Monday, January 16, 2023

Gazing into the heavens for what was right under my nose.

My starting point is simple. Having listened to theological debate, and from time to time participated with zest, the conversations in churches and seminaries, other conversations in mosques and synagogues, temples and Buddhist practice centers, I imagined that the heart of religion must be belief in something, some god or hierarchy of gods or at least some guiding philosophy. All these people seem to be talking and arguing about something. As a matter of fact, listening to the participants, where you stood regarding that “something” is what really matters: does god exist, and existing, how does this entity or reality function in relation to my life and my relationships.

Late on a very dark night I stood on the deck of an overnight boat in New Zealand’s Milford Sound looking into one of the clearest, deepest views of the Milky Way possible from earth; although the view seemed upside down, it points into the galactic center of the constellation. I tried to hold this “god-question,” and just wait. I practice in a school of Zen Buddhism so I waited a fairly long time. As I was headed back to bed with no answers but strangely refreshed, it hit me that the only reason I even entertained the question at all was that my mother’s mother’s sister-in-law, Aunt Edna, gave up her opposition to my mother marrying my father who was neither Irish nor Catholic which produced me. Then through a series of adolescent experiences, followed by a very thorough liberal education, I found myself working through the first post Vatican 2 version of the Jesuit ratio studiorum, and voila both my questions and answers.

I’d assumed that the question itself, or even a constellation of questions after years of attempted answers has been honed down to a few targeted inquiries about a set of principles that undergird the universe and life itself. The assumption is that among possible solutions there is perhaps a group that can be labeled monotheist, another animist, others atheist, generally Buddhist or questioning, and purely scientific (my list is not exhaustive). We imagine that by exercising the revered technique of careful reasonable debate, time and again, after many generations we come to something at least closer to things as they really are.

But what if all that questioning itself carried a kind of genetic code?

We all know that any objective observer has to take his or her personal proclivities into the matrix of the arguments formulation. The point is to really be objective and remove all the personal bits.

But my personal questions seemed to be leading in another direction.

Here’s a hypothesis: the questions themselves are not useful because their answers are totally predictable. It is not as if we had a set of mathematical problems that the best brains in the universe had been puzzling over forever and never arriving at a solution. Nor am I talking about a set of assumptions and prejudices that shape and distort my peculiar take on the world. That would mean that the questions themselves were fresh and appropriate to the situation that presented itself. What if they were not designed to do that?

I was trying to find out how many Christians, of the many varieties, exist in the world. I came across a pretty straightforward analysis of the percentage of the people who currently belong to one of the world’s religions now, and how many will be expected to follow that set of beliefs and practices by 2065. The Changing Global Religious Landscape was produced by the Pew Research Center so the science behind the analysis is reasonably reliable. Belonging to a religion covers a multitude of sins, but it at least sorts out the proportional weight my fellow humans will be giving to the current ways that the god-question is being addressed in broad strokes. It also gives some predictors, given current demographic information about the social, racial and cultural make-up of the populations in question. And there were some startling predictions: that Muslims and Christians would be numerically equal within 40 plus years; there will be no major religious conversions, lateral shifting due to marriage and other circumstance only; that Buddhists, one of the smaller demographics, would continue to diminish. I have cast my fate with a non-aggressive sect without much clout.

Also my beloved “none's” would neither increase nor decrease. Their proportional strength can be predicted simply by statistically figuring out the birth rate among "none” mothers in just the same way that the scientists determined the relative number of children born to spiritualist mothers. It was shocking to see that the “none's” were treated the same as any other category. To my mind, their choice to not follow a religion was perhaps the clearest of the intellectual/philosophical positions with regard to the god-question. But the Pew researchers said with confidence their numbers would not increase.

My precious questions about the nature of reality, the existence of god, and the virgin birth had their origin in the moment that Edna gave up her opposition to my mother marrying my father. And this much is also predictable: in 2065 the same questions will be asked with the same responses. Their genetic code does not tolerate innovation or dissent. I am not exactly sure how to apply Darwin to the genetic code of the god-question. Our environment is changing, pressures are shifting and will favor different adaptations, but will this require thousands or millions of years?

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