Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My Spiritual Autobiography: The Beginning

I remember quite vividly the moment I came to believe in God. It was during the first semester of my freshman year in college, and it happened in the library. I was sitting at a wooden desk in “the stacks,” a quiet place by a high window, surrounded by books. Since I’d chosen to sit near the engineering texts, the only distraction was the graffiti scrawled on the desk.

But this was no ordinary graffiti. What dominated this particular wooden desk was a conversation about the meaning of life. Given how worn and faded the inaugural message was, it had obviously started long ago, perhaps decades. I wondered how many years separated each entry, how many generations of college students had carved their own thoughts into the wood with a ballpoint pen.

I can no longer recall their words, but I do remember that none of the additions were flippant or glib. This was graffiti-turned-serious, and those who chose to add their thoughts seemed to respect that. And I remember thinking I should add a message of my own.

The problem was that I didn’t have one. I had no idea what life was all about, or even if there was an “all about.” At some point during my high school years a species of atheism had crept over me—nothing militant or doctrinaire, just this vague sense that the material world was all there was and that religion was a comforting illusion created to help us cope with the inevitability of death.

I’d grown up the son of two preachers’ kids—and, like many preachers’ kids, my parents had rejected the religion of their upbringing. At some point in his young adulthood my father had realized that the Lutheran liturgies he recited on Sunday mornings were nothing more than rote words, habits without meaning. And so he left them behind without ceremony, becoming an agnostic scientist who spent his time thinking about what rock formations can tell us of the Earth’s history.

My mother’s break with her religious upbringing was more impassioned, a repudiation of the fundamentalist Baptist world she’d come to find increasingly claustrophobic. When her family immigrated to the United States in the 1950’s, they went from insular Baptist enclaves in small-town Scandinavia to the burgeoning cosmopolitanism of the Bay area. And so my mother found herself encountering a rich tapestry of ideas and perspectives, cultures and experiences that she wanted to explore. But to do so she had to cast off the worldview which insisted that all of these things were a threat, temptations put in her path to lead her away from God.

For my mother, the outcome of rejecting this worldview was a lingering, pluralistic spirituality too vague to have any practical bearing on the routines of daily life.

And so I grew up with parents for whom religion and religious life lay at the periphery of their concerns. We went to church inconsistently—a pleasant, milk-toast Methodist congregation—but only because my parents thought my sister and I should have some exposure to it “so that you’ll know what it is and can make your own decisions about it.”

And by the end of high school I’d pretty much reached the conclusion that it wasn’t for me. Over the course of my childhood I’d gone from an uncritical acceptance of theism as “just the way things are” (largely through the influence of my grandparents) to an indifferent agnosticism that tended towards atheism. I thought of church attendance as a nice way to make some friends, but I took the teachings of the church to be, most likely, nothing but old myths—harmless but probably false. Since there was no pressure from my family to be anything but such an indifferent agnostic, the stance was a comfortable one. Nothing defiant about it or daring. I was secular in the truest sense of the word: I lived in a world where God and religion just really didn’t matter.

And then I found myself in the stacks of the University of Rochester’s Rush Rhees Library, dividing my time between my history textbook and this odd, cross-generational conversation about life’s meaning written on an old wooden desk.

It so happened that what I was reading in the textbook had to do with the meaning of life as well, at least in a broad sense. It was a section on the history of ideas in early modern Europe. While I can’t say for sure which specific philosophers I was reading about at the time, I’d guess that Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz were among them. What I remember clearly is finding myself, quite to my own surprise, abruptly engaged in deep metaphysical reflection for the first time in my life. All alone in the stacks, the sunlight streaming onto a desk cluttered with old graffiti, I began to think in earnest about the meaning of life and the nature of reality.

I must have spent a good hour in silent contemplation, the textbook—with its oversimplified summaries of philosophical ideas—all but forgotten. What I thought about during that hour was wide-ranging, but two things stand out in my memory. The first was a vivid image of something terrifying; the second a line of argument that assured me, with a degree of certainty I now know philosophical arguments can never wholly justify, that the terrifying image was just an illusion.

The image that terrified me was, to put it bluntly, nothing. That is, it was nothingness, nonexistence. As I thought about the meaning of life, I inevitably thought about the end of life, about death, and about what death was from the standpoint of the vague materialism I’d stumbled into during high school.

I’d never really thought about that before, about what death was. And as I confronted it I saw before me an endless expanse of nonexistence, of not being. In the face of that infinite sea of nothing, my finite life seemed a flimsy reed. The nothingness swamped me by its sheer vastness. What did it matter whether I lived for a day or a year or a hundred years? Against an eternity of nonexistence, it all seemed pointless—especially since it wasn’t just me who faced this fate. Every living creature would die, all consciousness would be extinguished. The nothingness began to appear to me like an all-consuming maw, as if it were the ultimate reality, as if existence and life and light were just an ephemeral moment in what was otherwise an endless night of nonbeing.

