Posts Tagged ‘beyond belief’

SERMON: “The Great Disappointment” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

“Burden of proof lies with the atheist, who must disprove the overwhelming evidence for a Creator who is immensely powerful, eternal, and personal. Simply put, I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist!”

This was a recent post by a friend on a social media site.  I pondered several responses to it, but decided to leave it be.  The problem with the answers I came up with weren’t that they wouldn’t hold up as argument, but that I kept composing them in the same sort of clever manner as the original statement.  I was writing bumper stickers to answer another bumper sticker.  And as we all know, that is a sort of never-ending smarty-pants arms race that is rarely “won”.

That being said, the original statement is worth picking apart, for it is (at its clever heart) emblematic of the truths with a small “t” that religion offers that are, in the end, swallowed up by Truth with a huge, honking capital “T” (like the small fish that is swallowed by the larger fish only to be consumed by an REALLY LARGE great white shark).

So what about the “burden of proof” that opens the statement?  Actual logic is turned upon its head here as it is the theist who is making the larger claim, and, therefore, must provide the greater burden of evidence — evidence which the second part of that sentence claims is self-evident in such a way as to make obvious the “powerful, eternal and personal” nature of God.  The final sentence is a clever turn of the never-out-of-style “I know you are but what am I” argument, which begs the atheist to begin his or her response with a statement of his or her own faith, such as “No, it doesn’t take much faith at all’.

(“Aha!” yodels the theist, “You just admitted that you employ FAITH!  See — atheism IS a religion after all!”).

The fundamental problem here is the underlying fallacy of any argument that determines the truth of a matter by how deeply one believes in a particular answer (as in “I believe in God with all my heart, and you only believe in science with your mind.  I win!”)  Clearly, the question rises from an assumption of belief-as-proof, and therefore the arguer feels completely comfortable dismissing the atheist’s deficit in the “faith” department even as he is not shy about painting that very same non-faith-based idea as a “religion”.  You can have your angel cake and eat it too, apparently.

Of course atheism is not a religion (this does not mean that no humans treat it as such, or that no atheists exhibit religious-like behaviors).  But then again, there is a strain in evangelical Christianity that is fond of denying that its own religion is, well, religion at all.  This usually takes the form (in argument) of a rather meaningless statement like “Christianity’s not a religion, it’s a relationship”.  Which seems to me to be sort of like saying “The federal bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. is not a government, it’s a relationship”.

True enough, I guess, on some level.  But what does that really mean?

The truth (in a lower-case “t” sense) is that we social humans engage in a wide variety of polite fictions that allow us to rub up against each other with a minimum of violence and friction in a crowded, complex society.  One of these fictions is an allowance for the varieties of religious belief (that we may well — privately at least — think of as silly or even dangerous).  Even one such as I finds myself reflexively addressing a priest or nun as “Father” or “Sister”.  It just seems polite, if ludicrous.  (Sort of like a grown-up version of calling a child by whatever super hero name he wants to be called that week).

But what galls the non-believers in a society (something most believers just don’t get) is when those to whom we extend these social niceties take things a step further and insist that such deference is not a gift we give each other, but a duty that all citizens must pay to the enlightened (or “chosen”) few (who are almost always convinced that they know what God wants everyone else to do).  These people we refer to as “fundamentalists”, and they come in all flavors of belief, though they are all, essentially, the same.  (Which is why a white, American Christian evangelical fundamentalist has much more in common with an Arab Muslim fundamentalist than she might be willing to admit.  If they should ever get past their hangup on who’s founder was the more divine, they would be a terrible combined force to reckon with!).

To bring together, now, the threads of the original quote with our use of polite social fictions, the bare, naked Truth of it all is this: the ONLY evidence for the existence of a “powerful, eternal and personal” God is our belief that such a God exists.  Absolutely nothing in nature that we humans have ever discovered has given us any support for the notion.  It is only the cognitive power of belief-dependent realism that bends reality into the shape of the divine.

