Imagination Lost, Imagination Restored

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By Benjamin Wharton ~


Following the evidence wherever it may lead should be an axiom for all people of good will but that journey of discovery is not free from its perils. A sincere evaluation of one’s faith and one’s preconceptions about the nature of reality can lead you to unexpected places. For every moment of profundity there are other moments where you are forced to look upon the darker corners of yourself when you find that some questions have no answers. No one is exempt from confronting these questions although many of us would certainly like to be. Despite what some may tell you there is no abdication of this responsibility or remedy for this malaise. It is part of the human condition. My attempts to answer these questions have faults and consequences specific to my situation but I imagine many others have found or are finding themselves in similar experiences. That is one motivation for writing this. If this resonates with only one person then my effort at capturing my own unavoidably limited experience has succeeded. I also hope that this serves as a sufficient explanation to my own friends or family who may be mystified by the end result of this process.

At this point some biographical information is warranted so it is best to begin at the beginning. I was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist church in the (U.S.) South that was essentially a cult. It was a very literal and shallow community of faith with no room for intellectual discourse or freedom of expression. It was like the bumper stickers I have seen around town: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” I was one of those who had the temerity to raise the natural question: “How do you know that god said it?” That was as virtually close to an unforgivable “sin” in that community as one can get. I left that faith in my teenage years although it had left its mark which I will address later.

I did not practice Christianity again until I met my wife and we got married a couple of years later. The Baptist faith did not work for me anymore at that stage. I didn’t believe the world was 6,000 years old, that ancient humans could live for hundreds of years, that there was a global flood absent of geological evidence, or that fossils were put in the ground to “test our faith”. I tried to make mainline Protestantism work both in its Methodist and Episcopalian variants. During this period I became enamored with tradition and symbols and found myself in progressive Roman Catholicism for a time. Ultimately that did not work out either. I tried to go back to Methodism but at that point I already knew how the sausage was made. Once you become aware of the numerous competing and mutually exclusive beliefs and how they were clearly manufactured for religious or political expediency there is no putting that genie back in the bottle. Other factors were at work too that will be explained later.

The Problem of Credulity

Christianity in all its forms [...] requires you to believe things for which there are no evidence.One of the major problems I have with Christianity in all its forms is that it requires you to believe things for which there are no evidence. In fact for some doctrines it requires you to believe things that contradict empirical evidence. One relevant example is from my own childhood. As a young boy of 8 I became fascinated with both paleontology and astronomy. The books I read at the time taught me that the Earth was billions of years old, that light from stars could take tens of millennia to reach my sight, and humans were highly evolved primates. When I asked my parents about these details they said that the scientists were mistaken. They said that the world was 6,000 years old and the scientific phenomena I was reading about were an illusion. The fossils looked old because god made them look that way to give scientists something to do. The lights from distant stars were magically placed at the proper points in space in 4004 BCE such that the photons reached my eyes in 1982 CE. And we most certainly did not evolve from apes. Evolution was not just untrue – it was against god.

Now a less fundamentalist faith might argue, “Well, we primarily agree with the scientists. You don’t have to agree with those wackos.” This acknowledgment of the validity of science is laudable but it does not adequately handle one central problem. For Christianity to function properly you are taught that it is normal to evaluate reality by one set of criteria in most situations but use alternate criteria when the tenets of your religion are cast into doubt by the facts. No Christian faith is exempt from this since at some point you are obliged to engage in a suspension of disbelief. You may cross your fingers and toes throughout a recitation of the Nicene Creed or argue for symbolic interpretation at points but at some level you are accepting something for which there is no evidence. This is not a good habit to get into if you want to be intellectually consistent. I can tell you from my own experience that striving for consistency in this environment generates cognitive dissonance which can be quite unpleasant to live with if you choose not to put your head in the sand.

