Essay | Godbloggin'

Everyone with a blog has, at one point, written about god, right? How did I go 4 years of blogging without dropping into this tangled web? I find myself today with writer's blog and an urge to type. With these two conflicting feelings, it seems now may be a good a time as any to try and figure out how I feel and have felt about faith.

To start from the beginning: Born Roman Catholic. Still Catholic, I suppose, culturally if not spiritually. It's complicated and perhaps even vague by design. I was as god-fearing  as the church tells you to be all the way until the 8th grade, fear being the operative word. Around that time, after a few readings on the internet and a few sleepless nights, I was an athiest, or perhaps in reality, I was just a lonely and scared child.

It was your cliche, reactionary, "I don't believe in Noah's Ark" sort of stuff that you expect from adolescent rebellion. I puffed up my chest and flexed my brain and felt big. Religion became illogical, and because of that, I could only see those that subscribed to it as either irrational minds or willfully ignorant. Of course, I claimed I didn't have a problem with the decisions and beliefs of others. But whenever I was stuck listening to some preaching, someone on a stage with a microphone telling me about the goodness of the lord and all that, I found myself internally angry. It was always inward, never translated into action or attitude, but it was seething. When a lecturer would say you can't put your foot down against god and the devil at the same time, it felt like a personal attack, and all the talk about respect went out the window on a personal level.

Things like lent had always bothered me. I couldn't fathom a loving god that would make up arbitrary rules about what to eat on a certain day. I couldn't imagine an omnipotent intelligence deciding that because you ate a big mac on a Friday, it deducts points from your overall heaven-score, as if all that charity work you did was now marred. If such a power did exist, he liked to play with the fears of his subjects.

I felt like I had made a huge intellectual leap for someone of my age. Most foolishly, I thought there wasn't anything else to learn after that. There wasn't anymore deep introspection to be had, or life philosophies to be created. There is nothing and we are alone and we will die and that was it.

That last part always bothered me, even at the height of my arrogance. It was like sleeping, but forever. It was being here and then -----. Nothing scared me more than the blank void and the uncertainty of all that. That fear was the only thing keeping me god-fearing, even a little bit. As much as I scoffed at the word, I would have been relieved to find that there was something -- anything -- after death.

I used to get into arguments with a more religious friend of mine from middle school. It was frustrating and only served to push me further into the atheism category. His thing was, "If you don't have religion, why don't you just kill everyone?" As if god was the only thing keeping him in check from cashing in on all that wild greed and violence. As if human beings are naturally evil and murderous were it not for the fear of hell. I told him: "Because I don't want to hurt anyone. I don't need fear of punishment to keep me from doing wrong."

He would be perplexed and ask, "Well then what's the point?"
"Of what?"
"Life. Everything."

That was a hard question to answer because the "point" of life didn't matter to me. It still doesn't, not really. I never sought the need for a singular reason to be alive, to be here, to keep going day by day. Life was not one long mission, but a series of events, ever changing in every direction. But I recognized that he needed that anchor. So did many others.

Immanuel Kant, I think it was, asked three essential questions for human beings:

"What can I know?
What ought I do?
What may I hope for?"

Questions that religions attempt to answer. In William Boyd's Brazzaville Beach, a mathematician, answers the questions in a blunt, smart-aleck manner:

"What can I know? Nothing for sure.
What ought I do? Try not to hurt anyone.
What may I hope for? For the best (but it won't make any difference.)"

What a wonderfully simple way to solve great philosophical questions. For a while, I subscribed to that. Know nothing, don't hurt anyone. In place of religion and rules of faith, I had that. It's not too bad and I essentially lived life the same way, except without worrying about divine punishment for forgetting to pray before I slept. (A catechism teacher once told me that if I didn't pray before I sleeping I would not wake up.)

What changed was exposure to the wider religious world and some personal growth as a teenager. I read books like Life of Pi which gave compelling, level-headed reasons to be a believer that resonated with me. I began to find faithful people in the culture who were complicated, conflicted and intelligent like Sufjan Stevens. Having a faith didn't mean ignorance of science or the world or belief in fairy tales.

For the past couple of years I had been toying with the idea of jumping back into religion with both feet. What religion though, was up to me. The idea of choosing something that really moved me, excited me, and something that I could totally invest in. I just had to find it. I had to find that one faith that didn't punish me arbitrarily, or inflict guilt for living in ways that don't hurt people. The one religion where I didn't have to compromise or pick-and-choose from beliefs. A religion to truly call my own.

I did research. I talked to friends about things. I wondered about buddhism, about humanism, about unitarian universalists. I even considered straight-up protestant christianity. They all seemed nice, competent and intriguing. I could probably subscribe to any one of them, but ultimately, I don't think I'd have the enthusiasm to dedicate myself entirely to any of them. Would I be pulled to attending services, or performing the rituals, or harboring the beliefs? Or would it just be another way to label myself, for the sake of easy labeling?

Further review found that it was the latter. I was looking for religion for the wrong reasons - a new identity, not spiritual comfort and answers. To this day, I find that I'm not searching for that. I'm not yearning for spiritual comfort or answers. I just focus on the present, on what I need to do to be better and what I can do to help.

What I believe now is something I don't bother to label, that is vague, up in the air, and allows me to live my life the way I still live it. I do believe in a god of some kind. I believe the beginning of existence is so unknowable and open that anything is possible. So I believe in a higher power, or a force, or some vague intelligence that my mind can't even begin to understand or picture.

But I don't know what that god wants me to do. I don't presume to understand its motivations or what it wants us to do. Not just in terms of worship or rituals, but just in terms of morality. Morals are a human construct, and we know this because of the different values in different cultures all around the world. So I have to imagine that whatever is up there, is so far up there that it doesn't have sense of right & wrong. Right & wrong are tiny little ideas made up by tiny little people. Morality doesn't register to a cosmic force of nature, the way an earthquake doesn't think of morality. The storm is coming whether you've been good or not.

Maybe I'm wrong and I'll change my mind. I'm open to it and anything is possible. I just know that whatever I believe at the moment is the right thing for me, no matter how many times it changes. It's a belief that takes life moment-by-moment.

I have a real weakness in giving money to strangers. The people who sit at tables outside of Kmart asking for cash to support a shelter. The guys with clipboards asking for donations. The homeless person walking up to you in the parking lot, asking for money to stay in a hotel or get some food. Over half the time, I panic and give them a dollar or two. I even bought a guy some Armor-All Cleaning Wipes because he asked me for some when I said I had no change.

That may not sound like much to you, or even big deal. But for me they're dumb little ways I measure my human decency. Without the rules and guidelines of a holy book to tell me I'm playing this game the right way, I have to rely on the little things. Because if I tell myself i'm leading an ethical life, without the validation of others, then I have to prove it, especially in these small ways that are of little inconvenience to me. I have to make myself believe that I'm doing right by the universe.