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Sunday, 31 August 2014

An arranged faith


Doubt is not a pleasant condition,
but certainty is absurd – Voltaire

I wrote a poem back in 1996 about beliefs:


The thing about beliefs is
they don't need to be true.
That's not their job.

They're there because
so many things aren't true.
Nature abhors a vacuum.

19 December 1996

The word 'belief' is one I struggle with. Like all words the only way you can explain belief is by using other words and the most obvious synonym for 'belief' is 'faith' which I have less of a problem with. The first definition I learned regarding faith came from the Bible where Hebrews 11:1 says that faith is "the assured expectation of things hoped for, the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld." Of course the definition on its own doesn't really get to the nitty-gritty of what faith is. Late on in that same chapter (vs. 27) Paul talks about Moses "as seeing him who is invisible." Even though he had never seen God, he was as real to Moses as if he had seen him. His faith was based on experience and evidence. Of course he had the opportunity to talk directly to God and that’ll go a long way to convincing anyone that someone is real. By Paul's day God had stopped making it so easy. Even Paul only got to hear the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus but he still reasoned that there was sufficient evidence in the world about us to convince anyone of the existence of a sentient creator. As he said to the Romans (1:20): "For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God." And yet there are more people than ever who don't believe in God. You would think that all science could possibly do is provide irrefutable proof of intelligent design in nature and yet that doesn't seem to have happened.

As you'll see from the previous paragraph, I know my Bible. I was brought up in a religious household—one that encouraged study and eschewed blind faith—and yet here I am as a grown man, having left the faith I was brought up in and disinterested in finding another. So have I stopped believing in God? I can't answer that question because I never believed in him in the first place which is odd because I have been through tons of evidence and can't refute it. Creation is every bit as believable as evolution. None of the evidence touched me, though. Proof requires more than corroborative evidence. It requires a willingness to accept that evidence.

I don't understand the concept of spirituality. I can appreciate things intellectually and emotionally but not spiritually. I learned facts and figures from the Bible and other literature but that was it. I could prove there was a God (as much as anyone these days can offer up proof) but that proof didn't affect me. Okay, I couldn't get to know God personally (even though I was encouraged to develop a ‘personal relationship’ with God) although I did have "the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:16) but I found that trying to "walk in the footsteps of the faith" (Rom. 4:12) was unnatural and uncomfortable. I knew, for example, that fornication was a sin but I couldn't see why it was wrong. In 1966 being gay was a criminal offence in England but in 1967 it wasn't unless you crossed the border into Scotland where it still was (and continued to be until 1980). I'm not gay but my point is that perfect laws don't work in an imperfect world. I understand why God instigated the Law Covenant with Israel (which incorporated the Ten Commandments) because it condemned all of us to death (since no man could keep it, including Moses) and hence evidenced the need for a saviour, but here's the thing: there was no Law in Eden apart from a proviso that they didn't eat from a certain tree. The point's been made, the saviour has come and gone, the ransom paid, so whether we sin or not is neither here nor there.

The way I feel about my religious upbringing is the same way I'd feel about a wife my parents had arranged for me to marry as still happens in parts of the world. There will always be good and reasonable reasons why parents select the kind of prospective bride that they do. They know their son and his needs. And they care for him. Well I know all the reasons why my parents would want me to believe in their God but the fact is I look at him (based on the same evidence as was available to Paul) and feel nothing. In the first of the two "new" commandments that Jesus laid down before his disciples (summarising the essence of the whole Law of Moses) he said, “The most important one … is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’" (Deut. 6:4) I don't love God. I don’t hate God. I don't know God. I can see all his admirable qualities and I've read at length about how he’s reportedly dealt with people—including sending his only-begotten son to Earth—but none of that matters to me. I’m with Patti Smith:

Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine
Meltin' in a pot of thieves wild card up my sleeve
Thick heart of stone my sins my own
They belong to me. Me

[from Gloria (In Excelsis Deo)]

I'm not an atheist. I'm not an agnostic. I'm not a believer. To be any one of these I would need to take a stance and the simple fact is I don't care anymore. In 2001 I wrote this poem which basically states my current position. man_sitting_in_bleachers_SMP0012543


(for Richard Brautigan)

A man cannot lose what he never had
but he can give up trying to get it.
Just walk off the track.
Come, join the rest of us on the bleachers.

