An Apologetic for a Life
I. Gonna Have to Serve Somebody
How does one tell the story of her life? A difficulty arises in the telling because who I am today is very different from the person that I was. To put it more succinctly, should I use the vernacular that I grew up with (that's much more fun), or the language of ideas that I now employ? I used to think mostly in terms of rock 'n roll. Quotes from songs would come spontaneously to me in almost every circumstance of life. In an earlier era, I would have probably been educated with poetry, and as such would have more elevated imagery with which to work.
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But the reality is that I was raised on a steady diet of MTV. In my previous life, I followed the gods of rock. If I had lived during the height of Athens, it would have been Zeus and Athena, but in my time it was Jimmy Page and Stevie Nicks. These old gods die hard, and their songs are with me still. So it is in the idioms of popular song that I relate how I was led from rock to The Rock; from those finite gods of my imagining to the infinite Creator and Redeemer of the Universe. Please pardon the mixing of my former Athens with my New Jerusalem, and for bringing my somewhat crude Gen X sensibilities into the hallowed halls of academic discourse.
For those who know me what follows is not news. I have been a Christian for most of my adult life, going through a pretty radical conversion while in my first years of college. I have attended only public schools during my academic career, and have been teaching Philosophy and Religious Studies courses in a public community college for over ten years. Up to now, I have learned to keep my convictions private. There are a number of reasons for keeping my convictions private, which includes a deep respect for the distinction between church and state.
I have not wanted to influence my students either positively or negatively by exposing them to "my view." Instead, I have desired that my students be led where reason takes them. And so I begin each semester telling my students that I will lie to them about my personal views. I tell them this because I don't want them to believe anything I say on the basis of my position of authority as teacher, but should they believe anything that I say, it should be because the authority of reason has led them to believe. This approach has worked out quite well over the years, and most students leave my classes at the college without knowing my personal commitments.
I continue to have the concern that students commit to a position on the basis of reason. I respect my students, as did my professors before me, and find that my students are quite capable of thinking through tough philosophical issues for themselves if given the right tools, as I was allowed to work through questions of grave import for myself. The Liberal Arts are potentially dangerous, college often changes a person; perhaps, it is meant to be such. One can go from belief to unbelief in college. Or, as in my case, one can change from unbelief to belief, and through a philosophy class no less.
I was listening to my Internet radio station one day the one that tries to make suggestions for you, based upon what you already like, and a song called 'Empty' came on. How did the Internet know that I could relate? It was a song I had never heard before. And, as I have a hard time adjusting to "new music," I was inclined to change it, but as I listened, it struck me that this song beautifully expressed what my life had been like. Life was empty.
I was not very successful in high school. In a graduating class of something like 846 students, I ranked 432 (and was pretty satisfied with my position). Growing up, my parents always told me that I would be going to college. I wasn't sure what was involved in going to college, but I knew for sure that I was going. I was to be the first of our family to graduate with a college degree.
Though totally into the music scene, my inner nerd demanded that I participate regularly in the science club during high school. I became very interested in the physical sciences. When I began my first semester of college at the age of seventeen, I wanted to study geology, but after two courses discovered it to be a rather narrowly focused field (this was to be a common theme during my college career). I needed bigger questions, so I changed my major to physical anthropology, thinking I would be studying the history of humanity in it's deepest sense origins. I was after the "missing link" this was what I told my friends to make my major sound exciting. I think I halfway believed this line myself. I discovered there we're problems in the field when we spent one whole class period looking at a fragment of a cheekbone of a primate, and conjectured about how to reconstruct the rest of the skull from the fragment, and then from the skull, the rest of the animal. These reconstructions seemed like so much speculation to me, but what did I know? I was only eighteen. My doubts and suspicions about the interpretive aspects of the discipline did not go away. And the emptiness did not go away.
I dropped out during the middle of spring semester sophomore year, and followed Irish rock band U2 for a few months. My anthropology teacher called me up at my job at the bookstore to find out what had happened. I made up a story, telling her I would be back next semester. At the age of nineteen, I had followed my favorite band all over the southwest, and got a tattoo to commemorate what I had thought was to be the greatest achievement of my life thirteen front row spots on the Achtung Baby tour. After that high, I thought life would be nothing but downhill, and achingly empty. What was the point? What was the point in going back to school?
