Fragments and Ghosts

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

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To start with one interesting and perhaps unobvious example, the theories produced by the emerging discourse of subaltern studies can be very helpful, I found, in understanding the experiential shift of being inside and outside of faith communities. Beginning in the middle 1980s, the subaltern studies group attempted to transport the insights of Antonio Gramsci into rural India, not by writing a traditional "history from below" or incorporating disenfranchised Indians into existing paradigms, but rather, as Gyan Prakash articulates it, by repeatedly demonstrating that the process of including the forgotten must always fail. Throughout the last 15 years, these projects have called into question secular universalisms of the dominant culture, and insisted that the inability of the subaltern to represent itself in Western rational terms is an illustration of the limitation of those terms. These scholars argue that the subaltern is intractable and resides outside dominant culture, that peasant mentality remains outside the field of reason. Their goal is not to reinscribe the subaltern into the ruling discourse, but to disable the power of dominance.

In his exceptional work in the field, Dipesh Chakrabarty is keenly aware of the damage done to a culture when religious events are treated by scholars - in this case historians - in non-religious terms. Because the concept of "history" must be made universal in order to fit everywhere, supernatural activity must be overlooked in all historical narratives. People may think a God acts, but the historian and the anthropologist must begin with the assumption that God(s) actually do not act. As Chakrabarty claims:

a secular subject like history faces many problems in handling imaginations in which gods, spirits, or the supernatural have agency in the world. Secular histories are produced usually by ignoring the signs of divine or superhuman presences. In effect, we have two systems of thought, one in which the world is ultimately disenchanted and the other in which humans are not the only meaningful agents. For the purpose of writing history, the first system, the secular, translates the second into itself. (Chakrabarty 1997: 35)

This translation, according to Chakrabarty, uses the seemingly neutral universalism of secular society to express and mediate the world, and thus renders the reality of the subaltern, once again, unspeakable. A metanarrative of non-transcendence is inadvertently applied and people are robbed of the shape of their world. Because "claims about agency on behalf of the religious, the supernatural, the divine, and the ghostly have to be mediated in terms of this universal" we can never accurately portray the lived reality of those inside the religious worldview (Chakrabarty 1997: 39). Our commitments to secular realities and truths diminish and dilute the world of gods and spirits. As Chakrabarty claims, "[t]he moment we think of the world as disenchanted, we set limits to the ways the past can be narrated" (Chakrabarty 1997: 51).

Although this review of subalternity is too brief, I mean only to demonstrate here that the academy has an awareness that religious worldviews differ from dominant secular worldviews. And to my thinking, the tension between the subaltern and dominant history is analogous to the difference between belief and non-belief. For a person of faith, spirits and gods operate in history; for a person who has lost her faith, such assertions seem implausible. In one setting, the world is almost magical, operating under the whims and desires of benevolent or malevolent unseen but palpable forces; in another, the world is rational, operating under the rules and forces of nature, science, objectivity, repeatability. Examining the differences between these two worldviews is a helpful way of capturing what it feels like to lose faith. The world you lived in before, where God operated as a force in your life, seems unrepresentable in the new language. No set of reason-based mechanisms or functions take the place of that potential; fate, desire, power, ambition, and even hope, fall short of adequately portraying the world before. The shape of life inside religious belief is, as subaltern studies theorizes, unrepresentable in secular terms.

A second and unrelated body of literature that has helped me process my own shift in faith has been the genre of memoir. In the last ten years, public intellectuals have become less interested in making abstract arguments that apply universally, and have taken up instead the project of examining, discovering, and revealing who they are and why. Few general-reader books are written today void of the author's presence. Memoirs bring high advances from publishers. Narrating life seems of utmost importance. In an essay examining "The Memoir Boom," Vivian Gornick declares, "[o]ur age is characterized by a need to testify . . . Urgency seems to attach itself to the idea of a tale told directly from life" (Gornick 1996: 3). Or, as Ruth Behar puts it, "autobiography has emerged, for better or worse, as the key form of storytelling in our time, with everyone doing it from Shirley MacLaine to Colin Powell to professors of French and psychiatry" (Behar 1996: 26). And, religion, it seems, has played a part in almost everyone's story, or to be more accurate, confessing rejection or loss of religion often constitutes an essential component of coming of age.

