Isaac lives in Christchurch.
1. What are your spiritual beliefs?
How much time do you have?
I always feel like I ought to have a sort of elevator pitch for my religious beliefs, but it’s utterly hopeless to imagine I could put it all into a couple of sentences. Sometimes when people ask me what I believe I find myself paralysed trying to figure out where on earth to start. It’s tricky to draw a single through-line from one side of a system of belief to the other without getting tangled up along the way, but for the purposes of this particular epistle I’ve made the arbitrary decision to start from my most abstract, metaphysical, mystical beliefs and proceed towards the familiar. That way, we’ll at least end up close to home at the end.
At the mystical heart of it all, I believe that there is a thing that is the fundamental ground to all being. Something that exists independently of all other things, and on which all other things depend for their existence. I’m comfortable calling this thing “God”, although other traditions use terms like Brahman, No-thing, Ein Sof or The Godhead, and I can see the point of distinguishing this purest state of divine existence from any particular human projection of personality.
It seems self-evident to me that God is essentially unknowable. I’m a limited, finite creature, so it would be absurd to imagine I could comprehend God. Everything I think, feel or believe about God is necessarily approximate, partial and subject to revision and no single system of thought is going to provide perfect understanding. I can appreciate that this is not especially helpful for anyone trying to get to grips with religion: right from the start, we’re seeking to know what we freely admit is unknowable. That is the maddening, quixotic and marvellous experience of mysticism.
When we’re stretching to understand something beyond our grasp, we use metaphor. We relate God to things we know: a shepherd tending a flock, a monarch ruling creation, the sun lighting the world, a mother or a father, a family of squabbling siblings, an unquenchable fire… all our myths and parables provide little glimpses of the divine nature. We have a wondrous diversity of ways to speak about the divine, but they’re all referring to the same thing. Coming from a monotheistic tradition, I’d typically say that all the religions are seeking to understand the same God, but people from a polytheistic tradition might express the same idea by saying all the gods are aspects of a single unknowable essence.
A metaphor that sits well with me (and I believe was also a favourite of Tolkein) is to describe the relationship between God and humanity as between an author and her characters. The characters exist only because the writer wills it so, and in one sense they are only in the author’s mind. However, I think many authors have the sense of being spoken to by their characters, and writing what they would say or do as if they were separate beings.
One might very reasonably ask what role free will has in this metaphor, and I’d have to shrug and say that the metaphor simply doesn’t extend that far. Metaphors are incomplete by definition: if it were possible to create a perfect metaphor, it wouldn’t be a metaphor at all. So it’s important to always carry our metaphors lightly, and to recognise that we need many. One of the most dangerous ways we can treat religion is to stick with one metaphor and try to force everything in the universe to line up nicely within it. Even if you believe that you’ve received a revelation directly from God, you still have to face up to your own limited ability to interpret what you’ve been given.
2. How sure are you that those beliefs are true?
I believe that God reaches towards us, and wants us to grow. It’s worth noting that this is about the most staggering thing it is possible to imagine: a being beyond which there can be no greater has attention to spare for creatures as minuscule and insignificant as we are. I think this is something very central and essential to the internal experience of a religious life: trying to cope with the knowledge that God is interested in us regardless of whether we’re worthy of it. Reasonable responses include denial, distraction, fatalism, seeking self-negation, and – more often than one might think – trying to become worthy. Lest we get too self-important, it’s probably worth remembering that God isn’t short on capacity to multi-task. Just because God cares about us, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t also care about everything else.
Coming closer to the more concrete human world, I believe that one of the ways in which God reaches us (although by no means the only way) is through particular divine figures we find in history and mythology: Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad, among many others from many cultures. The nature of these teachers is another divine incomprehensibility, so again we use metaphors. They may be described as God taking human form, mortals receiving God’s words from an angel, demigods who travel to the heavens or the underworld and return or mirrors that reflect a glimpse of the Sun. Religion is what they teach us, and what we do with it.
Over centuries, people gradually corrupt religion. Its capacity to guide us gets co-opted for venal political means. We grow attached to our particular set of metaphors, and use them as emblems of tribal identity rather than tools for understanding. But each religion brings a little more understanding to the world for those who seek it out, and each advances civilisation a step further. Each new religion builds on earlier traditions, and brings new metaphors that relate God to new cultures and new circumstances. Sometimes we have to challenge old metaphors in order to understand new ones.
I’m… not sure I got very close to the familiar world of everyday experience, but I think that’s a good place to conclude. But if you want more beliefs, I have ’em.
As a teenager I went through a brief agnostic phase. It must have lasted all of six months before I concluded that I was just kidding myself: I really couldn’t sustain the pretence that I didn’t believe in God.
It would perhaps be fair to say that all this talk of metaphors and different ways of seeing divinity does make a person hard to pin down. I think it’s a workable complex of hypotheses, and I don’t think there’s any certainty to be found in clinging rigidly to a single way of seeing the world.
3. How did you come to have these beliefs?
I grew up in the Bahá’í Faith, and although I’m much less involved in the community these days, I still consider myself a Bahá’í. One of the tenets of the Bahá’í Faith is that religion must be compatible with science. There is a story of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, one of the central figures of the Bahá’í Faith, who travelled to Europe around 1910, and gave a series of lectures on various topics of religion. After one of them, he fell into a long conversation with a group of atheists who had been in the audience. When finally called to leave, he left them with the words “The God that you don’t believe in… I don’t believe in either.”
Another formative influence was watching Carl Sagan‘s television series Cosmos. It’s easy to forget now just how audacious this series was, with its mission to explore the relationship between rigorous science and deep spiritual awe. I went on to devour every bit of his writing I could lay my hands on, and he introduced me to a spirit of healthy skepticism that I think is every bit as relevant to religion as it is to every other field of life. I feel I have been very lucky to have been influenced both by a religion that is open to science and a scientist who understood the experience of religion.
Throughout it all, I’m sure I was deeply influenced by my grandfather, a Methodist minister, theologian, Esperantist and wood-turner. When we stayed with my grandparents I slept on a little bed in his office, surrounded by his library of philosophical texts, Isaac Asimov novels, binders full of his poetry and sermons and neatly organised tapes of classical music. He read me Doctor Doolittle, and he called me “Honkus”. I miss him greatly.
4. What do you wish you could believe (but don’t)?
I’m going to have to punt on this one. My wife Kate suggested “world peace”, but the fact is that I believe in that rather whole-heartedly.
I think to a large degree I expect religion to be inconvenient – always challenging me to be better than I already am, and more humble than I know how to be. There’s a childish part of me that wishes I could wake up one morning and discover I was already perfectly wonderful, and didn’t need to make any particular efforts today. This part of me has never been able to formulate a particularly believable case for its position.
5. What do you think it means to believe in something?
Simply, it means you think it’s true. That is, there’s some objective reality beyond my own mind, where things are what they are regardless of whether I can comprehend them. What I believe is a bunch of metaphors and hypotheses by which I try to model that objective reality.
6. Does this stuff matter to you? Do you think about it much?
It does matter, and it matters enough to not be dogmatic about it.
All photos courtesy of Isaac.