Gustav Doré 'Illustration for Paradise Lost 1866'
Gustav Doré ‘Illustration for Paradise Lost 1866’

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.

—Milton, Paradise Lost

For the first ten years of my life, I went to church twice every Sunday—a Korean-speaking one on the Upper East Side in the morning, and an English-speaking one in Times Square after lunch. My mother preferred the pastor of the English church and my father was an elder at the Korean one, so the only way to observe the Sabbath without splitting up the family was to attend both services each week. I grew up thinking that this was a perfectly normal Sunday routine. My parents would lure me and my brother out of bed at 7:30am on these days with the promise of Apple Jacks cereal—orange and green bait that they kept locked in the cupboard and restocked until our tastes gradually changed in middle school. They would part our hair in straight lines and pull our limbs through starched clothing before driving us in our booster seats from one church to the next. (Love is patient, love is kind, my mother recited from her book of devotions, and my father aimed a great honk at the car up front that dallied at the green light.) My brother and I were always the most formally dressed at both of our Sunday schools. I remember staring at flashing Sketchers from where I sat, constrained by blistery black shoes and hair ribbons that came undone if I tried to keep pace with the other children—but if I ever protested, my parents would simply fold their hands and say that we were paying our due respects to God.

The messages of our two Sunday schools were relatively similar, and thanks to the repetition, my brother and I became familiar with the core concepts of Christianity much faster than did most of our peers. I remember grasping, even at our young age, that beneath the myriad baffling and fantastical Bible stories we read were just varied iterations of “Jesus loves you,” or “Kneel and repent, children! For your time is short, and He wearies of your iniquities.” I remember a blue banner above the door of the English church that read, “Jesus Christ Is Risen.” It was only after I’d outgrown Apple Jacks and imaginary friends that I began to understand the full implications of this epithet. I remember undertaking the holy task of imagining Him—crossing the Sea of Galilee in a wooden boat and leather sandals, turning the water in clay jars into wine, and now here, resurrected but invisible, residing in my soul—and how difficult this imagining was! Under my Von Dutch hats I sweated from all the effort. For I had to make Him in my mind as you would any dead man, who has lost all the proofs and constituent parts of his existence, and has to be achieved entirely within you. And within me there was hardly any room; between my crushes, terror of math class, and prepubescent capacity for thought, even the most Almighty Being in the universe had to shrink and shrink and shrink to fit its surroundings. But most of all, I remember the small, silent movement of my brother’s eyelids, which would sink down over his eyes at both Sunday schools like a broken venetian blind.

Then came puberty. We moved to Hong Kong and I sang for my new youth group’s worship team almost every week, knobbly and nervous. I would recite the songs and stare at the crowd, which at particularly poignant sections (“You are hoooooly, hoooooly,”) would open all of its mouths and wave its dozen hands at me. Hormones and angst had made me devout. No matter what happened at school, at church I was respected; in a small community like E—, to hold a title of any kind conferred some distinction, so that the “sets” we played and which Bible verses they were based on formed the daily burden of my talk at home. And how I read my Bible! Front to back, happily, my mind reeling with the hope of Heaven—an abstraction that had finally condensed within me, taking on pointed, geometric shapes between my organs with the incompressible transparency of a diamond.

In college, I joined a Christian fellowship group as well as a Christian a capella group, and continued to read the Bible and pray for 45 minutes every evening before going to sleep. Towards the end of my freshman year, a particularly sardonic professor I’d come to admire summarized the New Testament in a lecture that I’d been anticipating for several weeks. He started in medias res, with the teachings of Jesus. After explaining the Beatitudes, he paused, and then exclaimed through his wiry white beard, “Now if you believed that, I have some real estate to sell you.” It was the most sacrilegious hour I’d ever spent. “Might is right!” he’d proclaimed, half in jest, banging his fist three times on the lecture stand. “It does not pay to be meek.” That lecture marked the first time I’d ever heard a real explication of the atheist perspective—for ridicule, I knew, was the deepest form of atheism. I was shaken, but learned after conducting a desperate investigation into the professor’s past that he’d had a strict Orthodox Jewish upbringing, and after abandoning his faith was now a leading scholar of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Perhaps, I thought, his motives are impure. So I was unnerved but not undone, and my perceptions remained entangled in that golden mesh for a little while longer.