In many of these stories, coherence becomes fixed on the narrating/narrated subject itself; the loss of belief (and/or the assessment of damages incurred as a result of that belief) become the glue that holds the subject together. Where once - in an individual's childhood - the center of one's life was provided by religious discourse, and where once - in a certain historical moment - reason provided a clear foundation for human existence, now neither holds us together. The result is a new, postmodern, self-help-driven subject who coheres around any story she is able to cobble together. Thus, memoir becomes the activity which reconciles us with loss and memory.

While many recent best-selling memoirs deal with loss and religion from interesting perspectives (including Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, 1996 and Mary Karr's The Liar's Club, 1995), two books stand out for me as sophisticated and sagacious models for wrestling with the holes left by intensely religious childhoods. Kim Barnes' In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country (1996) is the story of a young girl raised within a Pentecostal community in rural Idaho, and Barbara Wilson's Blue Windows: A Christian Science Childhood (1997) is the story of another young girl raised within the pre-modern, faith-healing world of Mary Baker Eddy. What both stories do so well is capture the ways that faith can shape the heart and soul, as well as describe the emptiness that remains when faith fails.

Into the Wilderness begins in the logging camps of rural Idaho, where a young Kim Barnes and her family lead a poor but relatively happy communal existence, where the costs of Christianity live in balance with the benefits. In her early childhood, logging is prosperous enough to keep the extended family afloat, but by the time she is twelve, the industry begins to fail, the extended family departs for city life, and Barnes is left in the woods with only her immediate family and the impending threat of religious fanaticism. Although her mother has been the dominant spiritual force of the family throughout childhood, it is Barnes' father who takes up religion with a vengeance during this time.

Given his life - the seemingly haphazard set of circumstances and catastrophes that had beset his family - the sterile reasoning of an all-knowing God negated the need to question. What comfort it must have seemed for a man and his family come to the wilderness, escaping whatever demons that had threatened to destroy them. What he believes is that it was the Spirit that spoke to him, that it was my mother's faith and prayers that led him to pick up the Bible she had left on the table and begin reading the words that would change and direct his life. (K. Barnes 1996: 50-1)

The family works hard to accommodate themselves to, and even participate in, the father's conversion. They denounce worldliness, pray constantly, and intensify their awareness of all spiritual matters. Involving themselves deeply in a small non-denominationalist, charismatic country church (one which had a long history of ferocious but problematic leadership), the family falls deeper into the grips of fanaticism, and the teenage girl is forced to repress and hide her emerging sexuality and personality in order to dodge the label of evil. She is sexually abused and simultaneously blamed for that abuse, denied basic human dignity during adolescence, sent away and punished severely. She is able to look back on these years from her perch of adulthood and conclude that although religion had its attractions, she is better off without it.

Barbara Wilson grows up during the same period on the West Coast in a family committed to Christian Science beliefs. Blue Windows chronicles the life of a daughter to an observant Christian Science mother, who suffered first from prolonged and disturbing mental illness, and later from breast cancer. In keeping with her religious convictions, Wilson's mother refused all medical treatment, relying instead on practitioners (faith healers). Wilson is intrigued by Christian Science, in part because its teachings dominated her mother's life, in part because Mary Baker Eddy's teaching now seems to serve as a backdrop for many components of New Age religion, in part because she once believed it and remembers its intensity. As she writes:

Christian Science is a religion that still secretly intrigues me, if only because of how completely different its world is than almost anything I'd come across since. I may have only understood it with a child's understanding, but I knew that it was far more than just about going or not going to the doctor. It was a far stranger, far more complex system of beliefs that turned reality on its head, that said that only spirit existed, not matter; that there was only good in the world, not evil. It was a belief system that based its power to heal on keeping the mind fixed firmly on God, who was all-powerful and all-loving. It was choosing to see only beauty and happiness, no matter what. (Wilson 1997: 7)

