Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
When I was in first or second grade and had just been introduced by the nuns to the concept of a limitless God, I lay awake at night driving myself nuts by repeating over and over, But how could God have no beginning? And how could he have no end? And then I thought of all the stars in the sky: But how could there be a last one? Wouldn't there always have to be one more? Many years later I know the answer to the second question, but I still don't know the answer to the first one.
I took it up with a favorite nun, Sister Marie Donald, who led our rhythm band and was our basketball coach. "Roger," she said, "that is just something you have to believe. Pray for faith." Then I lay awake wondering how I could pray for faith to a God I could not believe in without faith. That seemed to leave me suspended between two questions. These logical puzzles seemed to be generated spontaneously within my mind. They didn't come from my school or my family. Most of my neighborhood friends were Protestants who were not interested in theories about God, apart from the fact that of course he existed.
I bought the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church lock, stock and barrel, apart from the God problem. We started every school day at St. Mary's with an hour of religion, and it was my favorite subject. We were drilled in memorizing entries from the Baltimore Catechism, which was a bore, but more interesting were the theoretical discussions about what qualified as a sin, what you have to do to get to Heaven, and "Sister, what would happen if..." Those words always introduced a hypothetical situation which led the unsuspecting Catholic perilously close to the fires of Hell.
Looking back, I realize religion class began the day with theoretical thinking and applied reasoning, and was excellent training. To think that you might sin by accident, and be damned before you could get to Confession in time! What if you had an impure thought at the top of Mt. Everest, and couldn't get back down? We were exposed to the concepts of sins of omission, sins of commission, intentional sins and, the trickiest of all, unintentional sins. Think of it: A sin you didn't intend to commit. But Sister, is it a sin if you didn't know it was?
Some of my classmates and I would lie on our backs in the front yard, ponder the stars, and ask ourselves, if some kid started to play with himself but he didn't know what would happen, would that be his fault? Only if he did it again, we concluded. I remember one night a kid asked, "But what would happen if you played with yourself?" We told him, "Just don't ever try it!" "Then how do you know anything would happen?" We decided you were allowed just one time, to find out.
I have the impression that all of my Dominican teachers were New Deal Democrats, and that for them Franklin D. Roosevelt had achieved a species of secular sainthood. Of course they were fervently anti-communist. People in the USSR could be thrown in jail just for going to church, and there was brave Cardinal Menzenti, who was tortured by the Hungarian atheists. For many years I visualized the Soviet Union as a land where the sun never came out, and enslaved Catholic peasants labored under lowering skies for their godless rulers.
But our theology was often very practical: All men are created equal. Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. The Ten Commandments, which we studied at length, except for adultery, "which you children don't have to worry about." A fair day's work for a fair day's wage. A good government should help make sure everyone has a roof over their head, a job, and three meals a day. The cardinal acts of mercy. Ethical behavior. The sisters didn't especially seem to think that a woman's place was in the home, as theirs certainly was not. You should "pray for your vocation." My mother prayed for mine; she wanted me to become a priest. "Every Catholic mother hopes she can give a son to the priesthood," she said, and spoke of one mother at St. Patrick's, who had given two, as if she were a lottery winner.
I was an altar boy. Even in the dead of winter I rode my bike to church to serve at the early morning mass. In those days parents thought nothing of a grade school kid riding his bike all over town. One morning early in my service I got confused and didn't have the water and wine where they were required. I was maybe nine or ten When we got back to the sacristy, I burst into tears and Father McGinn took me on his lap and comforted me and said God knew I had done my best. If a priest did that today, he would be arrested, but no priest or nun ever treated me with other than love and care.
I no longer lost any sleep over the questions of God and infinity. I understood they could have no answers. At some point the reality of God was no longer present in my mind. I believed in the basic Church teachings because I thought they were correct, not because God wanted me to. In my mind, in the way I interpret them, I still live by them today. Not by the rules and regulations, but by the principles. For example, in the matter of abortion, I am pro-choice, but my personal choice would be to have nothing to do with an abortion, certainly not of a child of my own. I believe in free will, and believe I have no right to tell anyone else what to do. Popes come and go, and John XXIII has been the only one I felt affection for. Their dictums strike me as lacking in the ability to surprise. They have been leading a holding action for a millenium.
Catholicism made me a humanist before I knew the word. When people rail against "secular humanism," I want to ask them if humanism itself would be okay with them. Over the high school years, my belief in the likelihood of a God continued to lessen. I kept this to myself. I never discussed it with my parents. My father in any event was a non-practicing Lutheran, until a death bed conversion which rather disappointed me. I'm sure he agreed to it for my mother's sake.
Did I start calling myself an agnostic or an atheist? No, and I still don't. I avoid that because I don't want to provide a category for people to apply to me. I would not want my convictions reduced to a word. Chaz, who has a firm faith, leaves me to my beliefs. "But you know you're one or the other," she says. "I have never told you that," I say. "Maybe not in so many words, but you are," she says.
