At the core of my spiritual quest over the years, there had always been one constant: a personal God. But with my recent reversion to Cultural Catholicism, I'm trying to make sense of the role spirituality ought to play in my life now that I'm essentially nonreligious.
My beliefs in terms of the big questions are simple and straightforward, with little explanation. With every fiber of my being, I believe, nay, I KNOW, that everything that exists was created. At some point, some laws of physics and other mysterious forces we may not yet know about (as was the case until recently with quantum mechanics, quarks and all), were placed into motion, and from there the world that we now know evolved. Somehow, for some reason. I do not speculate as to when that was, or why. But I do not doubt for one second that there was an act of will on the part of an intelligent source thanks to which we have our being.
The second point of my minimalist belief system is that death is merely a transition, like all other things in the known universe. I cannot think of a single experience, single even, that has a definitive ending and beginning. Rather, I see everything is in a constant state of transition. We are both dying and being reborn simultaneously and continuously. We fall asleep and for all intents of our personal consciousness, cease to exist (with the rare exception of lucid dreaming). Then we awake and reflect back on the fact that we were asleep and carry on in our wakeful state as if nothing happened. We do not dwell on having temporarily died, nor do we agonize over having our conscience die yet again the following night.
I find it interesting that people claim to only believe what they can see, what they can understand. I know I'm not in the minority when I say that I actually do not fully grasp how radio waves, much less television, works. All I know is that there's electricity involved, and some computer coding, software and hardware, all of which must be working in perfect alignment for me to be able to watch my favorite show. I don't understand it. But because I can experience watching my favorite show, I know there is an explanation, and that's actually enough for me. I don't need to be a physicist, computer programmer, electrician, before I can enjoy my show. So why do people insist - like I have done for years - that they must first grasp who God is and by extension what that means for us and our lives before we can start living, enjoying life, and doing the right thing?
I do not know if we reincarnate as lesser or greater beings based on our karma, or if we remain humans in our next life, or if we reincarnate at all. I do not know if we fall into a deep unconscious slumber until some designated "Judgment Day", or if we are immediately judged to be worthy of heaven or not at the moment of our death. I do not know if our bodies will by physically resurrected, and if so, will I get my 37 year old body or a younger or older version?
To be honest, I find all of these hypotheses (for that is all I see them as) to be a bit far-fetched and too literal. I think what makes spirituality and the divine mysterious is precisely that we cannot explain it in terms of our everyday experiences. We can approximate, but nothing more. I think most religious adherents are simply too literal in their understanding of their faith.
What I actually do think happens after death, and this is a work in progress, always open to adjustments as new information makes itself known, is based on who I think "I" am at my core. I don't think my body is what makes me who I am, eternally speaking. My body has changed drastically since the time I was still in the womb. We shed our cells regularly, and I read that every seven years or so, the cells in our entire body have been replaced with new ones. If this is true (from science), then how can I think that my body is what makes me who I am? There is something else that maintains my sense of self through all of those bodily changes.
I don't think it's our personality either. As we mature, as we have different experiences, as we learn and grow, we see the world in a different light. Some aspects of our personality may remain, like introversion or extroversion, but I cannot say that I am the same "person" that I was twenty years ago. At age 17, I was graduating high school and learning to toe my way into the "real world" (whatever that is) with my best friend Rachel as my guide. I was in a chaotic state of figuring out how to make my life meaningful. I went from wanting to pursue religious life (being quickly discouraged from this endeavor by my family) to joining AmeriCorp (my application missed the deadline) to shipping off for the Army's Basic Training Course.
Twenty years later, my best friend Rachel has crossed over to the other side (of death, that is). I ended up hating the Army and spent a little over one year there. Rather than finding my independence, as I had intended, I found my life's partner instead. We married, enjoyed life as a couple for a while, struggled with infertility for many years, and finally welcomed our daughter two years ago. And instead of religious life, I'm now nonreligious. No, my personality is not what makes me who I am either.
There is something mysterious, something that cannot be grasped with the intellectual faculties, that holds us together and carries us through life. It is something so nuanced that the moment you start to define it, you get it wrong. It's something that intersects who we are as physical beings, emotional beings, and intellectual beings. Many people call this something a "soul", though usually it is thought to be very non-physical in nature. I actually think it is absolutely rooted in the most minuscule particles of existence.
Quantum physics absolutely intrigues me, as it describes concepts such as bilocation and time travel as real, except on the level of quarks. How can we begin to conceptualize God or our true nature as it comes from God, if time is a construct with no basis in reality? Time-space, actually, is seen as a single phenomenon, interdependent. We experience time and space because we live in it. But after death (and for argument's sake, before conception), we are not bound by either. We can be anywhere, do anything. We are not God per se. We are God's fingers, toes, etc.
Teresa of Avila said it beautifully when she said:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
And to continue a bit with the Catholic tradition, in spite of calling myself a "revert to Cultural Catholicism", I actually do currently believe in the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the essence of Jesus Christ. And it's not because the church says so, actually! It's because of quantum physics and what I've learned about quarks being able to exist simultaneously in two "time-space" places at the same time. God is outside of time, right? During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we have an opportunity to attune ourselves to a time warp of sorts, where we are given a front row seat at Calvary.
