Religion and spirituality are not synonymous with morality and ethics. There are cases in which they align and are congruent, and cases in which they are not. There are many moral atheists and many immoral religionists.
Over the decades of my life, this primary question has played an enormous role, from the times of yearning to accept the familial belief system — as a child — to the time of rejecting the familial belief system — as a teenager — to the time of now.
Let me tell you a little bit about that. When I was a child, I realized that I found it hard to fathom many of the ideas that I was taught regarding the deity. As a teenager, despite very much trying on the religion of my upbringing, I was unable to swallow the blue pill. I could not accept the common deity as taught to me, as it gave me nothing to aspire to ethically. This god was vengeful, violent, jealous, and needed to threaten me with eternal burning in order to have my devotion. Even my child’s mind could see that coercion and love did not go hand in hand.
I had a Sunday school teacher once tell me that all of the Native Americans of past history were in hell — when I inquired — because I was concerned that they’d not had a chance to meet and accept Jesus. Not only was this illogical to me — how could an omniscient god be so illogical and cruel, I wondered — I just couldn’t wrap my heart around these concepts. I was dismissed from that class and left behind me that day, a very concerned teacher. Thus, began the career of the questioning child.
Fast forward to my college years where I had intensive study of Old & New Testament, and just about every philosophy class, philosophy of religion class, and comparative religion class offered. I even stayed over some summers, with classes devised just for me, during which I would study, write a paper, and defend it to a panel. I was blessed with some very forward-thinking professors, believe it or not, at a Baptist University. But I always wondered if I was one of the few in class actually listening to the history of the religious literature. What I can say is that the history made a tremendous impact on me.
Imagine my surprise to learn that the man they call “Jesus” was in fact, a Jewish man, who followed Mosaic law. I don’t want to write a long history of my spiritual development, as it certainly wasn’t linear and it included so many schools of thought, from Buddhism, to atheism, and so many things in between. I still borrow from many traditions, and very much could relate to Gandhi when he said he was a smattering of all of them.
I’d rather get to today and what my personal thoughts are on the topic of G-d. G-d is a concept that I knew I could not grasp fully unless I studied both the acceptance and rejection of it. Whether it is some primal programming, I do not know, but even during times of logical rejection of the concept, I couldn’t extinguish a sense of connection to something larger than myself. I viewed myself as an atheist for a time, specifically because of my rejection of the commonly held beliefs about a creator. I didn’t want anyone to mistake my saying I believed in G-d, as a stamp of approval, or agreement, with what I’d come to know so well as the common god of the people. Therefore, it was much easier, and more authentic, in my estimation, to say “I reject that notion” by dismissing it altogether.
Please do not mistake my rejection of the cruel and violent god as a condemnation of our ancestors, and their understanding of their world. Throughout the course of human history, it is completely understandable that the human mind has sought explanations for inexplicable natural phenomena, and even to this day, I know we do it. Yet in the 21st century, my personal ethics allow no room for acceptance of the notion of a violent god that goes to war on behalf of any culture or permits behaviors that we now find atrocious.
Ancient texts and literature of any culture are just that. Texts. They are the writings and documentations of people at that time — people in search of answers, wrestling with how to live and explain their world — with the tools they have available. Many cultures use writing — writings that are altered throughout the course of history, and many cultures use oral traditions. And while much of it may seem foreign to modern ears, I suspect the same will be true of our descendants hundreds or thousands of years into our future.
I don’t interpret my modern understanding as better than theirs, as if I am the pinnacle of sophisticated humanity. No. We simply live in a different time, with a technological and scientific progression that has allowed us to explain many, but not most of things that there are to be explained. We understand some things in a much different way than they did, and likewise, I think that will sometimes be true for our descendants. Who knows? If we have Martian humans, how might what I’m writing right at this moment appear to them? They may be astonished at how little we know compared to them, and so on, and so forth, throughout the ages.
But back to deities. Nowadays I’m more comfortable being called a theist than I used to be, yet it is such a non-traditional view that I think many, especially hard-core religionists, might still call me an atheist. But frankly — it at least seems to me — that more and more people are warming up to thinking outside the box on this topic.
For me, G-d is ineffable. It is a concept that I feel incapable of adequately articulating because of how Sacred and personal my own beliefs are; but I will make a meager attempt because I do believe it is important to share.
