Sunday, 26 August 2012

Conversion Contortion

 This title "conversion contortion" is catchy and appropriate. It hints to the reality that conversion to a faith or vice versa can be a painful and difficult experience.

   The numerous testimonies of theist-turned-atheists are good examples of late. Just as Saul's road to Damascus was difficult, the conversion of fundamentalist pastors like John Luftus, Dan Barker and Jerry Dewitt to humanists and atheists can be equally arduous.

 I believe that the conversion experience is a complicated one. Very often, an atheist can become a theist for the same reason that a theist can become an atheist. And I think the most common reason is the paradox of suffering: If God is all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing, why is there suffering of the most gratuitous kind? This question has plagued many for centuries and books have been written about it for centuries and still there's no satisfying answer to that question.

   Take for example, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. He lost his faith in the death camps of Birkenau and Auschwitz.

   In his memoir, he narrated a heartbreaking incident where a child and two other men were accused and tortured to death for sabotaging the prison camp. The focus is on the young boy. If you have the stomach for it, here is what he wrote:-

  "One day, as we returned from work, we saw three gallows...Roll call. The SS surrounding us, machine guns aimed at us: the usual ritual. Three prisoners in chains - among there, the little pipel (boy). The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in his shadow of the gallows...

  The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chair. In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks.

  "Long live liberty!" shouted the two men. But the boy was silent.

 "Where is merciful God, where he He?" someone behind me was asking.
   At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over...

   Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing.

  And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.

   Behind me, I heard the same man asking: "For God's sake, where is God?"

  And from within me (Elie Wiesel), I heard a voice answer: "Where is HE? There is where - hanging here from this gallows...""

  Of course, most theist-turned-atheists would not have experienced such raw, painful and visceral event as did Wiesel, but they do have their own personal trials that gradually eroded their faith like drops of water slowly chipping off a huge rock.

  But I am just bringing up the inexpressible and sometimes insoluble conflict in the hearts of men who either affirm or denounce their faith. It is something that most will not fully understand because life and suffering and faith always pull us in unexpected directions.

    But, having said all that, it is pertinent to bear in your heart that the cross, the archetype of all brutal suffering, is the foundational reason many came to the faith. Here's just a few: Martin Luther, Simone Weil, CS Lewis, John Stott, and Alister McGrath.

   Quite puzzlingly, Martin Luther once said that "Living, even dying and being damned, makes a theologian, not understanding, reading or speculating."

  Alister McGrath latched on to Luther's terse statement and wrote this in his book Mere Theology: "The cross alone is our theology...The cross puts everything to the test."

   McGrath understood the cross as this: "the issue is not primarily how can we explain suffering - which is there, whether we like it or not - but how can we cope with it, and how can God use it to enable us to grow into stronger, better people."

  I guess that's why Simone Weil once said, "The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use for it."

   McGrath wrote that:" Luther reminds us that many aspects of that landscape remains shrouded in darkness, and that many find themselves called to walk in those shadowlands."

   He also distilled CS Lewis' conversion experience by adding: "Lewis is right: theology gives us a lens through which we can interpret the world, making sense of its ordering and its enigmas. Luther is also right: theology enables us to journey through darkness and despair. Its lens may sometimes yield a picture that appears quite out of focus, but not being able to view a picture clearly does not mean there is no picture to see."

  At this juncture, this question is timely: Have you journeyed through your own shadowland? Is your picture of faith a tad out of focus? Incomplete? Blurry? That's the blindsight of faith. It is also the dark-side of disbelief.

   Many took the same journey and did an about-turn when confronted by it. Somehow, I can understand why.

   But, by saying I understand the why does not mean I do not question the why not? That is, Why not suffering? Is a life devoid of sufferings a life of guaranteed faith and growth? The coin indeed has two sides: doubt and faith. Sometimes, it is simply the preponderance of one over another, just that slight tilt, that determines which face the coin eventually lands.

   The irony is not in the abandonment of faith, I think, it is the abandonment of the quest (in our own shadowland). One friend of mine once said: "An unexamined faith is not worth having."

   Let me end with this: there is a saying that is going around in my head recently and it is this: "NOW we see through a glass darkly. THEN, face to face." I recall a Biblical equivalent to that and it is this: "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning." (Ps. 30:5). Cheers out!