The deeply religious (and here I think mostly of the evangelical or fundamentalist branches of belief) regularly criticize humanists and environmentalists and animal-rights activists as having made themselves (or nature) into their God.  This, to a theist, is idolatry.  And were it not for that pesky New Testament, such sins of misattribution-of-divine-power could be punished in the old-fashioned way: stoning.  But here is just one more of the huge ironies that the fundamentalist carries without complaint:  it is the fundamentalist that has, in fact, turned nature into God, not the humanist (environmentalist, animal rights activist, etc).

Think about it for a moment:  The religious believer looks at the products of billions of years of completely natural (yet nonetheless wondrous) processes of chemistry, geology and biology and personifies them into the actions of a single individual.  This is the small fish gobbling up the smaller fish, and feeling quite satisfied with itself.  But the truth of nature turns out to be the great white shark of reality that consumes all attempts to reduce it to a size and level of complexity sufficient to be contained within the idea of “God”.

Make no mistake.  Nature is a wonder.  The human body (for all of its odd quirks, switched-off DNA, and systems borrowed from our earlier bodily forms) is a wonder as well.  The existence of human consciousness is a mystery that we have begun to understand, but can not yet fully fathom or explain.  There is yet room in this world for awe and bewilderment, even in the age of science.

But unless the God who made it all possesses a peculiar and perverse sense of humor — of the kind that would make him create a universe, earth and life comprehensible only as the product of a messy and ancient constellation of natural processes (like the ultimate “trickster” god) and then demand that one species of primates (us) see past this deep catalog of misdirection and notice him lurking in the background — then there is most likely no God at all.

To many humans this would be a great disappointment, as if the fish they thought was the biggest one in the ocean turned out not to be.  But take heart: I can tell you from experience that there are greater wonders awaiting those who move beyond the spell of belief.

Religion is a world view that reduces nature to the size of God.  Because God — contrary to what most believers think — is not the biggest idea a human can have.  It is, in reality, an idea that exercises our capacities for understanding while remaining yet small enough for us to grasp: a means of compressing the vast incomprehensibility of nature into the form of a person…like us.  If the continuing resistance to the broad acceptance of the (more unsettling) discoveries of science has taught us one thing about our selves, it is that the human mind clearly evolved to deal quite well with its local environment, but is only very modestly capable of grasping things such as the depth of geological time, the vastness of the known universe or our own biological evolution.  But there is no shame in recognizing the limitations of our animal brains.  After all — as far as we can tell — we’re the only living things ever to have existed that have reached a stage of cognitive development to even struggle with such enormous ideas!

So no, it does not take a special amount of faith to not believe in God.  What it does take is a certain amount of courage to face the enormous profundity of nature.  In that there is no disappointment.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “More Confidence than Sense” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

I was much more anxious than I would have liked to have been as I drove to El Paso.  I did my best to enjoy the drive, listening to the final chapter of a book on tape.  There are days like that, where my ability to remain calm in the moment is over-challenged and succumbs to the tendency of my dog brain to project and fret.  Still, I felt better by the time I checked into my motel room with enough time to sit for a bit before I checked in at the Arts Festival Plaza to start my street painting for the 2011 “Chalk the Block” festival downtown.

Those of us chosen as Arts Festival Plaza artists were to begin our paintings at 6pm on Friday night and work until 10pm (we were to pick up again on Saturday at 7am, and complete our paintings for judging by 2pm).  I was excited and confident as I checked in, got my materials and refused the offer of a spray bottle full of water (I was too much of a street-painting purist for to employ that device that I’d recently seen in use).  I set to work, and had my 5 x 10 foot design sketched out in white chalk in a few minutes.  I began to paint in the colors with my pastels and immediately noticed something was wrong: the surface was not taking the color well at all.

