Compassion and Faith

Leo Babauta wrote an amazing reflection on the past election.  The author’s advice is to feel compassion for other people who may have voted differently from me.  I would also emphasize the importance of faith.  Not the dismissive “it’s going to be OK” or the religious “God uses unlikely people to do His will” type of faith.  But the faith in the principles on which this country is founded.  These principles are at work right now.  Watch in awe.

Justice vs. Forgiveness and Mercy

Much of religion revolves around justice.  Christians believe in the final judgment day when the evildoers will be punished and the righteous will be rewarded.  At the same time, forgiveness and mercy are also at the very foundation of the Christian faith.  Justice and forgiveness seem to be incompatible with each other.  Atheists exploit this conflict to make a point that Christianity is immoral.

I think, the contradiction is in the reciprocity of these concepts.

An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.

This expression attributed to Gandhi, but, perhaps existing long before Gandhi, shows the flaw in the biblical concept of justice. “An eye for an eye” approach creates a vicious cycle of violence that can only be broken by forgiveness.  Forgiveness and mercy, on the other hand, are supposed to create forgiveness and mercy in return.  But sometimes they don’t.

Reciprocal relations have to start small and build on themselves.  When I don’t know if I can trust a stranger, I trust him with something small. Then I build my trust on my experience.  Trust builds on trust, but it starts unconditionally.  It justifies itself, like faith. Or, rather, it’s justified by the experience of practicing it. In the same way, we can find out if forgiveness is worthwhile.

My experience with religion: Part 2

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

– Matthew 6:34

I find it to be a very practical psychological advice. Worries and fears can consume our mental energy and even cause physical health issues through stress. But how do I know that “everything will be OK”? The Bible implies that God will take care of everything. But how do I know? For this practical psychological advice to work, it seems to be necessary to believe in God.

In times of uncertainty and trouble, it is a comforting and encouraging thought that someone will take care of me. Normally, people get this emotional support from friends and family. My wife and I are first-generation immigrants in the U.S. We have 3 children. We have absolutely no relatives on this continent. Not even a distant cousin across the country. All relatives are across an ocean. We can’t “leave kids at grandma’s for weekend”, for example. Social life is minimal. There is simply very little time for it. We are so absorbed with daily routines, schools, practices, doctor’s appointments, and other mundane things that it would be very difficult to find anyone with similar interests. People in the same situation as we are would likely have equally little time for fun. It’s hard to form friendships in your fourties. There are friends from school years, but most of them are also 10,000 miles away.

This sculpture of Christ is sitting on top of a chapel next to the cathedral in my home city where my wife and I had a wedding. Carrying the burdens of this world is not easy.

The toll of stress can be high. I have a friend who died in his fourties from cancer, soon after selling his business for a few million dollars. That’s an extreme, and I do not own a business. But I have many friends and coworkers who went through divorce. One friend went through cycles of depression after divorcing his first wife. I can see why these things happen and there is no guarantee that something similar will not happen to me.

A hope or faith that I will get through difficulties despite being apparently inadequate for the challenge is quite essential. Where shall I get it? Go to a psychologist? Spend a few hundred dollars and many hours, get a report with “findings” and recommendations, to put it away in a drawer and not open it ever again? What will the psychologist tell me? Reduce stress, sleep, eat, exercise, and pay attention to my wife and family? My expectation that I would learn something I don’t already know is low. At the end, it would still come down to believing in a solution and doing it. So, practicing some good-old Biblical wisdom is, perhaps, as good as “professional help”.

I like another aspect of religion. With 3 children, life can get chaotic. These little cute creatures create all kinds of mess. Toys all over the house, drawings and boogers on the walls, food all over faces are everyday experiences. They can get sick just in time for family events planned months ahead and create all kinds of other surprises. I have noticed that participating in a Catholic mass has an interesting calming effect on me. Every move is scripted, polished, and performed for 2000 years, without changes. Catholic mass is the same in the U.S., in Ukraine, today, as it was 1000 years ago. It leaves an impression of being a part of eternity.

Many atheists use religious practices for their psychological effects. Meditation started as a religious practice. A friend of mine, an atheist, attended meditation sessions to fight depression at some Indian center. He said, he felt very positive effect. However, after a few practices, they started to introduce the “spiritual side” of meditation which was a total turn-down for my friend. It seems to me, you can’t sever a flower from its root, and enjoy it. If you want to enjoy the flower for a long time, it needs to be attached to the root. Spiritual practices will not solve spiritual problems if they are separated from their spiritual origins – religion.

So, the reasons why I choose to believe in God are purely emotional and psychological.  I am fully aware of these reasons.  I cannot call my faith unreasonable, although the reasons are irrational.   I did not accept faith blindly.   I chose faith not because I’m brainwashed or uneducated.  Actually, after I chose to believe in God, my interest and knowledge of science, philosophy, and history exploded.  I would not have read as much without taking interest in religion.  I’d like to talk about this in one of the future posts.