Wilson knows that, although many of the beliefs of Christian Science now seem ridiculous, she once thought they were true, and that her past has left her with the desire to explore the religion not as a participant, but not as a total apostate either. In describing someone she once met who also grew up as a Christian Scientist, Wilson says "she absolutely loathed the religion, and would pinch together her mouth to show the prissy expression her mother got when she was expounding Mrs Eddy's principles. I never dared talk about Christian Science with her. She had clearly never believed a word of it; she had never been fooled like me, or like my mother" (Wilson 1997: 8). Wilson craves an audience who will appreciate the worth and value of such a religion, while at the same time condemning, with her, the harms incurred by such harshness and rigidity, an audience who will be both understanding and critical. In the end, this desire is met by leaving, by declaring her life as outside the fold, outside the possibility of all belief. "I knew that once I let go of this God, this God of my childhood, I would not be able to believe in another one. And that meant I would cease to believe . . . And one day, when I was worn out and lying on my back on the floor, the simple thought crossed my mind, 'There is no God.' And that was that" (Wilson 1997: 286, 288).

The structure of both these narratives is similar; Barnes and Wilson are fascinated with their religious roots, and are attracted, at some level, to the way their respective religions made them feel as if they belonged, as if they were set apart from the world, as if they were special, as if they were saved. As Barnes recalls:

I remember the call. I have felt the purging and radiating calm of being born again. I have spoken in tongues, have healed and been healed. I have seen demons cast out and watched a man live forty days without food. I remember these things without doubt, beyond reason . . . Even now, more than two decades later, I can still remember feeling saved, pulled from the brink of hell. (K. Barnes 1996: 256)

However, both writers experience a rupture with intense religiosity - a rupture based on politics, on the improbability of narrative, on problems with sexuality and gender, and on someone else's misuse of power - a rupture which drives them to the higher ground of individualism, to undefined greater power, or to the process of memoir itself. Both once were "found," and now are "lost," and write to us of the relative benefits of the latter. For both, although a lot is lost in the loss of religion - things like security, belonging, salvation, love - the benefits of freedom outweigh the costs.

There is much to be said for the Ur-narrative that celebrates the joys of being released from some of the bizarre strictures that often accompany religion. Although Duke Divinity School is a far cry from backwoods fundamentalism or Christian Science, the idea that educated Christians would be so censorious of my choice of partners that they would want me fired from my job seemed deeply problematic. I read both In the Wilderness and Blue Windows after the Divinity School incident, and found a great deal of comfort in being divided, disconnected, and detached from such a patently troubled institution. At the time, their stories comforted me, told me that my lack of faith was for the better. Whatever I would become without religion, I would be better off than if I stayed.

In recent rereadings of these memoirs, however, a new problem emerges for me in their attempt to reconcile themselves to their intensely religious childhoods, for Barnes and Wilson (and many others) end up with an all-or-nothing approach to religion. While these authors can at some level appreciate how that background contributed to who they became, there is no way for them to locate even a small part of themselves inside the plausibility structures of the worlds they have rejected. Coping with the intensity requires distance. Religion demands of us an all-or-nothing attitude, we are either in or out. One person can only occupy one truth at any given time. Although people can change, they must change as a unified subject, they must say "I once believed and now I don't." We are required to write our stories either as participants in a faith community (as Sex and the Church was written) or as outsiders, to audiences that may remember religion, but are not now comfortable embracing it (In the Wilderness and Blue Windows).

This same "all-or-nothing" problem of unified subjectivity also haunts subaltern studies, it seems to me. Once the subaltern becomes the least bit imbricated in a system of dominance, that dominance reinscribes the entire life. After all, one cannot be an illiterate peasant part-time, one cannot long for the magical world of spirits once the discourse of Western rationality has been installed.1 Thus, any given individual must be either inside the system (and engage in practices that signify such membership - such as avoiding dancing or doctoring), or outside and takes on the world as a rational, reasonable being. Doing either half-way or part-time only makes you look foolish from both perspectives.

