Centered Set Conversion, Part One

At long last I will explore one of the themes which most challenged my thinking in Deep Church; Belcher’s extensive use of the centered set motif. The Jesus-as-Well concept he advanced throughout the book unraveled my understanding of my conversion as I ruminated on the details of what took place. After an initial scare at the possible implications of “belonging before believing,” I embraced the paradigm he was outlining when I recognized it as a vital element in my own experience. A few biographical details are necessary to establish this.

I belong to a family punctured across its history by scores of self-destructive incisions. I am by natural generation heir to this. I can’t recall with certainty when I first perceived a palpable sense of undefined alienation (such a typical juvenile feeling!), but I know that by my early teenage years the blurriness had been brought into sharper focus. I knew I wanted no part in the heirlooms that were my due; I felt detachment from so much of what defined us. Everything in close proximity to it seemed tainted and lost its savor. I had no sense of belonging to anything which felt like floating through the vacuum of space on three hastily inhaled puffs of oxygen. I tried losing myself in friends and bands during that time but it was so nauseatingly false; the sense of community was imposed from without (by me) and wholly unnatural. Most friends from that period reflected the qualities I was desperately trying to flee from, qualities which, to my horror, I began to reflect back with the same involuntary force as the circulation of blood.

My grandparents were anchors during all of this time, always striving to secure a semblance of normalcy for my sister and me. They were steady forces of dependability and helped bring us up when Mom was stuck with night hours at work. When I had a random existential bout of fourth grade fear of death, my grandpa gave me a copy of Luther’s Small Catechism which became a source of great comfort. I took to heart many of the moral commands I found in its pages, but Luther’s famous law/gospel division didn’t awaken within me an awareness of a need for a sinless savior. Instead I just dug in my heels and hated the sins I had seen on display all my life thus far (all ten years of it!) and stiffened my resolve to never give in to them myself. I hardened my will to be a good person and to navigate the moral wreckage of this world without succumbing to it. And over the years I did vindicate my quest for a higher ethical plane, but in typical human fashion, I defined my righteousness first and foremost by what other people did and I did not do. That was about as far as the philosophy I was imbibing on a regular basis could take me but more often that not my strange synthesis of Proudhonian anarchistic, gnostic/Daoist/post-Hegelian existentialism seasoned with some random bits of C.S. Lewis struck my spiritual taste buds as quite satisfying. After being confirmed in a Lutheran church at 14, I walked away, figuring I had served my time and had appropriated all that I needed.

I suppose it might seem sorta peculiar then that about six winters ago I contemplated attending North Park University. The bottom line though was that I wanted to go because of a few of my Salvation Army friends from Chicago who were studying there. These were stellar dudes I never experienced even a decibel of moral dissonance with; they actually served to check certain tendencies which were left unrestrained back home in the absence of godly friends. I wasn’t a believer but I knew that the consolation and joy I felt in the presence of Christians was genuine- it felt like the first lungful of air you soak in after a death trip of an asthma attack. I tasted delectable morsels of common grace in their presence and caught glimpses of the kingdom of God powerfully at work in space and time and relationships with these fellows. If I went to North Park we would cover Heidegger’s Being and Time my freshman year, sure (uber philosophy geek points there!). Most importantly, however, I could share in this community constantly instead of in sporadic dribbles here and there, and I could at long last be identified apart from the crushing weight of affiliation with Wisconsin.

Unfortunately, as I said before, I wasn’t a Christian at the time. I thought that I was because I had enjoyed reading Luther’s catechism back in the day and because I was a mostly moral person, certainly more upright than most people my age. The essence of Christianity is possessing a greater quantity of moral righteousness than others, right? I was one of those people described in Hebrews 6:4-5, “who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.” They participate in some of the blessings of the Kingdom and the future recreation of the world through their association with born again colonists of this planet but they themselves have not been united to Jesus through faith. Where believers drink deep from the Well of living water, these folks receive microscopic droplets of living condensation and figure they’re okay. Sadly, they are like farmland that takes in rain but produces only thorns and thistles, “worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned” (verse 8). That’s scary stuff to think about and should drive us to self-examination to see whether or not we’re truly in the faith. I shudder to recollect it but I was content to keep my faux-Christian autopilot engaged in order to ignore those warnings.

