“Not for fear of hell nor longing for heaven but for love.”
–7th Century Muslim Prophetess
Well, I’m done, for now.
This month I’ve done a little traipsing through the gardens of earthly beliefs. I haven’t exactly delved too deeply or too greedily, but it has helped me regain some perspective, some vocabulary, and surprisingly enough for me, some personal conviction.
I found the above quote in a comment on another blog, but thought it more appropriate to link to the original comment-writer’s site – Conscientisation, “a 43 year old post-cynic more interested in the Omega course than the Alpha Course.” I haven’t explored much of this site yet, but it looks like April might be a good time for it.
There is a clear and simple set of observations, or a pattern that seems to develop, from every religion I looked at this month.
Every world religion (or every major worldview, for that matter):
- attempts to define a code of behaviour or morality and tries to find a basis for that code in something usually authoritative
- changes through schism, politics, succession, success, failure, translation, population movement, etc.
- borrows from its neighbours, ancestors, enemies, etc.
- inspires both the most creative artists and the most unforgivable criminals
This is the short list. I’m trying to keep to my own observations and steering clear of evaluations. Well, trying – evaluation and judgment are sometimes automatic when glaring hypocrisy is present.
But I do want to look more specifically at the idea of belief. I was watching a video of Richard Dawkins a few days ago in which he makes a distinction between faith-based belief and evidence-based belief. It illustrated for me one of the core issues I have with institutionalized religion.
With faith-based belief someone is making assumptions based on what cannot be known (unless you feel like insulting the definition of know). Now, I might make a slight allowance for personal experience or personal knowledge (sometimes you just know, right? Like when your gut is just telling you something, but then you don’t listen, until it’s too late and you say, “Oh why didn’t I listen to my gut?”). But two things come from this. First, it can only be personal then (otherwise, you are invading on someone else’s gut). Second, it’s an exaggeration. It is only reliable if you keep track of each important personal moment and then evaluate whether it is consistent or not (sometimes your gut is the last thing you should listen to! Even if it uses the voice of God, or maybe the voice of hunger, or the voice of let’s-go-find-some-trouble).
With evidence-based belief, you are still making assumptions but at least for the most part it is based on something that can be known. As well, the beliefs drawn from observations must depend and fit tight with the observations. Otherwise, you’ll get some serious flack when you try to explain yourself to anyone. And you get into more serious flack when you stretch beyond the initial assumptions or the collected observations.
The difference is kind of like the difference between a metaphorical understanding of something and a thorough or complete understanding of something.
And so to God.
People love explanations of things. Even if they don’t accept them, people collect all sorts of contradictory explanations and then draw them up whenever a situation needs some explaining. But with God, there is no explaining. And there is no way to know him/her/it/them. There is no description that fits the term appropriately. There is no attempt one can make at understanding a God that would not be an insult to the God (I’ve used the ‘proving-a-negative thing before for some humour… well how about insulting-a-unknown?)
And so, I cannot believe that I know God. To claim to know God is to claim that you know the unknowable. This example of ”cognitive dissonance’ (thanks again Sab) has been written before, I’m sure of it, but it strikes me as one of the most arrogant and human of things to claim. To have something on the unknown is a dangerous pit I hope to avoid (or at least step lightly around). The only step I am willing to make is one of definition — I do not know the unknowable. So I will make no (serious) claims about it (please allow me some room for future punchlines).
But I can’t stop here.
I do not believe in God because it has become a meaningless statement for me. Earlier in my blog I made an attempt to write about the word God. I’m surprised, in some respects, at how my mind has changed a little, in its flittery, stumbling, leaf-on-a-breeze way. But the convictions are still there.
I will tell you what I do believe in. I believe in my family, my friends, my neighbours and I believe in the world that I live in.
I have to.
Every day I am with them, and they are with me. Every day I get to know them a little more, and so my belief grows. And what’s more, I can communicate with them and learn from them and be of service to them. And I can know whether or not I am doing well by them from what gifts they share with me.
Sometimes I believe in story as well. I will try to discuss this belief a little more on Friday.
As the title suggests, a close from T.S. Eliot (once again):
[end of part V]
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
For a little more explanation of the poem and its context, here’s the starting wiki. I will discuss this a little further on Friday, but since I don’t personally align myself with all of T.S. Eliot’s conclusions, here is another quote from him:
Datta. Dayadvham. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih.
(from The Waste Land)