As an exercise in absurdity I will relate to you some of the many wretched things I was taught. Dinosaurs and humans lived together until the Flood and the dinosaurs died because they couldn’t fit into Noah’s ark. All humans are descended from two people despite the DNA evidence indicating otherwise. As a corollary the human race was a product of incest by Adam’s children. The Red Sea literally parted and the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years even though no archaeologist has ever found evidence in the Sinai of such a habitation. The subsequent (albeit fictional) massacre of various ancient Palestinian tribes was divinely sanctioned. Interracial marriages were forbidden. The King James Bible was literally dictated using an audible voice from god to the English scribes and represents the definitive revelation. Dungeons and Dragons and secular music were satanic. Same-sex marriages were invalid and an abomination. And premarital sex – you were beyond the pale should you engage in such lustful acts. As for me I was originally damned and vile but I had said the magic words which exempted me from all moral responsibility and put me on the highway to the beatific vision. However, all those outside our blessed ‘city on the hill’ were likely damned and would endure eternal hellfire. Women were naturally inferior to men due to Eve’s hubris and were required to be subservient to their husbands as punishment.

I could go on but you get the basic idea. Many of you have likely encountered the same idiocy. I am of the belief now that telling impressionable children these sorts of things is tantamount to abuse. Evolution requires children to absorb life lessons from adults in order to survive and religion exploits that survival mechanism unfairly as a means of self-perpetuation. Less illiberal communities of faith might not teach these bizarre beliefs I have stated but religious progressives and moderates lend a legitimacy and respectability to their faith as a whole that may not be deserved. There is also no escaping that there are a few non-negotiable doctrines (e.g. the existence of a personal god, the resurrection of Jesus) that you must accept without evidence even in these more progressive communities. I would contend that we are doing our children a disservice by teaching them to be credulous. My children had difficulty comprehending religion and found it hard to accept as they approached their preteen years. That was a warning sign to me that something was amiss which led me to reflect on my own childhood.

At the same age I was a very imaginative child and spent many of my days reading and re-reading Tolkien, watching Star Wars movies, and living in worlds of fantasy of my own creation. There is something very special about that age that many of us spend the rest of our lives trying to replicate. We are at the height of our imaginative powers yet unsullied by the vagaries of adolescence. I can’t help but think that halcyon time was damaged by the introduction of arbitrary limits and outdated worldviews invented by Bronze Age fools. For every biblical story of heroism you can find several others of ethnic cleansing, rape, murder, and intolerance. But for a boy interested in the fantastical – the stories of miracles and nature-defying events appealed to me at my core. Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, and Jesus of Nazareth became all of a piece and the damage was done. I imbibed deeply from the proffered chalice of religion and something precious was lost. My imagination now had limits and even things I enjoyed were now seen as divinely proscribed in some quarters. Years later I would come to describe this phenomenon as becoming “Christ-haunted”. It was not Jesus “meek and mild” but rather the stern visage of the Christ Pantocrator proclaiming the teaching while watching for moral infractions. Ironically that would become one of my favorite examples of Christian iconography when I was exposed to it. Old habits die hard I suppose.

At the time my father was an ordained minister although he never had a pastoral assignment and had to work as an electronics technician. My mother was a homemaker. They were attempting to pass on the faith that they were taught as children and did not consider the potential negative side effects of religion. This ignorance is why I think it is important for these kinds of stories to come to light. I should add that I too was guilty of the same ignorance and should have known better. When I was around 10 my parents divorced and my childhood came to a screeching halt. In short, it was devastating for me. Only now that I am in my 40s and have made my own share of mistakes do I wake up and not think of the loss. I have new losses to bear and that one was too heavy to continue to carry.

Women [...] must continue to provide sexual access, maid services, culinary delights, and childcare if married or an immaculate model of decorum if unmarried.In response I turned to religion for comfort. The god of Christianity was a father who would never leave and who I could count on. Eventually I got the deluded idea around the age of 13 that I would become a preacher like my father except I would succeed where he had failed. I find that astonishing now since public speaking is something I absolutely hate. However, in a fundamentalist cult if you have any sense of a “calling” or “vocation” that is the only role for a male. Unfortunately women in this community are out of luck and must continue to provide sexual access, maid services, culinary delights, and childcare if married or an immaculate model of decorum if unmarried. It is a monochromatic culture that demands unforgiving obedience. It takes everything while providing nothing. It is a paradox in that it believes in the fantastical but has almost no imagination.

