Sunday, September 5, 2010

On Faith and Religion

Having labeled myself a "recovering evangelical"...I continually come into the crossfire between my genetic family members and friends who continue in their fundamental faiths of choice and the many more recent friends and associates who tend to be a bit more dispassionate or "liberal" about religion as I have become. Being in the "crossfire" is a most adequate analogy because in this day and age as in most past generations...everyone seems to want to label or "know where you stand" on matters of faith, politics or sexual preference. In times of "war" one seems to become famous by being a "fence setter" or "in the crossfire" without choosing sides. Religion has never been more fractious or dividing in nature than it is in this supposedly modern age.

In recent conversations with various friends of definite political or religious persuasions...I have found myself quite often saying "I hope you are right". On one hand this is the easiest way to avoid debate or conflict with someone. On the other hand it is a "truism" for me. I truly WISH or want to hear that all of man's calamities, wars or economic devastation will somehow magically disappear with a miraculous intervention of either God or the leadership of a "Obama". While I personally don't think either is the case...I can truly hope for such along with a convinced friend or loved one. Building my life on that "hope" is another issue.

I don't have any big problems with "faith" since I think we all display acts of faith every day we live. We have faith in a lot of people to get through life...from parents to pilots to the cooks who prepare our food. While we can't watch or interview everyone we "trust" to do things for us, we exert "faith" that they truly have our service and best interest at the forefront of this moment in time. We drive small cars and motorcycles at high rates of speed trusting that the engineers, mechanics and dealers all assured and tested each little piece of engine, brake and wheel so that we can "feel" reasonably assured that we can safely drive 60-80 miles per hour within 50 feet in front or behind another vehicle doing the same fateful speed. That takes a lot of "faith" a lot of different people...including the OTHER drivers.

We all have core, fundamental beliefs or rationalizations that probably cannot be proven. We think we will live a long time, but we MIGHT die tomorrow. Some of us have our reasoning and emotions primarily guided by certain religious writings...whether it be the Bible, Quran, Talmud or the writings of someone like CS Lewis. Others perspectives are more swayed by Marx, the "Scientific American" or the famous atheist writer Christopher Hitchens. Some of us simply live in the world of soap operas, reality television and "People" magazine.

Speaking of Cristopher Hitchens, I couldn't help but be challenged by his article in Vanity Fair this month titled "Unanswerable Prayers". He writes quite eloquently about his battle with terminal cancer and the rising tide of letters and emails from various perspectives of religions and philosophies regarding death and disease. I admire that he can still find the mirth and ironies of the crossroads between faith and science as he contemplates his sensibilities facing the end of life as he experiences it. I find myself quite suspect of people who have "deathbed conversions" or last second changes of their mind related to faith and religion. I think these last minute "deals with the unknown", while possibly bringing peace and hope to them and those around them for some future life and invincibility of the spirit...can also lead us all into "la la land" when it comes to the meaning of our every day lives. It is beautiful and "cute" to observe children who have been led by us adults to believe in "Santa Claus" and the "tooth fairy" in order to bring excitement and hope into potentially painful experiences. Still, I think it is more dignified to accept our mortality and future demise with solid reasoning and maturity and put away childish fantasies.

My first couple decades of living I was quite convinced of my soul "living eternally". I had a "personal relationship" with my maker...and everything related to faith and religion was "mine, mine, mine" in a very personal way. And yes, I wanted that same experience for all my friends and loved ones...even the whole world. I was a semi-good "soldier of the cross", believing that self sacrifice and the gain of others was more important than my own self or "life". Fortunately I found "evolution"...and made peace with my own reasoning abilities. Since then I have spent the rest of my life analyzing all that I grew up with against all the other realities and approaches to life that make up this crazy, convoluted world we all live in. Whether you want to look around and take it all in or not...there is a vast, almost unlimited amount of facts, cause and affect that is constantly revolutionizing our lives. More and more facts and discoveries are in some ways better helping us understand our lives...and on the other hand destroying many myths we all grew up believing in. Is this a terribly devastating thing to experience? I say NO! To me the ultimate miracle of life is our mind's ability to observe, comprehend and change our lives at whatever speed we can conjure up to do so.

