Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Fundamentalist Continues His Pilgrimage: Pt. 2

Catch up with the rest of the series here.

Although I’m no longer an atheist, it still irritates me when non-atheists interact with atheists as if they were playing a juvenile game of “I just want to piss people off.” Don’t misunderstand; I find atheism neither intellectually nor ethically tenable, but I do not believe the world of atheism to be mainly populated by capricious and irascible knee-jerkers. Often, however, my experience, both as an atheist and as a Christian, is that many in the world of religion[1] treat atheists as kindergarteners acting out solely in spite. If you want to apply that pejorative view to Richard Dawkins and his “new”-atheist buddies, fine; but, neither I nor many of the atheists that I’ve known fit that description. Most atheists were not born into the religion of atheism, nor did many enter into it lightly. I know that I didn’t. Hence, the businessman from Miami delivered a blow to my worldview that staggered me.

As he walked away leaving me fighting back angry sobs, I thought to myself, “Not again.” That “not again” occupies one of the sharpest points of my memory. That moment drug me unwillingly back to my time as a Bob Jones University student when I was finally honest enough to ask myself if I even believed in the existence of a god, any god. I had spent years suppressing that question, and had achieved equilibrium in my life that my turmoil at BJU had upset. The decision/conversion that was my entrance to atheism was not necessarily an easy door to open, and, once opened, I didn’t exactly run through with the glee of a tent-meeting convert. Although I didn’t want to have anything to do with the Christianity of my parents, when it came down to making a decision, atheism wasn’t exactly easy. But, once I converted to atheism, I became an all-in, proselytizing convert. So, when the businessman from Miami unceremoniously kicked at least one of the legs out from under my worldview, I was not happy, to put it mildly.

I should probably explain that last sentence. How did he kick “at least one of the legs out from under my worldview?”[2]. Well, in my mind that proudly clung to atheistic scientism, the businessman from Miami’s statement to me was too personally poignant to be a coincidence. And, I didn’t really believe in coincidences to begin with. Plus, as a theatre artist, I couldn’t help but notice that the moment was perfectly timed and carefully scripted. No offense to the Miami businessman whom I owe my eternal thanks, but he didn’t strike me as someone who was that dramatically adroit. I knew in that moment that my decided worldview was now up for grabs, hence the “Not again.”

The next morning, I drove south to the Garden of the Gods; and, after hiking around the stark and haunting beauty of the jagged red rocks, I drove to Pikes Peak. Correction - I didn’t just drive to Pikes Peak; I drove to the top of Pikes Peak[3]. Now, I’m not necessarily a daredevil, but I’m also not afraid of heights. At least I thought I wasn’t afraid of heights until my car nosed onto the dirt road that didn’t have any guard rails above the timber line. Hunched forward with my back muscles tied in knots, gripping the steering wheel tightly with two hands, and trying not to notice that the only thing standing between me and the 12,000+ and climbing feet of the mountain was some loose dirt and gravel, my main concern became driving back down. The booth right before the timber line that people driving back down had to stop at in order to have their brakes checked now made sense to me. I had visions of my brakes failing on the way down and me and my Pontiac Grand Am GT flying off the edge of the mountain[4]. At the top, I was relieved to discover that I wasn’t the only fearful driver; even the bikers getting off of their Harleys laughed at how scared they were. One lady was so afraid to drive down the mountain that a park ranger had to drive her car back down for her.
(I want to add that the drive back down was actually easy.)

Predictably, the view from the top of Pikes Peak was gorgeous. I walked as close to the rounded edge as I felt comfortable[5] and marveled at the beauty that splayed out around me in all directions[6]. A park ranger nearby was relating to a group of tourists about how the poem that became the song “America the Beautiful” was written from the top of Pikes Peak by a school teacher. Having been raised not only in church, but also in the Deep South, “America the Beautiful,” in my mind, wasn’t just patriotic, but was also weighed down with the unwanted baggage of God as Creator. Standing on top of Pikes Peak, I resented the song and the park ranger for bringing it up. I resented that in that moment, being overwhelmed with the canvas encompassing me, I wanted there to be an artist to whom I could give credit. And I resented that damned Miami businessman for screwing with my head.

Later that week, driving west through the Rockies on I70, I occasionally pulled my car into scenic overlooks to take pictures of the towering mountains. The regal staidness of the Rockies makes transcendence hard to deny, and I desperately fought that transcendence back with my now brow-beaten belief that all is ultimately meaningless. It was hard to hear myself over the purple robed choir that surrounded me, though. The encore, however, which was Glenwood Canyon, was so beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes.