Around this time I was also an outcast at school. I was nerdy, skinny, and awkward and the late 80s and early 90s were not kind to people of that persuasion. I doubled down on religion since Jesus accepted me even if no one else did. During this time period my mother married a man who was a religious fanatic and was emotionally abusive. If I had possessed any desire to cease religious practice it would not have been allowed under any circumstances. I can vividly remembering him barging into my room with a belt for minor infractions and screaming at the top of his lungs that god hated my sin and that I was lucky that my mother would not let him beat me. This continued until the moron moved out when I was 14, we stopped attending church, and I was able to finally relax and get back to the business of being a teenager instead of a zealot. The scars from that zeal would remain in the form of religious guilt and more particularly the guilt resulting from the commission of supposed “sins”.

The Problem of Sin

Here we get to the root of many of Christianity’s problems. As someone who trusts science I think the concept of original sin is flawed and does not conform to the facts. We are evolved from great apes and are part of the animal kingdom. For millions of years we and our fellow primates have done things by instinct that Christians would consider sinful – withholding resources from others to save ourselves, fighting and/or killing to acquire resources, eating too much in advance of hard times, having sex with as many partners as possible to propagate the species, etc. There was never a magic moment in time when early humans were not doing these things. There will never be a point at which we stop doing these things. There was no “Fall of Man” event because there were no conditions under which a fall would have even been possible.

Given that this is part of the human condition and is inescapable it raises the question: “Is it just for a god to damn his creation for performing acts that are innate to their nature?” I would argue that only an evil and capricious god would do that to their followers. If I make an object and it is flawed it is not the object’s fault that it is flawed. It is my fault as the creator. A good and reasonable god would not project their own failures onto their creations. They certainly would not demand torture and blood sacrifice of a human being as the only possible expiation. Suffering often is random and indiscriminately cruel in its application. There is nothing redemptive about the suffering of someone else. To accept it as salvific for ourselves is to transfer our own moral responsibility to other people. There are variants of belief as to whether this salvation is permanent or not based on one’s actions but there is no getting around the scapegoating that is at work here. On this issue I cannot decide which is worse: the terror of potentially losing one’s salvation through moral failure or the complete abandonment of one’s responsibility via permanent salvation. Either alternative seems ruinous. The first is the route of the Catholic and the Orthodox – to abase yourself continuously while observing the rituals and forms with the proper obeisance while doubting its efficacy the entire time. This creates a morass of self-hatred and unworthiness that you cannot escape. The second is to follow the guidance of Martin Luther and his descendants and ‘sin boldly’. Under this mode of operation you can treat people like garbage because you have invoked the magic words that cover a multitude of sins with the blood of Jesus.

Self-loathing is the starting point in this system and is the understandable consequence of a religion largely invented by mendicants, ascetics or worse yet, reformed libertines who became ascetics. It is ironic that celibates would declare that sex inoculates this original sin into us at conception. Fortunately we are not abstract spiritual entities that must excise ourselves from all the indignities of being confined to flesh or risk the fires of perdition. Consciousness arises from electrical signals in brain cells. We are inseparable from our environment and are subject to the same limitations as any other animal even though we are more adept at dealing with those limitations. Teaching someone that they are damned because of these limitations is cruel. Teaching them that they must follow rules that I invent or participate in rituals that I control in order to avoid said damnation is even crueler and self-serving.

As a child I experienced a great amount of guilt due to this concept. This was especially true after I left religious practice in my teenage years. I can remember agonizing over the fact that I was interested in the things enjoyed by typical male teenagers and wondered if I was somehow damned. Had my articulation of the magic words been sincere enough to gain redemption or had they been ineffectual? Some in the cult would have said that my prayer was insincere since I was not practicing my faith anymore. Therefore for them it was a logical consequence that I was damned so my knowledge of their stance fueled my reasons to doubt. What about the nebulous “calling” that I had abandoned? By this betrayal was I not playing the role of a Judas? This cycle of spiritual rumination continued and helped to start a habitual pattern of depression, anxiety, and existential doubt which persists to this day. My journey through many Christian faiths in part was an attempt to resolve this issue but there is no solving the problem because it starts with an intractable assumption: humans are innately evil. Regardless of what prayers I said or rituals I participated in I could never be sure that I was truly absolved. How did I know if believed the right things or was performing the right actions? That leads me to the next problem.

