In the last post, I tried to make the point that original sin in Christianity is often mirrored in Enlightenment philosophy. In this post, I will explain how I experience Enlightenment in my own life. This post is practical, and less tedious than my last philosophical post.
First, for those who did not see the post, here is the short version. Enlightenment philosophy rejects this idea that we are born fundamentally flawed, but it creates an atmosphere nonetheless in which we must always purify ourselves in order to purify society so that history can progress and overcome the problem of evil. Consequently, when we fail to purify ourselves or society, we experience shame and conflict; moral progress is not possible as long as some people hold society back from its potential. So we turn to the other to compensate for what we lack. I need the other to correct me and purify me, because they are the only channel that I have to the good; my perspective is too narrow; I need the other to help me out. I am always on guard and aware of the gap between what ought to be and what actually is that exists within me.
Today I would like to tell you the story behind my last post, on how I experience the gap in my own life.
Over three years ago, I nearly lost my faith in God and in goodness. As a result, I left the mission field where I worked in SE Asia. My church in the states got word of my doubts, and I lost contact with them. Friends in my hometown said, negatively, “boy, you have changed.” I got a nasty email from a real life friend who found my blog. And my own mom said she was afraid I would reject God and go to hell, and said she could not accept the fact that I no longer believed in hell.
I did what every young adult in the situation should do: I attempted to find new communities and put my life together again. I blogged and raised awareness about spiritual abuse; I joined social justice circles on the internet. I went to graduate school and put my effort into secular philosophy. I stopped going to church, tried not to worry about whether God exists, and I started to live again.
I thought the problems I experienced – the shame, the conflict, the toxic teaching – were only related to conservative Christianity. Consequently, if I stopped believing in certain doctrine – hell, original sin, substitutionary atonement – then I could rid myself of the toxic doctrine in my life and begin to heal. I did not expect to be healed overnight, but I did expect that secular circles would be a safe place for me to doubt and express my own opinions.
However, three years has passed, and I still have not found secular culture safe, at least for me. Secular society has given me more opportunities than conservative, evangelicalism did (it’s given me grad school, my own career, my own decisions, my own body), but it has not necessarily given me a safe community.
When I read Kant the other days, I cried for two hours, because I finally understood why the secular world has not been safe for me. Kant describes a world in which I must make moral decisions from the rational and objective viewpoint; I do this by considering the other. How would a rational being react in this situation?
However, and Kant does not say this, this Enlightenment world in which the self and the other is the means by which we purify society is also a world in which the self experiences internal conflict and shame when she fails, either because she is too broken to know how to conform, or because she has different ideas about what it takes to heal society.
In my life, I probably experience a bit of both: I do not have my act completely together, so I do experience some of that shame: why don’t have have my act together? why do I say the wrong things? Why do I still use language that hurts minorities? etc. However, I also experience shame because I often have different ideas than most people about how to help society; for example, I do not fit into any political boxes.
If I state an opinion that is perceived as non-progressive, people will correct me and often even shame me. This, fortunately, rarely happens to me. But that is only because I do not speak. I remain silent.
I ended my last post by saying that Enlightenment means that I keep the anger inside. I meant that literally. I cannot slip up; I can’t say the wrong thing. If I do say the wrong word, I will be an outcast – not just online but also in the university. (The other day, I witnessed a situation in which a professor was called a misogynist because he did not support the democrats for the upcoming election.)
Here is the thing – I legitimately do want to be a graceful person who does not harm others and who accepts minorities and other voices. But sadly, I am often more fearful of being shamed for saying the wrong word than of actually hurting others.
And so, in a sense, I am back in my roots. I’ve returned to Christianity, though not the conservative version albeit, because I see something powerful in Christianity that I have found nowhere else. That is, in Christianity, I see Christ in the other; I experience a call towards the other, rather a try, try, try.
I’m worn out; I want rest.