So…do you believe in God?
Primary school was an exciting, uncomfortable and strange time for me. Primary school was also where I had my first conscious tangle with the complex universe called religion.
Until then, although I lived in a neighbourhood of serious, sincere, evangelical Christians who would knock on every door in our block of flats to give us fruitcakes (I’m being perfectly serious here), the idea of Christianity was a comfortable background hum in the long halcyon afternoons of my childhood. ‘Agape’ was a Christian organisation that ran a thrift shop and occasionally coordinated fun fairs in the old school near my house. For a long time, ‘Agape’ only meant delicious free food, and repeated attempts at sneaking into the fair grounds with extra tickets to play Time Crisis, or para-para, and nothing more.
My grandmother, who was a traditional Teochew woman who prayed to Tua Pek Kong (the Daoist earth deity and patron saint of merchants) was wary.
“You can play their games, you can eat their food, but you better not pray to their God,” she admonished, “they will make you disavow your families! And pay out all your salaries!” I guess growing up with my Ahma made me a very early skeptic of the Good News. Years later, Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’, about (amongst other things) an African community that gradually fragments due to the presence of Christian missionaries, would resonate deeply with me, for reasons I could not quite articulate until now.
And so going to Saint Michael’s Primary School, a Catholic school established by the Lasalle Brothers (a French Catholic order) was initially an extremely confusing time. What was praying? Why was everyone bowing their heads in silence? Did they actually think they were talking to someone? Mass was mysteriouser. We sat and watched men in big flowy dresses intone and speak in a deep weird voice, waving large, smoking censers of incense. We sat for interminable hours, shifting uncomfortably on the hard wooden floor as new smells and novel songs filled the air around us. I always wondered how the communion wafer would taste.Looking back, I realise my body was being disciplined, into new ways of behaving and thinking.
My first encounter with God was thus highly vexing and confusing. And yet, my ferocious and voracious childhood curiosity made me delve deeper into Christianity. I persuaded my bemused parents to buy me a thick book of Christian stories (not the Bible). I marvelled at Noah’s Ark, and shivered reading about Jesus, knowing what was coming. I was deeply melancholy for a few days after reading the gory details of his Crucifixion. How his followers and his mother must have suffered too, to watch their beloved teacher and son suffer! Christianity held a persisting mystique for me.
The Failure to Convert
I would come to spend the next twelve years of my life in Catholic schools. And although my time at Saint Joseph’s Institution deeply, positively and fundamentally shaped my view of God, I was somehow never converted – whether to Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, or PDF. People looking on must have been puzzled. A teacher in my secondary school once condescendingly remarked, “it’s so disappointing that Ruizhi spent twelve years in a Catholic school and was never converted”.
I’ve been thinking about that comment a lot since.
Why the failure to convert? I suppose my Ahma must have been part of that. I never really wanted to let her down. But there were deeper questions too, because as a rude and offensive brat, filial piety was more of an occasional guideline than an outright law. I always thought colouring inside the lines made for a rather dull living. It wasn’t simply out of blind obedience and ‘love’ that I never moved into the the great Fold of the Herd.
There were deeper questions. Pressing ones. Reading about the horror, rape, pillage of events like the Crusades, the Inquisition, the sack of Constantinople, the Middle Passage, Auschwitz, hardened my distrust and distaste. How could a loving God condone such death and devastation?
“Everything happens for a reason” and “God works in mysterious ways” were unsatisfying answers. It was an answer that seemed to say “I don’t know, but I’m going to pretend I do just to make myself look clever to annoying children”. What grated most was the condescending superiority that occasionally greeted my sincere curiosity. “You won’t understand one la, you’re not a Christian.”… “Boy-boy, have you ever thought of the Meaning of Life? COME TO CHURCH.”…”You will go to hell…”
There was a period where I was bitingly atheist, and Richard Dawkins was quite the hero. Dawkins articulated a lot of things I never dared to say in polite company. He showed me one could and should ask the most outrageous questions. He was like the fool who shouted from the sidelines that the Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. For a time, I joined in the sneering, believing anyone with a God was an anachronism of the old world.It wasn’t until much later that I realised how old this atheist tradition was, how Dawkins was simply the latest in a line that stretched as far back as the European ‘Enlightenment’.
