The 6th deadly sin

Monday, July 30, 2012
Over the weekend, one of my dearest friends lost a family member to a climbing accident.

From all accounts, Ben and his birth family are people of deep faith. They are dealing with this tragedy in the way they've been taught, in the way that makes sense for them. By relying on their relationship with God and with their church to find solace and meaning in Ben's life and death. These are decent people who have supported and loved my dear friend her entire life, and I'm profoundly grateful that they have such a source of comfort now, when they need it most.

And as is normal for me at times like this, I find myself more than a little envious of their faith. When my beloved Auntie died earlier this year, I had no such solace.

Over the course of my life, I have come to terms with my lack of belief. I self-identify as an agnostic atheist, because my intellectual honesty forces me to say that no, I don't know if there's a God or a life after this one, but also I don't believe in that idea. I've tried on various and sundry religions over the years, attempting to find the place in myself where the elusive idea of "spirituality" resides. I've studied the world's religions, trying to find my place, and always, always came up short.

I want to have faith. I want to enjoy the security that comes with a belief in something bigger than myself, something that provides comfort and solace in my darkest hours. But I can't. I just can't wrap my brain around it, and no amount of wishing on my part will shut up the part of me that insists on relying on the empirical, the part who looks at the historical context of belief and religion and simply can't make that leap of faith from myth to personal truth. For me personally, it's a matter of intellectual honesty and living a courageous life. My reliance on looking at the world in a factual way is part of what makes me who I am, and if I'm no longer a spiritual seeker, I would still describe myself as a seeker of truth. I can still learn the ways of the Universe through science, and find myself in awe of the wonders therein. I assign meaning and value to my life without relying on supernatural explanations and rules, and it's good.

But occasionally, I still wonder...would my life be fuller, more meaningful if I was built for faith? Would my family relationships be stronger if I had faith? Would I be happier? I honestly don't know - when I read about how religion shapes the brain, or how certain brains are more likely to engage in religious belief than others, I ask myself: Is my lack of belief a biological construct? And if it is, is my brain the evolutionary advance, or the evolutionary dead-end? Is my brain broken and that's why I lack supernatural belief? And if it wasn't, would I enjoy the comfort of faith and religious community?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions, and in the short term, I'm not sure they really matter except as a navel-gazing exercise. For now, I'm glad Ben's family has a way to deal with the event of his death in a way that is meaningful for them. And yes, a little envious, too.

32 comments:

Random Michelle K said...

Janiece,

First, thank you again for your kindness and love.

I've been mulling over similar things all day, and had thoughts of my own rolling around in my head. Because, as we've discussed before, I too lack whatever it is that gives the rest of my family their faith.

Often, it makes me feel broken in comparison, but having suffered from depression / anxiety / OCD since I was a teenager, broken is a feeling I'm at least familiar, if not truly comfortable, with.

And I think I think I'll try and formulate more coherent thoughts later...

erichorne said...

Even with faith and hope, this is hard. Sometimes the book of the Bible that makes the most sense to me is the book of the Bible with the least answers, Job.

One of the things I like about Christianity is that we profess that we're all broken. that brokeness may be different from person to person, but we're all here in this vale of tears.

In a way, Christianity doesn't provide any answer to the questions "why is there suffering? why is there death? why is there evil?" other than to show that God became one of us and suffered and died and rose, and there is a mysterious value to that. There is no Easter without Good Friday. (Re-reading this paragraph, it seems sickeningly preachy, but it is what I beleive and I don't know how else to put it. suffering sucks, but Christ gives me hope.)

Thank you very much for writing and sharing this. I enjoyed reading it and puzzling over our human condition with you. I know you are a very loving, giving person, and I thank you and I thank God for your charity and generosity.

Janiece said...

Eric, thank you so much for stopping by. I know this is extremely difficult for you and yours, and I was moved by what you wrote about Ben on your own blog. It's never, ever easy, and I guess the bottom line is that we all muddle through these times with the tools and support structures we have.

As always, I share your grief and heartache, and send nothing but love and support to your family.

Janiece said...

Also, Eric: The phrase "Suffering sucks, but Christ gives me hope." is probably the best description of non-ecumenical Christianity I've ever heard.

Anne C. said...

I don't think one needs to have faith to accept that people who have died will continue to "live" on in those who are left behind. Your beloved auntie (and mine) and Michelle's relation all inspired and touched those around them. They shaped people's formative experiences and will continue to do so long afterwards though the echo of their actions through those they touched. (Very much like "It's a Wonderful Life," a movie I love even with the literal Christian trappings.)
That requires no belief in higher powers, only a recognition that what we do when we are alive MATTERS. In big ways and small ways.

Your auntie lives on in you and your goodness. And that is the truth.

Random Michelle K said...

Been thinking about this some more...

I too have researched a lot of religions, and too, none of them felt like they had a place for me, but the writings of the Dalai Lama came closest, and what I eventually came to realize is that it's not really about me and what I am or am not capable of feeling.

There are billions of people who have faith in a God, and the God each person believes in varies wildly. But yet, at it's core, all these religions have a something in common--a believe in something greater than they are.

The vast majority have something else in common: teachings of kindness and generosity and love.

Yes, there are many people who veer from the core teachings of whatever faith they follow, and when you get down to the rules and nitty gritty, they're all wildly different.

But it's the big picture that gets to me. That over millions of years, across the entire planet, people have faith in a being that tells them to be nice to each other.

Does it matter that the details are different across the board? To me, no, it doesn't. What matters to me is that religion and faith make so many people strive to be better than they are.

So whether it's "Be excellent to each other" or "Don't be a dick" the existence of this idea gives me a form of intellectual faith, even if spiritually I come up empty time and again.

Janiece said...

