The other night, as I tucked my seven-year old son into bed, he said, “I hope there’s a heaven.” “Have you been thinking about death?” I asked. He nodded as he sunk beneath his covers and cried. A very close friend’s mother died recently and I had underestimated its affect on him. While it’s not always clear in parenting, this was one of those moments I knew it mattered what I said next.
I am not a person of faith. I’m not religious either, but that’s not exactly how I mean it. I am simply not a person to whom a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof” comes easily, or at all.
I was raised in a Christian home, going to church on Sundays. When I was seven, the Sunday school teacher told us that we’d only go to heaven if we asked Jesus into our hearts. She didn’t explicitly state that if we didn’t, we’d go to hell, but I caught the implication. While other kids piously prayed for their eternal souls, I asked where God came from. After exhausting my Sunday school teacher’s patience, she fell back on the classic, “You just have to have faith.” At which point I took my first major step away from organized religion.
If the church couldn’t answer all of my questions about life (and dinosaurs) then why should I trust its knowing what happens after death? Besides, according to their rules, my favorite person in the world, my grandmother, wasn’t going to make it to heaven. And I wanted to go wherever she was going.
This question of faith continued to fascinate me through college. I studied anthropology, looking at cultural traditions, social and economic factors that led people to believe in any religion or philosophy. What were the cultural and social factors involved in faith? How did that impact the way they lived? It seemed the more I explored the more similar it all sounded, regardless of religion, class, or nationality. God was usually described as that which is in all things. The creator. Philosophically, faith tended to hinge on the same premise as prayer: a belief that concentrated thought could produce desired results, and if not, that there was a lesson to be learned—a reason it didn’t work out.
While researching my honors thesis on the Chinese concept of qi as explored through the lenses of traditional Chinese medicine, the martial arts and quantum physics I finally found an answer that sated my curiosity about what constituted the common ground, in terms I could wrap my head around. Energy.
“Quantum theory thus reveals an essential interconnectedness of the universe. It shows that we cannot decompose the world into independently existing smallest units. As we penetrate into matter, we find that it is made of particles, but these are not the ‘basic building blocks’ in the sense of Democritus and Newton. They are merely idealizations which are useful from a practical point of view, but have no fundamental significance. In the words of Neils Bohr, ‘Isolated material particles are abstractions, their properties being definable and observable only through their interaction with other systems’.” (Fritjof Capra “The Tao of Physics”)
I was observing faith through its interaction with the cultural systems in which it presented itself. But for me, faith contained no fundamental significance in and of itself. But energy—a non-deified concept—intrigued me.
“Quantum mechanics … caused three great revolutions. In the first place it opened up a completely new range of phenomena to which the methods of physics could be applied; the properties of atoms and molecules, the complex world of chemical interactions, previously regarded as things given from outside science, became calculable in terms of a few fixed parameters … In consequence, all sciences, from cosmology to biology, are, at their most fundamental level, branches of physics.” (Evan Squires “The Mystery of the Quantum World”)
I understand the desire to have faith. I have lost people close to me and wanted desperately to cling to the idea that there was a heaven where I could see them again. But no matter how much I wanted that, I never developed the ability to feel it.
“Thoughtless people are in the habit of pointing out that every ‘reasonable’ person will be persuaded that [Western] science knows best. The comment admits a weakness of argumentation: arguments do not work on everyone, they work only on people who have been properly prepared. And this is a general feature of all ideological debates: arguments in favour of a certain world view depend on assumptions which are accepted in some cultures, rejected in others, but which because of the ignorance of their defenders are thought to have universal validity.” (Paul Fayerabend “Farewell to Reason”)
So what to tell my seven-year old son without creating a cynical or despondent little human? Well, I tell him that there is never any more or less energy in the universe. That our bodies are an illusion. The energy in each of us will take many forms throughout the course of universal history. I tell him that there are more questions than answers, but that we are all pirates steering the ship of our own experience (remember, he’s seven.) I tell him that I don’t know what happens when we die. And I tell him that it’s okay to not know. Admitting our own ignorance is not a failing, rather it’s the key to fully experiencing the wonder of our sentient experience on Earth.
“Does that answer your question?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I’m a pirate.”