There’s an email. It’s dated December 14, 2011, it’s from the most respected automotive brand in history, and it starts with “We need to talk about the women you’ve been bringing to these events.” Apparently, your humble author had what appeared to be two threesomes, with a total of four different women, over the course of three weeks, at a pair of press events in Las Vegas and Palm Beach. The reality of it isn’t quite that depraved; there was just a time in my life where I slept best if I had a girl on both sides of me, and you’re not going to easily arrange that across the country using the same crew every time. Alright, there was that thing where I ended up in a hot tub with two of those girls plus the fellow who owned the hotel and I was then offered five thousand dollars for half an hour with one of my companions, a nineteen-year-old waitress (they say “server” now) from Nashville, TN — but she ended up being a lovely wife and mother in the years that followed.
At about the same time, I was the tireless and committed musical director for a grassroots church, driving a 90-mile roundtrip twice a week to make sure our crummy little Christian rock band was in perfect working order.
I’ve gotten in more trouble over the past forty-nine years than about 96% of Americans, and that’s not a guess, it’s a statistic. On the other hand, I’ve put about two dozen children on bicycles at my own expense, I’ve helped build an animal shelter, and I’ve loaned or given tens of thousands of dollars, and two cars, to friends in need since 1995.
All this is being mentioned up front as a disclaimer for what you’re about to read regarding my personal justification for;
0. The idea of a Creator;
1. The idea that the Creator is a very specific entity;
2. The idea that this Creator is best experienced as part of a church and/or community.
I’m not trying to convince anyone here. I’m not a role model, nor am I worthy of emulation in this respect. I may be a good writer, but I’m not a good religious writer. If you want that, check out C.S. Lewis. The purpose of this special edition of “The Critics Respond” is simply to answer the above request. If you’re disgusted by religion, or if you think it’s the opiate of the poor, or if you feel yourself to be intellectually above the idea of Space Magic Eight Pound Baby Jesus, you are invited to skip this one and come back tomorrow for the Weekly Roundup, no harm done.
I’d like to talk briefly and simply about why I think there is a God. I was raised Catholic, and was never all that impressed by the theology of the Church. By the time I was seven or eight years old I had a lot of questions that nobody seemed to be able to answer. When I was twelve years old my mother started dragging me to a Southern Baptist church. This church was filled with lovely people, but I thought the sermons were both moronic and monotonous. Therefore I contrived to escape this church as quickly as possible. From age 14 to about age 25 I was agnostic at best and openly contemptuous of religion at worst.
In the quarter-decade since then I’ve devoted a lot of thought to the unpleasant and slippery interactions of science and religion. I’ve read science at most levels from pop trash to the stuff that looks like hieroglyphics. I’ve read everyone from Thomas Aquinas to Karl Barth. So these are my thoughts, in a nutshell:
- We will never scientifically determine the reason for our existence, or the true nature of the Universe, because the building blocks are too small and slippery for us to work with. There is an observability limit beneath which we are guessing or inferring. Some people say this is a good argument for the idea that we are living in a simulation; in order for any palatable universe simulation to exist, it has to be less complex than the universe in which it actually resides, the same way “Verdansk” in Call Of Duty is less complex than New York City. Therefore, there is presumably a universe beyond ours in which, say, it is possible to know both the position and velocity of an electron, but these complex things are abstracted for our simulation. However, I don’t believe we are living in a simulation. Even if we are, the net result to us is the same, just as it was for the people who died in “the matrix”.
- Insofar as it is not possible to truly understand the Universe, some things must be taken on faith. We all have faith in a lot of things, ranging from “if I let this go, it will fall” to “I have not been hypnotized into seeing aliens as human.” Everybody made fun of the Insane Clown Posse for asking, “Fucking magnets, how do they work?” Well, guess what? We do not, as a species, understand magnetism as well as you probably think we do. Ferromagnetism is not possible in classical theory and it’s only possible in quantum theory if you hold your breath and wave your arms a lot. You don’t understand magnets. You have faith in them. “Violent J” and “Shaggy 2 Dope” are your intellectual superiors in this; they have proceeded from blind faith to blind questioning.
- As a vaguely rational creature, subject to everything from magnetic fields to brain chemistry, I believe that I have the right to choose what I will have faith in. Therefore, I will choose the creation story that makes the most sense to me, because all creation stories, from the Big Bang to “It’s turtles all the way down”, require faith.
- It seems reasonable to me that there is a Creator. A creation implies a creator. Furthermore, there’s no working argument against a Creator. The most common non-religious origin story involves a recurring moment of Creation — the Big Bang — and unless you’re willing to put aside your (admittedly mammalian and abstract) sense of time, it doesn’t account for itself.
- I don’t have enough mental horsepower to completely envision a Theory of Everything that operates without a Creator, and neither does anyone else. Try it yourself. Sit down with all the available materials, at a level that works for you, and see if you can genuinely imagine a universe that has always existed and will always exist, one that iterates through endless Big Bangs. Where did it come from? What set it in motion? There is some evidence to suggest that the laws of physics are created shortly after the moment of the Bang. What exists before that? How is it governed? Don’t wave your hand at it. Try to understand it. You cannot, any more than a dog can imagine TCP/IP. This is not because you, individually, are not smart enough. It’s because people are not smart enough.
All of this boils down to: it is easier, more practical, and less incomprehensible to believe in a Creator than it is to believe in nothing. Unless you spend every moment of your existence really pondering the mysteries of that existence, you aren’t going to get anywhere. (If you do, you still won’t get anywhere, but you will at least be able to say that you tried.)
