Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Deconversion as Withdrawal: Just what is this God-smack stuff, anyway?

I've noticed that the term "God-smack" has been creeping into my lexicon, and I wanted to take the time to fully explain its meaning here. I mean it as a triple-entendre, if you can dig it: there is an ancient Greek meaning I wish to evoke, as well as an image of submission to the divine, and drug use to boot. I'll take these by points.

My Greek could be kindly described as next-to-nothing, and my knowledge of how properly to transliterate Greek words into English is even worse. But the word I am talking about is, I think, "θεομαζδα" (pronounced like "theomazda"). I lost my class notes where I wrote it down, so I can't even look up the Greek the professor wrote on the board. I'm worried that I might be remembering it wrong, or even might have been taught wrong in the first place, so anyone who can jump in and correct me on this is more than welcome to do so! (My Google-Fu is weak here.) Anyway, as it was taught to me, this word refers to both the glory and the terror of the divine; it is so incredible, so foreign, so intense, that it inspires both awe and dread, face-planting worship and butt-puckering terror. While the scientifically accurate account of this phenomenon shows that it is the same for praying nuns as it is for monks in the throes of satori, the clinical description takes the edge off the phenomenological wonder of it all. This is good, because we can see that it's actually all in our heads; but it is no less of an experience, for all that.

As I understand it, this emotion is allegedly experienced in the presence of the divine, but it is also experienced by the faithful in moments of great spiritual clarity. I know this because I have experienced it firsthand. When I began to lose my faith, I went to Christian discussion boards for guidance on the issues I was wrestling with. I remember asking just what it meant for humans to be made in God's image - it could not be a literal thing, for that would imply that God had a physical body, which was preposterous. But neither are we mentally or emotionally even close to God, so in what sense are we "in God's image?"

The best answer I received was that the image of God in humanity is like the reflection of the Moon in a lake: if the sky is clear and the water is calm, the Moon's image may clearly be seen reflected in the lake. But if the water is troubled or the clouds are thick, then the Moon cannot be seen so well. I contemplated this, and I saw at once how simple and clear it was, yet also how much confusion the idea has caused in its original formulation. I also experienced a brief reaffirmation of my faith, as I felt closer to God and felt that I could more clearly understand my place in the Universe. I didn't know how I had ever managed to have faith without this understanding, so clear was it to me in that shining moment! I felt at One with All, and it was absolutely wonderful.

But at the same time, I saw how much confusion humanity may fall under, for we do not all understand even so simple a principle as our symbolic relationship to God - and how many more things might be misunderstood in even worse ways? And I despaired at this new thought, and feared for the Hellfire that so many would endure unnecessarily, but for the want of such simple-yet-profound understanding. I saw, then, what it meant to be saved in a fallen world, to truly perceive just how much the world was stacked against us Christians (as I was at the time). The glory and the terror each filled me completely, and I could not process it all at once. I was well and truly out of my mind, stricken by the sheer intensity of the experience.

This is the first sense of God-smack: the glory and the terror of being exposed to the divine well beyond one's ability to understand it. You are smacked by the awesomeness that is your idea of God's greatness, magnified by key parts of your brain ceasing to tell you that there are lines between you and the world. The second sense is related to this feeling, and follows from it, and it may be summarized as submission to the divine will. No matter how great it feels to be theomazdacized, these brief flashes of insight are merely that: flashes of insight. We mortals cannot function while experiencing the glory and the terror, and must shut it out to act in the world.

But God has no such limitations, he is able to understand all that there is, in all of its details, all at once. He to whom All is One has no need to shut out the divine awareness to act in the world, and so he must perforce have clarity at times when I do not; and thus may I go astray. And so God gives me a little "smack," a corrective swat to get me back on the straight and narrow. I should be grateful for such things, of course; knowing God as I did, I trusted him implicitly, and a little supernatural spanking from time to time was much more expedient than digging through scripture and so on and so forth when I just went a little bit astray anyway. I welcomed it gladly, and submitted to it.

This is the second sense of God-smack: the submission to divine will that comes from acknowledging that I am a sinner, and God still needs to keep me in line, so I should be OK with that. When the time is available, God can explain to me until I am satisfied; but at times I may need to be dealt with as a rebellious child, tugged by the ear and dragged onward, kicking and screaming, just so everyone can get on with their day. Thanks, God. Sorry I got out of line. I shouldn't have made you do that to me.

I should clarify that I used to see that attitude as morally upright, and I now see it as sickness. This gives us a convenient segue to the drug-like sense of God-smack, the crippling addiction I felt consuming my soul. You see, I wanted to revel in the agony and ecstasy of the divine all the time; I took God's corrective measures against me as confirmation that he was personally shaping me into something better, and I got very attached to this aspect of the relationship. I couldn't imagine life without it. I was addicted to divinity, hooked on God-smack. The triple-threat of the glory and the terror, the D/s-like implicit trust and abject submission to Authority, and the drug-like habit I was forming, all teamed up and taught me what it meant to be "on fire for Jesus."

