‘The intellectual love of God’

In the company of spiritual ‘fellow travelers,’ one man explores the meaning of life

Steven H. Propp says churchgoers are his spiritual “fellow travelers.”

Steven H. Propp says churchgoers are his spiritual “fellow travelers.”

Photo By larry dalton

Back in college during the mid-1970s (during the “born again” craze), I was a belligerent atheist. You know the kind: My favorite book was Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, and my favorite play was Inherit the Wind. If someone professed to believe in the Bible, I was ready to attack: “In Joshua 10:12-13, he commanded the sun to stand still, so he obviously thought it was the sun that moves, not the Earth! How can you believe this Bible junk?”

I no longer think of such figures of speech as necessarily implying ignorance. In the late 1970s, motivated by curiosity about these irrational “religionists,” I began visiting different local churches, about 120 in all. While I did not share their beliefs, I really liked most of the people I met there: kind, caring folks; ones you would want as co-workers, as neighbors.

Today, I think of most people who attend churches, synagogues and mosques as my spiritual brothers and sisters. Certainly, I feel more kinship with them than with someone drinking a beer and watching TV sports on Sunday morning.

Some church folk may feel that I would be eternally damned if I was to die today, but that’s on them, not me. Traditionally religious people admit that “God is the judge.” I can accept the judgment of a being wise enough to design the genetic code. The only problem I have is with lesser beings who attempt to carry out their own interpretation of God’s judgment in this lifetime.

But the sarcasm and arrogance of the “new atheists” is nearly as repugnant to me as a King James-version-thumping segregationist. One who belittles people who attend a traditional church is as intolerant as a churchgoer who thinks of unchurched folks as “infidels.” Religion is not truly represented by a few deluded people burning down abortion clinics or blowing themselves (and others) up. Spirituality is our way of dealing with the numinous, the mysterious and the inexpressible ecstasy occasionally available in life.

If I had created the universe, I wouldn’t have made death mandatory, age irreversible, nor debilitating illness practically inevitable. But we must deal with these realities as best we can; for most people, this involves religion. Humans can no more have a single spiritual path than there can be a single meal that will appeal equally to all palates in all countries, in all cultures and for all times.

For my part (as a deist who is temperamentally an agnostic), I think Albert Einstein had the most illuminating view when he said, “The deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning Power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.” He and Baruch Spinoza called this “the intellectual love of God.”

I suspect that life is much more of an astonishing enigma than creationists, “new atheists” or any of us in between can possibly imagine. Even if we be no more than microbes in an indifferent universe, we are at least microbes that know what it is to have thought “I am.”

We may all end up at different places, at the same place or even no place at all, but the quest for meaning and purpose is a worthy goal, and philosophy, spirituality and religion are all time-honored ways of exploring the mysteries of our existence.