A God by Any Other Name

Now I know I really am getting old –I’m starting to think about religion. Well, perhaps it’s unfair to single it out like that. Religion, or at least wonder about existence is such a part of the human Umwelt that, like the air we breathe, it is an appreciation that is tempered by its ubiquity. But I am reminded of a section of a poem written by the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed.’ It is a beautiful image, and although the entire poem is a bit too religious for my taste, the metaphor has a universal appeal that I suspect transcends even sectarian boundaries.

Given what I take to be our omnipresent awe about life, I have to suspect that other sentient beings –alien beings- would have a similar acknowledgment of the Mystery of Being, and wonder about the unknown… Or does wonder suggest insecurity, and mystery, merely challenge? Would omniscience, if such a thing could ever exist, necessarily preclude curiosity? Belief? Reverence? Late night questions, to be sure…

I suppose the BBC article that I stumbled across a while back fell upon fertile soil: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20161215-if-we-made-contact-with-aliens-how-would-religions-react?ocid=ww.social.link.email Just how important is it for us to believe in something? To have questions?

Maybe there are no answers, but it reminded me of a heated discussion I heard one evening in a coffee shop that I visited after a movie. It was quite busy, as I recall, and I found myself sitting beside a group, deep in conversation. All four were leaning over their table, heads together, bagels long consumed, and coffees no longer steaming. They were young –in their early twenties, I would guess- and the only woman, a short-haired blond with horn-rimmed glasses and a black Rasta sweatshirt, was gesticulating with her finger to make a point. She seemed so enthusiastic, I couldn’t help listening.

“Archetypes? That’s so Jungian, Aaron…”

“And what’s wrong with that? How else could we explain it if we don’t assume some sort of a Collective Unconscious, Natalie?” Aaron was another bespectacled youth, with messy short brown hair.

She threw her arms up in mock protest. “You haven’t explained anything, though. I don’t accept that God is a black hole, let alone that She happens to be the one at the center of our Galaxy…”

“Can we please ungender the concept, Nat? How about it, or they, or something?”

She turned to the speaker, a large heavy man in a black leather full-length coat. “Fair enough John. Whatever we use is weird, however –especially gynaecomorphizing a neutral abstraction.”

“Love the word, though, Nat…”

She smiled at the third man, the only one with long hair. “Thank you Jag –makes me sound academic, eh?”

“But, come on folks,” Aaron was on a roll. “Just think about it, okay? The myth says God is outside of time, right? A black hole is outside of time…”

Outside of time…?

“Well, if time is infinite inside a black hole, then it amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it?”

There were a few seconds of silence while the others considered the idea, so he developed it further. “And where is the timeless Heaven the various religions talk about?”

Jag rolled his eyes. “You’re doing the same kind of thing that Zukav did in that old book The Dancing Wu Li Masters…”

My coffee was getting cold; I felt I should be taking notes.

“Come on, Jag –that book was about quantum stuff… And I’m not invoking Buddhism, or anything eastern like that.” He leaned further across the table. “No, you go to a black hole, you exit time. It fits with the biblical heaven, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t think the Buddhists even believe in God, do they?” John said this as he stretched and then leaned back on a wooden chair already creaking under his weight. “Or heaven, for that matter…”

“They believe in Samsara –that cycle of rebirth thing I think…” But Natalie didn’t seem sure, so John dropped his objections.

Jag attempted a sip at what was left in his cup, and put it down as soon as he tasted it. “But Aaron raises an interesting point, though…”

“I finally broke through, eh?” Aaron smiled and tried to high-five Natalie, but she just stared at him.

“What do you mean, Jag?” she said, caressing his face with her eyes, and blushing. She seemed obviously attracted to him. Maybe they were a pair.

“Well, let’s suppose Aaron is on to something here, and there is somehow an awareness of a power to which we are all subject. I mean the stars in our galaxy are all rotating around the central black hole, aren’t they? So, if there are other inhabited worlds out there in the galaxy, maybe they’d experience the same awareness, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe the black hole exerts some kind of force or field on the galaxy that our earth calls spirit, or god. It gets interpreted differently, of course –we all have different cultures, and different surroundings –different exigencies… So perhaps aliens would have their own explanations for this force…”

John sat forward again and leaned into the table. “Do any of you realize how teenage this all sounds?” He glanced over at me and rolled his eyes.

