“Believing in Believing in God”

Baby Jesus: my grandmother loved The Baby Jesus, profoundly.

Do you “Believe in God?” Well, of course you do. It is almost impolite to say otherwise. But I mean, Do you “believe that God really exists?”, or better, answer yes/no to “Does God exist?” Does this second form of the question change anything?

Recently I decided to reread Dan Dennett’s, Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett is a philosopher and “Theorist extordinaire.” In many different topic areas, he does not simple review the literature and speculate, he puts forth research proposals. That is what he is doing here for religion and he uses the phrase quoted in this title. He is laying out a wide-ranging theory of religion that he hopes will be empirically investigated. It involves aspects of cognitive psychology, sociology, linguistic behavior, archeology, anthropology and even economic history. On my first reading (2007 or so), I did not adequately appreciate that this book is Applied Philosophy!

Dennett contends there is an important distinction in the above two questions. The first mostly speaks to Your Beliefs, Your State of Mind. Yes, many of us do have a Belief in a god or even gods. But when you are asked, “Does God exist?”, this sharpens the issue a bit. It suggests “Where does God exist?” or “How does God exist?” or “What is God,” and “Can you point him out?” It suggests that maybe we are wrong to think in terms of “Him” and not Her or It.

The decoration of the dome of a mosque in Iran. God as suggested by a geometric pattern.

Orthodox Jews do not even speak a name for ‘god’, or write one; that would be too concrete, too much making “GD” like an ordinary thing. Muslims do not picture Allah, or even Mohammed; best to leave visual imagery of God to the beautiful arabesques that adorn their mosques. In fact, Dennett points out that today in many religions it is standard doctrine not to ask for, or expect, a lot of good specific answers on the character, nature, location and qualities of god or gods. Whenever very specific and invasive queries come up, the doctrine of mystery is invoked. God is infinite and incomprehensible, and therefore, by definition, ‘hard to pin down.’

Ganesha, Hindu god of connection to the universe’s basic and beneficial energy.
Ancient Egypt’s main god, Amon Ra. Carrying the Ankh, the symbol or key of life. The Sun is atop his head, his head depicted as a goat or a bird or a bearded man (I do not know why the variation). He eventually became know as the creator of all things, including himself.

The earlier human gods were much more specific and concrete in their looks and actions, than our current ones. They lived in specific places like atop Mt. Olympus or like the Norse god, Odin, in an enormous and majestic ceremonial hall called Valhalla. They looked like real things or combinations of things, a human body with a falcon head, for example. Even the god of the Old Testament became angry, jealous, and intervened in human affairs often and obviously, turning people into pillars of salt or strolling in the Garden of Eden. Consider the seven plagues cast upon Egypt forcing Pharaoh to “let my people go!”, all very concrete and accredited behaviors and events.

Charlton Heston parts the waters in The Ten Commandments movie. I wish God would act so obviously and boldly today! (This is possibly the most expensive special effect of all time. Director C.B. DeMille filmed the pouring of 300,000 gallons of water into a tank and then used that by playing it backwards). A good movie, the classic depiction of the Bible.

But with the triumph of Monotheism and more modern times, gods have become more abstract, more withdrawn from the world, and with this has come the problem of How, Where and even Why must God actually exist?

Belief in Belief

For some ‘believers’, any specific affiliation with a designated religion has been dropped, and a stripped-down sense of “Spirituality” is all that remains. For them, god need not even be “God” but now just a satisfying sense of “a higher power” with virtually no clarification or specificity.

For other ‘believers,’ it is now most important that they, and you and I, just Believe In Believing In God irrespective of whether he, she or it actually exists. It is more a social thing, than a real out-there-in-reality-somewhere kind of thing. It’s part of being good in company. You say, “Yes, I’m Catholic or Episcopalian…” and you wake up every Sunday morning and go to church. You see some acquaintances there and chat. When in distress you say a quiet prayer or two. You try to insure that your children believe the same as you. And that’s about the whole religion thing, for you.

In Dennett’s book, the above is described by some theorists as “a low investment”, “less intense” religious experience. The question of God’s actual existence tends to not come up. This mild form of belief is itself enough, and great doubt is generally not an issue. Other religions may exist and other people may believe differently but that is not an affront to you and your low intensity belief.