Anne, I believe that the people we love live on in us, and that the best legacy is making the world around me a better place - I really do. But I'm also selfish enough to want my Auntie HERE, with us, continuing to enjoy her Grandchildren, rather than a memory and a legacy. She was a person of deep faith, and for her sake I hope she's in the heaven she believed in so fervently. I know many of my family members believe she's there. It makes them feel better to think of her so, while I struggle with the unknown. Hence the envy.

Michelle, I'm a fan of the "Don't be a dick" philosophy, regardless of what you call it. It helps me in my struggle to avoid being mean. But it doesn't help me much with the whole "what happens to us when we die" thing. Unfortunately.

neurondoc said...

Janiece, I've thought about this very issue over the years. Thanks for writing up MY thoughts so eloquently. Whatever allows for religious faith of any kind -- I don't seem to have it at all. There are times when I wish I did, because it must bring some level of comfort to believers. But most of the time I don't crave faith.

Janiece said...

NeuronDoc, most of the time I don't crave it, either. I realize not having the solace of faith in times of crisis is the price I pay for what I consider to be my intellectual honesty the rest of the time, and I'm satisfied with that bargain.

Most of the time.

neurondoc said...

Yes. This is exactly how I feel.

Random Michelle K said...

Strangely, not knowing what happens after we die doesn't bother me that much.

If this is it, then this is it, as long as I tried to do my best while I was here, what more do I *truly* need?

Janiece said...

Michelle, I think that's very wise. I try to live that way, but fall down on the job more often than I'd like.

Random Michelle K said...

Well, note the emphasis on "try". :)

Stacey said...

I'm with Michelle in that I really am not hung up with what comes after. That isn't necessary for me. I do have faith and struggled with the 'fire and brimstone' philosophy I was raised with. I came to the conclusion that we are supposed to be kind, loving, supportive and not be a dick. Eric said it well, suffering sucks but Christ gives me hope. I hadn't thought about it in quite that way, but that works for me. I've struggled with my faith and I think that's appropriate. I'm blessed to have a wide variety of friends with whom to evaluate and grow.

Although I've always hated the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" I do agree with Anne in that "the echo of their actions through those they touched" which is why we hold them dear and wish to continue that legacy for them. (I don't think this paragraph is very elegant, but it's early and I've not had coffee)

This is a difficult subject and makes me want to run screaming sometimes. Even though I have faith, sometimes that just isn't enough, until it is. It has always struck me a bit pollyanna-ish. Hard is hard, no matter how many tools you have in your toolbox to deal with them.

Thanks for sharing and giving us a forum to exchange ideas. I love you and am glad you are in my life.

Megan said...

I'm not religious. Some of my family certainly is, but I'm not.

However, I find deep meaning in the poetry and stories of the Bible and in the rituals of the Mass. Comfort, even. I have a Bible app on my phone, and I use it regularly. I love to listen to choral Masses.

Janiece said...

Megan, I love choral masses, too. The music makes me happy.

Random Michelle K said...

I'm kinda jealous. For me, I can't stand choral masses or pretty much anything classical, because I have unpleasant associations with it.

But a lot of gospel music and klezmer and stuff like that? I love.

Janiece said...

Michelle, I love gospel, too. In fact, I have an astonishing amount of liturgical music for an Atheist.

Random Michelle K said...

You have this: http://www.amazon.com/Brother-Moses-Smote-Water-Klezmatics/dp/B00069W5M6 right?

And this: http://www.amazon.com/Sacred-Taliesin-Orchestra/dp/B0000695TP

Janiece said...

I have the first, but not the second. Which I will now rectify.

The Mechanicky Gal said...

Janiece, please put "Listen to Klezmer music" on the to-do list.

Random Michelle K said...

MG, do you not have any klezmer music? You need to contact me.

Janiece said...

Also, Michelle, try these guys:

http://www.amazon.com/Grace-Soweto-Gospel-Choir/dp/B002YOJEHU/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1343845383&sr=8-1&keywords=soweto+gospel+choir

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This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Random Michelle K said...

(ignoring spammer above)

You have Ladysmith Black Mombazo, right?

And I love, but don't have any of, The Blind Boys of Alabama.

Janiece said...

*TONG*

I do have Lady Black Mombazo, yes. I'm unfamiliar with the Blind Boys.

Random Michelle K said...

http://youtu.be/mzIuUW9VUr0

They've played several times on Mountain Stage.

Also, I now have two of their albums. (Ya for living in the future?)

Janiece said...

Ah, I wondered who sang that in Season 1 of the The Wire.

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Janiece said...

*TONG*

William said...

If you are curious about Christianity, try reading "Mere Christianity" by CS Lewis. it's a short (but dense) read and is a logical explanation of why there is a God.

I am Christian, and have debated many an atheist. I believe that religion and science can coexist quite comfortably if one has an open mind. The problem I encounter in debating atheists can be summed up as follows: An atheist tells me I am close minded/anti-science because I am Christian. I'll counter and say that the existence of God cannot be disproven by science (because it cannot, as long as you use a proper definition of "God" and you take into account the historical context in which the Bible was written). An atheist will say the universe was created by the Big Bang. I will ask, well, what existed before then, or who created the materials that caused the Big Bang, and the response will usually be "well, we haven't discovered that yet, but we KNOW that it can't be God." Sorry, but I can't accept that reasoning.

I rambled here, but hope that it was at least a little thought provoking.

Janiece said...

Welcome, William.

I'm not really curious about Christianity, at least in the way you mean it. I've studied the Bible, and while I'm certainly no scholar, I'm familiar enough with the contents that I know I'm not a believer, and likely never will be. I'm content to be an agnostic atheist, and content to share the world with those who have faith.

My wistfulness comes not from unfamiliarity with the tennants of the world's religions, but from an inability to make the leap of faith required.