The story goes that once upon a time the famous philosopher and atheist Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say if he found himself standing before God, and God asks: “Why didn’t you believe in me?”
Russell replied: “I’d look him straight in the eye and say: ‘you didn’t give me enough evidence'”.
Great scientists like Isaac Newton thought that human reason is the lens through which God and his great work can be understood. Yet reason seems completely incapable of understanding God himself. St. Thomas Aquinas famously attempted five logical proofs for the existence of God. Even if we are to accept these proofs, anyone looking for a personal God who lends us emotional support and ethical guidance will be sorely disappointed here. One does not walk and talk with the God of the philosophers.
On the contrary, the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve has a decidedly anti-science bent. It is the Tree of Knowledge (of good and evil) which God strictly forbids. Once the original couple wakes up to reason, they feel shame and God evicts them from a life of simple but subservient bliss.
Yet thanks to the awakening of human reason, we now live in an age of miracles. With almost every passing day our brainy tech-wizards disburden us of another hardship for which God once had us condemned. So it’s little wonder that the Judeo-Christian tradition has lost much of its hold over us. Or that some have come to see religion as something to be outgrown, like believing in Santa Claus.
Allow me to tell you some of my personal history.
In 2008, following the loss of my job at Merrill Lynch, I decided to return to life aboard. With winter setting in I worked at an increasingly frantic pace preparing my little ship Ruth Avery for a trip south to the Virgin Islands. Preparations included constructing an eight-foot Nutshell, and quite the classy tender she was. I even bought a tanbark sail for it to match those of the mother ship.
Despite my aggressive work schedule I was late in launching and did not actually set off for Bermuda until Dec. 1. Sailing southward down through the Gulf of Maine and the Great South Channel I encountered horrible weather and freezing cold, cold that was almost unbearable and I arrived in Bermuda with frostbitten feet. Luckily my feet healed in the warm weather and hot showers ashore, though not without considerable discomfort.
From there I carried on to St. Thomas. I was also now quite a guitar enthusiast, though still very much a beginner. But the Jimmy Buffet life as I imagined it was irresistible to me.
I started playing my guitar at open mic nights, which are hosted in bars. Having grown up on the campus of a New England prep school, where my father taught history, I was quite aloof from the social realities I was now entering.
I was lucky–perhaps more than lucky–just to be alive. My Nutshell pram was totaled. The young man who ran me over, just after dark, pulled me out of the water just off of Crown Bay, and gave me a ride back to my boat. Eventhough bruised and shaken, I immediately wanted justice, compensation. He says: “well I’m really sorry about that, but I didn’t see your light”.
It was true. I had a flashlight but did not grab it in time, he having come up so fast, and that along with another speedboat he was racing. This made things confusing. But dinghy’s must show a white light at night. I was in violation. I went to the police, but that was a waste of time. Hoping for justice was folly.
I have had other close calls. For example, once in Nantucket I was trying to set out a second anchor with an oncoming storm. It was now in late October and I nearly swamped the dinghy doing this, and the strong current and cold waters may easily have taken me to my death had I not reacted fast enough. And all of this was forced on me by the harbor master who made me move my anchor because I was in violation of anchoring rules, though it was very late in the season when few boats remained in the water.
I bring up these stories because many will point to extraordinary luck as evidence of a higher power. After my speedboat accident I had a few people remark, even exclaim: “My God, you must have a guardian angel!” I am tempted to think so myself. But this would be revelation, and revelation can never be knowledge.
Now one thing that must be admitted is that I was in part the cause of my nearly fatal accidents. I sought adventure, putting to sea alone in a small sailing craft, traveling alone to strange lands. When venturing into danger, but with preparation against all knowns, one’s perceptions become focused by a tension which the dangers and corresponding anxieties direct. In the process of moving through the odyssey one’s lens, one’s perceptions and thoughts, adapt and evolve. This of course happens throughout life as we gain more and more knowledge and experience, but it is almost always the most emotionally intense experiences, the ones that brought us terrifyingly close to chaos and death, which forever change us, which permanently re-orient us in the world.
I think that many who hear the call of adventure–ocean sailing, mountaineering, hiking through the jungle–whether they realize it or not are in fact seeking danger. I think many of us share in a need to place ourselves back in the same environment in which our ancestors often struggled just to survive; to see animals live as they have lived for eons; to revisit the crucible in which our most powerful instincts were formed. There is where hardship and danger bring our primitive selves into high relief. This provides us with psychological bedrock.
But adventure for adventure’s sake, even in the most primitive wilds, can be mere thrillseeking. Without great literary works such as the Bible, Epictetus, Bhagavad Gita, the Analects of Confucious, Aristotle’s Ethics, and so on, we may become very tough but not sensible. We may become barbaric.
The fact that these works have survived for thousands of years indicates that they are useful and reliable sources. Of course these books contain errors, for they are human creations. I am not going to get into the Creationism vs. Evolution debate, but only state that the latter has the benefit of far better information sources and a few thousand years of development in human understanding.
Another contention may be that revelation, enlightenment, a satori, and so on, is just an orgy of brain chemicals, an illusion. Indeed some religions use drugs such as ayahuaska to create religious experiences. We might therefore conclude that there is no such thing as soul, the spirit, God–it’s all just chemistry.
But you cannot reduce reality to chemistry. If you insist that everything in the universe can be described by physical science, that everything in existence must have mass and occupy space, just ask yourself where the number 7 is located and how much it weighs.
Scientific laws are merely related concepts, and concepts are made of soul stuff, not chemical compounds. In fact if you really think about it, it is only by means of human language, which involves shared concepts, that we are able to see a scientifically objective world at all. And correspondingly to see ourselves as individual subjects located in a vast physical universe. You cannot separate soul from scientific objects any more than you can run from your own shadow. So if reality is ultimately made of souls, which are perhaps only the tributaries of one great reservoir of soul, can we say that this reservoir is a creation of God, or is God? And can we know what our purpose is, what God commands each and every one of us to do?
I don’t think so. I do not know, nor am I aware, of anyone who knows how we could possibly know that. Agnosticism remains the only option available to the rationalist, so far as I can tell.
When I lost my job with Merrill Lynch I felt it in my bones, so to speak, that this chapter of my life was closing. I had done it long enough to earn the means to fund the next phase of my life. What exactly that was, or whether it would work or not, I had no idea. It was truly a leap of faith, a bet with myself that I would figure it out, and –perhaps most importantly–I felt that I really had no choice. Psychological or perhaps divine forces led me on adventures, and into danger. Perhaps these forces were merely the result of some emotional bruising way back in my past, yet the result is undeniable: they revealed worlds to me that I would have never known had I stayed ashore.
And that is my faith, the extent to which I call myself a religious man. While the path I choose is objectively a gamble, inwardly I sense it as an unfolding mystery, a gradual tracing out of one tiny mortal thread in God’s phenomenal tapestry.