Why are we here?
What happens to ‘you’ when you die?
What happens to other people, not of your religion when they die?
Why do you believe what you believe?
I love these types of questions and I frequently have them bouncing around in my head. Occaisionally they even find there way out in the form of discussion or often, unfortunately, argument.
That’s why, for myself and for those who might be interested, I thought it best to simply write down the current state of affairs.That way I will have at least a blurry snapshot of my religous views to refer to, and others can have a go at my beliefs without fear of arguement.
Over the last few months I’ve had the pleasure of attending Vine Church in Syndey Australia -led by Pastor Toby Neal. While I’m afraid I can’t seem to agree with him on several points I would like to dedicate this short piece to him as a kind of thanks for the new ideas he has thrown my way. I’d also like to thank Elaine Chan for brining me to Vine.
What I do believe
As at May 2016 I consider myself to be an Existential Humanist Christian Engineer, which is an interesting mishmash of words I understand as follows:
I hold with the Existential philosphers that we have free will to choose our own beliefs and must accept full responsibility for the situations that creates. The two fundemental Humanists beliefs I hold are (a) that humans are special creatures with boundless potential to survive and thrive in a hostile universe (b) that every human being is an essential part of making that happen and therefore each human life is sacred. These beliefs I frame in terms of the Christian concepts of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and augment with both Christian values as well any other ideas which the mathematics, logic and science that I know through studying Engineering can convince me of.
Now each sentence of that last paragraph took hours of pondering to arrive at and I only made it with the help of some brilliant writers, preachers, and, funnily enough, comedians. I cannot give due credit to all those worthy folks here but I will try to call out a few of them as I step through each of my beliefs in a little more detail.
Free will and full responsibility – Existentialism
This is really a simple derivative of a much more complex school of thought, of which I know relatively little, though the logic, to me, seems self evident. If we do not assume a given purpose in life, whether given us by a creator or imparted in some other way, then it falls to us to choose a purpose, as individulas or as a group, and we are therefore responsible for what we choose.
This is an essential basis for my system of belief and does require me to throw out some more traditional interpretations of Christianity (e.g. God sets the course of your life, you can rely on the saviour for well, saving) in favor of some less comfortable ones.
Some notable writers and thinkers in this space are Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Satre, and Martin Heidiger. So much has been written by and about each of these philosophical titans that I will not endeavor to do anything but to wish the reader joy of them and their work.
Every human adds an ineffible amount to the incalcuable potential of the race and deserves respect – Humanism
So, if we choose our own beliefs, what should we choose to believe?
For myself I’ve chosen to put my trust in the potential of the human race to become compassionate stewards of creation, and that each human being deserves respect because we cannot know what impact their life may have on our future.
If this all sounds rather sci-fi to you that’s probably because it comes from a sci-fi short story. In this case a short story by Isaac Asimov called ‘The Last Question’ which changed the way I think about the world. I’d rather not spoil the story for you, but the crux of the idea is humans throughout time will continue searching for meaning of life and over time we will find it by taking greater and greater responsibility for the world and then the universe we inhabit, until one day we will become the creator.
Now even if this is not the future you imagine for humanity I have found that it is a generally held belief that humanity has a future. That is the core of my argument here.
The second part, about all of humanity being necessary, is my way of fitting another element of modern thinking – a universal set of human rights – into my philosophy. I feel the most important aspect of this idea is that it covers all people, of all ages, from all walks of life, not just, for example, white middle class men from the United States.
This concept of responsibility for other creatures is something which was captured well in the movie 10,000 B.C. The quote went “A good man draws a circle around himself and cares for those within. His woman, his children. Other men draw a larger circle and bring within their brothers and sisters. But some men have a great destiny. They must draw around themselves a circle that includes many, many more.”
I believe each person has a circle which starts at themselves and grows outwards once all of the people already inside the circle are thriving. First you start with yourself. If you are not in good health, or capable then stretching to help others will be of limited value to both you and them. Then you stretch to those closest to you, either your family or a group of friends. If all is well with them then your community, your country, even your world is the next place that needs your help.
That is the circle of your effort, but even outside of your circle of effort you have a circle of respect. For me, this is the circle that extends to the entirety of the human race, but not to other animals. I believe each person is working, in their own way, on their own circle and they are ultimately trying to make the world a better place. I can try to educate them, but it is not my place to decide the purpose of their life or determine when it should end. Hence I can condone animal testing, but not human testing unless it is under conditions of willing consent.
This is, at best, a brief and shallow exploration of humanist ideas and I would again encourage anyone reading this to have a look at the work of others on this topic, especially: G.K. Chesterton, Carl Sagan, St. Francis of Assi, Isaac Asimov.
God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and certain ethics and values – Christianity
I believe, by choice, in one God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, maker of heaven and Earth but I choose to interpret each of these a bit differently to most Christians I have discussed the subject with.
