20 March 2011

Ye of little faith

In some moments, I want to say to theists, especially the fundamentalist religious types, "You have so little faith in the unseen. You're so impatient and think you need all of the answers now..." Of course, I recognize that it's possibly precisely because it's been "used" against me in the past that I am inclined to use it in return. But I was reading a discussion about "miracles," and comments like, "Well, there's no better explanation, so it's clearly an [unnatural or supernatural or otherwise mystically-timed] act of God" had me a bit bewildered at how impatient some people are when it comes to not knowing the answers and having to explain it now however they can to make the world make sense again. And it clicked: I was thinking they lacked faith in truth itself. Bear with me while I explain in more long-winded manner (who, me?!):

The laws of nature are not fully understood. The relationships between particles, forces, or energies are not fully understood. We try to relate to the world and the universe through theoretical, measurable chunks. We create theoretical vacuums in which to understand principles of physics. We create simplified components of systems to understand the principles at work. We love stories with simplified characters because they make artificially clear the traits of heroism or evil. But reality--the real-world operations and interactions of things and people--rarely if ever operates in such stark simplicity but is instead a possibly infinitely complex conglomerate, series, or interaction of each of these simplified ideas. Our systems of scientific experimentation are often completely adequate in their estimates, but it is all still estimation, and the most minute anomaly can introduce unexpected influence and cause variation.

If I could precisely measure exactly the physical, atomic, and subatomic interplay between molecules and particles making up what we call "air", and I knew exactly the gravitational influences from the earth and nearby celestial bodies such as the moon, and I knew exactly every other action in the world which was to occur instantaneously at a given point in time which would, in turn, cause a reaction or interaction with incidental particles and people, and I knew exactly what decisions people were going to make to affect the world around them, and I knew what particles and debris would enter our atmosphere as the Earth sped through space, and could incorporate all of the abstractly simple and straightforward laws of physics into this complex understanding, then I could probably predict exactly where on the ground or on a person's shoulder a feather dropped from the Eiffel Tower would land or predict what the weather was going to be in Provo, UT next year at this time. But that dropped feather will behave in a seemingly unpredictable and chaotic way, changing direction with the slightest shift in the air, and hey, even what the weather will be tomorrow is a bit of a crap shoot for Utah's meteorologists.

The feather landing on someone's head might seem a miracle, especially if that person also happened to have asked God for a sign of peace in the last year, more so if they asked an hour prior. An unexpected downpour right onto one person's house might seem a sign of gloom and doom or might confirm to passersby that this person is, indeed, a bad neighbor as they had suspected. These are the cases where people say, "Well, you can't tell me it's a coincidence..." But how many people are just looking for anything to confirm what they hope or suspect? And of those, how many have these events occur? Many assume that, absent of a scientific explanation, their belief in the supernatural has been confirmed. Others persist, after increased knowledge and understanding explain how the incident occurred, in believing that the timing itself testifies of its miraculous nature. But when a "miracle" occurs which seems to defy their beliefs, it is quickly scoffed at or otherwise shrugged off as an "unknown", or a Satanic imitation, or someone trying too hard to look for signs.

Is it any wonder that on occasion, events may take place which meteorologists couldn't predict given their current understanding and measurements? Is it any wonder, with how little we yet know of the incredibly complex systems and interactions within the human body, not to mention the inability, logistically or financially, to measure every single function occurring in every single medical patient at all times, that people experience phenomena--from healing, to revitalization after clinical death (cells don't all cease functioning for quite a while), to utterly unexpected death--which medical knowledge "can't explain"?

And yet, despite this perspective, when I see what religious adherents might refer to as a "miracle", I'm not sure I'm any less in awe of it or grateful for it than they are, or than I was of similar events when I was religious. It's beautiful. I love that the universe still attests that there is a vastness of truth beyond anything I can comprehend, yet to be discovered and understood, and that we are players in an incredibly expansive reality. I'm in awe at the fortune of some to have their wishes fulfilled, to have a loved one brought back as they may have teetered on the point of despair or resignation or to stumble upon great fortune at a time of desperate need. I acknowledge it's impressive when a priesthood blessing seems to be fulfilled in miraculous manner. But I also know how many are not, and I know another family just lost their loved one unexpectedly despite the strongest of faith, and I know it sometimes rains on temple dedications, and I know children praying for families or health may never find them. That doesn't mean there's no God or that God isn't personified and willful and allowing each person to learn in different ways and on different timelines. But...there comes a point where you have to acknowledge that religious explanations typically seem awfully 'convenient' to the adherents' paradigms and context. But hey, I know what it's like to think, "Well, I know it might seem convenient, but if it's true, then of course it's going to make sense within the doctrine. Of course it's going to seem convenient: because it's the truth." That might seem circular, but as long as it's not being used to "prove" that the miracles are true, it's not circular, and you have to acknowledge...it's logical, assuming...