I had assumed that years of painting with pastels and chalk on asphalt and cement had prepared me for anything, and had been excused from the “mandatory” festival training session the Saturday before (my excusal based largely on that experience).  But it now dawned on me that painting on brick was another animal.  That made sense: bricks are fired masonry.  In essence I was trying to make pastel stick to chunky glass.  I had a sinking feeling as I calculated that the detailed, rich painting (of a T-Rex fossil come to life) I had envisioned was instead going to be anemic and sad.  I felt a rueful sense of the excess of my confidence: I had been cocky to think I didn’t need the training session; to think that I was better than the kids around me who were now slopping thick, soupy tempera paint all over their spaces with buckets and brushes.

Damn.  They knew something I didn’t.

Well, my feelings of self-correction aside, I needed to change my plans.  I got a spray bottle and started in to teach myself a new way of painting with the stakes as high as they could be (I had come to win this competitive event, after all: the prize money was good).  It took a while, but by the time the sun was setting, I had figured out the right combination of water and pastel rubbed onto the brick that would take on the feel of a sort of slurry, which seemed to have at least some capacity to stick to the masonry.  Good.  But now I knew I would have to obliterate my drawing to cover the space with the right colored slurry for each portion of my painting.  Not so good.  I calculated that I could recover from that.  I wasn’t out of the woods yet, but I was moving that way.  I would, however, still have to wait and see how the dried slurry surface itself would take pastel, and if I would ever get back to the quality of the painting I had planned.

By the time I had coated all of my surface, and got back to the first dry parts to see how I’d actually have to adapt my painting style to them, it was dark, and the work lights were turned on.  Much to my relief, the prepared surface took pastel well: I was back in business.  But then the glaring work lights started popping breakers, and the next two hours were spent working in various combinations of semi-darkness, and finally an odd sort of slow-motion strobe effect as watchers walked in front of the few remaining people-height lamps that shot a low-angled light across my painting-in-progress.

I kept working until 10pm in awful light, all the while wondering what terrible things I could be doing to my painting that I might not be able to correct in the daylight.  I returned to my motel room and a night of fitful sleep.

Back to the plaza at 7am, things looked okay.  All of my work from the night before held up, and I could now, truly, get to work.  After a couple of hours of painting a feeling of pleasure bubbled up through the layers of my mind.  I suddenly felt happy.  I was going to be okay.  All of the detail and depth I had wanted to include in this work were mine to create, no longer restricted by those damn red bricks underneath.  I was back in the running, back in familiar territory.  I was working in confidence again.

I remembered a line I wrote for my play about the American painter John Singer Sargent: “I’ve always had more confidence than sense.  But in the end, it’s made sense to be confident”.  Was that me, today?

I finished my painting an hour ahead of the 2pm deadline.  I had indeed had time to include all of the detail that I had planned, and was pleased with how well the final painting matched my original “vision”.  I looked at the work of the other artists that surrounded me, and those in other parts of downtown that were all competing for the Best of Show award.  I knew I had the best painting, but then I didn’t.  I began to look for the reasons why it would not be the obvious choice of the judges, and my confidence was diminished (a process, perhaps, aided by my challenged “cockiness” of the night before).

Friends from my home town showed up to be there for the judging and the award, and my social sense was kicked up a notch, navigating the complex preparations for an unpredictable outcome (which in this case, now meant bracing for a public loss witnessed by friends).

The announcement of the awards was late.  We had plenty of time to sit around and wait and chat, as I laid the mental and verbal groundwork for being okay with whatever came (read: not winning).  I had enough experience to understand the Biblical warning that “…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”  (Ecclesiastes 9:11 KJV).  I knew that I was subject to “chance” as much as anyone else.

I didn't anticipate the problems of painting on brick.

