Those that know me well know that I have been studying Christianity as well as other belief systems for a very long time. I was around 11 years old when I said goodbye to the Roman Catholic Church because I could not align my understanding of the Bible with what was being told on Sunday. You could of course wonder well … 11 years odd (I meant to write old but I guess the typing error says just as much as to how one is perceived at that age) … what do you know? Being a beta orientated student it is not difficult to imagine probably that where that belief in God was soon replaced by belief in science and from that the impossibility of a God. At the same time there has always been that sense of marvel that somehow kept alive at least the doubt that maybe there was a God. All these incredible things in nature, our universe, the placement of Earth in there making life possible on Earth; it just seemed that random chance of that happening was not a satisfactory explanation. So, as a started to realize, I was actually never an atheist, I was more like what they call an agnostic. I will get back on that. In the past five years this interest in religion has been transformed into a more serious attempt to reconnect with the religious and spiritual and rediscovering Christianity. Whilst Buddhist philosophy, Taoism and other oriental philosophies really appealed to me, I also started to see how many of these teachings, showed similarities with what can be read in the Bible, could as well have been sayings of Jesus, at least when taking into consideration how I understood his message to be.
It was the movie “Stigmata” a religious thriller that introduced me to the Gospel of Thomas, a non-canonical gospel that was discovered at Nag-Hamadi in 1945. For those of you that are into serious Bible study and perhaps even more, theology and theological theories will have hear of Q (=Quelle) which is a hypothetical source of sayings of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas is very similarly a collection of sayings many of which we will find back in the Bible yet without the context. The Gospel of Thomas actually made me rediscover Christianity, study what is called the historical Jesus and from that it opened me up to a lot of different ideas on God, Christ an Christianity which ultimately lead me to find my own path in there. At the same time, over time I had lost interest in anything having to do with institutionalized Christian religion, if only because I could see how the power structures, dogmas, rules and requirements did not seem to align with how I understood the teachings of Jesus. So, church has been out of the question for me for years with a very few occasional visits to Christmas mass with family and/or friends. Church visits of which there have been many over the years were always about an interest in art and architecture.
Yesterday was special in that we went as a family to mass. Not a yearly Christmas mass, no, normal Sunday mass in a relatively young Christian church led by an old friend of my wife: the Harmony Church (http://www.harmony.org.nz). Whilst I may have my particular ideas, think it is important that my children get a taste of celebrating belief, Christianity with others. Besides that I was ready to see what it would do to me. Past Christmas celebrations have more often than not left me with either an empty or even angry feeling so I admit I was worried upfront. The openness of attendees was something that immediately struck: before, during and after mass. Sure this was a small beginning church and probably everyone knows each other, yet you never had this feeling of being checked out, the child friendliness was incredible and overall there was a very positive atmosphere throughout the complete experience. It was good to be around such friendly and inspired people and it sort of rubbed off. For a long time have not felt such an urge to contribute: as a musician, as a human, as a Christian?
Whilst mass was enfolding and even after that the question came to mind again: can I actually be a Christian taking into consideration the personal views I have on God, crucifixion and the resurrection? While I enjoyed the mass and the message that was conveyed, there was also the matter of the deity of God. Notions such as “God is present here today;” not too much trouble with that as God is present everywhere. Likewise with notions such as “I can feel God’s presence;” feeling God’s presence is something to be very happy about because in my perspective that means a connection with the creator. Is that not the ultimate purpose of any spiritual exercise or movement?
Does God Exist? A Rationalist with a Twist
The Collins Shorter Dictionary and Thesaurus describes “rationalism” as “philosophy which regards reason as only guide or authority.” In the Wikipedia we find the following short description:
In epistemology and in its broadest sense rationalism is “any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification” (Lacey 286). In more technical terms it is a method or a theory “in which the criterion of truth is not sensory but deductive” (Bourke 263). Different degrees of emphasis on this method or theory lead to a range of rationalist standpoints, from the moderate position “that reason has precedence over other ways of acquiring knowledge” to the radical position that reason is “the unique path to knowledge”.
If there is anything that appears to have dominated my thinking and my state of mind it is most probably that I have this sense of always wanting to leave the door open: there are no absolute truths in my perspective. I prefer to think in temporary truths that may be replaced with new insights and as a result of that a new (temporary) position or truth. Instead of thinking in absolute, fundamentalist terms, I prefer to leave the door open for other perspectives.
For many rationalism is considered as one of those ways of actually saying that it is impossible to be a religious or spiritual person and that there cannot be room for belief in God in one’s life. I tend to see this not necessarily as rationalism but more as scepticism, or better yet another form of fundamentalism, perhaps we could say rationalist fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is understood here as a state of being or mind whereby alternative ideas, that do not match with one’s own view on reality or belief of reality, are blocked out just because of that. I believe that curiosity cannot kill any cat and that it is exactly curiosity that opens up for new ideas and growth, personal and ultimately as humanity. I do not for instance see an impossibility to be a rationalist and at the same time accept that there is a God.
