Revised "What I Believe" (Part 2 of 7): My thoughts on the purpose and meaning of "life." I hope ultimately to publish the complete article in book form.
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2. Beyond “I don’t know”
“I just don’t know”
In any discussion of the “meaning of life” or “what life is all about” we eventually have
to admit that we just don’t know. People have faced this question for generations,
arriving at different conclusions, which may or may not be “right,” but no one knows for
In this situation it is easy to become negative. I shall try to be positive as far as my own
beliefs are concerned, without judging those of others. Here I shall certainly be
controversial, making claims that many will disagree with. Ultimately it comes down to
making a commitment, a “leap of faith,” as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre
called it. Difficult as this is, I hope it will take some of us (or at least myself) a little
closer to what life is all about.
My own consciousness.
My point of departure, the only possible one, is my own consciousness. This is what most
defines me: it is where I move and have my being. From my observation of others I also
believe (unlike some idealist philosophers) that those around me think, feel, and perceive
the world much as I do: that we all have a similar kind of consciousness. And, illogical as
it may seem to some, I am simply incapable of believing that this consciousness is purely
the result of electrons in my brain. To me it just doesn’t make sense that it will disappear
with death. Here, obviously, some kind of “faith” enters in, although I shall talk below of
other evidence that my consciousness continues in some form.
I see this as true of animals as well, for with many mammals in particular we are surely
aware that they have a similar consciousness. And why should humans be different in
that respect? I have no problem as seeing the consciousness within me and them as part
of “God’s consciousness” within all of existence. (A good biblical image is that of God’s
being the vine and our being the branches.) I would therefore disagree with the Catholic
doctrine that only humans have “immortal souls.” What exactly does an “immortal soul”
mean? At what stage in their development from homo erectus to homo sapiens did
humans first acquire one?
Conversations with God books
What I believe is expressed most clearly in this series of books (which enjoy a huge
popularity) by Neale Donald Walsch. He starts with the premise that he had an actual
conversation with God, writing down questions and then the answers he received. Now a
reader’s first reaction is obviously “Oh yeah?” or “He’s just made this all up.” However,
even if he did “just make it all up,” what he wrote is so remarkable that we soon come to
realize that it doesn’t matter. For we are dealing with the “God within each of us,” as
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opposed to the “God without”: a God that is separate from ourselves, rather than the God
who is ourselves. Most churches have always stressed the “God without.”
I was immediately impressed with Conversations with God not because I was convinced
by its argument but because it reflected what I had already come to believe myself. (It
was the second time I had read a book that echoed my own deeply held beliefs, the first
being Thomas Sugrue’s There is a River, about the life of Edgar Cayce and the basis for
reincarnation, which I shall come to shortly.) To repeat: in Walsch I found what I already
believed: in more detail and with extra things I hadn’t really thought of—even perhaps a
few things I wouldn’t quite agree with—but in essence the views in Conversations with
God are my own.
For those who don’t know the books already, they are (in order of publication):
Conversations with God books 1 to 3; Friendship with God; Communion with God; The
New Revelations; Tomorrow’s God; What God Wants; Home With God; Happier Than
God, and When Everything Changes, Change Everything. (There is some inevitable
repetition from book to book, and there are also several others on more specific topics. To
check them out, go to http://www.conversationswithgod.org. It is also possible to subscribe to a
In the first of these, Walsch indicates a problem for everyone. We can’t have what we
want, he says, for wanting something is no more than a statement that we do not already
have it. But “God” has already given us all we want without our asking: one can’t want
what one already has. Walsch’s most powerful prayer is “Thank you, God, for helping
me to understand that this problem has already been solved for me.” But it’s also a matter
of context, for the knowledge that we already have everything we want would, by itself,
make our lives meaningless unless we experience the lack of it.
Of the other books, most interesting for me personally are Communion with God, with its
discussion of “highly evolved beings” on other worlds, and Home With God with his
vision of the afterlife. The latter is indeed remarkable, particularly with its insistence that
we choose our own time to die: not in the sense of just “not wanting death,” but rather of
choosing it when our “souls” have accomplished their basic purpose.
“Religious” fiction I have written.
I have been thinking and writing about “religious belief” and “faith” most of my life, for
as I said in the first section it is a topic of supreme importance. I’ll add my satirical
novella “The Comedy of Doctor Foster” at the end, and I have two other stories: the
light-hearted “Bethlehem” and the more serious “The Trouble with Saints,” dealing partly
with the problems caused by religion and partly with humans’ longing for a “faith” in
“God.” But it is my novel Veronica’s Papers where I give major expression to my
thoughts about the “meaning of life,” and I shall quote several brief passages from it
below. (All may be found on my web-site, http://www.authorsden.com/acolinwright.)
