On a Friday evening more than thirty years ago a group of ORU students gathered in Ben Williams’ dorm room for prayer. Such gatherings were not unusual on “Fellowship,” the name we gave to the orange wing of E.M. Roberts Hall’s 7th floor. Prayer gatherings were not unusual anywhere on the Oral Roberts University campus, for that matter — but what happened to me at this particular prayer session was indeed unusual.
I was born with Amblyopia, and had only blurry vision in my right eye. My parents took me to one of the best eye surgeons available, and I underwent surgery at age 3. I still remember the nurse putting the anesthetic mask over my mouth, and the bright lights and pungent odor of ethyl alcohol in the room right before they knocked me out. After the surgery, my right eye was kept shut until it healed. An old 8MM home movie shows my sister sitting beside me on the couch trying to wink like I could.
After my eye healed, I often had to wear a patch over the left eye to force me to use the right eye, and strengthen it. I hated that patch. It wasn’t a cool, black pirate patch with a rakish strap. No, it had all the charm of a big band-aid, with the same odor and stickiness. The feeling of it sticking to my face engendered a visceral loathing for sticky things that still bothers me.
My right eye did become strong enough to see clearly. But I still suffered from a strabismus, or misalignment, which prevented me from coordinating the pictures from both eyes into a three-dimensional composite. I quickly found that I could switch pictures at will, though, so I learned to compensate by rapidly switching the two pictures to eliminate illusions of flatness. However, I never used that technique to judge distance. Rather, I would observe the geometry of my two-dimensional image — for instance, how much floor was visible between me and the chair. That doesn’t work well for baseballs and other flying objects. My inability to catch and hit became a tiresome joke.
In the dorm room that night, Ben prayed for my eye, the other guys joining him. I opened my eyes, and I was looking out of both of them at the same time, but seeing one picture.
At first, I couldn’t believe it. “Uh, guys,” I said. “I can see out of both eyes!” They looked up at me, and they could see that my eyes were aligned. I could look into their eyes with both of mine, for the first time. Our prayer session ended with much thanksgiving, and generated quite a bit of excitement in our dorm and across the campus.
The next day when I awoke, I went to the mirror. My eyes were still aligned. I felt a sense of relief that it really was true.
Living with this new visual experience proved to be more difficult than I would have imagined. I was not used to a three-dimensional image, which was far more complex and imprecise (so it seemed to me) than a flat image. Reading was particularly hampered by the noise.
Months later, I began to notice that my eye would drift out of alignment again when I wasn’t thinking about it, and I would go back to seeing out of just one eye. But I could easily bring them back into alignment and stereoscopic vision if I thought about it. I didn’t tell my friends about this. They had been so edified by the event, that I didn’t want to bring them down at all by making it anything less than a complete healing. I realize now that I thereby did them (and me) a disservice.
I’ve found that I’m generally more comfortable seeing out of only one eye at a time. But I can still bring them together, with an effort. I do sometimes, just to remind myself what that’s like.
What actually happened to me on that night? I had never been able to coordinate my eyes before. We prayed about that, and then I could. Those are facts, as far as I’m concerned. But the causes are not so easily nailed down. It could be that my inability to align my eyes before was due simply to my strongly held belief that I couldn’t. Believing in a god who heals provided a “reasonable” (and highly emotional) basis for overcoming that mental hurdle. In the words of Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” That hypothesis aligns (excuse the pun) with my subsequent observations that visual coordination required an effort — an effort I didn’t even notice until the initial excitement wore off.
I’m not dogmatic, though. I’ve been through enough changes to know that how I view things today may seem ridiculously obsolete tomorrow. I don’t completely rule out the idea of a divine agent in this story, although in my current view of things that’s more of a choice of metaphor than a substantive difference.
At the time of this event, I called myself a Charismatic Christian. I believed that the Bible was the Word of God, and I studied it assiduously. I read up to thirty chapters a day in multiple translations. I majored in Biblical Literature, and studied Hebrew and Greek in order to be able to get at what the text “really” said. That’s how I found out several things. There is no “true” text. The Bible is highly fallible. Its writers didn’t think the way we do, and certainly not the way modern Christians do. The Bible is a human document that describes a human journey through an evolving mixture of religious beliefs. If there is truth behind it, it isn’t in the words themselves, despite the Hebrew penchant for confusing the two.
Thus, I now call myself a radical agnostic. Agnostic, to me, is different than Atheist in important ways. I’m not just a non-committal atheist. I don’t say “there is no god.” I think that question probably ends up being about definitions, which are after all metaphors (no matter how technically precise). Rather, I say, “I don’t know.” I prefix “radical” to that, because I don’t view this agnosis as a disability. Rather, I think it’s a key facility for remaining open to whatever knowledge and experience may come my way. It’s also a humble recognition that the three-pound meat computer in my head may not even be capable of the accurate representation of trivial things, let alone questions on the order of Life, the Universe, and Everything.