Now, that said, just because I believe this doesn't mean it's not disturbing, or that the rest of Christian theology makes any sense to me. My immediate question is, why would I want to be present at an execution? A torturous one at that, of an innocent man! I'm not some sort of sadist who gets his kicks from watching others suffer. So what I actually think is the point of that part of our religious service is a reminder of innocent suffering (so that we are moved to act to lessen it) and a reminder of the possibility to transcend one's own suffering. I think the same role is played by the image of the crucified Christ at the altar, and the stations of the cross in every Catholic church. No, it's not feel-good religion. It's difficult, but it's real. It can truly lead us to something beyond our mundane everyday experiences, if only we let it.
While we're on the subject of Catholic belief, I also believe in the Virgin Birth. That said, I am not committed to it being unique to Jesus. Because early embryonic cells have the potential to grow into any of the necessary cells that a human needs (hence the interest in embryonic stem cell research), it doesn't sound like a stretch at all for a single cell, Mary's ovum, to somehow have carried the necessary y chromosome in order to grow baby Jesus in her womb. Of course, this isn't something she could've willed into being. This is where the hand of God comes in, and it is best if we leave it at that, because once we start to guess why God may have done such a thing, we end up with religion (aka theories and hypotheses about the unknowable will of God).
I don't think Jesus's conception needed to be miraculous (which only means "unexplained by current scientific knowledge") in order for Him to teach what He taught. Yes, I realize that the Christian religion states that it is not so much what Jesus taught that is important, but what He did (namely "take our place on the cross"). Not being Christian, I do not subscribe to this notion. I do not believe in so-called original sin or the wrath of God. Instead, I believe that Jesus's crucifixion was inevitable as far as the natural consequences of being a rebel of thought in his society. The value of his sacrifice (to me) comes in the fact that he was perfectly aware of the consequences of what he taught publicly, but he refused to stay silent. He provided an example that has been followed since, not only in the church-sanctioned saints of the faith, but also in the secular heroes and heroines who have fought for social justice and civil rights, all too often paying the ultimate price for the courage of their convictions. This is not blasphemy. After all, we are told to "be Christ to others".
Finally, we have the Resurrection, another teaching that I do not see any reason for discarding. Countless people "saw Jesus" after his death. What they saw is really moot, other than to say that it was real to them and changed their lives. It doesn't matter if they saw his literal physical body, the one that was nailed to a cross. It doesn't matter if it was some new, transcendent yet still physical body that is now held up as a promise for anyone willing to follow him. It could just as well have been a vision, a hallucination, a dream, a hologram. Why do we assign greater worth to that which can be clearly discerned with our five basic senses, yet ignore the truth that can be known through intuition or discernment?
So for me, Jesus taught very important lessons. He was willing to die for them, because he believed his lessons had the power to transform lives. And they do. And the fact that people experienced (and continue to experience) his presence in some way is only confirmation of the fact that he can continue to teach us these lessons, if we only listen.
I think the reason we are taught to focus on the person of Jesus (rather than his teachings) is simply a way to remind us to do what he said - empty ourselves and deny ourselves and put ourselves last. We cannot go though life polishing our many virtues and patting ourselves on the back and expect to live a transformed life. Jesus called us to go beyond the basic golden rule. Jesus called us to try to see the big picture. I think we are entering an age when that will be more and more possible, with the insights gleaned from quantum physics!
Why do most religions preach helping others? There must be something in the deepest part of who we are that remembers that we are all interconnected, that we are not merely individuals living together on this planet. Where I end and you begin.... there's a transition there that isn't quite as clear-cut as we like to think.
Ok, so is God personal or impersonal? I think that as far as we are persons having a personal experience in this lifetime, God is likewise personal. God encompasses whatever experiences we can imagine, because God is the source of them all. But to say that God is "a person", as in just like us, is to make God in our own image, idolatry! God is beyond simply an elder Father-King sitting in the clouds looking down at us. And this is what I believe was the intention of putting forth the belief in God as a Trinity, this "both-and-neither" answer that simply doesn't satisfy our meager human intellect, when we try to limit our understanding only to what our brains can do! I don't think the point is that God is literally a Spirit-Man (Father), Savior-Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit (like a very important angel maybe?). The point was precisely to stop our incessant philosophizing over the nature of God, as if we have any right to understand God or grasp God's vastness or greatness, as if we have a right to qualify our worship based on our understanding. The Trinity is a western koan! What is the sound of one hand clapping? What does the color red taste like? What is the nature of God?
I actually think we will know everything we need to know once we cross from this life. I think children are still very close to our source and can better intuit God than adults can. I think some of us, probably through mere openness to the Spirit, can indeed experience God's presence without the limitations of human language, either in dreams, or visions, or just through quiet reflection. Sadly, most of us spend too much time paying lip service to how great God is and too little time acting as though we actually believe what has been taught about God by some of the greatest religious-philosophical thinkers of all time (Jesus included). Do we really treat others the way we would want to be treated? Or do we only treat those that aren't too different from us with kindness? Do we look for excuses to ignore people's struggles, or do we look for opportunities to help? That is how we really worship God; not in ritual and lip service, but in spirit and in truth.