In my view the most important question for a rationalist is not necessarily what your opinion is but more how you arrived at that opinion. Rationalism in my view stands for supremacy of reason and if that reason leads you to certain conclusions than that’s how it is: that does not make you a lesser a rationalist. At the same time there is something relativist in there since what may be my truth for now is not necessarily my truth tomorrow or forever. Rationalism, in my view, includes the option of seeing ones current position or personal truth as fallible (a theory), one that may be subject to change where the same reason requires so. It is this (maybe personal) rationalist approach that has led me to consider myself an atheist for most of my life. I looked at the existing evidence and whilst compelling at times, I did not find conclusive evidence that there actually existed a God. At the same time however I must now admit, I wasn’t looking for any such evidence. I wanted to believe that there was no God. On the other hand, I found the body of atheist publications, culminating in the recent work of Richard Dawkins “The God Delusion”, similarly inconclusive. I have come to a point by now where I consider atheism to be a belief system just as any religion and for that matter a very fundamentalist belief system.
It took me quite some years to realize that the conflict between science and religion, between Atheism and Deism was actually a false one. It was never about whether or not there was a God: a religious person believes that there is a God and an Atheist claims there is no God. The fact that science may not have been able to find proof that there is a God, a creator, does not mean that there is no such creator. If anything history has taught us that science and there laws and theories it claims to generate are not always as absolute as one might be led to think. So, not having found proof for the existence of God could also mean that humans are not advanced enough yet to scientifically prove it or even recognize the evidence for such existence at least in an empirical sense. So, in that sense Atheism is actually another religion or belief system. All in all, the playing grounds were completely open in that matter and I would have to find my own way in this. The other camp however was offering very specific descriptions of God which I had a hard time believing in or even accept. (See further down this letter.)
I found myself in a difficult position with both camps not being able to provide me with evidence and arguments that could lead me to think that there was a higher probability for either one position or the other. So, I made a choice based on an emotional argument, a leap of faith so you wish. In the circumstances, a rationalist approach would have necessarily left me with an agnostic position. However whilst the scientific evidence may have been unsatisfactory to make either one or the other position more likely, there was what I could refer to as “emotional and/or spiritual evidence: knowledge or an undeniable feeling that there is something that is connecting us all, that there is or must have been a creator. Besides that, if there really was nothing more to it than just random chance, genetic procreation and survival of the species, why are we trying to stay alive after having raised our children? We did what we needed to do, so what’s the point in staying alive any longer.
I guess Albert Einstein said it beautifully:
“What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in putting it? I answer, the man who regards his own life and that of his fellow-creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.”
Even though the scientific evidence was not there, my gut and general sense for meaning of life, led me to believe that there must be something like a creator, a God. In fact I dare to say that even though I would not be able to describe it appropriately, I experience this God on a daily basis, through my amazement about the marvels of nature, the sense of being such an insignificant little part of a large universe, the arts, music, literature and in relatively simple things such as the love you automatically feel for your children, for your wife, even though the act of genetic procreation does no longer require it, in the compassion for others when looking at the wars, famine and natural disasters. While some could be brought back to the survival of the species argument, others do not relate to that at all. Can anyone tell me how a piano player like Bill Evans contributed to the survival of the species, why Bach, Mozart or Beethoven wrote the masterpieces they wrote? Why did Vincent van Gogh, Gaugin, Monet, Manet, Picasso and all the other great artists make their masterpieces, why do great writers write what they write: Coelho, Garcia Marques, Kundera, Steinbeck, Tolstoi, Kafka and the lost could go on forever? Time and time again I cannot help but feeling that these same great artists have been showing us a part of reality that can no longer be described in physical, empiric terms. A super-reality that transcends the physical and introduces us or even connects us with what one could describe as the supernatural. Being a rationalist does not have to exclude believing and even experiencing a God. Again I will quote Albert Einstein:
“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery–even if mixed with fear–that engendered religion.
A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms–it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.
I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me, the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.”
“But there is a third state of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form, and which I will call cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to explain this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it. The individual feels the nothingness of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvellous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. He looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. …
… The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image; so that there can be no Church whose central teachings are based on it.”
These words basically express the very similar sentiments that I have had to find so hard to express. Now, years later I see how similar notions can be found in Buddhism.
The reassurance that even for such an influential scientist as Einstein there was still room for a God in his life made it somewhat easier to take this “leap of faith myself”. Come to think of it, it is not even a leap of faith, it is instead this experience and feeling for which normal language does not have the words to describe. In addition to that – as will be clear for those that read previous paragraphs – Einstein’s sentiment appealed to exactly my issues with religion. There is apparently room for a personal religious experience.
Such a vision is far from appreciated by “normal” religious people. A good example is the opinion of my good friend prof. J..J.A. Beenakker, in his book “Laat de Echte Jezus Opstaan. De Mythen Voorbij”. This book documents his personal quest for the foundations of Christianity. In effect it is a personal report of his research into “The Historical Jesus”.
