One of my roommates, the other “writer in the family” so to speak, is working on a fascinating story which means a great deal to him. The research he’s doing has prompted him to talk to read the Bible, the Koran, and other texts, and talk to me at length about religion. He himself is a dedicated Humanist and atheist whose disbelief is as strong as my Christianity.
These conversations are both beautiful and frustrating…frustrating for me because every time I offer one reason for my faith, he will spend five or ten minutes presenting a convincing argument against that reason. Indeed, he has become one of my best friends, but we’re reaching a point where I’m starting to feel an annoyance which may be mutual, partly because we’re never going to change each other’s minds…even though there is a lot we agree on while reaching very different conclusions…and partly because I feel my part in the conversation is weak compared to his sureness, although being “sure” is inappropriate language to use concerning faith. Yet I still think my position could be stated clearer.
So I want to put down, and Lent is a particularly wonderful time to do it, why I believe in God. This is not a comprehensive statement; my faith is an evolving journey which has taken great strides in the past decade, and what I believed five years ago is not quite the same as what I believe now. I have been molded by God, by teachers such as C. S. Lewis, Marcus J. Borg, and my ministers, and by my own thinking on the subject. The last part is the most important, because faith is nothing without free will, the choice which YOU ALONE must make to believe or not.
Let me first pose a question: everything from our own biology to the entire universe is increasingly being explained by science, and there is no scientific way to prove the existence of God. How can a rational person believe in God?
It’s an idiotic thing to say I believe in science. Science just IS. Evolution, the expanding universe, the cellular processes, that’s how the natural world works, and anyone who subscribes to Creationism is a bit deluded. (More on why in a minute.) But here’s my question, or more specifically and creditable, Lewis’s question. If there came a day when science could explain and know the entire universe and everything which happens in it, including the other planets out there which support intelligent life, would science explain WHY? Why is there intelligent life and a universe at all? And why do we think about life and existence in the way we do, from a moral point of view?
We already face this in smaller ways. I know that the neurons in my brain spark emotional reactions within me, and that these reactions shape my behavior and with it my morals and values, but I don’t know WHY they do so and why I’m disposed to feel so strongly about certain things in the first place. Why I think about morality and try to live a moral life. Yes, these ideas were handed down to me by parents and authority figures, but where did they come from? Why did we decide these were the right things to do?
Humanists, and I think of the wonderful and eloquent Richard Dawkins in particular, would say that asking for a reason why behind things is of no consequence. But then comes the question: are we as intelligent creatures predisposed to asking the question “why?” And the answer is yes. We have a profound curiosity into motivations behind actions.
This applies to both humanity and the universe.
In the case of humanity, we’ve mapped the genome and analyzed the functions of the brain to almost the last detail, we’ve traced our development of a species back to the beginning of life itself, and we understand sexual reproduction. We know the purely biological so well…and quite a bit about the psychological.
But we still can’t answer those questions about how the mind works so fully, why we act irrationally on the one hand and why we follow a certain morality on the other. Biology and observation don’t explain that.
And physics, chemistry, biology, they’re not enough to explain the universe. Remember the first sentence of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Not the book, but the book within a book? That space is so big that we can’t imagine the full extent of how big it is. With so much of a continually expanding universe undiscovered…we don’t know what’s out there, and what we do know is complex enough as it is. And the universe today is not the same as it will be tomorrow because of the expansion, and what follows in its wake.
The universe and humanity are not simple. Just as the individual is always capable of change and unpredictability, so the universe is drastically complex.
This is the starting point for my faith in God. To quote Lewis again, if the universe was simple and explicable, that would be one thing, but it keeps turning into “something you would not have guessed” in its extraordinary complexity. And human beings…whatever we guess about ourselves and our lives are never certain simply because we are capable of change and growth.
And I do not think I’m making an unfair comparison, because human beings, last time I checked, are part of this universe.
So if the universe is changing, if humanity is changing, is there anything which stays the same?
I think there is…
We learned long ago in our science courses in high school the law of energy: it can neither be created not destroyed. Whatever energy there is has been around since the dawn of the universe and will always be. As human beings, we run on energy, and thus we have the constant in us. That doesn’t mean our forms are unchanging…again, evolution, but what powers our forms is always the same.