It's that easy.
Catch your breath now.
It's too hot to run.

I've heard say parallel lines never meet.
Sometimes they seem to – in the distance –
they disappear over the horizon
so no one knows for sure.

25 May 2001

Of course I’ve no axe to grind with those who do find they have a need for God in their lives any more than I’ve no problems with people who choose to pay hundreds of pounds to listen to some opera or other and there was a time in my life I did go through the motions hoping that, by osmosis, I’d acquire a faith: elliotelijackson3-cr


I have heard there is a god
who looks for men of crushed spirits.

I don't know where to look for him.

But if he wants to find me
I will not hide.

23 March 1984

I don’t like not getting things but there’s a lot in this life that I don’t get in addition to religion and opera and as I’ve grown older I’ve reconciled myself to never understanding some things or needing to understand them. And so I focus nowadays on what I’m drawn to. Not everyone walking along the same beach will stop and pick up the same rock or poke the same jellyfish with a stick. “Ezra … spent his entire life studying and obeying the Law of the Lord and teaching it to others.” (Ezra 7:10), Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz spent his entire life studying and advancing logics such as mathematics and philosophy; Sigmund Freud spent his entire life studying human nature and childhood; Morihei Ueshiba spent his entire life studying martial arts; Karl von Frisch spent his entire life studying bees and won a Nobel Prize in 1973 for his research on that subject; Joseph Pilates spent his entire life studying the human form and exercise. You get the idea. It’s not at all abnormal to focus on one area of interest to the exclusion of everything else. For God’s sake, Haldan Keffer Hartline devoted nearly his entire life studying the eyes of horseshoe crabs and Dave Shealy’s spent his entire life studying a smelly hominid cryptid known as the Skunk Ape!

I wasted so much time searching for the Holy Grail of my own spirituality. So what do you believe in, Jim? Fair question. I found a page where people listed ten things they believed in. Belief in this context really means certitude. People who believe in God are certain that he will do what he says; they have no doubts. I, on the other hand, am riddled with doubts. I’m fairly certain about a lot of things I’m fairly certain my wife’s not going to leave me and run off with Sean Connery but experience has taught me that “time and unforeseen circumstance” (Eccl. 9:11) befall all men. I would like to write another novel but I’m far from certain that I will. The odds are I will based on my previous performance and there are still areas that interest me enough to want to write about them at length. But nothing’s certain.

In that respect I do have a degree of faith in the unknown. The unknown is my subconscious and he plays a hugely important part in my writing. We don’t exactly collaborate, though, but over the years I’ve learned to trust him. While I’m busying with other things, sleeping and stuff, he’s fully occupied getting material ready for me to work on later. The writer Dario Ciriello posted this tweet a while back:

A good writer's subconscious always knows the full story. The challenge is to train the conscious mind to access and transcribe it.

Stephen King talks about “the boys in the basement”:

The boys in the basement are the guys who actually do my heavy lifting. They're the muses. And we have a picture of muses as being very ethereal creatures, but I think they are non-union labour. They are hardworking guys with Camels rolled up in the sleeves of their shirts. – Lisa McRee, Kevin Newman, Stephen King's Bag of Bones, ABC Good Morning America, 23 Sep 1998

A much better image than the airy-fairy muse. I agree.

Every day though I wait for “a sign” (Matt. 12:38). Every thought I have I ask myself: Is this my subconscious tossing out an idea for me to develop? Mostly it’s not. I have a very slow subconscious. He likes to mull over things for a long while. He definitely works in “mysterious ways” which is not a scripture by the way but from a poem by William Cowper.

