In the USA, we have a freedom of belief. We’re not alone in the world in that respect, but that’s not what I’m writing about. I’m writing about what to do with that freedom.
I used to hold a view that the universe was entirely deterministic. No God guided anything along in the view I held then. I looked at other religions and saw the man-made alterations and inventions in them and felt no sense of the divine. I heard preachers on the television – years before their public downfalls in stories of corruption and lies – and heard the hypocrisy in their voices. I could not believe that which was built upon vain imaginings and crass manipulation.
To me, if a faith was worth having, it would have to be based upon something pure and honest. It would have to be self-consistent enough to provide a framework that would allow belief to cover the yet-unexplained gaps. I never wanted perfect proof for a faith. The very definition of faith means it cannot be based upon perfect proof. But it still had to answer my questions in a manner both consistent and…
I didn’t know at the time what else was needed, but I knew it needed to be more than a Geometry proof or a Physics experiment. Science had no answers for me for things beyond its reach, that of the senses and their extensions. Death stood before me as a grand, dark gate, blacker than the blackest hole of the cosmos, to which we could send no instruments to gather data, let alone have them return. Science draws up at the gate of death and confesses defeat. In a world with only explanations for the world, that which lies beyond can never be known.
And that left me as cold as a hypocrite’s plea for gold in the guise of a gospel.
Rene Descartes said, “Cogito, ergo sum.” Translated, “I think, therefore I am.” In that Cartesian summation, the inner awareness is supreme. Even if it is in error, it is supreme. This is the point from which we all begin – the self – and it is where every journey of life begins. We determine in our own conscience what we are willing to accept, what we are willing to believe in, and what we are willing to allow to change our lives. We have that will, that freedom, and one of the great wars of humanity is in the question of allowing individuals to exercise that free will.
At its most base expression, one holds a freedom of belief to be in effect only for the self, that all others must then conform to the belief one has chosen. This is the cardinal mistake of fundamentalism, for it denies others the opportunity to express their own dictates of their own consciences. As much as I would desire everyone to believe and to be acted upon by that belief as I am, to impose the decisions of my conscience upon others is to assault the souls of others with the intent of murdering them.
Sadly, I used to be that way to some extent. In my own realization of a thing worth believing in, I sought to replicate that experience in the lives and minds of others. Not something like it, but the very experience itself. I wanted, as in the words of Stanislav Lem, to create mirrors in that which faced me. I never was entirely comfortable with that, as it smacked too much of the hypocrisy which revulsed me.
Defending my faith with loud arguments and aggressive proofs was a step up from that, I suppose, but it was still not satisfactory in that it still did not respect the views others were free to form. While I realize that acquiring my faith was a massive turning-point in my life, I realize that an equally massive turning point was in learning that I had no right to impose or force my views. Each time I have learned about that, and those lessons stretch all the way to this day, I have felt my own faith strengthen and grow.
Even today, I just had the realization that I was as right when I believed there was no God as now, when I very much do believe that there is a God. At each step of the way, I was – and am – convinced that I was – and am – right in my thinking. The person I was thirty years ago is not the person I am right now, but he was still competent and capable of figuring things out for himself. I mean, after all, he is the person that got me to where I am today.
What helped that young man to get here was the guidance of others that had already walked long paths of life with dignity and humility. Many of those men and women were of my own faith, but not all. Thankfully, I do hold to a religion that, while it proclaims to be the only true one on the earth, does not claim to have a monopoly on truth. It also teaches that, in order to live in the most harmonious way possible, we need to tolerate others. It specifically warns against forcing others to do or act in ways contrary to their conscience. Yes, there are exceptions for self-defense and other extreme cases, but those are the extremes. In everyday life, we have to let other people do things that we think are wrong because they think they are right in doing them.
We must forgive and allow them to do those things. We must be tolerant and respect their ways if we wish to have any claim on a right to be respected in our own ways. We must avoid the sin of fundamentalism and embrace the virtue of greater wisdom.
This is why I choose to emphasize that people should never stop seeking the truth. I know there is a grand, unifying truth that binds the universe in its loving eternity. While there may be one truth, I know that I do not yet know the whole of it: I only know enough to know where to keep looking to find more of it. But I do know that anyone who creates rules in his or her own life to seek after truth and then, upon discovery, to allow it to change his or her life will eventually find the same truth I have found and it will change their lives in the ways they need to be changed. Not to make them mirrors of me, but to make them the best that they can be, which is what I seek for myself.
Religion is nothing more than a vehicle for truth. I mentioned that great gate of death before: religion claims to have the answers for what lies beyond that gate. These claims, however, must be subjected to different tests than claims about what the physical world around us is like. The experiments one performs on faith are personal and strictly so. My experiences are my own. I think and therefore I am. You think and therefore you are. What the I experiences is available to the you, the he, and the she, but only on terms acceptable to the you, he, or she. What is in my mind, I cannot re-create in the mind of another. All I can do is hope to expose that grand, universal truth to another and hope that it is something the other will see value in. If not, so be it. If so, happy day!
I have read much of other faiths and I have tried my very best to comprehend them all. I do this not to point out where they are wrong, but to realize where they are right. In so doing, I have realized that, over time, men have encountered personal proofs of what lies beyond that gate of death. They take their personal accounts, many of them bewildering and strange on first examination, and commit them to paper or legend for others to learn by them. In so doing, there are core, resonating ideas that show to me how there is that one, grand truth. Peoples separated by time and space have independently verified, so to speak, that their encounters with the other side of death have given them certain conclusions which I think are safe to say are universal.
Now, anyone who rubbishes that idea of mine is right. The nay-sayer is free to say nay. In his mind, he’s right and in my mind, I’m right. Both of us will be amazed when we come face to face with absolute truth in its entirety – when we realize how wrong we were to think we were so right before. But I do see a danger in absolute rejection of the idea that there is more to life than what we see and experience with our senses and their extensions, the lab equipment of the scientific world. In a sense, it is another form of fundamentalism. It is another form of refusing to seek after truth.
The hypocrites that demanded gold for gospels refused truth: they saw the search for knowledge, peace, and harmony, as an opportunity to enrich themselves. The fundamentalists that killed those that did not believe as they did refused truth: they did not know that, blind as we are, we are bound to think different things as we are individually exposed to different aspects of the grand truth of the universe. The strident arch-defenders of a particular religion refused truth: they presumed they had already learned all there was worth learning and that no one else could offer a view that would add to their wisdom.
I have a freedom of belief. So do you. We can do whatever we want with it, even nothing. I have chosen to seek after truth, wherever I can find it, and to encourage others to do the same, with the faith that those who are honest in their search – who never abandon it, even when it means they must confront the sin in their own life and repent of it – will make a journey worth all the sacrifice. I have faith that I will be standing in the same place eventually as all other honest and earnest seekers of truth.
I’m going to have to re-read that a few times. There are some things that waved to me from my side of belief as I read this the first time. One, that I recoil somewhat from any religion that claims they are the one true religion; two, that indeed any religion is – or ought to be – the vehicle for truth; and three, that I personally know people alive today who have experiences with the ‘other side’. And maybe last, that I’m conflicted with seeing the same hypocrisy Dean talks about, to the extent that I have problems finding a belief system that even approaches…whatever it is that we seek. But maybe that’s the curse of growing up science-oriented and having problems with faith.
It’s all part of the difficulty we have in seeking truth. At the end of the day, it’s just us and the problematic mass just behind the eyes and between the ears.