What I was encountering, tucked away in a sunny corner of the library, was the thing that Karl Barth takes to be the root of evil, the wellspring of human depravity and despair: Das Nichtige. The nothingness. When, years later, I read Barth’s account of it, there was a strong resonance, a deep familiarity. This was something I knew, something I’d seen.

But at the time, being an eighteen-year old kid, I recoiled from it almost as soon as it occurred to me. I quickly reconstructed for myself the pleasant little reality in which I existed: young and healthy with my whole life ahead of me, going to a prestigious private university with a National Merit Scholarship to help cover the costs, lots of chances to have fun, to party, to learn, to pursue romance with one or another of the pretty girls I saw wandering around the campus.

But even as I rebuilt this comfortable little self-understanding, a part of me sensed that it was little more than a tissue curtain hiding the nothingness from view. I retained the lingering sense that if this material existence was all there was, then all of it, everything I cared about, all my ambitions and dreams—all of it was vanity and illusion, and the best I could do was immerse myself in the business of life and try not to think about the deeper truths. Eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow you die.

And that’s what might have happened, except for the fact that my philosophical reverie wasn’t over. Although I couldn’t face the precipice I’d stumbled upon as I thought about materialism from my existential standpoint, my mind continued to gnaw at this same materialist worldview in another way.

Specifically, I began to think about how science explains the world around us. The things we see are made up of smaller things, and the patterns we observe are the macro-level consequences of more basic rules. Everything is explained mechanistically. If we want to know why things have the properties and powers that they have, we do so by understanding how the parts fit together and by learning the rules which govern their interaction.

Human beings have the powers and properties that they possess as an outcome of more basic building blocks organized in a certain way and interacting in accord with certain laws. But the building blocks themselves have powers and properties. So how do we explain them? We explain them by looking at more basic components organized in a certain way and interacting according to more general laws.

In my mind I was zooming in on myself, as if looking at what I was through the most powerful microscope imaginable. I zoomed in from organs to cells, from cells to molecules, from molecules to atoms, from atoms to subatomic particles. At each level, I was chopping up what I found and zooming in on the parts that made it up.

This is how you explain it, I thought—by taking it apart and looking at the pieces. But does it ever stop? It seemed to me in that moment, and I still believe it today, that an infinite regress of that sort of explanation explains nothing—it just keeps pushing the need for an explanation back one more level.

At this point my eighteen-year-old mind was swimming furiously to keep afloat in the conceptual depths I’d suddenly found myself in. I was excited, full of a sense of anticipation, as if I were on the verge of discovering some incredible secret. I thought: Material reality has to be infinitely divisible. Any component of a physical object occupies space, and space is mathematically divisible. Even if we get to a basic particle out of which all physical reality is constructed, doesn’t it have to either have extension or not? And if it has extension, then it’s divisible and so has parts. And if it has parts then how can it be the basic particle? But if it doesn’t have extension, than how can it be a physical thing at all?

Maybe it’s energy, I thought—but what the hell is energy? What is it other than some mysterious capacity to affect other things? Is the most basic thing just an unextended point of “capacity to affect other things”? If so, then it can’t be explained the way that science explains everything else. It will have to have the properties and powers that it has in its own right, rather than as a by-product of how more basic building blocks are organized and the rules which they follow.

And suddenly I found myself confronting this basic idea, that the most fundamental building block of reality would have to be nothing like the physical world studied by science, in which things can be understood mechanistically as the effects of constituent parts operating in accord with natural laws. Instead, there’d be this extensionless constituent that just is what it is, able to do things, to affect other things, for no reason other than its own nature—a nature defined in terms of something other than these reductionistic terms.

But then I had another thought: Since the basic building block of matter couldn’t have extension or structure (or it wouldn’t be the basic building block), the only thing making it different from nothing at all would have to be its power to affect and be affected by other things. And the other things affecting and being affected by it would have to be precisely in the same boat: they’d be nothing but the power to affect and be affected by other things.

But then what was it that was affecting and being affected? We’ve gotten rid of everything but the power to affect and be affected, without there being anything that is doing the affecting or experiencing the effects. Bits of nothing affecting and being affected by other bits of nothing.

It made no sense. I had the sudden, jarring certainty that materialism was conceptually incoherent, at least if it wasn’t grounded in something else more fundamental. And then, like a bright window opening up in my mind, I thought, “The something else is mind. The most fundamental reality is mind.” What else could it be? There was mind and matter, and when my mind plumbed far enough into the depths of matter, there was nothing material that could explain the material world.

And I suddenly had a vision of the universe, a vision in which everything that science studies is a vast outflow of a root consciousness, a unifying mind that acts in and through the physical universe, manifesting itself and expressing itself in all the things we see, in the physical laws that we discover, in the objects we touch and discern with our senses.

