Saturday, February 2, 2013

Across the Universe...

Here will follow an account of the development of my spiritual self, from childhood to now, and though I'm going to try to keep it brief, forgive me if my memories run away with me.

I don't really remember the first time I heard mention of God or Jesus. Having grown up in South Africa, I must have sung hymns in my first year of school, but I really have no specific memory of the first time. I do remember, at around 6 or 7 years, our family standing in a circle while my father prayed. I liked how we didn't need to close our eyes like we had to do in school. It felt like we had a more "special" connection with God. Hmmm... Now that my memory is being jogged, I remember in pre-primary school singing something that ended with "... thank you, God, for everything!"

Yeah... I think the general idea I had of God was of being thankful. Grateful that I had parents and friends and sunshine and pets, grateful to God for providing me with all these things. 

And of reverence... The church part of things... A few vague memories of long, glossy wooden benches and a priest in front talking and talking and talking about nothing I could understand while I had to keep quiet. I remember sleeping in my mother's lap, and my brother's and I annoying her with our restlessness.

But we moved around a lot in my first years of school so I had my schools, friends and paradigms changed up a lot, for which I am forever grateful. I believe all the moving around gave me a certain adaptability that has been really useful in my life.

Even so, God and Christianity were commonly encountered. My first recollection of questioning "it all" was at around 8. I remember, clearly, being by myself in our front garden in a town called Hoedspruit. I liked playing by myself as much as with my brothers, and on this occasion, I don't know why but, I spoke to God. I said (or thought?) something like, "C'mon... We're alone now... Nobody's looking... Just make that rock move. Make it move and I'll forevermore know that you are really there." The rock, of course, stayed where it was. And though I later learnt that to "test" God in that way was wrong, his reluctance to simply move a stupid rock did not increase my confidence in him.

Still, I had nothing against God and so went on believing with a shrug of my shoulders. I probably gave the matter more thought than most kids my age but I was 8, care-free and I had mud balls to make.

The next milestone came when I was about 10. I had been given R1 (South African Rand) to spend at the school tuck shop but forgot about it at first break while I played on the field. At second break, I remembered it with excitement only to find an empty pocket. Stricken, (One SAR could buy quite a few fireballs in those days), instead of going home after school, I spent over an hour pacing the entire field looking for it. I finally gave up but as I was leaving, I stopped a few steps off the field and prayed. Please! I begged. Help me find it.

1997 One Rand Coin
And what happened? I walked back onto the field and, after 10 or so paces, there it was, shining in the sunlight. I could hardly believe it. I thanked God with joy... A joy not only for having found my R1, but also with happiness in now being certain that God really did exist.

This single event sustained my belief in God (and Jesus, by association) for at least 4-5 years. But these were also the years in which my curiosity about space and the universe started. I remember copying visual representations of the Big Bang Theory from a library book, and trying to understand how the four forces work (Gravity, the Strong and Weak Nuclear forces, and the electro-magnetic force). And how clever I felt when, in my first year of high school, my science teacher praised me for already knowing the basics of protons, neutrons and electrons. 

But in fact, it wasn't just space and atoms, it was anything my young mind could sink its teeth into. Our town library really wasn't bad, and I absorbed anything that engaged my interest. I loved the idea of astrology and numerology... I started reading sci-fi and fantasy... And it was a special day when I found Richard Bach's "One" and "Illusions". Slowly but surely, I was introduced to more and more paradigms and incorporated them effortlessly into my worldview as only a young teenager can.

There are certain events that stand out in my memory that should help illustrate this process in which I, at times, was a true believer, and at others, a tenacious skeptic. Here are a few of them:

I've mentioned the library books about the universe and atoms, etc. So, yeah, science took an early hold. Yet for so long, I held onto belief. I wanted to believe. (Most peoples' problem). I remember feeling particularly righteous once when my mother showed me a 1-page text she'd gotten off the 'net. Something that ridiculed believers in some terribly truthful way. At least I think so. I read it but I don't remember a word. All I remember is the disheartened look on my mother's face and her tone of voice as she said something like "It's things like this that really make me wonder..." After reading it, I simply stated that it doesn't bother me one bit. It is obviously designed by the devil, via the hand of some unsuspecting soul, to lead us into doubtful turmoil. Ignore it, I said. My mother slowly showed relief, said how proud she was of me, and I went away beaming inside. How insidious the devil is, and how easily I cast him aside with the strength of my faith. I was about 13.

Something else, related, happened a year or two earlier. I had stolen something from our kitchen cupboards and my father caught me. I remember him explaining to me that whenever I wanted to do something naughty, that that was the devil whispering in my ear. This didn't reduce my misbehaviour but it did increase how guilty I felt whenever I knew I had been naughty. More importantly, though, it started a little mind-game in my head which ended up being instrumental in the eventual demise of my belief in Christianity. In short, the mind-game was me trying to figure out whether it was God "telling" me to do something or only the devil tricking me into thinking that it was God, and in the end I came to realise that it was really only me arguing with myself.

