May 16, 2011

Who Could Tire of Conversion Stories?

From Jennifer Pierce
When I decided to try on atheism, as a philosophy major at a secular college, it may have been sleep deprived induced lunacy. I had spent the whole night reading William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice,” after having read Elie Wiesel’s “Night” the night before that, both about WWII concentration camps. I realized that Wiesel and Styron’s fictional Sophie were Jewish and Christian respectively and suddenly became aware of a world full of God’s faithful, who endure the unthinkable, all the time praying for a mercy that never comes. What does prayer mean, then, if it is answered with such a monstrous silence?

If there was a God who could abandon me, and a devil who could so easily get hold of me, despite earnest prayers for deliverance, non-belief seemed safer. Randomness was math and seemed to have the better odds. No judgment. No abandonment. If I lost the odds game and suffered, at least I wouldn’t also feel the secondary pain of being abandoned by God. It would be, then, just very, very bad luck. That seemed a lot more acceptable to me.

Despite the realization that belief doesn’t save you from suffering, however, I gradually realized that atheism was intellectually and emotionally untenable. For one thing, it’s untenable logically: “I believe there is no God” is a creed. It is kind of like saying I have no tolerance for intolerance. If we reject moral anarchy, why did any emergent, secular moral law seem to be uncannily based on the Ten Commandments? The hound of heaven still pursued my thoughts; nothing but God would make sense.

I am stubborn, though. I floated my way through non-exclusionary, Unitarian and New Age inspired beliefs. Eventually — I have a suspicion my mother’s prayers may have had a hand! — I became attracted to attending the Latin Mass at Yale University. I enjoyed it as an exotic form of charming human ritual with nostalgic value from my childhood — just as I also enjoyed going to synagogue and attending a pentecostal service. I saw them as all equivalent. I still felt relatively free to stitch together a patchwork quilt of belief based on what “felt right” and what seemed to be in agreement with and least offensive to most human beings.

That’s when I picked up a book called “Orthodoxy” by G.K. Chesterton. It read like it had been written as a letter to me in my restless “belief,” a belief I place in scare quotes because it had the odd character of seeming a lot like non-belief and the convenience of suiting whatever I felt like doing. There was one sentence that lives in my memory. I can see it on the page as if I’m reading it, any time I recall it: “I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.” That was it. My twitch.

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