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Off The Fence - A Quest For God

by Patricia Spencer, taken from her book How to Survive Suicide: What nobody told me about how to survive losing my son to suicide, available on Amazon.ca and Amazon.com

Note from Mary: This article, written by my dear friend Patty Spencer, is from the above-mentioned book. It presents such excellent concepts re God and science that I felt it should be included on this website.


In this essay I’m going to pour gasoline on open flames.

I’m going to talk about God.

The God conversation, I have noticed, is so inflammatory that any discussion about God quickly deteriorates into animosity and name-calling. People have strong feelings about the topic, whether pro or con, and they can’t abide divergent opinions.

I debated whether to include this essay at all because God is such a contentious issue. However, I decided to incorporate it because connecting to a Great Spirit was a critical part of my survival. If I didn’t have this conversation, I would be leaving out a key element in my recovery. In fact, without this piece, for me, there might not have been a recovery—at least not one as peaceful and rich.

Still, if you are a reader who under no circumstances would even consider the possibility that God exists, you should just hoot in derision now and skip to the next essay. If you’re already an ardent believer, you too might want to skip this essay because my eclectic ideas will undoubtedly upset you also.

On the other hand, if you’re in the middle like I was—if you’re someone who had a childhood exposure to God and had some sense of a Higher Spirit being afoot in the universe, but drifted away because you were upset by how christians behave, because you like to reach conclusions based on evidence, because God seemed too fantastical—then maybe you’d like to read on.

There’s no question, evolving from a secular, science-oriented world view to a belief in God is like going from being a white supremacist to marrying a person of colour. It requires a profound change in world view.

Why Bother

Nonetheless, for me that change of world view bestowed deep solace during a time of great sorrow, and it gave my life a sense of purpose and meaning that sustains me. That’s why in this essay I want to share with you some of the shifts in attitude that got me from secularism to God. Maybe some of these thoughts will be useful to you in your own search for spiritual peace. Maybe some of my insights can help you reframe some secular ideas that create obstacles to God.

First let me acknowledge that believing in God requires a leap of faith. It requires you to dismiss the socially-dominant idea that the scientific method is the only legitimate way to learn about the world. It requires you to trust your own experience and stop reframing it with scientism. And it requires you to accept mystery. There’s no scientific evidence I can bring you that can prove there is a God, just as there is no scientific evidence that can prove there isn’t a God.

The thing that finally prompted me to seriously search for God is that I found Aiden’s body.

I witnessed an atrocity—a disturbing act of violence perpetrated by my child, with himself as the victim. By my witness I became a party to something so horrific, so profoundly vile, that I could not purge it from the core of my being. It is not a small thing to end a life. I felt tainted, sullied, infected— sick in my soul. I woke every morning with a foul feeling in my gut, like I had some grotesque thing living inside me. At bedtime, with the distractions of the day quelled, I felt so distressed in my spirit that

I could not settle down. I felt restless, panicky. The more the numbness and shock phase wore off, the worse it became. That sensation of dis-ease became so strong I became convinced that if I didn’t find a way to purge that ... whatever ... from myself, I would eventually become physically ill.

That psychic illness I was experiencing was bigger than me, overwhelming, in fact. I intuited that I needed a solution bigger than myself, too. A spiritual crisis had to be met with a spiritual solution.

Thus I set out on a quest for God.

Major Insights

The first thing I realized was that everything I thought I knew about God was based on vague recollections from childhood catechism, and urban legend. I hadn't formally studied religion since I was 13 years old. It wasn't just that my formal education had taken place forty-five years before—I'd never come to it from an adult perspective. All through those secular years, I was so busy being disdainful and cynically superior—Yeah, right, I'd say. God sent his kid down to be crucified. That's fatherly love. Yeah, right. We're born with original sin, screwed before we even get started.—I'd never realized I was woefully uneducated. (BTW, I still reject these troublesome ideas, just from a now-examined point of view.)