Going “High Investment”

But there is another way to deal with the modern problem of the actual existence of your god and you belief in him, her or it. That is to go “high intensity” and “high investment.” If you invest all your savings in one particular stock, that stock — whether it eventually succeeds or fails — is very valuable to you. Participation in a cult or sect is much the same. High investment in time, energy, commitment and even money makes your belief in that group very valuable to you. Any wavering in that belief is a crisis,; it puts in jeopardy all the previous effort.

So in groups like these, belief maintenance is a huge endeavor. A favorite device is “us against them.” “Circle the wagons’, we are under siege; they are all out to get us” is the mentality. Christian Fundamentalists and Evangelicals use this tactic. In an upcoming post I will discuss a sermon delivered by the pastor of a fast rising Columbus area “mega-church.” “As people who follow Jesus…who follow the biblical view of life…(Mathew tells us) ‘You will be hated not just by someone, but by everyone’,” Pastor Chad Fisher tells his congregation.

Fundamentalist Muslims have made great use of the claim that “western powers” seek to destroy Islam. Considering the history of imperialism there is some truth to it, though Islam’s very conservative doctrinal and sociological structure has also led to much tension with a modernized world.

The Qur’an, or Koran, is considered a highly specific and highly charged sacred object. Many of its passages begin with “I” or “we” indicating that it is the literal speech of Allah. Before the Koran is touched, a ritual washing of hands is to occur and it is always to be stored in a safe and respectful manner. If damaged or worn, it is to be disposed through burial or burning.

Finally, one of the other strategies to overcome the modern loss of specificity and intensity in religious experience: the return to (or maintenance of) a very specific religious symbol. To conservative Christians The Bible and its Jesus are literally, and in all its detail, taken as true and existent. Other forms of Christianity with varied beliefs are then simply wrong, mistaken, as are non-Christian religions to an even greater extent.

This is “a higher intensity” and “higher investment” religion. Not only have these believers placed themselves in opposition to other religions but also to other cultural forces and institutions that they see as a threat. Conservative Christians have objected to the aspects of science they see in conflict with the Bible: geology, evolutionary biology and even cosmological astronomy. Liberal Government has been one of their foes because of its support for tolerance of diversity in sexual orientation, support for some aspects of women’s rights, and the insistence on a stricter division between church and state on various issues.

Much the same can be said for more radical forms of Islam. In each case, the “value” of these religious experiences is high. Much time, energy, social status and even money is, and can be, invested in the maintenance of these tension-filled beliefs for you and your fellow congregants. These are some of the ways that vivid and strong belief is created. When other cultural forces are then also challenged, the ground is cleared for not only strong belief but the assertion of the existence of that god.

It is Intense, but I still it ‘True’?

What is curious about this analysis of religion is the question of its “Truth” is forestalled. When Religion is treated as a Natural Phenomenon, the mechanisms for its appearance and maintenance will be sought and it becomes less clear how an evaluation of its truth will occur and what it will be. It is natural. Religion starts to serve more of a function for people and for their society. The question may start to shift from its “truth” to how well religion does at its job. Is its job to “find” a “God” that exists independently of us? Is its job to create and maintain some different relationship between people that includes the universe beyond them?

My Wonderful and Long Gone Grandmother

Somewhere around the year of 1975, I came from college and dropped in on my family who were visiting my mother’s mother and her side of the family in Pittsburg Pennsylvania. I was decked out with my long hair pulled into a pony tale, wearing worn jeans with a fringe added at the bottom, and maybe even a tie-dyed tee shirt (if not I might as well have been, for that was the whole point, l guess). In those days I was determined to speak honestly and clearly to all people about my opinions, sometimes whether I was asked or not.

Steel mills in Pittsburg in the early 1900s.

My mom’s mom, Grandma Surenda, was the matriarch of the family. Her husband had died many years earlier when I was only 5 or so. He was an administrator with The U.S. Steel Corp., the largest steel company in the largest steel producing city in the world. He left them fairly well off.

