I Can Believe

Rev. Josh Pawelek

This past summer I read Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods. Jenn Richard recommended it back in June. It sounded like good summer reading for me, and it was. In this story all the gods are still alive. That is, any god any group of people ever brought with them to America—whether as explorers, immigrants or slaves—as well as the gods of the Native American nations, many of whom arrived in more ancient times travelling with immigrants across the Bering Strait between what are now Russia and Alaska—any god any person ever worshipped in America is still alive. Except … no one worships them anymore. Nobody remembers them. So, they lack power. They’re weak. That’s the premise: gods and goddesses are powerful when people worship them. As people forget them they fade. They don’t die, but they become shadows of their former selves. They’re immortal, but they struggle to survive. They live in dingy tenement buildings in forgotten towns. They make their livings through odd jobs, petty crime, prostitution. They aren’t particularly admirable beings.

These forgotten gods also believe they’re facing a new threat to their meager existence. Make no mistake, Americans still practice worship—but not in churches, synagogues and mosques. Neil Gaiman has something else in mind: Americans worship technology and entertainment. If our ancestors couldn’t live without their Gods, we post-moderns can’t live without our computers, televisions and cell phones. As we humans spend more and more time enmeshed with our electronic devices, turning to them not only for information, but also for comfort, companionship, guidance, and even community, our relationship to them begins to look more and more like worship. These devices—and the industries that produce and deploy them—become the new gods—our solace and our salvation.  Thus the old gods feel threatened. The book’s plot unfolds around preparations for a final battle between the old and the new.

Along the way we meet the character Sam, a student at the University of Wisconsin studying art history and women’s studies, an aspiring sculptor, a barista at a local coffee shop. She apparently has some divine qualities, though she’s a minor character and we don’t learn much about her. When I first read her monologue about her beliefs, beginning with “I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not,”[1] I became very excited. I could write a sermon about this!  I love her brazen embrace of contradictions, the way she runs warring theological ideas together as if they have always co-existed peacefully. She says, “I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck.”[2] I read her monologue over and over again, wondering: is she describing a deeply examined, mature faith, a faith strong and nuanced enough to embrace these contradictions and yet still guide her and sustain her through all life’s challenges? Could this really work? Or is she just showing off her liberal arts education, sophomorically spouting some version of whatever conspiracy theory occurs to her, and expressing nothing more than a rebellious, youthful exuberance that won’t offer sufficient spiritual sustenance as she grows older? Is she describing an authentic, generous spirituality, or is she just too lazy to make a serious theological choice?

I ask these questions because, even though she’s fictional, I want Sam’s widespread believing to be real. I want this kind of believing to be useful for our spiritual lives. Frankly, I’m even a bit envious of Sam’s beliefs. I have an experience of feeling caught between two contradictory beliefs and recognizing that ministry would flow so much more smoothly if I could just believe both and not worry about having to choose one over the other. Some of you will remember I raise the question from time to time in my sermons about whether we live in the midst of one truth or many truths. To make the case for there being only one, ultimate truth, I might refer to the ancient South Asian story of the blind men and the elephant where each man touches a part of the elephant and describes the elephant based on the part he touches. The man who touches the leg says the elephant is like a pillar. The man who touches the tail says the elephant is like a rope, and so on. The elephant is a metaphor for the existence of one truth. The whole elephant may be beyond our reach; we may each, at best, have access to only a small piece of it, but no matter what we believe, we’re all touching the same elephant—we all touch a piece of the one truth. [3] But then, to make the case for there being many distinct truths, even contradictory truths, I might just ask how it is possible for me, as one who ministers to a congregation that includes atheists, theists, agnostics, Buddhists, Jews, Pagans and Christians, to say there is only one truth. If there is only one, then some of us—most of us, in fact—are wrong. That doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not convinced atheists and theists are somehow touching the same elephant. I’m not convinced Buddhists and Christians are somehow touching the same elephant. I’m not convinced all religions, at their core, are ultimately the same.[4] So which is it, one truth or many?

I inevitably feel some pressure to answer this question definitively. But I can’t. I’m persuaded by both arguments—I love the idea that there is one truth beyond our knowing; I love the idea that there are many distinct truths in one room. I can’t give up on either of these claims and I’ve never known quite how to resolve what feels to me like a deep contradiction. There’s a part of me that’s always felt like a bit of a fraud for not being able to offer a definitive answer. But when I reflect more deeply, I realize the problem is not the presence of a contradiction: the problem is the pressure to choose one side in this or any other theological debate and be done with it. The problem is the pressure to choose one spiritual identity and be done with it. Do you believe in God or are you an atheist? Define yourself. Are you a UU Christian, a UU Buddhist, a UU Pagan, a UU Theist, a UU Humanist? Define yourself. In your spiritual practice are you contemplative? Are you community-oriented? Are you ritualistic? Are you a social justice activist? Define yourself.

I understand why we crave definition. Having a clear self-definition, spiritual or otherwise, helps us communicate to the rest of the world: this is me! This is who I am. See me. Hear me. Distinguish me. Validate me. Value me. But sometimes succumbing to the pressure to define does more harm than good. What happens if you have a hunch that both sides of an argument are somehow true? What happens if you have a feeling that both sides of a contradiction are somehow true? What if two religions express radically different cosmologies, but your intuition tells you both are somehow true? Or what if you sense something is true even though it doesn’t make any sense, even though everything you’ve ever been taught tells you it can’t be true. I think it’s so important for us in situations like this, as liberal religious people, as spiritual seekers, as Unitarian Universalists to learn to follow our hunches, our feelings, our intuitions. If we’re forced to define our position, if we have to choose a side, if we have to reject an idea because we’ve been taught it can’t be true, then we risk missing something. We cut ourselves off from a range of possibilities.

