Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Experiencing God and Emotional Identification

I've spent hours each day for the last few years rethinking what I believe about God and why. I usually end up back at my conversion experience at the age of almost 17, a point at which I experienced a deep shift in my thinking and felt the beginnings of a "spiritual" life.
Something I have always known about my conversion experience was that it wasn't based on fear of hell, or deep remorse for my sins, or even belief in the historical resurrection of Jesus and the miracles in the Bible. In the back of my mind I knew about these things. I knew what it meant to feel guilty and sinful. I knew the Bible stories that I had read and learned in my childhood church attendance. I imagined there was such a thing as heaven or hell, though I didn't spend much time thinking about it.

No. None of those concepts mattered that much to me. They didn't speak to me or motivate my mind and heart in any discernible way.

What led me to become a Christian was a deep emotional identification with Christ and a love that sacrificed itself for people who didn't even care about it, or have enough of it themselves to appreciate its depth.

At the time, I had made a choice to move with my mother and younger brothers to Florida for the last two years of high school. Just before that move, my mother and I had a terrible, physical fight that had been indirectly instigated by her abusive boyfriend. I had bruises all over my face and arms and was completely distraught. I ran away and stayed with my best friend's family for a week or two until my mother apologized and asked me to come back home.

I did eventually go back home and that physical incident turned out to be an isolated one. It never happened again, even though my mother still had quite a temper.

However, the abusive boyfriend was still in the picture. You see my youngest brother, who was about 2 years old at the time, was the son of the abusive boyfriend. Although he and my mother would periodically break up violently and then reconcile in the typical, cyclical way that dysfunctional abusive relationships do, he would never really be out of the picture because my younger brother tied he and my mother together.

Being a teenager living in that kind of chaos was maddening. It is frustrating to be a child with more sense than the adults in your family. The helplessness of being a minor in a household in which you have no control over what's happening, and no ability to stop the bad choices that are being made is torture. All you can do is lock yourself up in your room and count the days until you turn 18 and graduate from high school so that you can shake the dust off your feet and be free to live a sane life.

The problem was that I didn't want to go to Florida, because the abusive boyfriend was going to be going also and living with us.

I didn't want to go. I knew what would happen in Florida, more of the same in a different location. Yet, I was in a quandary. I had to make a choice. You see, even though my parents divorced when I was two, I always knew that if things got really bad I could ask to move in with my father. The only obstacle preventing me from leaving was the prospect of abandoning my two younger to the chaos that was to come.

I had to choose between a way of escape for myself, or forcing myself to head into a life that I knew would be miserable.

Whenever events in our household went downhill, I was the one to pull it together. If the boyfriend got violent, I called the police...frequently. When he got nasty, I intervened. I truly believed that my presence kept things from being worse because I wasn't afraid of my mother's boyfriend and he knew it. He also knew that, unlike my mother, who would never have the will to press and pursue charges against him, that I would relish the opportunity to see him behind bars if he ever laid a finger on me or on one of my brothers.

I was the boundary around my family that he couldn't cross, even at the young ages of 14, 15, and 16.

During this time I was severely hurt and angry. I blamed my mother for her weakness and for subjecting us to her chaos. Each time she welcomed back the boyfriend I was crushed. She was choosing him over us. She was choosing a few moments of "love" over the safety and well-being of her children.

So...when the time came for this move to Florida, I didn't know what to do. I desperately wanted to escape but I felt a deep obligation to protect my brothers with my presence.

I eventually chose to go to Florida, giving up my way of escape for my mother and family even though the protection I offered was never recognized or understood by my mother. I was performing a thankless service.

A few months after making that decision, I was "witnessed" to by my older brother and his pastor. What broke me and instantly sliced through my heart was one question that the pastor posed to me:

"Do you know that Jesus suffered for you, because he loves you?"

Which he followed up with,"Do you know what it means to sacrifice yourself for people you love, even if they don;t realize it?"

