My Spiritual Journey

by Tom Edelson

Links: Tom Edelson's home page; Tom Edelson's LiveJournal


This is an edited version of notes I made in preparation for giving a talk on "my spiritual journey" to fellow members and attenders of the Raleigh (NC) Friends Meeting (Quakers), in January of 2004.  It may be helpful to know the context: that giving such talks is not uncommon among Friends, and that two others did so in the roughly two and a half years that I had attended Raleigh Meeting, before I gave mine.  More recently, I attended a "My Spiritual Journey" talk given by a member of Twin Cities Meeting, during a visit to St. Paul, Minnesota in October 2007.

I have, at least part of the time, retained the telegraphic style of notes written just for oneself.

I do have a central point, but I need to work down to it, like peeling off layers of an onion.

Layer one: religious practice, participation, affiliation

I'm going to go all the way back to before I was born, and talk about my parents' backgrounds.

Mother: baptized Episcopalian.  But sent to Christian Science Sunday school.  As an adult, had a few periods of Unitarian church-going, otherwise was never a regular attender of religious services.

Father: Jewish, of a background that considered Jewish identity important, but did not participate in religious services or other observances.

Marxism has been important in forming my father's outlook in general, and attitude toward religion in particular.  My mother flirted with something like Marxism much more briefly.

As a child, I was not taken to any religious body with anything remotely resembling regularity, not enough to form any idea of belonging, until senior high school (tenth grade or so), when I found myself a quasi-regular part of the "Liberal Religious Youth" group at the Unitarian chuch in Westport, CT.

In college at Cornell, I hung around some at campus ministry; I started at the door marked Unitarian, but the campus ministers were an eclectic, ecumenical bunch, and activities formed around interests as well as around denominations.  For example, if I remember correctly, Philip Berrigan was on the campus ministry staff (or treated by the other ministers as if he were) during at least part of the time that I was a student there, and I attended a number of gatherings, facilitated by him, of students interested in draft resistance.  (I believe that this was after I dropped out of ROTC.)

I also attended the Ithaca Friends meeting a few times.

[Still at Cornell] I also was a quite regular participant for a while in Zen Buddhist meditation sessions.  Did a good bit of reading in Western, popularized works about Zen and related world-views, e.g. books by Alan Watts.  Never felt altogether comfortable with labeling myself "a Zen Buddhist", but did feel for a while that that tradition spoke to me more than any other did.

During graduate school (in philosophy) at Berkeley, I participated much less in organized religious activities, but did, as in Ithaca, attend Meeting for Worship with the Friends meeting in Berkeley a few times.

Then, during a long stretch living in the Washington, DC area (1972 - 1999), my first wife and I started attending a Unitarian church.  That lasted (for me) maybe eight to ten years.

Then I "converted" and started attending an Episcopal church.  Was baptized and confirmed.  Valued taking communion regularly.  Was a little bit active: in particular, I sang in the choir.

From an overall perspective on my spiritual history, this would seem to be the least congruent period, since it was the only time that I expressed belief in monotheism ... or at least, the only time that I did so consistently, over a period of time.  I'll come back to that under "layer two".

My Episcopalian identity continued only a few months after I moved to North Carolina with my second wife, which I did when I was hired by the software company SAS Institute, in Spring 1999.  Then I just stopped attending, and I was unchurched for about two years.  Then started attending Raleigh Friends Meeting in fall of 2001.  The terrorist attacks of September 11 were the stimulus that got me to attend the first time.  But I'd been thinking for a while that I would like to be in a religious community again.  And I was particularly drawn to the Quaker form of worship.

Layer Two: Theology

Let's start with [what is commonly taken to be] the most basic of theological questions: do I believe in God?

Answer: yes and no, but lately, mostly no.  In other words, most of the time, the world-picture that I operate with doesn't have a God in it; or in still other words, I seldom find myself thinking or saying things that involve God.

But occasionally, I do.  I am capable of being moved and comforted by "God language", on occasion, and even utter it sometimes.