And I thought, there in the library: God.

And the nothingness that had been so terrifying to me, that had seemed to strip away all meaning from my life, was suddenly full of mind—the mind of God.

Let me be clear about a few things here. First, what I experienced at that desk in the library was not what I would classify as a mystical experience. While I came to have a sense of the unity of all things bound together by an ultimate mind, it was the outcome of speculative metaphysical thinking rather than of immediate numinous experience. It was the frantic philosophical speculations of a young intellect prodded by its first encounter with academic philosophy, along with a sense of solidarity with generations of college students pursuing a quest for meaning—in ballpoint pen, on a wooden library desk.

The second thing I want to be clear about is that the reasoning I went through at that library desk was hardly incontestable. Especially at the end, I made an intuitive leap that many will question—from the apparent untenability of materialism to the idea of mind at the root of all reality. The thinking I did that day (which, I am discovering, bears some striking resemblance to the much more careful and powerful thinking of the great 19th Century German philosopher, Hermann Lotze) was not the end of my spiritual and intellectual journey. It was the beginning.

What is significant for me is the kind of beginning it was. My religious life did not begin in my home, based on the teachings of my parents. It did not begin in church. It didn’t start with some profound mystical experience of the transcendent, as it does with some. The starting point was a line of philosophical speculation.

But the conclusion of that hour of philosophy was a sense that religious belief needed to be taken seriously, that religious practitioners might be on to something after all. I went, in the space of an hour, from a vague atheism to a strong intuitive sense that some species of theism was most likely true.

On the basis of that conviction, I went in search of religion—seriously in search of it—for the first time in my life. And by a set of coincidences the first thing I stumbled into on my search was a small community of charismatic evangelical Christians, a rather cult-like group that met every Friday night at the top floor of Wilson Commons (the University of Rochester’s amazing student union).

The group was called BASIC (Brothers and Sisters in Christ); but my closest friends in college liked to call them BASIS (Brothers and Sisters in Space). They were, quite literally, Jesus freaks. But my conflicted relationship with that group—my fascination and flirtation with their fundamentalism and their faith—is a story for another day.


  1. Hi, Eric-

    Thank you for a moving memoir and great story. I could take alot of pot shots, but ... in the end, I completely sympathize with the destabilizing nature of the ultimate void, which is so especially keen in adolescence. One of its unfortunate fruits can be suicide. Yet that shouldn't allow us to call it names, like evil, wellspring of depravity, etc. Buddhists have found in it expressions of great beauty, despite its fearsomeness.

    I'd also agree that deep appreciation of physics is the most destabilizing thing to an atheist perspective, since there are so many loose threads- a veritable tapestry, all without ultimate explanation. I guess that is how biology used to be as well. I am not sure that we will ever get a proper explanation for it.

  2. Eric,

    I too thoroughly enjoyed your memoir here. I recognize many of your thoughts from my college days as well (and beyond, of course) - ideas like realizing that science is "ever-heightening description" rather than explanation - depending on your question of course. The really interesting question becomes - is a "necessary" reality, something underlying it all, something that we can even begin to think coherently about? Sometimes I think the only difference between the (more liberal) religious person and the agnostic/atheist is that the former thinks it is worth contemplating and the latter thinks it is too amorphous to pursue.

    I had the same thought as Burk about "the nothing." I wonder though, if the Buddhist idea is the same as the Western idea. For instance, a Buddhist thinks of "empty" as being clear like a window pane, allowing the sun to shine through. The emptiness is pure and unadulterated yet also pregnant with possibility - not unlike the nothingness from which quantum reality springs into and out of existence at every moment.

    What is the difference between what is meant by "nothing" in these two lines of thought? One is confusion the other is clarity - one is depression, the other is bliss ?

  3. very fascinating. I went through a - well, I suppose, totally dissimilar experience, at University, in 1979-1981. But I turned to Buddhist meditation (where I remain to this day). However I have many affinities with neoplatonism and the idea of the universal mind.

    Actually a commment on Buddhist emptiness, and the reference to 'the void': completely different things. Buddhist 'sunyata' is the emptiness of all conditioned realities: basically what you describe in your Naturalism series as 'the phenomenal', A Buddhist gloss would be: all phenomena are empty of own-being. See T R V Murti, the History of Buddhist Philosophy, not highly favoured by current scholars, but you will surely appreciate his comparisons of Madhyamika buddhism with Kant, Hegel and Hume.

    Anyway I have discovered your blog, your book, and you have a new fan. I just think your writing is great.

  4. Your progression to a vague theism reminds me a lot about GK Chesteron's gradual conversion. But, he seems to have taken a different angle. Where you reference science and the division of things, Chesterton asked if the universe was full of magic then there Must be a Magician. Either way thanks for sharing the start of your journey.