Theory is not my God

“What are they keeping in there…”
Definitions should, by definition, describe what something is as opposed to what something isn’t. But whereas some ideas become beautiful creatures; others morph into monsters. A little perspective on just how “big” an idea is might help tame the beast.

Note: This is gonna be one of those posts that likely pisses off some of my fellow academics. C’est la vie.

I was facilitating a workshop when the title of this post fell out of my mouth, a half-thought joke made in response to a question about the compatibility of various psychological theories with religious or spiritual beliefs. I stumbled out a phrase that captured more than I realized. Like most simple things, it summarized a complex debate by putting forth a basic premise that shot straight to the heart of the problem.

Here’s the thing: on two fronts I had confronted the “theory debate.” To be field-specific for a moment: the world of psychology, counseling, and mental health likes to argue endlessly about which theory is the best. To add another layer, each theory camp likes to argue about the best way to practice said theory. While there are some valid points regarding the areas in which any particular theory is adept or blind, the fight for alpha-dog in the theory world is largely academic, and often profit-driven. In other words, I want my theory to be king, because then I’ll get all the goodies that go with being king. 

It’s a cynical view, but not inaccurate. If you’re thinking that my faith in academia is lacking, you’re spot on.

Don’t get me wrong – I revel in the world of ideas. It was one of the reasons I became a professor; I get to think about stuff and get paid to do it. It’s the ultimate geek-out: playing with ideas, stretching them, seeing how far they can go until they break. And they will break, they always do, and then you get to pick up what is left and see what else can be made. Or toss out the whole lot, start over with what you’ve learned and develop something more efficient, elegant, unexpected. It is a creative process that pushes the creator as much as the creation, and it’s crack for someone like me.

So arguing about theories is not in and of itself a pointless endeavor. Argument can reveal the limitations, address problems, expand the undeveloped territories. Challenges to theory also remind us that no theory is ever truly “complete;” the quest for the theory of everything is, in my opinion, a noble pursuit. But it’s also like charting the universe; if we ever manage to map the entire thing, will we just run out of space?

The other part of the theory equation that can’t be overlooked though, is the the human element. People are very good at coming up with good ideas; we are also very good at having not so good motivations. I won’t lay claim as to whether or not “evil” exists, or to the innate “goodness” of people. But is it fair to say we are flawed, limited, often short-sighted beings who will act in our own self-interest? Yup. Even the best of us will slip, fall down the slope and gobble up the fat-ridden, gut busting, heart stopping yet utterly scrumptious forbidden jelly donut.

How does one then remove ego from the creation of ideas? Not easily. Thus we do get into some remarkably tedious arguments about which theoretical approach is supreme, or rather debates that veil the real purpose which is to determine who is supreme. Who gets to rule the profession, who gets to own all the business, who gets to make all the decisions. Somewhere along the way, the idea got tangled in with the value of the person making it. I become only as good as my theory will last, and if it doesn’t last then I no longer exist.

Following theory becomes a religious expression in such circumstances. We begin to worship our theorist’s icons and practice based on blind faith. We admonish those who don’t “do what we do.” We cast out those who don’t fit the increasingly narrow-definition of who belongs. The tithes demanded grow larger, eventually taking more than what we have, and in the end we are left waiting at the steps, begging for our bishops to deem us worthy of their scraps.

That presents a pretty bleak view of religion, I realize. But it is not a criticism of what religion could be any more than it is a criticism of what theory could be. Rather it is a charge against what we are turning theory (and perhaps religion?) into – an oppressive mechanism that serves and elevates a few while forgetting its ultimate obligation and purpose to the many. A theoretician who always has the correct answer, who holds a student as simply a replicator of what has been done, has fallen into the trap of self-perpetuation. And like all mechanisms that become too specialized, it will die out. Differentiation is necessary to evolution.

While I don’t think I’m qualified to assert what or who God is, I can make a statement about the nature of theory. Theory is an idea. Theory is a concept. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it no longer stands the test of time and context, it is time to write a new one. Everyone contributes to theory; those who made significant developments to formation of theory did remarkable things. But they did not do it alone, and they are not saints. 

Theory is not my God.

Religious Histories…

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I was never baptized. This was largely due to an oversight by my parents; basically, they forgot to do it. Now before the Freudians leap into writing dissertations about what this implies about my upbringing and its connection to my infinite personality flaws, my parents’ ignoring of my eternal soul was likely one of the better things they did. My course was set early on towards figuring out this thing called religion.

Even though my childhood lacked expected rituals, I was not without the presence of religion. My mother is Catholic, even though she doesn’t quite know what that means. She was baptized and given communion when she was growing up in Taiwan. Since the mass was given in Latin at the time, she had no idea what was going on and just went with it. Of course since my mother was raised in a very traditional Chinese home, she didn’t really need extra lessons in shame to begin with, so Catholicism in another language likely felt pretty familiar to her. This is probably why there has always been a Catholic influence in my life, but no one really understands it.

My father was supposed to be either Pentecostal or Baptist. He was dunked in a bathtub and ran after that which is why the choice was never really made. Religion terrified him, death terrified him, and women terrified him, which explains a great many things. When I was little, he announced he would never go to church again, and that was the one promise he delivered on. He also later divorced my mom so he could date as many women as he could find and adopted an attitude of “do whatever feels good.” Unless of course you were one of his children, and then the rule was, “if it feels good, NEVER EVER do it, see it, or think it again.”