The very last reading we were assigned for this class was none other than Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. In this treatise, Nietzsche claims, “Language […] misconceives all effects as conditioned by something that causes effects, by a ‘subject.’” In other words, there is no real separation between doer and deed. According to Nietzsche, it was the linguistic idea that strength can be separated from the strong that first gave birth to morality—the idea that the strong can actually abandon their strength and preserve the weak thereby. Morality, in short, is nothing but a form of guilt that the weak have imposed upon the strong, a sense of shame at innate human ability and instincts. Man is taught to suppress his natural desires (for sex, territory, power, etc.), and is even taught to feel disgust at his natural functions; “the joy and innocence of the animal life itself has become repugnant to him—so that he sometimes holds his nose in his own presence,” just as Martin Luther’s first epiphany (that only faith in Jesus Christ can purify the intrinsic filth of mankind) came to him during a particularly painful experience on the toilet seat. The concept of God, Nietzsche argues, was born as an ideal, the absolute antithesis of our animal instincts; and we interpret these instincts as a form of self-flagellating guilt before God.

“We’ve been so exposed to the Christian idea of salvation that we no longer question its logic,” said the professor during his final lecture on Nietzsche. I will paraphrase the rest: “Let us now do some cognitive acrobatics and really examine it. Because language artificially allows us to separate the subject from the action, we are able to separate our ‘sins,’ our actions, from ourselves, and then place them onto a third party, who in this case was born 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, Israel. This third party somehow takes the actions of all mankind onto himself, dies, descends to hell, and then resurrects himself, having left these actions behind in hell… How strange it all sounds now, and how life-denying! For with that simple operation, done at one time in one place, we are all ‘cleansed’ of our human nature forever.”

Three years later, I decided to revisit this lecture and stopped by the office hours of another Nietzsche professor, who is a self-proclaimed Christian, to ask him about his faith. His response was not one I’d expected. After a brief search behind his desk, he handed me a copy of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which admonishes the post-revolutionary French government and praises the rule of tradition. Burke argues that it is impossible for an individual to come up with many generations’ worth of moral insight on his own, and that it is more prudent for him to follow the accrued wisdom of his ancestors. The professor was acting in accordance with this philosophy.  Since he was born into a Protestant household, he decided to submit to the Protestant tenets. But even then, he submits only to the ones that have survived a great winnowing—those he has plucked out from the Bible, examined, and deemed wise and relevant to the modern day. “And if—if there is an absolute truth,”—he paused here to gesture at the religious tomes on the shelves behind him—“I believe that every religion is its own cultural and historical approximation towards that truth. And since we have no definitive way of knowing which religion is ‘correct,’”—here, he paused to make bunny ears—“we must consult tradition and use our own judgment when forming the values we live by.” Ultimately, he recognizes that the Bible is a flawed document that was written, compiled and edited over thousands of years by very flawed men, but also that there is some value in what it teaches. “Perhaps ‘God’ just represents an idea,” he said, lifting a bunny-ear hand to adjust his wire-framed glasses. “Most religions teach peace, and if Jesus is what he claimed to be, then he is just the figurative ‘son’ of this kind of idea.”

That night, for the first time, I tried to fall asleep without praying. My room was completely silent; it was a strangely feeble, prickling silence, as if a wound were healing. I thought back to the week before, when I’d been assigned “A Conjectural Beginning of Human History” for another class. In this essay, Kant argues that the stories in the book of Genesis are purely allegorical; for instance, Eve’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit was meant to symbolize the end of our enslavement to animal instinct, and movement towards human reason, or “free will.” By choosing to eat, Eve was able to learn that her instincts, which had bristled at the fruit but ultimately succumbed to her will, could be overruled. Kant then recounts the tale of Cain the farmer and Abel the shepherd, which he maintains was a just-so story for how agriculture “killed” our species’ formerly nomadic lifestyle. Perhaps, suggests Kant, the entire Bible is an apologue, not at all to be taken literally; perhaps the stories in it are mere myths that mask a manual for the survival and prosperity of the human race, a purpose that arguably underlies all religious texts. Three years of university education have pried open my fingers and stolen away my faith; I no longer hold the belief that my steps are guided, that there is an Omnipotent Being who had envisioned a Grand Purpose for me before I was even born. On that first night of no prayer, I felt unsteady; I had been left with exactly as much to stand on as a tin soldier has beneath his feet. But was this how freedom—to waver and then to fall into new streams of consciousness, to float past the footholds—was this how it was meant to feel? Wasn’t there supposed to be—a kind of ecstasy? I know nothing, really, yet—only that I’ve fallen in, and that the waters have refracted all the straight and narrow paths ahead.