I had an exchange with a friend the other day, and he asked me why I had never written about my ideas on spirituality. My answer, quite simply, was that I don’t think people want to read about these things. I also don’t want to come across as a rigid, preaching “religioso”, have my friends desert these pages for fear of a “sermon”, and lose all hope of a readership for this blog. I think that socially, there is an underlying assumption that such things are topics confined to the pews or to the “deep” discussions we have with friends at 2 am in the morning when we’re all too tired to heed the boundaries of conventional conversation.
But, as with all important things – specifically those concerning identity – belief and spirituality deserve some airtime, too. We all have very different ideas about “God”, so with this post and others to follow I am going to offer a few of mine.
“I don’t believe in God.” How sure are you?
Many people struggle to believe in the existence of a higher being (myself included sometimes) because we’ve grown up with very set ideas of what a higher being ought to look like. Quite simplistically, it’s God up there, God in me and you, God is Love, etc. And fortunately, while different religions offer a broader spectrum of ideas regarding what God might be like (the many-in-one concept of Hinduism, re-incarnation in Rastafarianism, the Trinity in Christianity, and so forth), many of us still struggle to stretch our imagination any further than these preconceptions.
People are lazy. Like I said, most of us don’t have these kinds of conversations, or dwell upon them privately, least of all with the same vigour and determination as we do, say, our intellectual pursuits here on earth – which are far more tangible and have the added incentive of grades, employment potential, money and success. Spirituality is a lot easier to simply accept or reject when you see it only in the two dimensional (and for some, one dimensional) way it has been presented to you.
Lifting the veil and confronting your spiritual identity is no easy task. It takes effort, energy, dead honesty, humility, patience, some hectic “soul searching”, and a bit of zany faith sometimes, too. Here I am by no means talking about the “effort” of going to church on Sunday. (This post is about spirituality, not religion; I last went to church about six months ago). I’m talking about the regular emptying of the mind, the “listening” to the universe, the self-reflection, the connecting with people and nature, and the ongoing openness to the Divine. To many of you this will sound ambiguous, New-Agey, and maybe even silly, probably because the scoffer has never actually tried these practices. Or if they have, they have given up at some point, concluding that it is all a pointless waste of time.
Someone once explained the crux of this subject to me very beautifully and very simply. As with so many things, he said, we are scrutinizing the answers instead of the questions themselves. The question is not whether God exists, but what God is like.
So we assume God exists, do we? (Now this is the part where I urge you to continue reading even if you’re atheist) First, let’s strip away everything we want to believe about divine presence. Let’s assume there is no such thing as “real” religion, and take relativism to its logical extension; that human beings believe whatever they want to believe. You can believe in the God who created the universe; you can believe in the authoritative God who makes rules for us sinful weaklings shuffling about on this mortal coil; you can believe that there is no God at all; you can believe that we actually live in the matrix with our jelly-like brains swimming in a vat somewhere; you can believe that our bodies aren’t real and we are all just pixels stored in a universal supercomputer; you can believe in infinite realities – heck, you can believe whatever you want! There is no ultimate truth, it’s all in our heads, end of story. That’s relativism.
But now, wait – underlying all of these options is the assumption that whatever reality you decide to believe, some kind of reality must exist. Whether you believe you are an arrangement of pixels or created in the image of a divine God, you have to be something – because, quite evidently, there cannot be nothing. This is known as an axiom; a self-evident truth that requires no proof.
The mere fact that we can ask the question “Does God exist?”, as well as breathe and think and dance and laugh, points to the imminent, undeniable existence of something – even if it’s just ourselves. These things could not exist in the mind-crippling vacuum of “nothing”.
But how does this prove the existence of some higher being? It surely proves only that things as diverse as me, you, clouds, rivers, cities and planets exist, and says nothing of the existence or otherwise of a higher power.
Well, yes and no. We’ve come a long way from our simplistic view of God as a Big Man above the clouds. Most of us now have some notion of a non-gendered Supreme Being, the thing that created this universe and connects you and me. It’s a nice, broad definition that can be suitable for any religion and perhaps agnostics too. We need to accept that there may be infinite possibilities of what God is like.
I believe, however, that whatever and whoever God is, God’s essence is the underlying blueprint of reality itself. God is the Truth that is behind, above and within everything we know, and everything we don’t know. That “something” we must all necessarily believe in (call it existence, unless you’re going to turn ridiculously radical and tell me there is no such thing as even that), is God. Thus to deny God is to deny existence itself, and to deny existence is an absolute contradiction.
Some people can’t accept this. To others it makes perfect sense. I think that often times, our rejection of the notion of God has less to do with the possibility of an underlying Truth steeped in the divine nature, and more to do with our own discomfort at reconciling this understanding of God with the “God” we have grown up with.