So when the announcement finally came (in the teasing form of a description of the winning painting), all we had to hear was “T-Rex”.   In the nanosecond of space between those words and the sound of my friends erupting in screaming, I experienced the exhilaration of being chosen.  It rang like a crystal bell inside me: brief but pure.  That moment only had the time it took for my anxious friends to take in enough breath to start shouting.  After that my attention was diverted to them, even as I struggled to listen above the happy din for the sound of my name (to be sure I had actually won).  In the moments that followed, I wondered whether my cognitive and emotional experience was qualitatively any different than that of a nominee awaiting the opening of the envelope on Oscar night.

The rest was twenty minutes of congratulations, hugs, handshakes, a newspaper interview and then home to rest my sore muscles and raw fingertips.

Why tell this long story here?  What does it have to do with the church of bob?  The answer lies in the thing that was absent.

What I’ve described is just the kind of experience into which we humans almost always insert the idea of God or cosmic purpose.  It’s the sort of thing we pray about: asking for God (or spirit or whatever) to guide us or to grant favor.  It’s the kind of situation where ritualistic behavior is natural — a lucky charm or a certain kind of behavior that seemed to make something good happen in the past.

Upon reflection what was noticeable to me was the complete absence of any of that in the events I described above.  Apparently we can, in fact, move beyond belief.

I set out to win this competition, but not through prayer.  I was juried in based on both my past work and my submitted design for the festival.  I was confident, but was immediately challenged by an unforeseen difficulty that my experience and determination helped me overcome (though the event supplied the materials, I had brought along some of my own favored chalks that saved my butt that first night — a “lucky” choice my experience taught me to make).  I knew that I had the capacity to create a painting people would enjoy, and that I would likely enjoy doing it (a good indicator of final quality).  I knew from experience that my social skills were up to the interactions with staff and audience.  I had won a street painting festival in the past.  None of those factors made my winning inevitable.  But, in reality, it made my winning a distinct possibility.  To then add prayer to the reasons for my success would have shifted the 99% of my career-artist reality onto the 1% of the supposed external force I might have prayed to (or, conversely shifted all of the blame back to me had I lost, leaving none of it with the God that let me down).   Seen in that light, prayer would have been, well, silly.

The outcome of this street painting festival was never inevitable.  Though my skill and (thirty years of) experience did give me a certain objective advantage over a number of my competitors, it could not immunize me against another more talented competitor, or a system of judging that was hidden from my knowledge.

I may never know who the judge (or judges) were that made the final decision on the “Best of Show” award, much less what factors they took into consideration.  It may be that I won by a wide margin.  Or it could have been very, very close.  So it is in the complexity of life: we desire to know the hidden factors in order to calibrate our sense of reality, to draw conclusions about cause and effect.  But most of the time, we just don’t know everything that went on.  No wonder we seek a spiritual “edge” to push things our way, or to comfort us when they don’t, switching our biases on or off depending on the situation and whether our not they confirm or confront our beliefs.

I came, I saw, I worked and I won.  This time.  That’s all I know.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Second Epiphany” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

Merriam-Webster lists one definition of epiphany as: “a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.”

When I think of epiphanies of a certain magnitude, I think of conversion experiences.  I’m guessing most of us have at least one good conversion in us.  St. Paul sure did.  We can assume that he was raised in the religious beliefs that he held when he was struck blind by that heavenly light on the road to Damascus.  That most famous of epiphanies led to his conversion from a (born) persecutor of Christians to a (born again) follower of Christ.  As far as we know, he had no further conversions after that, and any epiphanies that followed were of a scale to fit within his “new” system of belief.

I think that the course of most conversions follow a pattern similar to Paul’s.  Listen to most “testimonies” from the converted, and they’ll refer to a previous life that consisted of early beliefs about the “essential nature or meaning” of life that had never been questioned.  Suddenly a triggering event causes them to re-think their beliefs.  In my case I was simply presented with the basics of Christian salvation that — although I had been raised in a nominally (at least socially) Christian home — were news to me.  And so I converted.

