A de facto theist

Note: I’m taking a short break from writing in July to focus on another project, so for this month, I will re-post some of my personal favorites from earlier days when I only had a dozen or so people following my blog. This was first posted in June 2018.

Science has not been able to prove there is a God, but it hasn’t proven there isn’t one either.

Modern science says the universe started with a Big Bang. But if the universe indeed started that way, who or what caused the Big Bang to happen? Who or what created the original matter involved in the Big Bang?

Scientists promote the theory of evolution to explain how life on earth in all its amazing forms developed. But if evolution is indeed a valid concept, who or what created the initial life form that evolved into other life forms?

One geneticist even claims there’s specific gene, VMAT2, that predisposes some people to have spiritual or mystical experiences. But if we have a “God gene,” who or what put it there?

According to astronomers at Ohio State University, the Milky Way contains more than 200 million stars, and there are more than 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Science Daily reports that the earth contains more than 8.7 million species of plants, animals and other living organisms. Could all of that have really happened through a coincidental fluke?

I often feel the presence of a God in the changing seasons.

I’ll never forget riding along a thoroughfare through Atlanta one Easter Sunday with my husband and his parents. A profusion of trees and vines bloomed simultaneously: dogwoods, redbuds, wisteria, peach trees. Each side street treated us to a riot of color: white, pink, purple, yellow, red. Nature’s fireworks, I thought. Each time we encountered another side street, we’d say in unison, “Ooo! Ahh!”

In the summer, I can sit in our backyard swing and gaze upon a lush green carpet of grass, interspersed with the vibrant hues of my flower beds. Hummingbirds hang suspended in mid-air, their tiny wings moving so fast they appear to not be moving at all while they sip nectar from bright red bee balm blossoms. Cicadas sing in harmony in the twilight. Fireflies flick their tiny lights on and off. Butterflies flit from bloom to bloom. Life asserts itself even in the face of lingering drought.

I recall taking a twilight walk one beautiful fall day when I suddenly stopped short. Before me stretched a scene that prompted me to gasp. The leaves had turned yellow-brown-orange-crimson, and light from the setting sun bounced off the tops of the trees in even more vivid colors. The sky competed with the leaves for sheer outrageousness, with the sun painting the clouds red, orange, yellow and pink. A still-warm breeze blew across my face. I had to extend my walk by several blocks so I could drink it all in.

Even the winter can be pretty. As I sit in front of the fireplace in my “swaddling clothes” (flannel nightgown, sweatpants and blanket), feeling warm and protected, a delicate coat of snow covers the tree branches. Perched in the middle of the pear tree in our backyard, a pair of cardinals add tiny splashes of color to a black and white landscape. One of my cats settles in my lap, purring loudly as I stroke his fur.

In my mind, Someone or Something had to create all this extravagant seasonal beauty.

I think about the miracle of birth. We start with one cell, then two, then four, then eight. At some point these cells know to differentiate into brain cells, heart cells, blood cells, muscle cells. How do these cells know to do this? If our cells are programmed this way, then who or what programmed them?

I think about the magnificent way our bodies are made. According to the Scientific American Book of the Brain, an adult brain, which weighs about 3 pounds, has more than 100 billion cells. The Franklin Institute says that in an average person’s lifetime, the heart beats more than two and a half billion times, pushing blood through more than 60,000 miles of blood vessels. There are 206 bones in the adult body, according to Wikipedia, including 54 bones in the hands, 52 bones in the feet and 6 tiny bones in our middle ears. According to the Human Genome Project Information Page, a human genome, which carries all of an individual’s DNA, contains anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 genes.

As Shakespeare declared in Hamlet, “What a piece of work is man!”

“I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” says Psalm 139:14.

I see all this as evidence of God.

From the macro (galaxies, endless galaxies) to the micro (human cells, atoms, quarks) – the universe seems too intricate and too perfect for there not to be a Creator of some kind behind it. Logic tells me the original matter involved in the Big Bang and the original life form that evolved into all the life forms we have today had to come from somewhere. Logic tells me Somebody or Something had to create the sheer splendor, beauty and intricate orderliness.

To me, the idea that everything started with a random Big Bang and that life and matter all evolved by chance is more of an intellectual stretch than the idea that there is a Creator behind it all. Who, after all, created all those laws of nature?

Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

Blaise Pascal said, “If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having, neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. [So] you must wager. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager then without hesitation that he is.”

That’s Pascal’s Wager, and I’m inclined to go with it.

Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, proclaims himself a “de facto atheist” and writes, “I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” (I want to ask how something that doesn’t exist can have a gender. But I digress.)