Despite my facile attitude, I never quite let go of the idea of God during those years, either. I still sometimes went to church. It's like I had a sense there was something out there, but as science-oriented as I was (I was married to a scientist, I had studied nursing, and many of my friends were scientists), the idea that there was an actual overarching, unseen, Spiritual Being in the universe ran so counter to dominant thinking that it was hard to fully embrace.

I held onto a few strands of faith—scrawny refugees from my early christian upbringing. I believed in the importance of adding our light to the sum of light. And I believed that humans possess a spark of the divine. This was the spark I discerned when I heard stories of altruism, especially of people who risked their lives to help strangers. In fact, when I tried to explain God to Aiden, that was how I illustrated God, through altruism. I told him that God was what gave us the capacity to do the right thing (like rescuing Jews during the Nazi regime) when there was no personal gain in it, simply because it was the right thing to do.

If pressed, I might have said divinity was part of Life Itself, that it came as a standard feature in the human package. I thought maybe this spark, in all of us combined, created what humanity called God— a kind of collective uber-power capable of great works. I referred to this as 'godness.' Later, I'll get back to this idea and talk about the gaping hole that Aiden's death revealed in that little theory.

The first thing that helped me parse out the God question was the insight that what we refer to as christianity is actually composed of three separate elements—God, churches, and christians. You've got to figure out who's responsible for what, and therefore who you're really mad at.

Only one of these three elements is holy—God. Sadly, the only blameless one in the trio is the one who takes the heat. Which makes you wonder: If there is no God, as atheists keep saying, then who are they so mad at?

Personally, I think atheists and secularists are angry with churches and christians. Well, me too, because these two elements of christianity have historically done many indefensible things, things that warrant great shame. Worse, they've often done these dreadful things in God's name. In the past 80 years alone, they've failed to resist Hitler, they've participated in the genocide of First Nations through their residential schools, they've sheltered pedophiles, they've sat on their piles of plundered gold while the very faithful they stole it from live in poverty, etc., etc., etc.). I won't list more because this is an essay, not a library, but this abysmal history was another big reason why I shunned christianity. I didn't want to be associated with it any more than the next person.

Therefore, to get myself into a church again, to be part of a christian community, I had to come to grips with the fact that misconduct occurs everywhere that humans gather. Politics happen everywhere. Chicanery happens everywhere. Hypocrisy happens everywhere—including in the institutions that self- righteously proclaim their piety.

Churches, I had to realize, are hospitals for sinners, not museums for saints.

I also had to admit that the fervour with which religion is attacked is also hypocritical. Why is it okay to feverishly oppose one institution but not another, when the same ugly traits are being expressed in both? For example, why is it that when our churches and their followers are greedy, corrupt, and abusive to the powerless, secular society calls for the eradication of religion, but when our government and its followers are greedy, corrupt, and abusive to the powerless, they still call democracy the greatest system in the world?

Trusting Human Nature

Now let me look at other shifts in attitude that inched me toward God. You can call them rationalizations if you want. (Isn't it ironic that in a scientist society, 'rationalizing' is considered pejorative? Hah.)

Another irony is that the first steps I took toward God were actually decisions I made to trust in human nature. As part of my exploration of different faith traditions, one Sunday I attended a service in a cathedral that was built in the late 1700s. As I walked up its time-worn stone steps, it occurred to me that for over 200 years, people had been coming up those same stairs, carrying woes just like mine.

That made me think about how those people, like my own ancestors, had relied on God to get them through their trials. Even if God didn't really exist and was just a concept—God had been instrumental in their survival. I realized that even just the concept of God was powerful, like a placebo or something. I know that sounds outrageous, even sacrilegious, but the placebo effect is extraordinarily cool. (And who knows how or why the power of belief works—or where it comes from.)

Secondly, I think the fact that humanity has an innate urge for God is a sign that God is essential to our survival. I kept coming back to the fact that through all time, in all places, across every culture, people have believed in a God. This universal human desire for God did not seem accidental to me—it was just too widespread, too tenacious, too powerful. The urge was as primal as thirst or hunger. Even today, outside of the so-called advanced western world, God still has many adherents. Are they all wrong and we're the only ones who are right?

