Some Reflections on Faith
As I go through this journey, questions of “why me” and mortality are always in the background, no matter how much I try to focus on the here and now.
That this journey has heightened my sense of awe and wonder appears important to me, similar to others with cancer, heart attacks or other life threatening conditions. For me, it is the little things: the interplay of light and shadow, the effervescence of spring and the flame-out of autumn, the variety and beauty of cloud formations and colours at sunset, the spirituality of music whether Bach or in the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, classical or modern art (but not most installation pieces), good design (Apple, not Dell), babies (and watching and helping our ‘babies’ grow up), the rhythms of the ocean, a starry sky and any image from the Hubble. Others will have their own list, but wondering, rather than taking for granted, is an important change and reflection point.
The combination of wonder and questions of “why me” and mortality raise questions of faith and belief. I have been touched by a number of family members and friends from a variety of faiths who were praying – and continue to pray – for me. I was struck by one remark of close friends, strong believers, who observed, in a combination of surprise and comfort, just how similar our overall perspectives were, irrespective of our individual religious views and practices.
Although I have strong personal connections with all three Abrahamic religions, I am non-practicing with an overall secular perspective. To better understand, I did what I always do, I started to read more and more about religion and faith. My readings ranged from the explicative (Karen Armstrong, Robert Wright) to the more prescriptive (C.S. Lewis), to books that express a sense of wonder on life and the universe (Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Carlos Eire).
The explicative books resonated strongly for me, given the common patterns and universality inherent in many world religions, as well as how the historical context shaped, interpreted and reinterpreted each religion while maintaining core beliefs.
The combination of friends and family and readings also heightened my appreciation and understanding of the sense of purpose and community provided by faith and religion, and the related comfort and meaning of ritual and ceremony. However, this did not speak to me as much as the greater meaning I found in the more universal messages (e.g., the Golden Rule of‘One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself‘), and how these universal messages have evolved and continue to evolve over time (human rights arguably being an extension of these).
The more science-based readings (The Greatest Show on Earth, A Brief History of Time, as well as A Brief History of Eternity) have all sharpened my sense of wonder at the universe and life, not simply taking things for granted. Given the sophistication and almost magical quality to nature and related scientific laws, these also gave me an appreciation for how faith could operate at the highest level while being consistent with our understanding of how things work.
In many ways, this complements the heightened sense of wonder at nature that I have become more attuned to post-cancer. From a macro perspective, the workings of the universe, relativity, evolution and the underlying scientific laws that we understand underpin them, are equally wondrous and impressive. The Eternity book ends with an interesting parallel between modern cosmology and theology, suggesting an overall complementarity and convergence.
I cannot believe in a power that takes personal interest in my fate or the fates of others. Elie Wiesel, in his denunciation in Night rings all too true:
What are You, my God? I thought angrily. How do You compare to this stricken mass gathered to affirm to You their faith, their anger, their defiance? What does Your grandeur mean, Master of the Universe, in the face of all this cowardice, this decay, and this misery? Why do you go on troubling these poor people’s wounded minds, their ailing bodies?
Unfortunately, human history has many examples other than the Holocaust of where God would appear to be missing, beyond the individual trials and tribulations that we all face during our lifetimes.
Of course, Élie Wiesel’s thinking evolved, from his immediate anger at God after the Holocaust to a more nuanced and richer view of his faith later on in his life, as described in Coeur ouvert.
However, the existence of a less personal power behind the universe (or universes) is more of an open question. The beauty and magic of natural and scientific laws, as far as we understand them, do not preclude such a power. Not in the mechanical sense of intelligent design but more in the sense of the general: Why a universe? Why life?
This is not meant to be critical of those who do believe in a more personal power or God. Whatever works to help people interpret and understand our complex world and our place within it, provides comfort and a sense of not being alone, as long as faith and its expression allows, recognizes, and respects the universality of all and our place in the world. Not just tolerating but welcoming. Seeing the film Of Gods and Men, and the trust and caring between the monks and the local village, and the closing remarks by the lead monk, where he states in his last thoughts how much he wants to see the ‘Children of Islam’ in what he believes to be his next life is but one example; there are many more in our day-to-day existence.
Faith is very much part of the human condition, and thus sterile debates over whether God exists or not appear meaningless to me (hear that Richard Dawkins!).
And so, to answer the questions that I started with: Why me? Why mortality? Luck of the draw, randomness, no great or modest design. Just is, is where I end up. Not necessarily satisfying, but something I accept and live with.
And thus I only end up with the more fundamental question: given the lot we have, how should we live our lives? Whether one arrives at that through faith or more secular approaches is secondary, and reflects our personal beliefs, choices and background.