Pain, intellect and the faith experience

Greg was a close friend in late high school years. Our fathers knew each other well and had forged a relationship largely over their study of the Bible and some shared personal struggles. Greg had grown up in a fractured home and had early turned to substance use as a way to escape the chaos of his environment and the emotional pain he found unbearable. In tenth grade, he turned to God in dramatic fashion. He and several of his friends had been “saved” in connection with a rapidly growing charismatic church movement in our small mountain community. It was an emotional time to be sure, but it resulted in a radical re-definition of Greg’s priorities. He significantly changed his outward appearance, began studying the Bible and sharing with others. He got busy correcting what had sadly gone awry in his academic performance and sought forgiveness from those he had used and abused. He attended several churches regularly in his desperate search for the truth. After nearly two years, he drifted back to occasional drug use and then scrapped his faith experience altogether. I had many long conversations with him during this time, and what emerged as a consistent pattern over several months and then years was not his rational arguments against Christianity, but the difficulty he had getting his emotions to line up with what he believed. He maintained that the truth had not changed and that his rational understanding of it had not really changed either. However, the gulf between his intellectual faith and his unmet emotional needs had widened considerably to the point where he could no longer align himself with the truth he claimed to believe. In a frustrating spiral of guilt and depression, he walked away from Christianity.

Tom was another friend whose intellectual gifts I greatly admired. The first time we met, he introduced himself as a logical positivist. He was very well-read and could eloquently support his intellectual position. As an adherent to positivism, particularly as re-shaped by the Vienna Circle, he had no time for spiritual considerations and maintained an intensely skeptical stance toward his emotions. He gave a wide berth to questions of an ethical nature and pitched thoughts about the meaning of life onto his personal rubbish heap.

Our paths crossed at a time when he began experiencing, much to his consternation, a monumental struggle with existential questions. He expressed the realization that, abhorrent as it was to him, his entire course in life for the previous 18 months had been governed by his emotions and not by his reason. Blind-sided by the chaos that erupted in his life, he concluded that his subjective experience had exerted such force against his rational belief system that he was literally in physical and psychological tatters. And as a cruel twist, he had not even recognized it until his very life was in jeopardy. Over the course of our many conversations during this time, he came to the difficult conclusion that he would have to reconstruct his library, not to mention his philosophy, since he had been trying unsuccessfully to avoid types of evidence other than the purely scientific. He still made absolutely no allowance for God, but his experience caused him to recognize that there may be other ways of framing and experiencing reality. He had been devastated by the force his emotional life had had on his intellectual fortress.

Recently I re-read the story of Adam and Eve after the fall. I was especially intrigued by the part where they attempt to hide from the omniscient God. Why did they hide? Because they were ashamed. It was the emotionally powerful experience of shame and guilt that caused them to turn from God. As I kept reading, several days later I encountered the story of the newly released band of Israelite slaves in the wilderness crying for return to Egypt. The visible presence of God in the cloud and the fire, food from the sky and a not so distant experience of crossing the red sea had very quickly been eclipsed by a palpable emotional darkness reminiscent of the plague that the Egyptians had been exposed to. They were quite ready to dispense of their belief in God’s provision, not for lack of evidence, but due to emotional and physical discomfort. Their faith, despite very strong evidence, had been trumped by feelings. And this is to say nothing of recounting the emotionally driven experiences of David, Job and Jonah.

Perhaps this is why God has chosen to speak to humanity in narrative form, rather than handing us a scientific and philosophical tome, a distillate of eternal and incontrovertible evidence. What we feel and experience changes how we relate to God and to the truth. Our feelings change the way we respond to evidence, change the way we ask questions and frame our arguments and determine how we ultimately conceive of reality. Narrative evokes identification and emotion. Narrative is messy. Narrative speaks to who we are, what we’ve become and where we are going.

2 Timothy 3 describes the state of humanity in the last days. It describes a society ruled completely by its desires and those who are “[. . .] always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (ESV). In college I read James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, at the bidding of a friend who “believed” in atheism. It highlights critical moments in the life of Stephen, the young protagonist and his ultimate disavowal of his previously cherished faith. In the context of his known character flaws and flagrant sexual sins, he encounters a brief revival of his Catholicism. He listens to a series of sermons that changed, at least for a time, his course of action. “The next day brought death and judgment, stirring his soul slowly from its listless despair. The faint glimmer of fear became a terror of spirit as the hoarse voice of the preacher blew death into his soul (85). The preacher catalogues the horrors of hell where, […] “the damned, the prisoners are heaped together […] so utterly bound and helpless that […] they are not able even to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it” (pp.91, 92). Joyce describes the eerie darkness of the fire that burns without light and the torture of an eternity plagued by a revolted conscience. Stephen is convinced and repents. In the end, however, he comes to the final realization that he simply cannot believe. His emotions, toyed with and tricked into believing in a god who uses gratuitous torture, finally cooled. And now, what was offended and revolted was his reason.

Greg admits that his decision to leave the faith was not evidence-based. He simply could not reconcile his sinful desires, his deep emotional pain and his intellectual understanding of the truth. Tom is still in a state of emotional shock that pure science and logic simply cannot satisfy. And Joyce has locked his protagonist forever in unbelief. When Paul asks us to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith, I believe he is asking for a thorough examination, our emotions included. Adventism encompasses the whole of life from a healthy lifestyle to eschatology. But for some of us, our faith has become frighteningly academic.

Our soul hunger, our deep human pain, is often left untouched. As apologetic methods are honed and evidence is weighed, as rightly it should be, we are experiencing a backlash to a scientific and intellectual approach to faith. As I have listened to people’s stories a theme has emerged. While emotions should ultimately be guided by reason, they often are not. And a cold, intellectual faith that doesn’t reach deep inside and acquaint us with the living Christ will ultimately prove no match for the hurt we all experience that cries out for healing. What we hold dear can very easily be compromised by what we do not address in ourselves and others. If we remain unaware of the potential force of our emotions to overwhelm our intellect, we are left in a vulnerable position which could have eternal consequences.