I returned home from one winter trip to Chicago during which I toured the campus with my friend Mike Steinsland and summarily told my grandfolks that I wanted to go to North Park. My grandpa pondered that for a couple of seconds and replied if that was what I wanted, they would do what they could to help get me to school. The elation I experienced in that moment was a cleaner joy than any I could recall up to that point. I felt like a new life was on the verge of blossoming! It was like the first glimpse of an oasis on the horizon after miles and miles of desert. And then I hamstrung the entire prospect by allowing myself too much time to think. I had a serious shot at it, but in the end, nothing came of it. I allowed fear to strangle my aspirations and I settled back in to a life of quiet desperation in Janesville, bitter at the entanglements that conspired to keep my heart rooted there rather than in Chicago.

I sank into a general mood of despondency over the next few years, punctuated by occasional glimpses of a better country as mediated through hangout sessions with Christian friends. As always these were brief, peripheral flashes, but their ephemeral quality was heightened by my guilt at having squandered my chance to escape. In retrospect I sound like a fellowship addict or something. Getting my fix made life, the universe, and everything seem blazingly perfect for a glorious nanosecond but time seemed to stretch agonizingly longer between those fixes which increasingly seemed fewer and farther between.

And then I fell in love with Kristin. Amplify the forcefulness of my previous fixes a hundredfold! Goodness gracious, I was a mess, swirling with the vertigo of a heady, giddy first love. My devotion to Kristin was (as near as I could tell during the time, at least) total, and consequently, how could it not restructure my living? I remember even starting to like certain Jason Mraz songs at this point in time. That’s nothing less than some species of love intoxication because I cannot stand that dude! Silly things that I used to think were such a big deal were glibly disregarded as insignificant in light of the new reality. A wrecking ball of romance smashed apart certain of my idols that I found simple to surrender when set against the new gravitational center of my galaxy. More insidious idols, too translucent to be grasped visibly by my darkened eyes, were left unchecked to be bowed down before on a daily basis.

After a season it dawned on me that if I wanted any sort of future with Kristin I would have to bite the bullet and start attending church with her. That’s really how I thought of it at the time; though I persuaded myself that I was a Christian during that time I reasoned that I didn’t need the church. After all, most churches I had attended were populated by high-nosed world-haters who sang dusty old songs that sounded like circus music and listened to anemic, moralistic finger-wagging with zero life in it. Why would I want any of that?* One of the things that sets human beings apart from lesser critters is we know how to endure certain distasteful things for a stretch of time in order to prosecute our campaigns to get what we really want. That was the name of the game when I decided to start waking up on Sundays for church.

Kristin wanted to search out a new church to belong to after years with the church she grew up with in Beloit (which I attended with her on a couple random occasions for kicks) and had decided to visit the church her cousin Jeremy was a member of, Footville Church of Christ. We first went some time in December of ’08. That was when I realized that Sunday School existed for people older than 14! We braved the treacherous terrain which makes many travelers think twice about journeying to Footville (disgusting amount of sarcasm there) and joined the young adult Sunday School class this guy named Adam was teaching. We tried to keep to ourselves for the most part (I think we might have been a little on the late side when we arrived) hoping to remain as invisible as possible. I recall picking up a weird sense that everyone in this room wanted to be here, which, needless, to say, confused me greatly. Surely there was some other factor in play- after all, aren’t the people who say they love going to church usually just trying to shame you into going? And if you take the bait, their demeanor during the service you attend betrays how they really feel about being there: they’re as bored, and listless, and tired, and crotchety as you are!