To complicate the issue, though it's mostly an aside, I need to add: there's something wrong, in my eyes, with the question "Do I believe in God?".  Because the question presupposes that either I believe that there is one God, or I believe that there is none.  It leaves out the possibility that I might believe that there is more than one god.  And I regard that as a legitimate position, too, and it is one which I could be said to hold, on occasion.  (Though lately, not much.  I often feel that a belief in multiple gods would be more congruent with my posture in the world than would a belief in one God; but that is not the same as holding such a belief.)

But what does it mean to answer the original question, do I believe in God, with "yes and no"?  Does it mean that I'm undecided, unsure, agnostic?  That I think that research has not yet settled the question of whether God exists, though some day, hopefully, it will?  Or that this is something that humankind can never know for sure?

That last form of agnosticism is close to what I was "brought up to believe", as I understood it.  Remember, I was the product of a mixed marriage, vaguely Christian on one side, vaguely Jewish on the other. And my parents were divorced when I was five, so I was raised mostly by my mother, the vaguely Christian one.  And she thought that -- at least in the light of the mixed parentage, though maybe she would have thought it anyway -- the right thing to do was not to teach me that any particular theology or religion was the truth and/or the way, but to let me make up my own mind when I was old enough.

But then I think I must have asked, at some point: "But what do I [or 'we'] believe now?".  And I got the answer, probably from my mother, that a suitable thing for me to call myself was an agnostic.  And in my mind, at least, this was unspecified as between "I haven't made up my mind yet" and "This is something one can't know".

But in practice, in my experience, being an agnostic, early on, was much like being an atheist.  Some have argued that, if you don't know whether God exists, the rational thing is to act as if God does. (This is known as Pascal's wager.)  One can have some fun arguing about whether that really is the rational thing, but in historical fact, that's not what I, as a young person, did.  I acted, and felt, as if God does/did not exist.

That was then.  Agnosticism, of any of the above-mentioned flavors, does not seem like an accurate label for the pattern I exhibit now, of sometimes acting like God exists, and sometimes not (and occasionally, acting as if multiple gods exist).

Why not?  Because "agnostic" suggests to me a belief that the truth -- as to whether God exists -- is "out there": the question has a definite answer, which is The Truth, though I don't happen to know it (and, perhaps, human beings can't really know it).  But whether we can know the answer or not, the question "does God exist?" is fundamentally the same sort of question, to an agnostic, as, say, "are there any other intelligent species in the universe?".  (To an "agnostic" as I understand the term, at any rate.  And leaving aside the question as to whether the word "other" belongs in there.)

But to me, it is not that sort of question.

Then what sort of question is it?  Others have tried to answer that by calling religious statements "metaphorical", but I don't think that captures it, either.  The best short answer I can give is: to me, believing in God is much the same thing as "acting as if" God exists. That is, my version of believing in God, when I do, amounts to "acting as if"; I don't necessarily think that everyone who believes in God is "really just" acting as if God exists.

There's a certain sort of person -- the literalist, perhaps the person who is S rather than N on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator -- who'd be likely to respond to this with, "Oh, I get it.  You don't really believe in God at all.  You just sometimes sort of pretend that you do."

To which I think I'd reply: "I'm not going to try to tell you you're wrong.  Within your perspective, that may be the correct way to describe what I'm doing.  But within my own perspective, it's not."

Just a bit on why it's not, expanding on "acting as if".  My version of believing in God is like taking a part in a play in which my character, and probably most of the characters I interact with, believe in God.  Except that, if I'm really going to get into it, I don't play the role just occasionally; I play it all the time.  And when one does that, and doesn't make a point of telling oneself all the time, "I'm just playing a part here", then it comes to seem real.  I begin to not just "act as if" but "think and feel as if", and if you do that pretty consistently, that becomes a lot like "really" believing.  In fact, I think I'd say that at the limit, it becomes: really believing.

Now what I just described is what I did during most of my Episcopalian phase.  And I thought of it that way, throughout.  That's how the transition, from agnostic-as-pretty-much-atheist to "believer", came about.  I recognized that I was drawn to the ritual, the language, the experience.  And I had flashes of what it would feel like to not just regard it as a show, but to get inside of it, and "act as if" I believed, and thus come, in a sense, to believe it.

