The Economies of Belief (pt 1)

The warrior phase interrupted

Around Thanksgiving of 2006 I was still trying to carry on with my warrior-vagabond worldview. I had just broken up with a girlfriend and had had a rough semester. Over the holiday I took a long walk with an old friend, a guy who had become a Buddhist the year or two before. He and I had always been philosophizing buddies together in high school. I had gone the atheist route as part of my whole self-propelled rationalist deal. He had chosen a different path.

At some point on this walk, he was listening to me ramble about how I was going to recover from the breakup by resuming my creative, self-determined, rugged individualist mindset. Get back on the proverbial warhorse, as it were.

Sensing that this was all an act to obscure my own loneliness from myself, he asked very gently:

“So … why are you doing all this?”

On this, I paused. It only took a moment. I conceded defeat of the whole charade:

“… I guess deep down, this is all basically to show the world that I don’t need them. But the whole point of that goal is to impress the world, and probably to get somebody to admire me and approve of me”

He just nodded quietly. This was a big moment for me. He let me stew in it.

All at once and for the first time in my adult life, I began to see my own frailty, as nothing but a normal man. I was no better or more distinguished because of my vaunted worldview. I was not immune, not even close, to the irrational and permanent needs that haunt our human condition: love, affection, companionship, approval, meaning, and identity.

I had just been using the Tyler Durden / Howard Roark train as a way to reach those things. But it wasn’t working for me.

So maybe it was time to look elsewhere.

So maybe religion after all?

Up to this point, one of the cornerstones of my worldview had been a determined, scornful atheism. But this moment showed my worldview as just a charade … so everything was unseated at once. If I was just going to be a normal human after all then maybe I should, for the first time, consider that dimension of life that so many normal humans seem to prize so highly: spirituality.

My old friend was very encouraging here. He said he’d love to open the door for me into Buddhism. He was sure that I was basically a buddhist at heart anyway. He thought I would find a lot of sustenance there.

I was interested. And, I knew that my epistemological boat was taking on water quickly, so I needed to find a life raft to jump aboard, and fast.

The bright new world

Then came December 2006. After finals, one of my roommates told me he knew a few people doing this 3-day backpack trip to Big Bend, and since I loved all that, maybe I’d like to come along. Turns out these few people were more like 15, and they mainly knew each other through the Texas Wesley, a Methodist student ministry at UT. I was duly cautious about this. I had never done anything at all with a “group of Christians”. Would they throw Bibles at me if I was found out?

But hey, it was hiking. And all of my epistemological doors were open at this time. So I went, and it turned out to be a great trip. These people from the Wesley were, to my great surprise, entirely thoughtful, curious, and sincere people. I got back from the hike with a feeling of curiosity. At the same time, my interest in Buddhism began to weaken.

Then after the holidays, in January 2007, my roommates and I met two girls, and they quickly became some of our best friends. One of them became like a sister to me. The other, I got the mad hots for.

Turns out these two girls were also Christians, and also had strong ties within that same Christian community, the Wesley. And both were just generally magnetic and alluring people. This all fascinated the hell out of me. Pun intended if you like.

So began the process of my conversion to Christianity. Over the next 3 months I gradually became involved in the weekly rhythms and practices of the Texas Wesley. I began sharing my heart and story with these people. They reciprocated it all very warmly.

By the middle of the spring of 2007, I committed my life to Jesus.

In so doing, I discarded the prospect of Buddhism, and besides that my native Judaism. These were unwanted items, then — left in the dirt on the side of the bright road to Oz.

As for Oz — my new Christian world was bright, pulsating, and energetic. The Wesley was easily the richest community of peers, mentors, and romantic options that I had ever encountered in my young life. And all of this abundance was set against a glowing backdrop: the deep meaning, the ultimate reality, the pervading gospel, the cosmic epic … of the Christian God.

I was enamored with this new rhythm. In the meantime, I was also enamored with a girl. In that case, were my motives suspect? Probably, and I knew it. But I reasoned with myself: hey, if God is real, maybe the best way for him to get my attention was to dangle a carrot out in space — something to get me chasing.

So I gave chase. The thing with that girl did not work out, but I still had my community and my Jesus, and these largely did not fail me. I remained immersed in Christian community, growing in my faith and my understanding of the world, for the next 6 years.

Then I got married.

An inverse correlation

By the time I met Nicole, I had spent most of my adult life deeply engaged with the rhythms and practice of young, idealistic, vagabondish Christian community. This meant dense roommate life, missionary travels, colonizing big houses and apartment complexes together, and lots of loud musical nights of worship; wrestling with faith; gradually figuring out how to adult together; celebrating, laughing, and mourning together — the way friends do. All of this was my existence from about 21 to 28.

Oddly though, it seemed that as my closeness with Nicole grew, and as she became my fiancé and then my wife in 2013, my interest in this old communal life seemed to quietly dissipate. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about my friends anymore — I still kept up with a lot of people closely, mainly in 1-on-1 settings.

But as my closeness with Nicole grew, my attraction toward my old Christian communal existence behaved with an inversely proportional drop. As I became more and more married, I became less and less communal. And thereby, less and less Christian.

Had I simply become more introverted, as a corollary to growing older and entering a new life stage? Yes. Had I become distracted from old community rhythms by instead focusing on my new family’s budget, house projects, and our young careers? Yes. Had I spent lots and lots of quality time with just my wife, cementing our new marriage, and therefore robbing time from our communities? Yes. All of these culprits were in part to blame, but all of them were eventually kept in check; and none of them fully explain the sea change that I experienced.

Then this past spring, around the time of our second anniversary, I read Peter Rollins’s philosophical lark The Idolatry of God. Finally, this would begin to suggest one really good answer.

That will come in the next piece.

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