The Problem of Authority

If you spend any time in a fundamentalist Baptist church you will quickly discover that much of their theology is rooted in conjecture, literal reading of texts, stupid anecdotes that get passed around, and a complete ignorance of the history of their own religion. It is rife with bullshit artists and manipulators. When I returned to religion as an adult I vowed to avoid the largely ahistorical expressions of faith and their associated cults of personality. However, it was largely an accident that I ended up in mainline Protestantism via United Methodism. I happened to find an article online from a local church where a pastor used Frodo Baggins in a sermon in a positive way. I thought to myself that this might be a place worth trying out if he was open to fantasy literature. So my wife and I spent a year or two at his church and it proved to be a useful education. The pastor was a good man and he taught me a great deal about approaching religious texts from multiple points of view. Most importantly for me this included the historical context of the text and the cultural assumptions of the writer. I began to see the bible more as a library than a monolithic text.

That led me to explore the problem of authority. Given that there were multiple senses of interpreting scripture how does one decide which interpretation is authoritative? When is the literal sense appropriate? How do you evaluate when to switch from the literal sense to the anagogical sense? How do you know you have arrived at truth? No one gets burned at the stake for “bad” interpretations anymore but on matters of eternal consequence one had better get it right. And then there was the question on which everything else hinged – who decides which interpretation is correct? You can’t just let any random person decide because then they might come up with idiotic interpretations that are benign at best and eternally damaging at worst. I had seen the product of leaving biblical exegesis to the uneducated and wanted to avoid that at all hazards. It became a nagging question for me that would ultimately prove to be unhealthy as it fed on my preexisting anxiety and became a cornerstone of what I would later recognize as OCD. This is why I think religion should come with a warning label for a certain segment of the population. If you are a highly sensitive and imaginative person: caveat emptor.

Soon after I began to ponder this question of authority my Methodist pastor left for another assignment and my wife and I decided to switch churches. Methodist churches in the South have a tendency to emphasize the more evangelical side of the Wesleyan tradition because that is what the locals expect. When new pastors were assigned this emphasis often happened in an attempt to be more relevant to the masses. I wasn’t sure if I wanted that experience long term since I have never been one for praise bands or emotive sermons. As a very introverted person evangelical and charismatic spirituality has always been a complete mystery to me and was never spiritually fulfilling.

My wife had a friend who went to a local Episcopal church so we gave it a try. It was very different from what I was used to but I was supremely impressed with it. The liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer had beautiful language and the rich symbolism of the service captured my imagination. It combined the physical and the metaphorical into a framework that I could relate to. In that sense it brought back some of the imagination that had been lost to the sterile and austere Christianity of my youth. The sermons were thoughtful, the liturgy was eloquent, the history and tradition of the church was respected, and people there were kind to us. We had a female priest and she was genuinely excellent. I was confirmed there along with my wife and my first two children were baptized there. I really admired C.S. Lewis at the time and figured if the Church of England was good enough for him then its American variant would be just fine for me.

In my previous experiences with Christianity I had never experienced any sort of the feeling of the presence of god, oneness with all things, or emotional consolations from worship. It always seemed like a throng of people getting together noisily and ineffectively, making a huge emotional production out of everything, and desperately seeking attention from others. The Episcopal faith was nothing like that. For the first time I began to feel the things that the evangelicals always talked about. It was very quiet and personal but it felt incredibly powerful. The intensity of it led me to believe that it objectively proved the theological principles I held at the time. I had become guilty of magical thinking.