My philosophical training, among other things, had acquainted me with the possibility of doing this.  In fact, it had acquainted me with the idea that that's what religious belief is, for all believers, whether they know it or not.  Which latter, I now think is an oversimplification.

But anyway, I actually said to myself, about this "acting as if" process, "I can do this.  And it seems that I want to.  So I guess I will."  And did, for a number of years.  And then stopped.

One way to describe this is as "a phase".  And one could hypothesize, say, a psychological purpose for it: e.g that what I needed, at that stage, was to learn to self-parent, to comfort myself.  So I did that by forming this idea of God as an ideal parent.  Sort of like a child who makes up an imaginary friend, except that I was doing it consciously, on purpose.  I think that to some extent, I was even conscious of the psychological purpose.

Of course, another difference is that childhood imaginary friends are usually solitary productions, whereas I sought out a group which would reinforce the belief.  If you wanted to be really provocative, you could say that belief in God amounts to a large part of the human race making up, collectively, an imaginary friend.

Put that way, it's a debunking perspective, one which seems to say, "I played that game for a while, and of course God is just something we make up; and when I played it, I was (unlike most people) aware that I was just playing a game."  (Conceited much?)

Is that actually my perspective now?  Well ... yes and no, but mostly no.  I regard that as a legitimate perspective, and I regard the perspective of theism as legitimate, and not just as legitimate for others, but for me, too.  And I think it's perfectly all right to drift back and forth between them, and I do.  Or perhaps more precisely: I hold them both simultaneously, but the emphasis drifts back and forth between them: sometimes I focus on viewing my religious belief from the outside, and giving it a psychological explanation, and sometimes I focus on getting inside it.

Changing the subject a bit, the religious language that appeals to me most often, now, is the language of Taoism.  Which is "in between" theism and atheism, as we know them in the West today, but in an entirely different sense from the sense in which agnosticism is "in between".  It's "in between" in that it regards the world as in some sense animated, not made up of essentially dead matter, as a modern atheist does; but not as animated (or created, or governed) by an omnipotent "person" who talks to people, and has some very definite, concrete and explicit ideas about what people should, and should not, be doing.

And this ties back closely to my Zen Buddhist phase. My understanding is that Zen Buddhism is essentially an amalgam of Buddhism and Taoism: it formed in China, when Buddhism came there from India, and mixed with the beliefs and practices indigenous to China at the time.  At that stage, it was called "Chan", a word which later became "Zen".

And I liked some parts of Zen better than others; and when I encountered any of the other flavors of Buddhism, I liked them less. And eventually it occurred to me to explain this to myself by saying: "I guess the part of Zen that I like is the Taoist part".

And if I wanted, today, to give a really brief, "sound bite" description of my religious identity, I'd be tempted to say "Quaker in practice, Taoist in theology."  Though that would be a vast oversimplification ....

Layer Three: Values and Their Roots

This one's a bit harder to label.  I might be inclined to call it "ethics".

That's apt to be misleading.  Probably for most folk, the first thing that comes to mind when you say "ethics" is sets of rules, as in professional ethics or business ethics.

Whereas what I mean by ethics, here, is something like: "how shall we go about deciding what to do?".

Note: "shall", not "should".  Something fairly unusual in my formulation of the meaning of "ethics" is that the words good, bad, right, wrong, should, and ought don't appear in it.  To me, if you put the question as "How should we decide what to do?", you are already, implicitly, presupposing part of the answer to the more basic question, "How shall we decide what to do?".  And even more so, if you put the fundamental question of ethics as "How can we determine what is the right thing to do?"

This (the "shall" question) is the question that brought me into the study of philosophy.  Or rather, this was the underlying question.  I hadn't formulated the question this way, yet.  The question I was actually asking myself, and the question I ended up writing a Ph.D. thesis about, was "Are there any objectively true answers to questions about what is good and bad, right and wrong?"

It may not surprise you to hear that the short version of my answer to that question was, and is, "Yes and no ... but mostly no."

