It's a strange crossroads that I've found myself. It all started last week when I received a text message seemingly out of the blue from my stepmother. She had been looking at something online and I guess decided that she should suggest I check out William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith. I told her that I was well aware of the man and his arguments and I received in reply the "I'm worried about your eternal soul" conversation only that she used the word "future" instead of "eternal soul", but that wasn't the only thing amended to that conversation.
For those of you who don't know, my sister was murdered by her abusive ex-boyfriend and father of her two children in June of 2011. My father and step-mother have adopted and are taking care of the children. I was asked, albeit after I was told that my "influence" on the children had my step-mother worried, what I would say to my niece if she asked me where my sister now resided. I ignored the impulse to argue over whether we had souls or not and that her question implied that we did, and I ignored the impulse to toss out a snarky quip like, "well I hope she's in the coffin where we left her!" and decided that I would address the question with seriousness and diplomacy, because I could tell that she was sincere and concerned. I said, "the truth. No one really knows, but a lot of people think they do." The conversation continued for a little bit longer, but she cut it off with a I-believe-because-I-feel-it's-true that I'm sure we all know well, and of course, as these conversations go there was also the "I'm only asking because I love you," and the, "I'll pray for you."
(If for some reason I have given you the impression that my step-mother is anything less than super-fantastic, ignore it. She is legitimately one of the best people I know. I wouldn't have even mentioned this conversation, taxing as these conversations can be and worthy of complaint, except for the fact that it is relevant to the second part.)
Fast forward to Sunday. I'm at my dad's house to visit as I often do especially since the kids have been sick, and he pulls me aside in the kitchen. He says that he saw the message (that's normal behavior for the two of them by the way; anything said to one is said to the other) and that he had to disagree with one point, the fact that I said "no one knows." He started off with an, "I know," and repeated it for emphasis what felt like six more times, but was probably once. He then started into a lecture where I quickly realized that he had misconstrued me saying that no one knows what happens to an hypothetical soul after it is hypothetically disassociated from it's hypothetically mortal, hypothetical form, to mean that no one knows for sure whether a divine creator being, in this case the Judeo-Christian God, actually exists.
I sucked down every desire to tell him that no, we have so much stacked against an omni-scient/present/benevolent/potent god who is personally involved in every bipedal, sentient, Earth-living primate's life and who first revealed himself to men who were works of fiction and myth from Bronze-age goat herders that assimilated other cultural traditions into their own religion that gave rise to a Hellenized version of that same religion based on dubious accounts of someone that may possibly be a fictionalized version of an actual person if he ever really existed, which only came to prominence after a Roman Emperor used his religious associations to conduct a political power grab... and then things get worse over the next 1500 years such that I can say with little doubt as imaginably possible that your specific god does not exist. If it were instead some divine creator being that does not match that description or better yet, some unknowable, cosmic being then I could say, "yeah, maybe that's out there." As you can imagine since I love my father and want to keep that relationship, I haven't said any of that or anything close to it. Ever. So I did what I normally do. I listened. What he told we was unexpectedly revealing.
The day my sister died, my father and step-mother were in Texas. He has a small cabin on a lake that he was fixing up that his father left him. In the frenzy that followed, they finally managed to get on a plane short notice back home. It was there in the quiet of the flight sitting by himself that he finally faced whatever it was that laid in his psyche, and he was terrified of it. He could feel his faith crumbling away as he was questioning how a loving god could allow such a cruel fate. So he begged god, "just send me a sign. If you are real and everything is going to be ok, then send me a sign." He then preceded to stare out his window for an undetermined amount of time looking at a giant swath of plushy cumulus clouds through his smart phone camera while zooming in and out.
Somehow, I know none of you will be surprised as I tell you that he found exactly what he was looking for.
In one of the clouds, he swears up and down that he saw my sister's face, half of it covered and sideways as if napping on a overstuffed pillow. He took a picture. He took several pictures. He showed them to people at the funeral. I don't think anyone else saw what he was seeing. It was such a sad sight like watching a three legged dog limping. At some point after he finds his "sign," he feels a profound sense of peace and reassurance and he's no longer thinking all the terrible things of earlier.
He didn't tell me this whole story again on Sunday, I'd heard it a while back and he even wrote a 20 page narrative about the situation, but he did allude to it as his "experience." This experience was so profound for him that he knew beyond any shadow of any doubt that there was a god. I asked him mostly because I was curious, if he could then fault me for not believing like he did because I had never had a similar experience. He got that cock-sure, superior grin on his face and nodded saying that yes, he could fault me for not believing after hearing his story. He felt his story was so compelling that anyone who heard it should automatically convert. It's like he had hit me in the face with a sledgehammer. I knew that at that moment, my father was undeniably a zealot.
Did I mention that just before this he called himself rational and logical then went on to say that the reason he knew was because of something he felt was profoundly irrational and illogical? Well, that happened, too. I let it slide as I tried valiantly to maintain my balance and not give one inkling to my desire to smack myself open-palmed with such force that I would have a physical concussion to match my metaphorical one.
I got to thinking of the whole situation later that night, because I can explain his whole "experience" without having to include the supernatural not that it's likely I'll ever tell him that or that he'll accept my logical and rational explanation to his seemingly illogical and irrational explanation if ever I should tell him. What I realized that night was that day on the plane, he in the midst of an existential crisis as well as facing a tremendous amount of grief and psychological pain instead of facing it, shoved it aside to pretend it didn't exist. As far as I can tell from what I have seen and what I have been told, he has not openly grieved my sister's death nor does he say he feels any do to his "experience," although he has manifested some peculiar behavior in regards to my sister from time to time. I took that as him grieving in his own way, yet I'm now haunted by the idea that it may signal a man who is desperately trying not to grieve.
He has built his entire worldview around his religious experience, and has made that religious experience a fundamental part of his identity. If for some reason like say he becomes reflective about past regrets as he recognizes the boundary of his own mortality and he rediscovers that grief, everything could potentially come crumbling down in an instant. I don't know that he'll be able to handle it. Suicide is 6 times higher in men than women. One of his older brothers killed himself when my father was about 10. He comes from a culture where men don't talk about their feelings, so I'm really concerned about his mental health. Right now, he's doing well. He's been getting by with few issues. Conceivably, it could go on for this way indefinitely. For my father, if I am correct about this situation, and I should stipulate that to great effect, if I am right about what he is going through, then continuing to believe may be the best thing for him, at least for the near future. It might be broken, but if it still runs, then maybe I should try to keep it running? Maybe I'll just let it run it's course?
Of course, I fully realize that I could be misreading the situation. What I take for signs of acute grief, may just be some strange behavioral quirks that are part of our new normal. Some people don't really grieve. I didn't have much to deal with, but then I'm a fairly resilient individual. My father by his own words was grieving tremendously... and then it ended like someone flipped a switch. That doesn't strike me as healthy and is to me the strongest indicator that all is not right.
In the end, I just don't know. If I am right, then not attending to his emotions sooner rather than later will be worse for him, that is if he ever has to attend to them. He could go on deluded until he dies and the problem will solve itself. As far as I see it, if I'm wrong, then there's nothing to worry about, but if I'm right, then I've got an emotional time-bomb I might have to figure out how to defuse. But I still don't know if I'm right or not. I can say that I've never wanted to be more wrong. it would be so much easier to be wrong in this instance than right. I guess I'll just have to keep doing what I have been doing: keeping quiet and paying attention.