I used to reconcile things like seemingly unjust pain and death with the idea that because there's another life beyond this, even death isn't tragic if it's merely a passage into another, better stage of existence, and even those kids who grow up without families may have been given opportunities, through their coping, to learn and grow stronger which they might not have had if they had been placed. I used to figure some people were healed because someone needed the miracle or because the healed person had more to do on earth, while others weren't because someone needed the humility, or the deceased person was needed on the other side for some purpose.

Having thought that way, I may have a different take than most nontheists on the idea that scientific explanation necessarily negates the need for belief in or existence of deity. The mere notion that we may, one eon, if we last long enough as a species, discover all of the mechanisms and interactions in the universe--like where emotions come from and why some people have "near-death" or "out-of-body" experiences--does not guarantee that there aren't mechanisms by which more advanced beings couldn't be pulling some strings or manipulating events here and there. As I understand it, the LDS notion of God is compatible with this nearly sci-fi kind of outlook in which natural laws are completely preserved but operate on more planes of energy or perception than those of which we are now aware or which we're able to prove with current technology and measurement.

All of this comes back to my point that when I hear people say, "I believe God performed a miracle because there is no other explanation," I see a very weak reason to believe. Even though I'm skeptical, I think there are other reasons to believe than this sort of 'default', mostly deeply personal and mostly impossible to insert into someone else's psyche. When someone says, "I believe in God because the universe just doesn't make sense without him," I hear impatience and...a lack of faith, not to mention a sad lack of intellectual curiosity and engagement with the universe they're a part of. I see a lack of faith in what is yet to be seen, what is yet to be understood. How many times have I been taught and in turn taught others that we simply cannot and will not have all of the answers here and now, or in this life at all, and that a little faith is required to trust that it all makes sense somehow? You may not understand a trial or struggle now, but you can still trust that a reason exists and that it will be for your good somehow. You may not understand an unexplained phenomenon now, but you can still trust that an elegantly reasonable explanation exists for what it was or how it happened. Be not afraid.

Of course, when I ceased to need a "why" for everything because I no longer necessarily believed a conscious, willful being was in control of everything or "allowed" everything to happen, or chose to intervene in some cases (implicitly not in others), and I realized I believed it's never been about "why" but more about "how" and about what I'll make of it, many ideas started to click in a way they never had before.

Sometimes, the principle of faith--of not needing all the answers now--is used to browbeat those who do not believe in a God or in a religiously theistic outlook. But my paradigm shifted. I'm not sure when, and I might come up with any of a number of explanations for how or why, but it shifted. I still understand the principle, even from an LDS perspective. I still know that even if God is very real and present, I'm simply not going to understand the will and mind of an infinitely powerful and omniscient being for whom time may be irrelevant in order to make sense of things which don't make sense to my limited, mortal brain and perspective.

But atheists and nontheists have a faith, too, though maybe not the mystical kind the religious value more: a belief in or hope for truth which is as-of-yet not discovered or not proven, which may or may not have evidence. They trust that there's an explanation, even if we don't know it now, even when they are being told to stop looking for it and "have faith" that God is the explanation. They may even regard theists as being impatient and lacking trust or faith in ultimate truth, instead supplanting that quiet patience with notions of the unnatural or supernatural manipulation by invisible beings, sacrificing the search for truth and expansion or adjustment of perspective for a hasty embrace of a story which demotes truth by fitting the universe into one's already-existing perspective. This is probably similar to the way the religious view the non-, as "denying" religious truth to fit their limited, sensory, quantifiable perception and mere physical universe at the expense of the vast spiritual dimension of existence. I'm not sure how you bridge that gap of understanding.

But in my view, the intellectually, emotionally honest among us--theist and nontheist alike--are patiently waiting to find and receive the answers to the mysteries without jumping to conclusions, despite our respective hunches and personal experiences. That is, I think, largely the essence of my agnosticism: not only patience with but even a sort of reverence for the complexity and ambiguity of truth and the search for understanding.

I was told by someone in conflict, "I can't question everything my whole life. I need conviction." I was in no position to debate, but I wanted to say, "Show me conviction without questions. No, your view and mine are incompatible. I hope to never stop questioning. To do so would be a lack of faith."


Lee said...

I recently watched a documentary about science and the universe. One of the scientists involved in the documentary said that the more he learns about the universe, the more he realizes it couldn't have happened by accident, and that it had to have been designed by a great intelligence. He said the more he learns, the more he’s more convinced it takes greater faith to be an atheist than to believe in a diety. An interesting point of view.

Everyone has to seek his/her own comfort level concerning faith and science. As for me, I love science, I watch science documentaries, and I read some of the articles in my husband'sScience magazine. I LOVE National Geographic, but don’t subscribe any longer because it was too hard to throw them out and they were taking over the house . I’m curious as all get out to know about new scientific discoveries and explanations, especially about the universe. I don’t feel that science belies faith or vice versa. I’m quite sure all things scientific and all things spiritual are very compatible, and I’ll wait patiently for knowledge of such, although I’m not anxious to “cross over” in order to be so enlightened.

So I’m pretty simple-minded, and my questions don’t create a conflict for me. Thanks for this forum OM!

Trev said...

Fantastic post! Thanks.