This is a holiday season preceding an election year, which means that all the usual excesses of religion are pushed at us through the media sphincter with ever increasing venom. Whether it is the casting call of presidential candidates competing to prove who loves Jesus the most, Christian conservative pundits who take every gesture toward inclusiveness during the holidays as a war on their most deeply held beliefs, or Baptist preachers labeling Mormons as a cult, I don’t seem to be able to escape the inquisition.
Although, I must admit that I did enjoy the last one. It came from a Baptist preacher in criticism of Mitt Romney, and it led me to imagine this purely hypothetical conversation:
Baptist preacher: “We believe Jesus was born of a virgin, turned water into wine, raised the dead, walked on water, died on the cross because it was the only way God could forgive the sins I was to commit 2000 years later, and rose from the dead three days after his crucifixion to ascend bodily into heaven.”
Mormon: “We believe all that. We also believe that on his way to heaven, Jesus stopped in America and visited with the Indians.”
Baptist preacher: “Well, that’s just crazy.”
In general, I’ve tried to avoid the topic of religion, because, in my experience, when people ask me what I believe, they don’t really care what I believe. They simply want to know whether:
- I think like they think; or
- I think differently then they, but there is some hope of converting me to their way of thinking if only they annoy me long enough; or
- I think differently then they, and am not open to conversion, so they can either hate me, pity me for my inevitable descent into hell, or both.
Perhaps it is because of the aforementioned onslaught of religiously inspired nonsense, or simply because we naturally tend to pause at year’s end and reflect on life’s joys and sorrows, but I have lately been asking myself what I really do believe about life, death, God, and other cosmic questions. Of course, being an engineer, I naturally assumed that it made no sense to think about whether I believed in God or not without first defining the term. As one would expect, this proved nearly impossible.
After all, even the most religious of people seem to disagree about what the word means. In spite of a history of religious wars dating back to the first Neanderthals killing each other over the question of whether the victims of religious wars should be buried with their tiny craniums pointing East or West, I can’t find any resolution at all to the question of what “God” even means. In trying to sort all this out, I quickly found myself facing a dilemma. Do I pick one of the existing definitions of God and join my fellow believers in feeling superior to those who disagree with us? Or, do I take the truly self-indulgent path of making up my own definition and feeling superior to everybody?
Naturally, I chose the latter, and after much wrangling, came up with a definition that is mostly consistent with the more positive aspects of religious practice, that doesn’t favor one religion over another, and that does not draw me too far from my generally humanistic leanings. God, I decided, could be best defined as “That for which we feel reverence.”
I immediately liked this formulation, since I could then define my faith simply by listing the things that stir reverence in me, and avoid any need for a long theological exposition, along with any potential questions about the logical consistency of my belief system (not that existing religions seem overly concerned with logical consistency). Also, the idea of making a list fit nicely into the general journalistic year-end obsession with list making. Theologically speaking, this seems like a whole bunch of big wins.
So, here is a partial list of things for which I feel reverence:
- Nature, from the unbounded cosmos to the infinite possibilities in a single drop of sea water, seems to me the most holy, wondrous, baffling, source of all forms of wonder.
- Science’s ability to articulate mathematically the patterns of the natural world.
- Music. Not the commercial stuff that is done with an eye to the music video and product tie-ins, but the genuine, from the heart musical traditions shared by artists from Bach to Coltrane to the many gifted musicians that continue to bless us with their creations.
- Creativity, and the longing to live an ongoing enactment of beauty and discovery.
- The struggle of children to grow into fully realized people.
- The struggle of the aged and sick to pass from human existence with grace.
- The beauty of women – of all women, regardless of facial features, age, body shape, or dress.
- Language, especially when genuine and spoken from the heart, whether in the magnificent poetry of Shakespeare, or in the halting speech of the shy, the illiterate, or the defeated.
- The physical act of love between people who share passion, devotion, and honesty with each other.
- The grace, curiosity, innocence, tenderness, courage, beauty, ferocity, and intelligence of the animals with whom we share this fragile planet.
- This fragile planet.
- The totally improbable, miraculous, tenuous, terrifying, passionate, beautiful fact that I exist, and get to share my brief time in this amazing universe with the people and animals that I have come to love.
Oh yes, I also feel reverence for all of you who read these small ideas and are willing to add them to the vast poem that is your own life story.
Happy holidays and all God’s blessings to each and every one of you,