Box My Ears Until My Head Rings

I have a mind that lights up like a deep blue summer field blinking with lightning bugs. A dark but active background with points of light flashing on and off, on and off and on. A constellation, not a comet. 

I don't brood. I'm close to incapable of it. 

I spend my days and nights in academia and I wonder what it would be like if I could just sit and think on one thing for a while, reading the same book for a long time, and free from the currents running upwards in me that tell me to move move move and find something else to do. 

Unless hypnotized by conversation or good writing or a video, I rarely think about the same thing for longer than a minute. Rare is the activity that can mesmerize my firefly field and hypnotize them into a synchronized glow that lasts entire minutes. My mind is normally a deep blue summer field.

Photo by Fernando Gregory Milan/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Fernando Gregory Milan/iStock / Getty Images


An emotion has to really punch me in the gut to distract me from my myriad distractions. A little hurt feelings won't do. I need a big wallop, or a series of serious wallops, to do the job. Someone's gotta box my ears until my head rings or else I'll keep changing the radio station.

This happens occasionally––the big smash to the head, the kidney abuse. Right now I'm in the ring, 7th round. ––A series of blows. An unforeseen interpersonal rift that hurt in a big way and now hurts every day in a little way. A long negotiation to resolve a church issue (getting worse before it gets better). And the first of four big, "comprehensive" exams in my PhD program. 

This first exam is on Thursday and I'm not ready for it. People ask me how the studying is going and I tell them it's a disaster. I'm accused of overstudying (they think that's something I would do), and no assurance from me seems to convince them that I'm in real danger of not passing. It's a little hard to get sympathy when people think you're an overreacting genius.

I'll have to write three essays in three hours on three topics that will be chosen for me out of a list of eighteen; I feel great about maybe 5 of those topics. I've worked for two months researching and writing and now I've got three days left to memorize it all. I'm supposed to prove to a couple of the smartest theologians I know that I know what I'm doing. But I don't know what I'm doing, so it's a hard sell, see? "Without any notes, write an essay real quick on theories of meaning and interpretation and how that intersects with the grammatical-historical method, for evaluation by Kevin Vanhoozer." (Google him and you'll understand why I don't want to do this. He's a great guy and I'm fortunate to have him advising me, but sheesh. Ease up on the genius, Doc. Similar problems of expertise arise with my second reader, Lisa Sung.)

As the deadline nears I've found myself thinking about nothing. The flashing in the field ceases. The meadow is dark. I'm sitting up in bed, looking at nothing and thinking of nothing, and Joshua says, "Kitty, I've never seen you like this before." I tell him: "I've never taken an exam like this before and there's never been so much to lose."

Paddle, Flounder, Swim

I'm two years into this PhD thing and I feel dumber than when I started. 


A few weeks ago I had a spate of book reviews to turn in. I've written dozens of these things in the past, so why was I frozen in front of my computer screen? I was so intimidated by the assignments that I couldn't get started. I crossed out the first 6 attempts to write a single paragraph on a fascinating book that I thoroughly enjoyed. 

White page. Blinking cursor. Hands paralyzed at the keyboard.

I felt too ignorant, too incompetent to write these book reviews. And not just the book reviews: every assignment that's come my way I have received with greater trepidation and reluctance. The longer I spend in this PhD program, the dumber I feel. At the same time that I am gaining expertise I am feeling less expert.

How could that be? —I have learned so much and have been stretched in ways I can't describe even to myself.

Part of the reason is that I'm being exposed to so much good thinking that I realize how shallow, how facile my opinions have been up to this point. This academic experience has shown me how little I know of the world and its operations.

Additionally, since every single thing is controverted by some scholar somewhere, the long hours I've spent in the icy waters of uncertainty have worked to immobilize my ability to be sure of myself.

And, of course, everyone I'm interacting with here seems to be an expert on something. We sit in class or around the cafe and talk deeply about specialized subjects and I see that it has become harder than ever to be conversant and so I find it harder than ever to converse. 

Remember that post from a few years ago when I talked about my insecurities about starting a PhD? Yeah, well, I was totally on point. I'm not diligent enough or smart enough or spiritual enough for this undertaking. (Yet, by the grace of God, here go I.) The lesson still stands: The difficulty of this PhD is a Fatherly invitation to allow Him to pry my fearful fingers out of the grip I have on my own self-sufficiency. –Yes, pry my fingers, Holy Spirit Crowbar-style. 
But one more lesson has been surfacing: 

- The learning is in the struggle. I'm sure 418 really deep and inspiriational books have been written on this; I would read them, but I have too many other books to read. The point is that it is when we are in the margins of our competency that we grow in expertise. You've got to paddle and sink a little bit. Taste the lake. Search for the bottom with your feet and miss it. And then you'll stretch out your arms and swim.  

Paddle, flounder, swim.  


Wishing Him Well But Withholding My Applause

       About a week ago, former pastor Ryan J Bell wrote a piece giving a brief history of his religious experience and announcing his plans to "try on" atheism for the year of 2014. (You can read that post on his just-for-the-project blog HERE and see a catalogue of his contributions to The Huffington Post, where the article was published, HERE.)  He says, "I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else's circumstances." Unsurprisingly, the reactions have been varied. Some are supporting his experiment in living without God as an undertaking of intellectual virtue, moving beyond the answers of faith to seriously consider the atheistic alternative. Others are doubtful that one can play atheist and not let one's religious convictions, however troubled, get in the way. Many are endorsing Bell's efforts as a laudable act of refreshing honesty, finally admitting the doubts that many religious people keep hidden. 

