Category Archives: religion

What Philosophy Is, Concluded

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?

what philosophy is, continued

How it all began for me:

When I was around fourteen my dad — who was a born-again Christian, which led to tension with the rest of the family who remained Dutch-immigrant Calvinists — took me to a revival service.

I had no experience of revivals.  I didn’t know about altar calls.

Some of my readers may not have encountered that expression before.  An “altar call” is when the choir sings Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling, while the revival preacher suggests that while everyone’s eyes are closed you can surrender yourself to Jesus and come up the aisle and kneel to signal your repentance.

Well, that revival service ended with an altar-call.  I surrendered to it — and walked up the aisle — with tears in my eyes.

My family worshipped every week at a Christian Reformed church; prayed at every meal and read a bible passage at dinnertime every day, attended Sunday School half of the year and catechism the other half.  I had no complaint to make about any of this at the time, and — in general — still don’t.

But the religion we practiced every day of our lives was not the sentimental evangelicalism of that revival service.  It was Dutch Calvinism, for farmers.  It did not consist of altar calls, but of doing good for your neighbors and for your family and for people in need.

The call I surrendered to that night came from far outside my ordinary experience of what might be involved in the worship of God.  It’s no surprise that I was so bowled over by the sentiments and the emotion of the altar call.  Especially by Softly and Tenderly.

It was a powerfully spiritual moment for me, at fourteen.  Such moments do not generally deserve the mockery they get in some public discourse.

But spiritual moments, inevitably, must subside, and become less exalted, more mundane ones; by the time we got home that night, I was wondering what was supposed to happen next.

To be continued… .