A friend of mine once fell out with me over religion. She was committing adultery but said that God would understand. I disagreed. He might understand but he wouldn’t condone her actions which is what she wanted. Although some effort was put into making up, our friendship was never the same afterwards. For the record, I’d no problems with her committing adultery, none whatsoever, but it wasn’t my blessing she was looking for. She wanted to reform God in her own image and that’s just not on. If you decide you want to believe in God then here’s what you have to do: Find out what he wants and do it. Or you can shop around and look for a god who shares your values. Or you can do what Henry VIII did and just start your own religion.

A writer’s subconscious is a little god. Let’s not fool ourselves. He’s the guy in charge. You can’t apply the imperatives of industrial output to the mystery of creation. The writer William McIlvanney has said in interview, “I have always written from compulsion. I cannot even write to my own order, never mind anyone else's.” The word ‘compulsion’ crops up often in interviews with him. He was 20,000 words into a novel called Tribute to the Minotaur when he stopped and never returned to it:

The reason wasn’t so much a revulsion away from that book as an overwhelming compulsion towards another. – Alan MacGillivray, Natural Loyalties: The Work of William McIlvanney, The Association for Scottish Literary Studies

Of course I can’t read that without thinking of Matthew 4:1: “Then Jesus was led by the spirit up into the wilderness.” And that’s what a new novel is, a wilderness. Not just a blank page, a desert of blank pages. Who in his right mind would go there willingly? Joan Didion writes in ‘On Keeping a Notebook’:

Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

Lil DevilI’m not sure ‘loss’ is the right word for me. When I write I’m looking for something I never had in the first place. Feeling that something is missing is not necessarily the same as loss although I expect the feelings are not dissimilar. I want to rearrange the world to suit me. The world is too big and uncooperative so I make do with a virtual world and in that world I become “like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Maybe I don’t have a bunch of hardworking guys with Camels rolled up in the sleeves of their shirts inside me. Maybe it’s a wee devil.


Ken Armstrong said...

The temptation with an excellent, thought-provoking post like this is to come back and talk about what I believe as opposed to what you believe. I'm not in the frame of mind to do that, though. You probably already know what I believe (or don't beleive) anyway. :)

I would like to say that I like your HUMAN RACE poem very much.

So that's something, right?

PhilipH said...

This is one of the best articles I've read for many a year. You are very well-read and your quotes are excellent. I shall be clicking on the links you provide in this post. The Voltaire piece is one unknown to me but so true.

I was born in the mid-1930s and had the usual Christian upbringing by parents and the church/schools. It seemed real enough as a kid and 'belief' was instilled as the norm then.

At age about 8 I was in Croydon General Hospital for a few days and the Matron came to ask me my name, age etc. Her last question was "What is your religion?" to which I replied, (as advised by my parents) "Church of England."
She then asked: "and which church to you attend?" and I said "West Croydon Methodist church, just across the road." whereupon Matron guffawed so loudly her whole body shook like a jelly on a plate. I'd no idea why she found this so hilarious then.

My 'belief' is that ALL religion is, or was, force-fed to children just to keep them on the straight and narrow. I am against all religious teaching in schools today other than to explain, as far as possible, why there are so many different 'faiths' in this wicked world of ours. To me it seems that brain-washing vulnerable young children is tantamount to child abuse.

Let kids alone until they are old enough to understand the realities of life before making them say prayers and singing songs praising an invisible and a jealous "God" up there in some mysterious place called Heaven or Paradise...

Unlike you Jim, I am an atheist. I recall something about having a bet as to whether there really is a God and eternal life. The safest thing for a gambler would be to bet that there IS a God, as if there was you'd win. If there wasn't it wouldn't matter.

Thanks for posting this item. It is superbly written and interesting - as usual.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, Ken. Absolutely no need to explain yourself. You believe what you want to believe. Or don’t. I’m not sure we have any obligation to believe in anything or anyone. Those who do make us feel bad simply by their tone, “So what DO you believe in?” I’m reading a book called Regeneration just now. It focuses on the poet Siegfried Sassoon and the Declaration he wrote objecting to how the war was being handled. He ended up being sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh where he was officially treated for neurasthenia since he was clearly not mentally ill. There the job of the doctor in charge of him was to convince him to return to active service. But before that he had to try to understand what was motivating Sassoon. The mindset at the time threw up three options: coward, pacifist, conscientious objector. The problem was he didn’t actually fit any of these. His objection was one of principle.