She owned a large brown brick, perfectly rectangular, three story home, on a corner lot where two hills met. One formed a long flat stretch that was Middletown Rd while the other hill pushed on higher just beyond the intersection that ended with Grandma’s house. Four roads came together there, three of them were hills—two down, one up. Pittsburg is a city of hills. I remember laying in bed in that house as a child, listening to the city busses and large dump trucks roaring their engines, working to climb those hills. Trucks were always hauling something around Pittsburg, in those days.

In that house lived five adults for much of my childhood. Uncle Richard was a short round man who never married and worked at a large factory making industrial equipment. Aunt Thelma was my mother’s sister and lived in the large attic bedroom with her husband Bill. They owned three small dry cleaning shops that Uncle Bill operated, while Aunt Thelma did the books by day for a textile wholesaler and by night for the cleaning shops. They often had piles and piles of coins laying about that we would help them count. They never had children of their own, but when we visited they would adopt the whole crew of their nieces and nephews and take us nightly for ice cream, snow cones and to the amusement park with all the kids riding in the back of the dry cleaning delivery truck.

Of course, Grandma Surenda lived there but so did her mother, Great Grandmother Spirko! In her late 80’s and then early 90’s, she was actually the first on the matrilineal side to come to the US from Slovakia. I later learned that she told a story of how the Hungarian army arrived in Slovakia (in the mid 1800’s, I believe) and forced many changes including speaking and writing in Magyar only, not Slovak. Eventually she left as a teenager for America, as did many other Slovaks. When I was seven or eight, I remember her always sitting in her arm chair by the the large expanse of windows in the dining room taking in the sun. She was always dressed in a long almost ankle-length black dress, black stockings, white blouse, and black sweater mostly buttoned. It was the manner of dress for women in the old country. As I search my memory, I don’t remember her ever talking to me, simply sitting.

Pittsburg is a hilly city. It is here that the Monongahela joins the Allegheny to form the Ohio River. In the Iroquian language, “Ohio” means “good river”.

My Grandmother Surenda, eventually—later in her life after Grandma Spirko died, went to Catholic Church every morning for mass. In fact, she was the first there and was in charge of opening the doors even before the priest walked over from the rectory. To do this, she walked. She was in her seventies and walked about a quarter of a mile straight down the first level of the two hills that met at her house and straight back up when mass was over. The church sat at the bottom of that hill.

Grandma was a short lady but tough and very determined. She was generous, always helping her extended family financially in any time of need. I always remember her either cooking or doing laundry, though she did have her soap operas she followed and she loved local Big Time Wrestling. She would yell at the television as Handsome Johnny Barron (“a bad guy”) would pull an object from his trunks and poke it into Bo Bo Brazil’s eye (“a good guy”). Handsome Johnny would never get caught by the referee, and he always wore a net over his slicked-back silver hair when not in the rink. Grandma, by contrast, always wore a house dress with stockings and those prototypical old lady shoes that tied and yet had a short thick two inch (?) heal. That road down to the church and back had no sidewalk. It was two lanes with a narrow gravel berm on each side. She walked it five days a week in those shoes, on Sunday Uncle Richard drove her and often slept in the car while she attended.

The Nativity, the birth of Jesus in an animal stable, tale basic to all Christian religions. Very much like my Grandmother’s nativity scene.

Thelma and Bill, and most of the family, were very religious, also. When Christmas time approached out came a large Manger Setting that was placed in the yard at its most prominent corner. As a child we would frequently visit, making the five hour drive from Ohio, and I will always remember arriving in Grandma’s neighborhood from the very top of the second hill. Night had fallen as we drove, so as we drove down the hill suddenly Grandma’s house and its glistening manger scene would come into view. It sent a shiver through us all.

That setting was large. The stable itself was six feet tall (2m) and over ten feet (3-4m) long and made of wood. Some of the paper mache figures stood as tall as four feet (150 cm). There were several sheep and a shepherd boy, and an angel or two. There were The Three Magi, one kneeling, who supposedly “followed the star of Bethlehem” to join the birth, along with a camel a meter tall. Joseph, the ‘father’ of Jesus (scare quoted for several reasons), stood in the middle, and Mary, the virgin mother knelt. In the very middle, of course, was The Manger, the feeding trough that served supposedly as His bed; it was actually filled with straw and in it The Baby Jesus — The Son of God, God Become Man — depicted very much as the figurine at the head of this story. Straw was strewn across the ground and the scene was lit by three or four ground-mounted spot lights and a “star” lit at the apex of the stable. It was quite a crowd and quite a scene.

