WHAT I BELIEVE (BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO)
A. COLIN WRIGHT
1. Introduction and Conventions
How I started all this.
I first wrote down “What I believe” for myself, so as to clarify those conclusions about life I had arrived at over the years. For me, it was important to be able to justify my beliefs intellectually, for my own satisfaction. But in trying to turn this into an article, I realized that some things that were evident to me required further explanation for others. I have tried to provide this, modifying the article somewhat and attempting to make each part of it of an easily readable length. But first I have to clarify certain conventions I shall use.
--What we mean by “God”
One frequently ignored question whenever we talk of “God” is not so much as to whether “he” exists, but what we mean by “God.” When we think of “him” not just as the creator of this world but as the foundation of all being—that great “power” that stands behind all of the universe as we know it (going back to before the Big Bang, even, and perhaps to other universes too), we are at a loss find words to express what we’re talking about. We may find it useful simply to substitute “existence” for “God,” since few of us would deny that “existence” exists. (Some people, of course, do deny the reality of our earthly lives, seeing them as a dream, compared with the reality of what we might experience in an afterlife.) To see “God” simply as another “being” is to deny his acknowledged “omnipotence” (although even with this there are problems, which I shall touch on later). This is a limitation of language itself and we have no choice but to accept that fact.
--Another word for “God”
If only we could find another word for “God.” This, though, usually turns out to be impossible. The closest I personally can come to it are expressions such Paul Tillich’s “The Divine” or John Dominic Crossan’s “The Holy.” I like the latter because the word is reminiscent of “whole”: everything around us. Just think: not only animal life, but vegetable matter, metals, plastics, radio and all kinds of other waves, etc.: are all part of this mysterious “whole” that we mean by “God”! (I still find it miraculous that I can hear radio and telephones waves at the speed of light: although I more or less understand the theories of physics behind them, I have no idea what is done physically to make them work.)
--There is a problem however whenever we talk of having some kind of relationship with “whatever we mean by God,” since our human minds are unable to grasp this abstract power. We still need a personal, more human image of “God” to “pray” and speak to. And, whatever our personal definitions may be, in any discussion we can’t keep repeating “whatever we mean by God.” We still have to use some word such as “God,” and I shall do so when it seems simplest, remembering that it’s only a convenient shorthand and doesn’t imply that “God” is no more than the traditional “creator” of the world. (More on this later.)
--“He,” “She” or “It”?
None of these is appropriate for referring to “God”, of course. I certainly do not see “God” as being male or female, but I find it clumsy to write “he or she” the whole time (or to alternate between the two), while “it” is even worse. Again, we simply don’t have the right word to apply to “whatever we mean by God.” I am old enough to have been brought up with the image of “God” as a beneficent old man in the sky and, although I firmly believe that “God” represents not this but a deep spiritual awareness within myself, I still am unable to get rid of that original image. Thus I shall refer to “God” as “he” if I can’t get around the problem by recasting the whole sentence. And why not admit that I still think of “God” as a person a lot of the time?—even if that’s not what I really believe about “him”!
You will notice that I still capitalize “God”—largely because I do not wish to offend some people unnecessarily, although I don’t apply this to “him” or “her.” At times, you will also have noticed, I find it convenient simply to use quotation marks.
--For convenience, I use the word “religion” not in the sense of “church religion” but in its broadest sense of questions involving the meaning and purpose of life. I would indeed call myself a deeply “religious” person in this broad sense (rejecting the word “spiritual” that many adopt because for me it is just too vague, not necessarily involved with the concept of “God” which, as I’ve indicated above, is important to me).
Why me?—when there are so many other books on “religion.”
In recent years, a multitude of books with a non-traditional approach towards religion have appeared. I can only hope that my personal view will also provide something of interest. I shall indicate a few other books in the text, but I shall not provide a bibliography or make this into a deep, philosophical discussion. Indeed, I shall try to avoid an unnecessarily detailed argument. Philosophy seminars that I’ve been to drive me crazy: I just don’t have that type of mind. But I’m also very much aware that, as soon as one starts discussing complicated issues, one has to struggle over every sentence to make sure it’s consistent with what one’s tried to say already. So the reader will have to accept that I am doing my best and that I cannot, in each sentence, keep defending views I have expressed elsewhere.