As readers of this blog will know, I later converted again.  Not back to my previous beliefs, but to a completely new understanding of that “essential nature or  meaning” thing.  I have often borrowed from evangelistic jargon and referred to this as my having been “born again…again”.

It’s not unusual to find someone who has had a conversion experience (though there are many who manage to skip this step without any noticeable injury to their life experience — but I was not cut from that genetic cloth).  What is more unusual is to find those that have had a second conversion — an epiphany of a magnitude to re-set the orbit of the intellectual planets yet again.  Yet the potential is always present, and is recognized as a true danger by the major monotheistic religions.  In Christianity, it is condemned as “apostasy”, and those who go down that road are viewed with deep suspicion and considered highly dangerous to other believers.  In Islam, they simply condemn apostates to death (a rather extreme version of the non-compete clause in an executive’s contract — for no-one wants a former “insider” working for the enemy).

I was fortunate in that my declension from faith did not incur death by stoning.  But it has, indeed, engendered a certain wariness from my former fellow-believers.  I think I know why.

St. Paul knocked off his ass by revelation.

A conversion experience is a big deal.  On some level it is the animal suddenly realizing it is more than an animal.  For many, it is the moment in which the solitary human suddenly becomes aware that there is more to life than his own selfish needs.  I have no doubt that for a good number of people this is a good thing.  That the higher power they believe in is imaginary is of no practical consequence to the quality (and validity) of their own emotional and intellectual experience of first encountering the “divine” in this way.

This sort of tectonic shift in one’s psyche is naturally felt to be a once-in-a-lifetime, life-changing event.  (The last thing one would expect is that there should be any further need of additional internal earthquakes of this sort).  After all, as the hymn goes: “I was lost, but now am found” never, it is implied, to ever be “lost” again.  Yes, we may “stray” from the one, true path, but the whole point of this life is to achieve an awareness of God.  And having achieved that, the rest is working to improve that primary relationship.

In short, we only need to ride to Damascus once in our life.  Not over and over again.  Yet — in some recognition of the possibility — it is still warned (and guarded) against.

I can tell you that I certainly wasn’t expecting to be knocked off my (spiritual) ass a second time.  Which could be one reason I didn’t recognize that the disassembly of my Christian belief system was well underway during my months as a bible-smuggling missionary in Europe.

Yet if I’m completely honest, was my second “conversion” really such a dramatic conversion at all?  The week before it finally happened, I asked myself — for the first time — the question: “Could I live in a universe without a God?”.  Which meant that, in reality, I had never doubted (or seriously questioned) the existence of God up to that point (even in the years before my teenage “salvation” experience).  So perhaps my departure from Christianity should count as my major “Road to Damascus” experience, and not a second epiphany at all.

However, as evidence that I really did have a “second” conversion I have to consider the long-lasting impact the loss of my faith had on me.  From that day to this, it instilled in me a keen awareness of the tentative nature of belief: I knew that any belief system I attempted to build in place of my previous system would be subject to the next psychic urban renewal project that came to my mental town.  In short: if my Christianity could be shown to be false, what was safe from future revelation?

I therefore made a considered decision to resist my emotional need to quickly fill the void left by the loss of my religion.  I left the lot open, as it were, and allowed myself to drift in the great, terrifying and exhilarating existential deity-less void I found myself in (which felt, quite literally, like willing myself to dog-paddle in the deep end without grabbing for the edge of the pool).  I’m glad I did.  I’m proud of that decision.

Eventually (once I confirmed that the sun would continue to rise and that my self would persist in a familiar form) I formed a new sense of spirituality that was basically new-age in nature.  I brought my same religious zeal to each new “truth” offered me, and tried them out.  Holding on to the things that seemed to work (and the explanations for why they seemed to work), until I got better information.  That phase of my life lasted as long as my Christian life had — about 15 years.  But then, guess what?