From my novel, Veronica’s Papers.
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Veronica’s Papers was written before I had ever heard of Neale Donald Walsch. The
passage below, which I return to time and time again, provides a handy overview. Gerald,
the book’s major protagonist, is in conversation on board ship with a writer of fiction:
Gerald sat against the wall on one of the benches running the length of the
glassed-in promenade deck. Duncan Harrison had raised his eyebrows again, a
mannerism Gerald remembered from fourteen or fifteen years ago, when they’d
been teaching at the same school in Manchester. Duncan, who could be either
virtually silent or jovially talkative, was in one of his quiet moods as he sat
listening with his wife Joyce, who rarely said anything at all. Ping-pong balls
bounced in the background, on a table at the forward end of the deck, shooting off
in unexpected directions each time the ship gave a lurch.
“Look at it like this,” Gerald continued, anxious to win Duncan’s approval.
“God: omnipotent power. Creator. But why create? Because it’s His nature:
power can’t exist in a vacuum. And so He creates his universe, life, human
Duncan was nodding, but it was impossible to know what he was thinking. Joyce
sat staring through the large windows at the plunging horizon.
“Now does He just throw the materials together, as though into an enormous
cooking-pot, turn on the heat and let it develop in its own way? And then sit back
and watch? Or is He more like a painter, continually creating, living his
creation? You’re a writer—four novels you’ve published altogether?—you don’t
just throw it all together and let it stew, do you?”
Duncan pulled on his grey beard. “Of course not. It’s not that simple.” A gruff,
self-conscious voice. “I have to enter into each of my characters, live it with them
as I write. That’s where the excitement comes in.”
“Exactly. Now surely it’s the same with God. As I see it, He’d want to experience
His own creation in the same way. Not just sit back and look, that’s not
Duncan was thoughtful. “That’s consistent with the traditional Christian view of
God’s loving man, I suppose. Of God’s being in each individual. If one believes in
God in the first place.”
“If one doesn’t, there’s nothing to be said: the universe is an accident. Billions
and billions of worlds and it’s just there, meaningless. But why should anything
exist at all—not to speak of life? It doesn’t make sense.
“If it’s a meaningless accident, of course it doesn’t make sense.”
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“I can’t believe that. How can an accident happen unless there’s something for it
to happen in?” When Duncan had nothing to add, Gerald continued: “I’d go
farther than the traditional Christian view of God’s loving man. I see God, in
order to experience His creation, entering into each individual and actually living
that life. And, to do this, having to limit Himself to human perception. Living out
each life in turn—although ‘in turn’ is a human concept I use for the sake of
clarity, it’s meaningless in the timelessness of eternity. In other words, I’m no
more than God living out His incarnation in me. When I die, I’ll know that I am
God, and my next incarnation may well be in you, or in Joyce. Or in the old tramp
down the road, or in the militant atheist, or in the tyrant, or in the pope.
“In a sense, but reincarnation supposes the consecutive rebirth of souls which
differ from one another. I mean the total incarnation, simultaneous and eternal, of
God in his creation. To say ‘the kingdom of God is within you’ is no less than a
statement of fact. I can say legitimately ‘I am God’ without its being megalomania
because you’re God too and so is everyone else. The Christian idea of seeing God
in others is literally, not metaphorically, true .”
Duncan scratched his beard. Ping-pong balls bounced in the background.
“Meister Eckhardt said that without man God wouldn’t know He existed.”
“Yes, that’s it!” Gerald was pleased that Duncan seemed to be reacting positively
to his own enthusiasm. But the next bit was more difficult to explain. “The thing
is,” he went on, “if I’m God it’s none the less, for that incarnation, a God who’s
neither omnipotent nor omniscient. Which is no more than logical. For a God
who’s omnipotent must also, if the word’s meaningful at all, be able to do
nothing, to be limited. The concept must include its own opposite, must indeed
include everything, or it’s not omnipotence.”
“And that, I suppose, would solve the old problem of how an omnipotent God can
be only good and not evil too, which is a paradox. I suppose God could then live
out evil in man.”