I guess they knew I was listening. Of course I’d been staring at them one by one as they talked. Natalie tore her eyes from Jag and stared at me like a teacher would at a student that was interrupting. But she wasn’t angry –just surprised that I was listening. “Sorry, sir. We really get into these post-pub discussions…”

I smiled and sat straighter in my chair. “Please don’t apologize. I’m intrigued by your arguments…” I leaned forward on my table again. “Especially your God of the black hole,” I said, looking first at Aaron and then at Jag. “And I’ve often wondered how our terrestrial religions could accommodate such different creation myths.

“I’m from the Carl Sagan era, don’t forget –remember the Pale Blue Dot photograph by Voyager 1 from 6 billion kilometers away? It kind of emphasized just how un-special we and our precious sun are in the galaxy, let alone the universe…” They all nodded politely, but I had to be careful -I was the alien in their midst… “But like Aaron and Jag suggested, maybe what we call religion is just an evolutionary balm for a consciousness that demands identity in the midst of cosmic anonymity.”

I sat back in my seat, rather pleased with my obfuscation. Memories of my university evenings flooded back.

“Whoa,” Aaron said, staring at me -puzzled that I even had an opinion, perhaps. “You make it sound so… I don’t know… depressing!”

Natalie glanced at Aaron and then stared at me for a moment. Her eyes were soft and reassuring, but I could tell she was once again the patient teacher, hoping not to embarrass me, the older, slower student in the back row who would probably never understand. “Not depressing, Aaron,” she said turning away from me with an encouraging smile- “Hopeful…” And she reached out and squeezed Jag’s hand.

Whether it was a secret message to him, I couldn’t tell, but I felt acknowledged at any rate. Comforted, if not accepted -I was from a different time than them, after all.

‘Age considers, youth ventures,” as Rabindranath Tagore once wrote. It probably never occurred to them than I was like them… once.

 

 

 

 

Boundary Issues

I don’t believe I have anything against religion. And yet when I come across it unawares, I am sometimes unsettled by the earnestness with which it is pursued. Or maybe it’s just the facial expressions that seem to surface whenever an administrator of the creed begins to talk.

Still, the older I get the more I wonder about things. It’s strange -I find I’m tangled in the words of Shakespeare’s court jester, Touchstone: ‘A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ Which am I? Which are any of us? It seems there is no winner.

But the more I struggle to free myself from the web, the more enmeshed I become, the more I see it as a lesson: we are both.

“How can you say that?” Edward almost rose from his chair as he pounded the table. It wasn’t only the loudness of his voice that attracted attention in the room, but also the expression in his eyes when people turned to look. His face was red and several fat veins had surfaced on his temple like snakes sunning themselves on a rock. He looked furious. Dangerous!

The man sitting at the adjacent table studied Edward almost clinically for a moment and then, glancing briefly at me, asked if he could be of some help.

The snakes disappeared immediately and Edward stood up, pretending to smile. Then, after trying to attack me with a glare, he slipped out of the room embarrassed by the silence and the flock of eyes that followed him to the door.

“A friend of yours?” the man asked, barely able to suppress a worried grin.

I nodded as nonchalantly as I could manage, but I think I blushed all the same. “I don’t think today is one of his good ones…”

The man was silent for a while and had a sip of his coffee, but he was obviously upset. It was clear that he was thinking about the outburst, because he soon turned to me again. “Look, I realize this is none of my business,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “But is he all right?”

I summoned my eyes from my coffee cup where they had been resting and sent them to scratch at his face. As they circled to alight somewhere I noticed he was wearing a grey clerical collar. I think I must have gasped, because he smiled and shrugged as if to say you never knew who you’ll be sitting next to -especially someone with a grey collar. At least it matched his suit, I thought. Maybe the church was finally looking into fashion.

I took a deep breath and sat back in the hard chair. “He thinks he is…”

His smile broadened. “And you…? Do you think he’s all right?” It was my turn to shrug. “Because he seemed very angry at something… In fact,” he continued, “I think he even frightened some of the customers in here.” He had a sip from his now-cold coffee and extended a hand for me to shake. “I’m sorry, I’m being rude talking to you like this. I’m Gregoire –Greg.”

