Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Rationality of Religion

I have spent the last year writing a history curriculum for the ancient time period. Reading about the faith of ancient people had never interested or offended me before. Greek mythology was barely interesting, and Egyptian mythology was even less captivating. The Romans were frauds, and the Babylonians were just the bad guys in the Bible.

But reading something to teach it is different from reading it because you have to read it to get your three credits which will help you get to the total required to earn the expensive piece of paper. I have been struck over the past year by how similar we are, across faiths and centuries and millennia. We want the same things: love, health, bread, shelter. We lack the same things: power, control over death and disease. And so we pray. We make sacrifices. We honor the gods. Sometimes things work out, and we point to that as evidence to sustain our faith. Sometimes things don't work out, and we are smitten by the gods, by the devils, by our own shortcomings and sin.

For a while now, the more I read, the smaller my prayers sounded—a single note in a cosmic symphony of human prayers. Yes, I believed my God was true and real...just like so many, many others throughout time have believed. Others who were ridiculous for believing the silly gods who die and return to life again...

I found myself stopping my own train of thought. I have children. I am too old now to question my faith, because the salvation and upbringing of others depends on it (to some extent). But, of course, what is faith if it requires the death of reason? And so I continued to read, to see the similarities, to find issues in the Bible to which I objected but had been able to blissfully ignore since I outgrew my childhood Sunday School classes.

Two things happened. First, I realized that I believe in the Christian God and that that faith is not something to be logically defended. It simply is, like the love I feel for my husband and children. For better or worse, I live by it, act on it, and choose to continue doing so. Even when it doesn't make sense to me; even when they leave messes in the kitchen, don't change the toilet paper roll, leave laundry everywhere, and talk back. It just is.

Second, I quite suddenly saw the similarities in faith from another angle: religion is something we share. Across faiths, across nationalities, race, and time, we look beyond ourselves for help and guidance. Animals do not do that. It is the peculiar habit of rational creatures to look beyond themselves, to imagine gods, to dream of a Creator.

We may not agree on who He is or that He is, but the fact that we (almost?) universally consider the possibility—look with our hearts or minds or spirits—is itself a suggestion of the possibility, the hope that we are not alone in a free fall of biological happenstance, that the human habit of religion is rational.

The Logic of Hope

I am a pessimist in day-to-day life. I am not surprised when I find that we are out of bread at lunch time, out of diapers when I don't have the car, that the jelly side always hits the floor.

But I am a fierce optimist when it comes to the bigger things. For so long now, life has continued on a downward spiral for my family, but every year, I find myself not just hoping but believing that things. will. get. better.

It's gotten to be funny—to me, if no one else. I grew up quite poor and determined not to be that way again. My brother thought college was ridiculous; my sister got tired of it and graduated with a general studies degree, which she followed up randomly with sociology. I knew better. I got a real degree from a real school, and while I dreamed of things like writing, art, and architecture, I followed my real degree up with something practical: a master's in teaching. My sister and brother are both doing better than I am.

In college, my husband and I knew all sorts of people: art majors, drug addicts, homeless men, and mentally ill women. They've all made better lives for themselves than we've managed.

Since then, we've seen people make terrible mistakes: marriages that didn't work, careers that didn't work, lifestyles that didn't work. They've all picked up the pieces and gone on to be more successful than we've managed so far.

As far as we go, I figured my husband's salary based on the price of gas recently. In 1995, I was making minimum wage. In an hour, I could buy four gallons of gas. Today? One hour will buy around three gallons, but we've also got student loans and five children.

It bothers me a lot. Sometimes I'm sure things will always be like this, or that they're actually going to get worse. Sometimes I see all the things we've failed to do for our children, all the time that's slipped by while we've been failing so miserably, and I get horribly depressed.

But most of the time? I'm certain that things will be better soon. If when I am old, I am going to walk upon the beach in white flannel trousers with the bottoms of my trousers rolled, this path must lead somehow to that one and the beach house where I will stand and look at the ocean and write beautiful things and paint poetry.

I am not oblivious, though, and I am more naturally a pessimist than an optimist. I have noticed that things do not always work out for everyone, and despite the success of those around me now, I have seen failure, loss, and death.