But then I made a new friend, and she more or less turned my world upside down. She was a stark-raving atheist, but a lot of what she said made undeniable and intuitive sense to me, and I couldn't shut out the idea that maybe sense was more important than feeling. It took a long time, but she explained things to me in a way that I had never considered before - while she was not the sole cause of my deconversion, she was certainly very much like a catalyst. And so I came to understand that if I was right, then everything was groovy - but if I was wrong, then that would mean I was crazy. Why? Because my intense spiritual experiences, the highs I got from the God-smack, only made sense if I was right in my supernatural suppositions. If I was right, then the God-smack was truly the best stuff ever; but if I was wrong, then I was just getting high off of plain old insanity.

I didn't want to be crazy. More importantly, I wanted to know that I was not crazy. If I was right, then I had all the confirmation I needed in my head - but if I was crazy, then of course I'd see that confirmation wherever I looked for it. I needed something like a second opinion, a different angle to attack the issue from. So I asked myself in earnest: if Christianity is false, then how could I know it? And I started looking for it, and as soon as I started, though I still "believed," the unquestioning faith had been lost. Buddy Skepticism came back to save me from the tight little circle I had reasoned around myself, and though I continued to carry it with me, I had already stepped outside of it and was a wishy-washy seeker.

This, to me, was the essence of my deconversion: the initial consideration that maybe this God-smack wasn't so great for me after all. That was the moment that I lost my faith, and the rest was denouement. I had a long way to go before I identified as an atheist, but there was a transitional period of study and questioning and doubt and generally agonizing over "big questions" (which, as it turns out, aren't quite so big as they seem), and it made for a rather smooth ride from "Evangelical Christian" to "Non-Denominational Christian," followed by "spiritual but not religious," and then finally, "stark-raving atheist." All of that was smooth; the abrupt part was wanting a real answer to that first question: if Christianity is false, then how could I know it?

Looking back, the pattern wasn't that much different than quitting cigarettes has been so far. One day I just set down the God-smack, and though I wrestled with it and overindulged in other things to compensate, it got easier and eventually I was OK. Similarly, the worst of the nic-fits are over, and now I'm just getting on with my life. I still want a cigarette from time to time, and I still think sometimes that it might be nice for a magical sky-daddy to actually exist. But then I realize that, no, I don't really want a cigarette; I have other, more important things going on than smoking right now. And no, of course I don't really want a magical sky-daddy to make all my dreams come true, because that would de-value life and a whole list of other things which just look different from the other side of my deconversion.

There was a pretty big problem, though. That friend of mine I mentioned? Her name was Ayn Rand. She got me into some big trouble, and ironically, it was a Protestant-turned-Catholic professor and a Catholic-turned-Protestant student in a logic class, of all things, that got me out of it (though not back into my God-smack habit). But that's a story for another day.


Zach L said...

I'd always wondered what had happened to your appreciation for Ayn Rand. I remember freshman year of college you encouraging me to read... I think it was Atlas Shrugged? And I did and went "hey, Objectivism is kind of cool!" And then I promptly forgot or ignored pretty much everything else about it.

but yeah, the story of your Rand detox is definitely something I'd like to read.

D said...

Oh, man... look, I believed some fucked up shit as a Christian, and I am more embarrassed about some of the stunts I pulled as an Objectivist.

I'll see what I can do, but it might be a while. Thanks for the vote of confidence!

Anonymous said...

I'm "GOBSMACKED", (U.K. extremely shocked: extremely surprised or shocked (slang)), that you bothered writing that.

D said...

Well, I tried looking up these meanings (God-smack and theomazda), and I couldn't find them. Attempting to explain in another post turned out longer than I had thought it might, so I gave it its own post and threw in some deconversion story for good measure.

Yahzi said...

I also would like to see the Rand detox story, especially since the wingnuts I deal with are both Christian and Rand fanatics, at the same time.

Efrique said...

Great story. Thanks for writing it.

[I found it via Daylight Atheism]

It sounds like "Anonymous" wants you to shut up. Please don't.

D said...

Looks like I need to get started on my deconversion from Objectivism now (thanks for the comment, Yahzi!). We'll see how this goes, I guess!

Efrique, double-thanks for the vote of confidence re: Anonymous. One of my favorite pastimes is talking about haters like they're not there, and ignoring their hate until they go away or just blow a gasket (e.g. explaining my motivation for a post as I would to a child). So Anonymous can keep spouting whatever impotent shock s/he likes. Ain't gonna do anything.