What having a baby did to my faith

Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, having a baby has done little to my faith. My faith is simple and always will be. I still believe in a simple God; I still live my life as if God exists; I still look at a world infused with meaning, loaded with purpose and potential, and on fire with love and benevolent creation. I still believe in loving my enemies and strive to actually do it. I must admit my faith has waned in intensity over the years, but this is normal. We all become moderates and emotion comes and goes. In college I would constantly think about God and it would fill my heart with ecstatic joy. Those events come less often, probably because I have other things on my mind. I must also admit that having a baby was a different kind of ecstatic joy. In a way God wasn’t there at the birth of my son. My faith has always been very personal; He is with me mostly when I’m alone. So at the hospital of course God was present, but in a more secondary, distant way (at least in my mind). As Immanuel came into the world, I was focused on him and my wife only–nothing else mattered at the time. When I’m in a crowd, I’m a Deist; but alone, there I have my personal God. Perhaps that’s why I don’t go to church–or why I should go.

Yet if “faith” means anything, as James says in the New Testament, it means works, action, conduct. Faith without works is dead. Contrary to what Paul makes us think, faith is not believing in x, y, or z. “I believe in one God, the father almighty, creator of blah blah blah.”  Either that belief makes you do great things, either it purifies your heart and will, either it makes you a good person–or your belief is meaningless. To take a silly example, Jon Jones is never a champion without his faith (this goes for many champions, but the real champions of course are moral, not athletic, champions).

In this regard, having a baby has compelled me to become a better person and will only intensify. I’m sure this goes for all fathers, faith or no faith. It simply gives me another reason to be better, which leaves God where he always was–a fundamental reason to be better. I want Immanuel to grow up with a father that he truly respects, and he will–thanks to God, my family, and every other person that has made me into who I am today.

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What having a baby did to my faith

Religious Pluralism

All religions are valid paths to a transcendent Truth or divinity (capital “T” Truth means it’s an ideal–unattainable and yet real at the same time). Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Judaism, and the Baha’i faith are all after the same thing. But across time, language, geography and history they find it in different ways. These different ways, beliefs and practices are philosophically compatible.

Wait a minute. Bull shit. Jesus is God. Muhammad is His only prophet. How are those compatible?

This is where Kant comes in (and John Hick’s An Interpretation of Relgion). All of these “beliefs” are no more than beliefs; they are grasping at a transcendent world that we cannot reach, unverifiable speculations about the nuemenal realm; doctrine or dogma is not knowledge. Beliefs, by definition, can be wrong. Only knowledge can be truly incompatible with non-knowledge (error). Nobody can disagree with e=mc2. But “Jesus is God” is on the exact same epistemological level as “Muhammad is His only prophet.” We simply don’t know; thus we believe. Therefore, they are both equally valid ways of thinking about God. Because we will never know, they can both exist together just fine.

And that’s okay.

Two people stand in front of a Van Gogh. It means this, one says. No, says the other, it means this! They both give reasons. Perhaps we should ask the artist? Well, he’s dead–and would that even help? Thus we have two different meanings of a piece of art that are compatible and can exist together just fine.

When it comes to practice (ritual), religions are quite different. When it comes to metaphysical beliefs, quite different. That’s to be expected. But when it comes to morals, very similar. The moral codes of the major world religions are all based on love, compassion, forgiveness. They are compatible. They ground virtue and suppress vice in amazing different ways. Sweep away the hypocracy and you are left with love as the bedrock of religion.

Pluralism is an expression of love for other people, yet this will not satisfy a lot of people. Religious Pluralism is not for people who get angry when other people talk about other beliefs. It’s not for people who are offended by the existence of Islam, or who use religion to define what they are not (rather than what they are). It is not for dogmatic, intolerance, judgemental types. It’s for people who love religion and take it seriously, who realize that they are Christian perhaps because they grew up in a Christian household or nation (and that’s okay). It is for people who are humble, who have a lot to learn, who realize the transcendent nature of their beliefs and place their hope in them.

Religious Pluralism

Immanuel Kant

If Jesus saved my soul, Kant saved my mind. He brought together faith and reason, heart and mind, religion and science. He gave my Christianity a rational, philosophical grounding. He gave me a worldview, brought it all together. It still gives me delight to think about his synthesis of science and religion, of the phenominal and nuemenal worlds, and especially about his simple, rock-solid morality.

In his most important book the Critique of Pure Reason he said “I had to do away with knowledge in order to make room for faith.”

