I have a friend who is a Christian fundamentalist. He and I like to discuss religion. Actually he likes to discuss religion with me. You see, he wants to save me, but believes that my mind needs to be convinced first. So, every time I see him he assails me with ever more elaborate proofs for why, on an intellectual basis, I should believe in Jesus as the Son of God, accept him as my personal Lord and savior, and understand the great plan of salvation God has in store for each of us.
My friend, Vince, is part owner in a landscaping and tree removal business. I asked him to come over to provide me with an estimate of what it would cost to clear our property of brush. He took that opportunity to try out a new approach. Only the last twenty minutes of our two hour-long conversation was about business. The rest of the time was devoted to theological discourse. It went something like this:
"You know, Clovice, I've been thinking about our last conversation from a few months ago. I think I've finally figured out how to tell you what I was trying to say back then, but got so fuddled up.", he said. "Yeah, what were you saying?". I asked. I waited for a while before he answered. He reminded me of Colombo. All he needed was a hat, a cigar, and a rumpled raincoat. It was a warm day that was trying desperately to cool. There was a hint of sunset attempting to break, unnoticed, into the slight breeze from the mountain where we live. We were standing outside so I shifted to a place where I could be in the shade.
Vince also shuffled and put his hand to his head in what was looking more and more like he was going to bust a Colombo move. Then he said. "See, I think the world is like a giant program and God is the programmer. People in ancient times didn't know how to describe a program, so they used the Bible to illustrate what they were experiencing as a set of rules. The only model they had to describe hierarchy was that of kings and royalty. So they saw things from the perspective of a kingdom, rather than the way we more clearly see it... as a computer program." Vince had my interest. This did, indeed, promise to be the most cogent argument he had ever advanced. I was curious to know where he was going with his ideas. I asked him, "So, how does the computer program idea fit with Christianity?"
"Well, like I said, God is the master programmer. He knows everything and has laid out everything in advance. You know, the Bible says 'Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.", so he has known everything that will ever happen.", said Vince. "Okay", I said, "let's say God is the great programmer. How does everything we see in creation fit in?"
Vince looked a bit puzzled, then charged ahead. "God is the programmer, the Bible is His word... it is the program. Jesus is the key to the program, and the Holy Spirit is like the electricity used to run the computer." "So, what's the computer?", I asked. "All of existence is the computer.", he said. "Everything in the universe is the computer. The way we live our lives is according to the program God has written." "So then, how do you account for free will?", I asked him. By the way, did you know that term "free will", in the context in which I asked Vince, does not appear in the King James Bible?
Vince replied with the standard response, but with a computer twist. He said, "Since God is omniscient, he knows what everyone will do in the future and what any individual would do in any given situation. This enables God to make a plan for everyone's life. So, if God wants a particular action to occur, he knows who would choose to do that action, and under what circumstances they would choose it; thus he is able to plan for it to happen. However, God's knowing what choices we'll make is just knowledge - it doesn't remove our free will, for we are still the ones making the choices. So we, as individuals, need to get in tune with the program so we can know what God wants for us."
"If God is everything and God knows everything then why does he need a program of any kind?", I asked Vince. Then I asked, "Why does God even need us to exercise free will? This sounds like the Calvinistic view that God has predetermined who will go to heaven. Do you really believe that?" Vince then launched into a long explanation of how we were once in perfect accord with God, but how that changed when Satan introduced Adam and Eve to sin, which he likened to a virus in a program. He said God can't wipe the hard drive clean because there is still a lot of good data to salvage. However, he warned, the day will quickly come when the program will be rebooted and all the errant programs will be terminated, along with Satan. He concluded that, even though a programmer can't know all the events that lead to conditions in a computer program, he can plan for a final outcome.
Thankfully, a cooling breeze began to flow. "You know, this idea is not a new one. It has proponents, who call it game theory theology?", I asked Vince. Colombo was gone. In his place was Vince, who looked like he had just won a Nobel prize. I went on to tell Vince, "To game theorists, good and evil are very real concepts, with very real consequences for us mortals. They feel that life is like a board game where we sinners are always trying to navigate a perilous path to salvation, but we must bypass the temptations that will cause us to lose the game at any turn. But, God is merciful: even after sinning, it is always possible to begin again on the quest for salvation. But, we have absolutely no control over if or when we'll fall into temptation. That completely depends on upon Divine Grace (or the Holy Spirit), which acts like the roll of the die. We have no actual control over our lives or our ultimate fate because the choices we make are already known."
Vince appeared genuinely vindicated. It was clear he was happy to have been on a well worn intellectual path. He was also puzzled why I still would not concede to his position, especially knowing what I do about the great plan of God.
It was my turn to be Colombo.