I want to emphasize that while these kinds of spiritual experiences are very subjective they feel no less real to the person undergoing them. We seek patterns and meaning in everything so it is a natural outcome that experiences like these will serve to validate what we already believe. I was no exception to that. I made the mistake of thinking that subjectivity can make claims about the objective nature of reality. These experiences also operate like a feedback loop. Spiritual experiences give birth to more intense spiritual experiences and the cycle continues. They are seductive in that they can be euphoric and rekindle the imagination of our childhoods. We chase after these experiences again and again in an unending cycle of spiritual acquisition that will not relent unless something happens to take you out of the entire system.

My only criticism of the Episcopal faith at the time was that the doctrine tended to be hard to pin down which as an obsessively analytical person I found troubling. A phrase I heard often while I was there was ‘Lex orandi, lex credendi’. This means ‘we pray what we believe.’ The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) provides a common framework that Episcopalians can use to worship together even though they might individually disagree on various interpretations of scripture or church tradition. The Church of England largely formed as an attempt to bridge the gap between Protestantism and Catholicism by providing a ‘via media’ (middle road) that is both Catholic and Reformed. The BCP was a means of getting Christians of many types (Calvinists, Anglo-Catholics, low church, broad church, etc.) all under one roof. In order to be this inclusive a faith must be open to multiple points of interpretation. My engineering background did not make this generosity of spirit any easier for me to comprehend.

One result of this flexibility of interpretation is that the Episcopalian expression of Anglicanism often finds itself at odds with the Anglican churches in the Global South who are significantly more conservative. While I was an Episcopalian there were constant rumors that the Episcopal Church was going to be kicked out of the Anglican Communion for its stance on permitting same-sex blessings in its liturgy. This genuinely bothered me because I wanted to be part of a church that had an ongoing connection to the universal Church through apostolic succession. I wanted to be part of a church with a capital ‘C’ – not another Protestant sect named after its creator. While I was not opposed to gay marriage in the secular realm I did not want to get kicked out of the universal Church over having it in the churches. I had searched far and wide to find the Church of England and I didn’t want to leave it because of someone else’s decision. In retrospect I deeply regret this attitude which reflects the fact that I had no LGBT friends at the time. In religion as in the rest of life sometimes you have to be prophetic and say to hell with the consequences. In 2016 these consequences arrived when the Church of England caved in to the reactionaries and temporarily suspended the Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion.

My concern over apostolic succession seems ridiculous to me now but at the time it made some kind of perverse sense. I considered myself to be an Anglo-Catholic. This meant that I placed a heavy importance on the liturgy, the sacraments, the role of tradition, and the episcopal form of church governance. I also had other related beliefs such as the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and the intercession of saints. In essence I practiced what Robin Williams jokingly called ‘Catholic lite: the same religion, half the guilt.’ So even though I was happy at my Episcopal parish I began to question if I was doing the right thing. Was I following the right path or was I playing pretend church as the Catholic and Orthodox Christians accused Anglicans of doing? And if we got kicked out of the Anglican Communion? What then? Would all the rituals be invalid?

I can see now these internal debates were beginning to progress from the hypothetical to the pathological but I was too self-involved to notice. I had always engaged in thought experiments and been analytical. It made me successful in my career as a software engineer. Why wouldn’t that approach work in the rest of life? This tendency really started to accelerate during graduate school. I was a very dedicated student and spent a great deal of time studying and worrying about exams. The computer science department I was part of at the time was having a lot of problems with students cheating. In response they made it a huge pain in the ass if you were unable to take an exam due to illness. I began to worry about getting sick before exams which was unusual for me. I had never worried about germs before but later I would recognize how the fear of moral contamination as a teenager was ancestral to this disposition.