I introduced myself with a tentative handshake –I didn’t want to commit to anything. “We…” I hesitated to explain, lest it be misconstrued. “We were talking about God.”

Greg’s eyes attached themselves to my face like roosting birds preparing for a storm. “And I take it you disagreed.”

I nodded, but carefully -Edward is my friend. “He just gets excited sometimes.”

“About God?” I could see a little smile trickling across his mouth –I was in his territory after all.

I shrugged and decided to be honest. “Well, not exactly about God, more like whether God…”

I was still locked in the talons of his eyes like a prisoner. “And he felt strongly about his opinion?” he said kindly –like he’d heard it all before.

I had to smile; Edward feels it’s his duty to stand on the other side of a fence no matter what. “He sometimes thinks with his mouth. Words tumble out and then, like a father, he feels he’s obliged to support them.” I sighed to show I’d heard it all before as well.

Greg summoned his eyes back for a moment as he finished off the rest of his coffee. “And are the arguments usually about god?”

I could tell he was trying to be nonchalant about the word. In fact, I think he purposely avoided a capital G. But I had to think about the question. I saw Edward infrequently, often in this coffee shop; and yes, the conversation usually ended up with religion. I had no recourse, especially under the attentive pecking of his eyes, but to shrug again. “He seems to have a thing with religions…”

His eyes nibbled harder on my cheeks and he smiled a weary smile. “Competitive ones…?”

I blinked. “No, neither of us belong to anything…”

“So…?”

I have to hand it to Greg, he knew how to interrogate. Maybe it’s part of pastoral training. “So, I suppose we compare them…” I tried to pretend the arguments we often had were usually just discussions -explorations of contrasting myths, and not heated quarrels.

His face dissolved into a wicked grin and his once predatory eyes now twinkled back to their cages. “Just window shopping… or looking for the best deal?”

I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but it made me wonder about Edward. His wife had belonged to a church before her death many years ago. He’d always resisted, but now that he was retired, he seemed, well, anxious. Or…empty, as he once put it. “Maybe…”

“Maybe he’s read Pascal’s Wager,” Greg interrupted with a mysterious smile. “You know, Blaise Pascal. He thought that even if the existence of a god was unlikely, the benefits of believing in one far outweighed those of any disbelief.”

A light suddenly went on inside my head. “And he’s just trying to find the most comfortable pew?”

Greg nodded, obviously pleased his observation had fallen on fertile ground. “We seem more at ease when we have a direction to face. Then we just need to find a road going there.”

His face was a poem and his metaphors so apt. So certain.

Religare, eh?”

He seemed surprised that I knew the etymology. “Re-fasten? Re-attach…?” And then he sighed the sigh of the contented. “Exactly.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boundary Issues

I don’t believe I have anything against religion. And yet when I come across it unawares, I am sometimes unsettled by the earnestness with which it is pursued. Or maybe it’s just the facial expressions that seem to surface whenever an administrator of the creed begins to talk.

Still, the older I get the more I wonder about things. It’s strange -I find I’m tangled in the words of Shakespeare’s court jester, Touchstone: ‘A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ Which am I? Which are any of us? It seems there is no winner.

But the more I struggle to free myself from the web, the more enmeshed I become, the more I see it as a lesson: we are both.

“How can you say that?” Edward almost rose from his chair as he pounded the table. It wasn’t only the loudness of his voice that attracted attention in the room, but also the expression in his eyes when people turned to look. His face was red and several fat veins had surfaced on his temple like snakes sunning themselves on a rock. He looked furious. Dangerous!

The man sitting at the adjacent table studied Edward almost clinically for a moment and then, glancing briefly at me, asked if he could be of some help.

The snakes disappeared immediately and Edward stood up, pretending to smile. Then, after trying to attack me with a glare, he slipped out of the room embarrassed by the silence and the flock of eyes that followed him to the door.

“A friend of yours?” the man asked, barely able to suppress a worried grin.

I nodded as nonchalantly as I could manage, but I think I blushed all the same. “I don’t think today is one of his good ones…”

The man was silent for a while and had a sip of his coffee, but he was obviously upset. It was clear that he was thinking about the outburst, because he soon turned to me again. “Look, I realize this is none of my business,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “But is he all right?”