Think of what we know about light. Sam reminds us in her monologue that light is both a wave and a particle—a contradiction. One of the first lessons aspiring physicists learn in the study of quantum mechanics is that as soon as we measure light—as soon as we try to define it—the wave collapses into the particle. We can observe the particle, but we miss the wave. The range of possibilities vanishes in that moment.

Sam also mentions “a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time.” This is a reference to Shrödinger’s Cat, a famous
thought experiment put forth in 1935 by the Austrian physicist Erwin Shrödinger as a way to talk about problems in quantum mechanics. The cat inside the box is both alive and dead—a contradiction—and only when we open the box does it become one or the other. The quantum world—the sub-atomic world—is like this. There are actually infinite possibilities at any given time.  When we measure—when we open the box—when we touch the elephant—we collapse these infinite possibilities into one definite state. But this doesn’t mean the other possibilities weren’t real. The fact that we can only observe the particle doesn’t mean the wave was a fiction.

I’m making a similar claim about our spiritual lives, about our beliefs. When we define ourselves spiritually or theologically by saying “I believe X” or “I don’t believe Y,” we risk shutting out a wider range of possibilities. Sometimes that’s fine. Sometimes we need to do it. Sometimes we are very comfortable with a clearly defined identity: humanist, atheist, theist, Christian, Buddhist, etc. But there’s always a risk. We risk missing something. What appeals to me about Sam’s expression of belief is her unwillingness to miss anything. She says, essentially, I will not collapse the wave; I will not open the box; I will not resolve my contradictions; I will accept and embrace them, I will live with them, and in so doing I will inhabit a universe of possibility.

I confess that, despite feeling drawn to Sam’s way of believing, I’m not exactly sure how to do it. My intellect doesn’t want to go there. It’s hard for me to say with a straight face, “I believe in a personal god and I believe in an impersonal god and I believe in a godless universe.” It’s hard for me to say it with the conviction that Sam brings to it which, again, is why I wonder whether it’s a truly tenable spirituality. She is, after all, a work of fiction. But in the very least, were Sam or anyone to put such live-with-the-contradictions believing into practice, they would have access to a wide range of spiritual resources to meet life’s challenges. I think back to the time when my son’s heart condition was diagnosed in utero and we realized it was going to be a difficult medical path for a few years and possibly for his entire life; or the time when my brother’s daughter was still-born, or when my father was at the peak of his struggle with alcoholism—hard, painful times in my life. I’ve learned that people progress spiritually through such times, that there’s an arc to the spiritual experience of struggle and difficulty, and sometimes it includes a period of such despair, confusion and loneliness that all one can do is let go and trust. It strikes me that in such times belief in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do makes sense. Such belief, which includes longing for an end to pain, becomes a spiritual resource. Such belief can reduce anxiety, bring calm, bring a sense of being held, bring a sense of resilience. It can carry a person through hardship at the moment when they feel they can’t take another step.

Then there are those moments—those mystical moments—when people report an experience of profound unity, a oneness with everything there is, a connection to all life. Unitarian Universalists who have such experiences typically report having them outdoors, when surrounded by the natural world—the mountain top view, crashing waves, leaves in autumn, the rebirth of spring, sunrise and sunset. Of course, communion with nature is only one source of these mystical moments. They come in worship, in community, through working to achieve a vision, through creative endeavor, through activism. Wherever and whenever it comes, people report experiencing the world as sacred, experiencing life as sacred, experiencing everything as holy now. It stikes me that in such moments a belief in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive makes sense. A belief in some divine essence at the heart of creation makes sense. And such belief becomes a spiritual resource. It inspires reverence for life. It inspires us to care for the earth and for each other. It inspires us to renew our commitments and to live by our principles. It inspires us to be hopeful, loving people.

Then there are those moments when we take stock of what we know about life and the world and how it all fits together. We take stock of the myths people have told throughout the ages, the supernatural explanations for things that at one time were unexplainable but which now even children comprehend. We bear witness to the enormous power of the human mind to understand the universe. We watched just this week as NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, discovered what appears to be an ancient streambed on the surface of the red planet. We watched this past July as scientists at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland discovered the Higgs boson, the sub-atomic particle that accounts, at least in theory, for the existence of mass in the universe. Like the theory of evolution, this so-called “god particle” offers a compelling, non-supernatural alternative to the creation story in the Book of Genesis. We take stock of the findings of science and human achievement and in response, belief in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck makes sense. And such belief becomes a spiritual resource, calling on us to trust ourselves—to trust our instincts and our intellect, to trust our feelings and our intuitions, to trust in our own creativity and our capacity for innovation, to trust, ultimately, in the human spirit.

There. Three contradictory theologies that when taken together offer a rich set of spiritual resources. I’m still wondering: is this an authentic, generous spirituality, or simply a failure to make a serious theological choice? For now I’m going with the former. Light is both a particle and a wave, and while we can only observe the particle, we know the wave is there. We know the wave is real. And so it is with our spiritual lives. While we have to define ourselves from time to time, my instincts tell me we inhabit a universe of possibility—and I don’t want to miss anything if I can help it. Are there pantheons full of ancient deities still longing for the life and power human worship gives them? Are there new gods of technology and entertainment vying for our dedication? Who knows? But either way it seems to me, if such a universe of possibility awaits, then it is good and right to say “I can believe.”

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Gaiman, Neil,  American Gods (New York: Harpertorch, 2001) p. 394.

[2] Ibid., pps. 394-395.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “One Truth, Many Truths . . . Any Truths?” Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, May 8, 2011. See: http://uuse.org/one-truth-many-truths-any-truths/

[4] Ibid.