The energy connects us to everything in the universe, every star and planet and organism.
Now among humans specifically: as our species evolved, we also grew in numbers from a few beings in Africa to the dominant population of today. Along the way, we also developed from hunter-gatherer clans into politically organized societies. This had to involve growing pains. And since our automatic instinct is to preserve our life, we had every incentive in the world to practice degrees of selfishness, or to try to assume positions of power over others to guarantee we would have resources to foster our existence.
But human beings don’t work precisely that way. The specifics change, Lewis wrote, but the basic morality throughout world history has been the same. We have this idea of right and wrong, that it is right to be fair, honest, and act for the behalf of others, to try to build a lifestyle of what we now would call social justice. And that it is wrong to do the opposite, to live only for ourselves and to enter into conflict over achieving the means to ends beneficial to ourselves.
This morality is understandable when we take a step back if we apply it to our families, in the interest of seeing our significant others and children and parents prosper as long as possible. But complete strangers…that’s another story. We would logically have every reason not to care about their survival. And yet we give, we volunteer, we work on behalf of the public good in business and politics. We create works of art and deep thought accessible to all mankind.
Now let me put these two ideas together.
I do not believe in Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden…that was a very important piece of poetry, but poetry all the same. What I do believe in is that from this original rush of energy and matter, a central being emerged, a being which could give all of it the organization to expand in an unpredictable but natural way, to not have it suddenly collapse on itself.
I do not know how the Supreme Being, who I call God and you may call Allah or Poseidon or anything you so choose, did this. But I believe it happened, partly because of how the universe so unexpectedly works, and also because as long as we go back in time humans with every incentive to be selfish and to put themselves first instead conform to this standard of morality and hold themselves under God.
To borrow a little more language from Lewis, if the universe was entirely senseless and without purpose, why would we all have this idea of a standard of right and wrong? If there is no purpose, standards don’t matter. But the standard exists, and it is a standard which is full of sense. Because the alternative, of selfishness on behalf of you and at best those closest to you, would have caused destruction, chaos, and it has throughout history…any philosophy or system which favors one group over the other, be it the Roman Empire or Nazism, has always ended blood, terror, and loss. The morality we live under, a morality with a guiding principle of loving and being considerate to others, gives the entire species, and I am positive species elsewhere, life.
That we chose, or the vast majority of us choose, to follow this morality, and we have chosen it ever since there were only a few humans scattered on the globe, suggests to me that this idea did not come from some odd conception of our own minds, and that it has a purpose.
Because when Jesus tells us that God is within us, that is not a metaphor! Since we all come from the same energy, we carry a little of the spirit of God in us…the phrase “children of God” is literal to me. And just as my parents have given me love and tried to ensure I grew up into a person who realized his full potential, so God loves us and wants us to realize our full potential. And out full potential is to become more Godly.
In this light, our morality and the entire universe make sense…at least they do to me. The Word of God always comes back to a manner of living which is designed to give every part of His spirit, every living thing, a chance to thrive and live strongly, and to be good to others, to never deny anyone that potential, is to act like God, to love and inspire others.
Again, God did not speak to Adam and Eve, but I do believe He speaks to both individuals and groups of people. Moses, Joshua, David, Samuel, Paul, the Buddha, Muhammad…and there are times He worked signs and wonders, the greatest sign, one so great that really there was no need for any more after it, being the coming of His son, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh…a manifestation of this supreme energy into our own form to better lead us by example.
I believe God speaks to people, and has guided us on the path of morality, because of the essence we share…and that once in a while, we will hear His voice when we are truly listening. And I believe in the immortality of…I call it the soul. But I believe that with this energy in the universe, we can never fully die. Heaven may be a projection of what we imagine it to be, or it may be our consciousness released from the physical body and joining other consciousnesses in the ether around us…I cannot conceive what the afterlife is, just as I cannot conceive such an awesome power as God’s in its fullest form. But I believe in eternal life.