See also

My experience with religion: Part 1

The road up and the road down are one and the same.

– Heraclitus

Continued from My Experience with Atheism

I have seen a few blogs where people describe their way from faith to atheism. Questioning one’s own beliefs is the only way to find truth. As I mentioned before, I grew up as an atheist, in an atheistic country (Soviet Union), in a family of atheists, with lots of atheist friends. For me, questioning my own beliefs means something quite opposite. I’d like to share my story of discovering religion for myself.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, attitude towards religion in the former Soviet republics changed. Religion became a symbol of national identity to Ukrainians and Russians and a symbol of “spiritual revival”. Religion became fashionable. Russian and Ukrainian presidents consider it politically necessary to be seen in church on Christmas and Easter.

Russian and Ukrainian presidents in church
Russian and Ukrainian presidents in church

I did not hold the Bible in my hands until I was about 20 years old. Bibles were not sold in Soviet book stores. I got one when the Soviet Union began to disintegrate and there were lots of missionaries distributing Bibles for free.

When I opened the Bible for the first time, I turned a few pages and my attention was caught by the book of Proverbs (it’s almost in the middle of the book). I would say, reading the book of Proverbs had an emotional impact on me. There was a feeling of reading timeless wisdom. The language is live and strong – very brief and to the point. It occurred to me that communists, perhaps, made a huge mistake discounting religion. They could make it work to their advantage big time, considering that religion already had a huge influence on the minds of Russian people.

Reading the Bible did not make me a believer. A few years before I married my wife, she had accepted Catholicism, driven by an emotional impulse. A few months after we got our marriage license from civil authorities, my wife went to confession. The priest told her that she lived in sin because she did not have a wedding. So, her relationship with me was still considered “extramarital” by the church. She told me her concerns. It wasn’t a huge deal for me, so we decided to have a church wedding. It turned out that I needed to be baptized before I could have a church wedding. OK. A few drops of water on my head wouldn’t hurt, I thought. Before I could be baptized and before we could have a wedding, we had to take classes regarding the meaning of those rituals. The premarital classes also had a few useful medical tips on detecting ovulation to use them whichever way we needed.

I don’t recall the baptism to be “a turning point in my life”. The wedding was more impressive. It took place in the central gothic cathedral of the city built in 13th century. The civil marriage ceremony left us both tired, annoyed, and disappointed. So, we decided to keep the church ceremony to ourselves. There were just us, the priest, the two witnesses, and God. They even had someone play Bach on the organ (the real one, with pipes under the ceiling).

This is the photo of the cathedral where my wife and I had a wedding.  It shows the back wall where the organ is located.  The acoustic is stunning.  The whole building, very crowded during the services, was just for the two of us.
This is a photo of the cathedral where my wife and I had a wedding. It shows the back wall where the organ is located. The acoustic is stunning. The whole building, very crowded during the services, was just for the two of us.

Having children made me understand how unpredictable life is. When things don’t go the way we like, it’s easy to be disappointed and frustrated. When people don’t behave the way we expect them to behave, it’s easy to get angry. It’s difficult to accept things and people as they are. Uncertainty can lead to fear and anxiety. Professionally, my job is to resolve quality issues of semiconductor circuits. I deal with consequences of design flaws, human errors, process defects, lack of due diligence, unrealistic promises resulting in unrealistic schedules resulting in cutting corners. Earlier in my professional and personal life, things were more difficult than I was prepared to handle. I noticed myself to become bitter, unhappy and blaming others for these difficulties.

Then I decided to give religion a try – in a practical way. I decided to change the way I think and treat people and circumstances. Instead of getting angry and frustrated at people, I started to think that I love them and think of the ways I could help them instead of feeling contempt. I made a conscious effort to avoid judging others and avoid worry and anxiety about things I cannot control. Results were interesting. First of all, I noticed a change in other people’s attitude towards me. They seemed to like me better, at home and at work. Second, I believe I became happier although, there was no objective change in any situation. Perhaps, the change of my attitude made people more likely to listen to me which, in turn, lead to change in their attitude towards matters of quality.

I don’t see anything supernatural in my experience. An interesting conclusion that faith does not work without practice. “Loving your neighbor” needs to show itself in practical actions and words rather than an abstract declarations. Still, “not worrying about tomorrow” needs some more work. It implies that “God will take care of tomorrow”. This is an interesting belief which can be interpreted as carelessness. Things are known to go sometimes very badly. There are all kinds of evils and disasters in the world. Which leads to a bigger question: “is it reasonable to believe in God?”

More on my experience with religion next time.