Yep.  Another epiphany.  This time I converted not to another belief, but from belief altogether.  In the parlance of Daniel Dennett, the “spell” of belief was broken in me.  (Yes.  It turns out that the loss of my Christianity was not at all the loss of belief I thought it was, as my believing nature simply moved on to greener — though more tentative — pastures).

It’s almost impossible to describe these events in terms that don’t echo the testimonies of the religious.  But be that as it may, I now consider it possible to live a life “beyond belief”.  The religious protest that everyone else operates as much from belief as they do, and that scientists are no different.  There is a taste of truth in this, as we all make assumptions in order to make sense of life as it is happening to us.  But this is not always the same as belief, nor is it the enormous intellectual filtering mechanism that religion is.

But believers of all types will tell you that you can’t possibly understand what you’re missing out on until you have an epiphany of your own and have the hidden revealed to your (previously) blind eyes.  This is true, too.  Well, up to a point.

Having once believed, I can now understand all belief (as an addict can understand all addiction without having to get strung out on every substance or temptation on earth).  I don’t have to try out Islam or Mormonism or Scientology.  I have experienced the activation of my believing brain, which process is the basis for all human belief.  So I find myself (now) in the position of trying to describe to believers (who feel they have already gone from blindness to sight) that there is yet another world which they have never seen: the life beyond belief.

Statistics show that conversions are rare in adults.  This is why most religions target the young.  But late (and second) conversions do happen.  I am living testimony to that.  Which is why I write these sermons.  For surely I’m not the only one who has been knocked off his donkey of belief more than once.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Fishing for Meaning in the Ocean of Unknowns” by the not so reverend bob

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

‘On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.’
(Lyrics by Edward Mote, circa 1834)

It’s been over a year now since I first stood in the pulpit (at “Happy Birthday Charles Darwin at the Church of Evolution”) and preached my first sermon as the “not-so-reverend bob”.  Looking back, there have been two things that have surprised me as I’ve stepped into the made up vocation of pretend minister to a fake church: The first was how comfortable I felt in the role of evangelist and preacher; and the second was the tension that seemed to attend the continuation of such a role.  On the first point it seemed that I simply had a share of the evangelist’s temperament (layered on top of my actor’s impulse).  The second issue of the attendant tension was more vexing even as it was illuminating.

A primary impulse for my research and personal creative work over the last bunch of years has been my own exploration of life after faith: the continuing discovery that there is life beyond belief (and a rich and satisfying life at that).

If you’ve never been under the spell of an encompassing religious belief system, this may seem a minor discovery to you, almost as if I am the explorer planting the flag of my nation on a new and exotic land never before seen by my people, and you are the “exotic” native who has been living there his or her entire life.  This reminds that our lives and life experiences are terribly narrow and completely specific to ourselves.  In a sense each of us is a scholar in a field of research that matters only to one person: ourselves.  And yet there are others whose paths are similar enough to our own — for stretches short or long — that one person’s story can have value and provide useful information, perspective or instruction to such fellow travelers as these.  This is why we have art, literature and even (dare I say it) religion in such profusion: life is something that only happens to each of us once, and it happens in real time that is moving us ever forward, so any help along the way is welcome.

And so I came to a point in life where I felt that I had accumulated some insight worth sharing (from my own journey from born-again Christian to my Darwinian/naturalist/materialist/humanist view point).  Maybe there were others out there looking for a trail through the same woods (sort of like the war movies when one soldier finds a path out of a mine field, and the other soldiers carefully work their way to where his path begins so that not everyone has to search a new path across the entire minefield).  But as soon as I put my thoughts into words and presented them (in as complete a manner as I could) first in “EXTINCTION: A Love Story” and then in “Happy Birthday Charles Darwin at the Church of Evolution with the not-so-reverend bob”, it was as if I had created an orthodoxy that I would thereafter be expected to adhere to.  Because this is how religions work.  In fact, for any (real) church to succeed I would argue that its doctrines and beliefs must be codified in a way that each adherent can know what they are expected to believe (which in turn will set them apart from the other churches and their “errors” of belief).