G-d, for me, is not considered as a separate entity throwing down lightning rods of creation. Wham bam, here’s a zebra! No. That cannot be. Rather, I watch life unfold. I experience it. I see, and learn of, the energy all around me, and in me, and moving through me. The astonishing time of evolution. The birth and death of stars. This is a living force any way you slice it. We could look at it from the perspective of quantum physics, and it would still be as awe-inspiring to me as if we put a spiritual dressing on it.
It is the movement of single celled organisms. It is the sunlight and photosynthesis. It is honking horns and singing birds. It is everything, and everywhere. For me, G-d can only be all that is. The entire process of all I know or ever have known, good, or bad.
I very much prefer to use the term “Creator” not because I am a creationist, in any sense of the word, but because it alludes to something larger than myself, some living force responsible for all that is. The process of evolution on this planet may be but one of millions, possibly in many Universes. Who knows? It would all be G-d to me. As mentioned previously, I am not the one who initiates the life force and so I need some way to refer to this entity that runs through all. Calling it “The Force” as much of the world knows is done in Star Wars, would be a fair description of my beliefs. But I really prefer the more indigenous term “Creator.”
Creator force is too big for my finite mind to comprehend. It is the All and doesn’t need me to “worship” nor would I be inclined to do so. I don’t discern anything separate to worship. I don’t feel separate. I feel like a part of the circle of life. So, worship in any traditional sense of the word, is not an accurate description for anything I could do or feel. I can understand that in the course of human evolution this would have been, and perhaps for some people still, is necessary, but for most, I think it only customary.
For me, living in awe, wonder, gratitude, and in harmony with the Earth and other Beings, is exactly what my G-d would want me to do. It is what feels right, and congruent with my values. I’m in a natural state of bliss, despite challenging circumstances that come my way from time to time. I do not attempt to tell people that I have all of the facts about G-d. Because I have no facts, and neither does anyone else. Acceptance of not knowing is its own form of release.
Do I pray? Yes, I do. Well that doesn’t make any sense you might say, because I just said there is nothing separate for me to worship, so what would I pray to?
Rabbi Nachman of long past used to speak of talking to G-d like you’d talk to a close friend. And I admit that I enjoy that. When I wake up, I say thanks for my life and my health and my resources, and learning, and creativity, and the privilege of being here. And when I go to bed, I do the same. Because this does express what is in my heart. Deep gratitude to the Force of life, that for a moment, these particles come together and allow me this seemingly miraculous experience. And frankly, I suspect that my attitude of gratitude has kept me mentally and emotionally healthy throughout the course of life.
After decades of pondering and studying, I really believe that at my core I am connected to this Force of Life and that I know little of all that there is to know and experience. I have found that when I live the way I do, I am an even-keeled, consistently happy person. Simply, I feel harmonious with The Universe. It is a quiet, peaceful, contented life, even when hardship comes about, as it invariably does for each of us.
Retrospective analysis of life is both simultaneously alarming and amusing. I note the times that I felt I was going against my gut, with The Universe urging alternative paths to me. I acknowledge that The Universe here can represent another knowing part of myself, whispering that I might not be making the best decisions.
When I continued to go against what I suspected to be right, and best, I’d eventually get whacked with a proverbial 2 X 4 and set straight on my course. I don’t have a logical explanation for this assessment. It is just what I have surmised over the decades. I call it The Universe and have no better way to describe it, because I really don’t know all that I don’t know.
What I do know is that our sensory capabilities are far lesser than many other plants and animals. So even if we invent scientific tools to detect things that we cannot with mere human senses, how can we possibly conceive of all the tools that might be imagined, when we don’t even have the sensory array to imagine them? It took time to imagine the airplane and the superconductor, didn’t it? Or do we think this was imagined 20,000 years ago? I think not.
It’s a process. A very long process, and we learn over time. As we evolve, our imaginings become different, and bigger, and we call much of it “progress” and “innovation.” But for now, I say The Universe speaks to me in many ways, and I attempt to open as many channels as I can.
The flow of water across rocks is a form of speech. The calling of an elk is speech. The cry of a hawk is speech. The crackling of a fire is speech. I can experience and learn from them all, and all are a part of G-d, part of The Universe, in my personal worldview.