Why, yes! I knew exactly what that was like. I burst into tears, not only because I suddenly believed, but because I identified myself emotionally with all that Jesus represented. I began to follow him because he was like me in some essential way and I was like him in some essential way.

That is what it means to experience God. We experience a moment in which we recognize Him in us and us in Him.

All of our worship, all of our singing, all of our praying...these are all ways that we emotionally identify ourselves with God and experience Him.

Realizing this has made me worry much less about whether I have a unified explanation for my beliefs, or sometimes lack of beliefs.


Retriever said...

Tears. We are more alike than you know. More later. You are a blessing in my life, Terri. And an inspiration. I thank God for having found and got to know you better over these newfangled internets...

Sabio Lantz said...

I can understand that sort of conversion: I have heard equal moving, emotional, heart-felt, personal stories from Hindus, Buddhists, Shintos and Marxists. Sometimes something clicks with who we are and the object of our imagination and it all makes sense.

terri said...


Thanks for your kind words. For some reason I think of you often, maybe because you are so good at expressing what you're thinking and feeling in words and photos.


I've been thinking more and more lately that our emotional identification is something intrinsic and that when people have conversion experiences what is happening is that they are finally connecting to something that speaks to a part of them that they already had.

It's a validation of their being that becomes transformative.

Sabio Lantz said...

I agree (I think). The transformation and identification is much deeper than theology and gods. It is much more human, much more intimate. We name it, tribalize it, enlarge these and forget about the unique vibrancy with have with it.

Your freshness with the real is always pleasant to read.

Dr X said...

Terri, Thank you for sharing that.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Sabio - You have seemed to be a sweet person who doesn't mean others any harm, but that statement was very condescending.

I haven't heard such moving stories from other religious groups. I have heard many stories of (legitimate) resentment and escape to those items, but not the embracing of selfless love.

I am not doubting your veracity, but your interpretation. I don't doubt that the emotional intensity is similar, but that is because human beings have a fairly limited set of physical responses to strong emotion.

Sabio Lantz said...

@ village idiot
Indeed, I did not mean it as condescending but as primarily complimentary. But I am who I am and black-and-white type might have betrayed me.

Anonymous said...

I hope this is not condescending, but conversion experiences are not unique to Christianity. One example I heard this week was from a co-worker whose friend is currently on a book tour for a touchy-feely self-help book.

The author woke up one night and had an epiphany for living life with heart and the idea for the book. Now the guy lives off of donations like a missionary and promotes a "love your neighbor" philosophy.

christianty helps people and that is great, but other philosophies help people as well.


terri said...

I didn't/don't take it as condescending from either Sabio, or Jim.

I guess I could see where Sabio's remark could be seen as a little pat on the head as he intones how charming and trite I am being....but I didn't take it that way because I feel like I have a sense of Sabio's personality from reading his blog. And while he is an ex-christian and current atheist, and he likes to get on his own personal jags and criticisms of religion, I think he recognizes the importance of personal religious/mystical experiences....even if thinks they are all the result of chemicals in the brain.

Of course, I could be completely wrong about that! :-)


I know that conversion experiences are not unique to Christianity. WHen I write about something, I write from my own personal experiences....because they are the only things I feel that I have any authority to write about conclusively. All my other opinions can be moderated.

What I was trying to express is that our experiences with God, or the mystical, tend to be affirmations of deeper parts of ourselves.

I'm not saying that all of religion is simple wish fulfillment.....that we make up the things we want and supply ourselves with a suitable Deity that lets us do what we want. Although, I think that there can always be an element of that in any religion/belief system I think most religions are not quite that simplistic.

While Christianity can certainly tell us what we want to hear on the one hand, it also tells us lots of things I don't want to hear. But even many of those things that I don't want to hear resonate with me.

I don't want to think that I am sinful, sometimes selfish person...and yet I have plenty of evidence to the contrary. So the call to humility and repentance still speaks to me because I know that I am not all that I wish to be.

I am not arguing so much for the uniqueness of my conversion experience, as I am that these experiences are an integral part of being human and finding transcendence through identification.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well said. I retract my criticism.

