My wife and I waited at a stoplight, where a corner bandit sign invited folks to join a church being held in a high school gym. “Huh,” she sighed. “I don’t believe in organized religion.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Because there’s a whole bunch of them out there. I’m pretty sure they exist.” She rolled her eyes at my joke as the light turned green. “It’s the unorganized religions that you have to worry about. They just preach their version of the gospel all willy-nilly like.” I waved my hands about all willy-nilly like, and I smiled, sure I had earned another tick mark.
I have been accumulating tick marks since kindergarten, when I had my earliest notion of God. He was an old man with crazy white hair and a beard to match, sitting on a cloud in his long white robes. He had nothing better to do with his time than to watch me. And as comforting as that may sound to some, let me be clear…God watched me, not watched over me.
It made me paranoid.
A chalkboard next to him had a line drawn down its center—split between GOOD and BAD—with both sides heavily marked. Whenever something bad happened, I was sure that the bad side of the board must have had enough extra tick marks to warrant God’s wrath. I was a bad kid, or so I thought.
Nowadays, the image I keep of God is much more vague, much less petty, and quite possibly more unorganized.
Do you believe in God?
This seemingly warrants a simple yes or no answer, but it’s never that simple because the person asking the question and the person answering it know that this isn’t really the question. The real question being asked, of course, is: What do you believe about God?
Even the atheist has an answer that goes beyond “I don’t believe.”
Being the kind of guy who likes science and math, my favorite explanation for why an atheist doesn’t believe is simple…the mathematics of the universe don’t require God. That is, the existence of the universe, that everything came from nothing, can be explained as mathematically possible without the need for a divine being to have made it all happen.
An agnostic friend of mine jokes about God being a “giant flying spaghetti monster,” and challenges me to prove him wrong. I can’t disprove that, of course, but my inability to do so doesn’t prove him right. The flying spaghetti monster idea wasn’t his, but it is a wonderful demonstration of his faith…he simply doesn’t have time to Mosey on God.
So, what do I believe about God these days? It doesn’t matter.
Now, before you get your spaghetti noodle in a bunch, hear me out. I’m not saying that God doesn’t matter, or that the existence of God doesn’t matter, nor am I making a cosmic joke a la giant spaghetti monsters. I simply recognize that God exists or doesn’t exist regardless of what I believe. Tick marks are irrelevant.
I am most comfortable when I take God out of the equation and embrace the mathematics: The universe just happened several billion years ago. It quickly expanded and cooled as chaos found packets of order. Stars formed. Then planets. And on at least one patch of rock, primordial soup congealed into life. Life evolved and flourished, and eventually produced mankind. We became self-aware. We named this patch of rock Earth. We look out to the planets and stars and look for mathematical order in all the apparent chaos. We create technologies to look backwards billions of years to seek out where we all began.
Because of us, the universe became self-aware.
And here comes the cool irony. The universe gave us life, and ultimately, it will take life from us. Between those bookends of our timeline, we can experience many lifetimes in how we live “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” (When I die, my wife has been instructed to throw my body into a hole underneath an apple tree, and to tack a memorial plaque that reads little more than Bite Me. Oh, yes, my own cosmic joke will bring eternal life.)
To me, the universe itself is God…everything in it, everything we see and understand, and everything we struggle to understand. God is in the equation even if I take him out of the equation. So, maybe my struggle to connect with God is a struggle to connect with the world around us.
Maybe I struggle in placing my faith in God being the creator of the universe, something more than something that was merely created with the rest of the universe. Something more than a giant flying spaghetti monster, and something less than an old guy who has nothing better to do than to watch me and make tick marks.
Much less, preferably.
And that’s the short version of the long answer for what I currently believe about God. Yet, in the end, there’s another irony. For when someone asks “Do you believe in God?” what’s really being asked goes beyond “What do you believe about God?” At the heart of it all, what is being asked is “Is what I believe about God okay?”
Just in case, you know, tick marks really aren’t irrelevant.