I am a naturally anxious person. Given the large role that anxiety has played in my life, as I now see, I’m embarrassed to say I only realized this fact recently. A therapist gave me some helpful advice: Be on guard, every day, for occasions in your life that produce anxiety. Every day, he said, given my particular programming and hardwiring, there will be opportunities for my anxiety to express itself—loudly. Every day!
Yet I’m still surprised when anxiety comes. It sneaks up on me nearly every time—so much for standing guard! But when it comes, at least—after a requisite amount of panic—I am able to say, “There you are, old friend. Welcome back.” And the anxiety becomes less menacing and more cartoonish. I can see it for what it is, in all of its irrational glory.
An archival post this week by Will McDavid at the Mockingbird website has also helped me. He traces the epidemic of anxiety in our culture to our modern, scientific worldview. As he explains in the post, modernity has given us extravagant confidence in our ability to perceive reality: This worldview tells us that everything we can know about reality, we can know through our five senses—and our emotions. Descartes had something to do with it, which you can read about in the post.
The bottom line is this:
There is now in place a law of perception – for something to be real, we must grasp it fully. Subordinating truth to the measure of the knowing subject—haven’t we all been there? ‘Prove it!’, or “I just have to see it for myself” are expressions of our need to experience truth directly; in a church setting, this often means a need to feel something during the Eucharist, or a need to feel close to God. To say we can be close to God without feeling that way is a gracious word, but to us a counterintuitive one.
How different, McDavid writes, is the biblical worldview. As David writes in Psalm 139 (emphasis McDavid’s):
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
The Psalmist not only asserts God’s geographical omnipresence, but also he discusses God’s omnipresence with regard to human perception. David’s meaning of “darkness” here likely includes times of suffering and personal hardship in which God may not seem to be present or active, as in John of the Cross’s “Dark Night” of the soul. Although the Psalmist perceives only darkness, he can nonetheless objectively confirm and be comforted by the fact of God’s equal presence in that which seems darkness and that which seems light.
The psalmist can “objectively confirm and be comforted by the fact of God’s equal presence in that which seems darkness and that which seems light.” That’s what I need! The obstacle that most often impedes my ability to do this, however, is a tendency toward what McDavid calls a “fetishization of emotionally knowable spiritual experience.” While I’m not Pentecostal, I tend to think that spiritual reality is true only inasmuch as I feel it.
As I’ve blogged about before, I fall victim to the scheme that Uncle Screwtape describes to his nephew Wormwood:
Whenever they are attending to Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the actions of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.[†]
† C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 195.