I simply could not believe in a God who would stand by and watch as children, women and men were mutilated and raped. I could not understand entire congregations who could explain away the bloated, dead bodies of thousands drowned in tsunamis as ‘God’s Will’. It was difficult to countenance a worldview that could justify abandoning their aged parents because their Messiah apparently did the same thing. I’ve been deeply shaken seeing old folks abandoned by their children, wasting away in elderly homes, their eyes glazed, their minds dissolving into a gloop. I’ve read about the Holocaust, and a few other wars. The Rape of Nanking, where Japanese soldiers cut off the penises of Chinese men and ate them for “virilty”; made sons rape their mothers at gunpoint, for the soldiers’ own amusement. There are pictures of horrific mutilated bodies, from so many, too many wars. The sheer depth and breadth of human suffering in the cause of divinities sickened me. I was repulsed and horrified by the sheer atrocity and savagery of human experience, all across the span of recorded, recent history.
Since then, I like to think that my views have attained a little more nuance.
These days, I have given up trying to understand the madness of the world. There comes a point, perhaps, when the brutality and the massacres of the world beyond our bubbles blur into one another. It is a universe we read about, but try to shut out. Because having to bear the weight of the world – of melting ice caps, bleaching Barrier Reefs, dying civilisations, nuclear extinction – sometimes the weight of the world is too much to bear. I haven’t come up with an answer to explain “God’s Will”; why bad things, really bad things happen to innocent people. I’ve given up trying to explain that. I think that’s an answer far beyond the reach of even philosophers and theologians, let alone statisticians and social scientists.
But that’s different from giving up on God.
Encounters with the Divine
There will be many who will scoff at the idea of a Divinity. They say perhaps that in our ‘modern’ and rational world, we no longer ‘need’ a God to explain things. As if God were a tool to be used, like an eraser or a plastic cup; to be thrown away when we found better alternatives. They allege that the existence of a divinity is an artefact of our lizard brains, a relic of a time when we did not have Science, and suffered from serious Mummy and Daddy issues. Religion was/is supposedly a security blanket for the weak-willed. Religion only led to bloodshed and pillage, and lots of women being stoned, butchered, raped, mutilated and burnt at the stake. Religion is for people who need shepherds. Religion is for sheep. I believed this once, when I used to be much angrier and frustrated at the world.
Since then, I like to think that I’ve had brief, ephemeral encounters with the Cosmos, the universe; what some may call God. They were transient moments, but they were also transcendental.
I remember the bone-deep serenity and peace of the SJI Chapel on a hot, still weekday afternoon. (“Be still and know I am here”. Indeed.) Years later, when I chanced upon the translated quotes of the Persian poet Rumi, I understood intuitively, less with the logic of the mind than the wisdom of the body, what the mystic meant when he pronounced that
“…silence is the language of God
all else is poor translation” | Rumi
I remember the minutes of silence perched on the tips of great mountaintops: sometimes as the sun rose quietly like a great golden yolk; sometimes as the moon hung like a Cheshire grin in a star-drenched firmament. I remember the sure, snug strength of old ODAC comrades in driving rain and sticky mud, laughing in the face of all hardship. I remember the intricate, towering vaults of grand Catherals, or the soughing, moaning echo of the Desert. I remember standing and watching in awe of Muslims summoned by the azzan, bowing to a God they adored and loved and knew. I remember listening to the lush chirrup and burble of the monsoon, as it poured its rich mana of fresh skydew onto grateful, waiting trees.