Atheists argue that religion must go because it causes conflicts that lead to war, but here they are coming to fisticuffs with believers over whether rationalism is superior to faith. To me, all conflict is about power. If we eradicated religion, believe me, we'd still have war. We'd just have to use other excuses, as did Stalin (50 million dead), Mao (15-45 million dead), and the Khmer Rouge (1.5-2 million dead).

Thirdly, I decided to trust the wisdom of Life Itself. Our brains have two hemispheres. The left brain is responsible for analytic, rational, logical thinking. The right deals with creativity, intuition, and insight. Proponents of scientism are insisting that only the knowledge derived from left brain thinking has validity. I decided that if the material world was the only important one, the right brain never would have developed. I think that fully half our brain power is dedicated to experiencing and interpreting non-material phenomena because that realm is just as important to humans as the rational and material experience.

Pushed Off The Fence

A fourth important decision I made didn't come from trusting humanity. Quite the opposite. This insight pushed me off the fence I'd been sitting on for so long.

I told you before about the mashup of ideas that served as my spiritual base in the years before Aiden's death, about how I thought 'godness' was generated from the human spirit. Of course, those notions got put to the test after Aiden died. As one would expect, his suicide caused my life to fall apart. My collapse was so profound, it left nothing of me but ashes. Spiritually I was a vacuum, completely depleted, no reserves.

Well, it turns out that when you get devastated like that, it shows up the glaring hole in your little 'godness' theory, and this is it: If divinity comes from humanity, and if you get to a point where your spirit is drained dry, where do you go to get more? How can you replenish it? You can't draw it from yourself. You're empty.

Grace, I realized, has to come from outside of ourselves.

Otherwise, when we fall into an abyss, we're done. Finito. Kaput. We just have to look around to see that people don't all die when their spirits fail them. Many of us do rise from the ashes. We aren't finished. We get refilled.

The notion that spiritual energy comes into you from someplace other than a human source, was pivotal. It took me another step closer to a belief in God as an entity outside of myself. Despite my complete spiritual bankruptcy during those awful years right after Aiden's death, I have survived this tragedy and grown spiritually from it. I know I didn't pull that rescue out of myself. I didn't have anything left upon which to draw. As I journalled, trying to figure things out, I had some Aha! moments that brought me great calm. I felt peace come over me as I began praying every day. I believe that a Greater Power was at work, gradually replacing my desolation with grace and hope. Increasingly, I became unwilling to discount those strong experiences, to reframe them with scientism and write them off as I would have in the past, as artefacts of concentration or meditation.

Another piece of the soul / God puzzle I decided not to write off—the concept that there is a realm outside of the strictly material world—are the stories of Near Death Experiences (NDEs). These NDEs, related by credible people with more to lose (professional licenses, and social status) than to gain by telling their stories, support the argument that there is individual consciousness separate from our bodies, and that there is a Loving Being in this realm of Higher Consciousness.

NDEs are finally getting the study they merit, instead of being summarily dismissed (which smacks of skeptics throwing out the data that doesn't support their hypothesis). Although there are countless stories becoming public, I was especially impressed by the stories of Dr. Eben Alexander, the neurosurgeon who wrote Proof of Heaven, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Mary Neal (author of Heaven and Back), French anesthesiologist Dr. Jean-Jacques Charbonier (author of 7 Reasons to Believe in the Afterlife: A Doctor Reviews the Case for Consciousness after Death), and Anita Moorjani (author of Dying to be Me).

Except for Dr. Charbonier, who studies NDEs, the others all speak to having had vivid experiences that were life-altering in a way a simple hallucination would not be. In his book, Dr. Alexander, drawing on his medical background, refutes each major mainstream hypothesis that suggests that NDEs are caused by changes in brain chemistry during the dying process.

Dr. Neal, whose knees were broken and completely reversed in direction in a kayak accident, suffered no pain from her accident. Anita Moorjani, who was within hours of dying from widespread cancer, experienced a complete, medically-inexplicable, cure.