Having agreed on the practical values of a Creator, the biggest value for a +3SD person being that it lets you go about your day without perpetually falling down an autistic rabbit hole about the way time is correlated with the speed of light, the next question is obvious: In which Creator should one believe? If we optimize for efficiency again, the answer is the Creator you know best, or the Creator with a ruleset that seems easiest to accept. There is no hard evidence to suggest that one God is any more real than another; we are in the realm of faith here. Therefore, pick one you like.
I chose Christianity because I was raised in it, I know the rules, and it seems just as likely as any other system. Furthermore, I like the rules. I can see the value in them. There is ample evidence, both historical and current, to suggest that Christians are happier than non-Christians. There is no question in my mind that I would be happier today had I spent my whole life unerringly following the teachings of Christ, by which I mean “the teachings of Christ as modified by that canny humanist, Saul of Tarsus.” The actual historical Christ is a little tough to follow sometimes; he wants you to leave your family, buy a sword, and bring about the Kingdom of Heaven ASAP. Paul’s Christ is a lot mellower. He wants you to have a strong faith in a strong family in a strong community.
Christianity has a lot of anthropogenic baggage that strikes me as unlikely at best and risible at worst. In particular, I think any notion most people have of Heaven is highly unlikely. “Will my cat be in heaven? Will my knees still hurt in heaven? Will I be able to jam “Stairway” with Jimmy Page in heaven every afternoon? Won’t there be a line for that? Is it really heaven if you’re #25,699,012 in the list to jam with Jimmy? For that matter, how does Jimmy feel about it? Does Jimmy Page’s heaven include toiling eternally in Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp? Maybe that’s Hell for Jimmy, and they’re the same place, and your job is determined by how often you said the Rosary?”
In fact, I can easily take a shot at dismantling heaven, using what I call the Ugly Jack Theory. Those of you who have met me in person know that I am unpleasant-looking and a bit of a cripple, although not too much of a cripple to pick up a Lotus Esprit engine and carry it somewhere else. Any Heaven worthy of the name would let me be not ugly. I’d like to resemble Pierce Brosnan.
Wish granted! In heaven, I look like Pierce Brosnan. But what about the person with the 85 IQ? Shouldn’t they be allowed to be as smart as I am, since I get to be as handsome as Pierce Brosnan? For that matter, why I can’t I be even smarter? After all, I’ll want to understand the building blocks of the universe. Pow! It’s done. I’m now much smarter, and so are you. The problem is that we are not the same people we are now. What about dead children? People with Downs Syndrome? Or fetuses? How old are they in heaven? How smart are they? What are their personalities like?
It seems obvious to me that “Heaven” is not some human-styled super-sweet rich-guy afterlife thing where I ride Whistler A-line every morning before getting Planty and Pagey together for an afternoon jam, but rather is some scenario where I have access to the mind of God, or are subsumed into it. Heaven, if it exists, means you’re joining the Infinite. Which is why Genesis is written about “us” rather than “I”.
It seems unlikely that such a group mind, one capable of manipulating the very fabric of space and time, is really all that concerned about any point or aspect of religious/moral dogma, whether it be the wording of the Nicene Creed or that little robbery-homicide spree you and your pal Waingro pulled off last week. It follows therefore that the moral rules we have been given by God through Moses (or anyone else) are really for the purpose of making life on Earth tolerable. This makes sense because, as previously noted, religious communities and religious people tend to be happier. Human beings like rules. When you take religion away, as we largely have, our rule-making instincts will persist and manifest themselves in things like being fired from your job and losing your child’s medical care because you didn’t put pronouns in your Twitter bio.
So, to summarize:
- The existence of a Creator is the most efficient belief to hold.
- The religion you know best, or that surrounds you, is probably the best belief to have.
- Following religious rules makes your life on Earth better.
- Heaven is likely not what you expect.
Put all of the above together, and perhaps it helps you understand why I am a struggling Christian, attempting to be a better one but often failing in the attempt. I am freely hypocritical: if my neighbor asked me about dumping his wife and engaging on a half-decade-long spree of binge drinking and deviant behavior, I would advise against it despise the fact that I engaged in, and survived, just such a spree. Hypocrisy is often nothing more or less than the desire to be better than you are. It is far more admirable than its opposite, which is a depraved casual amorality that also seeks to drag all who encounter it down to its own level. There are bad churches, and bad pastors, but the institutions of “church” and “pastor” do more good than harm. A God-fearing community makes some people miserable, but a Godless community makes us all miserable, cf. “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”.
We could leave it here, except for one thing. Of all the barriers in my mind to wholeheartedly accepting the risen Christ as my savior, the greatest one has been His seeming indifference to everything from nerve gas to Down’s Syndrome. How can He let us suffer like this? This is my theory, which you are free to accept or reject. When my son was about four years old, he complained to me about something that felt intolerable to him — I can’t remember what — and I told him that in the long run it wouldn’t matter. That when he was ten years old, or even five years old, his unhappiness would seem trivial in retrospect.
It seems to me that our life on this earth is so short (cue my always-on-hand Venerable Bede sparrow story) that it is completely irrelevant to the eternal existence of God’s mind. It no longer bothers me that I used to ride my bike in the rain to bag groceries for a living, or that I once got punched so hard in shop class that I vomited into a spinning table saw, with predictable results. These things are distant ephemera. Similarly, our unhappy and uncertain lives filled with pain, sorrow, and humiliation will be as less than nothing when we are joined with the infinite.
I realize this is all pretty thin gruel. I’d like to tell the readers of Riverside Green that I had a personal spiritual experience, or that I feel connected to God in a special way, or even that I have blind faith in the King James Bible. None of that is true. Instead, I will merely tell you that I’ve put some thought into it, and that the above is what I believe. I hope it’s helpful to someone. As always, thank you for reading.