I summoned my eyes from my coffee cup where they had been resting and sent them to scratch at his face. As they circled to alight somewhere I noticed he was wearing a grey clerical collar. I think I must have gasped, because he smiled and shrugged as if to say you never knew who you’ll be sitting next to -especially someone with a grey collar. At least it matched his suit, I thought. Maybe the church was finally looking into fashion.

I took a deep breath and sat back in the hard chair. “He thinks he is…”

His smile broadened. “And you…? Do you think he’s all right?” It was my turn to shrug. “Because he seemed very angry at something… In fact,” he continued, “I think he even frightened some of the customers in here.” He had a sip from his now-cold coffee and extended a hand for me to shake. “I’m sorry, I’m being rude talking to you like this. I’m Gregoire –Greg.”

I introduced myself with a tentative handshake –I didn’t want to commit to anything. “We…” I hesitated to explain, lest it be misconstrued. “We were talking about God.”

Greg’s eyes attached themselves to my face like roosting birds preparing for a storm. “And I take it you disagreed.”

I nodded, but carefully -Edward is my friend. “He just gets excited sometimes.”

“About God?” I could see a little smile trickling across his mouth –I was in his territory after all.

I shrugged and decided to be honest. “Well, not exactly about God, more like whether God…”

I was still locked in the talons of his eyes like a prisoner. “And he felt strongly about his opinion?” he said kindly –like he’d heard it all before.

I had to smile; Edward feels it’s his duty to stand on the other side of a fence no matter what. “He sometimes thinks with his mouth. Words tumble out and then, like a father, he feels he’s obliged to support them.” I sighed to show I’d heard it all before as well.

Greg summoned his eyes back for a moment as he finished off the rest of his coffee. “And are the arguments usually about god?”

I could tell he was trying to be nonchalant about the word. In fact, I think he purposely avoided a capital G. But I had to think about the question. I saw Edward infrequently, often in this coffee shop; and yes, the conversation usually ended up with religion. I had no recourse, especially under the attentive pecking of his eyes, but to shrug again. “He seems to have a thing with religions…”

His eyes nibbled harder on my cheeks and he smiled a weary smile. “Competitive ones…?”

I blinked. “No, neither of us belong to anything…”

“So…?”

I have to hand it to Greg, he knew how to interrogate. Maybe it’s part of pastoral training. “So, I suppose we compare them…” I tried to pretend the arguments we often had were usually just discussions -explorations of contrasting myths, and not heated quarrels.

His face dissolved into a wicked grin and his once predatory eyes now twinkled back to their cages. “Just window shopping… or looking for the best deal?”

I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but it made me wonder about Edward. His wife had belonged to a church before her death many years ago. He’d always resisted, but now that he was retired, he seemed, well, anxious. Or…empty, as he once put it. “Maybe…”

“Maybe he’s read Pascal’s Wager,” Greg interrupted with a mysterious smile. “You know, Blaise Pascal. He thought that even if the existence of a god was unlikely, the benefits of believing in one far outweighed those of any disbelief.”

A light suddenly went on inside my head. “And he’s just trying to find the most comfortable pew?”

Greg nodded, obviously pleased his observation had fallen on fertile ground. “We seem more at ease when we have a direction to face. Then we just need to find a road going there.”

His face was a poem and his metaphors so apt. So certain.

Religare, eh?”

He seemed surprised that I knew the etymology. “Re-fasten? Re-attach…?” And then he sighed the sigh of the contented. “Exactly.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Atheism for Seniors

I don’t know why, but sometimes I get into arguments with my friends –sorry, discussions– about the strangest things: things neither of us know anything about. At our ages, you would think we would know better… Or maybe more, I suppose. But there you have it: the ravages of Age writ loud.

Sometimes it’s politics –often it’s politics, actually- but the other day, surprisingly, it wasn’t. Now there’s not much that either of us know less about than politics, so I think we both figured we were pawing at new ground here –rutting over ideas without the benefit of antlers. But it’s like that when you get old, and hard-earned habits solidify into convictions that we toss to the young as wisdom. And Alistair figured that his beliefs about religion and its progeny should qualify.

“You can’t be an atheist, you know!” he said out of the blue one morning, with that air of certainty I knew so well from our political discourses. All the while, he was staring at me as if he’d been mulling the matter over for quite some time.

