Religious or spiritual belief grows within most of us sooner or later. Thoughts of God, Gods, Goddesses, angels, demons, ghosts (both benevolent and malicious) litter our personal lives from when were children to the final days in old age. We struggle to deal with it either by dismissing it as hocus pocus or accepting a particular faith so completely that it guides our lives in all we do. To say that we are unaffected by all of this is a form of denial bordering on stubborn psychosis. The little tree that we allow to grow within is the result of the moral and ethical conflicts we all struggle with. We can deny that little tree, stomp on it, run the lawnmower over it, but the roots are still there and, in another season or age, a new bud will reach out of our earthly trials again searching for the life-giving light of the sun. We just cannot kill the roots of that symbolic tree because it is genetically hardwired in our brains.
We’ve all heard of the Tree of Life at one time or another and, if studied more deeply, will find that it exists within mythical and religious concepts that span cultures the world over. Much is dedicated to the basic visuals of a symbol which has its roots in the unknown depths and its branches reaching to the sun. To bring even more meaning, young trees are able to bend in strong winds, grow hardy and are able to then live thousands of years. What better image for our short-lived human life and its determined belief in the hereafter? Religion has two main lessons for us no matter what message is delivered from a pulpit or whispered in hidden groves: Act toward others in accordance with how you, personally, wish to be acted upon and that there is more to life than the material existence we are experiencing in our daily grind. In our short archeological history (~50K years), we discover that many of the artifacts found in excavations of ancient societies have symbolic religious inscriptions. This indicates that, at least for one quarter of the time modern humans existed, we were interested in exploring the idea of ‘Life After Death’.
Well, I can only speak for myself because all of you wonderful readers no doubt have your own personal views and that specific point is very important, for we all have to decide which way our beliefs are to be shaped, if at all. If you understand that the word ‘belief’ means ‘to love’, then it is obviously a completely personal path and cannot be transferred from one to another without shades of someone else’s bias coming into play. I ‘love’ the continuance of life after death and ‘believe’ firmly in the idea. Nothing will shake me from that conviction even though I adhere to no specific religious institution or prescribed dogma. All of it only is a means by which I am able to make sense of this universe and my place in it. If I were to try to explain my views, all I can suggest is that ‘Spinoza’s God’ makes the best argument for me. James Craig Green explains it well in this short essay:
Carl Gustav Jung also helps explain our predilection towards spiritual leanings in an excerp from ‘Man and His Symbols’:
Pg. 75, 76, Dell Publishing CO. INC. (ISBN: 0-440-35183-5)
Life is a battleground. It always has been and always will be; and if it were not so, existence would come to an end.
It was precisely this conflict within man that led the early Christians to expect and hope for an early end to this world, or the Buddhists to reject all earthly desires and aspirations. These basic answers would be frankly suicidal if not linked up with peculiar mental and moral ideas and practices that constitute the bulk of both religions and that, to a certain extent, modify their radical denial of the world.
I stress this point because, in our time, there are millions of people who have lost faith in any kind of religion. Such people do not understand their religion any longer. While life runs smoothly without religion, the loss remains as good as unnoticed. But when suffering comes, it is another matter. That is when people begin to seek a way out and to reflect about the meaning of life and its bewildering and painful experiences.
It is significant that the psychological doctor (within my experience) is consulted more by Jews and Protestants than by Catholics. This might be expected, for the Catholic Church still feels responsible for the cura animarum (the care of the soul’s welfare). But in this scientific age, the psychiatrist is apt to be asked the questions that once belonged in the domain of the theologian. People feel that it makes, or would make, a great difference if only they had a positive belief in a meaningful way of life or in God and immortality. The specter of approaching death often gives a powerful incentive to such thoughts. From time immemorial, men have had ideas about a Supreme Being (one or several) and about the Land of the Hereafter. Only today do they think they can do without such ideas.
Because we cannot dscover God’s throne in the sky with a radiotelescope or establish (for certain) that a beloved father or mother is still about in a more or less corporal form, people assume that such ideas are “not true.” I would rather say that they are not “true” enough, for these are conceptions of a kind that have accompanied human life from prehistoric times, and that still break through into human consciousness at any provocation.
Modern man may assert that he can dispense with them, and he may bolster his opinion by insisting that there is no scientific evidence of their truth. Or he may even regret the loss of his convictions. But since we are dealing with invisible and unknowing things (for God is beyond human understanding and there is no means of proving immortality), why should we bother about evidence? Even if we did not know by reason our need for salt in our food, we should nonetheless profit from its use. We might argue that the use of salt is a mere illusion of taste or a superstition; but it would still contribute to our well-being. Why, then, should we deprive ourselves of views that would prove helpful in crises and would give meaning to our existence?
And how do we know that such ideas are not true? Many people would agree with me if I stated flatly that such ideas are probably illusions. What they fail to realize is that the denial is as impossible to “prove” as the assertion of religious belief. We are entirely free to choose which point of view to take; it will in any case be an arbitrary decision.
There is, however, a strong empirical reason why we should cultivate thoughts that can never be proved. It is that they are known to be useful. Man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe. He can stand the most incredible hardships when he is convinced that they make sense; he is crushed when, on top of his misfortunes, he has to admit he is taking part in a “tale told by an idiot.”
It is the role of religious symbols to give meaning to the life of man. The Pueblo Indians believe that they are the sons of Father Sun, and this belief endows their life with a perspective (and a goal) that goes far beyond their limited existence. It gives them ample space for the unfolding of personality and permits them a full life as complete persons. Their plight is infinitely more satisfactory than that of a man in our own civilization who knows (and will remain) nothing more than an underdog with no inner meaning to his life.
A sense of a wider meaning to one’s existence is what raises a man beyond mere getting and spending. If he lacks this sense, he is lost and miserable.