So why do I still believe things will get better? It had gotten funny to me, like a mental illness is funny, like you laugh when you watch your house burn down once your children are out but nothing else can be saved. Last year, we actually celebrated New Year's by making a hope chain that listed all the good things we expected or hoped for the new year. This year? I'm keeping my mouth shut, but the audacious, ridiculous voice inside me that won't. shut. up. keeps at it—this year. This year will be better.

Something occurred to me tonight. As things get worse, odds of them continuing to get worse must decrease at a proportionate rate of velocity. I mean, at some point, the "worse" options become one in a million because you've already been through most of them. How many times can you crash your car with an airplane? Or give birth to a ten pound baby AND end up in NICU?

So maybe hope is logical after all. That silly Hope part of me? It's cheering at the thought: OF COURSE things are going to get better. All the stories worth telling have happy endings, after all.

The pessimist part of me isn't all that useful anyway, figured he'd lose the argument, doesn't really have anything to gain by winning, so what he thinks is immaterial.

If nothing else, hope is more tenacious than despair. After all, if hope fails, despair will always be there tomorrow.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

People are Still Reading

While waiting on a kid to finish some Latin so I can maniacally grade it as it is finished, I read an article on Yahoo about a ball falling from space into a field in Namibia. Apparently, this has been happening in Australia and Africa for about twenty years, but we don't know what these things are. So why am I writing about it?

The comments below were funny and relatively intelligent in their humor—not the most common thing for the comments section of an internet article. But then something struck me in the camaraderie of the geeky humor I so enjoy: the comments section serves as more than a sense of community, more than a forum for airing opinions—it's hard evidence that we still have a reason to hope in the human race. I realize that's more than a dubious assessment of the comments section on most articles, but on THIS one, I realized some important things:

1. People are still reading. Whew. THAT in itself is reason to hope.

2. People will even read articles about space. And geography. Maybe I'm setting the bar pretty low, since Namibia was peripheral to the article and the topic was technically space balls, inciting junior high laughter from the best of us, but still—there was some almost technical stuff in that article. Kudos to those of us outside the professional field who took the time to read it.

3. So maybe the humor in the comments section was based primarily on Transformers and The X-Files, and maybe that's not exactly a measure of intelligence, BUT—applying information and experiences across fields IS a measure of intelligence, and since there was more of that than the bathroom humor that came to mind first when we read "space balls," I'm all tingly with hope and joy and faith that human nature has not become as depraved as other articles suggested. Maybe those are just isolated incidents. Or maybe I've had too much eggnog.

4. Mainly, people are still reading.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Tiny Miracles

Sitting on the sofa this morning (with a new book of Latin answers, a tiny miracle in itself), I was watching the light dusting of snow across the neighborhood like powdered sugar finishing off a holiday cake, holding the baby, and thinking as I was tempted to turn away from the snow to the Latin—I hope I never get used to this. I hope I never shrug & say—"Meh, it's just an inch." I hope the snow always dazzles me like it does now. I love anything that has the power to make me stand still and watch.

And I looked down at my new baby, who is six weeks old today and remembered how many times I've thought the same thing about him. Smelling his baby-smell is like cramming for a test, trying to memorize every detail because I know they're all so fleeting. (He's already wearing size 3-6mos.) I look at my bigger kids, and the scarce fragments of memory that are left of their newborn days serve as a grim reminder of how frail this human memory is, & I work against its finitude all the harder.

That's when I began counting. How many snowfalls have I seen since we've been here? How many days have I held this baby, followed him down the halls of NICU, carried him up the stairs at home, changed diapers—and really—we don't experience babies in days but in hours, neckaches, sniffs of babiness. And I wondered—is he too old yet for me to calculate his age in hours?

Six weeks times seven days times 24 hours. He won't be completely six weeks old until this evening. And sure enough, as I sat there sniffing his head and calculating, he turned 1001 hours old in my arms. It's enough time to fall in love. It's time to learn the quiet song of baby breath and snorting. It's enough time to outgrow clothes and diapers, to learn cries and smiles and coos. 1000 hours is time enough to change your life forever and be glad it's been changed, but I hope for thousands more, and like the snow, I pray that I'll never acclimate, never shrug off a moment of this miracle because of the generosity of the Giver of Moments, whose hand holds out such precious blessings.