It’s a tricky quote. What knowledge is he doing away with? To figure it out is to figure out the man Kant, his philosophy, his scientific and religous beliefs, his humility. First, he disliked those religious people who claimed to have “knowledge” about God and His ways, to be dogmatically “certain” about “facts” like the trinity, virgin Mary, angels, or various other metaphysical beliefs. His philosophical system does away with that “knowledge” in the most respectful way–he brings it to the realm of faith and belief, where they belong. In this sense, he is “making room for faith.” He was a humble Lutheran that was content to have his own religious beliefs and let others have theirs. Secondly, he disliked those scientists who claim to have “knowledge” about things that have no basic in experience or possible experience (alternate universes would be a present-day example, but he probably had Leibniz in mind). It’s another form of dogmatism. Science, the pursuit of knowledge about nature, is tempted to delve into metaphysical speculations. And that’s okay; it can’t help it. But that’s not knowledge either (and then there’s people like Dawkins, a good scientist who has dogmatic beliefs against religion…I know God doesn’t exist). Anyway, so when it comes to real knowledge, we are left with real science, all the things we can know about nature by testing, analysing, experimenting, deducing, falsifying.

Science deals with the physical world, but the world beyond our experience–the “nuemenal” world, the transcendent–is very real for Kant. This is the world we speculate about and have beliefs about and hopes for. This is the realm of freedom, morality, and God. If we could somehow peel away our senses, our filters, our concepts–then we could experience that world (hint: we can’t). Perhaps some day we will.

Kant also saved my soul by teaching me what morality consists of, by giving it strong philosophical principles–namely the “categorical imperative”–which resonated in my mind as much as the command to “love thy enemies” did. “Nothing fills my mind with greater awe,” he said ” than the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” The moral law within is imprinted on our hearts and minds. It’s not a complex thing. The fundamental rule of morality is this: only act on principles that could be also universal principles for everyone. Simple as that. Lying, stealing, cheating, and killing don’t pass the test. He tries to deduce the virtues and invalidate the vices from this one principle. He does a descent job, but his legacy for me is really this: being a good person is nothing more than following a few principles and never wavering. Never lie; never steal or cheat or harm others. Always tell the truth, love others and help those in need. That is the secret. Whenever we waver, that’s when we sin; that’s when we start justifying our actions. That’s when we think morality is “complex,” or situational, or “it’s different this time” because of x, y, or z. Don’t fall into that trap. It might save your life.

I’m naming my baby Immanuel after this great hero of mine.

Immanuel Kant

Jesus

We are what we read. Of course “we are what we ____” is a truism. We are what we eat, what genes we have, what parents we had. But I am proud to say that I am what I read, and the more I read the more I am, the larger I get, the more multitudes I contain. My heroes are the list of dead people that live through me, that have inspired me, stayed with me, changed my behavior. They provoke and inspire me. Jesus, Plato, Emerson, Whitman, Aurelius, Descartes, Berkeley, Kant, Jung, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., just to name a few. They feel like people to me, like friends.

May as well start with the first. In high school I had a real conversation to Christianity; that is, self-propelled, self-discovery, the only real way to do anything. To discover something yourself, to own it, chew it up, digest it, spit some out, internalize it. I would wake up at 6AM and go to the coffee shop. I would acquaint myself with Jesus by reading the gospels, slowly, gradually, from small to big. When your friend introduces you to someone, do they say “this is Jim, he is perfect and saved your life”? That’s the most ridiculous introduction ever, yet that is still the way preachers present the man Jesus to little children. It’s all absurd and, in the end, sadly exaggerated and ineffective. Jesus to me was a silly idea represented by the Trinity, another silly and absurd idea to present to children.

Finally, he was turning into a person, one that I could read about. By dropping the dogmatic belief that he somehow, mysteriously “saved my soul” by dying on a cross, I allowed him to really save my soul by showing the path to become a good person in the eyes of God. Quickly he became a hero in my life, which shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has simply read the gospels and met the Jesus found there. He stands for nothing more than love and forgiveness and everything that entails. He is a simple, tragic man that is horribly easy to understand and follow. He is as simple as Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., with the same beautiful message.

Soon after reading the gospels I became obsessed with doing anonymous good deeds for other people. Secretly shovel a driveway, leave a dollar, write a warm letter. I was thrilled to think about it, plan it. I was thrilled to know that only God, the searcher of our hearts–if God exists–was the only other witness. After all, it’s the only way to test whether a deed is truly moral (and Kant says we can still doubt).

I must say, looking back at my life, in proportion to the amount I have been reading the gospels there has been a correlation with good, selfless deeds on my part. That is not a coincidence. But neither do I claim that “the gospels” are somehow the only way to do this, or more special than the book that Martin Luther King Jr wrote on love, which also blew my mind and changed my life forever.

Jesus became a close friend, a fundamental hero, an archetype for pure love, principled and enlightened love, theistic-based love, never failing love in the face of the greatest hatred. When he said “love your enemies” it resonated in my soul as the most true thing I have ever heard and will ever hear in my life.

Jesus