If you are familiar with NDEs, you know that many survivors' stories have a similar pattern. Reports of these same experiences can be found in volumes as old as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Plato's Republic. They are also reported by the very young, who have no notions about death theories, or craving for publicity.

The more I looked into it, the more I agreed with Pulitzer Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson, who says about scientism, that we are letting ourselves be talked out of our lived experience by the insistence that only rational, material explanations are valid ways of understanding the world.

I was tired of having my intuitive thinking process herded, cattle-like, down a chute that ended at a materialist slaughterhouse.

Scientism

Which brings me to scientism, the argument that science is the only reliable source of knowledge and that knowledge is independent of experience. Because scientism has become the prevailing world view, for me, it was the single biggest obstacle to God. Therefore, I will devote a fair amount of space to examining it.

And, yes, I will devote more space to its shortcomings, relative to the space I gave to the shortcomings of religion. The focus of this essay is on how I got to God. That means I have to dwell on how I challenged scientism.

First, I had to figure out what I thought, so I decided to write an essay about God, science, and faith. I intentionally did not research other people's ideas. I wrote from my own experience, trying to discern my own thoughts. (This might be an exercise that would be useful to you, too.)

One of my key conclusions was that though science is A wonderful way to discover and think about our world, it is not THE source of truth. That's because I decided that for a fact to qualify as a capital 'T' Truth, it has to have been true for all time in all places.

Using that criteria, science cannot qualify as being The Truth.

Here's an example why: In 1803, Dalton's Atomic Theory proposed that atoms were indivisible units of matter. Subsequently, J.J. Thomson discovered electrons (1897); Ernest Rutherford found protons (1918); and James Chadwick identified neutrons (1932). More recently, quantum mechanics has identified even tinier particles.

Therefore: At which point in that process was scientific knowledge about the atom 'The Truth'? In 1803? 1918? Today? No definition of the atom remained constant. Knowledge kept changing. OK. That's cool.

But what if you were waiting for science to reveal the cold hard facts (i.e., 'The Truth') so that you could base your life on something 'real'? When would that knowledge be available? In 1803? 1918? Ever? If researchers never stopped discovering new things about those cold hard facts you were waiting for, then what? Would Truth just be indefinitely postponed?

There's also another problem. What if the cold hard facts turned out to be too complicated for humans to understand? Would The Truth still exist? That is, if we were incapable of explaining the cold hard facts would that mean that they therefore didn't exist, due to lack of proof? Is the universe constrained by the limits of the human brain? Or does the universe extend beyond the limits of a blob of pink tissue trapped inside a human skull?

Perhaps the real problem is not God, but our human arrogance, our belief that nothing in the universe could possibly surpass what humans can describe.

Blemishes

Another reason why I couldn't accept science as The Truth is that sometimes it's just wrong.

In 1972 the prevailing thinking was that 98 percent of the human genome was 'junk DNA'—useless noncoding stuff that evolution hadn't bothered to delete. By September of 2012, however, the Encode Project announced that in fact these sequences are crucial to the way our genome works. Today, the basic evolutionary premise itself—that genes are the units of heredity—is under fire by the likes of Oxford's Denis Noble.

We like to think science rests on a solid foundation, and for centuries we have looked upon its complexion as if it were flawless, but it has blemishes. For instance:

