Revised What I Believe (Part 4 of 7) to be published eventually in book form.
4. Faith, “Fate,” and “God’s Computer”
Faith and doubt: do I really believe my own intellectual convictions?
“Ay, there’s the rub,” to quote from Hamlet’s most famous speech. Shakespeare too expresses the greatest question humans have, wondering whether death (or sleep) mightn’t be the solution for all of us, except that “the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.”
Whether we can really have “faith,” of course, is a huge difficulty for all of us. However much my ideas make sense to me, there are times when I find that putting them into practice in my everyday life seems almost impossible. Particularly in my not infrequent moods of depression I still find myself asking whether “God really exists,” however I may define “him.” In my heart of hearts, do I really believe what my mind has told me? What if I’m fooling myself when I say that I don’t believe my “consciousness” will die? Even if all of existence is an enduring power that we call “God,” what guarantee is there that my “consciousness” will partake in it after my “death”?
I recall the first time as a adult that I had an operation under a powerful anaesthetic, when I was immediately “out to the world.” It was a completely blank period in my life, and I thought afterwards: My God, I could have died and I wouldn’t even have known I’d died. Isn’t death perhaps like this: a total blank? Certainly many think so, and it seems logical enough, without bringing God into it at all. Even if “there is” a God and, in the biblical image, he is the plant and we are the branches—well a branch may die easily enough while the plant continues to exist. In a way this might even seem easier: I for one sometimes think of deceased friends as fortunate in that they did not live to experience the sorry state of the world today.
I had to think about this for a long time before the realization “came” to me (in bed at about four in the morning) that my consciousness is still a part of the “everything that is God” that cannot disappear. My thinking goes something like this: what I’ve said above is logical but short-sighted, because then, again, I’m left with the whole problem of why the universe, and other universes too, exist. Is it possible that there is a huge “blind” force of creation that has nothing to do with me? For me that just doesn’t make sense.
I believe not in the “God” who is outside myself, but who is myself—the “God inside,” as I’ve said from the beginning. On the other hand, at times it can be convenient to think of God being outside myself, since it then relieves me of the responsibility of creating for myself what I want to bring forth in this lifetime (in the sense of when our “souls” have accomplished their basic purpose.) In fact, I think of God in two opposite ways, fluctuating between the two. I also realize my lack of knowledge of what to ask for.
This is surely true of many of us. Faith remains a problem when our petitions don’t seem to be working. But again, what are our “true ” desires? To give an example I’ve used in Veronica’s Papers. Suppose I “ask for” more money, and it’s not forthcoming. Does that mean that my petition hasn’t worked? But do I really want more money? Money not only doesn’t interest me, I find the whole subject totally boring. My true desires are for some of those things that, in my short-sightedness, I think more money would help me with. I enjoy travel, and I’ve traveled a lot: not because of having money, but by working abroad, by sabbatical leaves, and by being a leader for tourist groups.
Another example is wanting sales for my novel, Sardinian Silver. How easy if the publisher simply advertised it and it sold immediately. I wouldn’t have to write all these articles on sites intended to promote it. But wait a minute: for a long time I’ve been having difficulty putting another novel together. But now I’m writing nonetheless. Are not these articles something I want to write, so everything so far has turned out to reflect my true desires (for which, of course, I have to think a great deal)? In fact I’ve achieved many of them—bearing in mind that once something has been fulfilled we all tend to forget it and take it for granted.
Self as opposed to others.
In all of this, it might seem that I’ve been talking largely of myself: am I not just being selfish (or at least self-centred)? In a sense, I am. But in my understanding, “God’s will” and mine (if I am “God”) are the same. Also, while I might make “petitions” for myself, what right have I to do so for others? There are millions of people whose lives are immeasurably more difficult than mine. For all that I sympathize and try to help (as I do when I can) I cannot live their lives for them, so in a sense it’s not my concern. I can pray for them only in very general terms, for I just don’t know what’s best for them. With all the wars, violence, poverty, misery, problems in the world, I can only ask that people’s true desires (as I’ve tried to define them) be fulfilled, bearing in mind that this Earth is not the only world in the universe and there are undoubtedly places where life generally is less harsh.
Which brings me again to reincarnation, which may well be in a “better” place than on this Earth. For me, the evidence for reincarnation that I’ve mentioned earlier is of enormous importance, since it obviously means we “continue” in some way after our death. Hence what I would call my “metaphysical optimism.”
When prayers don’t seem to be answered.
When we pray for a particular thing or result, the outcome depends on so many other circumstances that even the best computer would be unable to sort them out. Everything depends on everything else—which is often expressed in the common saying that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world brings about some huge event elsewhere. To take a more immediate example from our own lives: say we have applied for one particular job, which we pray to get. Others have prayed for it too, and obviously someone has to be disappointed. Has the “prayer” not worked? For the person who gets the job, it obviously has, but what of the others who also prayed for it?
In this life we seem constantly to be in competition with others. Everyone wants to come out on top, but we can’t be everything we may want, as is obvious in the Olympics, for example, where there are only a certain number of medals. Or take my current preoccupation with getting published and gaining recognition. A traditional publishing house can publish only so many books, and for every “best seller” there have to be “worse sellers.”
Chance, or fate?
If we see life as meaningless, then everything depends on “chance.” “Fate” on the other hand implies some kind of “power,” largely a malicious one. Neither makes much sense to me. But I find another idea helpful, that I call somewhat facetiously:
With an impossibly large number of people all desiring specific outcomes, how does “God” sort it out, in a way that even the largest computer in existence would be incapable of, again in terms of our souls’ true desires? I have several times been miserable over a job (or an acting role, or a directing role, or a particular relationship, etc.) that I didn’t get, only to be grateful later that I didn’t, because things turned out better anyway.