But I'm not going to expand on that answer here, though that's another thing I could have fun doing.  That's because I now see that question as a substitute, or stalking horse, for the more fundamental, and more practical, question: "How shall I decide what to do?"

Despite the qualifications and philosophical nuances, I have believed, in practical terms, for at least all my adult life, that: there is no way of proving objectively what is the right thing to do.  Those kinds of questions are really not like the question of whether there are intelligent species on other planets: questions where the answer is clearly (and literally) out there, we just haven't got the resources to determine it yet.  Instead, it's more a matter of a personal point of view.

And I went along, for most of my adult life, having a rough-and-ready set of rules, or principles, that guided me.  I had no illusions that I could prove to anyone that they were the right principles, they were just mine.  I couldn't even describe them systematically, and that didn't worry me, either.

And then one day, I had one of those "aha" moments.  The strange thing about this one is that it didn't represent any easily describable change in my world-view.  It was just coming more vividly face-to-face with the world-view I already had.

It happened when I was trying to make an extremely difficult personal decision.  I went around and around about that decision for months.  I'd present an argument to myself, in the light of one principle, and then I'd criticize it, in the light of another principle.

And then one day I thought: this process leads nowhere.  Despite having believed already that you can't work these ethical decisions out like math problems, I realized that I'd been trying to do something very like that.

I didn't need to figure out which were the correct principles on which to make my decision, not even the correct ones "for me".  I just needed to decide what to do.

And -- this bit is scary to say, even now -- I didn't need to justify my decision, to myself or anyone else.  And I couldn't.  By which I do not mean "it couldn't be justified, because it was wrong".  Rather, I mean: at the deepest level, these things can't be justified.  Whichever way you decide, it can't be justified.  It's just what you have decided.

A good bit has been written about this sort of thing.  Joseph Fletcher's Situation Ethics comes readily to mind.  But the flavor of this experience for me was not at all like the flavor of Fletcher's writing, sunnily describing "the new morality" (as he subtitled his book).

No, of things I had read, the ones that really related most to this experience, to how it felt at the time, were works by "existentialists" like Sartre and Camus.  (Perhaps especially their fictional works, which conveyed things on a more experiential level.)  I think I was experiencing what they call "radical freedom".  And just as they said, what that felt like, especially at first, was like staring into the abyss.  Like vertigo.  Like you have no place to stand.

Like I said, it seems kind of odd that this experience should be so powerfully unnerving, when what I was "realizing" was not, in any way I could verbalize, much different from what I had believed all along: there's no way of deducing answers to these things, it comes down to what you decide.

Apparently, even though I talked and thought that way, I still took a sort of comfort in building a set of principles, on which I felt I could rest my decisions.  It's as if I had long ago stopped thinking that there was any outside authority figure, to whom I should look for directions; but apparently I'd been using the principles themselves as a sort of authority figure.

And then I came up against a situation where I couldn't: I couldn't make the principles guide me, because the conflict, between different things that I cared deeply about, was just too basic.  And it felt like the ground dropping out from under me.

This could be connected to the life stage I'm at.  Like most Americans, I started declaring my independence early in life.  But I didn't entirely grok what it really means to be "on my own" until I got to a certain age: the age where the older generation is losing their powers, and suddenly it's evident that there really is no one left to "look up to", someone who can be supposed to be more competent, wiser, than oneself.  Even if one long ago rejected the idea of looking to authority figures for guidance, there may be something comforting about the fact that the rejected authority figures are there, ready (you imagine) to resume the role, if you should ever want them to.

And then -- it isn't really all of a sudden, but it feels like it -- they're not.  It's just you.

Now let me tie this back to religious participation, and to theology. I'd already been unchurched for a while, when I had this "epiphany". But I'd probably been working up to it, and that was probably why the Episcopal chuch was no longer right for me.  It may be that I'd moved on, from wanting to be comforted by the image of an ideal parent-like figure, to wanting to stand on my own.

(But please don't think that I'm saying that anyone who chooses the Episcopal church, or any church, is in a "phase", or child-like state, of wanting to be comforted; that I am, or we Quakers are, more mature. All I mean to say is that it could be that that's how it functioned for me.)