According to the Bible I’m a bad person. There are only two classes: the sheep and the goats, the good and the bad. Well since we’re all sinners none of us are actually good, not in the strictest sense, and so the two classes really should be the bad who are trying to be good and the bad who don’t mind being bad. The thing is I don’t feel like a bad man. I’m not perfect—no one’s perfect (that’s why we’re all technically bad)—but I’m actually a pretty decent chap all in all. I don’t feel particularly good but then I don’t think of myself as an especially bad person. Mostly I just want to be left alone. It’s like the right to vote. I have the right to vote but it’s not an obligation. I can choose not to. There’ll be those who’d throw their arms up if they thought come September the whatever I wasn’t going to vote in the referendum. But why? Lots of people won’t vote. Hundreds. Thousands. Because it doesn’t matter enough for them to vote. Does that make them bad people?

I don’t think of myself as a particularly passionate person. It’s why I generally avoid talking about religion of politics because nothing annoys zealots more than someone who’s apathetic. Oppose them by all means but CHOOSE A SIDE.

And, Philip, what can I say about indoctrination other than they did a good job on me? It’s hard to think of my parents are cruel though or even misguided. If they’d let me eat nothing but junk food you could criticise them for not looking after my physical wellbeing. Well, as far as they were concerned they were also looking after my spiritual wellbeing. They set out to build my character and in many respects they did a good job. I’m a decent, hard-working, loyal and trustworthy person. I have principles and values. I also suffer from guilt over things I should not feel guilty about. With the good comes the bad. You don’t ask a five-year-old if he wants to learn to read or do sums. You make him or her do them. Imagine waiting until that kid had grown up and then said, “Don’t you think it’s about time you gave reading a go?”

I’m not a gambler—another thing my parents dissuaded me from becoming—but I tried the betting on their being a God thing and it’s not enough to go through the motions. Apparently He knows if your heart’s not in it. That’s why I quit and went and sat on the “bleachers”. Indoctrination can only go so far. It’s like Steve Martin in the film The Jerk thinking he was black because he was brought up by black people. It took me a long time to realise I wasn’t “black” or actually that I was; I was the black sheep.

Can’t for the life of me think what was so funny about being a Methodist in Croydon. A Jew in Salt Lake City, maybe.

Snowbrush said...

Philip sent me.

"I don't understand the concept of spirituality. I can appreciate things intellectually and emotionally but not spiritually."

I think that people use the word spirituality to describe feelings of awe, wonder, universal unity, and so forth that seem to take them out of themselves, and therefore give them a sense of something beyond themselves. Unfortunately, the word also suggests a belief in the supernatural (whatever that means), and so, by definition, pantheists, atheists, and others cannot be spiritual, and this leaves them without a word to describe the experience.

"Of course I’ve no axe to grind with those who do find they have a need for God in their lives"

Perhaps, large numbers of such people are not so obnoxious in your country as they are here in America.

"A friend of mine once fell out with me over religion. She was committing adultery but said that God would understand."

Some people build in their minds a God whom is their worst enemy; others a God who is willing to place him imprimatur on anything they do. Either way, God exists in counterpoint to themselves and is therefore intimately connected to themselves--sort of like Ying and Yang in which you can't have the one without the other--and this makes almost every conception of God centered upon the believer.

"Not everyone walking along the same beach will stop and pick up the same rock or poke the same jellyfish with a stick."

No, but as I learned yesterday, if they have short-term transient amnesia, they will pick up the same rock and say the same words over that same rock every couple of minutes all day long suggesting that we are more like machines rather than organisms that possess the freedom to make difference choices.