To give an example. Between school, national service, and university I worked in the London office of a well-known British travel company, with the idea that during my subsequent university vacations I should work for it as a representative abroad. But by the time I was at university, the personnel officer who knew me had changed, and I didn’t impress her substitute, who turned me down in favour of others. Angry as well as disappointed, I wrote back complaining, and she relented by offering me the only job left: as a representative in Scotland. Second-best, I thought—and in subsequent years I indeed worked in Switzerland. But working in Scotland gave me a love for that country and an interest in the Gaelic I heard spoken there, without which my life would have been immeasurably poorer.
Looking back over my life there is indeed little to regret. All my prayers to “God’s computer” were answered so as to bring about what I most desired, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Is this the same as saying that everything, always, turns out for the best? I haven’t the right to say this for others, but for me I have to say that “God” has never let me down —although I need constantly to remind myself of this when things don’t seem to be going my way. I even wrote a short book, Reflections on Faith (which I doubt if I’ll ever publish, since it had a far more traditionally “religious” viewpoint), which traced my day-to-day confrontation with a serious problem when I was on sabbatical leave in France. It eventually ended with “God” providing a solution.
Life is so much easier if we can rely on God for things generally going right, remembering our past experience. How many of our worries are caused by stewing over things that may never happen, with the thought “what if?” This isn’t a question of “blind faith” rather than simple forethought, but of “Let go and let God.” With a belief in God, as someone recently put it, “Coincidences happen.”
Neale Donald Walsch also makes the point that, if I indeed am “God” in the sense indicated earlier, I do not need in my prayers to petition or beg things of him, but to command (I can’t, of course, command others). I’ve even tried listing my commands: as far as I have the knowledge to do so, for there are still things I don’t have to determine immediately.
Let us remember too the little unexpected things, which afterwards seem so normal that we immediately forget them. I made a girl friend once only because the hotel I usually booked for a holiday was full and I was forced to stay in another one. Some unknown person had taken the last room and, without knowing it, had altered my life. We can easily invent reasons for that person too and why the booking was made just then: friends with an invitation, an unexpected few days off work, dissatisfaction with another hotel. I must surely have had the same effect on others’ lives, without being aware of it. We are all part of a complex interaction of events stretching out to the whole of life, to the distant places of this earth, and even to our ancestors and the beginning of the universe.
Yet I sometimes complain that, although my life has been pretty easy with no real disasters or upsets, there haven’t been enough of the little “unexpected things,” the “extras” to make me more successful, better known or whatever. But, if think carefully, of course there have been the “unexpected things,” which I have acted on and then forgotten about. Again, a simple example: I got involved in directing for the local theatre because someone had frequently seen me in the audience and, without my doing anything, suggested my name to the committee seeking directors. I’ve been directing there ever since—but of course still belly-aching if I don’t get the play I want. (To quote a typically romantic line from Shelley: “We look before and after, and pine for what is not.”)
Does it not follow that we have to joyfully accept everything that happens in our lives, including opportunities to help others too—with the assurance that everything goes into “God’s computer” and will turn out for the best, often in a way that do not foresee? How one’s parents met, where they decided to live, what house they bought and who one’s neighbours were, what schools one attended, who one’s friends were: a slight change in any of these and one’s entire life could have been different.
If I’m a little long-winded here it’s because I find the idea of God’s computer extremely helpful, so let me finish with a story. At school in England, I had always loved languages, but in those years I was faced with doing two years of national (military) service. However, I had a scholarship to Cambridge University in French and German, and because of this I had the choice of doing national service first or deferring it. But conventional wisdom said get it out of the way so as to enjoy university more afterwards—and that’s what I decided, giving the matter no serious thought at all. I also “happened” to have a distant cousin who was in charge of trade selection in the Royal Air Force, and he guaranteed that I would get onto the forces’ Russian course if I chose the R.A.F. rather than the army or navy.
So I learned Russian during national service, getting onto the advanced course for training as an interpreter—after the war, it was decided that there should be a reserve of people who spoke Russian in case of necessity. When it ended, I went up to Cambridge as a student and, after almost two years of intensive Russian, I naturally took it as well as French and German. Then another “chance” event took place. After graduating and leaving one job I didn’t like, I saw an advertisement for a teacher of English in Sardinia, which provided the basis for my novel Sardinian Silver. The following year I was in Italy again, but I found I was forgetting my Russian, so I wrote to my former professor, who suggested I apply for a position teaching it at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. I didn’t get it—it had just been offered to someone else—and I forgot the very name of Kingston, Ontario. Instead, I got onto the Anglo-Soviet Exchange. While I was in Leningrad, I received another letter from Queen’s, from a friend of mine who had also learnt Russian in the R.A.F. and, unbeknownst to me, had got the position I’d applied for. But they needed someone else, and the Dean had shown him my original letter, saying “Here’s someone from Cambridge: perhaps you know him?” So I went to Canada.
Now the point of this rather long story is that I wouldn’t have done my national service at all if I’d decided to defer it until after university, since national service came to an end in Britain in 1960. I wouldn’t have learnt Russian (which I subsequenly taught for 35 years), wouldn’t have gone to Canada—and wouldn’t have gone there anyway without my friend who’d got the job I’d applied for. I wouldn’t have met my wife, and my two children wouldn’t even exist. (How my wife came to meet me is yet another story.) All because I made a decision about my national service with no thought at all.
That’s why I find the idea of “God’s computer” compelling.