November 30, 2009 by D Stack
This is a kind of metaphysical post, more to clarify my own beliefs since I talk often enough about religion and my Catholic faith. So it can be freely ignored. And I make no apologies if I wind up contradicting myself – I’m trying to put into words what is outside of my limited human understanding.
I’m a practicing Catholic, something which sometimes amazes my atheist and agnostic friends. But truth to tell my personal beliefs are more complicated than that. And I would imagine that is true of most people.
To start off, why do I believe in anything? I’m an engineer by training, I’ve taken lots of science classes in college, I respect the scientific method. Yet I fall back to a belief in something magical. Why?
To be honest, I’m familiar with the evolution and accept it. I can accept that complex molecule chains eventually formed what we consider life. I see it as possible that we’re all a bunch of chimps who lost our trees and found something else to do with our dexterous fingers and brains built for calculating maneuvering in trees. I’m familiar with astronomy, the creation of the solar system, the big bang. And I can accept a scientific explanation for every one of those details.
But then I come up against a wall. Why? Not why is there life. But why is there anything. Where did the matter and energy for the big bang come from? Matter and energy cannot be created, only changed. And why is there time? To put it “simply”, why is there existence?
To explain that I need something that is beyond our frame of reference, of time and space as we know it. I call it God. But I think most religions, at best, have an extremely limited vision of God. Including my own. We try to put into words something beyond our comprehension of space and time. But we’re like amoebas trying to understand nuclear fusion or living in a 2-dimensional reality trying to understand a 3rd dimension. It is just beyond any frame of reference we can imagine. I’ve heard someone say that not every religion can be right. They probably aren’t, but that doesn’t preclude more than one from being right. Consider a quadratic equation – an equation for which there are two solutions, both different yet both correct. Then picture us trying to comprehend the infinite. We cannot. We can only see pieces of it and try to interpret as best we can.
And unavoidably this means we frame things to a human reference. How could we not? Christians refer to God the Father – Father of the entire universe. Think about the vastness of this approximation? But what better could we do? I’ve been working my way through Karen Armstrong’s recent work, The Case for God examines how human civilization has created religions and what those religions attempt to explain. She doesn’t knock religious life and ceremonies but seems to suggest they are integral to our humanity, heightening our perception of the mystery of creation. What she does knock, interestingly, are both religious and atheist “fundamentalism” – the absolute need to impose your worldview on others.
So why be a Christian? Well, to be honest it is how I was raised. I’d probably be quite comfortable being a Muslim, Jewish, or part of any other religion, though I rebel against fundamentalism whatever the creed. This isn’t to say I don’t see inspiration in the various holy books, but if divinely revealed, they were transcribed by humans. When you come down to it, most beliefs have a lot in common with how they suggest you live your life.
- Do love.
- Do not hate.
Most things can be boiled down to that. Strip away the commandments. Take away the ritual. What did Jesus talk about? In none of the four gospels (all of which written well after his death) does Jesus get worked up about human sexuality beyond proclaiming marriage should be eternal. But he still spoke with adulterers, divorced people. He told people to love their enemies. And he lived that life. Everything else is ritual. And while ritual does have its place for humanity, we get too worked up over things. While the God of the Old Testament ordered genocide, our understanding of good and evil has progressed beyond that. I think the Onion put it well in their first post 9/11 issue in the article God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule –
“I don’t care what faith you are, everybody’s been making this same mistake since the dawn of time,” God said. “The Muslims massacre the Hindus, the Hindus massacre the Muslims. The Buddhists, everybody massacres the Buddhists. The Jews, don’t even get me started on the hardline, right-wing, Meir Kahane-loving Israeli nationalists, man. And the Christians? You people believe in a Messiah who says, ‘Turn the other cheek,’ but you’ve been killing everybody you can get your hands on since the Crusades.”
Growing increasingly wrathful, God continued: “Can’t you people see? What are you, morons? There are a ton of different religious traditions out there, and different cultures worship Me in different ways. But the basic message is always the same: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Shintoism… every religious belief system under the sun, they all say you’re supposed to love your neighbors, folks! It’s not that hard a concept to grasp.”
“Why would you think I’d want anything else? Humans don’t need religion or God as an excuse to kill each other—you’ve been doing that without any help from Me since you were freaking apes!” God said. “The whole point of believing in God is to have a higher standard of behavior. How obvious can you get?”
“I’m talking to all of you, here!” continued God, His voice rising to a shout. “Do you hear Me? I don’t want you to kill anybody. I’m against it, across the board. How many times do I have to say it? Don’t kill each other anymore—ever! I’m fucking serious!”
Upon completing His outburst, God fell silent, standing quietly at the podium for several moments. Then, witnesses reported, God’s shoulders began to shake, and He wept.
One of the best analogs to understand different religions that I know of is to view God or whatever lies beyond our comprehension as a giant bright gem. There is no angle from which we can see it all but we can’t reposition ourselves. So we explain it as best we can.
Ms. Armstrong’s book, while very readable, is at the same time challenging. Accepting that the ritual around religion is of our own making, but still can be beneficial. It’s a contradiction but it also fits my understanding of the universe. I think my beliefs are “right”. But at the same time I don’t think others are “wrong”. Indeed, I can simultaneously accept lack of belief as another way of explaining this mystery, for my view of God is so nebulous that a scientific explanation can be incorporated as part of it, just a science that I think is beyond human understanding, possibly ever. But I really don’t think that any God will hate us because of our inability to fully grasp concepts beyond our ability to comprehend.
What about good and evil? I do believe in them and I think God is good. But I think even here our understanding is an approximation. We ask why there is suffering while at the same time contemplating the infinite. I don’t want to suffer, I fear pain and death, I worry about my kids while at the same time staring at the infinite, of which this life is but a drop in the bucket. But it is all we know and all we can judge by. And I think that any God knows that. And while suffering may be transitory, at the same time the choice to inflict suffering – or to allow someone to suffer when it can be alleviated – I think those are evil. And I think my Christian beliefs are consistent with that. And when I see my own faith being inconsistent, I disagree with it. Maybe that makes me “not a real Catholic”. But I think it is human to apply our own understanding and beliefs to our religions. But do it out of love. And truth to tell, if this life is it, there is no afterlife, that makes life all the more sacred and the call to do good all the more vital, for in such a case the only life after death is what we leave behind, in the form of our descendants and the society we leave behind.