Revised What I Believe (Part 3 of 7). Eventually to be published in book form.
3. Summary so far, and “religion” in general
Summary so far
I’ve tried here to express what I believe fairly succinctly, rather than indulging in long discussions. But when every sentence is important, there may be a need to reiterate some things for clarity. The most important things so far, then, are:
—1. The question isn’t so much as to whether “God” exists, but what we mean by “God”: existence” exists. “God” isn’t just a “creator” of the world (or of the universe) since he is not a “being” at all but the fundamental source of everything.
—2.We’re usually unable to grasp this abstract” power by our limited minds, so we still use the more human image of “God” to “pray” to: but this is only a convenience and doesn’t represent “reality.”
—3. “Religion” is, and has been, important to all of us since the beginning of humanity. The questions that concern most of us at some stage in our lives are: why should we believe anything at all?; why should anything exist?; is there a conscious afterlife; and what’s in it for us?
—4. If “God” is omnipotent he can be evil as well as good. Thus he lives out both good and evil within each one of us (whether we “believe” in him or not).
—5. “Religion” isn’t the only way to inspire morality.
—6. The starting point for all of us is our own consciousness.
—7. Reincarnation makes sense, and we choose our challenges for the next lifetime.
All religions are searching for answers.
There are clearly huge differences among different religions but I see all of them (including those generally referred to as pagan) as attempts to understand our world and our place within it. It makes little difference whether a religion is monotheistic or polytheistic, since these are simply different ways of understanding the world. Monotheism has the idea of one “God” in charge of everything, whereas polytheism emphasizes different facets of life on earth—and let us remember that the polytheism of ancient Greece or Rome, as well as modern Hinduism, still has the idea of one supreme “God.” Then there is Buddhism, lacking the concept of a God at all and throwing everything back onto humans and their search for “nirvana.” All of these contain certain truths about human existence, and an omnipotent God can certainly cope with opposing beliefs.
What do we mean by “Eternity” and “Time”?
I used to think of eternity as time going without end, and soon enough, with my mind in a spin, I had to stop. Since then, like many philosophers and writers too, I’ve learnt to think of eternity as being the one moment of “now,”—which to me makes sense intellectually. The problem is, though, that however much we may agree with this proposition we are limited by our perception of our daily lives as a succession of moments as past changes to future. Thus in wanting a particular result, I usually find myself asking when it will happen: when will I finally become “successful,” for example? (Walsch makes the point that continually expecting something drives it away.) In the eternal moment of “now,” I can see myself as simply being successful, but as one day succeeds another it’s difficult to think that way.
When I was a child, I hated being told that it was the best time of my life. I wanted to be grown up, wanted something other than the present. Now, if I look back and ask myself what was the best time of my life, I first think of the two years when I was doing my obligatory national service in the R.A.F. But at the time I wanted something else: for my service to be over so I’d be “free” again. (In fact, when I got out, it was one of the most miserable periods in my life.) If I ask myself that same question and relate it to the whole of my life, was the best during some particular time in the past, or am I now looking forward to something in the future? For how many of us can say that the best time in our life is now?—which, after all, is our only current experience.
I would also agree with Neale Donald Walsch that eternity is endless in the sense of different dimensions as well as in space itself: in a way, however, that is impossible for our limited understanding to fathom. I’m not here making an argument for God as “the prime cause,” because it’s more complicated than that, and we’re then still faced with the question of who created God. (Some of the so-called “gnostic” gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi claim that the creator of the world was no more than a “demiurge” who was aspiring to take over the role of the “true ” God.) Here, I have to remind myself that omnipotence is doing and being everything: the both-and rather than the either-or. So again I return to the only thing that I experience directly, my own consciousness.
Direct “religious experiences.”
Unlike some, I have had few so-called religious experiences. I have had dreams of people I knew were dead and who, in the dream, were alive: but only one, when I was eleven years old, remained with me as important. My grandmother had died and I was terribly upset. Then I dreamt that I was on a train, and there she was, on the seat across from me. “I thought you were dead,” I said to her. “No,”’ she answered, “I’m alive”—and she put her hand in mine. I could actually feel it, just as it always was. It’s easy to explain this away, but the experience was so real that even thinking of it today I see it as evidence of an afterlife.
Later there was something perhaps even more significant. It was during an unhappy time in my life when suddenly I felt the complete absence of God. Of an external God, that is. For a short time I felt despair. But in that moment I was forced back to myself, my own consciousness. I was so angry that I almost shouted “I don’t believe in you any more, God!”: still addressing this “God” that I didn’t believe in. And here, in a strange way, there came my answer. If there was no external God, then God was there, in myself: and to that God, paradoxically, I felt closer than ever. This isn’t arrogance, as I tried to explain in the extract from Veronica’s Papers quoted earlier.
We are all God, of that I’m convinced, but often enough I have to remind myself of that. Then it may seem that I’m talking to myself. Am I not just making it all up? But talking to God and talking to myself are the same thing. However much in moods of depression I may say God doesn’t exist, it’s still him I talk to in my mind.
Nothing but “God.”
If, then, God is everything, there is no way we can escape “him,” for there is no separation between “him” and us. As Psalm 39 puts it, “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.”
Is it true that “We live, we suffer, we die”?
This is often said, and it’s easy to believe it. Even those who are “successful” during their lives are usually forgotten once they have retired and are living their old age, and being remembered after death is no consolation if one is not there to enjoy it: Van Gogh, now remembered as one of our greatest artists, got no satisfaction from that while he was alive.
But it’s also a matter of attitude, for happiness is a decision: it is not fulfilment of our desires or success that leads to happiness, but happiness that leads to fulfilment of our desires and success. And if there is no one to blame for our lives except for ourselves (our initial choice when we enter each life), then we are precisely where we need to be in our present lifetime.
