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Sunday, January 8, 2017
Personal Reflections ... Spirituality ...

If you really, really, really want to believe in God, I think that the best way is to make sure that you are part of a church and a religious tradition that strongly affirms the existence of God. It’s not so much that the church and the religion say that God is real. It’s more the fact that you will be surrounding yourself with a group of people who all say that God is real. When you are surrounded by a bunch of people who all strongly assert a particular proposition, it’s much easier to believe in that proposition, even when there is evidence that would otherwise cause you to question that proposition (or lack of evidence to support it). Religion is thus something of an “echo chamber“.

When you are involved in a church, it’s easy to feel good about believing in God, even if you are familiar with the long list of rational doubts expressed by atheists and agnostics. The logic goes some thing like this — I am person A and I feel OK about believing, because person B seems to believe. But if you ask Person B why she or he believes, they will tell you that it’s because person C seems to believe. Then go as Person C — and guess what he or she will say? Yes, it’s because person D believes. Sooner or later you come full circle. Someone points back to person A, and the chain goes round again. In reality, it’s probably a matter of 2-way networking between everyone from person A to person ZZZ. In other words, person A feels good about God because persons B thru ZZZ are God-fearing; person B feels good because of person A plus persons C thru ZZZ; etc. But it’s ultimately the same dynamic — ultimately it’s all a loop, like the proverbial snake that continually eats its tail.

Personally, I still want to believe in God. But I don’t want to base my faith on the comforts of a internal loop / “echo chamber” like this. So I’m not part of a regular church; I am active instead in a Zen community, where at least half of the members have declared themselves to be atheists. Maintaining one’s faith in God is certainly more of a challenge in this context. However, all of the time that we spend in quiet meditation gives me lots of time to search for “the small voice within”. I don’t often “hear” that voice, but what little that does come to me during that quiet time has more credibility than all of the singing and praying that can be done at a regular Sunday morning service in a Christian church (or an Islamic mosque or a Jewish synagogue, for that matter).

The idea that belief seems quite comfortable and natural while surrounded by a community of explicit believers reminded me the other day of a game that I played with some other kids back when I was around 9 or 11 years old. My brother and I were playing with a group in the backyard of the house behind ours, and the family that owned this house had a dog tied up to a chain in that backyard. This dog was a bit hyper and aggressive, it liked to jump up at you and nip at you when you got close; it wasn’t one of those dogs that you could pet while it would just sit there breathing with its tongue hanging out. The dog was tied to a short metal pipe sticking up in the backyard, and close to the pipe was a doghouse, where the dog presumably spent the night (the chain was long enough for the dog to comfortably enter the dog house).

So our little group of playmates was fooling around in this backyard (without any parental supervision — that’s how we played back in those days) and we were mostly avoiding the dog. But then we had an idea. We knew that you could get the dog to follow you in circles around the post, such that his chain eventually got wound up around the post. Eventually the dog would be stuck right next to the post, and would have to reverse its course as to unwind himself and regain his freedom of motion within in his circular realm.

Just for a thrill, we thought, why not wind the dog up around the post, then go in the doghouse and see how long you could stay there while the dog looped around to unwind itself. Once it got far enough from the post to reach the doghouse, it would surely attack the interloper within its domain. The trick was to stay in the house as long as possible as the dog got closer and closer, and then bolt from the doghouse at the last possible moment. The challenge was to stay as long as possible and just barely miss getting bit and scratched by this nasty little pooch when it was finally far enough from the centerpost (well, OK, admittedly the dog wouldn’t be so nasty if it wasn’t tormented by stupid kids like us).

So several of us tried this to prove our coolness and our guts to each other. Several of us got a few little nips in the behind, but nothing too serious. Eventually, we decided to modify the game — we would all stuff ourselves into the dog house, and try to file out just before the dog attacked us. I’m not sure just what such a group effort was meant to prove — if the guy nearest the entrance bolted early, everyone would have time to comfortably clear out. But if he delayed too long, the guys in the back of the house who were the last to get out would get attacked. I suppose that the challenge was for the leader at the door to strike the right balance so that the last person could jump away from the dog at the last possible second. This certainly made the game a bit more complex, both in terms of judgement and in terms of human dynamics.

One member of our play group that day was Henry, a younger boy who lived in the house where we were playing. During one round of the group game, I told Henry that he should agree to be the first one to go into the dog house, so that he would be in the back (making him the last one to leave). He wasn’t going to do so simply because I said it, so I explained to him that he would have the most people in front of him when the dog arrived, and thus he would be the most protected. I knew that this logic was TOTALLY BOGUS, and that Henry would be most likely to be attacked as the last one to leave. But he bought it. Now admittedly, this was quite mean of me. Mea culpa . . . if there is a God, I will have to answer for this. But I was very happy that I had the power to talk someone into something. So I stepped aside to let Henry get into the doghouse ahead of everyone else. Again, that was quite evil of me.

