Sunday, May 13, 2012

A personal aside about my religious experience, Dante, and Ayn Rand

     Those who had known me for a long time might have been surprised when I converted to Christianity, and was a practicing Christian for a number of years. I had up until that time been a rather intense atheist for most of my life.  My first doubts about God occured when I was around 11 or 12.  I had a brief period of some kind of belief around 15-16, and then returned to atheism around 17.  I stayed an atheist until my mid-30s.  How did this conversion happen? Why?

     I have asked myself this question over the last number of years.  The closest I can come to an answer is that the first influence was Dante.  I spent several years, starting around 1999, virtually obsessed with this Florentine poet.  His powerful writing spoke to me, a man in middle age,  feeling somewhat lost, wondering how I had arrived at the position I was in.  What did I believe in? What would become of me?

     I was also irritated by the smug arrogance I saw about me in the Academy.   Once again the folks I detested the most were the Ayn Randians, those who had had everything given to them and somehow took the credit for it themselves.  There were also arrogant, and even authoritarian, liberals. 

     Could I be one of their number?  No.  Instead, I bathed myself in the literary criticism of Dante.  I wished fervently that I had gone into the humanities rather than mathematics, so I could  spend my days reading and contemplating these artistic beauties.  The effect of Dante was very emotional. 

     For some time I harbored a desire to become a Catholic so I could disappear into this for the rest of my life.  It was a very intense kind of escapism at a time in my life when I didn't know what was going to happen next.  It also provided an escape from my detached colleagues.  I suppose many other mathy types escape into gaming; I escaped into Dante.  I went so far as to buy a rosarie and sleep with it wrapped around my hand.

     When we moved to our current locale I wanted to join a Catholic Church and indulge myself in its aesthetic.  As timing would have it, the very Sunday we visited the priest had to admit that one of the other priests, a teacher at the school attached to the church, had been accused of abusing some of the children.

     Then we visited a local Mennonite church.  The people were gentle, sincere,  and humble. They dressed plainly, and they were pacifists.  They were an interesting subculture to which I had never been exposed.  They were, and are, in many ways the exact opposite of the effete types I had been around.  I found it a breath of fresh air.  It has its own quiet, plain aesthetic, the opposite of Catholicism in many ways, but one that could be very deeply felt.  I found everything from their simple way of speaking to their food extremely charming. 

     There I met men who dressed roughly, who rode motorcycles, and who  worked construction, but who turned the other cheek and displayed rare kindness.  It was a jolt to my expectations in which I revelled.  I found myself drawing toward this way of life. 

    The only damn problem I had was intellectual.  I did everything I could to defend the faith in my own mind, but deep down I knew better. I wanted to be one of them so much.   They weren't Catholic, but they were capable of instilling many of the same feelings in me and I still reread Dante often. 

     Slowly this fever started to break.  I found that the constant pressure from my intellect had worn away at the fantasy I was trying so hard to live.  Now I have abandoned my faith and find myself in the world again. I suspect the desire for escape will resurge at some point.  What will become of me then?

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