Stephen Hawking’s Fairy Tale

20121205-193213.jpgRecently, the physicist Stephen Hawking spoke in connection with the release of a documentary about his life.  In the course of his remarks, he said he could envision a time when technology might advance to the point where it would be possible to download the content of a human brain and save it on a computer, thereby providing “some form of an after life.”   He went on to say that religious understandings of an afterlife are nothing more than fairy tales “for people who are afraid of the dark.”  It is a topic he has discussed before, likening the body to a computer that will eventually break down and cease to function.  It is a technologically updated version of previous mechanistic views of humanity which saw people as interesting machines that would eventually fail and, when they did, well, that was that.

While I find such reductionist views of humanity personally distasteful and devoid of meaning and significance, I would not wish to quibble with Dr. Hawking about whether there is or isn’t some kind of afterlife.  In the end, that is a matter of faith and not of science.   It is something which belongs to the realm of wisdom rather than that of empirical science.

However, I could not help but wonder if Dr. Hawking views what he understands as a fairy tale to be the substance of religious faith and tradition.  It would perhaps be understandable if he did.  After all, I have often found that people who are quite brilliant in some things are rather lacking in sophistication when it comes to a consideration of religion.  We live in an age when religion is often defined by caricatures that are widely distributed, and so those who live their lives on the outsides of religious tradition often mistake the caricature for reality (and, frankly, so do some religious people!).

While I do personally believe that our life continues in some way after our biological death (though I would not subscribe to popularized descriptions of “heaven” and “hell”), I have to say that for me that is not the focus of my faith.  For me, the heart of religion is not about the afterlife, really, but about what it means to be human.  It seems to me that human beings are creatures of meaning — we seem to need our lives to be meaningful if we are to live them well, and people who can’t find meaning in their lives almost always seem quite diminished to me.  Religion deals with human questions of meaning, seeking to place the human experience within a meaningful context — which includes a context larger than ourselves that some of us name “God.”

Religion also involves wisdom.  Specifically, wisdom about the art of being human, including the art of being in relationship with one’s true self, with others, with creation, and with the One.  Far from being a coping mechanism for weak people (as Dr. Hawking’s comments seem to imply), religion gives us the tools and framework necessary to live meaningfully and well, with a sense of transcendence and purpose.  And I don’t think these are illusory:  they are true in a deep, deep way that science often finds difficult to grasp.

I am not suggesting that people without religion can’t live meaningfully and well.  However, when one considers the violence and brutality of so much of our culture these days, I cant’ help but wonder if more highly developed spiritual lives would not lead to a greater and deeper healing of humanity.  Indeed, I don’t simply wonder about it: I believe it deeply to be true.

Nor am I suggesting that every religion or expression of religion enhances human life.  There are clearly religious people and communities who have twisted their traditions in abusive and violent ways.  But an entire realm of human experience should not be discarded simply because of the dysfunction of some.  Anymore than we should abandon the pursuit of scientific knowledge because, in the past, that pursuit has led to horrific tragedies.

For me, there is no competition between science and religion.  Rather, they are complementary areas of human knowledge and experience, and when employed skillfully (as the Buddhists like to say) they can both truly become paths for enlightenment.

I’m not interested in fairy tales either (though fairy tales can be deeply meaningful).  I am interested in increasing my capacity (and that of others) for healing, wholeness, and compassion.  For me, the path toward that greater wholeness — and the authenticity that comes with it — lies in religion.

Cracked Compass

compass_pocketIt is amazing (and amazingly disheartening) to see how much political energy is put into attempts by various people and groups to regulate personal moral behavior.   Huge amounts of time and energy have been invested into attempting to regulate who may marry whom and into trying to restrict the choices women may make with regard to their own reproductive health.   Attorneys for the Governor of Michigan just filed court briefs taking the position that the state had an interest in regulating the sex lives of its citizens.

Meanwhile, huge issues of public morality — like accessibility of health care, homelessness, joblessness, immigration issues — largely make no headway, receiving only a fraction of the political energy invested into trying to regulate personal moral conduct.

Many of those who spend so much of their own energy on these personal moral issues claim the mantle of Christianity.  They seem to believe that this is primarily what Christianity in particular, and the Judeo-Christian tradition generally, are really about.  They see to believe that God’s primary locus of interest is on each person’s personal moral conduct — so much so that attempts to move forward on the larger issues often get labelled as somehow unChristian (witness the debate over health care).