I think the key phrase (above) is “what they are expected to believe”.  In my case it becomes “what will the members of the church of bob expect from me from here on out?”  Which further breaks down to the twin question of: “what it is that drew people to the “church” in the first place (and then what would make them leave)”?

What I realized is that this is exactly what a real minister of any traditional independent church must feel.  In fact, I know it is.  (I once had a talk with a Charismatic minister who confessed that he and his wife would only listen to certain music in their car out of earshot of his membership, and he expressed ideas to me he could never reveal to his church).  Historically speaking, I would think that ministers in general have been more highly educated (and more curious) than their average parishioner.  Of course the difference with “the church of bob” is that this is most certainly not the case (I seem much more to be but one contact point for like-minded thinkers — expressing in my “preaching” what they’ve already been thinking).  What I feel I have to offer differs little from what any “real” minister may proffer (save with a twist): my own personal history of a journey that took me into deep religious experience and then out the other side.  I add to that my creative talents for lyric and music writing and theater (and let’s not forget the graphics for t-shirts, bumper stickers and cartoons!)

I think the value of any minister is his or her ability to explore a bit of the trail ahead and report back to the others in the caravan.  The obvious risk here is that the minister is exploring unknown territory, therefore he or she can offer no guarantees of what will lie ahead.  And this is the pit that I think most religious ministers fall into, in that they make unexpected personal or factual discoveries that they cannot confess to their followers without risking the loss of their livelihood.  (Here I have a bias based on some experience that leads me to believe that most preachers don’t really believe what they’re preaching to the flock).  So the most basic question I face is this:  Is there an inevitable dynamic of revelation becoming codified (chiseled in stone) then fossilized (out of date) and then abandoned at work here?

Fortunately, it is here that the analogies between “real” church and our “fake” church break down, and our paths diverge.

For religious belief is based on the promise of being able to anchor your faith in bedrock: an unchanging truth revealed by an eternal and immutable God.  The church of bob is based on science and evidence (hence the slogan: “The church of bob: where the religion is fake, but the science is real!”).  And scientific discovery — especially at its current pace — renders my own intellectual bedrock into something more closely resembling the “shifting sands” of the well known hymn.  For anything I may “believe” is subject to challenge by new, convincing evidence.  Which — in practical terms — means that my “faith” is challenged almost daily.

This hints at a mark of my own temperament (as much as my comfort “preaching” evolution mentioned above): for whatever protestations I may make that I want to know once and for all and be done with it, the fact is I am ever drawn to deeper investigation.  And the deeper one investigates what we know about evolution and nature the more evident it becomes that we will never know it all.  At least I won’t (in my single lifetime).  The moments of personal discovery are, however, exhilarating even as they are humbling.  And all my research and exploration of science must still be balanced against living my life day to day, doing my work, making a painting, meeting a client, enjoying my relationships.  But each informs the other.  Which gets me back to what I really was getting at.

I began this “church” when I still held a shred of the mystical in my beliefs — what we’d call the “spiritual”.  I was hoping to weave together a narrative of the meaning and purpose of life that could compete with the compelling narratives of religion and new-age spirituality.  But what I’ve found is that the more I learn, the less there is that is anything but completely natural, mechanistic and biological about us.  The mind-expanding book I review this week (“Your Inner Fish” by Neil Shubin) opened up an awareness of my fishy ancestry that I had never before known enough about to internalize.  (I also took in a few chapters of “In Search of Deep Time: Beyond the Fossil Record to a New History of Life” by Henry Gee that exploded my mental construct of there being a verifiable narrative for the line of our descent from the fossil record.  It turns out that I had fallen into the natural human perspective of having made geologic time understandable, I had also shrunk its vast time scale to fit me).

