Category Archives: Religion

As Far As I Know

conversation-with-godYou won’t hear me talk about God much. I think about Him or Her or It—sometimes obsessively—but generally don’t know what might be reasonable or useful to say. We each have some vision of who God might be and what God might want from humanity and for humanity. Yet others’ notions seem clearer than my own. Mostly I want to avoid fighting. Too many of us are ready to argue, even battle, over ideas of God that, to me, seem fundamentally unknowable. We contest distinctions that, by their definition and by our nature, elude human understanding.

I’m not saying others’ beliefs are fiction, mind you, just that I wonder how we can know if they are or aren’t. For me, the gulf between belief and verity is too wide to bridge. The devout fill me with wonder and—when their perspective fosters tranquility and love and understanding and tolerance and higher purpose and goodness in the world, I’m envious. I honor their faith and appreciate how much God and religion mean in their lives. However, the question of how they know what they know never leaves me. When zealots’ confidence leads to saying I, and everyone else, should think as they do, I balk. I hold very few views assuredly enough to urge them on anyone else.

Atheists who say there is no God at all seem equally bullish.

The Catholic church helped raise me, taught me Biblical narratives, instructed me on the proper way to live, and coded perspectives that are probably too deep to sort out. However, I’m not a Catholic now, partly because my churchgoing habits waned and partly because all churches appear so vividly human to me. Their stories are human stories—if they were divine they might be incomprehensible—and something desperate lurks in them, some affirmation, justification, or rationalization that, had it come simply from ourselves, wouldn’t possess the gravity and consequence needed to influence others.

If there is a God responsible for the immense order, chaos, and beauty of the universe, I’m sure He or She or It occupies a space we can’t grasp. I read a science fiction novel recently that centered around “Hypotheticals,” responsible for an immense, verifiable change in the operation of the planet. One of the main characters was very ill and the narrator, his friend, lamented that the Hypotheticals did nothing to spare him. The main character replied,

I don’t blame them. They don’t know what’s happening to me. I’m under their threshold of abstraction… you and I, Tyler, we’re communities of living cells, yes? And if you damaged a sufficient number of my cells I would die, you would have murdered me. But if we shake hands, and I lose a few skin cells in the process, neither of us even notices the loss. It’s invisible. We live at a certain level of abstraction; we interact as bodies, not cell colonies. The same is true of the Hypotheticals. They inhabit a larger universe than we do…

Getting enlightenment from science fiction embarrasses me, but I have to admit this speech—clumsy as it is—resonates with me. It makes sense that any God would live on a level of abstraction above our cellular one. Any God holds a vision so broad our narrow lives could see only an infinitesimal sliver of it.

There’s no knowing, after all, whether you and I even live in the same world. We see from one perspective with our peculiarly human sensory apparatus. It’s logical we’d believe, as any sane person must, we’re looking at reality. Yet, though you may tell me I’m mistaken and I might say the same to you, neither of us possesses an infallible means to convince the other.

We are trapped on this human-sized scale. DNA travels with us, might shout at us all day and, though we’ve learned to scope inward and outward great distances, we still may regard DNA as separate from ourselves, apart when, really, we share the same space. We understand it differently, DNA and I, but who’s to say who’s right, or if “right” is an actual thing at all.

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The Trouble With Belief

02C63D43DA01429AB0C4B1E2D38FE38CIn college, friends would sometimes say, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” Had I been the scoffing sort then, I might have grilled them to discover what they meant.

Instead, I said, “Me too.”

Now, as then, not even that is accurate. I’m not sure I accept spirit. Belief comes hard for me. I have to scratch it from the reluctant clay of reason, one assertion and another and another. If I can agree something is so then something else might be, which means something else… and so on. My hands are full of supposition, taking no shape but what a mind can form of it.

In my classes, I sometimes suggest a distinction between recognition and realization. One is chiefly rational and the other emotional. Macbeth can consider the consequences of killing King Duncan. He can outline the reasons he shouldn’t and balance them against the plan proposed by his wife. In other words, he can recognize the meaning of the murder, completely and coldly. Not until he kills Duncan, however, does he feel what he’s done and sag under its gravity. His realization awaits the marriage of reason and emotion.

Belief for me has been largely recognition.

I’d prefer realization.

Recently a friend sent me an illuminating e-mail. I’d been talking, in a figurative sense, about getting most of my exercise from kicking myself around the block, and she suggested one fundamental need addressed by religion is explaining a person’s existence. Faith justifies the presence of a self and self-awareness, accounts for the burden of living and presents validation greater than any available by pure cognition.

It sounds complicated (and perhaps I haven’t understood her), but it makes a sort of sense. If you want to find a place, you have to believe in something bigger than the space you occupy. No fantasy, no mental castle in the air, no rational palace, will house you for long.

In July, in an avowed “Book report,” David Brooks wrote of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age that, in an age of humanistic rather than religious experience, we experience many benefits, yet:

…these achievements also led to more morally demanding lives for everybody, believer and nonbeliever. Instead of just fitting docilely into a place in the cosmos, the good person in secular society is called upon to construct a life in the universe. She’s called on to exercise all her strength.

This shift in consciousness leads to some serious downsides. When faith is a matter of personal choice, even believers experience much more doubt. As James K.A. Smith of Comment Magazine, who was generous enough to share his superb manuscript of a book on Taylor, put it, “We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now.”

I’m certainly Thomas. I think often of joining the local Buddhist temple because its belief comes closest to my thinking. The trouble is acting. The trouble is lying down before what seems constructed—one of many choices. Doubt lingers nearby, whispering, “Is this it?”

Life seemed much easier when I could call myself “spiritual” without commitment. It was plain. Now, the afternoon dims to gray, and my mind slips into its wake, equally low and dim in a calm welcome to diminishment and silence. “This,” I think, “is religious. I’m somewhere outside myself now.” Then some definition gathers in my brain, and the moment passes.

If I could hold, as people did in 1500, the fundamental assumption of God, that moment might last. But we don’t live then, and what rumination will bring me back? That part of my brain doesn’t talk enough. It keeps peace a secret.


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