“Yes, and He could live out pettiness too which, in human terms, is the very
opposite of omnipotence and omniscience. He could live out everything. Which,
incidentally, solves the other age-old problem, of how a loving God can allow His
creation to suffer. He can allow it because He is that creation, He’s the one who’s
suffering. To be omnipotent He has to be able to suffer too.”
They stared at the eternal sea in front of them. Gerald had always admired
Duncan, who, while still writing unpublishable novels, had encouraged him to
write too. It seemed, though, that Gerald was capable only of journalism, while
Duncan now was producing saleable fiction. He reflected that, according to his
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own philosophy, he and Duncan, and everyone else, were all one anyway, all
Surprisingly, Joyce spoke up. She was one of those rather faded women, whom
one rarely noticed or remembered. “What about heaven and hell?”
“Hell is another name for earth,” Gerald answered. “Or anywhere else in the
universe where God experiences part of His creation. Imagine what hell life in a
single creature must be for an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God! Don’t
we, as individuals, know that only too well?”
“Perhaps,” Duncan said, “people might find some consolation in your view.
Those people we envy: we’ll be them too, or have been them already, in that
particular incarnation of God.”
“Yes. But we’ll also have their problems we don’t know about. And we’ll also be
those we despise or pity. But it’s the totality that’s important: we, or rather God,
remain omnipotent and omniscient and experience all of life.”
A ping-pong ball suddenly landed in Gerald’s lap, as though he’d laid an
unexpected egg. They laughed as he threw it back. Shadows were already falling
on the sea.
“I’d go further than that. If God lives out His entire creation He must also live
each animal, each plant, each stone. He must experience all matter, down to each
“I’m getting cold, I’m afraid,” Joyce said.
In that one passage I give expression to my essential belief: that God enters into everyone
and every thing: he is creation in its entirety. To put it differently, each one of us is God,
living out “his creation,” for “good or for evil”—since to experience everything, God
must be able to experience “evil” as well as “good”. (The words “good” and “evil”
demand clarification, for their meaning changes in different societies according to its
particular belief system. For the Taliban, for example, education for girls is “evil.”) From
this it follows that, although I’m a pessimist as far as the present world is concerned, I’m
basically a metaphysical optimist, since in the end we are all God.
I shall start with the major question touched on in the passage above.
Omnipotence (together with its counterpart, omniscience) is usually considered as a
characteristic of God. Looking at the enormity of the universe, who can doubt that, if it
was “created” by some “force,” that force is indeed omnipotent? Yet the meaning of the
word is rarely taken seriously.
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Omnipotence means, simply, being able to do and be absolutely anything: good and evil,
true and false (again relative terms, differing in different societies). It can even mean
being its own opposite: both/and rather than either/or. Thus a real theological problem for
the medieval church was how to reconcile God’s supposed goodness with his
omnipotence: if he’s omnipotent he can also be evil. But then, if he’s omnipotent he can
reconcile the two.
There is also a persuasive argument that God, although both omnipotent and omniscient,
chooses to be only good (see, too, the quotation from Hesse below). In other words, we
might think that he has limited omnipotence and omniscience, in that he will not enslave
us by deciding for us—and of course he experiences his lack of omnipotence and
omniscience in his incarnation on earth as us. He has also given us “free will,” and
Walsch compares him to a parent allowing “his/her” children to play outside the house,
whatever games they wish, but with the assurance that when they return to the house
(“heaven”) all will be well—for there is nowhere else for them to go.
For the present, let us apply this to “God” just in the sense of “his/her” being part of
“our” world, which is all we know or experience directly. Everywhere the world is full of
life: not only humans, but animals, the insects in our lawns, the very lawns themselves
(all of vegetable life), the bacteria in the air. I would see “God” as all of this, even as the
“non-living” parts of the world too: rocks, mountains, water, air. Some equate God with
nature, and I too would see “him” as nature, but I wouldn’t see nature as God, who is far
more. As Walsch puts it in Tomorrow’s God, “... the Old Spirituality insists that
Yesterday’s God created the heavens and the earth, while the New Spirituality says that
Tomorrow’s God IS the heavens and the earth.”
We should of course see the “heavens” in the above sentence as meaning the entire
universe. If God is omnipotent, then he is in the universe too, where again everything is
possible. Statistically there are certainly other worlds, populated by creatures both like
and unlike those on earth, with societies in more primitive and in more advanced stages
of civilization as well. God’s omnipotence means that everything imaginable—and
If we look, for example, at the inventions in a show such as Star Trek: well they must
exist within the universe too, plus a great deal more. For if a human can imagine it, then
God can “imagine” and create it too, and a lot more besides—including other entirely
non-physical forms of life. And what of the laws of physics, which (although there are
things yet to be discovered) seem to apply within the universe as we know it? An
omnipotent God cannot be limited by the laws of physics. There may be—and indeed
must be, if God is omnipotent—different laws of physics in different universes.
