Almost a week ago I came across a blog post that an associate of mine shared on Facebook. The post, written by Patheos
blogger Ryan Bell, was entitled “Watch Me Unravel
“. Here, Bell discusses the ‘unraveling’ experience of one’s whole world view of ultimate concern coming undone and the temptation of nihilism that comes along with it. These grand and over-arching narratives are the myths in which we live by. As author Daniel Quinn makes clear, “A culture,” is nothing more than “a people enacting a story”. These ‘stories’ provide us with the means of describing and defining who and what we are, how it all works, and what it all means. In some cases they are the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves to make ourselves believe. And when these stories, these narratives, these world views come apart at the seams it is the deepest agony of existential angst. It is the feeling Nietzsche described of the Earth being unchained from its sun, moving where we know not, “Backwards, sideward, forward, in all directions…plunging continually,” not knowing up from down, “straying as through an infinite nothing,” set adrift on an infinitely boundless sea of an horizonless ocean without an objective or ultimate guide, without an absolute or supreme compass. To quote Qoholeth, it is “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly Meaningless!”.
Bell explains his own process of coming undone. Brought on by the severe “cognitive dissonance” of his irreconcilable and incongruent religious worldview, Bell began the arduously paradigmatic undertaking of unraveling; moving from fundamentalist to liberal Christianity, and beyond, eventually arriving at a kind of humanistic post-theism.
My initial thought after reading Bell’s blog was “This is my story!” My own experience of dissonant unraveling is a mirrored parallel to that outlined by Bell. I grew up, born and raised, completely enmeshed by the pentecostal/charismatic brand of Christian religious fundamentalism, though something always seemed a miss and askew in my relationship with this community but, I knew nothing else. The older I grew, the more I probed, until my questions became bigger than the confines of such a devoutly conservative sect. When I could no longer ethically align myself with the theology and soteriology of this fundamentalist church I made my exodus. I briefly experimented with forming something of a house church. A small group of individuals would meet at my home every other week with the distinct and determined purpose of reexamining, reevaluating, and critically analyzing our faith. It was a constant struggle and it fell apart almost as quickly as it came together. I chalked it up to my own lack of knowledge and so I made the decision to go back to school to study religion. About this time I made my way to a very liberal ‘open and affirming’ UCC church. I was reading voraciously, New Testament scholarship, Biblical criticism, theology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and the list goes on and on. I made a special connection with the UCC pastor and under his recommendation I began studying process theology, himself being a rather committed process person. This was a refreshing perspective at the time and I began to adopt a more panentheistic approach. Still my questioning continued never completely satisfied by any theological position I came across. Finally, it occurred to me that all these divergent theologies were complex and elaborate attempts to make the ‘God’ idea plausibly functional. I began to think that if it took such an extreme amount of effort to make the concept of God work, then perhaps it simply wasn’t an idea worth keeping, perhaps it simply didn’t work. Thus, I began to seriously explore atheism and at last this made sense, this truly resonated with me deeply, it was like coming home.
Obviously, Bell’s story not only struck me but, also stuck with me. I commented to the post with the following response:
“The unraveling I’ve come to embrace and even appreciate, I’ve also come to accept and understand pessimism and nihilism as valid and conducive philosophical positions. However, what continues to be a great difficulty is the lonely and isolated placelessness.”
To which a Facebook friend commented in kind, saying:
” I have been able to “re-knit” the yarn into a humanist/naturalist worldview that, while it doesn’t provide much optimism, there still are small glimpses of hope interspersed. The “sweater” I’m reconstructing is helping me to value each day more, knowing that time is a precious commodity.”
Since then I’ve not only continued to ponder the post but, also the comments above.