"God created all things, right?" I asked. "Vince replied "Yes". "That means God created both good and evil.", I went on. Vince interrupted, "No God didn't create evil, he just allows it to exist." "But why", I asked. "So that we can understand the contrast between God's love and the suffering Satan's evil brings us. The purpose of evil is so that we can exercise our God-like characters of kindness, forgiveness, and righteousness. All the details of God's plans cannot be known, but the result will be a perfect and absolute triumph for goodness, truth, and justice." "Still", I went on, "granted that God could allow for evil and not have created it, wouldn't you think God doesn't need to do anything like that? I mean, how could the God who created the entire universe, all the creatures in it, the countless civilizations that are bound to exist, the microcosm and the macrocosm we exist in, have any kind of problem manifesting himself or his designs? Why does this God have to rely on a book written two thousand years ago to tell us what his plans are. And how come God needs evil to let us know how magnificent he is, or that he has a plan to save us from it by sending his son. Why, then, is such an all knowing, all powerful God so inept."
Vince seemed struck by lightening. His struggle to maintain God's plan for salvation into his programmer's model of existence was clearly not working. I maneuvered him into the glaring flaw of his concept; that the perfect programmer, God, could not write a perfect program. The sun was beginning to cast long shadows. The lake glistened like a thousand candles.
I said to my friend, "Maybe the best way to think of all this is to really conclude that God is actually everything... that what happens affects us as both good and evil, that God is all possibilities; all potential, all inertia, all thought, all desire, and everything that can or will be created. Imagine that God doesn't want to know everything because that would be forever boring. Imagine that God cannot be destroyed or ultimately harmed by anything that exists, but can constantly form and reform. Imagine that God has created a fantastic game, like a first-person computer game, and has immersed himself in it because he wants to experience everything that can be experienced, out of all possibilities in the universe. God has set out general rules that govern the different regions of the game, from the quantum level to the Newtonian level, but those rules can be broken by creativity. Imagine that God is me talking to you, listening to me, flying by on the wings of a bird, supporting our weight as the ground, flowing in and out of our lungs as air, feeling the wind in our hair, playing in a constant dance of atoms that form the water in the lake that reflects light from the sun that God explodes every billionth of a second."
Vince shook his head. Obviously he wasn't prepared to go where I was going at that moment. All of a sudden, God became to him, simultaneously too complex and too simple. He said "Well, I'll have to think about what you just said. That's a lot to think about." That's how our conversation ended. But that is where I want ours now to begin.
This sermon is the last of three sermons entitled "Practical Spirituality". In the first I emphasized the need for doubt and reason. The second examined the role of heresy. Today I intend to discuss how important faith is. I am not talking about the kind of blind faith extolled by the religious, but rather, the kind of faith demanded by the scientist, the philosopher, the mystic, the poet, and the unreligious.
Faith is a decidedly practical matter. Practical spirituality needs it and common sense demands it. Faith is not the same thing as belief or as fact. The way these three concepts function is often interchangeable. For example, it is a fact that the earth rotates around the sun on its axis. Therefore, the sun appears to "rise" every day. Because this fact has been demonstrated to us time and time again, it forms the basis of our belief that the sun will rise. How is that belief translated into faith? Well, it can't be. It is certain the earth will one day cease to revolve around the sun, which will eventually swallow it up. We hope that this will not happen any time soon. We have faith in our ability to survive as a species, long enough so that it won't matter to us.
Faith is described as "a firm belief in something for which there is no proof". Our beliefs are formed either by direct experience or they are informed by other beliefs. Beliefs are defined as a "conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence". People too often confuse faith for belief. A "conviction of the truth" does not equal the truth. Yet, we often espouse beliefs that are actually expressions of faith. This is no mere semantic difference. These two, very powerful operators in our lives actually shape our common reality. Put simply, beliefs can, and should, be changed whenever new evidence is available. Although faith is based upon beliefs, it does not necessarily change in light of new evidence. Faith is ultimately a creative expression. It is something that often only needs the facts to catch up with it.
However, faith in absence, or lack, of fact does not serve us. In my mind fervent faith in intelligent life on other planets of our solar system, faith in astrology, and faith in religion are all equally absurd. A religion is nothing more than a collection of beliefs packaged into a system of thought. Faith, because it does not need to be tested, masquerades as truth, and is therefore, equivalent to an absolute for most people. For them questioning faith is something simply not done.
Faith, as an expression of creativity, can lead us to mystical experiences. I believe it was not divinity that caused Jesus to perform miracles. It was an almost superhuman faith that caused him to perform them. Modern physics now provides for such occurrences.
Some of you may be familiar with Erwin Schrodinger's famous thought experiment that is now simply called "Schrodinger's Cat". In the experiment meant to demonstrate the workings of the quantum world, Schrodinger presents us with sealed box with a cat, a vial of cyanide, and a 50 percent chance that the vial will break. According to classic quantum theory, the cat is in a ghost-like condition that is somewhere between death and life. There is a chance that a quantum process will cause the vial to break, therefore killing the cat. That is described as a wave function, which is the complete description of everything that can be known about the electrons, atoms, and molecules that comprise the vial. Quantum mechanics says that both wave functions are equally unreal, and that the wave function collapses only when we open the box to peer in. It is then that the cat is either killed because the vial broke or is alive because it did not.
In 1957 another physicist named Hugh Everett accepted the quantum equations at face value. However, he said that there is a live cat and a dead cat, but that they are located in completely different worlds. It is not the vial of cyanide that did or did not fail, but that it did both. When faced with a decision, the entire universe split itself into two versions of itself, identical in every respect except that one version has a dead cat in the box and the other version does not. You may think this a crazy notion, but the impeccable mathematical equations that support this conclusion cannot be argued with.
