A reflection on the big questions (trigger warning: religious heresy)
Faith is a one word oxymoron. It’s a mystery that contains its own contradiction. Faith requires belief in something that cannot be objectively proven true. Many (most?) people think faith is the absence of doubt, but they’re mistaken. Doubt is a necessary and important component of faith. It’s only when doubt is acknowledged and accepted that true faith develops. Faith necessarily contains both belief and uncertainty - “I don’t know that God exists, but I choose to believe.”
Many people confuse beliefs with facts. Countless others fool themselves into thinking that faith can be forced by fanatical belief. We need to consider not only what we believe, but also why. Belief may be the result of childish ignorance, objective fact, or self-delusion. None of these is faith. Belief can also be a conscious choice, an acknowledgment that truth is elusive and that some things cannot be proven either true or untrue. When we fully accept that we cannot know, but choose to believe anyway, that’s my definition of faith.
Childish ignorance results in an uncritical and unsupported belief system that can result in devastating shock and leave a person adrift when reality intrudes. Ignorance is a primary tool of totalitarian regimes and religious cults. If the flock knows no other reality, then whatever the authorities say is the absolute truth. The ignorant may seem to be blissfully faithful, but they're standing on shifting sands.
We don’t have to believe the objective fact that 2 + 2 = 4, it simply is. Neither is it faith to believe that the sun will come up tomorrow. Sunrise depends only on the sun’s radiance and the Earth’s rotation. It’s an objective fact of celestial mechanics that’s proven true every day. There may be a comfortable warmth in worshiping the morning sun, in welcoming a God who appears on cue, but a rigged game isn’t really faith.
To believe in something that can be proven false isn’t faith either. Following a liar onto the shoals of denial may feel like faith, but it’s merely self-delusion. Embracing a lie leads to a disappointment that eats away the soul, until all that’s left is bitterness, anger, and spite. Willful belief in a demagogue may lead to fanaticism, but it isn’t faith.
Faith can have different objects, but for most of us it’s inextricably bound up with religious beliefs and practices. The basic questions are asked and answered over and over again. Does God exist? What is God's nature? How did we come to exist? What's our purpose? What happens after we die? My own journey with religion and faith revolves around these 'big questions'.
As a child I believed in the fundamentalist teachings of the Missionary Alliance church. I knew with certainty that God is an angry old white man with unruly hair and a flowing beard. Sunday school taught us that His strict moral code punishes sinners and rescues the righteous. Jesus might love the little children, but the fear of God is what really counts. I accepted those teachings as fact, but it wasn’t due to faith. It was merely the naive, childish belief that the adults knew what they were doing.
As a teen I attended Dickey Lake Bible Camp. The days were filled with swimming, hiking, games and crafts, but we also had to attend flag-raising every morning (complete with the pledge of allegiance), and chapel every evening. Chapel consisted of preaching, music, and testifying. Counselors were posted near the doors to prevent any restive lambs from slipping away into the darkness. One hot, sweaty evening I succumbed to the atmosphere and came forward to be ‘born again’. They sold me the certainty of being saved, and I bought into it.
I was certain that if I popped an aneurysm in my bunk that night I’d be lifted up to Heaven on the wings of angels. Being ‘saved’ was an emotional high that made me feel like I was already in the presence of God, but I found I couldn’t stay there. The next day I expected to feel different, to be different, but I was disappointed. No one seemed to notice my newly exalted status. Maybe I should have gotten a cross tattoo on my neck to make it really stand out. I quickly slipped back into all my old habits and by the time I entered high school in the fall, the experience had become more puzzle than answer. I hadn’t found certainty or faith.
As a young man I finally became aware that there are other religions with other beliefs and practices. In my defense, I grew up in an isolated rural area long before the internet or even the pocket calculator. We had only two broadcast TV stations and cable was an urban myth. Today, knowledge is merely a click away, but back then knowledge was difficult to access. A good library was an hour away and I didn’t even know how much I didn’t know. The existence of multiple Gods and forms of devotion came as a shock. It was an even bigger shock to discover multiple images and truths for the same God from the same Book. And I was shaken to realize that my religious experience was limited to the most recent and least 'mainstream' of even those truths. I had to wonder, could any of these mutually exclusive world-views see the one real truth?
In college I was exposed to a multitude of fresh ideas that revealed unexpected new horizons. I discovered science, mathematics, uncensored history, and best of all science fiction. Science fiction expanded my horizons beyond the Earth - to the stars and even to parallel universes and alternate histories. I came to believe in the power of logic, reason, and the scientific method. And I came to the conclusion that Sunday Services were merely a weak attempt to re-create that ‘born-again’ high I felt at Dickie Lake. I became an agnostic and tried to ignore the question of faith.
