Struggling With the Issue of Faith (updated 9.05.07)
In an interview last year, Siggy asked Dr. Sanity if she believed in God, and her response was, “I guess I have to say that I’m an agnostic and don’t take a position on whether God exists or not. I am aware of a very strong emotional part of me that wants very much to believe in an all powerful and all good deity that cares about me and all of humanity. But I also a very strong scientific and rational part that demands objective evidence of the existence of a Supreme Being. These two parts of me exist in a sort of dynamic tension right now and I expect that some day I might find a way to integrate them. Or, maybe not.”
Today, a year later, she says “That dynamic tension remains and the struggle continues unabated. I don't seem to have progressed too far along in resolving that conflict, but I have progressed. And, it is reassuring to realize that Siggy is correct when he says, “To struggle with faith is as much a part of faith as anything else.”
I think that last statement is very accurate, in the identical sense that we could say “To struggle with knowledge is as much a part of truth as anything else,” or “To struggle with love is as much a part of relationships as anything else.” Humans, by definition, are fated to inhabit--or at least span--the vast middle realm between being and nothingness, the absolute and the relative, matter and spirit, time and eternity. The paradoxes of human existence are impossibly difficult if you give them even a moment’s reflection.
Despite all of our scientific and technological advances over the past 300 years, I see no evidence that human beings are any happier than they have ever been. If anything, happiness might be even more elusive, because life is so much easier than it was for past generations, in that we expect things to go well and are devastated when tragedy and disappointment hit, which they inevitably do. No one in the past felt they were entitled to the things we take for granted--health, plentiful food, absence of physical pain, a long life, thriving children. Thus, it was no doubt easier not to become overly attached to the temporary and transient. Death was a constant reminder of the fragility and fickleness of existence. (In fact, this proximity to death probably conributes to the fact that the Islamists are willing to die for their idiotic beliefs, while so much of the West cannot muster the enthusiasm to defend itself.)
You could probably even say that this attitude prevailed in the West--let alone in undeveloped nations--through the great depression and World War II. As recently as the 1970’s, inflation was completely misunderstood by economists, and therefore untamable. The “boom or bust” business cycle really only began to seriously flatten after the Reagan revolution, in that our inevitable recessions are far less severe than in the past.
LIkewise, I am blessed to have diabetes at a time when it is so easy to control it with different types of insulin and instantaneous digital readouts of my blood sugar, but my mother, just one generation before, had no such control, with devastating results. My father died at 57 of an abdominal aneurysm that is easily detectable today with a $35 dollar exam at a health fair.
Given these profound existential changes, I think it is natural that humans began to focus on this side of the “time-eternity” divide, and look for our spiritual sustenance in the things of the world, so to speak--relationships, children, possessions, experiences. But does it work? I suppose for some. For others--perhaps we’re just neurotic, I don’t know--there is nothing in the field of time that will suffice or answer to this deeper call of the Spirit. It is a part of us that cries out for something that is not found in the objects of the world, and is only satisfied by one thing.
Is it real, this part of us that cries out for transcendence? I don’t know if that is the proper question. It’s somewhat analogous to falling in love and asking yourself if love is real or just an illusion, a trick of the nervous system. I’m imagining the Gagboy 10 or 20 years down the line, when he is at the peak of his enchantment with the opposite form of the complementary gender. “I know it looks like women are attractive, but don’t be fooled. It’s just Darwin playing tricks on you, trying to get you to reproduce. In reality, woman aren’t attractive or unattractive. To the extent that you find them beautiful, just remember that it’s an illusion programmed into you by evolution.”
“Gee, thanks, Dad!”
But isn’t this the same kind of “sophisticated” advice we might receive from the typical college professor regarding religion? “God? Probably nothing more than an illusion programmed into our nervous system. You can ignore it.” But doesn’t that just beg the question of whether everything isn’t just an illusion built into our nervous system, including the statement that everything is? That way madness lies. But also tenure, so there are compensations.
If we consider religiosity on a continuum from extreme atheism on the left side (“zero”) to mystical union on the right (“one hundred”), let us suppose that Dr. Sanity is at 50. Well, probably more like 49. I myself started at closer to zero, or at least veered in that direction after an initial interest in Eastern religions prompted by the Beatles’ (especially George’s) adoption of yoga. But I became seriously interested in philosophy during my college years, and virtually all modern philosophy is essentially atheistic, whether existentialism, positivism, phenomenology, what have you.
Just recently I have begun to think of religiosity as simply “the right way to live,” so to speak. After all, these are traditions that somehow nourished the human soul for hundreds and thousands of years, almost as if we were made for them and they were made for us. Regardless of whether or not we may attribute these traditions to a creator, I find that there is a wisdom in authentic religion that far surpasses what any single mind could have come up with.
It’s a bit like marriage and the family. No one “invented” either, but for most people it is simply the “right way” to live. Sure, you can experiment with other ways. Like Bill Maher, you can date porn stars, substitute dogs for children, and worship gaia, but is this really the way we’re built? Does he look happy or well adjusted to you?
I didn’t actually dive headlong into religion until 1995. In my case it was yoga, but once I did, the part of me that was hungering for transcendence all along began to “grow.” It reminds me of what they say about babies--”sleep begets sleep.” That is, if they nap more during the day, they sleep better at night. Likewise, faith begets faith. Just by taking that leap and living in the way humans have always lived, something automatic seems to kick in.
I don’t mean to trivialize it, but it reminds me of sports. I think it has to do with the arrival of the Gagboy last year, but before that, I was an absolutely fanatical Dodger fan. To be honest, the spell started to be broken when they were purchased by Fox from the O’Malley family, but from the age of nine, I lived and died with each win or loss. And yet--especially as an adult--I would sometimes reflect on the absurdity of my devotion. As Seinfeld said, when it comes right down to it, since the players constantly change, you're essentially rooting for laundry. But was I any happier when I thought this way? No, not at all. In fact, it just spoiled the fun.
There’s an old saying in baseball: “Don’t think, you’ll hurt the ballclub.” I think most philosophy falls into this category. There are ways to think that will be metaphysically fruitful and add to your fulfillment, other essentially circular forms of thought that are spiritually barren and go from nowhere to nothing (and certainly won't help you hit a curveball). To be honest, they aren’t worthy of man, itself a statement that touches on the mystery of what man actually is.
The "good news" of religion is that the world is not a closed circle, that it is not an eternal prison, that it has an exit and an entrance.... "Perdition" is to be caught up in the eternal circulation of the world of the closed circle... [whereas] "salvation" is life in the world of the open circle, or spiral, where there is both exit and entrance. --Meditations on the Tarot