After months of inactivity, a geology friend of mine told me, in a very kind way, that I was wasting my life. My reaction was "so what?" But he was right; I was wasting my life, and I felt guilty for doing so. I had chased my rock 'n roll fantasies, and they left me with nothing. It was spring semester the time when students go back to school and I was messing around following my band.
I had heard rumors about this philosophy class around campus. The students who had taken it either hated it, or raved about it. I had a vague conception of what philosophy was (how could I know?), but when my best friend took the class and started to practice the arguments she was learning on me, I was blown away. I had never before seen a sound argument. The power of a sound argument is what impressed me more than anything I had previously known. If the premises logically supported the conclusion, and they we're true, then I had to believe it. I couldn't not believe the conclusion to a sound argument. I had to take this class. When all else seemed played out, here was something new.
Fall semester, of what was now my third year in community college, and the last of my youthful tryst with the gods, I took the famed philosophy course. I was introduced to the laws of thought. Reason. I was in love with reason (okay, I still am). I came to see that the laws of thought could not be doubted, that they we're that by which one doubts. Reason is the test for meaning, and meaning is more basic than truth. These laws we're natural, and thus we're universal among all humans. Meaning was possible both ontologically, and existentially. This was the beginning of good news for me.
III. And the Walls Came Down
I grew up during the Cold War, when the Russians we're still "the enemy" and MAD was a viable possibility. There was an impending sense of doom in our world. But it was more than in the external world for me; I had this personal sense of some impending doom. I couldn't put my finger on it but it had to do with the emptiness, my meaningless existence. Was I doomed to live a life that ultimately had no purpose? This possibility was definitely worse than any Russian invasion or nuclear attack.
Fall semester rolled on, and we began to do metaphysics in the philosophy class, asking, "what is eternal?" I had already decided that matter was eternal, and that was all that existed. At age fifteen, after my confirmation into the Catholic Church, I walked away decidedly an atheist. I had questions, they could not answer my questions, therefore these questions we're either unanswerable, or there is no God the results are the same life has no ultimate purpose. These we're my assumptions.
I was introduced to argument by reductio ad absurdum showing the truth of a position by reducing the opposite to impossibility. My professor showed that something must be eternal, because the opposite "nothing is eternal" was impossible. That one could know anything at all was amazing to my skeptical modus operandi, but that I could know that at least something was eternal was mind blowing. Previously, I could only assume, now I had at least one thing that I knew for sure. I'm talking justified true belief, to know something must be eternal.
In class, we moved on to ask the question "what is eternal?" Is it matter, spirit, both, God? It was matter, right? My professor asked us to consider the implications if matter is eternal, then it would be self-maintaining. Was matter self-maintaining? I had to think about this. I had to examine the assumptions and the evidence. Given the second law of thermodynamics, I had to conclude that matter was not self-maintaining, and that the universe was not eternal. It sounds so simple as I write about it now, but existentially it was an excruciating process. Given my assumptions, that was the beginning of the end.
I held my breath as we examined idealism and dualism, hoping that maybe they would provide the foundation upon which to stand, as mine was crumbling under foot. But no, I knew it, we would have to talk about whether God existed or not. I went through the arguments in my mind if matter exists (vs. idealism), and matter is not eternal; and if individual souls exist, and individual souls are not eternal; then some other Soul/Spirit must be eternal. I could not escape the implications or the force of the argument. God exists. God existed and I felt busted. How did I miss what now is so clear to reason?
I don't remember much from the ethics segment of class that fall. I was reeling from the realization that I had been mistaken for so long, and lived as if there we're no God, and now I had to reckon with a new Reality. This realization was at once my undoing, and the beginning of life.