There is one last point I wish to make…the primary guides we have to contemplating God and our purpose are the books: the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, the teachings of the Buddha. These books, if taken literally, are a bit of a mess. The Koran does include affirmations that non-Islams will go to Hell (and yes, I believe in Hell…I’m getting there), and the Book of Leviticus is full of rules which would drive us insane if we tried to follow them today. My very dear friend points out that a text which is part literal and part metaphor is too problematic to accept, and thus that faith in God is too problematic.
Here is my response. First, according to Marcus Borg, so many people see faith as an assent to a belief, a mental proposition. There are three other meanings: trust, fidelity, and a way of seeing the world. What these mean are to trust in the loving God who shaped the universe we live in and passed His word to us, living a life centered on God and this word, and finally, most joyously, seeing the universe as God’s creation and thus seeing it as gracious. Because we are all individuals, we do not experience all of these meanings in the same way, but we can experience them to a comparative degree.
This is not to deny that faith as believing in a mental and somewhat more intelligible proposition is not part of the picture. I wouldn’t proudly say the Nicene Creed on Sundays if so! But when God’s Word is formed into constructs of that sort, they are the work of human beings who are listening to God. And as close as we wish to be to the Almighty…we have the gift of free will.
Free will is absolutely crucial to faith. A world in which an omnipotent God was pulling all the strings would be a world as senseless as one without God. Because if we are to be getting closer and closer to God, we cannot do so unless we can feel the euphoria, the joy, the sorrow, and above all the love which God feels for us. Unless we can tap into our own emotions. If God was in control of everything, we would never get close to such emotions…we’d be following a rigid program, and emotion arises from the spontaneous and unimagined…a human being without free will wouldn’t have an imagination, because there would be no need for one. Why would we have the power to dream and envision endless possibilities if there was no way we could ever act on those thoughts?
So there is free will. But with free will and free thought come the byproducts that our intelligent minds can interpret information given to them, and that we recognize ourselves to be living in certain historical moments, each moment giving different needs and different challenges. The Bible and the other holy books are historical documents, written over time, by people trying to express God’s Word as they saw it applying to the physical world around them, and these documents themselves are open to interpretation by future generations. Hence we have war, oppression, and other destructive acts being performed in God’s name by people who feel that one certain thought expressed at once certain time has to be taken a certain way.
The one unadulterated Word of God comes from Jesus, who was God without mediation through another human, only mediation through the flesh. This is what I believe as a Christian, so others may definitely disagree. But I also believe that people are not damned to hell because they are not Christians, or that they profess themselves to be atheists. Because when Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life,” I believe He was speaking not as the figurehead of a religion which didn’t yet exist, but as God, who…has spoken to different people at different times in different ways, thus proliferating religions.
I do believe in a Hell. That people who separate themselves from the morality that God imparts on us through His word will be confined to a separation from Him. Even as children of God. Remember, Satan was an angel before the fall. Free will gives us the choice to believe in God or not, to separate ourselves from Him or not. We have the choice to cause our own destruction. Lewis wrote that this was worth the risk involved, that it was worth human suffering to give humans the chance to freely experience emotion and intellectual vision, and to put in their power how they acted on it…for I believe that every choice we make in the name of God and the truth of the selfless Word brings us closer to God.
We live in a beautiful world…and yet we are never quite satisfied. We long for something more. The Godly life is what allows us to have access to the more, the greatest more there is.
In reading this over, I know that I have left room for atheists and Humanists to make many objections. This is not a perfect conception by any means…but it is what I have come to believe. And I welcome any comments which will challenge my thinking, make me dig deeper, for a faith without test and reflection is a lesser one. A faith which never changes is a weaker one…for the simplistic image of God we are given as children is nothing compared to the more detailed, more difficult, but infinitely more gracious understanding of God we achieve in trying to grow closer in communion to Him.
My one prayer with this work is that it leads no one astray, and if I am wrong, I ask repentance. For this comes from the heart of someone whose search for God has been ongoing ever since a miraculous night when I was seventeen, and it will never come to an end.
I do not ask that my readers who have doubts and are struggling suddenly believe in God, or even that they agree with me, or even that they disagree respectfully…only that they see this as one more work from a fallible but earnest human.