I hope here to speak as succinctly as possible, but some of these things are complicated by their own nature, so it won’t always be easy. And then, I have to admit to being an “intellectual,” and my arguments to a certain extent are necessarily intellectual also. And here I have to make one more qualification: it’s important to realize that people understand at their own level. Some are not interested in the problem at all, but they won’t read this article in the first place. I hope that others will find my views helpful and interesting, although I have no intention of persuading them of anything. (If you don’t find them helpful … well you can put them down to my own eccentricity.)
The importance of “religion”.
Whenever one thinks about “religion,” the first thing to acknowledge is that it is important. It is the biggest unsolved mystery of existence. It has been humanity’s greatest concern ever since “life” (whatever we mean by that) began. We cannot simply dismiss it as “superstition”—although many have tried—for the problem then is that we are only left with more questions, such as why are we here? and why does anything exist at all?
The five great questions
Most of us—whether as a result of age, unhappiness, or plain curiosity—eventually come to ask five great questions:
--1. Why should we believe anything at all?
For the young (and for some others too, of course), when life seems full of more pressing matters, belief often seems irrelevant. For others it is a matter of vital importance. It’s a great concern to me personally, and I have put much of it into my writing: both in the series of articles I’m trying to put together here and in my fiction, which I’ll refer to later.
--2. What is life about?
I recently read an account by a former church minister about his sadness in finally giving up a belief in a personal god or creator as being untenable from a scientific point of view. There are indeed many who say that our individual life is simply the product of our animal nature and ends with death. Logical enough, one might think, except for one thing. We are then left with the problem of explaining the universe.
--3. Why does anything exist?
Why indeed should an enormous universe (and perhaps other universes unknown to us) exist at all? It would be logical for nothing to exist, but once something—not just life—exists, how can one speak, as some do, of its being an accident? An accident of what? As I’ve said above, the real question is not whether “God” exists (“existence” exists) but what do we mean by “God”? We don’t necessarily have to posit an unknown “creator” or “first cause,” or anything like thetraditional religious “old man in the sky”.
Thus atheists of my acquaintance say we just have to accept the universe as given, but not to question it further is to my mind a cop-out. And yet in one respect I as a “religious” person can come close to them. I too accept the universe as given but, unlike the atheists, I see all of it as “God,” not reducible to any facile explanation. This is the marvel of what he is, and sometimes I can find great optimism here: I awake in the morning, look around me and all I can see or hear, or the very bedclothes that I touch—not to mention the sound waves coming from the radio—are all part of this mysterious “whole” that we mean by “God”!
--4. Is there everlasting life?
Ultimately, belief comes down to this one question (a point made by John Dominic Crossan and others). Am I going to continue to live in some conscious form after my physical death? (If the answer to this is negative, the first three questions above are irrelevant, for we shall never have answers.) Note that we are talking about the survival of our own consciousness. I have heard the proposition that we continue to live in the memories of others. This, to my mind, is a specious argument. Fine that others remember us (although even this hardly applies after a couple of generations), but this is hardly the same thing as personal survival.
--5. What’s in it for me—or indeed for others whom I love?
In other words, will my prayers receive a positive answer? This is the old question of having “faith”. We all have our moments of despair, when nothing seems to work and we say that, even if there is some general power that is the basis of our universe or universes, it ignores us as individuals and has no concern for our personal lives: in other words it is irrelevant to us personally.
Like everyone I have my doubts at times, I get depressed, and I despair at how life is treating me. Not that it’s too badly, and it’s easy to see others who are far worse off. But this doesn’t always help, and we all know of suicides by people who supposedly “have everything.” But then I can at least return to the fact that my ideas make sense to me intellectually. And I try to repeat to myself one small insight: that “happiness” or depression has nothing to do with being in a good or a bad mood!
I shall discuss all of these things in the following sections.