IV. Roll Away Your Stone
Sometimes songs capture in a line what philosophers grapple with in whole lifetimes. For instance, take this line that I recently heard: "The darkness is a harsh term don't you think? And yet it dominates the things I seek." You get what you seek after. If you seek the darkness, then you get darkness of mind, which for a rational being is spiritual death. Life prior to that first philosophy class was the condition of spiritual death. My life had no meaning, and I was keenly aware of it. I was wasting life, and filling it with excess for me it was the rock n roll lifestyle. I sought the darkness and had missed the light. I didn't see what was clear to reason, and it was my own fault. I felt the pang. What should I do?
It was Christmas break, a month between classes, usually a welcomed time for students, but not for me. I had just gone through the total undoing of my world and life view. I was drifting, without foundation. I talked with my friend who had previously taken the philosophy course. She had no answers for me. I decided that the thing to do would be to take another philosophy class. I registered for a history of philosophy course and an ethics course. In the process of studying Augustine, it dawned on me that maybe some Christians are on to something. I decided to read the Bible starting with the book of Revelation (I had heard about this one from a rock song). Beginning with the end was decidedly a bad plan. I could not make any sense of it. I found out later that Revelation is a book that is built upon the previous 65 books. I had no Christian background. I had no Christian friends. I knew no Christians. I had no idea how to be one. I couldn't understand their book. I worked at a record shop at the time, and all my record store buddies could do was mock at my even considering the possibility of Christianity. What should I do?
I did what I always did previously; I consulted the gods. I knew one thing really well U2. A little personal background I am half-Irish, half-Italian. My Dad was Irish a police officer. We bonded over the Irish thing; that is how I came to appreciate Irish music; the police officer thing is what kept me from getting into any real trouble around town (when your Dad is a cop, you are aware of the hundreds of potential eyes in the city). Dad and I bonded over the Irish; I had read a lot of Irish history with him. I had come to hate the Protestants, and in some half-hearted way, supported the Catholics in terms of the "Troubles" (another thing that we don't hear about any more). Weird thing is that my favorite band had been Christian, many of their songs have Biblical allusions, and I totally missed it at the time. Now I was asking "What Would Bono Do?" Would Bono be a Catholic, or a Protestant? Looking back, this is admittedly a really poor way of thinking through longstanding, thorny, theological issues. Incidentally, I am still not sure how Bono would answer this question (his mother was Protestant, and his father Catholic).
My approach to Christianity was not working. I needed to talk to someone who knew. But I did not know anyone with knowledge. My professor seemed to know some things. So, I decided to talk to him. I was a very shy young woman, and it took me some time to work up the courage to go and talk with my professor. But one day I did it. I went to his office hours, knocked on the door, he invited me in, and I asked him the question: "Should I be Catholic or Protestant?" He looked at me, sized me up, and after a long pause, said "Hummm." Mind you, I had never spoken with him before, though I had been in his classes for almost eight months. He asked me why I had come to the conclusion that I should be either one of the two options. He always seemed to answer my questions by asking questions. I appreciated this because it forced me to think for myself. I told him that I had followed the arguments and thought that the conclusion that God exists was the only option I had, and that I realized that I had been living in the condition of spiritual death. I needed spiritual life, and somehow I had figured out that Jesus must be the one who gives life. Now I was left with the question as to how to follow Jesus.
It was the end of the semester, so I thought it would be an acceptable time to pose this question to him. He asked me if I had considered what the best minds in the Christian tradition have agreed upon after much discussion. What was that? He suggested that I read the Gospel of John, and the Westminster Confession of Faith. I went home and promptly read both.
I thought about both the Gospel, and the Confession for a long time. The Prologue to John's Gospel made a lot of sense. The Logos was in man as the light of understanding; it was in the world as the laws of nature; it was in the words of the prophets as scripture; and men rejected all of these, and so the Logos came into the world incarnate and died to pay the penalty for sin. My sin. That made sense. The Confession, as a historical document, building on the prior church councils and creeds of historic Christianity made sense to me as well. I had a lot of questions, and my professor took the time to answer my questions never once indicating that these questions may be elementary, or foolish (though they certainly were). He treated me with respect, and my questions with seriousness, thoughtfulness, and real care. Through these means, by God's grace, I was changed.
