Saturday, November 29, 2008

Faith in the Unbelievable

I don't have time to go in to my whole past today, but I must give you a short recap so that this topic will make some sense. I joined an evangelical church over twenty-eight years ago when I was a desperate young girl with two little children of my own. The church literally raised me and gave me a community and a base from which to rebuild my life. I've come a long way, baby.

Eight years ago I met my future husband. I used a dating service because I was clueless (and I am still clueless) on how to date. In the ways of professional matching services, I was hooked up with a Jehovah's Witness. After all, we are both traditional, non-smoking, non-partying religious people. How incompatible could we be?

Hah! They had no idea about the complexities and sensitivities between the sects. Nevertheless, hubby and I have forged our marriage along it's own idiosyncratic way. We make it work. I must say, our conflicts are frequent and spicy. I'm never bored.

Anyhoo, watching how my husband is guilted and coaxed in to (in my mind) illogical conclusions and behaviors, I've become very interested in how the mind is thereby tricked. I'm reading "Expecting Armageddon - Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy", edited by Jon R. Stone. The book provides a fascinating tour through various end-time sects and how the congregations either fail or reinforce their original belief....even after spectacular failure.

What is it about the mind and human behavior that makes us vulnerable to following a failed belief? On page nineteen, I'm seeing glimmers of the reason. We are hard wired to respond to initiation rituals, "Though 'improvised' the rite of apocalypse combines elements of initiation, mediation, and purification found in other types of ritual behavior...In effect, the acting out of a predicted event represents a ritualized reaffirmation of belief." Even if that belief is proven false.

There must be something deep in our nature that responds to ritual. Ritual can be comforting. I think of our annual events like Christmas and Thanksgiving, and the little family rituals that help us identify ourselves with those we are closest with. It sets us apart, it gives us a memory anchor to hang on to, and it helps us identify with our tribe. The Jehovah's Witnesses spurn the "world"'s rituals, of course. But they've replace them with a pale shadow of their own. There's baptism, the midweek meetings, field service, conventions, and of course the annual memorial. All of these activities help reinforce the group's identity and beliefs. These rituals are a comfort in the face of ongoing disappointment.

My husband hangs on to the belief that Armageddon is just around the corner. He truly believes he will not grow old. Yet the evidence of that failure can be read in the eyes of every senior at the Kingdom Hall. If they had neglected to save for retirement, they are in a desperate place indeed. They speak less often than my husband does of the immenent hope of a new world.