Recently some scientists (mathematicians in particular) are examining the idea that
“parallel” universes to our own must also exist. Once more this confirms a conclusion I
had already come to myself, not knowing that scientists and mathematicians were ahead
of me. It seems that, as well as parallel universes surrounding our own, there may even be
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intersecting universes, with humans existing simultaneously in more than one: i.e. in
more than one place.
I am not qualified here to follow the mathematical arguments, which go into quantum
physics and string theory. Recently, however, I have had a number of experiences of
“déjà vu” (not just vague feelings but the certainty of remembering in detail a whole
sequence of events, including my own reactions, sometimes different from what I
expected, like a TV show that’s been edited.) If I find this somewhat disturbing, I can still
try to find the positive in it: a gift, perhaps, for in some ways it is like me as God
remembering something in the one eternal moment of “now.” (See Time versus eternity
in Section 3 below). This would also accord with Walsch’s exploration of the afterlife in
Home With God. I find it interesting that there are mathematical arguments for such
Experiences of “déjà vu” provide one piece of evidence for reincarnation. I shall not here
go into all the arguments, for there are many, both for and against. (An early study is Ian
Stevenson’s Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.) Nor shall I discuss the theories
of some religions, such as Hinduism, that we might be reincarnated as animals, although,
if everything is possible, this is too. I would, however, like to stress certain things that are
important for me.
Conversations with God makes the point that, for God to experience “his” creation, he
has to be able to forget that he is God: otherwise he could not experience limitation or
any of the doubts, hesitation, anguish—but also faith—that we all know. This answers
one of the common objections to the idea of reincarnation, that few of us can remember
previous lives. But, of course, the same might be said of our dreams. Many people say
they don’t dream, but there is ample evidence not only that we dream but it is necessary
for our health: it is simply that some people don’t remember their dreams. Or, to take the
opposite case, how often do we wake from an extremely vivid and seemingly meaningful
dream, and the next moment the details have disappeared? We can train ourselves to
remember something of our dreams, and the same is true of our “past lives.”
Furthermore, it seems illogical to me to accept the idea of an after-life, in what is
commonly called heaven, and reject the idea of a “before-life” or a “between-life.”
Suddenly a human is created “from nothing” to live a life on earth that can last from a
few seconds to over a hundred years, and then everything is over and he or she ends up,
according to the traditional view, in heaven, purgatory or hell—to experience bliss or
Far more logical, particularly in light of God’s omnipotence, is the idea of continuing
life, in various incarnations, all as God experiencing his own creation. There are plenty of
books on this subject for those who wish to explore further, including those mentioned
above and many others studying evidence forthcoming from hypnosis. Once we become
convinced that reincarnation is a fact, we no longer have to face the question of whether
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we might be simply extinguished at the time of our supposed “death.” Our major doubt
about our continuing existence no longer exists.
Walsch also makes the point that before we return to another life (on earth or elsewhere)
we choose our own agenda for it, in order not to learn but to remember what we already
know: that we are “God” experiencing all aspects of “his” creation. Thus our next
lifetime’s spiritual purpose, set by us in advance, isn’t necessarily the same as what we,
in our short-sightness, think it is in any particular lifetime. Remembering that this was
what we had chosen for ourselves—that our lives are our responsibility and that we are
not victims of circumstances or of other people that we would often wish to blame—is
particularly helpful when things seem to be going wrong.
Where, then, are we left as far as the “afterlife” is concerned? I can imagine nothing more
boring than a life of “happiness” in “God’s heaven”: sitting on a cloud and playing a
harp, if we take one simplistic view. Surely our greatest wish would be again to
“experience” another lifetime.
If we then return to the idea of “God” in each “human” experiencing “his” own creation,
then “he” will experience those who are considered evil as well as those who are
considered good—and, of course, the many in between—remembering that, if he’s
omnipotent he can be both good and evil. Thus all, after death, will know that they are
God, whatever they have been on earth. The idea of punishment in some kind of “hell” or
“purgatory” for what was initially “God’s choice” within us doesn’t make sense. And
what of our supposed “free” will, if it is limited by the idea of having to do what God
wills for us, and how can we know what “he” wants? What kind of freedom is that? As
Conversations with God puts it—“Hitler went to heaven,” for indeed, there is nowhere
else to go. Many people have difficulties with this, but surely wanting Hitler or others we
disapprove of to receive eternal punishment is part of our human desire for revenge, and
has nothing to do with Christ’s message of love. God can surely cope with a Hitler and
the many other examples in history who are as “bad.” Nor does anything here prevent
their (and our) understanding of what they (or we) were on earth.