Even though dad declared never to set foot in church again lest he burst into flame, I recall spending plenty of time there when I was young. Well not in any one particular church, but rather many, many churches. I didn’t know what to call my family because we simultaneously attended Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic, Church of Christ, and Pentecostal churches at different times. This might be why I never really understood why Catholics and Protestants bicker amongst themselves over which one is “right” about Jesus, because when you’re 6 it all looks about the same; it’s just a question of which one makes you stand up the most.

I went to bible school on a regular basis. The school I attended the most had a fire-and-brimstone preacher who scared the living Christ right out of me. I have no idea what he was talking about because my strategy was to stare like I was listening so he wouldn’t shout in my direction. But I knew I wanted nothing to do with what he was selling. When he wasn’t looking, I would pull out the Old Testament and read it, trying to figure out what “begat” meant and why those old guys had so much of it.

Somewhere in my adolescence, my mother remembered I was still sinful and wanted to get me baptized. By then I’d decided to become an atheist, but mostly because I listened to a lot of punk rock. So my mother ordered me to the minister at the church we happened to be going to at the time, and made me talk to her about what would happen if I continued to deny God.

It is likely the minister had a more well-rounded version of one’s relationship to the almighty than my mother did, or perhaps she didn’t know what to make of the girl with spiky hair, black coat and combat boots sitting across from her. Either way she simply asked me what I thought of my relationship with God, to which I replied that I didn’t really know, but I didn’t want to sign up until I had a better idea of what I was getting into. She thought that sounded pretty reasonable and sent me on my way, offering to talk more if I wanted to. I skipped off with my get-out-of-jail-free pass validated, and I realized I really did want to understand God better. I wasn’t really an atheist, I was just angry, and talking to someone who wasn’t was, in a word, helpful.

I had quit going to church(es) on a regular basis but continued exploring the tough questions. Somewhere in early adulthood I decided to get pretty serious about it all. I suppose being surrounded by priests at a Catholic university had something to do with that. But this time I wasn’t having threats shouted at me from on high, rather I got the chance to learn. Religion is, amazingly, much more interesting when it is presented in relation to culture, history, ethics, art, and relationships. And surprise! This thing called theology invites questions and no one will go to Hell as a result.

But I never committed. I came very close on several occasions. It was sort of like showing up on the wedding day, looking down the aisle, but when the music started to play I would say, “nope” and turn around. And this was not due to a lack of belief; it is fair to say belief and I were good friends. I did well with a conceptualization of God that permitted me to challenge Him on a regular basis and I could accept Him challenging me back. But to get more specific – to make a declaration of faith – never quite happened. I recall praying with a priest, who was preparing me for formal entry into Catholicism. I was anointed, and afterwards he asked how I felt. He was disappointed when I replied, “Umm, a little weird.”

“Why?”

“This wine is corked.”

So it didn’t go very well after that; apparently some priests do get upset when you start questioning whether or not Catholicism is the thing for you. And some take it kinda personally when you decline communion, and some get downright offended when you suggest you’re not really into Jesus Christ after all.

Which brought me to one of my realizations of adulthood, that theology is great but religion, not so much. The people of religion didn’t always live up to what they were supposed to, and the Institution can engage in some not so great stuff.

I grew up in an area where priests’ abuses against children were first exposed. I initially didn’t grasp it. It was hard to know what abuse even was because when the authority of God sits behind the man, you are led to believe that everything is love and you do what you’re told. Victims get labelled as heretics and speaking up becomes a crime. The Pope gets the last word, but is he really infallible? The problem existed longer than anyone ever guessed and continued well after it was claimed to have stopped; the scope was not limited by borders and a community’s crisis was actually a world’s crisis. We had no idea how to reconcile this and the subsequent bad decisions: hiding priests, hiding children, hiding stories, hiding answers. The only people who seemed to walk away without injury were the men in black.

We watched The Church ignore the very people it was supposed to care for, we tried to keep hope even when they kept the problem going by simply rotating instead of rehabilitating. We extended forgiveness when promises were made about making reparations but one has to wonder about the true price of silence. Eventually we say, “fuck off, any god that wants these men for his loudspeaker has a serious inferiority complex, or is simply a figment of your imagination.”

I became a Buddhist. The thing about Buddhism is, you don’t actually have to do anything to become one. It’s just how it works. This fits with my inability to engage in ritual. Buddhism also didn’t put all its faith in men. This is likely because Buddhism teaches that individuality is an illusion. Collectivism means if I injure you I injure me, and we are therefore injured. That was a refreshing sentiment.

Buddhism fueled me for a while. I wasn’t a very good Buddhist; I ate meat and rarely meditated. But I could live in a world where good and evil were the same, because that matched my lived experience. I didn’t want to lose suffering because suffering was at the root of existence; we couldn’t really learn to love until we could accept the heart of pain. That worked for me; I also didn’t have to rewrite my identity in order to fit the mold because there isn’t really a mold to begin with.

And yet…I didn’t stay there. I haven’t abandoned it, but then again I haven’t abandoned any religion. I’m no religion these days. I don’t like the word spiritual because in the USA it seems to be linked to scenty candles. I am still very concerned about theology, morality, and ethics. I am not seeking a “good” life though, rather searching for a human life. I don’t know if God is there, and I don’t think it’s possible to know. So I’ve stopped looking. It has become less important to have an answer to that question, “what is God,” or “who is God.” But if there is a God, I don’t think they’ll be too upset that I haven’t been baptized.