Yet this constitutes a great misreading and distortion of the Christian tradition.  While there certainly are references in the Bible to personal moral conduct, the great theme that runs throughout the Bible when it comes to morality is justice, not personal conduct.  The Hebrew Scriptures are far more concerned with how Israel, as a people and as a society, is treating its most vulnerable citizens.  The prophetic writings are full of warnings about the consequences of ignoring the needs of the poor.  In the New Testament, Jesus directs much of his ministry toward the marginalized and the vulnerable, making it clear that the bigger issue is not the personal behavior of “sinners”, but the way in which those people have been treated by the larger society.  The reality is that a truly biblical, truly Christian perspective on American society would be far more concerned with climate change, health care, homelessness, joblessness, and immigrants than with marriage or abortion.

Too many people these days — including far too many politicians — are carrying a cracked moral compass.  They spend their time worrying about what people are doing behind the closed doors of bedrooms and doctors’ offices, believing that this is somehow the primary interest of God and the Christian tradition.  And their approach to the larger issues of justice is primarily to yell, fight, and make sure that no progress is made.   It reminds me of the religious legal experts of Jesus’ time who were fighting constantly over the finest details of law while their society and culture slowly slid toward destruction.

Faith as a Horizontal Phenomenon

faith-road-sign-with-dramatic-clouds-and-skyToday was the day that I resumed teaching James Alison’s course, Jesus, the Forgiving Victim, after a summer break.  And I found myself inspired by what I would call Alison’s ‘horizontal’ conception of faith.

Too often, he points out, Christians conceive of faith as something like a moonshot.  We set up a series of beliefs, and we tell people that they need to believe these things if they want to be Christian or “in” or “saved”.  These beliefs are set forth by some sort of appeal to authority, like “the Church” or “the Bible” or “God” or whatever.  To be faithful is defined to be the ability to subscribe to these beliefs at the level of the mind.  People are asked to accept the veracity of these beliefs “on faith”.  This is what I would call a vertical conception of faith:  on the one hand, an authority “up there” somewhere sets forth these beliefs as true, and we are asked to make a moonshot, to borrow Alison’s phrase:  to subscribe and uphold these beliefs, and their implications for how we live, simply because we are told they are true.

This vertical sort of faith often creates tension and anxiety.  On the one hand, those who are making the moonshot by subscribing to the beliefs that are set before them often find themselves wondering about whether these things are really true, but being unable to openly question them, because the authority that set them forth does not countenance such questions.  And so the believer in such a position often feels caught in a tension between him-/herself and the established authority behind the beliefs.   On the other hand, those who are somehow in authority in a  Christian community also can experience tension and anxiety when they learn that people have reservations about these beliefs which they have been appointed to represent and defend.   They need people to believe these things, because that is what it means (as far as they are concerned) to have faith.  Sometimes, people in this position will respond with rigidity, forcefulness, or even violence to defend these beliefs and their authoritative connection to them.

Alison suggests that faith is not meant to be a tense, anxious experience.  Rather, faith should enable us to relax into the One in whom we have faith.  For Alison, the stories of the Bible show us that knowledge of and connection with God emerges from human experience.  If we look at Jesus, for example, we see that everything he is doing is at the human level.  He lives a human life, he gathers around himself a group of followers and witnesses to who he is and what he does, and his crucifixion and resurrection unfold among human beings, within a particular human community, and are witnessed by a particular set of people.  Alison invites us to get wrapped up not in the crucifixion and resurrection themselves, for these are events that we did not witness.  Rather, he invites us to attend to the impact  of these events, what he calls a concavity.  Just as a meteor that hit the earth millions of years ago left its mark on the earth, a depression or concavity which scientists and others can explore, so did the Christ event, as some have called it, leave a similar sort of concavity within the lives of the apostolic witnesses.  The church, not as institution but as community of followers, is part of this concavity.  When the apostolic witnesses told the stories of the Christ event, Alison suggests that they were not asking people to make a moonshot:  they were not saying, “This is who Jesus is because we say so.”   Rather, they were saying, “We had this phenomenal experience that completely changed and transformed our lives.  Look at the effect of this experience on us and on those who come after us.”  To follow Jesus is, in part, to explore this concavity left in the human experience by the  Christ event.

And this seems to me to be a horizontal sort of faith.  Rather than asking us to accept a set of beliefs established by some authority, it invites us to explore the experience through the stories passed down to us, both stories of Jesus and stories of the ways in which the apostolic witnesses were transformed; through exploration of spiritual practices, including rituals of prayer and sacrament, that seek to present this witness to us in a different way and to induct us into it.  And as we relax into this exploration, we will discover ourselves changing, and as we do, we will become aware that there is a One who is behind this change, who is urging us into new patterns of being which that very One has made possible.  We will discover ourselves coming to believe things not because an authority decreed them, but because they have become meaningful within our own experience.  And this One does not make us anxious or tense, but rather enables us to relax into relationship with that One as we know ourselves to be loved by this One.

So faith is revealed to be not so much an act of obedience to an external authority, but a relaxed trust in the One who is working with us at our human level.