Thursday, April 9, 2009

70/99 First Religion?

Day off.

In the day 98 meditation, Gates closes with two questions:  What was your first religion?  and What is your religion now?  He talks about how his first religion grew up out of the spirit of sports and competition:  "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."  I think I will try to answer these questions.

My first religion was probably numbers, math, and logic.  I remember when I was way too young, I used to like to recite the powers of 2 as far out as I could - 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128 etc out to the hundreds of thousands and even the millions, all done in my head, and at the age of six or seven.  I guess I was mesmerized by the order I found there, and I liked it because I was good at it. 

In fourth grade, our teacher gave a test on a math unit before teaching the unit.  Two of us in class got 100% on that test, so the teacher gave us the books and set us free.  We raced with each other, and by the end of the year we had finished 4th grade through 9th grade math.  No one in elementary school could teach us anymore, and the school wanted to advance us a couple of grades.  Thankfully, my parents realized that being social is more important than being a math whiz, and they refused.

I fell out of love with math as I got more sucked into philosophy in college.  At the same time that I was getting into questions about the foundations of math, I also started to hit the wall doing math itself.  For me, there were basically two levels in math -- unbelievably simple, so that it was basically intuitive, and impossible.  Until junior year of college, everything I ever did in math seemed like child's play, literally.  And then, in some areas, I just couldn't do it.  Then there were other areas where I had reached the point where I could do the proofs, but I didn't have any idea what they meant.  (That was part of what pulled me into philosophy.)  

I lost my religion in math because I started to sense chaos behind the order.  Many mathmaticians are natural born Platonists.  In some ways, I think that's the religious aspect.  More and more, I thought the "absolute", even in math, didn't have any foundation at all.

My other first religion was the movies.  Here, I can trace it back to a couple of things.  When I was really young, I remember seeing The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston.  Actually, I don't remember much of seeing it at all.  What I remember is waking up with nightmares after having seen it, because of the parting of the red sea.  So that's the first incident -- I knew on a very visceral level the power that movies had, because they held sway over my dreams.

During easter week, one year in my early teens, the TV stations ran the usual array of religious movies:  The Robe, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Quo Vadis, Ben Hur, etc...   After one of them, I forget which one, my father asked me rather pointedly, "Do you believe in God now?"  I doubt I answered him, but I distinctly remember thinking, "No, but I do believe in movies, and I want to make them."  

With movies, I was pretty precocious as well.  I could remember complete dialogue from my favorite movies (and this is before the VCR), and I also would vividly remember shot sequences , every detail shot by shot.  In some ways, movies were more real to me than day to day life.  At college, I was seeing probably 6-10 movies (in what passed for campus theatres) per week.  It got even worse in film school.  I spent entire days watching Psycho and Band of Outsiders and some other favorites, again and again.  Sometimes just watching the same sequence twenty or thirty times in a row.  I did this partially because I was learning, but I also felt that movies were a kind of magic.

Hollywood cured me of the movies.  I love the art form, and I think its a real shame that the entry cost is still prohibitive for any individual.  The business of making movies, however, is completely broken -- and its destructive to people.  So, I lost my movie religion for movies at a point where I had almost made it into the clergy.

As for my religion now?  It's much harder to say.  I reject any religion that depends upon a prescribed text.  I just can't imagine a benevolent God who damns entire groups because they didn't have access to his "word." 

And there's another reason:  suppose a book did contain the word.  How is someone supposed to know that its true?  Well, the book might tell you so, but the whole point is whether or not one should believe the book, so I wouldn't take a books word on this point.  Some religions point to the origin of their book as proof --  the prophet was illiterate, or not well enough educated, so the book he wrote must have come from God.  Again, or maybe its just a sham.  In the end, it seems to me that the only way for a person to discover the "truth" underlying scripture is through prayer.  And if prayer works in the first place, then maybe the book isn't as necessary as one thought at first blush.

What have I gotten from this sort of prayer?  Nothing at all.  I can't pretend that I'm very good at it.  But any of these approaches to an established doctrine, or to any variety of fundamentalism, simply leave me cold and a bit puzzled.

If pressed, I would like to tell people that I am a reluctant but hopeful mystic.  I tend to think that the more important a thing is, the less likely that it can be put meaningfully into words.  A few years ago, my brother asked me if I'd ever had any religious experiences.  I told him that I didn't know -- but that I came closest to believing in God when listening to music by J.S. Bach.  Now, I might add that I also thought of as a religious or spiritual experience  the feeling of being outside of time, which I sometimes stumble into, but can never deliberately recapture.

No comments: