Origin stories

Recent conversations

I’ve had recent conversations with two friends my age. These have led me back to the big 5W’s: Who are we? What is our purpose? Where did we come from? When did the universe, life, and consciousness arise? Why are we here?

One writes

One of my more embarrassing memories from high school was a discussion in which two friends revealed that they were atheists.  I was beyond shocked.  I had never met an atheist before.  I was made to go to church every Sunday.  I couldn’t believe that these excellent friends had gone to the dark side and emphatically told them that the fact that we exist PROVED that there was a god.  I remember one just smiling tolerantly.

Halfway through my freshman year I had an epiphany while reading John Bailey’s Gods and Men: Myths and Legends from the World’s Religions. All that religious nonsense just collapsed in my mind.  What a relief!  I still have the book.

Both of these friends had expressed concern for my recent cancer. But the second one took that concern in an opposite direction. He recommended Sickness, by J. C. Ryle. It answers the question, “How can there be sickness in a world with an omniscient and omnipotent God,” by saying that all sickness arises from sin, a turning away from God.

The friend also recommended re-reading the Gospel of John as a source of solace and inspiration. He suggested that I ask “Is it possible that Jesus is who He said He was?”

I like and respect both of these friends, especially when they let me express my own muddled views.

Asking important questions

I think of philosophy as the process of asking the important questions in life. In that sense, the scientist fascinated by cosmology, but seeking an explanation other than its divine origin, or the evangelical seeking to understand Jesus through studying the Bible are each practicing philosophy in their own way. The same is true of the Daoist trying to understand the nature of reality or to find a moral order to life, the Hindu seeing God in every aspect of life, the follower of Madhyamaka Buddhism focusing on the “middle way,” and the evolutionist exploring Darwin’s “tangled bank.”

Fibonacci spiral

When these paths become dogmatic, their value for philosophical inquiry is diminished. This is essentially the argument of James Carse in The Religious Case Against Belief. Carse is a religion professor at NYU who argues that religion’s greatest value is exactly in those areas where we are uncertain. When it degenerates into fixed beliefs it loses precisely what makes it essential.

On the other hand, when religion stays open to questions, calls forth awe about life and the universe, and helps us understand our common humanity, it becomes our way of making sense of a complex, ever-changing world. Both militant atheism and dogmatic religious beliefs fall short. John Dewey lays out this argument well in A Common Faith.

Seeking new ways of understanding

I may ask each of my conversants to read Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. As a botanist, she has a beautiful way of integrating scientific and indigenous ways of knowing. That integration goes a step beyond Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of religion and science as “non-overlapping magisteria” (in Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life.)

Another source of insight could come from the Confucius-Mozi debates in early China. Confucius laid out a case for starting with what’s close at hand, e.g., “honor thy father and thy mother.” He imagined ever expanding circles of love. Mozi and his followers challenged the Confucian view. They saw that adherence to family, village, local beliefs, and so on could lead to misunderstanding and disrespecting the cultures of others, and ultimately, violence and war. 

Mozi taught that everyone is equal in the eyes of heaven. Mohists questioned Confucianism’s over-attachment to family and clan structures, arguing instead for the concept of “universal love.” That implies acceptance and valuing of others’ belief systems, and not placing one’s own beliefs above those of others. That could be extended to love of all things in nature.

Confucianists thought that Mozi overestimated what was humanly possible. They said that we always put our own families and culture first. The debate continues today and can unfortunately recurs in endless strife between Christians and Muslims, Protestants and Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists, atheists and believers.

The answer

So, I’m not sure how to answer the 5W’s. Spinoza said it was “God or Nature” in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. He was condemned by many for this work, but it made a lot of sense to me when I first encountered it in Humanities 100 at Rice.

In favor of Spinoza’s formula is the fact that nature is all around us inviting engagement, astonishment, and enlightenment. There is meaning in the journey. We need but open ourselves to its wonders and accept that our understanding can never be more than partial.

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