Pondering faith & spirituality

Last night, trying hard to get to sleep in the midst of watching Sergei Eisenstein’s October, I started having a lot of interesting thoughts. I bolted out of bed, sat at my computer for a few minutes, and typed a few of them up (and then briefly edited them just now):

“I do believe in God.

An omnipotent, omniscient God who loves me. I don’t believe in a petty, more or less human God who gets pissed off and kills people or sends them to eternal torture for minor infractions. I believe in God and his son, Jesus. I believe his nature is confusing to us, and that we’re not capable of fully understanding it. I don’t believe that he wrote and inspired the translation of every single word in the King James Bible, and one thing I believe absolutely for certain is that the God I believe in would never toss out eternal punishment for something so simple and natural – and which causes such a basic pleasure – as questioning, learning, and thinking about every aspect of life, including his nature and what is right or moral.

And questioning whether the vision of God insisted upon by fundamentalists could ever lead to a universe that contained any happiness at all. If the God I’m supposed to believe in is spiteful, insecure, quick to violence, and cares about a select group of people while forsaking the rest, well, then, fuck that. That’s no God I will ever be willing to believe in. Why believe in an all-powerful being who’s never given you any proof of his existence, who requires your faith to believe in him, and yet who wants to cause endless, inescapable pain, to you even, at the drop of a hat or the slightest sign of weakness – if that’s the God there is, we were screwed from the beginning, the universe is inherently horrible, and heaven and hell are pretty much indistinguishable.

I wonder if it doesn’t seem more likely that there is no God. But I think even if it that’s the case, he’s still worth believing in. Especially if he’s good, loving, wants only the best for all of His creations, and is willing to give us a chance if we’re willing to try to be good people and leave his earth a little better than we found it, if we can. But the unforgiving, absolutist, sadistic, and generally hateful God that fundamentalists believe in? If he’s the only choice, I give in any day to the nagging feeling that an afterlife in paradise is just too implausible given the world we’ve seen so far. I believe in God, but only if he’s the one who cares about us, wants only the best for us, and loves us deeply. I don’t see why it would be worthwhile otherwise.”

I was raised in a Christian family and educated in a Catholic school, but my relationship with religion has been an odd one. There are some questions where I just can’t find satisfactory answers: for example, if the sins you commit can cause your damnation, why aren’t they more clearly enumerated and in greater detail, so that we know God’s word on every possible action? Also, if you have to believe in Jesus or you go to hell, well, what about the billions of people throughout human history who were, because of their time period or environment, never exposed to Jesus? Are they all fucked over by default? These are quandaries I’ve never had sufficiently explained. But, going along with what I wrote above, I think another big question is this: there are many, many mutually exclusive conceptions of what God is and wants, so why should I automatically go with what the fundamentalist Christian or Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon evangelist is yelling at me from across the street? (This really happened when I was standing in line for a concert at 1st Avenue; he was screaming, but the traffic drowned him out.) I could believe anything, so why should I specifically side with the minority belief that tells me everything I enjoy is sinful and I’m going to hell, unless I devote every last moment of my life to prayer, or unless I give lots of cash to this megachurch, or unless I pass this letter on within 24 hours, or etc., etc.? I think religion is a powerful thing that can give a lot of help and guidance in life. But I just don’t see why endless amounts of good, selfless, and hard-working non-Christians should be condemned to hellfire forever just because they weren’t lucky enough to be born to Christian parents, whether good or not. That seems like the worst kind of ethnocentrism. (And has led to brutal ethnocentrism, too – the Crusades, the conquest of the New World?)

I have long enjoyed this thought experiment: what if the way the world works is that everyone, when they die, goes wherever they feel they should go, whether heaven, hell, the ground, being reincarnated, or anywhere else? It may not make much sense – and it may suggest some kind of eternal segregation of mankind, which would be sad – but it’s just a thought. Or maybe we all, every one of us, join together for one eternity-long carnival like the end of 8 1/2. Or maybe, speaking of faith-related film, we should just watch more Ingmar Bergman movies. The Seventh Seal, Virgin Spring, Winter Light, The Silence – these are some deeply religious movies that probe into questions of God and man, of heaven and hell. And as David Thomson reminded me the other day, while 1950s Hollywood was making bombastic biblical epics like The Robe and Ben-Hur, full of showmanship and swords & sandals, anything but actual faith – Robert Bresson was off in France making quiet little films that are deeply spiritual in style and substance (he’s been called “the patron saint of cinema”) like Diary of a Country Priest (1951), about a poor and sickly young priest who’s rejected by his own new congregation. I haven’t examined Bresson closely enough. I know vaguely, at least, a couple things: obviously, his movies aren’t nearly well-known enough outside of people already well-versed in film. I didn’t learn his name until after I started college. And then, that his movies generally concern a protagonist who suffers, endures, is tortured by the whims of fate, and eventually, for the most part, dies. His films are entirely unconventional, very low-key, and he even made an entire movie about an abused donkey (Au hasard Balthazar [1966]) that never once stoops into the realm of exploited sentiment in which virtually every other movie about animals dwells. So as I tend to do, I suggest turning to films like those of Bergman and Bresson for some measure of spiritual guidance. Movies can perform many functions, and one of those is giving insight into how the world works, physically and spiritually, and how we can come to terms with that.

So to bring this all together: I am extremely open-minded and, in my case, therefore easily confused, about religion and everything else. But after all is said and done, I really do believe that there’s someone, something out there who loves every one of us and will use, in some way, his infinite wisdom and power to help us along. I’m not saying the world doesn’t suck. It does, and then some. And sure, there very easily might not be a God. But so sue me, after all these years, I still think it helps me to believe.

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