Sunday, May 22, 2011

My Thoughts on the Core Essence of Religion & Christianity

"The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." - Albert Einstein
I've spent a lot of time this week staving off attacks on Christianity and religion in general; in other words, writing about what God is not. So to close out my Religion Week, I'd like to instead talk about what God is. Since the end of the world did not arrive yesterday, I suppose it's time for all those nut-jobs to reconsider their religious beliefs. And one question they, or anybody who is doing some religious soul searching and deep contemplation on religious issues, might ask is "What is God? Yeah yeah, I know, he's the creator of Earth and the universe, and he gave his only son to save us from our sin, I've heard all that Christian mumbo jumbo a thousand times. But what does that mean? What does he, or she, or it, consist of?

I too have wondered this. And as a devout Christian, I have never been more sure about any other question. I haven't the faintest idea.

It is with utter certainty that I confess my uncertainty. I have pondered God and religion for hours and hours and hours, and all of my thought on these subjects has led only to one simple conclusion: I do not possess the mental capacity to comprehend them. I cannot fathom a form of being which lacks matter, time, and location. The entirety of my brief window of consciousness has been spent in an existence which abides by these unchanging rules; it is impossible for any of my senses to perceive, for my mind to contemplate, that which exists beyond those constraints. No amount of logic or faith, scientific study or bible study, could grant me this ability. And while I have never entered the mind of another, I don't think any human could have possessed, can possess, or will be able to possess this power either. Even the words we think and write are an entirely human creation, each one describing human ideas, human emotions, human sensations. Communicable language can only describe concepts which are perceivable to those who are communicating. How, then, can we possibly use words to describe that which is beyond our perception?
“Intelligence makes clear to us the interrelationship of means and ends. But mere thinking cannot give us a sense of the ultimate and fundamental ends.” - Albert Einstein
Yet I am a Christian. If I cannot fathom God, one might ask, why do I worship him? Well, for precisely that reason. If I could truly and wholly comprehend the nature of existence itself, there would be nothing that existed beyond my comprehension. If I possessed infinite knowledge, nothing would be beyond my reach, because nothing is beyond infinity. I would have no shortcomings. But I do have shortcomings. I don't know everything. I get confused. Not only that, I am a sinner. I am mortal. I cannot describe God in words. But I can think of one word which I feel best describes the core essence of my faith. That word is humility. And recognizing the disparity between what I am and perfection is the most humbling revelation imaginable.

Humility, in the religious sense, has two connotations. The first is simply putting others before oneself. This is the most basic, fundamental, and universal moral precept of nearly all the worlds religions. The Golden Rule--treat others as you would like to be treated--is found not only in the Bible but also in the Torah, Quran, and most other major religious texts. Genuine selflessness is venerated by every culture on earth: this is a human value, not specific to any religion, and I find that heart-warming. It gives one hope for the future of humanity.

But that moral compass is shared even by many atheists. The most noteworthy aspect of humility in our quest for the core essence of religion is not found in our interactions with other people, but in our interactions with God. At the pulpit, preachers beseech us to seek forgiveness for our sins, and refer to humility as it relates to recognizing our moral shortcomings. This is wise, for we sin, but we must also have humility in recognizing our intellectual shortcomings. Humility is the opposite of vanity, and it would be vain, nay, brazenly arrogant, to assert that we possess the mental might to comprehend all of existence. We must recognize that we are not only morally bereft, but intellectually inadequate. We must concede the existence of that which our puny monkey brains cannot comprehend, that which is superior to us.
“The scientists’ religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.” - Albert Einstein
“Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe-a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” - Albert Einstein

This recognition establishes a binary. On one side of this binary is imperfection, sin, ignorance, mortality. This side we associate with ourselves, with humanity. On the other side is perfection. Divinity. Undying, eternal, all-knowingness. That which this side is associated with, I call God. Due to my own mental inadequacies, I cannot pretend to understand God or God's nature. But my brain is powerful enough to recognize those shortcomings, and identify what lies beyond its own limits.
 “The human mind is not capable of grasping the Universe. We are like a little child entering a huge library. The walls are covered to the ceilings with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written these books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. But the child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books—-a mysterious order which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects.” - Albert Einstein
What then, convinces me that no other human is capable of comprehending God? Merely that one of the smartest men of all time couldn't do it either. And because he was smarter than I am, he could explain this concept of religion much more succinctly and effectively than I can. It is for this reason that I've utilized some of his explanations above.

The reader may have wondered why I opened the post with another of his quotes. I waited until now to get back to that, because I hope the above will help the reader better understand the context of that line. If the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it's comprehensible, then the most comprehensible thing about the universe is that it's (at least partially) incomprehensible. Which makes those parts which are beyond our comprehension worthy of wonder. Einstein referred to these moment of awestruck admiration as "the mystic emotion"; I call them "God moments".
“My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.” - Albert Einstein
“What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling” - Albert Einstein
Thus, Einstein explains, as best as it can be explained, the core essence of religion in general. But my title also spoke of Christianity, specifically,  andisn't there a lot more to Christianity than that? What of Christ? What of the Bible? Where does that come in? I am a Christian because I believe Christ was the fusion of the two sides of our binary, the window through which we can see God. Christ was perfect, yet born in humble circumstances. Immortal, yet he once died. Divine, yet human. He was the one and only exception to the rule, a perfect human, which makes him the ultimate role model. His divinity is unattainable for us, and yet we must strive for it even though we know we will fall short. We must accept that the world is not perfect even as we try to create a more perfect world.

What of creation? If God is perfect, and God created the world, then how is the world imperfect? Again, I cannot claim to know the "reasons" or "motivations" behind God's "actions", if such narrow human concepts can even apply to God's workings. But in a way, isn't our world actually made perfect by it's imperfection? A "perfect" world, as most would imagine it, free from all suffering or conflict or trouble, would actually be an awfully boring place to live. Pleasure would be devalued if pain did not exist, and if there exists no ugliness than beauty does not appear so radiant. Our binary resurfaces everywhere. No human could even imagine a world as perfect as the one we live in, complete with all the hardships it contains. It is perfectly imperfect, or imperfectly perfect, or...whatever (it is possible to overthink these things!).

What of an afterlife? Again, I don't pretend to know what, specifically, awaits me. But I do not expect a naked baby angel playing a harp on a cloud with a golden gate. I speculate that whatever existence awaits me (or my soul, or however you define my identity) after death is one equally incomprehensible to human minds as is the nature of God itself. And if there is some sort of afterlife admissions office, I reject the notion that I can now, with my limited human perspective and knowledge, identify who "gets in" and who doesn't.

I will close this post with one final quote from the genius it has centered around. I started off searching for the core essence of religion, but Einstein gave a better definition of it than I could ever articulate:
“The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man. To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties - this knowledge, this feeling ... that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men."

1 comment:

  1. Philippians 2:1-11

    Luke 14:7-11

    Matthew 18:1-5

    All deal with humility from a Biblical perspective. Totally in line with the driving theme of this post.