Within a couple of weeks of that revival service, and my tear-stricken response to the altar call, it was all over for me: the spiritual exaltation had vaporized, my masturbatory activities had, in spite of all my resolutions, resumed. (That I could ever have expected them to cease testifies to the naivete that bathed this whole conversion experience of mine.)
In generic form, narratives such as this one are common. Christopher Hitchens tells of abandoning his religious beliefs when he was just nine years old. Hundreds of other such stories and anecdotes can be found online.
I did not, however, find my religious beliefs eroding, not at all. I lost faith in my emotions; I began to put a great deal of effort into thinking through how humans could have anything to do with divinity, or divinity with them; I read all of the college library texts on philosophy of religion (which was the origin of my lifelong distaste for theology and religious philosophy in general).
By the time I was ready to graduate from college, it was clear that my own way toward god was going to be by taking thought, by more or less rational paths as opposed to emotional ones.
I said to myself, finally, that problems may arise, at the level of feeling and emotions and spirit, which cannot be solved at the level of feeling and emotion and spirit.
And that, over the years, has evolved into my definition of philosophy:
Philosophy — loving wisdom — is the effort to personally resolve problems that arise as feelings, emotions, or spiritual conflicts, but cannot be solved at that level. Such problems may arise in individual, communal, or institutional domains.
What sort of problems are we referring to here? Mine, as you can see, deal largely with, or originated in, religion. Others in my generation — and every generation of humans over the millenia — find challenges in science, in psychology, in political history, mathematics and logic, cultural mores. Here’s a small selection of the questions that began to arise as I reflected, during high school and college, on my failed conversion:
- is there actually a divinity at the other end of all this altar-call hokum?
- if there is, why didn’t it respond to my traipsing up the aisle, my tears, my repentance?
- what’s the difference — if any — between this revival stuff and the kind of church services I’d been raised with?
- where, really, can I find anybody else who knows this territory well enough to provide a little advice and counsel?