       Some Christians are of the mind that his experiment in atheism is "courageous," "brave." They see this "journey into atheism" as a bold authenticity demonstrated in the face of the inevitable backlash (which has manifested itself, in part, in losing his adjunct teaching positions at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Seminary; read Bell's own summary HERE). In this telling, Ryan Bell is the unpopular man standing for his convictions as an act of heroism, spiritual authenticity, and intellectual honesty. The cheers go up: "Courageous! Way to stand out on your own, Ryan! Way to do the unpopular thing!"

       It's easy to start nodding along to this cheerleading. After all, many of us still consider Ryan Bell a part of our religious community. Present circumstances and choices notwithstanding, he lived as a Seventh-day Adventist believer and pastor for decades and many of us were blessed by his words and example. At least on the emotional level, he's still one of "us." And for people both within and without the Adventist community, there's a righteous urge to stand with the guy catching trouble for being "true to himself" and to protect him from bad things that might look like persecution (usually labeled as "hate" by the fifth post in a comments section). Further, many of us religious people DO have unanswered questions about a lot of things and if we've ever felt that the church was an unsafe place to share our sincere questions, there's something about Ryan's experiment that sounds so . . . exhilarating. 

But, having no ill will toward Ryan Bell or any of his supporters, I submit that

people who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ should not be applauding this experiment in atheism and should instead see it for what it is: an abandonment of Jesus and His gospel. 

So let's talk a little bit about courage.

       Having questions about the reality of God's existence is not inherently courageous nor inherently cowardly. Sometimes atheists wonder if maybe there is a god out there after all. Sometimes theists wonder if "God" is just a figment of the collective human imagination. Also, sometimes I wonder if there are mice in my apartment or if I'm just imagining those sounds. Wondering isn't necessarily brave or courageous; it is a reflex, sometimes nurtured into a habit, of the mind.

       Yet what one does with those questions, those wonderings, those doubts may be cowardly or courageous. And the evaluation one makes on this point––commendably courageous or unforgivably cowardly?––is a moral one, it rests on a certain construal of reality and so of morality. Those with a Christian construal of reality have no grounds to consider this experiment an act of moral virtue.

       Perhaps observers from all sides could agree that an experiment like Ryan Bell's is "dangerous," in that it is endangering the convictions and lifestyle that he has maintained up till now. Depending on your philosophical leanings, this danger could be the worst thing in the world or the best––is he moving closer to or farther away from truth? Is he moving closer toward or farther away from actual reality? Your answer depends on what you think is true and what you think is right. 

         A citizen who gives intelligence to an enemy power is doing something really quite dangerous: he is in danger of being discovered and convicted and executed for treason. High-risk! Most of his fellow citizens will condemn his dangerous behavior as treacherous still, helping the "wrong" people; most with interests in the foreign power will commend his dangerous behavior as courageous, displaying a self-sacrificial willingness to aid the "right" cause. 

        Shall we call Ryan Bell's experiment courageous? I speak here to my fellow Christian believers, the saints who are in Christ Jesus. Shall we commend Ryan Bell for bravery, applaud his gumption, shield him from any Christian critique? Though some have, none of us should.

Why not? 

It is not because I wish to uncritically silence every doubt knocking about in the heads of thoughtful people. 

It is not because I think doubting God's existence is a sin. 

It is not because I'd like to see atheists (or doubters) dehumanized or treated without respect. 

It is because my commitment to the person of Jesus Christ will not allow me to applaud the move of someone who is, in his own words, living "as if" God doesn't exist. It doesn't allow me to think that "God is big enough to handle my questions" means "It's acceptable to turn my back to Him and look to profit from writing about it." 

        I know a little something about Christian faith and Christian doubt. Several years after my spiritual conversion I spent quite a while in the land of This Might All Be A Weird And Time-Consuming Sham. And what my sojourn there taught me was that a Christian can have legitimate doubts and explore their real possibility from a place of faith. To atheists, this may sound like hopeless intellectual hypocrisy, but everybody has questions and everybody has got to explore those questions from some place. In consideration of all He has done on my behalf, I'd like to literally give Jesus the benefit of the doubt.

       ––Which is what I wish Ryan Bell would do. He has his reasons, perhaps not all shared publicly. He has a personal history unique to him and a relationship with God that I can't pretend to give a reliable judgment about. I'm not looking to offer any judgment on issues of his salvation or conscience or motivations. 

        I wish rather to speak to the well-meaning Christian faithful in my Facebook feed, my Twitter timeline, and my RSS feed: side with faith, side with Jesus. If you're a person who has embraced the "Jesus. All." ethic, recognize that what Ryan's doing isn't that. It's anti-Jesus, taking off his personal faith to live in skepticism. Wish Ryan well, greet him warmly if you meet him, pray for him, but don't offer applause for his 365-day renunciation of the gospel and of God. 

         Maybe at the end of 2014 he'll find theism is an intellectually and experientially viable option, maybe he'll even return to Christian faith and to the Church. That's what I'm rooting for, but in the meantime, I'll hold my applause. 

We Need to Clasp A Hand That Is Warm

This warmed my heart so much. I want these words to be my own. 

Read this aloud to help you hear it.

What am I to think when my spirit is sad and longing?

It was the Maker of all things who ordained the wonderful adaptation of means to end, of supply to need. It was He who in the material world provided that every desire implanted should be met. It was He who created the human soul, with its capacity for knowing and for loving. And He is not in Himself such as to leave the demands of the soul unsatisfied. No intangible principle, no impersonal essence or mere abstraction, can satisfy the needs and longings of human beings in this life of struggle with sin and sorrow and pain. It is not enough to believe in law and force, in things that have no pity, and never hear the cry for help. We need to know of an almighty arm that will hold us up, of an infinite Friend that pities us. We need to clasp a hand that is warm, to trust in a heart full of tenderness. And even so has God in His word revealed Himself.

Ellen G. White, Education (page 133)

It was God who created the human soul, with its capacity for knowing and for loving.