You know those movies that really dig into an area or theme that means a lot to you, and even if they only touch on things, it gets you thinking? And when an incredibly beautiful movie does that in a way that's slightly off of what you think enough that it really, really gets you thinking?
So I went and saw The Fault In Our Stars last Thursday. (Everybody go see it. Seriously. So, so good.) It got me thinking in a way that required some time for me to gather my thoughts before I could give a coherent response. No guarantees on that coherence even now, but I know you guys are awesome enough that you'll bear with me, and forgive me this philosophical/spiritual thought pile of a post today. So here goes.
One of the big themes in both the book and the film of The Fault In Our Stars is this idea of oblivion. It's something the two main characters talk about a lot, and it's the way they talk about oblivion and the afterlife that got me thinking.
These two main teenage characters are very intelligent, and very self-aware. They talk very maturely about an afterlife and the eventual oblivion of all humans, and talk about it in an almost-but-not-quite nihilistic way. Their intelligent discussions are sort of a way of coping with this idea of nothingness, of total oblivion. A way of finding meaning in our lives despite that eventual oblivion. And I think that's beautiful.
But I'm just not convinced it's enough.
I'm going to get sort of beyond what the point of the movie was here, but I guess I came away from the book and the movie feeling ever so slightly invalidated. (Among other things that were much more positive. Seriously, read this book and see the movie.). I guess what I wanted was some sort of acknowledgement that believing in a real forever, believing that we and our stories won't face total oblivion, is an option. Because of the tone of the conversations between these two characters, like times when Hazel suggests that Gus ignore his fear of oblivion because "that's what everyone else does," I couldn't help feeling like intelligence was being equated with belief in oblivion, and whether or not that was intentional, I wanted to be like, hey, I can believe in a real eternity and be intelligent too.
I called this post "Why I Believe In God," and I guess the most pertinent and simple answer to that question is that I have experienced too many occasions where, to use a Lewis Carroll word, there's just too much Muchness for there not to be Much More.
When I listen to the words to Goodnight, My Angel by Billy Joel or Into the Woods by Sondheim--or when I see the Bellagio fountains or a Van Gogh painting--or when I eat a really, really good white chocolate macadamia nut cheesecake--when I'm saving seats for Fantasmic with my family, then we all run to beat the crowd to the Indiana Jones ride--when I watch David Hyde Pierce or Meryl Streep--when I read Jane Eyre or anything by Wallace Stegner--when I think of Watson and Crick discovering the structure of DNA...I mean seriously, the human body is so meticulous and incredible and, well, miraculous, and then add to that the fact that we also have the faculties to study and contemplate and discover our own miraculous structure--its all just so much Much.
I have felt too keenly the universes awareness of me as an individual not to believe that what we have now is just the merest tip of the iceberg. As is so often the case, C. S. Lewis said it best when he said, "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." That is basically my life mantra.
Now, I'm speaking in very individualized terms here, and all of this isn't any kind of "proof" of anything. But in a way that's sort of my point.
The debate about faith and spirituality goes back basically forever. It feels like there's an infinite number of debates/discussions/arguments about things like certain words and etymology in the Bible, or the historicity of events in the Quoran, or scientific analysis of religious stories. My own thinking is that those kinds of discussions, while very interesting and potentially valuable, not only miss the basic point but are in and of themselves inherently flawed. I feel like basing a Faith decision on an etymological or cultural or geological analysis of a religious text or narrative is like forming an understanding of the human body when all you have is the left and right arms. In other words, there is just too much we don't know, in all these areas, including spirituality. If two things (like a Biblical narrative and some kind of analysis of it) seem to you to be both true and incompatible, it could very well be that we're just missing the connecting piece. It seems a bit silly to me to base a Faith decision on something like, say, archaeology, when archaeology itself is changing and digging up new and surprising things every day.
In other words, this goes deeper than our available tools for "proof."
Given themes like the one in The Fault In Our Stars, and the wonderful, intelligent characters discussing those ideas, it occasionally feels to me like I'm being taken less seriously, or being looked at as believing "unscientifically"? And again, I'm pretty sure that was not the intention in this case, but it hits a little too close to the times when that has been an issue.
I spent the better part of the 2008 Presidential Election arguing faith and religion with strangers on the internet. Admittedly not the wisest choice, but I'm a little stubborn and enjoy critical and analytical discussions. Anyway, I've seen all the old arguments. In situations like that one I have much less of a problem with the arguments themselves than with the attitude that often comes with them, that those who have decided on Faith are less intelligent/intellectual or naive or brainwashed or merely giving in to pressure.
My point is that the arguments and "proofs" are fallible on both sides. Again, it's not about "proving" one way or another. That's just not really possible. And whether a person has chosen Faith or not is not a statement either way on that persons intelligence or logical/analytical capacities.
I think its more about each individuals process, and how you've reached the decisions you've reached. I think it's definitely possible and even normal for people to choose faith because of naivety or stubbornness or pressure, just as I believe its possible not to choose faith because of naivety or stubbornness or pressure. And since we can't really rely on the old arguments and proofs, in a way it almost becomes more about not knowing.
Which is why it has never made sense to me when people say that Faith or religion is the safe, or easy, or comfortable choice. I think people can make it appear that way even to themselves by not thinking about things too hard. But real faith? Believing in the face of No Proofs? Whoo boy. It can be utterly terrifying. Believing in something deeper, more innate than proofs or even our own physical senses, is the opposite of easy. I think we want big Saul/Paul "Proving" experiences, but that almost never happens and we have to build our decisions with smaller, more day to day experiences. In my experience it can be a scary and awkward and gut-wrenching daily battle.
Nihilism takes little to no maintenance.
So then, why Faith? Because in my own experience it is, in fact, deeper than proofs or the learning I do with my physical senses. Because, if this makes any sense, a Van Gogh painting is more Real than a Van Gogh painting, a Stephen Sondheim song Truer than a Stephen Sondheim song. Because a Pixar movie means More than a Pixar movie and because DNA is more Beautiful than DNA and Colin Firth is sexier than Colin Firth. (He's the only thing that is). At least, that is what my experience indicates. And if that's the case, then there's a real Real and a true True out there.
So yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause. Er, I mean...no, Hazel Grace Lancaster, I don't think humans will face oblivion. I think we humans and our individuality and our Beauty and our Muchness will go on eternally, and have meaning eternally. This is all just my own experience, and maybe only some or none of it really works for you. If that's the case, then I want you to know that I value and validate your experience and struggles and am interested in learning from you. Because we may very well be, in some ways, holding different hands of the same body, and if we can respect each other and each be willing to grow, maybe we can find a way to meet in the middle.