It is striking to me how little has changed here superficially, and yet how much in me has grown at deeper levels. My understanding of faith and God is deeper now, and I have much more meaningful respect for the concept of faith and of God, but the characterization of myself as not-theist, not-atheist, and not-agnostic still fits more than any term I’ve found since. A major change: I can no longer separate the philosophical and the emotional—it is a false dichotomy. A minor change: I have tried alcohol by now, and who knows, perhaps that was partly responsible for some of the leaking of the emotional into my formerly airtight philosophy. Either that or it was a symptom of this merger…
I am currently in the middle of reading Rudolf Steiner’s book Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path [link][pdf] and laughing now at how much my 17 year old self was primed for this. Didn’t read it until I was twice that age. I’ll put a couple related passages from the book at the end of this post.
You and I had a discussion a while back about faith. I ended the discussion without giving you a rational reason why I am uncomfortable with faith. To begin, I feel that now, as a teenager, it is appropriate for me to explore different systems of thought and discover what has meaning for me. A specific faith is inessential to me, and might impede my intellectual development. I do not know what the case is for others. Some people are sustained by faith through difficult times and to the extent that this appears to be a basic human need I recognize it in myself. When I am in need of faith, I place it in my ability to handle difficulties or in the support of my network of family, friends and community. But, although I make use of faith, I question it. My greatest fear is of being controlled by something else. I believe very strongly in the rights and responsibilities of the individual. In practicing a faith, I see too many people ignoring the tasks of self-examination and thinking. I see religion as an attempt to simplify life, explain mysteries and form a framework for a community. However unsatisfying it may be, I prefer a complex and uncertain view of life.
I label myself an atheist, but I dislike the amoral connotations of the word, and the implication that I deny the existence of God. I do not accept His existence (theist), deny it (atheist) or question it (agnostic). It is not very important to me to believe that He does or doesn’t exist. Some people with views similar to mine have chosen to call themselves satanists, and to worship individuality, autonomy, free will, inspiration and knowledge: the gifts of the light-bearer and rebel, Lucifer and the knowledge-bearer, the serpent of the garden of Eden. I dislike this term as well, again for its amoral connotations, because it validates the Christian mythology, and because the very choice of the term is rebellious and provoking. People will call me pagan when they see my awe before Nature — but that term does not fit me either. I profess that I do not like ritual, but I do not know how true that is. My conscious mind objects to ritual on the basis that it is easily possible to lose some of the “true meaning” of a concept by ritualizing it. However, something in my subconscious mind is satisfied by ritual. Perhaps ritual makes difficult topics comprehensible and meaningful to us, or in other situations opens us up to discover deeper meanings. I never asked for life to be comprehensible or simple, and grasping the mystery of the universe will not help me through the next day or decade.
From a scientific point of view, I believe in my own insignificance as one of billions of sentient beings that have ever existed, I believe in the insignificance of my sun and solar system as one of billions of solar systems that have ever existed. If my family were killed tomorrow, or the earth were eradicated by nuclear war, or the universe began collapsing, it would not matter to me from a philosophical perspective. Emotionally, these events would upset me, as I’ve assigned emotional values to certain things. Philosophically I’ve assigned no meaning or value to anything. Yet I choose, emotionally, to love, to care about existence, and to function in society with a self-designed code of morals.
Maybe I discovered early in life that “behaving” would take me farther than disobedience, but I also now see the necessity of morals in terms of karma. I like receiving respect, cooperation, consideration and compromise from others and the fastest way to do this is to act this way towards others. I also like to maintain my life free of artificial influences such as alcohol, tobacco or other drugs to concentrate more fully on myself, and to keep my emotional life stable by choosing my friends carefully and cultivating good relations with my family and community. I take responsibility for my actions and strive to be respected by those whom I respect.
Speaking quasi-mathematically, I could probably map my system of beliefs onto yours or those of most other people with a transformation in the symbol set. There is still something I don’t understand about religion yet, especially monotheistic ones: Is God the simplest answer? Is God the most beautiful answer? Is God the most satisfying answer? Is God a necessary answer? Is God the only answer? I would venture to guess that everyone would respond differently to my query. Is God a separate entity? part of us? a different term for something we all experience? a convenient system? Again the responses to this will vary. Were we given 11 or 12 dimensions and 3 or 4 forces and set at the mercy of entropy or was our universe carefully guided by an omnipotent hand? If our universe is entirely deterministic, did our consciousness arise from the substance of the universe, or did God intervene again as He did before the beginning of time?
I accept now the idea that people need and want faith and that its benefits to ones life may outweigh the potential intellectual and spiritual atrophy, but I do not now know if and when I will ever want or need faith personally.
And Steiner says… “To act out of freedom does not exclude moral laws, but rather includes them. Still, it stands on a higher level than action dictated by moral laws alone. Why should my action serve the welfare of the whole any less if I have acted out of love than if I acted only because I feel a duty to serve the welfare of the whole? The simple concept of duty excludes freedom, because duty does not recognize individuality but demands instead subjection of individuality to a general norm. Freedom of action is thinkable only from the standpoint of ethical individualism.”
“Humans remain in an incomplete state if they do not take in hand the transformative substance within themselves, and transform themselves through their own power. Nature makes human beings merely natural creatures; society makes them law-abiding actors; but they can only make themselves into free beings. At a certain stage of their development, nature releases human beings from her chains; society carries this development up to a further point; but human beings must give themselves the final polish.
“The standpoint of free morality does not claim that the free spirit is the only form in which a human being can exist. Free morality sees in free spirituality only the final stage of human evolution. This is not to deny that acting in accordance with norms has its justification as one stage in evolution. But it cannot be acknowledged as the absolute standpoint of morality. The free spirit overcomes such norms in that free spirits do not merely feel commandments as motives, but order their actions according to their impulses (intuitions).”