Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Faith and Reason

In an episode of the classic 70s sitcom, All in the Family, bigoted and conservative Archie Bunker has an argument about religion with his liberal son-in-law Michael (aka The Meathead). After fracturing chapter and verse to make his point about the existence of God and the literal truth of the Bible, Archie blurts out in exasperation: “Faith is believing what nobody in his right mind would believe!”

Around the world, we are in the midst of a great social divide about religion, a grudge-match between the Rationalists and the Believers. The Believers are represented largely by fundamentalists of various religions who accept the poetry and mythology of their sacred texts as literal gospel instead of fables and metaphors intended to illustrate prescribed values. In parallel contrast, the Rationalists eschew all aspects of religion, embracing instead a combination of history, science, civics and cynicism that omits any aspect of belief in universal mystery.

Before I continue, let me explain where I stand. I am a cultural/intellectual Jew who was raised in a religiously-mixed home (Jewish and Episcopalian) by parents who side-stepped all doctrine in favor of common sense, common decency, cultural literacy, honor, honesty, kindness and assorted holidays featuring nifty presents and great food.

I became a Spiritualist as an adult because I believe that all life is energy and energy doesn’t die, it’s transformed. I believe the essence of personality survives after physical death and that it is possible to commune with spirits. I don’t believe in a personified deity, in heaven or hell, or the seven levels of existence put forth by traditional Spiritualists. I bypass all the pretty, pat ideas that are intended to make the unknowable manageable. Instead, I accept that there are many things I will never know or understand and that I believe what I believe because it feels right to me and comforts me. I don’t know if it’s true and I don’t care. I also don’t care what anybody else believes. I have no need for others to believe as I do. I claim no justification. I make no apologies.

Lastly, I became an Interfaith minister for three reasons: I was spiritually curious; I wanted some measure of legal protection as a sincere Tarot counselor in a culture that regards everything occult as bullshit and bunko; and I wanted to supplement my income by performing weddings. My ministry, which I admit is currently under-used, is about communication and service. It feels right to me and comforts me – and through it, I try to comfort others who ask to be comforted.

Over the last several millennia, billions of people have believed in a burning bush, a man living inside a whale, immaculate conception, happy meals for thousands made from a couple of loaves and fishes, and everyone’s favorite: the 71 eager virgins who await martyrs in heaven. I wouldn’t have a problem with these or any other religious fairytales if it weren’t for the fact that millions of people have also been killed for not believing one or another of these stories. I also don’t like the blurring of the secular and the spiritual in politics, science and the collective constructions that support a pluralistic society.

So I find myself on the fence between the Rationalists and the Believers, recognizing the importance of resisting coercion by missionary believers in things that nobody in his right mind would believe, while still seeing the value of an unstructured sense of spiritual wonder to counterbalance our sensible pragmatism, as well as our soulless materialism and worship of mediocre celebrity.

The universe often communicates with me through television (because the wisdom of the ether seeks you out where you spend the most time). The other night, I saw the Sandra Bullock movie Premonition, which wasn’t as good as I’d hoped, but which featured an interesting exchange between the Bullock character (a young wife plagued by premonitions of her husband’s death) and a priest. In trying to explain what might be happening to her, the priest talks about a concept called “the dangers of the faithless.” “It’s based on the idea that nature abhors a vacuum, even a spiritual one,” he says, adding that without faith, one is an empty vessel and susceptible to being taken over by forces greater than oneself. “You have to believe in something beyond yourself, even if it’s just hope,” he says. The woman is not consoled. “I don’t know what to hope for.”

In these very frightening times of global violence, radical climate change, economic crises, enormous social upheaval, and the general feeling that it’s all going to hell in a hand basket, it’s not hard to understand why many people are grasping for the most simplistic of religious beliefs. They’re scared shitless, reaching out to a reassuring God like a frightened child crying for its mother. On the other hand, it’s equally easy to understand why the voices of secular reason are screaming to be heard above the din of illogical religious fervor.

Any way you look at it, if we are to survive in safety, sanity and freedom, each of us must find an assortment of reasonable things to hope for and a cushion of private faith that is personally sustaining.

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