Glenwood Canyon
Glenwood Canyon, located less than an hour east of Grand Junction, is twelve miles of breathtaking asymmetrical use of colors and textures coating the canyon wall canvas that climbs over one thousand feet above you. I pulled into a rest area, and lay on my back on the bank of the Colorado River. While lying there, I wrote a poem[7] about the multitude of stories written into the canyon walls. I believed that the stories were devoid of an ultimate author other than deterministic chance, but as an artist that belief was now a pea in my comfortable worldview bed. So, I was thankful to discover that a professor of entomology with whom I could discuss evolution was staying at the youth hostel in Moab, UT.

To this day, I have never formally studied evolutionary theory. Although, as a conservative Christian, I currently have a much deeper understanding of evolution than I did as an atheist[8]. In 2003 I was committed to evolution because it seemed to be the only option available if there was no god. Since I believed that there was no god, evolution had to be true, and up until Colorado I had felt no compulsion to actually study the theory. It was a convenient theory that fit nicely with my atheism. Much to my dismay, I found out that this evolutionist with a PhD also believed in God. I tried to push that aside, though, because I simply needed him to provide me with some solid science which I could use to shut-up the irksome thoughts I had begun to have about art needing an artist.

The entomology professor from Wisconsin[9] was spending the summer in Moab with several students. He and his students spent the day studying/collecting insects from the canyon floors. In the evenings, they would join the rest of us at the picnic tables outside the hostel for beer and talk. During those evenings, I was able to have several conversations with him. I don’t remember much of what he told me, but I do remember clinging to his words in the desperate need to find something to prop back up my leaning worldview. I did, though, have to push aside his assertions that evolution did not undermine the existence of God. In spite of his annoying and insistent Theism, I left Moab feeling foolish about my slight lapse of faith yet satisfied, I hoped, that my atheism had stood up to the best attacks that religion and religious fanatics could muster. Certainty had left me, though.

Las Vegas was my final stop before San Francisco. When people who are fresh from their first trip to Vegas are asked what they thought of the city, the answer is invariably a version of, “I’m not sure. It wasn’t what I was expecting. I don’t know what I was expecting, but that wasn’t it.” Well, when I walked onto the Strip, I looked around and thought, “I don’t know what I was expecting, but this isn’t it.” Whatever else it is, Las Vegas is a tacky and meaningless testament to how sin isolates Image Bearers, and that testament stood out in stark contrast to the transcendent beauty of the Rockies and the high desert that I had just spent over a week in.

Although my overall expectation of Las Vegas was something that escaped (and still escapes) my ability to articulate, one thing that I did expect was social interaction. By the end of my stay in Vegas, I would have settled for servers offering me free drinks while I was on the floor; something that I had been led to believe was a thing that happened in Vegas, probably by movies and TV. Nope. Not once. In fact, anytime that I’ve been in Vegas, I’ve never even been asked if I wanted to buy a drink much less handed one for free. No one initiated conversation with me, even people getting paid[10]. No one even looked at me. At least at the Arch in St. Louis, my loneliness was prompted by people interacting with me. Las Vegas is a vacuum. I walked up and down the Vegas Strip for a whole day, drifting in and out of casinos. My pilgrimage was turning out to be punctuated by moments of great loneliness.  

I was happy to leave the desert. San Francisco was next, and I knew that everything else that had happened or not happened on my pilgrimage so far would be made right, and my faith would be restored.

[1] It’s not just Christians that are guilty of this.
[2] If this ever gets published as a book, will I be required to probably cite my source on that quote? I hope so. I can think of few things more awesome than a book citing itself – on the same page, no less.
[3] I recommend everyone to at least consider driving to the top of Pikes Peak; but if my description causes you trepidation, there’s a train.
[4] In reality, if that had happened, I would have crashed onto the part of the dirt road that was under me. The road doesn’t wind around the mountain; it snakes its way up one side. I knew that intellectually, but existentially it was no comfort.
[5] It wasn’t as close as I would’ve bragged that it would’ve been while I was at the bottom of the mountain.
[6] “All directions” makes “splayed” redundant. I think. I’m not really sure what the appropriate use of “splayed” is, but I like the word.
[7] After I die, my kids will find my “poems,” and then people can read them. Until that day, the “poems” remain hidden.
[8] If you’re curious about my present beliefs in regards to origins, I recommend reading, in this order, 1. The Bible, 2. Michael Horton’s Systematic Theology The Christian Faith, and 3. John H. Walton’s commentary on Genesis and his short book The Lost World of Genesis One. Upon reading those books, feel free to email me your angry rejoinders.
[9] I’m almost positive he was from Wisconsin. May have been Minnesota. Is there a difference?
[10] Unless you count the people standing on the Vegas sidewalks passing out hooker trading cards. Of course, I had been warned that like bums, you avoid eye contact with those people. I had been warned in Moab by a guy from England who had made the mistake of stopping and talking to one of them.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if there is any correlation between belief in God, and proximity to nature. Does living in the city help to distance people? Does communing with nature bring one closer?