I returned the stare somewhat defensively, uncertain whether he was suggesting that the concept itself was inherently flawed, or that I was. Of course, given the omniscient way he was propounding it, I accepted neither. “And why is that, Alistair?” I said with what I hoped was a condescending tone of voice.

We were sitting on his porch having a Sunday morning coffee; neither of us were even considering going to church.

He sat forward in his recliner and put his coffee cup on the little glass table we shared. “Because ‘atheist’ –the word- comes from the Latin, a –or ‘without’ and theos, – ‘god’…”

“Greek,” I corrected.

“Huhh?”

Theos is the Greek word for god. Deus is the Latin one…”

He reached for his coffee again, sipped it –desperately, I thought- then glared at me for a moment, probably more upset at losing his train of thought, than his etymological one.

“You were going to crush the concept of atheism, Alistair,” I said to help him out.

He put the cup down again and smiled. “To deny the actuality of a god, you must first accept the concept of god… Or you wouldn’t even have a word for it,” he said, smirked, and picked up the cup again to give me time to digest the profound revelation he had granted me.

I tried not to roll my eyes. “So, does that mean that if there’s a word for something, then it exists?”

He shook his head, but carefully, as he tried to figure out whether I was trying to trap him. “No, but would you accept that unless it’s a deliberate nonsense-word, it does refer to something?”

My turn to be careful. I nodded cautiously. Alistair isn’t known for his logical prowess… But then again, neither am I.

He sat back in his chair and stared out at the trees, their arms waving slowly in the breeze. For a while the only sound was the souffle of wind tousling the leaves. “So, are you…?” he said, finally, after scouting my face with his eyes.

“Am I what?”

“An atheist.”

I hate it when I’m confronted. “You mean am I someone who denies a concept that by its very negation proves its a priori existence?”

He took a moment to work that through and then nodded. “I think so…” But he didn’t sound at all certain of his work.

I like to think of myself as more of a fence-sitter on the question of god –an ‘a gnosis’ kind of guy. If we can’t know, then how is it we can be certain? I thought maybe I’d sit on the fence with my answer as well, to be logically consistent. “Is anything in life either fully black, or fully white?”

A mischievous smile suddenly appeared on his face. “So you’re a greytheist?” he said and laughed.

I had to admit it was clever. “How about you, Alistair?”

He shrugged. “I’m a catholic.”

“Small ‘C’?”

“What do you mean?”

“The word means ‘universal’ –as in ‘all embracing’…”

He smiled. “Yeah, I think that would pretty well cover it. I embrace all religions…” But when he saw one of my eyebrows wrinkling my forehead, he amended his catholicism somewhat. “I mean, people can believe what they want, eh?”

“That go for atheists, too?”

His previous smile of agape was suddenly replaced by a wry one. “What do atheists believe –if not in no god?”

He had me there. “I don’t know –the word just refers to what they don’t believe in, doesn’t it? I guess that leaves a lot of room for other things, though…”

He nodded and was silent for a while, staring into space as the relentless wind still played with the leaves. “Pretty hard to prove or disprove a negative, though, don’t you think?”

“You mean the old saw, ‘Absence of evidence isn’t necessarily evidence of absence?’”

He nodded again, and I could see something hardening in his face. I had the impression I was being led. “How can you prove something isn’t? Even the Scientific Method –which relies heavily on inductive reasoning: deriving general principles from observations- contains uncertainty, doesn’t it? If I only see white swans, that doesn’t prove that all swans are necessarily white. One black swan disproves the conclusion. Disproves the principle…”

Alistair must have been reading up on this –I only vaguely remembered it from university. But I nodded anyway, deciding I’d adopt his catholic approach: when in doubt and sitting on someone else’s porch, agree with them.

“Deduction, on the other hand, works from the top down –from general principles to predicting what the observations should reveal. So… if your general principle is uncertain… and you can only prove that with observations…” He hesitated, obviously stumbling down a path he didn’t recognize. “Either way, in everyday life, we are forced to draw conclusions from limited experience, so we may get it wrong…” He stared at the trees again.

“Alistair what are you talking about, for heaven’s sake?”

He chuckled, but he looked embarrassed. “Uhmm, I thought I was going to disprove atheism…”

“Can we maybe go back to politics next Sunday, Alistair?”

He shrugged, nodded, and then stared at his coffee cup. “I was pretty sure I was on to something, though…”