So here we go again. Rather than being one two-part article as I first intended, this is turning into a continuing exploration—which is perhaps as it should be, since for most of us there can be no final answer. Someday I intend to go over all these parts of “What I believe,” adding the two parts of “Chance or Fate (God’s Computer)” which are also relevant, and try to produce something more structured and logical.
However, it occurs to me that a certain confusion reflects what usually happens whenever we start thinking about life’s purpose. I was recently talking to a group about Dostoevsky and his dislike of reason and rationality. How the universe “works” is what science tries, not always successfully, to explain rationally. But the meaning of existence is something science can never explain: we can only struggle with this and wonder at the mystery.
I should stress too that I am no philosopher and am no good at the philosophical type of reasoning: I’m well aware that almost every sentence I write could be analyzed and quibbled over, particularly when definitions are involved: what we mean by “God,” whether we refer to whatever this means as “he” or “she,” and so on. There are certainly better qualified people to speak on such subjects. And yet—something else I’ve been meaning to say—every one of us is limited in our own understanding and ability to express difficult ideas. We just try to do what we can within our own limitations.
Anyway, I decided to add a fourth part to this article as the result of a book I read recently, relating to what I’ve written earlier—and I apologize for any inevitable repetition. The main argument of Karen Armstrong’s somewhat heavy-going The Case for God is that in the ancient world, not just in the Bible but in other texts too, there was never any intention of writing historical truth or of giving literal explanations of how the universe came about: the pursuit of scientific explanations came only relatively recently. She states that God can never be reduced to simply a “being” and suggests that the whole search for answers about the creation of the universe (why should anything exist?) is misguided: we can only accept “existence” as it is. And this, at least in my interpretation, is what we call God.
Now this is remarkably close to the atheist’s position that we can only accept “what is,” which can then be examined scientifically. Here, unexpectedly, I find myself agreeing with the atheists. The huge difference, though, is that the believer accepts the whole miracle of existence as itself being “God.” The outside world of the universe, which exists; the very things we use; the places where we live; our own bodies even (all of which originated in “outer space”): everything is “God”. For me this came as a sudden revelation. We can even at times look around us as an intellectual exercise, being aware that all this “stuff” consists of (to us unfathomable) atoms and particles in constant motion, although we take its more solid existence for granted all the time.
But in one of my moments of depression, there came a lingering doubt. If all of existence is “God,” a kind of enduring “power” (to use another word), what guarantee is there that my individual consciousness will partake in it after my death? Might not my consciousness indeed disappear—like myself under an operation as I mentioned earlier, with no awareness even of having died? Individual eternal life is essentially the only thing that matters for most of us in any discussion of what we believe about God, as I’ve said before: and I also recall saying that I just don’t believe my “consciousness” will die. But what if I’m fooling myself?
I had to mull this over for a long time before the thought “came” to me (in bed at about four in the morning) that my consciousness is still a part of the “everything that is God,” which cannot disappear. I believe not in the God who is outside myself, but who is myself, as I’ve said from the beginning. If every person’s consciousness just vanished with every death, this would diminish the power of the “omnipotence”—which would be illogical.
Well this is getting difficult to explain, but I think it’s useful here to mention a suggestion I came across from John Dominic Crossan for a less loaded word than “God” to refer to all of this, namely “the Holy.” I like this too because the word is reminiscent of “whole”: everything around us. (Just think: vegetable matter, metals, plastics, radio and all kinds of other waves, etc., are all part of this mysterious “whole”!) Of course, with my human mind I am unable to grasp this. I still need the more human image of “God” to “pray” and speak to, even though I know there isn’t a bearded old man in the sky as I once thought.
Neale Donald Walsch also makes the interesting point that, if I indeed am “God” (in the sense indicated earlier) I do not need in my prayers to petition or beg things of him, but to command. Is there in fact a difference, particularly when my “commands” don’t seem to be working any better than my petitions? (This of course relates too to the issue of having faith.) But I still find the idea helpful. The problem, however, is often to know what one wants to command, in the sense of bringing about one’s true desires. To give a simple example, that I’ve used in my novel, Veronica’s Papers. Suppose I “command” more money, and it’s not forthcoming. Does that mean that my command hasn’t worked? But do I really want more money as such? No. Money for its own sake not only doesn’t interest me, I find the whole subject totally boring. What I want are some of the things that, in my shortsightedness, I think more money would help with: those, not money, are my true desires. I enjoy travel, and I’ve traveled a lot: not because of having money for it, but because of being able to work abroad, because of sabbatical leaves, and by being a leader for tourist groups. Another example is wanting sales for my novel, Sardinian Silver. How easy if the publisher simply advertised it and it sold immediately. I wouldn’t have to write all these articles on sites intended to promote it. But wait a minute: for a long time I’ve been having difficulty putting another novel together. But now I’m writing none the less. Are not these articles something I want to write, so everything so far has turned out to reflect my true desires?
For my commands, then, I have to think a great deal. In fact, I’ve achieved much of what I desire. (I’ve talked of this in another article, “Chance or Fate?—God’s Computer,” so I’ll not repeat the details here.) And essentially I’ve been able to reduce my “commands” to two, in which all the others are involved. Are they being fulfilled? I can only say perhaps, gradually—bearing in mind that once something has been fulfilled we tend to forget about it and take it for granted.