Again and again, i remember being deeply moved by the goodness and the grandness of humanity, of nature, of the universe around me. These encounters have been sublime.
Yet one could argue that these things cannot and will not make up for the horrors and atrocities that happen in the world everyday. To borrow the time-worn cliche, there’s probably a child dying in Africa right now as we speak. Somewhere in this vast world, there are unspeakably cruel things being done right now. Statistically speaking, this is in all likelihood, true. What do we do, in a world that is as steeped in unimaginable horror as it is in unimaginable beauty? This has always been at the core of my spiritual struggle with myself.
I have no answer. But this morning, I woke with a line from Mary Oliver in my head, telling me about how
“it is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in this broken world”
I wrote a haiku once, inspired by these lines. And it goes:
“It is the dawn rain
Dancing joyous in my soul
How can I not sing?”
And I realise now that it is highly unlikely that I will ever turn to Christianity. Not because I don’t believe in its doctrine, nor because I have at times been disgusted by some of its followers. Let me reiterate: I have the deepest respect for every religion I have come across.
Every organisation, every state, every framework that gets large enough will have its fair share of black sheep, if you will. We find cockroaches everywhere. But let that not blind us to the heroism and goodness of teachings that lead us to more kindness and awareness.
I cannot turn to Christianity because I think that God is too big to fit into one religion. I’ve been scoffed at by some of my more pious friends who believe in an Absolute Truth, when I expressed this thought. But I believe that because context is complex, and we come from different configurations of life experiences, we all occupy different realities. Our understandings of the material world are inevitably different – I think this follows when we start contemplating the metaphysical, the spiritual. Like the great Leonard Cohen growled sorrowfully,
“It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah”
But most, if not all, of us have, at one time or other, have had to grapple with that existential “is there more to life than this stupid race?”
For me, God is encountered, experienced. And so, in a way, God is subjective. I find it difficult to be convinced by rigid frames and doctrines that cannot transfigure and transform. If the Universe continually changes and moves, incessantly decomposing and composing in the great, ceaseless dance of Creation, it does not seem like a big leap to suppose that change might be the only constant.
Although certain well-dressed, local purveyors of Sinic alcoholic products may beg to differ, I do not believe you can find divinity in material prosperity.
I think, I feel that God is in the humbler things. The things you cannot buy, or conquer, or maybe even describe. It is the things we experience through our sensual, sensing bodies, because those are also things given to us, through the astonishing miracle of human life and reproduction.
God is in the quiet ray of morning sunlight, filtering into your room as you wake from a night’s slumber. God is in the shivering cold of the mountain dawn. God is in the safe, sure arms of your lover. God is in the cheap piece of bread you gobble down after two straight hours of struggling on the flanks of a great slope; the little sip of tapwater after an exhausting uphill push. God is in the darkness and despair of your greatest defeat: all creator, destroyer and sustainer; a trinity.
Don’t believe me. There is no faith needed in this. This is truth that can only be experienced in the act of living, fully: both in its joys and its frictions. A Christian friend told me yesterday that suffering was central to the Christian worldview. I don’t think she realised how like the Gautama she sounded then. There is a quote in the hall of Catholic Junior College, in huge words. I have always thought they were lovely words:
“The Glory of God is the human person fully alive” | St Irenaeus
God is in the joy you see looking up, at a rain tree under whose shade you’ve grown up all your life, and seeing every strand and branch and leaf: interconnected, interlaced, bound and woven with meaning and unmeaning, threaded into the sublime serenity of the evening sky.
-Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Post-script: I thought that a previous Facebook/Instagram post of mine had elided many nuances about my thoughts on spirituality, and perhaps inadvertently offended some friends on my feed. Here, I offer a longer piece on these thoughts. I have tried my best to treat this potentially sensitive topic with the greatest respect and humility. If there is anything here that makes you uncomfortable or offends you, please do message me! I look forward to a constructive dialogue with anyone on spirituality; I am still a student of the world, always learning.