I’d call myself a “de facto theist.” I’m inclined to believe that God exists, and I’ve decided to live my life as if there is a God and life is not absurd, but rich in meaning.

Spiritual progress

A little over a year ago I found myself at a spiritual crossroads. 

My husband and I attended church almost weekly, and I had read the Bible from cover to cover, along with shelves full of books on religion and spirituality. Yet I still found myself asking the “big” or “ultimate” questions. What do I actually believe about God and why? What is God’s purpose for my life? What are my values, or what should they be? How do I live my life in a way that is consistent with my beliefs and values?

Several factors led to this renewed questioning. The transition in focus and priorities prompted by my retirement. The “time is limited” epiphany that comes with being 60-something, losing loved ones and developing chronic health problems myself. Questions about faith and a church’s true purpose raised by reading the Bible and serving on my church’s evangelism committee. The internal tug-of-war over my own values brought on by the increasing divisiveness and polarization in our society.

I made a commitment: Develop a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my values should be, and live accordingly. Toward this end, I engaged a spiritual director to help me explore these “ultimate” questions and reorder my beliefs and values as necessary. Seeing a spiritual director does not replace going to church, of course – it’s a supplement, rather than a substitute. Spiritual direction is a one-on-one partnership in which one Christian helps another grow in a personal relationship with God. 

I must admit the idea of working with a spiritual director made me a bit nervous at first. While I hoped this person would ask the hard questions, I didn’t want someone who would merely push me to adopt their own belief system. I needed this person to be nonjudgmental and open to the idea that I was questioning all kinds of dogma, from the spiritual and religious to the political and ideological. 

My spiritual director, thankfully, has been patient as I grapple with questions some would say I shouldn’t even be asking. For the past year, we have met monthly for one-hour sessions. She offers a variety of suggestions for homework assignments, allowing me to choose which ones I might find most helpful. She recommends various reading materials as well.

I had already developed a morning meditation ritual – sitting in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cat in my lap and a cup of coffee by my side while I journal about my priorities for the coming day. I began using this time to write out my thoughts and insights generated by the homework assignments. I’m a rather “visual” person, so I’ve also used imagery to describe what I’m experiencing at any given moment. 

One of my first assignments: Come up with an image that best symbolizes my present spiritual condition.

I created a Photoshop image of myself buried under a mountain of clutter and added a rope to represent the tug-of-war over everything from my time to my personal values caused by competing demands and continual conflict. Underneath the papers and boxes and to-do lists, I placed several boulders with labels on them – fear, anger, pain – to represent the steady stream of anxieties and resentments that kept me awake at night and pre-occupied during the day. A pair of arms juggled several balls in the air – family, friends, volunteer work, the house. More balls had been dropped and were nestled on the ground at the bottom of the heap – my writing, self-care, God.

Using the graphic as a starting point, I listed those areas of my life that felt not-so-well-ordered. My relationships. A messy house. Our finances. My frantic, overloaded schedule. Health issues ranging from aches and pains everywhere to heart problems, along with my inability to sustain a healthy eating plan for more than a few days at a time. My writing, which seemed to languish. My emotional life, which often left me feeling like a walking bundle of anxieties and resentments. The suspicion I entertained from time to time that my life had been reduced to crossing items off endless to-do lists. My spiritual life, with all those questions and doubts.

I shared my “laundry list” with my spiritual director and showed her the graphic. I described the chaos that seemed to permeate my life, stemming from my own challenges with organizing skills, my talent for procrastination, my difficulty saying “no” to demands on my time, and my penchant for getting sucked into other people’s dramas. Repeated efforts to get my life under better control often left me feeling more frustrated than ever, I confessed. 

My spiritual director listened to this litany without negative judgment – at least none that I could detect. Looking the graphic over for a moment, she asked, “What stands out for you?”

I pointed out the “God ball” at the foot of the clutter pile. God was there, of course, but after creating this image, I could see vividly how clutter of all kinds – from endless STUFF to excessive commitments – blocked my spiritual path.

I half expected her to supply some relevant Bible verses about the Godliness of cleanliness and self-discipline. But instead of helping me incorporate my “God ball” back into the rotation of balls I was juggling, my spiritual director suggested I leave it where it was for the time being. “Just sit with it,” she said.

Back at the drawing board (Photoshop, that is), I pulled up my Clutter Mountain graphic and painted my “God ball” gold. I then imagined myself crawling out from under the junk pile and sitting next to the golden God ball with my eyes closed and my back to everything else – a cup of warm coffee in my hands and my two cats at my side.

Of course, this meant the other balls I was juggling would drop, I told my spiritual director when I showed her the edited graphic. “That’s okay,” she said. “Those other balls will still be there when it’s time for you to get back to them. They’re not going anywhere.” She suggested I spend an hour each day tackling the clutter – just one hour – and leave the rest for the next day.