The “afterlife,” judgement and morality.
The conviction of many that “church religion” (or the idea of “hell”) is simply a way of
teaching morality—inspiring “good” behaviour, with punishment for those who behave
“badly”—well surely how we behave can be taught without postulating an external force
which may or may not exist, even using the same moral tenets found in the Bible or other
religious books. Most of us assent to a certain standard of conduct, which may or may not
have a religious basis. On Earth there are certainly consequences for our actions,
including the possibility of punishment by laws (just or unjust) by which most societies
are governed. One can also risk the censure of others within one’s society.
And let us note that not all religious “laws” are just. In Christianity we might look at the
dietary laws in Leviticus, and many of us will disagree with the Sharia laws of Islam.
Religions do not have an exclusive claim on morality. Historically, they have not done a
good job of producing it, and “religious” people are often highly selective in the laws
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they observe. On the whole, individuals pick and choose those laws that seem to make
sense to them, whether propagated by a religion or a purely humanistic viewpoint. In the
ten commandments, for instance, few in North America take note of the commandment
“Thou shalt not covet” (for the whole economy is based on the coveting of consumer
goods), while stressing “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” often interpreted, incorrectly,
to mean any kind of sex at all.
As an individual I behave according to a basic morality, which largely, if not entirely,
coincides with that of Jesus’s (supposed) teachings. At the same time, as an individual
living out his own destiny (God living out his incarnation in me), I reserve the right to
make my own decisions. To give two trivial examples, I refuse to keep to speed limits
which are ridiculously low—particularly if I have more pressing needs—or to abstain
from language considered profane when there is no biblical basis for this and yet a good
linguistic one (except that I will not go out of my way to offend others). The
commandment not to “take God’s name in vain” has surely nothing to do with profanity
as many interpret it—most profanity has rather to do with bodily functions—and indeed
the Good News Bible translates the commandment as “Do not use my name for evil
purposes”: which might well apply to those who preach religion in order to make money.
Elsewhere we are told “Let you yea be yea, and your nay, nay” (Matthew 5, 34-37 and
James 5, 12), which means “don’t take an oath by swearing on the Bible or another
book,” and again has nothing to do with using “profane” language.
Dostoevsky and his dislike of reason and rationality.
We can, however, accept a major theme enunciated by Dostoevsky in his greatest work,
The Brothers Karamazov: “Without God, everything is permitted.” Note that he says
“Without God,” and not “Without a church.” In other words, unless there is an awareness
of a force (whether outside or in ourselves) other than our limited egoistical one, we may
do absolutely anything. Dostoevsky makes the same point, if less clearly because of the
censorship, in his exploration of human psychology, Notes from the Underground.
Nietzsche, regarding this theme as something positive, takes it as the basis for much his
Dostoevsky also talks of 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 it and
wonder at the mystery.
Hermann Hesse “A Bit of Theology.
Hermann Hesse (best known for his novel Steppenwolf) says something of the same in his
article “A Bit of Theology.” He distinguishes between the Man of Reason (der
Vernünftige) and the Man of Piety (der Fromme). He writes as follows:
The man of reason rationalizes the world and does violence to it...
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The pious man treasures reason, to be sure, as a precious gift, but does
not see in it an adequate means of understanding the world and still less a
means of mastering it...
The basis of the pious man's faith and attitude toward life is reverence.
This expresses itself in two principal characteristics: a strong sense of
nature and a belief in a suprarational world order...
He does not believe in progress, since his model is not reason but nature,
and since in nature he can perceive no progress but only a living out and
self-realization of infinite forces without any perceptible final goal.
The pious man inclines occasionally toward hatred and impatience at the
men of reason; the Bible is full of crude examples of uncontrollable
impatience against unbelievers and their worldly ideas. Yet in rare exalted
moments the pious man also experiences the lightning of that spiritual
feeling that gives him the faith to believe that all the fanaticism and
wildness of the rationalists, all wars, all persecutions and enslavements in
the name of higher ideals, in the end must also serve God's purpose.