V. A Slow Turning from the Inside Out
When I was nineteen, and I got the tattoo; I thought I was commemorating the best days of my life. Little did I know that the best was yet to come. At twenty-one I was starting life all over again. I decided to change my major; I needed to think big thoughts all the time. I wanted to major in Philosophy. I went to my academic advisor. She warned against Philosophy, saying "You'll never get a job, dear. Why don't you major in English? You have done well in English." What? A job? She was right, what was I going to do?
At least in anthropology I could go on digs. What was I going to do with my life? I did enjoy English Literature. I transferred to the university as an English major with a Philosophy minor. English was highly enjoyable, and I met one of my mentors, with whom I am still in contact, in the English department. But I couldn't stay away from philosophy. Soon I was a double major. I disagreed with almost all my professors in philosophy, but I appreciated each one for the intellectual challenge, and opportunity for growth, they provided. My understanding grew tremendously through the interactions I had in the Philosophy department. I continued to discuss these issues with my Philosophy professor now my mentor, and a couple friends I had made from the community college. I made some long-term friends who are now philosophy professors themselves. We talked together; we thought together; we started to build a community together. We we're like rocks in a tumbler being worn and smoothed by the challenge we brought to one another. Humans are social beings, and we need community. Community stems from our mutual commitments. That is how it happened with my friends and myself. We have grown up together spiritually and intellectually.
Some of us went on to graduate school together. I had listened to the academic advisors once, when they told me not to major in Philosophy because of practical reasons. I was not going to listen to them a second time. I went on to get the Masters degree in Philosophy working in the area of the Epistemology of Religion. I was still fascinated by reason. I graduated, after a lot of hard work and struggle. Now it was time to get a job. I worked as a tutor in philosophy at the community college all through graduate school. My professor thought that it would be a natural step for me to begin teaching once I received the M.A. degree. He offered me a night class Introduction to Philosophy. Another professor at university across town also offered me a class in the Philosophy of Religion. I declined both offers out of total fear. I was beside myself with fear at the thought of teaching standing in front of people and teaching. My professor offered me a class every semester for five years, and every semester I turned him down.
In those five years, I worked at the university as a transcript evaluator, admissions counselor, data entry specialist, research assistant to the former president of the college in the area of the interface between science and religion, and finally as the night shift supervisor of the library. No one really goes to the library late at night. So, I spent many long evenings wondering what I was doing with my life. Was I wasting it again? I had completed a Master's degree in Philosophy, I could be teaching the subject if I wanted to, but no, I was supervising the books that nobody was reading but me. After months of this, I was ready (or made ready?) to try my hand at teaching. I inquired whether my professor would still be willing to offer me a class. He offered me a 16-week Introduction to Philosophy course that met once a week. I thought, it meets a total of 16 times, if I we're unsuccessful, at least I would know I was not meant to teach. I was so afraid just prior to walking through the door to that classroom on the first day of class; but once inside everything was fine. Teaching was awesome. I am not sure now why I had avoided it for all those years. Shortly after that time, I began to teach English at the university across town in addition to Philosophy courses at the community college.
Eventually, I realized teaching was my calling. I went back to work on the Ph.D. degree. Once again, as I progressed in my philosophy courses, the subject became more and more narrowly focused, so I explored other disciplines. I found that in the Religious Studies department I could pursue my passion the relationship between reason and religion. I began to work on the question of common ground in public discourse, and how public discourse is possible, given the plurality of belief in the public sphere. What is the relationship between religion and the secular? These are the subjects that I am currently working on.
My hope is to explore a model for public discourse through the disciplines of Religious Studies and Philosophy. If reason is natural, which I believe that it is, then it should be common ground among all rational beings. Yet, reason is not neutral ground. We reason from our assumptions about reality. Can we use reason to critically analyze our assumptions about reality, and test them for meaning? I hope that this blog site will be a place to practice public discourse regarding difficult topics and assumptions, such as faith and reason, and science and religion.
My devotion to rock 'n roll stems from a longstanding desire to change the world for the better, and from rebellion against the status quo. The disappointment I've had is that music thus far has only been so much expression without effect. Something more basic is needed in order to change the world. Will common ground lead us to what is more basic?
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Posted in Home Improvement Post Date 03/23/2018