Saturday, March 21, 2009

What's Your Story?

“Religious, or anti-religious, questions…cannot be settled by logical demonstration, for the essence of what is at issue is whether it makes better overall sense of experience to believe that there is a divine mind and will behind it all or not to believe that. We can give motivations for our answer, one way or the other, but we cannot simply settle it by argument alone. In the end we have to commit ourselves to a chosen point of view.” ~ John Polkinghorne

It has always seemed to me that the idea of choosing what one believes is problematic. My own experience tells me that I find myself in a particular belief, rather than make a conscious decision that I will believe one thing over another. I tend to assume that this is true for others as well, and, consequently, I have never been one to have much enthusiasm for trying to convince someone else of my beliefs. Nor do I assume that my belief could possibly be universally true. Occasionally, I have been so convinced by the power stemming from my way of experiencing the world that I have felt others would, of course, benefit from seeing things as I do, too. But any proselytizing on my part has been decidedly unsatisfying. In my more sober moments I try to hold a believe-and-let-believe attitude.

Ever since I was a child, it seemed obvious to me that if God created everything that is, He must also have created all the religions as different avenues by which the divine mystery could be experienced. Different people need different stories. I still find this idea convincing. I believe that we are all born into a particular story. Our task is to recognize our story and grow within it.

The story in which we live is the way we make sense of experience, as the quote above from John Polkinghorne would have it. Or, to say it another way, based on my individual experiences, I find that one story makes better sense than others. For me, the God story works. That is, I feel more alive and engaged in the world when I consider that “there is a divine mind and will behind it.”

Polkinghorne is a theoretical physicist turned Anglican priest. For him there is no conflict between the story that science tells about the world and the story religion tells. For Polkinghorne, they are both avenues toward truth. His writing makes it clear (as do the writings of many scientific or religious writers) that there is no conflict between science and religion. Any conflict that exists is between fundamentalist science and fundamentalist religion. The fundamentalists in religion sticks rigidly to the literal reading of their story, while the fundamentalists in science abandon their story to assert a metaphysical belief for which there is no proof (i.e., there is no God).

What if we were to let everyone live their own story? What if we got curious—rather than defensive—and chose to listen to each other’s stories instead of trying to shout each other down with our own beliefs. This world, this life, is so immeasurably rich and wonderful. We need all the different viewpoints to even begin to comprehend the whole in its physical, psychological, emotional, intellectual, relational, spiritual, and mysterious complexity. We might find ourselves enriched by the differences and surprised by the similarities.

Where the religious story might ask, “Do I serve God or do I serve sin?,” the humanist question might be, “Do I choose to love or to hate?” For the scientist it could take this form: “Do I serve understanding or ignorance?” The artist, “The beautiful or the ugly?” There are differences, to be sure, and important ones. But couldn’t it also be that there is enough similarity for each to be open to the other?

Perhaps the idea of everyone getting along is naïve of me. After all, as Polkinghorne states, we have to “commit ourselves to a chosen point of view.” If we don’t necessarily choose our beliefs, as I asserted before, we do need, apparently, to choose to commit to our beliefs. Just as a marriage, for example, cannot hold together without commitment, neither will any path yield all of its available truth without commitment. It takes long, specialized training to get to the point where one might discover something new in science. It takes long, specialized training to be consistently open to the muse for an artist. It takes long, specialized training for the religious person to reach enlightenment. All paths require us to commit. And maybe it’s this need for commitment that makes us view each other suspiciously. I might have to believe my way is the only true way in order to realize that complete commitment.

Maybe, then, we might never get to the point where we all get along, but I guess that’s interesting, too. Maybe the best any of us can do is say: “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

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