One thing I have been trying to work on, but have been failing to work on, is a document entitled What I Say. The Quaker movement was founded by George Fox. During my early attendance at Charlottesville Friends Meeting, I heard a quote attributed to Fox that really struck me: “You will say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say?” I found it to be a powerful call to examine my own beliefs and think for myself. It also resonates with the Buddha’s apocryphal last words: “Be beacons unto yourselves.” While this brought me to think about my beliefs, it didn’t get me to do it in any coherent fashion. Recently I started trying to be more coherent about it, which is how I started to work on What I Say, but work kept stalling out. Sitting here tonight after working on my Chess (23 tactics problems, 19 flash cards, and 13 moves in correspondence games), I realized I had more energy for writing this blog than I did for working on What I Say. The obvious solution was to move What I Say to the blog.
The basic idea of the whole exercise is to break down my belief into individual statements. These can be analyzed as a logical framework. The point is not to have a logical proof for God, especially since a later post in this vein will rule out the possibility of such a proof. Instead the point is to understand the logical relationships of the beliefs. That is, what beliefs can be derived from other things I believe, and what beliefs require faith. This can also serve as an exploration of other things implied by my beliefs that I have yet to acknowledge.
I divide the statements of my belief into three categories. First come the principles, which are statements that are based on faith and/or experiences that I have had. Second come the corollaries, each of which follows logically from a single principle. Finally there are the derivatives, which derive from two or more other statements, or follow logically from a single derivative. So the plan is to write one blog post for each statement, with the logical derivation of it and/or the experiences that led me to that belief.
Principle 1: God Exists (The Existence Principle)
There is something out there. Something beyond our normal existence. I choose to call it God.
I’ve got to start somewhere, and if I’m going to be a theist, I pretty much have to start here. I didn’t use to believe in God. I became an atheist around the age of nine, although that was more out of being able to get away with it rather than out of any conviction on my part. As I grew older I vacillated between being an atheist, an agnostic, and being too stoned to care one way or the other. During high school I developed a pretty strong hate for organized religion in general, which has mellowed some while still leaving me with an innate distrust of the institutionalization of anything.
The summer after I graduated from high school something major happened. I got cancer. I had ignored the symptoms for reasons beyond the scope of this post, and it had spread from my crotch to my brain. The resulting brain tumor increased the pressure in my brain enough to make me vomit for an entire day straight, leading to the strangest experience of the whole disease: vomiting nothing but water. Then, at three in the morning, I got up to get a drink and had a seizure in my Mom’s kitchen. I’ve had a gun held to my head, and that did not scare me anywhere near as much as that seizure did. It ended with me on my back, unable to breath, and watching my arm slap repeatedly and uncontrollably into the refrigerator. I could see the spots coming in at the edge of my vision, and I remember thinking “Well, I guess I’m dead.”
My step father found me on the kitchen floor when he got up. When he shook me awake I said, “I think I need to go to the hospital.” He said, “Yes, I think you do.”
There were some fumbles at the hospital. The first (idiot) doctor, a full professor, misdiagnosed it as an inoperable brain tumor, and then dragged my mother off to leave my lying on a stretcher in a hallway. Apparently he thought my mother (who was a nurse at Mass General) was going to be hysterical. They decided I needed to be admitted, and dug up some random intern to do the drudge work of a physical exam. He found the symptoms I had been ignoring, and made the correct diagnosis of cancer. This experience of the idiot full professor and the competent intern has forever colored my perception of doctors.
Here is where being the son of a former doctor and full professor at that very hospital came in very handy. I was immediately transferred into the care of their best oncologist (Marc Stewart), and was receiving my first chemotherapy session that very night. With the help of several other doctors whose names I have unforgivably forgotten, Marc managed to purge the cancer from my system (it’s been over 20 years without a relapse). And everyone starting telling me it was a miracle that I should thank God for.
Now, you have to be a complete moron to go through an experience like that and not reexamine a lot of things about your life. As I have asserted previously, I may be a moron, but I’m not a complete one. So rather than reject this idea of a miracle I out of hand, I examined it. However, I found it wanting. What’s the point of curing my cancer? Why not just prevent it in the first place? I decided that what cured my cancer was the hard work of Marc Stewart and the other doctors, and the horde of historical doctors that they all built their knowledge on. But rejecting the cure as a miracle didn’t mean that I rejected the presence of a miracle. To me, the miracle was that I got cancer in the first place. To me, getting cancer was God’s way of smacking me in the face and yelling “Hey! Kid! Your life’s a damn waste! Get it together!” (Actually, I imagined it with a lot more cussing, but I’m no longer sure God cusses that much.)
That’s where my belief in God started. It later ended when I read the book of Exodus during an intensive self-directed Bible study. The God of Exodus (reference Exodus 8:10 and Exodus 9:12) was too despicable for me to believe in. That is when I started to seriously practice Buddhism. And yet it was my practice of Buddhism that brought me back to a belief in God, and made me a Zen Quaker. But that is a story for another post.