Eventually I finished graduate school and this became less of an issue for a time. Soon afterwards my wife became pregnant with twin boys. We were overjoyed but quite scared to be honest. No one can adequately prepare you for what life with multiples is like. It is a crucible like no other and the pregnancy was no exception. It was very difficult and the boys almost died multiple times. This dangerous situation awakened something primal in me. Ever since my parents had divorced I had vowed that I would do better than they did. I would establish a marriage with a true lifelong commitment, have children, and in the process I would be a far better father and husband than my own father was ever capable of being. This put that dream into jeopardy. I became convinced that if my wife became ill that the pregnancy would fail and my children would die. So I did what I could to prevent that from happening. The seed for my OCD had already been sown by fundamentalist religion but this was where it really took off. Fear of death is often how OCD becomes entrenched. My intentions were good at the beginning but would be distorted beyond recognition soon enough. The fact that my children survived and thrived only served to feed the idea that I was somehow “special” and “blessed by god” which fed into the aforementioned spiritual feedback loop.

The Problem of Inefficacy

Around the time my first two children were two years old we moved across town and the drive to our Episcopal parish was too far to make weekly. We had to change churches anyway and I was becoming increasingly convinced that the claims of the Catholic Church were true. I took the time to read lots of original sources – particularly those of the Church Fathers and documents from ecumenical councils. Figures such as Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, and Pope Gregory the Great were influential to me. I also read medieval authors like Aquinas and became interested in Thomistic philosophy. It was all very technical and was theologically and philosophically sound if you accepted the a priori assumptions on which it was based and the logical contortions employed over time to maintain consistency. It seemed like you could trace almost every Catholic belief back to a publicly available text which felt like the exact opposite of the ad hoc fundamentalist culture I grew up in. No matter what the doctrine you could find it in the diaries of an austere celibate at a medieval university, the administrative documents of an episcopate in late antiquity, the orgasmic blatherings of a female mystic, or the gibbering of some ascetic living on top of a pillar in the middle of the desert.

Given that there were multiple senses of interpreting scripture how does one decide which interpretation is authoritative? In this sense I think the Catholic Church preys on Christian intellectuals and anyone who is searching for doctrinal certainty. You can have thousands and thousands of pages of consistent texts but if your starting assumptions are garbage then you just have a mountain of consistent bullshit. It is fatuous speculation wrapped in deceptive sophistication that abuses the philosophical methods of the ancient Greeks. It is another form of fundamentalism that looks respectable on the surface but if you look deeper at its core assumptions you will notice something. To use their phrase by which they repeatedly disparage LGBT people: it is “intrinsically disordered.”

Unfortunately my analytical mind and its need for certainty would not let things go so I fell for the con and dragged my wife and kids along with me into Catholicism. I spent months going through classes in order to join their church but I already knew most of the content. I didn’t agree with many of their beliefs: the prohibition of birth control, that only men could be ordained, that homosexuals and transgender people were flawed, that auricular confession was mandatory for forgiveness, or that Anglicans were an ecclesial community rather than a Church. I had hopes that eventually the right pope would arrive and he would fix these problems.

I formally joined despite my misgivings and settled into Catholic practice. It was quite a contrast. Compared to Episcopalian symbology and architecture the Catholic parishes felt austere. What decorations there were looked like kitsch. It felt like a contest: how many different ways can you depict Jesus getting tortured or Mary holding the infant Jesus without inducing boredom? The English translation of the liturgy was awkward due to its fidelity to the Latin texts. The music was genuinely terrible. Priests were often from the Global South due to the lack of American males willing to undergo celibacy. I guess there weren’t enough neoconservative incels to go around to fill the posts with Westerners. A ‘Father knows best’ attitude was rampant. So all was not perfect on the other side of the Tiber.

During this time my wife was pregnant with our third child. Like any dutiful Catholic I had this child baptized in the Catholic Church. I deeply regret this now because this child has turned out to be transgender female. I have to live with the fact that I forcibly inducted her into a religious organization that does not even acknowledge her core identity. It regards her as intrinsically disordered which is a fancy philosophical way of saying that she is rotten to the core and broken. Sophisticated bigotry is still bigotry. When you look at all these anti-LGBT and anti-women lawsuits you will usually find Catholicism connected with them in some way. Evangelicals may provide much of the muscle and the money for these suits but Catholics often provide the legal resources for these efforts in the name of supporting religious freedom.