Furthermore, adding to the strangeness, there was a palpable spirit of community at work within that room which enveloped all of the proceedings from start to finish. A dozen older teens and twentysomethings were engaged in the lesson and its periodic discussions and they were united visibly by bonds of close friendship with one another. I had stumbled across a group of people with shared commitments and an alignment of priorities and objectives. There was a communal identity defining this group such as I had never seen before. Nothing about it seemed canned or inauthentic. They all demonstrably liked being with one another and doing the church thing. Weird!

And yet I was drawn in by this spirit. True, during the discussions I tended to either daydream or bristle with supercilious irritation because I thought that trying to nail down God’s nature with any systematic thoroughness was a little on the speculative side. Never mind my own speculative flights of fancy into the ontology of God; that was serious philosophy, not this tribalistic business of religion which I figured could never adequately transcend the sociological imagination of the world’s cultures in order to apprehend anything more than a hint of the God behind the scenes. I tried to cloak my impatience with theology as much as possible since I genuinely began to like each of the people who would gather week after week, but I have to admit that my attitude was distressingly similar to the “compassionate colonials” of the 19th Century who simultaneously were charmed by and yet pitied the noble savages under their watch. Like them, I hoped for my new friends to attain to the intellectual sophistication and honesty of where I stood, so in the meantime I would graciously overlook the misguided (though well-intentioned) religious categories which hijacked so many otherwise excellent conversations and patiently try to elevate the whole lot to another plane of discourse entirely. Given enough time, I was sure they would outgrow all of these primitive religious conceptions about personal faith and graduate to the big leagues of metaphysical investigation where the real work was to be done. These were good people, after all- why not get them on board with the project?

How did I justify thinking that I was a Christian back then? Beats me. I had no evidences whatsoever to give me even a second’s hope that I was born again. Though I paid lip service to the Bible, it had a certain odor to it that I didn’t find particularly agreeable for the most part. I was very much in the Kant Religion Within the Realm of Reason Alone school which would make me at best a low grade deist. Kierkegaard held much more sway over my heart than Christ, but I whitewashed my own tombstone to mislead myself and others that I appreciated Kierkegaard as a means of grace towards the enjoyment of Jesus. Sure, my blood boiled with rancor reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and I loved refuting his arguments against the existence of God, but I did no better than James’ opponents who did well by believing that God is. Unlike the demons, I didn’t even have sense enough to shudder! The few times I would examine the Bible I would search out a few phrases I could wrench out of context in order to conjure up a bogus blessing or I would torture my brain with hermeneutical gymnastics to escape the plain meaning of a passage. I was never quite limber enough to successfully contort my way through the exegetical jungle however, so usually my Bible readings resulted in interpretative sprains and bruises. I liked Jesus and honestly believed that he was in fact some sort of divine being, but figured that he was some sort of avatar or God-manifestation given to the first century Palestinian world (that was my best guess as to what ‘Son of God’ could mean if all other religions also had strong whiffs of truth in them, which I assumed to be the case). I concluded that the Bible was humankind’s best shot at who God really was, closer to the mark than every other attempt, but that at the end of the day it still was only mostly right. Given my reluctance to rely too much on the Bible, then, my confidence always lay in the fact that I was a good person, ethically superior to most I knew, and more appreciative than many of the beauty and complexity of the universe. That seemed like valid criteria for escaping a karmic annihilation of my consciousness.**

This is the immediate background then to my unlikely conversion. Next time we’ll wrap this thing up, so stay tuned for Part Two!

 

 

*I therefore now, at long last, can sympathize with someone with similar complaints. What’s weird is that within months of my conversion I began identifying more and more solidly with the old guard in an attempt to be more “true.” Whatever that means!

**I most emphatically believed in some final judgment at the end of time, but my conception of it was based on the idea that the universe would ultimately balance the equation and right every wrong in some sort of late-Hegelian reconciliation of contradictions way. Whoever or whatever God was, I figured for certain there was a wideness to His mercy that would be lenient without being too lenient. There was certainly no room for a Hitler or a Pol Pot in such a scheme, but in all likelihood Gandhi and John Lennon would make it. My theological fantasies were cut from the same cloth as H.R. Pufnstuf, I guess.

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