenomenon expresses itself in a variety of ways—top 10 lists, award ceremonies, newspaper articles, and even simply the almost worshipful attention of peers. So you may accuse me of endorsing the other extreme, which asserts that we are all dust and nothing matters. That is definitely far from the truth. The issue is that the things that matter to me seem to be things that interest hardly anyone else—the things that matter to me are the answers to questions beginning with “Why?”
I find myself unable to clarify this satisfactorily, which could normally lead to more apathy, but I press on. Let me attempt to highlight another practical example drawing from personal experience. I have attended two colleges: one is a private secular university in St. Louis which is comprised of over 60% Jewish students, and while many of the students are fairly smart, the school clearly endorses standard collegiate “wild” behavior by turning a blind eye to rampant drug and alcohol consumption. Here my apathy was towards this lifestyle which seems to enrapture so many students, the lifestyle we are supposed to accept with glee because MTV tells us to be cool like that. The sad fact is that if enough people buy into the lifestyle, they will see no reason ever to abandon the pursuit thereof. My attempts to reason with them would almost certainly fail, and any success would depend entirely on their current mood (a topic I elaborated on earlier). This leads me to distance myself and analyze the world from the “outside,” a place I have inhabited for as long as I remember—sort of. I have a weird ability to connect with people because of my honesty, but I never ultimately feel as if I am “one of them,” because I am too far involved on the outside at this point, and most seem pretty settled on the inside.
To continue my illustration, the other college I have attended (at which I am a current student as of this writing) is Bob Jones University, which is regarded as the premier fundamental Christian school in the world. Its rules are fairly well-documented, so I will not elaborate on them. I can say that my apathetic tendencies have surfaced here too, yet I feel certain I am learning much about life and being made to think critically because of the school’s peculiarities. I really would rather not go into specifics right now about problems I have noticed, mainly because I am tired right now (exhaustion being a primary contributor to apathy). But I do detect that students with certain dispositions and demeanors are often automatically marginalized. Perhaps some deserve this, and perhaps some desire this, but certain people with these characteristics can assuredly be identified as “analysts” such as me. We simply cannot assume the role expected of any given student without consistently asking some questions internally. I cannot sing every hymn with fervor. I cannot greet everyone with a smile. I cannot induce routine into my life too heavily, especially in the areas of prayer and Bible reading, lest my religion become formulaic. Preachers speak of times of revival being greatly desired. This is true, but those times must be thoroughly genuine, and moreover must necessarily be preceded by times of trouble and perhaps spiritual detachment. We all know the generally right things to do—our means of doing them will be undertaken with varying amounts of enthusiasm depending on our current spiritual condition (or mood, if you will). Of course we have the power to exercise control with our mind and our will, but sometimes even these cannot completely overcome a phase of intense introspection, depression, or impractical creativity. Bob Jones is trying to instill a certain level of self-discipline in its students, which is certainly not a bad thing, but in the process the school should be careful never to stifle an individual’s desire to question everything they are told every step of the way. And perhaps the student has an even greater responsibility not to ask questions in a cynical fashion that predetermines the answer. Being truly open-minded is a chief goal of analyzing reality—acknowledging my limits and weaknesses while communicating my thoughts and feelings with clarity is the paramount challenge.
All of this is merely an expression of my hope that others will know why I am apathetic towards many things. The world around us is so wonderful yet so complex, full of order yet riddled with unanswered questions. In the years ahead, I want to explore several aspects of Christian thought regarding the world and provide my honest appraisal of widely accepted ideas. My next few essays will probably focus on general theological beliefs that are continuously debated in our world. Scripture citations will probably be scarce as I provide more impressionistic responses. After I cover some of these main points of theology, I will probably then delve into something closer to biblical commentary, as I select verses that interest me during my Bible reading and share my thoughts on them. Remember, everything is open to analysis, including the extent of inspiration of the Bible itself, yet I will treat it with the highest respect, since I still consider it the most valuable source of truth in existence.
Again I seemed intent on writing several religious missives in the months following, inadvertently violating my freeform principle and almost guaranteeing they would not be written after all. Sometimes my description of apathy seems to be the polar opposite of what I identified as “fakeness” during my high school days. Apathy is about not generating excitement or enthusiasm where none exists. It manifests itself as an even-keeled temperament. But apathy is not considered noble by the world at large, or even desirable. I would agree that living an apathetic life should be no one’s raison d’être, but each individual has to know what truly motivates him. I have learned that I am not at all motivated by pursuing activities or forming relationships simply so I can check off a list of “cool things to do” or “awesome people to know.” I have known many people for whom one or both of these are goals, but I personally have begun to realize that I am motivated primarily by people who legitimately care about me. For those people I would do things that I might not think are great fun, but if they glean enjoyment from doing those things in my company, then I am on board. This aspect of my personality seems to coincide with my approach to humor. I get minimal enjoyment from comedy based on the embarrassment of others—hidden cameras, practical jokes, and the like. No matter what, I just don’t find these things very funny. I vastly prefer the brand of humor that lightens the heart of everyone in the room at no one’s expense, and that’s where I focus my attempts these days. I love making people laugh because I myself love to laugh. For me, laughing is probably the best way to inject some genuine joy into life when my apathy starts to carry on a bit too long.
Attention: I do not agree with everything I just wrote, even though I penned it yesterday (or this morning actually). Specifically I think I may have come across as pompous when I identified myself as being on the “outside” while most others are content being on the “inside.” In no way does this correlate with a sense of superiority. As I will illustrate below, Michael Jordan played basketball with the intensity that only someone existing on the “inside” could muster. In many ways, living without the constant search for validity and motivation in one’s undertakings is admirable and preferable. I would surmise that a vast majority of our most accomplished athletes, scientists, political leaders, et. al., could be characterized by a single-minded motivation and commitment that allowed them to succeed.
I just read a great quote relating somewhat to apathy. In a recent ESPN column by Skip Bayless about Chris Webber, the columnist writes that “he’s introspective enough to let it eat him alive. This, after all, is a man who speaks eloquently about black history and who has built one of the country’s finest collections of black artifacts and art. Here is a deep thinker—maybe too deep to be a franchise-changing, clutch-shooting superstar.” The entire column is centered around the fact that Webber has incredible natural talent but has never displayed, as Bayless puts it, “Michael Jordan’s tunnel-vision rage to win.” Having seen a few Webber interviews over the years, I agree. To have the highest levels of motivation about anything, one basically has to be completely incapable of assessing the relative importance of one’s particular endeavor. We all know that basketball, in the end, is just a game—a very enjoyable and entertaining game, in my opinion, but a game nonetheless. Is a professional player wrong for sharing this perspective? In a certain sense, that player cannot help it. Whether we are born with such personality traits or they are cultivated at an early age, the end result is the same—our very selves are largely defined by our attitude and motivation towards everything we do.
This is the ultimate point. In no way do I believe I am better or worse than any other person for possessing this trait of analyzing my world constantly. I accept the fact that it is an integral part of who I am, and one major way I have presently decided to deal with it is via a blitz of writing.
—Brad Garrett, 2005