U – Unknown and Unknowable (PBP week 41)

The religion I grew up with, conservative Christianity, was a religion of certainty.  Sure, you had to have faith to believe in the first place, and the facts would vary depending on your particular sect, but once you made that leap it was all spelled out for you.  What happens after we die?  What is God like and what does He want from us?  What should I wear this Sunday?  Its all right there in the book.

Certainty makes me uneasy.  I was one of those kids who imagined a dark vasty nothingness just beyond my peripheral vision, wondered if the world went away when I blinked.  This wasn’t egoism, is was a basic mistrust of my senses.  When I say an apple is red, and you also say it is red, are we really seeing the same thing?  Or have we simply learned that “red” is the color of that particular apple, regardless of the wavelength of the light reaching our eyes.  And speaking of that, do we really have eyes and does light really have wavelength?  And speaking of light…

I’ve never been that comfortable with objective reality.

Most forms of paganism don’t deal with much in the way of certainty.  We don’t have a single revealed text.  Even in those faiths that do have an established lore, it is incomplete.  And that’s on the practical issues – how to perform this ritual, what offerings are appropriate in this circumstance, how was that holiday celebrated.  When it comes to more esoteric questions of philosophy and metaphysics, the lore is often contradictory.  It comes back to the idea of orthopraxy.  The ancients probably thought about these questions in the same way we do – some finding them very important, others completely irrelevant.  But it seems they were expected to find their own answers; it wasn’t the purpose of their religion to provide them.

This is how philosophy was born.  And, though I sometimes miss that comforting certainty, it pretty much works for me.

While I’ve mostly gotten past my weird idealist existentialist phase, part of me remains intensely agnostic.

I’ve written a lot in this blog about my ideas on the big questions.  Mostly, so far, about my ideas of who and what the Gods are and how best to honor them.  But I’m the first to admit I could be completely wrong.  My interactions with the Gods may just be wish fulfillment fantasies, or They could be something completely different than I imagine Them to be.

I don’t really know these things, any more than I know that my red is your red. What matters is that we have all agreed upon what “red” means, so we can function as if we were all living in the same objective reality whether or not that is actually the case.  As Kafka once said “it is not necessary to accept everything as real, one must only accept it as necessary.”  Meaning when it comes to day to day existence, a difference that makes no difference is unimportant.

What matters is that my ideas of the Gods fit my perceptions and work for me on a practical level.

For me, that is where my leap of faith comes in:  choosing to believe when doubt comes more naturally.  Choosing to believe red is red and the Gods don’t disappear when I close my eyes.

S – Science and Faith (PBP week 37)

I’ve never understood the problem people of faith have with the theory of evolution.  Or with any other well established scientific principle for that matter, but evolution is what is in the news lately.

In my understanding, science and religion are not inherently in conflict.  They cannot be – they are operating in very different spheres of thought:  a scientific theory has to be disprovable, while a religious tenet, by its very nature, cannot be disproven.  A belief in miracles allows one to argue for anything without intellectual dishonesty.  This makes them impossible to compare. 

But more importantly, there is no reason for a conflict.  It is true that science and religion both attempt to describe the nature of the universe, but they do so by asking different questions.  To perhaps oversimplify: science tells us about “how” the world works, while religion is concerned with “why.”

I can understand why someone with a purely scientific mindset would see a conflict.  Looking at religion from the outside, it is easy to dismiss the complexities of belief.

But when religious people insist on denying scientific fact because it threatens their faith or contradicts their mythology, I believe they are severely underestimating their Gods and taking their myths far too literally.  We see this all the time with Christianity, with the furor over Creationism and Intelligent Design in the US, but it arises from time to time in paganism as well.

Myths are stories told by humans to illustrate the truths we’ve learned about the Gods.  The details may vary from telling to telling, but the truth behind them remains constant.  If I believe, for example, Prometheus created mankind, it matters little or nothing to me to me if he made us from whole cloth (or clay), or if he did it by tinkering with the DNA of some apes.  If I believe Helios is responsible for the sun rising and setting every day, that shouldn’t change because I know that it is the Earth that moves and not the sun.  I shouldn’t need to see a literal flaming chariot to be grateful to him for making life on this planet possible.

The ancients imagined clay and chariots because they knew sculptors and charioteers.  Moderns think in terms of DNA and spheres of flaming gas because we have microscopes and telescopes.  These are the human details that allow the myths to fit within our understanding.  The truths they illustrate remain unchanged.  To remain adamant about the human details is to limit the Gods abilities to what we can wrap our heads around.  This is doing Them a great disservice.

The more I know about the complexities of the universe, the more I see how miraculous and mysterious it truly is.  Scientific learning adds to my sense of awe and wonder.  It takes nothing away.