My view, quite simply, is that if you believe in reality and are open minded enough to appreciate that this “thing” exists – this absolute Truth that you are alive right now, along with billions of other beings, with Life pumping through your veins as it does through the trees outside, the birds in the air and the quiet breathing of the person next to you; that you’re living on a planet where the intensity of primordial cosmic superwinds is pitched just right, where the vanadium quantity in the earth’s crust is perfect for life, where the frequency of gamma ray bursts in the galaxy enables rather than obliterates Life, where the molecular cloud expansion in the Sun’s birthing star cluster is just perfect, and where a thousand other factors you can look up yourself exist to support this glorious thing we call Life, then I believe you’re already half-way there. You are probably more awake and open to the idea of a higher power than you realize, because you’ve already conceded to something bigger than yourself. I call that thing God.
But that’s only half-way. The crux of spiritual awareness; the quintessential bridge that leads to awakening; lies in a relationship with God. Relationship implies a reciprocal give and take – a constant engagement that constitutes listening, giving, sharing, learning, growing and being. For me, relationship begins with a decision about the lens through which you view the world. I was once speaking with an atheist friend who told me in exasperation, “Honestly, I’d love to believe in a God – I really would – but I just can’t! I haven’t grown up in a religious family and I haven’t had any ‘aha’ moment that has pushed me into a place of having even a slither of belief in a higher power. Like, I’ve tried, but it just doesn’t click. Sorry, but I just don’t buy it.”
For the first time, I was given an inkling of what it feels like to never have had a spiritual experience. I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in a family that openly accepts and discusses these things. We pray with and for each other, we share dreams, we ponder the meaning of life on family road trips when whatever is on the radio begins to get dull. It’s all so… normal. It also makes me consider how arbitrary it is that some find it easier to believe than others. No one gets to choose whether they will be born into an atheist family; a family that believes in a loving God; a fundamentalist family that believes in a rigid, angry. and vindictive God; or even a family like that of the Westborough Baptist Church, which believes in a homophobic God who has commissioned them to spew hate and punishment upon the world.
Unfortunately, though, our experiences with religion in childhood are primarily what colour the hue of our spiritual lens. The God we choose to accept or reject is only ever the God we have come to know. In the same way, everything I am sharing right now might be as whacky as the belief that Nelson Mandela actually died in prison on 23 January 1991. A concession of ignorance is a humbling starting point, and one that is fundamental to transcending whatever experiences – good or bad – you may have had with religion.
But understand that God is not religion. You do yourself, and the notion of God, a serious disfavour when you base your judgments of spirituality on your judgments of religion. We need to stop confining God to human reasoning and human constructs. Your spirituality should not depend on the church you go to, how charismatic the pastor is, or whether you “like” world religions or not. Spirituality has to do with our stance towards Truth, or, if you will, reality.
It’s highly debatable whether people who deny or ignore spirituality live simpler lives, but the truth is they inevitably shut themselves off from an aspect of reality. A person who does not feed themselves spiritually cannot grow spiritually. So many people continue to view religion through the simplistic and binary lens of the world, using this as a reason not to confront it in any deeper way. It becomes increasingly easier to convince oneself that belief is farce and not worth one’s time. But like a person who has never swum in the ocean, or a person who learns only arithmetic and never acquaints themselves with the sheer beauty of calculus, there will always be a void.
So, to conclude this rambling – or preaching (call it what you will) – let me return to the idea of relationship – that journey into the mysteries of goodness, truth and love (there’s a hint at the God I know – but let’s leave the cry of “What about evil?” for a later post, shall we?”). The decision comes from a place of not being willing – not being able, even – to settle for the half-hearted belief in “something bigger out there”. This sham, diluted version of spirituality is a mediocre attempt to quench the ardent thirst of our souls.
If people really believed the Christian statement “The Kingdom of Heaven is within me”, how differently would we live our lives? It would mean that the same fullness of God is immediately available to the pathetic bum on the street, the pot-smoking acne-faced teenager, and the revered pastor of an African megachurch with his slick suit and faux snake skin “look at me” shoes.
If you can entertain the thought that God exists (and the size of that “if” depends on you, the reader), then a good place to start is to recognise that the Divine Presence, Creative Power, Life Force, and Loving Energy which brought the universe into explosive being, that fuelled and still fuels ongoing evolution of matter and thought, and that brings new life into this physical world, is the same Divine Presence, Creative Power, Life Force, and Loving Energy that rests within you right now as you read this, wherever you are. You do not have to will yourself to “feel” it. You do not need to work extra hard, pray and go to church or mosque in order to “access” or “unlock” it. You don’t deserve it, you don’t earn it, you don’t ask for it, you don’t even have to know that it exists. It simply is there, now and always. It’s called grace – and it’s a gift from God.