I woke up at 3am in a sweat; my mind flailing about in all directions – disconcertingly ungrounded. If there’s one sure fire way to ensure that I have nightmares, it’s to drift off to sleep with God on my mind.
Why was I thinking about God? I can’t pinpoint a particular catalyst for it – most likely it’s just what happens when I lie in bed late at night before going to sleep. When I stop thinking about all those things I think about when awake (and I’m always thinking when awake) I suppose my mind either has to do something to put that suddenly free capacity to use, or else it has the time to ‘see the big picture’ and hence drifts naturally towards questions of the eternal and of divinity.
The real issue, I think, that caused the nightmare, within which everyone I knew was aware of the secret thoughts in my head, was the sense of being under constant surveillance. I think it goes hand-in-hand with thinking too much about an omniscient and omnipresent God. It’s quite a totalising idea, that something can see and know everything you are thinking at any given time, and it’s almost certainly what primed me for my nightmare.
So as I slid down into sleep I was aware of my mind, my very thoughts, being under surveillance by an inescapable divine being. I’m casting this all in a very negative light but the point is that this is what I was thinking and feeling. But why?
I think it goes furthest back to the evangelical Christian conception of God that was, quite willingly, inculcated into me over a number of years through the church I attended. I would now reject a whole category of the assumptions and conclusions that organisation taught, for it generally reached it’s answers off the back of a very rigid reading (note – not an interpretation; The Bible doesn’t get interpreted it just gets ‘read’, quite a powerful discursive assertion right there) of The Bible as literally the whole, unproblematic Word of God.
Not only do I now feel like that is itself based on a lie of omission (Why is the history of the bible’s canonisation never taught outside of seminaries and bible colleges? How can such a fundamental text to the Christian faith not receive even this bare minimum of scrutiny by its adherents?) but perhaps more importantly I now feel that it has monumentally tainted my minds-eye image of God.
Clearly it’s a functionally impossibility to live your life as if entirely under divine surveillance – if it were religious leaders would probably never fall or fail in the ways that they so predictably do. Certainly the former senior pastor of the church I used to attend would never have had his affairs with secretaries and members of staff over a decade-and-a-half long period. He clearly wasn’t labouring under the impression of divine surveillance during those periods, and on that count can you blame him?
What does it do to the human mind to be aware of being watched 24/7? It seems oddly similar to Orwell’s Big Brother State in 1984 – and no, I don’t care how benevolent the observer(s) are, humans are not meant to live entirely in public. This issue has been highlighted recently by several developments in both the Facebook privacy changes and in the media more generally. It started with Facebook’s contentious privacy settings, and ended with David Campbell being stalked by the Channel 7 news team to a gay sexclub and forced into resignation. The two issues are causatively unrelated, but a common thread of being forced to reveal personal secrets, behaviours and desires to the public underruns both.
Airing David Campbell’s personal sexual preferences on national television, serving no public interest or relevance other than to his wife and immediate family, seemed at the time as though it were just a small part of a larger trend in the media to push everyone everywhere to ‘live in public’, i.e. living as though constantly under surveillance.
The second prong of the uneasiness that caused my nightmare was a sense of being judged by the divine observer. But why did I think this? Again, the internal conception of God built up over the years by my former Church involved an ironclad certainty that if someone was unwilling to acknowledge that Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour then they were condemned to an afterlife of eternal terror.
This is an understandably unappealing prospect, but equally unappealing is the ‘only alternative’ as constructed by the teachers in charge of ‘reading’ The Bible (remember we don’t do interpretation). A dichotomy was created between being an autonomous agent in a world that, to my five senses and ‘God given’ logical faculties, seems otherwise deeply ambivalent to my existence, or to choose to be ‘ruled’ by a sovereign deity. Somehow, the mighty and all-encompassing omniscience of the divine CCTV camera is unable to fit my ambivalence into his schema for the afterlife. Yet, now I think about it, Jesus wasn’t exactly silent on the issue of what happens to those of us unconvinced by the texts of the bible and the sheer existence of the universe alone. I seem to recall that on at least one occasion Jesus was supposed to have said that, about people casting out demons in Jesus name that weren’t part of Jesus’ clique, “if they’re not against us they’re with us.” Yet the church remained dogmatic in it’s insistence on being either saved or unsaved.
Okay, so the above is only true if you believe the Bible is literally true everywhere and on all counts. Heck, not even the Roman Catholics believe this sort of stuff is meant to be taken literally anymore. So why then did my evangelical church seem to think so in the years I attended?
I don’t rightly know – although I have some suspicions, and none of them favourable. And I don’t attend the church anymore so I have no idea if that kind of attitude is as prevalent as it used to be. Nevertheless – if I’m any indication, those of us who attended throughout this period are probably forever and indelibly influenced and impacted by this kind of thinking.
I guess I’m writing about it here because it’s therapeutic and it helps to get it out of my system. I also don’t particularly want to have any future nightmares either. I’ll spare you an exposition of any particular theology, but there’s probably a case to be made that one can’t ‘unlearn’ the past without having something new to replace it. And in that regard I’ve still got quite a bit of learning (and unlearning) to do.