But I persist in believing I am not. During in all the endless discussions on several threads of this blog about evolution, intelligent design, God and the afterworld, now numbering altogether around 3,500 comments, I have never said, although readers have freely informed me I am an atheist, an agnostic, or at the very least a secular humanist--which I am. If I were to say I don't believe God exists, that wouldn't mean I believe God doesn't exist. Nor does it mean I don't know, which implies that I could know.
Let me rule out at once any God who has personally spoken to anyone or issued instructions to men. That some men believe they have been spoken to by God, I am certain. I do not believe Moses came down from the mountain with any tablets he did not go up with. I believe mankind in general evidently has a need to believe in higher powers and an existence not limited to the physical duration of the body. But these needs are hopes, and believing them doesn't make them true. I believe mankind feels a need to gather in churches, whether physical or social.
I've spent hours and hours in churches all over the world. I sit in them not to pray, but to gently nudge my thoughts toward wonder and awe. I am aware of the generations there before me. The reassurance of tradition. At a midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the village church in Tring in the Chilterns, I felt unalloyed elevation. My favorite service is Evensong. I subscribe to Annie Dilliard, who says that in an unfamiliar area, she seeks out the church of the oldest established religion she can find, because it has the most experience in not bring struck by lightning.
I have no interest in megachurches with jocular millionaire pastors. I think what happens in them is socio-political, not spiritual. I believe the Prosperity Gospel tries to pass through the eye of the needle. I have no patience for churches that evangelize aggressively. No interest in being instructed in what I must do to be saved. I prefer vertical prayer, directed upward toward heaven, rather than horizontal prayer, directed sideways toward me. I believe a worthy church must grow through attraction, not promotion. I am wary of zealotry; even as a child I was suspicious of those who, as I sometimes heard, were "more Catholic than the Pope." If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must regard their beliefs with the same respect that our own deserve.
I'm still struggling with with the question of how anything could have no beginning and no end. These days I'm fascinated by it from the point of view of science. I cannot know everything, but I approach matters in terms of what I do and can know. Science is not "secular." It is a process of honest investigation.
Take infinity. We know there must be an infinite number of numbers, because how could there be a Last Number? The more interesting puzzle is, how did there come to be a First Number, and why do many mammals other than man know how to count, at least a little? I don't believe the universe counts. Counting is a mental exercise, and mathematics is useful to the degree it helps us describe and understand the universe, and work within it in useful ways. A Last Number is not important; only the imposibility of one.
I know there cannot be a Last Star, because we know the universe to be curved. At least, that's what mathematicians tell us. I can't form the concept of a curved universe in my mind, but I think I know what they're trying to say. Nor can I imagine one, three, five, many additional dimensions. Nor do I understand the Theory of Relativity. Growing up I used to hear that Einstein was the only man smart enough to understand his own Theory. Now countless people do, but I suspect few have a literal vision of what it means. What they understand, I think, is their mathematical proofs of it. If I'm wrong about this, I'm encouraged.
That the universe may expand indefinitely and die is a concept I can imagine. That all of its matter would cease to exist I cannot imagine. That the universe, as was once thought, expands and contracts indefinitely, one Big Bang collapsing into another one, seemed reasonable enough. But in both models of the universe, what caused the first Big Bang? Or was there a first Big Bang, any more than a Last Number?
If there was a First Cause, was there a First Causer? Or did Big Bangs just happen to happen? Can we name the First Causer "God?" We can name it anything we want. I can name it after myself. It is utterly insignificant what it is called, because we would be giving a name to something that falls outside all categories of thought and must be unknowable and irrelevant to knowledge. So it is a futile enterprise.
Quantum theory is now discussing instantaneous connections between two entangled quantum objects such an electrons. This phenomenon has been observed in laboratory experiments and scientists believe they have proven it takes place. They're not talking about faster than the speed of light. Speed has nothing to do with it. The entangled objects somehow communicate instantaneously at a distance. If that is true, distance has no meaning. Light years have no meaning. Space has no meaning.
In a sense, the entangled objects are not even communicating. They are the same thing. At the "quantum level," and I don't know what that means and cannot visualize it, everything that there is may be actually or theoretically linked. All is one. Sun, moon, stars, rain, you, me, everything. All one. If this is so, then Buddhism must have been a quantum theory all along. No, I am not a Buddhist. I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic. I am still awake at night, asking how? I am more content with the question than I would be with an answer.
All art is based on Strange Attractors generated by Chaoscope, a Windows program downloadable here. No, I don't believe they're pictures of God. I believe they can't be described in words, which pleases me. All of the art can be enlarged by clicking.
The Big Bang as a fractal:
Renderings of Strange Attractors;
An unexpected pattern:
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