Nevada Barr’s book “Seeking Enlightenment, Hat by Hat” has a few interesting turns. I mentioned it in a review a few weeks ago.
The subtitle of her book is “A Skeptic’s Path to Religion”. She describes herself as a skeptic before she started attending an Episcopal (Anglican) church. The path to religion is gradual, and there is no radical conversion. Her faith is neither fundamentalist or socially conservative. Her attitudes and opinions shifted, but she is still very much a modern American woman, with a modern feminist sensibility. Her religion is integrated with other sources of moral influence. Her faith is filled with doubt. She seems to have more faith in the solidarity of the church than in any visualized personal encounter with Jesus.
She starts her story with a story of depression and personal pain. She doesn’t say that she started going to church as part of psychotherapy for depression, but her initial encounter with religion sounds like part of a therapeutic program. She sought other people with other values to add a missing dimension to her life. That makes sense. Spirituality, like psychology, offers help in dealing with existential anxiety. The systems of getting insight into one’s life, ending isolation and finding meaning in life through healthy action and engagement have much in common. (I should limit that to spirituality within the less esoteric religious traditions and clinical psychology rather than transformational pop psychology).
The early influences in her life were not supportive of involvement with a church. She describes her father as one of those people who might admit to a sense of connection with the divine through nature, but who was skeptical of people who subscribed to a systematic form of religious practice. She locates her other values in the values of the 60’s – skeptical of authority, wrapped up in her own feelings. The intense experiences of her life were social and sexual – the power of her own attractiveness to men, the intoxication of intimacy and sex. She says of herself and her first husband that they worshipped each other like gods.
She doesn’t claim to find anything nearly as intense in religion. She finds instead a different pace of life, a respect for stability, experience and common sense, a skepticism of intensity as a legitimate indicator of the value of an experience. She found her original values to have been incomplete. While religious experiences are not as intense, they educate her to different values that are more complete and satisfying.
What she seems to say is that the values she learned in her family, in school and in society did not make her a bad person, but they denied the value of listening to the common sense and wisdom of people who have have lived long enough to be skeptical of using emotion and intuition as the cornerstones of discernment. In her early life, she followed her feelings. She looked for drama in her personal life and judged the value of experience by intuition and the intense emotions she felt. Her life was therefore full of personal drama, and sad and anxious.