Sure, someone can take a different perspective of separateness from it all. They could say the call of the hawk is nothing but noise and only means something to the hawk, that there is nothing Sacred in it. But that doesn’t work for me. That’s a lonely animal viewpoint, one that has helped bring us to a place of deep concern ethically and with regard to our planetary resource situation. I prefer connection. I prefer to assume that all species are here because Nature put them here, and they’ve been here longer than I, and if I have the senses to listen and learn, I can gain from their wisdom. This is all a part of G-d, for me. G-d teaches me through the other children of Earth.
I do very much feel that I have a personal purpose, and as mentioned, it is to help wildlife regain a healthy status on this planet, and to also help people however I can. It is to promote humans living in balance, ethically evolved, with Nature.
To expound on my journey any further would deviate from the purpose of my book, but I did want to say a little about how my personal spirituality infuses my every day, and specifically my art and photography. Also, I believe this is the case for most everyone. A worldview, whether or not we are cognizant of it, plays out in how we treat the Earth, and others around us.
Our current situation with regard to natural resources, unbridled expansion, pollution, and lack of compassion for other species and their needs, is driven by our very detrimental societal acceptance of the misguided concept of dominion, right of the one with the biggest club, and ego-centric spiritual ideas that promote humans as the only Beings with value to Creator.
So while I do not believe I will burn in a spiritual hell for lack of belief in certain religious dogmas, I do believe that I can burn in a very physical hell of human making, due to ignorant consumption, short-sighted and greedy political decisions and policies, and by humanity’s tendency to place itself at the top of some imagined hierarchy of life. It is time that humanity comes to understand that we are no different than any overgrazing, overpopulated species. Conditions do not suddenly become better because we wish them to be. The natural decline must be its own kind of suffering, as sickness and death become more rampant in the overpopulated and underfed. The Universe, The Earth, and Nature will call the shots. Every animal, including humans, lives within an ecosystem that is checked by the resources available.
So, is G-d a judge that awaits us at the end of a life like so many of our mythologies suggest? How can anyone possibly know that? But I think not. I do think Nature is a judge, and Nature is a large part of what G-d is, to me.
The way I live here and now, is everything. There is nothing to look forward to later that can save me from my choices and actions now. My life now impacts those who come later, because the results of my choices leave conditions for all who need to dwell on the Earth long after the particles in my body have dispersed.
This is the life I’ve been given and to squander it by awaiting and asking for something more, in my estimation, seems insulting, at least from my finite human brain. Were I Creator and had bestowed this abundance on my children, only to watch them daydream of another life with streets of gold and no challenges, and make ethical shortcuts by stating that beliefs matter more than actions, and can save them from wrong actions, I think I would be ashamed and saddened.
I suppose if humanity survives many hundreds of years, there is a chance that some of these ideologies will be viewed and studied as we do the mythologies of ancient civilizations, and I think they will be able to draw a line between our major belief systems, and how we treated the Earth, and her other creatures.
The All That Is, this Life, this Force, is something I feel deeply connected to, and I would say is actually the central anchor for my entire life. And that is why as horrifically difficult as it was, I could not lie about my beliefs in order to make others feel better.
It most certainly hurts me for those who feel I will burn eternally. I ache for them. Of course, I am completely confident that there is no hell, and no vengeful, murderous god who would torture people. And there is no one right religious belief system. And it is not wrong to have no religious belief system. In my estimation, actions and results fully demonstrate what someone’s “religion” truly is, and all too often, we see ignorance and hatred.
I respect someone’s belief system when that system or ideology is congruent with, and promotes, ethical behavior. When their beliefs promote divisiveness, ignorance of the workings of the natural world and ecology, violence, hatred, or insistence that there is only one path, I have little respect.
My opinion is that love, generosity, good-will, walking in beauty upon the planet, and treating all Beings as I would want to be treated, if I were them, is what is important. What I think only matters insofar as it guides my actions. And in my humble opinion, that is what would matter to any G-d that I could believe in. This is not a G-d who needs my belief, or my love, or my worship, or my devotion. But this is my G-d, yes, Sacred to me nonetheless, in which I do believe. By choice and my own exploration and deduction. Not because the concepts were bestowed on me without questioning.
My Hebrew name is “Eliana” meaning “My G-d has answered me” and “Lael” for “dedicated to G-d.”
I’ll let you do the math from there.