"I could prove there was a God"

Isn't it ironic to imagine that one can prove God even while emphasizing the superiority--if not the necessity--of faith without proof? As Jesus said to Thomas, "You believe because you have seen; blessed are those who believe without having seen."

"For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God."

Paul hadn't heard of Occam's Razor, but he had grown up in a religious environment and in a pre-scientific world. It's also a mighty leap from believing in a creator God to believing in Christianity, and Paul gives no reason for it.

"You would think that all science could possibly do is provide irrefutable proof of intelligent design"

Well, there's Occam's Razor again. For instance, I can't prove that ghosts or space aliens didn't hide my car keys, but this doesn't justify me believing that they did because there are simpler--and therefore more likely--explanations. The absence of evidence to support something is in itself evidence against it, but to those whom believe, no evidence can suffice, so they will go on believing in Tarot cards, Bigfoot, weeping statues of Mary, Creationism, homeopathy, and so forth because these beliefs comfort them. What you're referring to is sometimes called the "God of the gaps" in that it is asserted that belief in God is justified whenever science can't provide conclusive proof. It's a position that ever requires its adherents to back ever deeper into a corner as scientific knowledge advances.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, Snowbrush. The subject of the nature of spirituality is one we could discuss for hours. When I said what I said in the article I was thinking about what Jesus said, according to Matthew (5:3): “Happy are those conscious of their spiritual need.” Typically he doesn’t explain what that need is. When doctors talk about it they tend to equate the word with “religiousness”. There’s an interesting article in The Medical Journal of Australia entitled ‘Religion, spirituality and health: how should Australia's medical professionals respond?’ which more than suggests that those with some kind of belief system benefit physically from it. It also offers up definitions of ‘spirituality’, ‘religion’ and ‘religiosity’. I’m not going argue with their findings. All I can speak for is myself and how I feel. I occasionally miss the people I used to associate with. They were my extended family. But then I miss my brother and sister. I miss them but I don’t need them. People grow up without brothers and sisters and do just fine. I was lucky enough to have one of each but I’m getting on okay without them. Maslow never said I needed siblings to be happy. He also never mentioned included a spiritual dimension in his findings. Unless you take a looser definition of what ‘sprit’ means.

I’m well aware that here in the UK we’re probably more tolerant than most counties. And I’m grateful. But when it comes to countries like Iran or the Bible Belt in the USA I still have no problem with people believing what they want to. Whatever gets you through the night. I don’t have a problem with people insisting they’re right. One of the first disagreements my wife and I ever had was on the location of a freezer store on Byres Road and neither of us was willing to back down. Such a stupid thing to squabble over. Of course one of us had to be right—well, I suppose we both could’ve been wrong—but it wasn’t worth falling out over. And that’s how I feel about religion. Every religion should believe it has the truth. I wouldn’t want to be a member of a church that didn’t believe it had the truth. And, yes, by all means evangelise and proselytise to your heart’s content but still accept the fact that no one says I have to believe anything. God let Adam and Eve choose to eat from the tree. Even the Devil let Jesus choose in the wilderness. Choice is an integral part of religion. You have to come to God willingly or it doesn’t work.

I don’t believe in faith without proof. You don’t have to see to believe but there still has to be some proof. I believe Africa exists but I’ve never seen it. Why’s it so hard to believe the Red Sea parted especially if you’re willing to accept that “[a]ll scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16)? I was brought up to believe that the Bible did not contradict itself. It can often seem to but if it does then we’re wrong and we need to look again at our interpretation of the verses in question bearing in mind that “interpretations belong to God” (Gen 40:8) and he reveals his truths in his own good time.

I could talk about this all day. I was inculcated as a child and a young man. So ask me a question and I’ll give you the biblical perspective I was taught but don’t imagine because I’m rattling it off parrot-fashion I care about it any more than me rattling off the formulae I learned in Applied Mechanics. Learning by rote is good for what it is. It gets things into your head. Maybe not your heart. And, as I’ve said, I have no idea what Jesus was on about so I have no access to my spirit whatever that may be.

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