So what if I’m depressed? It may be unpleasant, but it’s not important. The universe doesn’t depend on that. But my consciousness somehow is important. It’s there that I “live” and have my being, and for me, this is life itself. It’s the same, of course, for all of us. And as Walsch points out, there’s a difference between pain (as in a toothache, which we can do something practical about) and unhappiness. Pain is simply an experience to which we need have no emotional attachment.
Rewriting St. John
Recently I’ve often had to pass someone’s door with a biblical quotation pinned to it that irritates, if not offends, me every time.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3, 16).
Now I can’t object to anyone putting up something that is personally meaningful, and I have to admit that the verse is quite beautiful in its simplicity. The trouble is that there is barely a word in it that I believe, at least without qualification. Thus I tried rewriting it so as to reflect my own beliefs.
--What is it I object to?
The sentence, first, ignores all of creation except for this world. At one time humans thought they were the centre of everything, but we now know this just isn’t true and that there is an enormous universe consisting of billions upon billions not just of stars but of galaxies, and possibly of other universes too. In such a multiplicity of creation, why would God love only one world? To express the magnificence of God we have, rather, to see “him” as standing behind everything. This leads to what I suggested at the beginning, that the question isn’t so much whether “God” exists, but what we mean by “God.”
--Incapable of thinking of “God in the abstract,” we personify “God” as a human father/mother, whenever we try to establish a personal “relationship” with “him/her.” But this is only a personification for our convenience, which doesn’t reflect any particular reality. But—to come to this my second objection—the biblical passage implies that “God” is indeed a father making a sacrifice by giving us “his son,” whom, like any human father, he must love more than others. Surely this is nonsense, particularly since “God” knows that “his son” will return to “him.”
--Third, what is meant by a pre-existing “only begotten son”? How indeed can he have been begotten “in heaven”? If we are all “sons” (“children”) of God—as is found in the Bible too (Genesis 6, 2-4; Job 1, 6 and 2, 1, besides other references in the New Testament )—this just doesn’t make sense, although of course it relates to the questionable Christian doctrine of the virgin birth.
--Going on from there—always mindful of the magnificence of God behind all existence—we need to change the sentence to reflect a greater inclusivity, for why should we limit it only to Christianity on this particular earth? There have been other individuals, including women and even other gods, in various religions, all of which ask the same basic questions. We also need to avoid the “sexist” language mentioned earlier.
--What does “So that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” actually mean? Believe in “God” or in “his son”? And then, “whosoever believeth in him” is highly self-congratulatory (“We believe and others don’t”). And what of those millions of people in the roughly hundred thousand years on earth before the coming of Christ? What of our human ancestors, for where does “mankind” begin as distinct from other hominids? What, too, is the distinction between “humans” and “animals,” equally a part of this universe? I believe that all “will have everlasting life” and that, like Christ, all have “pre-existed.”
There is also the whole question of the provenance of the Bible (particularly St. John’s gospel), which we know many theologians question since it is unsupported by outside evidence. Those who have a simplistic belief in the Bible’s inerrancy should try reconciling the many contradictions within it, let alone exploring the actual meaning of some of the words in the society for whom it was written—not to mention the proven mistranslations.
To rewrite the biblical verse so that it adheres to what I myself believe, while keeping to the simplicity of the original, was not easy. Of course I found I could not express all of my views, which it will take me this longish article to present. But at least I finally arrived at something I could accept. Purely for myself and—as always—for anyone else who finds it helpful, I came up with the following:
“For the power of all universes revealed itself (on this earth) as love, through the example of those individuals who remind us that the holy within ourselves and all creation will never perish but has lived, and will live, eternally.”
Rewriting the Lord’s Prayer
I have fewer problems with the Lord’s Prayer since I can say it while mentally giving it my own interpretation.
--“Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” becomes:
We glorify you as the source of everything within us and in all universes.
--“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”:
Your kingdom is everywhere, your will and our will together create everything on this earth and in the eternal heaven.
--“Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us”:
You protect us this day, accepting us as your will has made us, as we too joyfully accept others.
--“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil":
You do not test us beyond our strength, keeping us from what we least desire.
--“For thine is the kingdom the power and the glory, for ever and ever, amen”:
For your kingdom, power, and glory are with us forever.
So the whole Lord’s prayer becomes:
“We glorify you as the source of everything within us and in all universes. Your kingdom is everywhere, your will and our will together create everything on this earth and in the eternal heaven. You protect us this day, accepting us as your will has made us, as we too joyfully accept all others. You do not test us beyond our strength, keeping us from what we least desire. For your kingdom, power, and glory are with us for ever.”
Rewriting the Creed.
Having tried to rewrite St. John and the Lord’s Prayer, I thought I should try to do the same for the Creed. This, however, was more difficult since the traditional words, in both the Nicene and the Apostles’ Creed, represent beliefs very different from my own. How to get the equivalent of “I believe in the holy Catholic Church,” “the Communion of Saints,” or “the Resurrection of the body,” which I clearly don’t believe in, at least in the meaning in which those words are usually understood?
However, I came up with the following statement of my belief:
“I believe in one ‘God,’ the source of everything within us and in all universes. And in his son Jesus, as we too are his sons. Being God’s incarnation on earth, we were born of our mothers to become human, experiencing human pain and suffering as well as the joys of life. After death we rise to experience again the presence of God, where we shall determine how we shall return to other lives as they continue in the eternal moment of now. I believe in the spirit of God within me, who speaks to me in all kinds of ways. I believe in a human community of seekers for meaning in their lives, where there are no sins but only the consequences of actions. Again, I look for release from this world and the lives to come in eternity.