Sabio Lantz said...

@ Terri
You got it spot on. Well said again !

terri said...

The following is unrelated to this post. A commenter followed me over here from James McGrath's blog after I left a comment there. For whatever reason his comment came to my e-mail inbox, but didin't show up on the actual blog. so, for posterity's sake, and so that he knows that I haven't deleted his comment, here's what he wrote:


I think that what webulite means by "supernaturalism" is that one believes in God.

Now that God might be merely Deistic, or an underlying intelligence to the Universe, or the Great Hard Drive in the SKY....but unless you repent of the belief that there is something...anything....other than pure materialism and chance...then you are a dirty supernaturalist that needs to repent in sackcloth and ashes before the altar of atheism. ;-)

At least that's what my overworked senses get out of the use of the term on you....because I've never read a single post where you have waxed supernatural.

Is that what you mean by the term webulite?

Does not being a "supernaturalist" preclude a belief in any type of God?

Dear Teri,

Jim had been deleting my posts posts to his blog, so I thought I would post you here.

Of course anyone that believes in gods is a supernaturalist, that is part of the basic definition. And yes, this would include deists. See the definition;

supernatural |ˌsoōpərˈna ch (ə)rəl|
(of a manifestation or event) attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature : a supernatural being.

I am finding Jim a sneaky man. I posted him explaining myself in detail, and offered to explain it to him in further depth. He deleted that post. I think that Jim is playing a word game. For a academic like himself to not know that Christians are supernaturalist is very strange. Or even deists. It indicates to me that he actually wants to shun or avoid this term. It indicates to me that the reality is it is a term he is not comfortable with, and therefore trying to distance himself from, and deny. Notice that he said nothing like "I do not believe in gods, so how can I be a supernaturalist" or any other statement that would display that he is NOT a supernaturalist. Notice that his response was, "show me that I am a supernaturalist". Jim seems to be all about drama and getting attention, rather than conveying information.

Regarding supernaturalists being "dirty", this is nothing I have said, or implied. A supernaturalist is simply someone that believes in the supernatural. It is a identification mechanism, alloning classification into the binary set supernaturalist and naturalist. Just like the binary set of things like theist/atheist, gnostic/agnostic, football player/non-football player. These are just attributes that analysts use to classify and understand the world.

If you want to read a good essay by the historian Richard Carrier that talks more about supernaturalism, you might enjoy; http://webulite.dyndns.org:8080/defining_supernaturalism

On another subject, later today, I will explain more on why supernaturalists have a built in problem with the study of the historical Jesus. I will simply post it to http://webulite.com instead of as a comment on his blog.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any additional questions. I study the origins of Christianity, and early periods of christanity, and enjoy the subject very much, and talking with others about it.


terri said...

My response:

Webulite, or is it Rich G.? So, basically you agree with my point. James is a "supernaturalist" because he isn't an atheist. That's fine if that's how you want to label things.

But it seems like you only use the term as a pejorative that implies that anyone who has any belief in anything is thereby not qualified to participate in historical Jesus studies, or New Testament studies, or anything related to the inception of Christianity.....because belief in something Other makes everyone complete fools with hidden agendas.

It's nice if you can completely discount what your opponent has to say by presumptively declaring them ineligible to coherently participate in the discussion right off the bat.

Now as far as why James chooses to shun the term "supernaturalist", and is also annoyed by the use of the term in regards to himself, I can only speculate....but I think I can speculate just as well about him as I can about you.

He doesn't like the term because it conjures up images of the miraculous and belief that everything unexplainable is cause by spirits, or God, or other mysterious forces.

You should know by now that James is a very liberal Christian and, as I far as I can tell from his posts, doesn't believe in many "orthodox" positions of supernaturalism/Christianity.

You might think that is sneaky because he doesn't have a bullet point widget that breaks down exactly what he believes in stark terms for all to see. Maybe it is. That's not for me to say.