  • Using the scientific method doesn't guarantee that researchers will either correctly design the experiments, or accurately interpret the results.
  • The scientific community has its popes, power structures, and 'in groups,' too.
  • While peer review serves as a way to 'validate' science, it can also eliminate 'outside-the-box' ideas. Even professional training itself may contribute to narrowed vision.
  • Science is limited by available tools.
  • While researchers can use the scientific method to answer questions in a systematic way, they may not pose the right questions.
  • Researchers can't be sure that the methods by which they test their hypotheses provide definitive results.
  • There are limits to what the scientific method can test. For example, because you must have a hypothesis that can be proven wrong, you can't test the existence of God. (Isn't it ironic that rabid atheists in the scientific community, bent on discrediting God, can't supply any scientific proof to support their claim? They have to rest their case on their strongly held beliefs, just like the faithful do.)
  • Science may produce unforeseen results that aren't immediately apparent (e.g., thalidomide, diethylstilbestrol).
  • Once a theory is widely accepted, subsequent research is framed exclusively within its paradigm. No one funds research that debunks the dominant way of thinking.
  • The scientific method uses reductionism. It looks at a phenomenon at the most basic level possible. It's like examining a novel by studying the individual letters of which it is comprised. This reductionism may hide how an element interacts with the bigger system of which it is a part.
  • Commercial interests exert huge pressure on scientists to create experiments that produce specific results when profit is involved, a troubling trend given how many university research facilities are now corporately funded.
  • Institutional and political interests can also undermine the practice of good science. (Ask Galileo.)


All the time our secular society turns its attention to the excesses of religion, it has turned a blind eye to the destructive aspects of science. We ignore the fact that science developed the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that science develops chemical weapons, and science advances germ warfare.

In the service of corporate greed, science has engineered terminator seeds (seeds that won't reproduce future generations) for the world's most important food crops, and wants to release them into the wild. As well, science has concocted the deadly slurry of cancer-causing liquids used in fracking at the extreme risk of our underground water reserves.

Above all, by developing the atomic bomb, science has brought us to the brink of destroying the entirety of humanity—as well as of destroying the very planet upon which we stand, our precious 1 in 10 billion blue planet with its 8.7 million life forms.

Science, in short, is just as impeachable as religion. Just as many serious accusations can be levelled against the scientific world as the religious. My point isn't to revile science. Science, by revealing the beauty and intricacy of the natural world makes me love creation all the more. I'm just trying to make it clear that the same human limitations and excesses that affect religion also affect science. It is not fair to dismiss the entirety of religion on the grounds of malfeasance any more than it is fair to dismiss science on that basis—especially since much good can also come from both those quarters.

One final thing I want to address about science has to do with reductionism (Michelangelo's David is just a piece of marble). In the context of this essay, reductionism harms the human spirit. By looking at Life Itself only through the lens of DNA, brain waves, or other reductive means, science devalues the human experience. The extraordinary concoction that is a human being becomes a pawn to its machinery. Love is reduced to oxytocin, personality to molecules, consciousness to brain chemistry.

As the survivor of a major trauma, I did not need to feel any more insignificant than I already did. I decided to take a stand and declare my worth beyond my molecules and synapses—to stop defining myself as the least I could be, rather than as the most I could be. I am the novel, with story and theme and subtext and character and dialog—I am not the alphabet.

Jesus In Particular

I believe all prayers rise to the same God, only via different traditions. In this section, however, I concentrate on christianity because this is a personal essay, and christianity is my experience. I don't think God left people out, but rather came to different peoples in ways that work for them. Therefore, I don't believe that christianity is the only 'true' faith; it is just one of the many true faiths.

Since most people in the west are familiar with the basic Jesus story, in this last section, I'm just going to quickly outline a few insights that I gained after I started studying christianity that strengthened my belief in the veracity of the story.

The one book I recommend that covers the basics of christianity and is very easy to read is Timothy Keller's book, The Reason for God—Belief in an Age of Skepticism. (I don't agree with all the theology, but it's a great entry point that covers all the stuff you thought you knew, but actually didn't.)

For two years, the only thing I read about was religion. So much has been written, from so many perspectives, for so long, that it's hard to figure out what's what—everyone has an interpretation. Ultimately I decided to just concentrate on the source story, the four gospels.

I began by asking how we even know the Jesus story is real. Once again, I came back to trusting human nature. Early christians, Jesus' contemporaries, were persecuted. So the ancients literally risked death to preserve that story, and to follow the teachings of Christ. Under life and death conditions, would you risk your life for a bogus story? Me neither.