Meanwhile my OCD was becoming worse. Some of it was due to the natural stress of getting older and having more responsibilities as a parent. Any parent of small children will tell you that they will get sick what seems like all the time and you just have to deal with it. I did not handle this well at all due to fear of contamination and became obsessed with keeping them from becoming ill. I would wash my hands until they cracked and bled. I would yell at my kids if they acted like normal children and touched common surfaces in a restaurant. I would tell the people I loved that they were stupid. I was becoming what I hated. In the background I was experiencing major cognitive dissonance from my conversion to Catholicism and existential doubt had me in its cruel grasp.

Needless to say I found something seriously lacking in myself and in popular Catholic practice so I began to look around for spiritual resources in a desperate attempt to deal with the OCD and find some inner peace. I discovered monastic spirituality through writings by the Benedictines, the Camaldolese, the Cistercians, and the Trappists. I read ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ by Thomas Merton and I found a kindred spirit in the author and his search for truth. The introverted nature of monasticism resonated with me at a fundamental level so I began to visit monasteries for spiritual direction. Spiritual direction is essentially religious counseling. It addresses the psychological but primarily in religious or devotional terms so it is not useful at countering OCD.

My director likely knew that something was amiss but she was too cautious to come out and say, “You need to see a therapist.” Instead she said I reminded her of the old poem ‘Tripping Over Joy’ by Hafiz where the protagonist thinks he still has a thousand serious moves left before he can encounter the divine. I should have taken the hint. The whole situation reminds me now of the dynamic between Martin Luther and Johann von Staupitz. The difference was that I was definitely not a Luther and there would be no moment of breaking free and an ushering in of reform. If you were to reform Christianity now in full you would be left with a demythologized religion that would be indistinguishable from a book club.

As part of this direction I was introduced to a meditation technique called centering prayer that is commonly used by many monks. It is very simple. You pick a word, an image, or your own breath as the “center”. You sit down, close your eyes, and let your mind go free. If you catch yourself thinking about something you stop the thoughts and return to the “center” by recalling whatever that word, image, or sensation is. Some people say the method is very similar to what a Soto Zen practitioner would call ‘shikantaza’. Studies have been performed to look at brain activity from these meditation methods and they all induce the same effects on the brain. The parts of the brain that are associated with the self turn off. This leads to a feeling of unity with everyone and everything during the period of meditation. In theory it should have salutary effects in the rest of your life due to the changes it makes in the brain. That is true but only sometimes as I was to discover.

I tried this method and found that due to my introverted nature I was very good at it – perhaps too good. I could perform the meditation and an hour or two would pass and it would feel like mere minutes had passed with very little thought activity. Most importantly while I was meditating I had almost no OCD-related thoughts or was able to discard them with ease. I took this to mean that the method was working and felt like this would be the path to eliminating my OCD. If it worked for small periods of time why would it not eventually work permanently outside the meditation chair? Once again I was guilty of magical thinking by rejecting the possibility of using medication and cognitive behavioral therapy to deal with the problem. I was ashamed of myself for my OCD and the behavior it induced and did not want to publicly acknowledge it by seeking help. I thought it was a character flaw that could be fixed with religion.

One of the things they don’t advertise about meditation is that sometimes it has negative effects. If you are adept at meditation you will find yourself experiencing all sorts of things after several months of serious practice. This will intensify if you have experienced emotional trauma or have an underlying condition as I did. Surges of free-floating anxiety and depression with no clear cause can and did occur for me. Irritability will increase as your brain starts to rebel against giving up control and my brain was not going to let go of the reins under any circumstances. You will vividly remember bad things that happened to you years ago that you have forgotten about. The contradiction that is your own behavior is thrust into your eye like a thumb. Religious traditions have various names for these negative experiences. The Buddhists might call it “makyo”. The Christians might call it “the unloading of the unconscious” or “the dark night of the soul”. In short, it really sucks and makes you feel like garbage. The religious solution is to keep doing the meditation and push through it so that is what I attempted to do. Once again religion asked me to do something in spite of the evidence to the contrary.