The problem with this approach is that it does not accurately reflect the way I feel in losing my faith. It was and is a much more jagged process, an uneven development. I find myself longing for things I no longer believe in, believing in things that seem patently absurd. (A friend of mine and fellow dog-lover said to me recently that she doesn't believe in God but she does believe in a God that sends people the perfect dog for them; I realized that this incoherence was exactly how I feel about most issues of belief today.) While, on the one hand, Christianity has wounded me beyond repair, on the other I can't just will myself to stop seeing the world in Christianity's terms. To be fair, these memoirs -especially Wilson's - understand that the loss of faith is a process; indeed her story is itself a sort of exploration of alternative spiritual paths, new ways of retaining the good things about spirituality and creativity2 Nevertheless, for marketing purposes she has to declare herself as a unified person who stands in a different place than self-identified Christian Scientists, in much the same way that I have to declare myself here as having "lost my faith." What I need is a theory of subjectivity that would allow me to be two contradictory things at the same time, that would allow me to say "I believe" and "I don't" in a way that does not require coherent explanation. I need a theory that will allow me to be fragmented, not as a temporary stopgap measure until I figure out where I will end up, but a theory that will allow me to understand myself as divided, now and forever. I need a model that does not obligate me to be only one, unified person, that does not rest its idea of subjectivity on Enlightenment individuality, that sees fragmentation as a natural state and not one to be worked through.

While the work of any number of scholars from Michel Foucault to Gloria Anzaldua could be invoked here, one of the most insightful new approaches to human fragmentation, I believe, can be found in the work of cultural studies and queer theorist Elspeth Probyn. Despite the fact that concepts such as fragmented identity, multiple identification, and performativity have become part of the vocabulary of everyday life for many academics, few scholars actually attempt to describe the experiences associated with these ideas. What does it actually feel like to be divided against ourselves, to be aware of the multiple and contradictory discourses running through us and constructing us differently at different moments? In her Outside Belongings (1996), Probyn not only describes the ways that multiple belongings work inside us, she also cogently argues that the desires associated with the movement from one identity to another are themselves constitutive of social engagement. Thus, the various fragmentations and incoherencies that exist inside of us produce new ways of being; in standing here and desiring to be there, we imagine new possibilities, become new people. As she puts it:

desire is productive; it is what oils the social; it produces the pleats and the folds which constitute the social surface we live on. It is through and with desire that we figure relations of proximity to others and other forms of sociality. It is what remakes the social as a dynamic proposition, for if we live within a grid or network of different points, we live through the desire to make them connect differently. (Probyn 1996: 13)

Thus, it is not simply the case that we belong in different and sometimes contradictory places, but rather that these belongings circulate within us and produce desires which constitute who - precisely - we are.

Probyn's work is part of the tradition of scholarship that argues that pleasure cannot and should not be boxed in along the lines of any one single identity, orientation, or membership. According to her, for example, the very desire that produces an interest in sexual pleasure is often stifled and repressed by the unnecessarily narrow boundaries of sexual identity. Probyn recapitulates with ease the jumble of desires that roil around in her - riding horses, loving women, speaking French, traveling, collecting, singing - taken together, her writing conjures the way she (and we) are projected forward by our desires to be and belong right now here (but later there). Thus, throughout her work, Probyn demonstrates how "the inbetweenness of belonging, of belonging not in some deep authentic way but belonging in constant movement" actually functions productively (Probyn 1996: 19). In showing that we need not live our lives within the boundaries of sexual, gender, ethnic, religious, or nationalist categories, she illustrates how the specificities of our identifications and desires spill over the boundaries of any single classification.