As my horizons expanded, I came to realize that the trappings of religion are invented by people, not God. I began to understand that most of the practices of religion exist to serve the vested interests of the 'establishment'. In ancient times, poverty and sickness were considered God's punishment for sinners. And, conveniently for the hierarchy, wealth and power were signs of God's favor. Success automatically conferred righteousness, regardless of how it was achieved. Today, respect for the office is expected to confer respectability on the occupant, and televangelists use 'love offerings' to buy big houses, fine suits, gold rings, and business jets. They live well in the here and now, while their flocks are promised a 'greater' reward in Heaven. Perhaps their religion is the opioid crisis of the televangelical masses.
As a grown man with children of my own, I decided to join the Catholic Church. I’d been attending Mass occasionally with my wife and found that I really enjoyed the social aspects of parish life. I liked the people, I respected our Priest, and I wanted to expose my children to more authentically Christian teachings than those of the hard-sell TV guys. I spent months in preparatory classes before being baptized during the Easter Services. To my surprise, I got involved far more deeply than I expected and even became a catechist myself for several years. I attended Mass regularly, studied scripture and attended spiritual retreats. I thought that I might have finally found faith.
As a ‘mature’ adult, I’ve swung back towards skepticism, at least about religion and religious practices. I’ve come to believe that religious practices are as arbitrary as the childhood rhyme ‘step on a crack and break your mother’s back’. No one today follows the instructions for worship found in the Old Testament, not even those who insist on a literal interpretation. The sacrifice of live animals on the altar would be considered barbaric. And our current philosophy of 'me first' could hardly be further from the ideal community of the first Christians as described in the Acts of the Apostles. I’m certain that the Liturgy is created by humankind in our own image for our own purposes. It’s a sort of parade that we enjoy as a community, but the details are of little importance in the long run. What matters is that we come together for mutual reassurance that God exists and that He cares for us.
I no longer believe in my childhood images of God and Heaven, but I can’t stop wondering about the big questions of our origins, our existence, and what comes after. Is there a God, and if so, what is God’s nature? Are we created in God's image or is God created in ours? Perhaps God is an anthropomorphic projection of our desire for meaning. Maybe God is a sort of toy-maker who wound up a clockwork universe and is now watching life play out on an infinite number of worlds. And I wonder, is there an afterlife? Or is Heaven a fantasy designed to keep the masses from rising up to demand a bigger share of our earthly delights?
The classic idea of God may provide comfort in an uncertain and arbitrary world, but it also raises questions. Does God wonder about the purpose of His existence? Does She seek the mystery of Her own origins and wonder about Her afterlife? Do They contemplate the meaning of Their lives and ponder Their purpose? And above all – what came before God? Does God ask Itself that very question? Does God seek an even higher order being to worship? Can God ask Herself a question so complex and difficult that even He can’t answer It?
Religion provides an implausible and unsatisfactory answer. We’re taught that God always is, has always been and will always be, so shut up with the questions already. You wouldn’t understand and anyway it’s a sin to question the hierarchy. Just put your fingers in your ears and sing la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you (preferably in Latin). In short, don’t ask and pretend you don't care.
Science doesn’t serve us any better. The current consensus among cosmologists is that the universe began with a big bang, but that also raises questions – what caused the bang? How can an entire universe be compressed into a singularity? Can it happen again? And what came before the big bang?
Stephen Hawking understood more about the physical origins of the universe than anyone. He said that information can’t survive a trip through the big bang, so it’s impossible to know what preceded the universe. In addition, he said that time began with the beginning of the universe. Not only is it impossible to have knowledge of anything prior to the big bang, the very concept of ‘before’ doesn’t apply. Our reality begins with the big bang and that’s all we know or can know. His only answer is that it’s pointless to ask the question. Just put your fingers in your ears and sing la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you (preferably with equations). In short, don’t ask and pretend it doesn’t matter.
So, whither faith? I can't escape my childhood beliefs and I won't abandon my adult education. I find value in both religion and science, even though neither can provide satisfactory answers. The big questions continue to draw me in, like a moth to a flame. So I continue to believe, continue to doubt, and continue to wonder.
I know that I don’t know, I accept that I can’t know, and I choose to believe anyway. That may be the beginning of faith, but I can’t be certain.