Something is coming together these days. Last year, we got a new pope, one who is shocking the world with simple messages of tolerance and compassion. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that it is okay for town meetings to include prayer. I’m feeling the rumblings of something, breezing through the social fabric. It’s like a gathering storm of faith, after a long drought where intellectuals disdained religion. So I think it’s time to talk about something I’ve been thinking about for a long time… What I believe.
This is not the most personal thing I’ve ever written. But it is (so far) the most personal thing I’ve ever posted here.
When I was in high school, I was a Sunday School teacher. For one hour on Sunday mornings, I talked to second-graders about morality and read them Bible stories. For most people who know me, this is incongruous. I’m a deeply spiritual person, but not very religious. I was brought up Presbyterian, which has got to be one of the most live-and-let-live denominations, something that defines me relatively well. At that time, I thought of those Bible stories as allegory, and I still believe that today. Religious writings, in my mind, are roadmaps, not photographs; they show us the way but they don’t depict certainty or reality.
Here’s another little fact about me… I sometimes think of myself as an intellectual. Based in science, open to new ideas, always willing to discuss the finer points of a topic. Over the last two decades, I’ve watched while thinking people turned away from religion. A few, but not many, even turned away from spirituality. I have many good friends, wonderful people, who consider themselves agnostic – I have at times applied that moniker to myself – and a few friends who label themselves atheists.
This time of fading religious belief was beginning around the time my father died and continued though the time my mother passed as well. Losing your parents makes you question, and I was no exception. In fact, my faith has always been a faith of questioning. Even as a Sunday school teacher, I wondered, “what does this mean to our lives?” I encouraged the second graders to think about that question, and when they wanted to know if they had the “right” answer, I admitted that I didn’t really know. Sometimes, I would share with them some of what I believe. Other times, we just ate graham crackers while talking about other things.
Our new pope – I say “our” because I believe we’re all in this together, like a grove of aspen that share a common and continuous root system – communicates with a sort of velvet clasp. He extols goodness in no uncertain terms, and shares a missive of compassion, seeming to believe it will change the world. I believe that too. But in some parts of the world, it’s seems that the mullahs are fading into a background role as ordinary rabble-rousers take over and try (ineffectively) to state their case as a religious one. I’m watching and waiting, hoping that this new tide of spirit creates a rising wave of ordinary people who stand up and say, “This is not right. This is not what I believe.”
I believe there is something more, although I’m not sure I know what to call it. While I don’t feel my father’s presence directly, I do feel his legacy in my own thoughts, actions and usually steady demeanor. I act in ways he would have, and I believe that those actions are part genetics, part proximity learning, and part something else, a likening of spirit. On the other hand, I feel my mother’s spirit more directly. Her voice was not so much like mine, she had different advice to offer and when I hear that advice in my head, it feels like it’s coming from elsewhere, it feels like it’s coming from her.
There’s also my brother-in-law, who died a very sudden death after a fairly quiet life. Sometimes I feel his spirit in our home. Not as an advisor, like my parents, but just as a pal, a peer. Like someone who stopped by for dinner and is just checking the pots to see what smells so good.
I was there when my brother-in-law died, and I was at my fathers bedside just a few minutes before he passed on a Sunday afternoon. Something was there, in each of them, and then it wasn’t. The very existence of a soul – an essence that is not physical, but still present – should make us ask the questions “where did it come from?” and “where did it go?” The ephemeral presence of the soul is what makes me believe in quantum physics, quantum mechanics and the possibility of everything particles.
These days, I have come to believe that science and spirit are one-in-the-same. They come from a place we don’t understand and as we get closer to answers in one, it draws us naturally to question the other. To me, that explains the surge in religion in the Stone Age. People who discovered fire couldn’t help but imagine God. It explains the surge around the turn of the 20th century. People who viewed that synergistic explosion of art and exploration and the written word couldn’t help but wonder. How can you gaze on the hazy realism of Monet’s Poppy Field without asking, “where did it come from?” How can you touch the cool marble of Rodin’s Danaid without imagining God?
When my dad was sick, someone gave me a copy of a remarkable book, called “The Religions of Man.” I read it after Dad died, ostensibly to comfort myself, and in important ways, it did just that. It was the brief and matter-of-fact descriptions of the world’s leading religions that spoke to me most. I loved the Hindu (or was it Islam?) idea that we’re all walking a spiral path up a mountain and our role is not to look at those ahead of us, but help those who are behind. I loved the Buddhist idea that we are responsible for our own happiness and should be seeking to know ourselves above all else. I loved the Muslim idea of loving our neighbors, something that often goes missing in the American media’s depiction of that religion, but oh-so-present in my admittedly-few Muslim friends.
More than anything, I believe that we really are all in this together. In terms of atomic-soup, we’re all part of the same basic stuff, mere molecules away from each other. What you do affects me and what I do affects you, to greater or lesser degrees depending on our proximity and the force of our actions.
I believe that we should be good to ourselves, and then be good to the people around us, and finally be good to the rest of the world. I believe that goodness doesn’t necessarily trump evil, but that goodness is the natural antithesis to evil, an intentional reaction which is two clicks past entropy in the larger scheme. I believe it’s our responsibility to enforce limits on the negative energy we put out into the world, and hold other people accountable for their negativity whenever we can. It might take a lot of goodness to overcome a little bit of evil, but even a little bit of goodness changes things.
When I comment here on remarkable ideas, or try to make the world a better place with simple (or sometimes complex) advice, it’s to do my part for positive energy. I think that every little bit helps, that it’s my responsibility to make things better where I can. And in the end, I’m proud to admit that this is what I believe….
photo credit: Daniel Pascoal, https://www.flickr.com/photos/dpg/6744045/