The fact is that there is no “meaning” in the sense that most religions claim to supply it.  Life simply “is”.  Even what we call the “spiritual” is looking more and more to be an externalization of the natural phenomenon of our own complex and multilevel consciousness.  So here I am, well into the chapters of the second half of my life contemplating what “message” I can make of this understanding?  What is there “uplifting” that I can say from such a perspective as this?

Of course, even as I consider this seemingly deep issue, the sun still arcs across the sky and the trees in my town are now in full Spring blossom; I sip a warm cup of fine coffee and eat a tasty breakfast;  I think, I plan, I have work lined up that is pleasurable and challenging to me;  I go to the gym to keep my body at ease and support my enduring sense of well being.  In short, nothing changes.  My days will pass in the ways that I choose to live them, with the rewards and the challenges that my decisions and circumstance will define.  The essential truths of what makes me happy and productive won’t change much, even as science learns more and more about the actual mechanisms of how exercise affects mood and mental activity promotes brain health, etc., etc.  I will go on living.  You will go on living.  Scientists will go on discovering.  And I will go on absorbing as much as I can.

So what am I left with?  I’ve always wanted to know, to understand things.  It’s never been enough for me to take another’s word.  Even my mother once said (in a moment of clear insight): “You always have to find out for yourself.”

In a sense, I get it now — I get what life is “about”.  And part of “getting it” is knowing that for everything I know, there is much that I will never know, for reasons both of my own lifetime’s limitations of time and energy and for the fact that discovery will continue as long as humans are living (which, barring catastrophe, are likely to continue long after my time is past).  I am driven to learn, to understand.  But I only have this one, single life to live.  Of course my drive to understand has always been in the service of my desire to enjoy my life, to use better knowledge to remove the barriers in my emotions and mind that constricted my capacity for full engagement with my world and the people who inhabit it.  And in the end, I don’t really want a story.  I want life.

And life is all there is.  That is the eternal truth.  Eternal enough for our purposes, anyway.  For even the bedrock of the earth that we walk on floats upon a boiling molten core.  There will come a day when our own sun — so perfectly distant from us to allow the life that made us possible — will burn earth into oblivion.  Our expanding universe will reverse direction, and race back in on itself.  Our own species will eventually become extinct, or evolve into something else.  Nothing is permanent.  All is shifting sand.  And yet none of that really matters to each beings that measure a lifetime in less than a hundred years.  What matters is the days we have, the people we love (and that love us back).  The joys and sadness, the achievements and surprises that are part of our everyday lives.  The sunrises, the sunsets, the lingering over a cup of coffee with a friend.  The sloppy kiss of a child on our cheek, the sharing of a moment of deep emotion in a concert hall or theater surrounded by strangers of our same species.  None of us need instruction in what matters in life.  And none of us needs reminding of life’s brevity and fragility.

For all that there is left to learn and to discover, there is a lot that we actually now know that most of our species lived their entire lives not knowing.  We know that the earth is very, very old.  And though we tend to focus on our primate ancestors, we now know that we were fish before we were mammals and primates.  We know that there were other branches of the human family tree that died out along the way (when they joined, in turn, the other 99% of all species that have ever lived that are no longer around).  We know that we are genetically related to every other living thing on earth and that no other living human is more distant from us than a 50th cousin.  We know that our home planet is unique in our solar system, and that the conditions that favor life are delicate and under threat by a rapidly changing climate.

Religion, by holding out the promise of something better later on only deprives us of what we have now.  And its vain attempt to provide immutable truth and eternal security seems an enormous waste of human energy and precious time.  It is the awareness that this life is the only one we have that makes me want to attack irrational belief (religion) and yet not want to rip it away from anyone for whom it is a comfort in this short life.

For better or for worse, the maintenance of religious belief is well tended to by an army of reverends other than myself.  My call is elsewhere.  In the here and now.  Walking with each of you across the shifting sands of time.

t.n.s.r. bob

(Copyright for commercial purposes by Bob Diven, 2010)