You could say that staring into the abyss is what we Quakers do, in Meeting for Worship.  We don't come to Meeting with the comfortable assurance that we have a well-defined set of shared beliefs, which we are going to reaffirm for each other.  (At least, I certainly don't.)  You never know what you might hear from the mouth of another Friend.  But, far scarier, you never know what you might find within your own heart.

However, it gets less scary with practice.  In general.

While this process, of coming into a deeper sense of independence, may have led me to the Society of Friends, it also leads me to very quietly reject some of what I hear at meeting, too.  And I'm not (just) talking about rejecting the vocal ministry of someone whose beliefs don't "fit in".

On the contrary, sometimes it is I who don't fit in; there are things I don't believe which most Quakers, it seems safe to say, do.  I've already mentioned some of these, of course, in talking about "theology": most Quakers, in most meetings (even fairly liberal ones), would affirm the existence of (exactly one) God, without all the qualifications and uncertainties that I attach to that belief (when I espouse it at all).

I now return more directly to the topic of ethical decision-making, and my "beliefs" about it.  As I said above, I've come to the attitude that in fundamental matters, there really are no "correct" criteria for deciding what do to; one simply has to decide.  I also said that this was hardly a new idea for me; I've held something very like that stance for a long time -- intellectually, at least.  But in more recent years, I've internalized it more: I inhabit that position in a new way.

As I began to get a little more comfortable with this change, at first I assumed that the way to look at it was that I'd discovered a truth. A "truth that there are no absolute truths", at least in deciding what to do.  Not a truth that I ever thought I could prove, but nevertheless, one that I would endeavor to get others to see as the truth.

But then I decided that that wasn't the way to look at it; that that would be inconsistent.  When you get down to basics like this, there's no way to argue for it, no way to defend it; so what sense does it make to call it "the truth"?

I don't claim -- I don't even believe -- that this is the "right view" of how ethical decisions are, or should be, made.  If someone else thinks that the right way to make ethical decisions is to consult the Bible, or whatever, I have no way to convince that person that my way is better.  It's just the way that's come to feel right to, and for, me.

And when I say "I have no way to convince that person", I don't mean that they are unable to view the matter rationally: that if they only could view it in the light of reason, they would see that I am correct.  It would be fair to say that, in fact, I don't view my own approach to ethical decision making as "correct"; it's just my approach.  Rational processes certainly did play a role in my adopting it; but it would not make sense to claim that any rational process one followed would necessarily lead to the same conclusion.

But at this point, an entirely different objection arises: what you might call a pragmatic objection.  I don't claim that my view of ethical decision-making is "correct", let alone claim to be able to prove to you that it is.  "It's just my view".  But in that case, one might say, I am wasting my time, and yours, in talking to you about my view.  Why should you even care about my view, if that's all that it is?

Sometimes, there is no way to prove that a point of view is correct (nor that it is incorrect).  And this can be acknowledged by all parties to the conversation.  And yet it can be anything but a waste of time to present it and discuss it.

This wouldn't be a waste of time, if someone heard a point of view that was new to them, and asked questions about it, and came to understand it ... and found themselves attracted to it.  And, eventually, came to adopt it, or a variant of it.

And this can happen, without anyone believing that the point of view has been proven to be correct.  When we get below the level where proof is possible, the decision process is, I believe, ultimately pragmatic: I believe that which, quite literally, "works for me".

No one forms their ideas about these things in a complete vacuum; we were all exposed to, and influenced by, the thinking of adults, when we were children.  This process can be thought of as the imparting of information, or as indoctrination, but I find it more useful to think of it as the teaching of a skill.  Learning how to approach making a decision, in a novel situation, is somewhat like learning how to find your way home again, if you get lost in the woods.

If you get especially far away from your home village, what you learned about finding your way home may not work without some adaptation and improvisation.

Nowadays, being that far from home, spiritually, is almost the norm.  No wonder of it, then, that we are led to thinking about quite fundamental things in other than the ways that our grandparents did.


This page created (as plain text): January, 2004

Last updated: 2009-09-27

© Copyright 2009 by Tom Edelson.