Friday, December 7, 2012
The big questions
I no longer consider myself to be a religious person, but, at this time of the year, it is difficult not to acknowledge the hold that religion has upon the human psyche. Is this a good thing? I am not sure. Is this something vestigial from our prehistoric past, that was once a key to our survival in the world? I’m not sure. Is it something that will help us survive in the future; or will it, rather, be the death of us? I’m not sure.
I do believe that religion taps into themes and symbols that are deeply rooted in our psyche. How are we to understand our place in the world? What does it mean that one day I will no longer BE? How am I to make decisions in the face of so much information, and so little information?
I will not presume to claim that human beings are the only creatures on this planet (or in the universe) who have the dilemma of trying to understand their place in the world. But for some reason, for us, living does not come naturally. By that I mean that our instincts (as powerful as they remain – deny them though we might) are not the only things that guide our behaviour. We have the capacity, although not always the will or strength, to transcend our instincts. This is both a strength and a curse. It gives us something which we often call freedom, so that somehow our actions do not appear to be predetermined; there is a something, a me, that seems to intervene between the past and the future, so that the present and future is not determined simply by the configuration of the past. I am aware that this is an area of controversial and complex philosophical debate. Nevertheless, it is what seems to be the case; and we live as though it were true. But this capacity, this freedom, is also terrifying, because, as the Existentialists recognised, freedom, the capacity to choose, is like stepping into an abyss. No wonder we sometimes seek fixed points, religions, dictators, which can show us the way. These things, we perhaps hope, can set us free from freedom.
And then, there is our awareness of death. Again, I would not presume to claim that this is unique to our species. Our consciousness, our sense of self, our perception that we are shapers of the world, and not simply shaped by it, is very powerful. We find it difficult to conceive that this light that burns within us could ever be extinguished. And it is literally (and I use the term “literally” literally) impossible to conceive our non-being. Understandably, we rail against this. And yet death is potentially the very thing that gives meaning to our lives: the full stop that gives meaning to the sentence, as I have suggested before. However, most of us probably feel that we are not given the chance to complete our story. But then, perhaps we are only a chapter in the story after all. Or a sentence in the chapter.
Religion is about the big questions, questions like these. Are the answers always helpful? Probably not. Can we actually hope to find some final answers? Probably not. Should we continue to ask the questions? Most definitely yes!