So many memories are coming back to me now as I write, all crucial events that lead me out of the Christian dogma fed to me by the schools I attended... I think it's best if I try list them very briefly and maybe elaborate on the later in different posts.
Okay so here goes:

  • "The Matrix" movie
  • Looking at someone across the street, imagining I were them, looking at me...
  • Trying to hold the universe in my mind... With the Earth as only one of millions of planets and us humans as only another of thousands of species having evolved on Earth.
  • Books! Dune by Frank Herbert - The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams - One, Illusions and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull by Richard Bach - The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran - The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien - Otherland by Tad Williams - Siddhartha by Herman Hesse - Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder
  • The question "Does God know what you're going to have for breakfast tomorrow morning?" (which leads to a free-will dilemma)
  • Trying to imagine not existing (not only me, but all of humanity). (.. and not as a third-point-view seeing a world empty of humans, but as a 0-point-view... non-existence... Try it, go on, just try it...)

So! After years of this sort of thing... Introspection and asking questions and the like, I finally came to a milestone of truth at around 15 or 16. I remember it clearly. I was talking to my friend Francois, stating how ridiculous it actually was to believe that we were all "born in sin", and even more that we need to be saved by a guy who had lived 2000 years ago. He stopped at some point and asked me "So... You're not really a Christian then, are you?" And that got me. As much as I had rebelled, argued and questioned, I had at that point not yet officially branded myself an unbeliever. My next "No... I'm not." was kinda surreal... I felt that I had crossed a certain threshold and remember feeling exhilarated.

From this followed a long period of a type of agnosticism, even though I only heard of the term "agnostic" from my aunt Veda almost a year later. (so reclusive was life in Bredasdorp). Shortly afterwards, I got internet access for the first time, and then the fun really started. Aahhh man, I thought myself so clever! I loved the word "agnostic" (because at the time, I thought of atheists as just another brand of believers: believing that a god doesn't exist). "How can you know? You don't! Everyone is agnostic!" I said. My philosophy was that one had to first become okay with uncertainty, and then could play with ideas within that uncertainty. (..still not a bad philosophy).

It was through this "playing with ideas" thing that I joined a "spiritual community" after school. (I stayed there for an entire two weeks before running back to mother's =P). My thinking veered into the new-agey spiritualist trap, "All is One", "God is Love", "God is Energy" (the capital letters were important) and all that. Had I read "The Secret", I probably would have loved it. And upon moving in with a pagan family in Cape Town, I decided to call myself pagan too. Follower of the Old Ways. A Deeper Respect for Life. The Mother Goddess. The Egyptian pantheon was my favourite, thanks to Tad Williams' "Otherland". But, in my defense, I never really believed in 'gods' or the Goddess as anything sentient. My Goddess was a pantheistic "mother nature" sort of god, and the other "gods" were "thought constructs"...; different aspects of her, like different facets of the same crystal. At the time, I believed reality could be influenced by thought alone, which was what prayer was for me... "Projecting" my will into the universe, etc.

Anyway... After this Bohemian lifestyle in Cape Town, I was living with my mother when I met my first girlfriend. Life took a drastic turn. My "spiritual side" fell away a bit as my "emotional development side" kicked in. It was my first real relationship, so I went about learning and maturing in a way that most people deal with in their early-mid teens (I was 21). I also had to start thinking more practically... I was a man now, after all, and in a serious relationship (it lasted 3 and a half years). So I went off and started working. Spiritually, I went into a sort of limbo... Many ideas floating in and out of my mind, while I tried to get my life in order. Whether I succeeded (or even have succeeded yet) is up for debate.

I let my heart lead me and I'm now writing from Brazil, where I've been for almost three years (I turned 28 recently). It was my heart indeed that lead me here but it also happened to be a great "practical life" choice. The details of my journey here are interesting but this post is not for that story.

So, until around March 2012, I was in that "spiritual limbo" state, and possibly would have stayed that way had it not been for my brother, Bradly. I had watched him, horrified, be slowly transformed into a Christian and got more and more annoyed by how that could have happened. Bradly is intelligent... Not only intelligent, but insightful. I just couldn't understand it.

So he and I swapped a few messages on Facebook, and he promised me he would write me something explaining all that had happened. I'll link to this as soon as he actually write it (with his permission, of course. Else I'll summarise it in a post.)

In the mean time though, I got back into thinking about things. Truth. Origins. The nature of reality. All of it. Only this time, I had matured a bit... Lived a little... So I read and thought and wrote, and have now refined the way I see the universe and have never felt better about it.

And how is that? Read on here.