The work of Avery Gordon also helps to illustrate that all of the fragmented pieces of a person's subjectivity do not operate on the same plane of awareness. People forget and remember, are unaware of the things that drive their desires, lose sight of the things that matter, are captured by things they can't explain. This crisis in self-awareness is compatible with Probyn's view of fragmentation, but also goes beyond it. As Gordon explains:

At the core of the postmodern field or scene is a crisis in representation, a fracture in the epistemological regime of modernity, a regime that rested on the reality effect of social change. Such a predicament has led to, among other consequences, an understanding that the practices of writing, analysis, and investigation, whether of social or cultural material, constitute less a scientifically positive project than a cultural practice that organizes particular rituals of storytelling told by situated individuals. (A. Gordon 1997: 10)

Gordon calls these new understandings of social life "hauntings," a concept which attempts to capture the anti-positivist ideas that things are not always what they seem, that buried interpretations often emerge without warning, old stories linger. In her Ghostly Matters (1997), Gordon claims that hauntings are an ever-present part of postmodern subjectivity; as she articulates, "haunting is a constituent element of modern social life. It is neither premodern superstition nor individual psychosis; it is a generalizable social phenomenon of great import" (A. Gordon 1997: 7). For her, the presence of ideas, thoughts, motivations, desires, etc., that seem, at one level, absent, marks the emergence of postmodernism. "The ghost or the apparition is one form by which something lost, or barely visible, or seemingly not there to our supposedly well-trained eyes, makes itself known or apparent to us, in its own way, of course" (A. Gordon 1997: 8). Thus, according to Gordon, circulating inside of us with all those fragments of identities and memberships are also ghosts and apparitions of former and forgotten interpretations and lifestyles that, of course, have their own agendas for us as well.

I find Probyn and Gordon helpful in thinking about my predicament in a number of ways. Probyn's description feels like the way I experience things. That is, even when I called myself a Christian, I was never only that; I was also a feminist, a lesbian, a southerner, an animal-lover, a sci-fi fan, etc. All these identities circulated inside of me and informed one another, producing sometimes exciting critiques, and other times almost devastating inconsistencies. What Probyn's version of fragmentation theory enables me to understand is that such internal dissimilarity is all that ever happens with anyone, that productivity depends on movement from one desire to another (and that perhaps some people are better at normalizing paradoxes than others). Gordon's work adds to this an awareness that our physical practices and our bodily responses are not always fully governed by what we think we believe, but by "ghosts" of former and other understandings. For me, then, just because at one level I feel I have left the church, that leaving does not mean that the ghosts of former interpretations have necessarily disappeared. This insight matches my experience well: still today, several years after leaving, when I feel scared about something I (almost involuntarily) pray, when I am anxious I hear a voice that says God will provide, when I face something that seems insurmountable I remember (and I ask myself, is remembering the right verb?) that with God, all things are possible. The ghosts embedded in these thoughts and practices continue to circulate in my life, even though I would like them to be gone. Probyn and Gordon both help me explain why religion is not just a part of my past, but also a part of my present. At an almost physical level of flesh and emotions, the church constitutes and constructs a part of who I am, and no amount of rejection or willful apostasy can ever alter that.

So, for purposes of clarity, let me recap. I am drawn to the all-or-nothing narratives of subaltern studies and the memoirs reviewed here, because they seem absolutely true to my experience; they enable me to say to you "I have lost my faith." Sometimes. I am comforted by the stories that tell me that leaving the church will lead me to a more fulfilling, less oppressive life. Sometimes. I enjoy my new life in Women's Studies and the secular academy where being a lesbian is pretty much a non-issue and where I think I understand the rules of the game. Sometimes. I enjoy the feeling of being a whole, secular subject and enjoy projecting that wholeness into my future. Sometimes. Other times, I miss the church terribly. Feel lost without the reconciling wholeness it once offered me. Other times, I notice religious impulses hidden deep inside me, almost as if they were located in my bones. My desire for God sometimes feels beyond my rational control. So what I really need, it occurs to me, is not simply an explanation that says "I am a fragmented subject that is both religious and secular," but rather a three-dimensional theory that will sometimes allow me to be always and only secular, and other times will allow me to see myself as divided, fragmented, and perpetually confused.

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