However, I think it is best to say that he doesn't see himself as a supernaturalist because he sees "God" as part of the natural world/order, not as an intervening deity.

Maybe the use of the term "God" has gotten you all worked up and you are unable to stop comparing apples to oranges.

As far as me using the term "dirty supernaturalist"....well that was part of my lame attempt at humor. I thought the smiley emoticon would have cleared that up.

And...you might want to rethink whether or not James is deleting your posts...because for some reason your comment did not appear on my blog and I have no comment moderation.

Something may just be wonky with the method you're using to comment...or Blogger is on the fritz.

terri said...

Webulite/Rich G.,

For whatever reason, your comments are not showing up. My guess is that the commenting tool you are using is not fully compatible with blogger because your comments are being forwarded to my e-mail, but are not appearing on the site. I suggested to you earlier that there might be something on your end that is causing problems.

Anyway, I will repost your comment here. If this continues to happen, I will not continue to bother posting them, because I really don;t want to spend all my time copying pasting and reposting your comments.

I'm not going to continue to engage you in this conversation simply because its not my job to explain other blogger's behavior to you, or to try and make you see things my way.

terri said...

Your comment:

Dear Teri,

I am starting an essay on http://webulite.com that will address the topic in general, so if you are interested feel free to follow along as I develop it.

I have to edit below because originally I wrote 5300 characters to you, but responses can only by about 4096 characters, so if I pervert some idea, in looking to eliminate characters, I am sorry.

I had posted that Jim is a supernaturalist because he meets the criteria for the definition of that word. I will, in painstaking detail make my exact meaning clear in the essay, no, it is not because he is not an atheist. There can be supernaturalists that are not atheists.

Addressing other issues... Opponents is a word I would prefer not to use, but I understand your use of it. Are there opponents of the idea that the Earth is at the center of our universe? Yes, there were, but they are becoming less and less, as that idea has been demonstrated with more and more certainty. Your use of the term "opponent" implies the idea that scientific understanding progresses against the view of opponents. While this has some accuracy, I tend to view the matter as scientific understanding is the method by which we try to increase human knowledge. If one can be said to oppose the increase of human knowledge, then perhaps there are opponents, but I don't think the majority of scientists see the world as opponents to be defeated.

With regard to me using the term "sneaky" with regard to Jim, it is not for the reason you are stating. My use only has to do with him manipulation of the comment thread. I have posted comments to that thread, and others on his blog. They have been posted. How do I know? because via another browser session, I have been able to view them. Also, being a subscriber to a particular thread comment set, you then get an email, that a new post has been made. I have received these updates. That means the system has received and recognized the entry of the comment. Then... at a later point, the comment is not there. That means that someone with the ability to edit or modify comments has done so. If you happen to be a subscriber to the thread on Jim's blog that we are talking about, you can look for yourself at your email alerts you received. Look for a post that came in your new comment alert email that starts; "Dear Jim, If you want to come to the CHAT..." If you received that you can verify for yourself that a particular comment was posted. Also. You will notice that jim makes two adjacent comments at one point in that thread after a comment by me. One of them address some of the content in the comment that I posted that was eventually deleted. So, since Jim is addressing content, in the deleted post, we can conclude that the comment existed at one point. But... this is something that you can get more clarity on by simply asking Jim if he has ever edited or deleted any of my comments. I simply posted you here on the most current thread on your blog, because I noticed you addressed me on that one, and felt is was a more sure way of communicating with you. I looked on your blog first to see if there was an email or twitter contact, did not see one, so just posted to the most recent thread.

Regarding you clarifying "dirty supernaturalist" as humor, I understand, and my reference to it in my post to you was my attempt to clarify that I was not using the term in that sense. Hopefully my essay will even further clarify that.

Finally, yes, I was not baptized webulite. My real name is Rich Griese. I have both a RichGriese.NET and a webulite.com. The webulite site is a more broad site where I repost things of interest to me on many subjects written by other people. And it is there that I mostly deal with the religious stuff, because I also maintain a reference wiki and other tools.