‘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.
(Copyright for commercial purposes by Bob Diven, 2010)