“The more conscious I am of how I distance myself from the past, the more conscious I become of that living tradition that starts with the Jewish people and which, through Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples, ended up to be the broad stream of Christian churches. I feel myself to be part of this living tradition but freed from the shackles so characteristic of the past centuries. If you would ask me what the liberation from these shackles means to me personally, than I cannot answer that yet. It does however not mean, that the relationship with the church I which I grew up would no longer be important. Without the binding of the church, any religious experience runs out to become something vague.”
I do not necessarily agree with this statement which tells me most likely more about the author than about religious or spiritual experience. Whilst I could (and after visiting Harmony Church) do see the value in gatherings of people that share, discuss and celebrate their mutual belief systems; such collective experiences are as far as I can see it not necessarily a requirement.
Can I actually be a Christian?
Where I get in some sort of difficulty is in the presentation of that God as someone that is actively interfering in our life. The God that listens to our prayers and changes things for the better, the God that sent and sacrificed his Son as some sort of rescue package for mankind. Then of course there is the matter of the resurrection, Christ standing up from the death. I will come back to this but to me it seems that this is one of these impossibilities that just do not make sense to me, that is, in a literal sense.
Why I Thought I Could Not Be a Christian
I guess what always struck me as difficult to accept was not so much the idea that there actually was a God. It is the way in which this God was described by the traditional Christian church. I could simply not align myself with the God of the Church and the doctrines and dogmas associated with it:
- A theist defined God that interferes in the lives of individuals;
- A theist defined God who sent down his son as a rescue pack for humanity;
- Jesus as the (re-)incarnation of a theist deity;
- A literally interpreted Bible where it comes to the virgin birth of Jesus, Jesus as the miracle worker; and
- A view of Jesus as dying for our sins after which he is supposed to have physically resurrected, which to me seems an impossibility and barbaric idea;
- Prayer as a request to God who is supposed to listen and act upon that and interfere in our human existence and history;
In addition, in part due to past experiences and my own ideas on what Christianity should be about, I had a hard time with what I saw as institutionalized Catholicism and/or Christianity (reformed and protestant):
- The exclusivity instead of all-inclusiveness that I see back in the words and actions of Jesus.
- The claims to truth: even Jesus saw himself as a teacher and not the one providing the answers. Instead he opened up your thinking about a relationship with a living God, whatever that may have been;
- The system of Sin and Forgiveness that appears to bring out nothing more than behavior control systems based on fear (for death);
Reading all these objections against Christian belief and doctrine one could easily ask. Well with that being the case, you can hardly call yourself a Christian in any event so why bother getting to know about Jesus at all? Well that is easy to answer: the way I got to know the teachings of Jesus, it does have incredible value to one’s life and ultimately to reach a state of divine peace and a connection with our creator right here on Earth.
The Kingdom of God is Here and Now: Inside and All Around You
If there is anything that I picked up from reading about the historical Jesus and source documents it is the notion that Jesus was here on earth with one mission only: to proclaim the realization of the Kingdom of God. And that Kingdom of God/Heaven was something to be expected not in a far away future: no it “was already at hand”. (Mark 1:15) In the Gospel of Thomas we see a similar notion:
113) His disciples said to Him, “When will the Kingdom come?” <Jesus said,> “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is.’ Rather, the Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.”
Jesus was furthermore quite specific about the place of this Kingdom. Similarly shocking as the previous statement must have been his answer to the Pharisees, when they asked him when that Kingdom was to be expected:
The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo Here! or Lo There! For, behold, the Kingdom of God is within you( Luke 17: 20-21).
In the Gospel of Thomas a similar notion is found:
3) Jesus said, “If those who lead you say, ‘See, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. …”
So instead of a Kingdom of God/Heavens to come in the future (after you die), it is already there, right inside you and all around you. I guess that is exactly what appealed to me and is exactly where I expected this Kingdom to be found. The trick now became of course arriving there. To me being a Christian is probably more about living according to the words of Jesus and less about the specifics of what God actually is supposed to be. I can’t help but thinking that the teachings of Christ will if you live by them provide you that state where you are in complete connection with the creator, with the universe. So yes, I think I can call my self a Christian but perhaps not in the general sense of the word.
Why I enjoyed Today at Harmony Church
So here I was actually enjoying (quite honestly unexpectedly) the sermon and being surrounded by such a good crowd of people but at the same time feeling slightly guilty about sharing the love and compassion perhaps on different grounds.
Back home, reflecting over this experience, I thought that my beliefs were not so important, what was important was the experience of a Kingdom here and now, of celebrating that connection in the here and now. After all these years of studying it all came down to two simple concepts that will cover anything else that in my view is important where it comes to living a spiritual life or so you wish a spiritual life: the concepts of love and compassion.
Why I enjoyed today’s sermon was because for the first time since a very long time I felt surrounded by people that actually appeared to understand what these concepts mean in daily reality. In that sense it felt a little like the Kingdom of God was inside me and all around me. The latter not just because of all the marvels of nature but because I felt surrounded by people that actually understand these concepts.
Thank you Gideon and Catherine for inviting us. Thank you for making this a memorable experience and I look forward to coming back soon.