I sympathize with these sentiments and yet, I remain skeptical of “re-knitting”. These ‘knitted’ or ‘woven’ “sweater” worldviews, even when reconstructed from the remnants of an un-threaded system, still seem to maintain the scent or lingering specter of what Lacan refers to as the Big Other. Here, two other blog posts I read recently touch and expand upon this point: the first by philosopher Levi Paul Bryant simply titled “Atheism” and the second, “I Believe in Gods” by Kester Brewin.
Bryant explains that for him atheism is not “a thesis about religion,” nor is it “a thesis about the supernatural or the magical or the divine,” but rather “a thesis about masters.” Bryant explains that ‘atheism’ is ” a rejection of all masters, whether they be divinities, kings, fathers, mothers, intellectual figures we fawn over; anything raised over the rest.” “Atheism,” then, Bryant writes “is the recognition that there is no being, divine of otherwise, that is deserving of the place of master or sovereign.” In this regard, Bryant details that what atheism positively affirms is “a commitment to fraternity and sorority and other unheard of ways of relating to humans and nonhumans on a flat plane“.
Thus, Bryant elaborates that “atheism” is not simply “a synonym for that which rejects myth and magic” but, “is a synonym for anarchism, that which is without arche or sovereign…it is a synonym for those that would fight any would-be gods, whether they be divinities or fathers or kings of leaders.” Therefore, Bryant concludes that “Atheism targets not so much an end to divinities…as an end to fathers, kings, mothers, and masters…It wills only an egalitarianism of actors.”
Likewise, Brewin acknowledges that we are surrounded and inundated by the the ecosystem of Big Other systems, saying that “all around us are people who are living in service of and devotion to gods,” that is, what Bryant calls “masters” and the “worldviews” Bell analogously references as being ‘sweater-like’. Here, Brewin, too, proposes an anarchistic, bottom-up criticism from below which resists, rejects, and revolts against “the dehumanising demands of divinity” and “the systems that we have put ourselves in service of,” stating that “the most human thing we can do – and thus, paradoxically, the most godly – is to lay down our devotion to these gods” and to actively seek “the death of all gods.” Perhaps, we should, as Nietzsche suggested, philosophize with a hammer.
This raises several questions for me: isn’t every ‘weaving’ or ‘re-weaving/re-knitting’ of a ‘sweater/worldview’ an act of constructing yet another master, god, or Big Other? And, if so, wouldn’t any ‘sweater’ I could construct or knit deserve to be unraveled?
Perhaps, it is better, or at least more honest, to simply sit Shivah among the strands, falling fallow amidst the frayed, fragmented, and fractured fibers.
Perhaps, we should theologize with scissors.
Perhaps we should devote ourselves to what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “the art of suffering.”
Perhaps, we should learn what Rob Bell has termed “the art of failure”.
Perhaps, we should adopt what is known in Navajo culture as the practice of ch’ihonit’i
. The word translates to mean “there is an exit; there is an outlet; there is a way out”. In the Navajo weaving tradition chi’ihonit’i
is what Jill Ahlberg Yohe
defines as a “purposeful mistake,” in which the weaver purposefully leaves or creates a flaw in the piece, such as an unfinished or frayed corner. It is believed that this creates an outlet or an exit for the spirit that gave rise to its construction to escape; it is not pigeonholed to the piece,not constrained by the construct. As Yohe explains that this practice simultaneously materializes “the positive attributes of human imperfection and humility,” while also creating “a symbolic path for the survival of the weaving tradition to continue into the future.” This culture proposes that perfection is not something to be desired or even sought, as it is ultimately a negation of our humanity.
Perhaps, everything we construct should be purposefully flawed. Perhaps everything we do should intentionally fail and fall short.
Perhaps, every ‘sweater’ knit should be deliberately frayed and prone to unravel.
This is our outlet, our exit, our escape, our means or making sure that whatever Big other, be it god, master, father, mother, ‘sweater’, worldview, that we are unconsciously serving, which may have even inspired our constructs, can be exorcised. And we are allowed to always remain open to the process of a new, continual, and perhaps even an infinite and indefinite unraveling.