Many people are troubled by the inconsistencies among the gospels. It doesn't bother me that there are four versions because the core premise remains consistent. If you and three other people were in New York City on 9/11, you would have four accounts of what happened, depending on where you were standing and on what kinds of things you notice, wouldn't you? In fact, it would be odd if you were all called to court to testify and all your versions were identical, wouldn't it? It would sound a bit like collusion.

Neither does it bother me that the gospels were written "long after" Jesus' death. JC died in the year 30 (ish). Paul's letters were written in the 50's, and Mark's gospel is from the 70s. For a society with an oral tradition, 20-40 years is nothing. (Heck, 9/11 happened over 20 years ago now—do you think the survivors have grown fuzzy about what happened? Maybe about some minor details, but certainly not the core events.) Unlike us today, lazily relying on the internet for our information, people in those days had prodigious memories (think of the 'begats!'). Story telling, often in parables, was their way of transmitting wisdom from generation to generation. The reason the gospels were written at all is that the apostles were being killed off during the persecutions, and christians were seeking ways to protect the information. (Think how the Dead Sea Scrolls were protected. Same idea.)

Also, in those days, any number of false messiahs had swung through the region and gotten themselves crucified too, but no one knows their names. If Jesus was just another loony, why did his story persist? Why did people become his followers and not followers of the other Joes who called themselves messiahs? I think it's because something extraordinary happened. Remember, the first christians were Jesus' contemporaries. They were eyewitnesses to what actually happened—and there were hundreds of them. They were the ones who got the christian faith tradition rolling. They weren't going on hearsay like we are.

Another compelling insight for me was that most of the original apostles were martyred. Remember, on the night before the crucifixion when the authorities came asking about Jesus, some of those same guys denied being associated with Jesus. They didn't want to get in trouble any more than you or I would. But afterwards—after the resurrection—the apostles refused to repudiate Jesus. In my opinion, people don't go from: "Jesus? Nope. Don't know the guy" to: "Go ahead. Crucify me. I saw what I saw" unless they're convinced they've seen something worth dying for.

As far as I'm concerned Jesus was about love. His life exemplified the divinity of which humans are capable. His message was short and sweet: Love God. Love your neighbours. Over and out.

He was a man of humble origins who healed others and preached love. He had no social status, and no army, and he associated with all the wrong people. And yet, his message was so powerful, so compelling that the authorities felt they had to silence him. He demonstrated that there's tremendous power in our connection to the divinity within us. We are matches, lit from the Sun. We need to tap into that Light and reflect it in the way we behave in the world.

Becoming more familiar with christianity helped me discern the difference between the direct teachings of Jesus and the troublesome theologies that were tacked on after the fact. They're just theories, interpretations promoted by scholars who maybe spent too much time in the library stacks of the institutional church.

All Told

God, as I said earlier, comes down to faith. So does science, despite its certainty that eventually it can explain everything. I chose to have faith in the option that made me feel like my life has value and meaning and purpose. I chose the option that offered solace.

I simply would not have bothered to go through the hardship of recovering from the loss of my son and my marriage if my only reason for being in existence was to hand down my DNA (the purpose of life from an evolutionary point of view). In fact, from that perspective, with both my sons dead, my purpose for being alive was over. There was no reason to go on.

I chose God because God took me from desolation to consolation, from despair to possibility, from hating my life to honouring my life.

Ain't no strand of DNA that can code for that.


Read more about Patty and her books here.

Suicide Prevention

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There is no shame in having suicidal feelings.  There is no reason you should not ask for help.  If you don't have a trusted friend or relative, call one of the numbers above.

All you have to say is, "I NEED HELP!"

Always remember:  Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary situation!

You may feel like things will never change, but things ALWAYS change.  There are new meds being developed all the time, and situations DO change. 

If you had terminal cancer and were offered a life-saving drug, I would hope that you would take it.

Suicidal feelings are a health issue just as cancer is a health issue.  If you would get help for your body, why would you not get help for your mind!

Please give life another chance.

Feel free to email Mary.   I'm here for you.