Soon the proverbial shit hit the fan. I had always been excellent at my job but my career imploded through no fault of my own. I worked in government contracting so the Great Recession and the inability of the U.S. Congress to pass a budget for years at a time were devastating to my employment prospects. I went from having the same job for 10+ years to having to change jobs 4 times in a year just to maintain employment. Job security was non-existent and pay cuts and/or wage freezes were frequent. I began to obsess over maintaining a job since I was the only financial provider for my family. I would sleep 1-2 hours a night for months at a time because I could not stop worrying about losing my house and losing my family. Due to the lack of sleep and the effects of depression and anxiety during that time I remember very little except the bad parts – mostly the hurtful things I said to other people. I would feel guilty about being mean to my family and when I couldn’t sleep at night suicidal thoughts and existential depression became constant. I prayed for hours at a time and received no answers or consolation. During this time I finally started weekly professional counseling along with antidepressants.

I had an immense amount of difficulty at my job because computer programming requires a great deal of concentration that I was incapable of at the time. That dilemma fed into my cycle of anxiety about losing a job. My mind would get stuck on terrible thoughts for hours at a time. The inner dialogue often sounded like this: “You have wasted your life by being a software engineer and no matter how good you are at programming companies will chew you up and spit you out. No amount of skill will ever make you immune to the whims of middle managers who are only concerned about corporate revenue targets and yearly bonuses. It’s just as well because you are stupid and suck at computer programming anyway. You obviously aren’t suited to raising a family since you can’t handle the pressures of being an adult. You aren’t better than your father. You are much worse. You have spent all your time acquiring “meat and toys” and have accomplished nothing. You should have been a monk. That way you would only be responsible for yourself and would be in less of a position to hurt other people. No that’s wrong. Your commitment to monastic spirituality is horse shit because you don’t know how to implement it and you are a spiritual bullshit artist anyway like those fundamentalist idiots. You would have gotten kicked out of the monastery for being an asshole. You are immoral. You are a fake. Your wife hates you. Your kids hate you. god hates you. You should just kill yourself and when you die you know exactly where you’re going.”

Religion is the malady that masquerades as the medicine. This is very painful to remember and write about but it illustrates the one message I want you to take from this essay. Religion is the malady that masquerades as the medicine.

As you can imagine this situation could not go on forever. I broke. One evening it all hit me at once like a hammer. I cried profusely and intensely while begging my wife for forgiveness. Despite all I had said and done she was kind to me. It has been years since this happened but I remember it as if it were yesterday along with all the times I was a shit. This is what I meant earlier about the new losses that I have to bear. I cannot get those years back that religion and OCD stole from me. Most of the memories I had from my children’s precious early years are gone. What is left is mostly bad. So much of my time was spent on researching unanswerable questions that could have been spent playing with my kids. All I can do is try to do better. I don’t always succeed. I will never know if I have atoned for my actions but it is something I have to live with.

It was hard work but within a year my fear of germs was greatly reduced. Religion was harder for me to let go of. With the help of family and friends I was able to do that over several years. As I continued the antidepressants I discovered that the religious impulses and emotional consolations were tapering off. Eventually they would go away completely. I stopped the meditation. I no longer cared about existential questions or pointless theological debates. None of it mattered anymore. I no longer believed. My own life threw into sharp relief that religion is completely inefficacious at dealing with real problems. I realized it had been an ignoble journey fueled by childhood indoctrination and it was damaging to me and to those I cared about. Spiritual journeys are not without their cost as the Buddha discovered when he left his wife and child in a supposedly grand attempt at renunciation. For me that was not a cost worth paying. I would rather lose my soul and gain the world. It would be a very small world – my family and my friends. But it is a world nonetheless.

My imagination is now restored to its original height but with hopefully a little more wisdom. Now I spend a great deal of time playing video games, Dungeons and Dragons, and Pathfinder with my kids and discussing the merits of fun things instead of foolishness. I am no monk but in the words of James Joyce I am now a ‘priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life’.

COMMENTS

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ExChristian.Net: Imagination Lost, Imagination Restored
Imagination Lost, Imagination Restored
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