Of ‘American Gods’, theological proofs, and spiritual exercises. And chocolate eggs, and tea!

I wanted to go to church this morning, for Easter mass. But I wasn’t feeling great last night. I thought I might be getting a cold, although it was probably too many chocolate easter eggs! Anyway, I sat up late, reading Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ till 2 am. I prefer the book to the TV series – it’s all a bit bloody for me on the tv screen! And I enjoy the way he writes.

Anyway, the upshot of it was, I slept in this morning and missed morning service. So, sat out in the garden in the sunshine with the dogs, having my early morning cuppa – well, not quite so early this morning. Then put the guinea pigs out in their run to enjoy the sun, and popped off to do my yoga stretches.

I haven’t been to church for some time. I’ve had a long crisis of faith. You may laugh at that, and think me silly, especially if you come from a more secular background. But to me, faith is important. I grew up in a family in which my mother at least made sure we were regular attenders at Mass, and the church year was an integral part of our lives. When I was older, my first degree was in theology, and I went on to teach religious studies, along with PE.

But learning more about comparative religion, and where Christianity, and it’s pre-cursor, Judaism, originated, and how the teachings of the Bible had been put together, caused me to gradually lose my belief. That left a hole in my life, actually. I’d also studied psychology, and I became drawn to the works of C. G. Jung, with his theories of the ‘archetypes’, those numinous entities which supposedly loom out of the ‘universal unconscious’, and figure prominently in the mythology of the human race. It seemed that perhaps, if I could no longer find faith in the Christian God, perhaps I might find comfort in the representations of depth psychology, which suggest that experience of the archetypes is the nearest we can ever get to experiencing the gods. And perhaps, in these depths, the gods do really live.

I experimented with Buddhism too, a religion, or psycho-philosophy as it really is, that I’ve always found appealing in its call to try and experience for ourselves. I like the calm of meditation, whether that’s in Buddhist or yogic forms. Sometimes it even carries through into daily life; sometimes not so much. Now I’m not really clever. I say to people sometimes, who say that I am, ‘I try to do a lot with the little I’ve got’. But I do admire the university professors and such people, who know so much more about religion and spirituality than I do. And I wonder sometimes, how is it that, if they know what I know, the clergy keep their faith and their jobs? The Pope, and

the Archbishop of Canterbury, and all their Cardinals, Bishops, and so on down, are not dummies! They’re all clever, well educated people. What keeps them going? How do they, knowing what I know, and probably a lot more, maintain their faith? Or do they?

I remember once talking with a teaching colleague who was disenchanted with his career. I suggested to him he might try something else. His reply was: ‘I’m qualified as a teacher – what else can I do?’ And again, once talking with someone about the medical profession, and saying that I admired the vocation of doctors; and hearing the reply: ‘I suspect it’s more about getting the right ‘A’ levels.’

Anyway, let’s cut to the chase. I’m not fully sure where it came from, to be honest. (As my old university tutor told me ‘It’s always best to be honest’.) I found myself meditating and the thought of the ‘Spiritual Exercises’ of St. Francis came to mind. (I get all kinds of stuff in my head – I’d thought of becoming a nun before now. But I like pretty clothes!) I remember one of the exercises being to compose yourself before sleep at the foot of the Cross. It’s all about kind of visualising yourself at various points during the life of Christ and enhancing your feelings of connection. Well, that’s my interpretation – I expect the average monk or nun would have fits at the idea!

Now I don’t like the Cross or Crucifixion imagery. I always find Easter a difficult time. Christmas, I like. Babies and presents and such, and looking forward to spring. But the Easter message of crucifixion as vicarious sacrifice I have always found difficult. A bit like the tv version of ‘American Gods’. Too much blood and pain. But Easter Day, Sunday, today, is different. It’s the positive aspect of the message, when Jesus is resurrected to new life. And we are supposedly cleansed of our sins by our belief, and by joining with him. Now that is the good bit. Plus Easter eggs, of course.

I found myself wondering. Which is better – to live with no belief in anything beyond this present life, or to have some hope for something better? I suppose it’s like Pascal’s ‘Wager’ idea. Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher – you’ll remember him…  His theory about the validity of religious belief, called ‘Pascal’s Wager’. If you wager that God exists and he really doesn’t, then when you die it makes no difference. But if he does exist, it makes a lot of difference, because you suddenly wake up in Heaven. And if you wager that God does exist, and he doesn’t, similarly, when you die it makes no difference. But if he does exist, it definitely makes a hell of a lot of difference!

So, to wager, or believe, that there is no God, brings no benefit, either in this life or the next, if such there is. You might be right. But you could just be wrong. And to wager, or believe, or maybe just hope, that there is some truth to it all, might again be wrong. But it has the possibility of bringing immense benefits. Both in this life, in helping you cope better; at least if you’re like me.  And also in the next. If there is a next………

Now you have a perfect right to say that’s all bunkum, and I’m not going to disagree with you. I’m not making any scientific judgements or anything of the kind. It’s just the way of my thoughts today. I didn’t get to church or mass this morning. I sat in the garden, in the sun, while my dogs munched their breakfast and barked at passers-by (which I try to discourage, but they are dogs!). And I drank my tea and talked with my lovely Stephanie. And I think God, if there is a God, or any other gods for that matter, who happen to be about, American or otherwise, could as easily be there in the garden, with us and our dogs, drinking tea, as anywhere else. And who knows, maybe we felt that presence there too; or maybe we didn’t. But I know I felt happy.

So I’ll finish this little piece of self-indulgence this Easter Sunday with the Agnostic’s prayer. ‘God – if there is a God; save my soul – if I have a soul’. I don’t know whether that God, or gods, I’m thinking about today, and that soul, is connected to some real divinity, or to some aspect of psychology hidden within the depths of the unconscious, or is just wishful thinking. But I feel better for thinking about it, and for expressing these thoughts.

And I wish you, whoever you are reading this, a happy Easter. And lots of chocolate eggs!