Russell’s Teapot

Maundy Thursday is a profoundly sad day. It reminds me of our unfailing default behavior of cruelty and self-service. It doesn’t take much to see how that behavior is still present in our DNA. Perhaps it is a collateral requirement for survival that we can justify any action which assuages our fears.

This is a day when I confront my beliefs about faith. After all, faith is about hope – hope that there is a better version of myself and all of us; something timeless and clear, synchronized to a cosmic truth. That’s why I’m thinking of Bertrand Russell’s teapot.

If you missed it, Bertrand Russell stated his reluctance to believe in God and placed the onus on religion to prove that God existed. He put forward an analogy: what if he stated as a firm belief that there was an undetectable celestial teapot traveling in an elliptical orbit in space? Who could prove him wrong? Russell’s argument is that the burden of proof does not fall upon the skeptics, but rather the proponents.

Rare Sighting of Russell’s Teapot

At first glimpse, this seems like a reasonable assertion. It is always a good idea to examine the basis for your own assumptions; what you cannot prove should be placed in that Box of Uncertainties. And yet… that box of uncertainties is pretty large. Sometimes, planks in that box are needed to bridge gaps in understanding how the world works – or how you should work within the world. As you construct your personal bridge, some of the planks are less than solid. So, do you stop your journey, turnaround, or continue on?

I’m reminded of that 1970’s bestseller Don Juan, A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. This was the first in series of books which chronicled the socialization of an anthropologist into the world of a Native American shaman. Don Juan recalibrated the perception of the young anthropologist to identify strong forces at work in the world; how to use that power; and how to identify ‘witches’. Objective proof: doubtful. By the end of the books – which were the basis of the anthropologist’s doctoral dissertation – Carlos Castenada had absorbed the shaman’s worldview to reflect a philosophy which was compelling enough to attract a number of fans. Could it be possible that today’s mysticism is tomorrow’s science?

Every journey requires some degree of faith in assumptions that cannot be proven. The need for proponents to prove their case is only necessary if they attempt to press their assumptions onto others – and I accept that this is pretty common in day-to-day life. Yet, the tyranny of Russell’s teapot argument is that it precludes ‘possibilities’.

If I were to counsel my grandchildren, it would be to rename the uncertainty box as the ‘Box of Possibilities’ and use some of those planks in their bridge construction. I think it’s better to be open to a broad vision when facts don’t connect the dots.

Not A Religious Man

I was never religious.  I always questioned it and asked for proof which I never got.  I considered myself spiritual.  I was raised Catholic, my mom was Congregational, but I went to Mass every Sunday with my dad. That lasted until they dropped the Latin and started saying Mass in English.  My dad stopped going because he said now that he understood what was being said he couldn’t sleep through it!   We still did the no meat on Friday thing, always having macaroni or spaghetti (I never heard the word PASTA til I was married). On Good Friday my brother and I couldn’t play outside or watch TV between noon and 3.  It seemed more like superstition than religion.  My Aunt Eleanor was the only one who was really into Catholicism. She said the rosary every day of her life until her death at 99.  It gave her comfort and serenity and I wanted that for myself but couldn’t find it through religion.

I guess I always believed in God but didn’t subscribe to the rigors and routines of Catholicism.   As my sexuality developed it estranged me even more from organized religion but I didn’t want to give up the promise that a spiritual life provided and I kept questioning and praying that the “All Mighty” would show me, give evidence to me that it truly existed.  Then I kind of gave up the search.  Life was busy and exciting and I stopped questioning and searching. College, marriage, family, buying houses all got in the way and there was no space for my search. 

When all that calmed down I began experiencing things that I couldn’t explain.   My wife and I divorced and she moved out. I think it was the first night I slept alone.  I woke up in the middle of the night, sweating, scared, and crying.   I felt as if I was cradled in someone’s arms and it soothed me.  I heard inside my head a voice that said, “It is going to be okay, everything is going to be ok!”  I woke up in the morning feeling secure, knowing something had happened that I could not explain.  It was years before I ever told anyone about that, even admitting I thought it was Jesus who rocked me. Many years later, after retiring, I experienced two other events that helped me answer my questioning.  My partner and I were traveling through England visiting friends we had met in Italy.  They wanted to take us to the place where paganism and Christianity was supposed to have met.  It was a little island they referred to as Holy Island, but is named Lindesfarne.  We traveled to Northumberland in northern England.  You can only reach the Island at low tide so you have to know in order to get off the island before the tide comes back in.  On that island is the ruin of an old Cathedral where they ancient saints, Saint Cuthbert and St Aidan tried to convert the pagans.  Upon entering that sacred space, every hair on my arms and back stood straight up and a cold rush went through my body. My partner was Jewish and he experienced the same thing.  We prayed at what was left of the altar and escaped the island just before the tide returned.  It was spiritual, eerie and freaky.  I had never experienced anything like that before and never expected to again!  Wrong! Several years later on a trip to Italy, promising my aunts to go to Assisi, we stopped there and visited the churches of St Clara and St Francis only to be disappointed by the touristy nature of the city. We spoke to a local shop keeper who told us if we really wanted to experience St Francis we should go to a little mountain town named LaVerna not far away.  The next day we drove up the mountain and parked outside the little town with the Franciscan monastery.  We discovered that St Francis slept there in the caves and that was where he experienced the stigmata.  I didn’t even know what that meant but it was explained that it was where he bled from his wrists and feet from where the nails held Jesus to the cross. We headed into the caves and without realizing what cave we were in, once again I experienced that sensation of cold rushing through me as all the hair on my arms and back stood on end.  My partner also was experiencing it as well. The guide told us that it was on that rock in front of us St Francis experienced the stigmata. It was a very special experience that I hope to experience once again.  I sure could use that voice telling me everything will be all right once again!

Beliefs Re-examined

Wal begins his piece by confronting his beliefs.  I love the notion that while we can accept who we are, it can be healthy and helpful to challenge what we have learned to believe.  For me, time can lull me into complacency about viewpoints that I’ve adapted and practiced.  As I tell my stories, I inevitably reinforce those perceptions and they become a baseline or context from which I live my life.  But, as Wal mentions in his post, he questions his beliefs in hopes that he can become a better person.  As I think about some of the things I “knew” to be true when I wore a younger man’s clothes, I realize that my thinking wasn’t as broad or open as it is today and some of those beliefs have given way to very different notions.

As I examine and re-examine long held ideas I find I am becoming more comfortable with uncertainty.  Years ago I needed to know.  The answer was important.  Right and wrong were clear-cut and necessary.  Today, like my hair, I find life is much more grey than black and white.  I more often understand multiple sides to an issue or belief and recognize how often I missed opportunities for connection by holding fast to one side or another. 

There is also value in strong beliefs.  To feel passionate about faith, religion, or some form of source energy gives us a foundation from which to make decisions and guidelines for how to live and what to teach our children.  However, even within this commitment to our faith, I believe there is added value to re-examine and question what we hear, read, and practice.  This self-reflection can help us confirm, adjust, or re-align what matters and prevent us from blindly following the wrong path just because it is so well worn.

As I grow older and recognize that each day matters more to me now than it did when I was younger and invulnerable, I look forward to attempting conversations with my grandchildren about what we believe and what we assume, and what limitless possibilities exist for them as they make choices and the importance for them to continue to challenge those choices.

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