And the outcome was just as I thought. Everyone got out just in time to avoid the mutt, but poor Henry got the claws and nips. Nothing bloody, mind you, no medical attention was needed. We knew that this dog wouldn’t really hurt you so long as you had the good sense to pull away if it attacked you. Even though he didn’t think through what I had talked him into, Henry still had the good sense to dodge the thing once it went after him (he lived in the same household with the dog, after all). So no physical harm was done other than a scratch or two. But little Henry did become quite upset for a moment once he realized that he couldn’t escape the dog, and me and one or two of the older kids had a quick laugh about that. Again, that was rather mean of us, and I hope that Henry at least learned a lesson about being talked into things by older kids.

The problem with believing in God because you belong to a community of fellow believers is that you are likewise accepting the notion that surrounding yourself with a group of faithful people will protect you from the nipping dogs of doubt and suffering in life. Once your friends clear out, you will be left alone, unprotected from those doubts. One way to actually challenge these doubts and sufferings is to grow up and stop doing mean things to others. I didn’t have much of a moral compass in dealing with Henry on that summer afternoon, despite the fact that I was probably going to church and Sunday school at the time.

To truly believe in God means thinking about others and not doing mean or unfair stuff to them just for a laugh (as I did to Henry that day), or for whatever gain that the unfair stuff might bring you. If being part of a group of believers helps you to achieve that, then maybe it is good to belong to such a church. But sometimes, too often, this seems not to be the case. You get your comfort about God, but perhaps forget that you need to earn such comfort by controlling your negative “caveman” instincts. The church minister may well proclaim that we are all sinners and forgive you so long as you acknowledge your sins. But is the faith that the church group gives you transformative, such that you at least try to act more God-like with each passing day?

I’m not sure at all that sitting with a Zen meditation group helps me to mature and transform myself into someone better. But for now, it’s the only game in town for me; I can’t go back to surrounding myself with others in a spiritual doghouse. I’ll try to face the nips and scratches of life alone, and at the same time, ask that small voice within to forgive me for all the nips and scratches that I have caused to others. And help me find the strength to stop inflicting new ones!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:53 pm      

  1. Jim, I’m not sure about how to “classify” people who search for the spiritual and/or God. You indicate people who “want” to believe in God, and I’m sure there are such. But I also think that there are people who do not think in terms of “wanting” to believe in God; rather some people may have a kind of “knowing” when it comes to who it is they believe in.

    I also think that a lot of people mistake a need for social contact with religion; they “find God” in going to church and having a lot of friends there. These people may participate in good works that help others and thus feel they are “doing what God wants”. I often think they are more likely meeting social needs they have and doing good works is a side effect.

    I also find myself wondering about these very large churches that fill a stadium with thousands of people who come to hear a particular preacher. Are they meeting social needs they have? Are they fulfilling the need that you mention that someone tells them this is how one should honor God? Do they find it more entertainment than anything else?

    I don’t know. But I do think not too many people consider “logic” when it comes to thinking in terms of God.

    I also wonder what people mean by “believing” in God or having “faith” in God. I know that when I was younger (much younger) I used the term “believe” in God and had no clue what it actually meant. When I did find out what “believe” (or “faith”) meant, I wanted no part of it.

    I also consider that people can and often do go thru different stages in their lives: There may be a period of time when they do not believe in God, another period when they aren’t sure or are searching for information, then something in life occurs that leads them to reconsider the situation. And the “reconsideration” is probably not based on “logic” but on something that affected the individual emotionally and/or psychologically.

    I tend to think (at this point in time as I know 100% if I had to address this issue at a different time in my life I’d have a much different comment) that this whole issue of one “believing” in God is much more complex than logic or social relationships or following the crowd. (I’m paraphrasing your idea with this last point.)

    It may be that in the end one’s emotions and/or psychological reaction to situations in life is more of an influence than anything else. But I’m not sure. However, it’s not mentioned in your post, and I think it needs inclusion.

    As to “Little Henry and the Nippy Dog”: I have no comment and refuse to judge the situation. You were young, immature at the time (presumably); thus no outsider is in a position to make any comment on that situation. I might add that there are only a few situations where one can strictly judge another person, and even then, who is to say one can read the interior of another.

    Please note: What follows here is NOT a comment re you and Little Henry: I also think that there are some people who lack ability to empathize with others and thus see no problem in mistreating others. There seem to be a lot of people around who tend to HAVE no moral compass, which is much different from doing something “wrong” and then feeling bad about having acted in a particular way.

    I also must add that I think there is a great deal of validity in taking quiet time to search for the “small voice within”; I think that it adds a lot to the collective unconscious and thus is pouring “good” into the entire world of consciousness. What could be a better “job” in this world? MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — January 9, 2017 @ 2:39 pm

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