God the Father is less of a great, bearded, smighting king, and more of an expression of all that we do not yet understand, while the Son is a reminder of all that humanity has potential to be, and the Spirit is a hope for our collective future that each of us must carry.
For me these are important reminders of the other aspects of my belief system and when I pray or participate in Mass these are the interpretations to which I adhere.
I also believe that there are many aspect of Christian teaching which do still apply to modern life and I do my best to practice things like tithing, in which I do not count tax, and adherence to the Ten Commandments.
While I’ve largely developed this interpretation on my own it has certainly been influenced by my reading about Baruch Spinoza, a Dutch philosopher, and the work of Umberto Eco, both of whom, again, I would recommend.
Mathematics, logic and science – Engineer
Separate to all of the above I believe a great many other things most of which are driven, or I would like to think are driven, by my understanding of current scientific thought and reading. There are a great many of these beliefs which range over all topics from food to exercise, to memory, to sex, to family. Instead of listing all of these here I’ll give an example which is particularly applicable to the discussion of Christianity above.
What happens to ‘us’, our consciousness, when we die?
Having not tried it before I can’t provide you a definitive answer, but personally I hold that when we die our final moment is extended by our mind into an infinity and we experience our final thoughts as a kind of self created heaven or hell. Think about the feeling of being really engrossed in a movie or a book, when time to simply fly by and you are not conscious of your body or your surroundings. Is it so hard to imagine your mind, in its final moments, pulling up some preset images – perhaps a tunnel, perhaps clouds and angels, perhaps nothing – and stretching it away into your own perceived infinity?
This means that there is no God to judge us at the end of life. Only ourselves, our own subconscious mind, the being that knows us best.
I cannot credit here all of the scientists and journalists who’s work has informed me, but I can list some wonderful sources which have thrown many interesting ideas in my way, including: the New York Times and its science coverage, the works of Douglas Adams, the works of Terry Pratchett, my mother Suzanne Rohde, and the television series Red Dwarf, my original source for the idea of self judgement at time of death.
What I don’t believe
In the last few sections I’ve tried to detail some specific or general axioms which I do my best to follow at this moment in time. Aside from these I want to call out a few specific things which I do not believe in.
I do not believe that the Bible can be taken literally as the word of God and I do not believe that it should be given more credence than any other words put on paper by any other human. Even if it was there is the matter of interpretation to contend with. Every person has the right to read that book and in so doing each person may find something different there. In my mind, that then reduces any religious discussion to an argument over true meaning of words, words which humans invented and which will always have a changing meaning. Neither side appears to have greater right to invoke any higher power.
I do not believe in a heaven and a hell except to the extent that our own mind is able to extend our final dying thought into a perceived eternity.
I do not believe my beliefs make me superior or inferior to any other person with any other set of beleifs. I also do not believe that anyone can be condemned for their beliefs.
We must endeavour to only judge one another on our actions, how can any human know what is occurring on another humans head?
How can I call myself Christian?
I believe, as outlined, in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I know the prayers, the songs and the words of the Nicene Creed and I work to interpret the Bible and other Christian teachings as part of my own learning and self reflection. I’m also baptized, but as I was not really responsible for that, I’d take that only as an indication and not proof.
Ultimately, Christianity is a collection of people like any other organizations and it sets it’s own rules. I believe I act in a moral and Christian way and it is by my actions you should judge me. If that is insufficient for you or your particular rule set does not permit someone with my beliefs then it is up to you to whether you include me in your community.
Why would I want to be Christian?
When a baby horse is born into the world it stands erect on its own four legs moments after birth. Within a few hours it is running about the paddock. All of this is already written into the mind of the horse, imprinted into its DNA. Humans, by contrast, are born with the ability to scream, hold our breathe, swallow and not much else. Everything else we must learn, collecting new actions, habits, and concepts and assempling them into a life. In order to do this we need a base to start from; a mother tounge, a set of staple foods, an image of home and safety.
My moral and spiritual base is Christianity, nomianally of an Episcopal variety although I spent a substantial portion of my childhood attending Catholic school and mass (five days a week for seven years). Over time I have moved away from some of the ideas ascribed to these denominations but if I ever find myself in unfamiliar territory this is where I return to.
Now I say this is my base, but you might ask “Have I not now outgrown it?”. Honestly, I don’t believe I ever will. Modern Christianity is the collected work of millions of brilliant men and women over the last 100 generations. I am one young man, with one lifetime to learn in and at this moment I only speak one language. What’s more the beliefs I detail above mean that I cannot devote all of the limited time and energy I have to the study of these topics, not if I truly want find out how I can best serve the people I share this world with.
That is why, even if I don’t agree with the majority of practictionerrs of Christianity (in part because many of them seem to prefer preaching to practicing) I believe there is still a great deal to learn from the religion.
This means I may not be the most devoted to the organized church, but it is still an important part of my identity. There is also the music, which I have loved since childhood and whcih fills me with a euphoric sense of power and majesty. That should not be discounted.