I believe that when my Grandmother thought of God and Jesus, it was in that form, as a baby, an infant. In her dinning room corner, year round, was also a plaster statue of the infant Jesus, standing and looking very knowing and mature for a two-year old. They dressed it in finely made garments and changed them several times a year. The child had a real diamond ring on a finger extended skyward. To my Grandmother, that was a very real God and one she believed in with all her might.

This was the God that my Grandmother loved and worshiped, and could not bear to think of its non-existence or my disbelief.

That was the house, the family and the situation I walked into those many years ago as a young man. One of our great family traditions was to gather many, many, family members around a very large dining room table for huge dinners. The centerpiece was often homemade chicken soup loaded with chicken, carrots, celery and onions. Served on the side, and indispensable, were homemade chicken liver dumplings. All the kids followed Uncle Bill’s lead and added ketchup to sweeten the soup. Almost twenty relatives could be in attendance on a Saturday night dinner such as that.

But it was Not on one of those huge evenings back in 1975, but a smaller lunch, that the topic came up and I broke the news. “I no longer believe in god,” I said. Maybe it was my mother that quickly tried to intervene and soften the blow and qualify my statement. I do not remember many of the specifics, but somehow I was led to say it. There was a pause, then Grandma burst into tears and rushed from the room. She hurried down the stairs, crying, into the basement from which arose a wail that was heard by all. “My heart is breaking,” she cried out. I looked at everyone, everyone looked at me. I slowly walked down into that basement intent on trying to console that dear old lady.

I do not remember what I actually said, nor much of the outcome. I believe I told her things would be OK, that I was a good person and that was what was most important. I may have tried to diminish the certainty of my disbelief; I just wanted that beautiful old lady to stop crying. She eventually did, and I hugged her. The topic was not brought up again. The family visit went on, though somewhat awkwardly.

“High Intensity Belief”

As I thought about this story and began writing it, I discovered a surprising fact. I had always thought that this adamant belief in Jesus as an infant was personal and idiosyncratic to my Grandmother. It was not. The Slovaks and the Czechs have a Catholic tradition going back to the 17th century based upon what they call The Infant Jesus of Prague. It is a 19-inch (48cm) wooden statue with wax coating and a silver-coated base. It is currently housed at The Church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague.

The Prazske Jezalatko (in Czech, Infant Jesus of Prague) cared for by the Carmelite Nuns who possess hundreds of imperial-styled regalia donated by supplicants seeking the favor of The Infant.

The statue has received various Papal sanctions establishing its sacred status and is particularly venerated at Christmas and on the first Sunday of May when it is carried through the streets. Numerous miraculous events are attributed to it, including the rescue of Prague from the invading Swedish army in 1639.

Little did I know what I was getting into in 1975! I was attempting to diminish a high intensity, highly invested, very specific, long held religious experience and tradition. It was far different than the mild “belief in belief” or the vague but comforting affiliation to “a higher power.”

Virgin and Child, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau 1888, France. SOME CALL THIS GOD!

Some other background info:

In 1993 Czechoslovakia divided peacefully into two separate nations. In the northwestern region of the Czech Rep. can be seen the famous city of Prague located on the Vltava River. Adding to the curiosity of this connection is the fact that at the end of WWI the nation of Czechoslovakia was formed with an agreement worked out and signed in Pittsburg, Pa. —“The Pittsburg Agreement” — between Czech and Slovak political parties. The negotiations and meeting organization was accomplished with the help of their supporters in various Slovak and Czech American immigrant organizations, several of which were based in Pittsburg. Between 1860 and 1918, about one million Czechs and Slovaks left their homeland, many of them settling in the big industrial cities in the middle of the U.S — like Pittsburg, but also Cleveland!
The modern Eastern European map. See the middle for Slovakia and Czech Republic.
NATURERELIGIONCONNECTION.ORG : Islamic art from an Iranian Mosque.

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