To me a greater travesty than "losing ones faith" is to "lose one's mind". After all, "a mind is a terrible thing to waste". Now, I suppose some have been genetically gifted more in that department than others...but I see this again as a huge area of significance for "cause and effect". I say this on "faith and observation", but I think most of us only use about 10% of our mental capacity. Many of us have traded in the painful process of reading and rationalizing for the simplicity of living according to creed and traditions...many of which strike me now as totally irrational. We come to a point of "decision" where it is more important to live in "community" with our friends and families of religious persuasion than to take a "road less traveled" that might be more personal, adventurous...and honest. It is easier to "give in" to mysticism than to face the unanswerable mysteries of life. Saying "I don't know" somehow has become a great "sin" to most religious people. If the Bible, Quran or other religious book says something, I must somehow literally believe and accept it. Religion has now become based more on books and writings than on persons or leaders. Maybe that is better in some ways since books live longer than people...but I still find it hard to worship any writers...or for sure what they WRITE. I can admire...and at the core what is admirable is the sometimes miraculous ability to put in words what we are feeling or thinking. While words can sometimes be limiting...they are also many times powerful and impacting. But lets give credit to the minds and reasoning more than the words themselves.

Life is full of miracles, but to me these miracles tend to be more about "mind over matter" than some mysterious external force controlling our universe. How else do I explain losing one of my closest "fundamentalist" friends Dennis last week to complications from "standard" heart bypass surgery who had thousands of fellow believers supporting him and his family in prayer...while some of the worlds most dubious or evil characters seem to have "nine lives" when it comes to survival? Did my friend Dennis, a believer, have any more chance of survival than the atheist Christopher Hitchens? Probably not, though no offense meant towards all my friends that prayed for him. Ultimately for me prayer has come down to not so much "petitioning God" for some change in my life...but for UNDERSTANDING of what is transpiring and what it all means. At the end of the day, the power of prayer is basically meditation seeking clarity of thought and focus on that which is important versus that which is mundane or negative.

Now let me throw you a few curves out of "right field". Every once in a while someone challenges me with "what DO you believe in". I think I have faith and belief in a LOT of things. Here is a partial list:

I believe in MYSELF and the power of a reasoning mind.

I believe there is a God/higher power that at a macro level set reason and mathematics into motion that allows the power of "cause and effect" to have its way in the universe.

I believe in a historical Jesus. I'm not sure I believe all the claims ABOUT him by third party writers...but I reasonably accept the veracity of his existence and the power and truth to many of the ideas spoken by or attributed to him. When it comes to resurrections and second comings...well, I'm not sure that is all that relevant. I plan to use his instructions for THIS life as much as they apply to me and seem reasonable...which mostly has to do with how we treat our fellow THIS life.

I believe in the power of Love...not as some "feel good" mystical, emotional version...but love as demonstrated in brotherhood, family and helping those less fortunate. It is a version of "unconditional love", but not blind or without some expectations of reciprocation. In other words, the best love is "two way". Fortunately I believe those who don't reciprocate love is a distortion versus "the norm". "Give and you shall receive"...

I believe we have all evolved from a "creator" over probably millions of years. When you are God...what is a million years or two?

I believe in the potential that someday "cause and effect" and the power of the human mind can lead us back to a unification with the "supreme mind". Perhaps we CAN reverse engineer our lives and the physical elements that cause aging and suffering. Per my present understanding, I don't have a problem with "stem cell research" and genetic studies that could rationally reverse the aging process. I know this would be bad for business in funeral homes and pastoral wakes and drive up costs of "health care"...but it IS an interesting proposition though I don't expect us to to get there in my lifetime. Still...I can HOPE:).

Finally, I believe we need to grow and experience just as much as we can in THIS lifetime. MAYBE there is some future spiritual eternal life...but no one knows for sure. To that NOW and in the best sense of "living and making the most of yourself". Most of the best "Christians" in my immediate circle do this.

I would rather "flame out" of this life at full speed and utility than sit around waiting for the next one. For me it is truly "mind over matter".

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