For a problem we all have is that of time as opposed to eternity. When I was young, I used to think of eternity just as time going without end, and soon enough, with my mind in a spin, I had to stop. Since then I’ve learnt to think of eternity, as many others have said, as being the one moment of “now.” Intellectually that makes sense to me, and yet in my experience of this life I am limited by my perception of it as a succession of moments as past changes to future. In commanding a particular result, I then find myself asking when it will happen. When will I finally become “successful” (as I understand it), for example? In the eternal moment of “now,” I can see myself as simply being successful, but in my earthly life it’s difficult to think that way. When I was a child, I was always annoyed when someone told me it was the best time of my life, since I wanted to be grown up, wanted something other than the present. If I now look back and ask myself what was the best time of my life, one that immediately occurs to me is the two years when I was in the RAF doing national service. But at the time I again wanted something else: for my national service to be over so I’d be free again. (When I got out, it was one of the most miserable periods in my life.) If we ask ourselves that same question about the best time of our lives, was it some particular time in the past, or are we looking forward to something in the future? How many of us can say the best time in our life is now?—which, after all, is our only current experience.
Above, of course, I’ve been talking only of myself even if it relates to others too—and one might well ask am I not just being selfish. In a sense, I am. But in my understanding, “God’s will” and mine (if I am “God”) are the same. Also, although I might make “commands” for myself, what right have I to do so on behalf of others? There are millions of people whose lives are many times more difficult than mine. For all that I sympathize and try to help (as I do when the opportunity is there) I cannot live their lives for them, so in a sense it’s not my concern. I can command for them only in very general terms, for I just don’t know what is best for them. With all the wars, violence, poverty, misery, problems in the world, I can only “command” that people’s basic desires be fulfilled, bearing in mind too that this Earth is not the only world in the universe and that there are undoubtedly places where life generally is less harsh; and I believe, too, in reincarnation, which may well be in a better place then here. I still have to ask whom in fact do I help as opposed to thinking only about myself? The answer is simply that I help those I can, and continue to try to do so.
Now a thought occurs to me. With my views as expressed above, could I not go back to calling myself a Christian and start going to church again—making mental reservations about the words said during the service and sung in the hymns, as I always used to. But within myself I resist this, precisely because it would mean going back. Much as I appreciate what is good about Christianity and Christians, I simply do not wish to be identified with them and the way that many (not all) of them think. When I was still going to church, I found there were people who had no objection to the idea that I was “searching”—but the expectation seemed always to be that my search would result in the same answers that they had. Now, after a long period of (still ongoing) searching, I know the essentials of what I believe, but it just isn’t what the church believes. Basic doctrines such as Jesus being God’s only son and redeemer of the world (this related to the whole doctrine of the Trinity), not to mention “God’s” being outside myself rather than myself as “God,” are foreign to me.
Now many of us have probably wished at some time that “God” (the “Holy”) would speak to us directly, in a proper conversation. Neale Donald Walsch says that he talks to us all the time, in different ways, and I’ve come to believe that this is true . in my case, this usually means talking to myself, to the God who is myself. I often complain that these conversations tend to be in bed, when I wake unable to sleep. Why couldn’t God speak to me during the day and let me get my fill of sleep? The obvious answer is that during the day my mind is too full of other things, I have so much to do that there’s no chance for a conversation. Yet do I set aside a regular period for quiet meditation? Do I listen to that quiet, still voice of calm within? No. Only at night, when I’m relaxed. And then, even though I think I should be sleeping, why not try just being in the moment and enjoy it, rather than concentrating on my sleeplessness? And I do think God speaks to me all the time, if not as unambiguously as I’d like! The question is whether I’m prepared to listen.
I had a good example of this a couple of weeks ago. I was feeling depressed over my lack of “success,” and as usual I woke and couldn’t get back to sleep. I got up, went to sit in my study and started to “wrestle” with God—there’s nothing wrong with that. My argument was of the type (again mentioned in my other article) “Well yes, you’ve given me a great deal, I’m immeasurably more fortunate than many others. But when are you going to give me the little extra, not just what I need to avoid the disasters? When shall I go into the plus side of the register, rather than staying at zero, between the plus and the minus?”
Eventually I went back to bed, still depressed. The next morning I was about to tell my wife about it when I went first to check my e-mail—and learned that my novel had just won the Pinnacle award for best fiction. Now that wasn’t what I wanted: I’d have preferred to have sold some copies, or to have received a note from an agent wanting to represent me for my next project. I still wasn’t satisfied: awards are a nice pat on the back, but do little in the absence of sales. I know what my “commands” are for the next few stages of my career, and I recognize that my current novel is only a tiny beginning on that path, going only the smallest way towards being the kind of fiction I want to write. So I felt a bit like a begging dog who’d been thrown a tiny bone to keep him quiet. But I did feel that someone (or some force) had thrown me something. Just enough to give me a wee bit of encouragement.
A. Colin Wright's novel Sardinian Silver can be ordered from any bookstore, from www.amazon.com and other amazon sites, from www.barnesandnoble.com, and from www.iUniverse.com.