On a deep philosophical level, the arguments of physics inform us about the nature of reality in some rather startling ways. The atoms that make up you and me, virtually everything we touch and feel have been involved in interactions with other particles from the beginning of time. We now understand that subatomic particles actually pass information from one to another, and that there is no limit to the amount of space between them or time with which that information can be passed. Theorist such as David Bohm say that we must accept that literally everything is connected to everything else. Human consciousness is the result of a holistic universe. This means that everything maintains a connection with everything else throughout all time and space. Every particle in every star, in every galaxy, therefore "knows" about the existence of every other particle. By the way, the connectedness of all things on the quantum level was decisively proven in 1983. Further work on superstring theory has revealed even more fascinating and theologically challenging concepts.
F. David Peat put the idea of connectedness rather elegantly in his book entitled "The Philosopher's Stone" when he wrote:
"Other forms of awareness and connections to other, more subtle and fleeting forms are available to us through epiphanies, synchronicities, mystical experiences, and other special moments when individual human consciousness merges into something greater. Our minds and bodies all have access to the same creative source that animates every atom and star. The world that is created in unitary thought is only the smallest fragment of a much larger reality, for we can live and have direct awareness of a universe that is beyond all forms, images, and theories."
In view of these ideas about the nature of reality, miracles do not seem so strange. Let's just say for a moment that one man, namely Jesus the Christ, actually did perform the miracles attributed to him. Let's say that, however improbably, Jesus was also the only man to conquer death and be ascended into heaven. Let's say that heaven actually does exist, in a parallel universe somewhere, and that everyone who believes in Jesus will be "saved". Hey these things seem impossible to me, but they are just as valid as the many worlds theory or any other insane and quirky discoveries being made in the field of physics.
My friend Vince does not understand that he and others who believe as he does may actually be cooperating in the creation of the reality they collectively see. Buddhists are doing the same thing, and so are Muslims, and Hindus, and Sikhs, and so are even physicists! I imagine a God who pops up from the bubbling field of all possibilities and giggles at us, lets us create out of that field anything we wish for, then pops back into it until we ask for something else. It's all fun and games to the Universe, God, or whatever you want to call the power that unites and engages us in this wonderful dance of consciousness.
So where does faith enter into all this? Well, without faith life would have very little meaning or joy. If you have no faith you might as well just sit this life out and wait for the next one (provided you believe in that sort of thing!). Have faith in the fact that you are alive, if you have faith in nothing else. The chances of our actually existing is a miracle in itself. Have faith in the process, the will, the consciousness, the force, the universe, the God ... or simply the "thing" that put you here.
Believe that you actually are a co-creator in your own reality. Have faith in the inherent goodness of an abundant universe and the community of universal equality. In my second sermon on practical spirituality I wrote:
"This is the crux of my heresy. The high ground of God's authority resides uniquely in each individual person. Every person is an expression of God's purpose, God's divinity, God's grace, God's perfect imperfection, God's child, God's mother, God's father - and we are all partners in the work of creation. ...We know God is not likely to exist in 'the firmaments', we know the face of God is found in both the macrocosm and microcosm that most of our ancestors had no clue even existed, and we understand that a better model of human government is one where we are all equals, not to humble ourselves before anyone."
In the first sermon I touched on another, very important aspect of faith when I wrote:
"Practical spirituality demands that we like the Kabbalists of old, reinterpret the message of God so that it is relevant for each generation. Practical Spirituality demands we accept responsibility for our actions and go every moment into the sanctuary inside us to stand before our God for instant blessings or instant correction. Practical Spirituality urges us to live in the present, incorporating its lessons and insights into the fabric of our lives. It requires us to be open to endless potential perceived through the eye of possibilities tempered by reason."
Paul Davies wrote about his idea that we must balance what we discover in science with what we can reasonably, and practically incorporate into our everyday lives. In "Physics and the Mind of God: The Templeton Prize Address" he wrote:
"We have to find a framework of ideas that provides ordinary people with some broader context to their lives than just the daily round, a framework that links them to each other, to nature, and to the wider universe in a meaningful way, that yields a common set of principles around which peoples of all cultures can make ethical decisions yet remains honest in the face of scientific knowledge; indeed, that celebrates that knowledge alongside other human insights and inspirations. The scientific enterprise as I have presented it may not return human beings to the center of the universe, it may reject the notion of miracles other than the miracle of nature itself, but it does not make human beings irrelevant either. A universe in which the emergence of life and consciousness is seen, not as a freak set of events, but fundamental to its lawlike workings, is a universe that can truly be called our home."
It certainly sounds to me like Davies was describing Unitarian Universalism! My friends, faith is the glue that ties all this reason and heresy together. My quasi-doctrine of Practical Spirituality would say this: "If you can't bring yourself to believe in anything, or to extend that further into faith, then believe in yourself. That is enough. The universe will tip towards you and the God-in-you will rise from the bubbling field of all possibilities, giggle, and let you create out of that field anything you wish for."
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!