Then she asked me, “Have you ever questioned the existence of God?” She didn’t flinch when I said, “Oh yeah. More than once.” One of the things I’ve liked is that she’s continued to be nonjudgmental. I’ve been able to talk about things like my history of church-hopping (and religion-or-spiritual-tradition hopping) and I’ve even been able to acknowledge occasional doubts about God’s existence without getting a lecture.

I went to work on the clutter, using my spiritual director’s recommended one-hour-per-day approach. While I still have a long way to go before achieving my goal of “a place for everything and everything in its place,” slowly but surely, I’ve gotten my house to a point where it is at least presentable enough to invite people over from time to time.

I set a boundary with myself regarding my schedule. Before adding a new ongoing commitment to my calendar, something else must come off.  Some of the commitments really mattered to me: time with my husband, a meal with family or friends, singing in the church choir. But several other commitments had crept into my schedule because I should have said “no” and didn’t.

As I continued taming my schedule and tackling the endless clutter – one hour and one day at a time – a flash of insight occurred to me. A little epiphany, one might say. Could the question of God’s existence be what I was distracting myself from with all the to-do lists, the frantic scheduling, the endless cleaning and the mindless Internet surfing that cluttered my life and unquieted my mind? My spiritual director agreed that I might be on to something. 

For most of my life, I had leaned toward the idea that there probably was a God. Yet, those pesky doubts did creep in from time to time. I didn’t voice them to anyone, though. If the folks at church ever doubted God’s existence, they certainly weren’t letting on.

I confessed to my spiritual director that what I really wanted was that “blinding light” experience the Apostle Paul had on the road to Damascus, or the burning bush Moses encountered. I wanted to be like those people who saw the blinding light or the burning bush, just knew what they knew about God, and had their mission in life spelled out for them.

She recommended I use part of my morning meditation time to be completely quiet. “Listen for God’s voice,” she said. 

Well, the blinding light hasn’t happened for me – at least not yet. But what has happened is nearly as amazing. 

One thing that became glaringly apparent when I tried to quiet my mind and listen for God’s voice was the level of resentment and anxiety that continually filled my thoughts – much of this prompted by a not-for-profit organization I was heavily involved in. For several years I had dedicated an average of 5-10 volunteer hours per week to this organization and contributed thousands of dollars.

The organization was not church-related, but its program served a cause dear to my heart, and I had previously thought nurturing its development might be a significant part of God’s plan for my retirement years. However, warring factions within the organization seemed more focused on vanquishing each other than they were on the mission. The leader personally targeted me and others whose competence and dedication threatened his sense of power. 

After five years of relentless conflict and escalating abuse, I had to admit this organization’s dynamics were never going to change. And no matter how worthy the cause, I was doing untold damage to both myself and my other relationships by continuing to participate. With much sorrow, and after consulting with my spiritual director, my pastor and a valued mentor, I walked away. 

My husband was so happy with this decision, he celebrated by taking me out for supper at my favorite seafood restaurant. I could literally feel the tension flow out of my body as I tied up loose ends and turned tasks over to others. I’ve dropped 15 pounds since I resigned from the organization because I no longer feel the need to counter stress by opening the refrigerator door and mindlessly stuffing my emotions with junk food. My schedule opened up considerably.

Then I walked outside. Dismissing the existence of a God is tempting when so many people who claim to speak in God’s name spew hatred for their fellow and sister human beings while committing assorted hypocrisies and evil deeds. Denying God’s existence gets even easier when watching one terrible event after another unfold on the news. But I’ve found it’s almost impossible to deny the existence of a Creator when I’m outdoors with evidence of God all around me.

So, to ward off those nagging doubts that surface from time to time, I try to get outside as much as possible. Regardless of the weather, I like to start my day by feeding the birds (and squirrels) while my morning coffee brews. During the growing season I tend a garden and several flower beds. I take walks along an amazing tree-lined bike trail that runs beside a creek near our house. Strolling through our backyard, the bike path or a neighborhood park admiring the flowers and snapping wildlife photos sure beats watching the news and arguing with complete strangers on Facebook. Immersing myself in nature’s majesty continually reminds me there is an ultimate Creator.

My spiritual progress may seem agonizingly slow to anyone reading this. But for me, finding a way to effectively address my occasional doubts about God’s existence is HUGE. Summoning the self-respect and courage to walk away from an abusive situation has also been an enormous step in the right direction. As they say around the tables at 12-Step meetings, we aim for spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.

Time to fasten my seatbelt and embark on the next leg of my spiritual journey.