Conflicted identities: More musings on the POE

The problem of evil (henceforth POE) is a philosophical issue that I find intriguing, even though (to a degree) I do think that the satisfactoriness of any solution is going to be marginal if only because of the emotional weight the problem bears. A former professor of mine, Dr. James Sennett, is often quoted by John Loftus of Debunking Christianity as expressing the sentiment that if the problem of evil doesn’t keep students up at night, they aren’t thinking about it enough. I tend to think this is a fairly true statement, and I find myself coming to the topic for this same reason.

However, I think there are issues peripheral to the problem of evil that deserve attention for their very real impact on theism and its acceptance (or non-acceptance).

It seems an almost inherent part of humanity to latch onto certain aspects of our identity as ingrained and beyond our control to avoid. (Yes, there’s probably a slight paradox in that statement.) We look at ourselves (“introspect”) and find things that we either feel are impossible to change or that we would not want to change for fear of being someone other than we are. (Thought-provoking question: If you become someone else, isn’t that still you? Is self, “I”-ness, ego something immutable?)

I asked my mother-in-law once (I forget the context precisely) a question about identity and suggested to her that she would have still been the same person if she had not gotten pregnant with my wife and thus become a mother. Her response to me was that she knew she was born to be a mother. Frankly, it surprised me a bit, since there are very few things I feel I was “born to be” rather than “born and became” – that is, I feel like the things that “define” me now are not things that were determined of me but that happened as a matter of consequence due to the events in my life and the reactions of myself and those around me to them.

I realize, however, that this is not widespread, and many people do find things that they feel are intrinsic to their personality or self. The problem, then, comes when an aspect of one’s identity is (or is perceived to be) in conflict with some aspect of theism.

Some of these considerations fall almost directly into POE categories; for instance, I had a friend once named Dawn who suffered from cerebral palsy, as well as other physical problems that were the result of a very poor home life in her early childhood. It would have been easy for her to conclude negatively for God’s existence given all that she has endured, most especially the disease that she was born with and legitimately could not avoid. (Consequently, she is one of the strongest people I know as a result, a lesson that, repeated in her story and of others I have known, confirms the truth of Romans 5 to me – a verse which is of great consolation to me with the POE.)

Others do not fit so neatly under this heading. One such problem – one that I approach with much fear and trepidation – is with sexuality.

Let’s face it – sex is hard to avoid. Most Christians (myself included) believe that God created humans to be sexual beings, with organs made for the purpose and the command to use them (appropriately, of course). Of course, this is only admitted in most Christian circles within the context of heterosexuality.

So where does that leave those who are somewhere lower (i.e. less heterosexual) on the so-called sexuality spectrum? In my honest opinion, between a rock and a hard place. For most homosexuals, bisexuals, or those with other “abnormal” sexualities, their orientation is very much an inborn part of their identity, a fact (it is supposed) that heterosexuals take for granted with their own sexuality. Whether this is true or not is not in my interest at present; what I am concerned with is the fact that these subgroups of people who may already feel like outcasts because they are not “normal” are going to take any condemnation of that inherent part of their self very seriously.

Suppose then that you are a person who has an attraction to someone of the opposite gender. You also believe theism to be true and that a God did in fact create you with a purpose. Yet those who believe similarly as you do, the people who would be your “in-group” along lines of worldview, say that God cannot have created you with these attractions because they are unnatural (and of course God creating something unnatural is absolutely incoherent). Therefore, your attractions are inherently wrong and should be repented, i.e. you should stop having them. But you feel as though they are out of your control. If you haven’t grasped what kinds of conflicts this would invoke in a person, I would suggest continuing to consider this thought experiment long after you have finished this entry.

Any disenfranchised group is bound to have struggles like this. The Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen expresses an incredibly deep idea with this sentiment in his poem “Yet Do I Marvel”:

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

This poem, in my opinion, speaks on so many levels to the POE, specifically the notion that God’s ways are higher and “inscrutable” by humans with minds incapable of understanding (although Cullen uses this idea ironically, since he is implicitly questioning God’s rationale for allowing evil throughout the entire poem). But in the final couplet of the poem, Cullen turns from a general question of the POE for humans – how we are tempted by things that are bad for us as Tantalus or metaphorically push a boulder up a hill for eternity as Sisyphus – to a specific question that is linked to race, something that Cullen knew he could not change. Speaking to the “black experience” and his experience of being a black poet (especially one that was so interested in traditional styles – like the sonnet form he uses in this poem, very much a “white” form), he explicates the emotion of marvel, awe, wonder, or whatever you would call it that ensues from thoughts about the mystery of this condition.

It is my opinion, then, that the church has a responsibility to try and understand this sense of awe and wonder – especially where it turns negatively into exasperation and helplessness – that comes from issues like this and minister according to it. If theists claim to have an explanation for the way things are, then it will do no good to assert in the faces of such individuals that what they experience is not real. We have to help them try to come to terms with the two things, and where the explanations diverge of self-natures and identity, we must be empathic and not condemn.

It is for this reason that, when given the choice between theism and the quality of self that conflicts, individuals will choose their sense of identity almost every time. Churches may see this as a method of purification by keeping out those whose “lifestyles” conflict with church teaching, but for churches whose mission is the inclusive goal of the Great Commission, it is a malfeasance of duty. How can we minister to a world that needs Christ when we cannot even bother to understand that person’s struggles?

I don’t propose an easy solution to this struggle. What I do propose is a more personal approach to issues, one that avoids legalistic directives and instead recognizes that there is a deeper conflict that deserves a better dialogue to find a resolution if at all possible. And most of all, we need to find ways to display love rather than disgust when we see things that might offend our sensibilities. After all, that’s what Christ did for us.

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