The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear. – zen proverb
The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear. – zen proverb
The obstacle is the path. –zen proverb
I must have been around 11 or so when I heard a pastor in our church talk about the evils of rock music, especially this song called ‘Hotel California’.
“If you listen to it, it sounds very mellow and soothing to the ear, but it contains a message of pure evil,” he said. “You should avoid that song at all costs.”
And then he talked about backward-masking where if you play the music backwards, you would hear hidden messages in the songs. I heard some garbled samples of what sounded like “My sweet Satan”, “It’s fun to smoke marijuana” taken from the songs of KISS, Queen, The Beatles, and so on.
For a time, I became enamored with this and I would always be interested if this was the topic in church. I bought books on the evils of rock music and why it was from the devil. I listened to taped sermons about rock music from foreign pastors. One of them even featured a line-by-line dissection of Hotel California. For example, in the song, the narrator asks for some wine but the lady there replies “we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.” The wine represents God (or the Holy Spirit) as it does in the Bible, and 1969 is significant because that was the year Anton Lavey supposedly founded the church of Satan (though Wikipedia tells us that it was actually founded in 1966). The Satanic Bible was written in 1969 though.
Because of this, I would shun rock music and musicians (and no, images of Ozzy Osbourne didn’t help in endearing me to this genre). During parties, even though I thought the music sounded good, I would always listen with some guilt, or would be wary and try to understand the lyrics first before I could bring myself to fully enjoy it. Love songs were ok but anything that sounded too metallic was suspect.
It was only a few years ago (when I began to get out of religion) that I learned to appreciate The Beatles and other rock and roll music. I could listen to Hotel California without getting goosebumps or wondering if demons were already seeping into my body as I soaked up the song. I also realized what a pathetic, neurotic and fearful individual religion has made me that I have become blind to the beauty right in front of me.
One thing that I have learned from this experience is to understand and appreciate things as they are — not by who or what they are associated with. Before, I saw rock music as from the devil, suddenly all rock music and musicians were now Satan’s minions, even if I hadn’t heard their songs or know who they are. Now, I make it a point not to judge until I have experienced whatever it is that requires my judgment.
What a liberating day it was for me when I learned to appreciate rock and roll. It wasn’t all noise and rebellion as I thought it was. There’s a lot of artistry and subtle emotions and passionate thoughts as well. And while rock (or Ozzy) is still not my preferred genre (I’m a jazz guy at heart), it is now a matter of taste rather than blanket condemnation.
I once heard someone comment that he was really torn when hearing “The Power of Two” from the Indigo Girls because the music was so nice but he knew that the singers were lesbians. I was like, “Oh, you poor, deprived soul. Get off your high horse and just enjoy the music”. John Lennon was perhaps right when he dreamed of a world without religion. It would probably be a better place. At least, it would be less judgmental.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s getting late and I’m going on a trip down a dark desert highway.
After writing some good things about doubt, I got to thinking if it was really that good to doubt. As it turns out, there is an ugly side to doubt as well. As with most good things, too much tends to be detrimental and unhealthy.
So what is the ugly side of doubt? It is when one doubts just for the sake of doubting; of opposing just for the sake of opposing; of questioning just to satisfy a rebellious streak within, not really caring about whether the answer might be reasonable or not.
Yes, there are such people with such attitudes and they turn me off about as much as fanatic bible-thumpers. I was once at this forum where there was someone expressing his religious views in response to a question from the audience. Then this other guy probably hears a phrase that pricks his ears and he asks a question in a sarcastic tone. Despite that, the first speaker takes the question seriously and begins to answer in earnest. But when I turned to look at the other guy, he wasn’t even listening but was smirking and chatting with his friends, probably celebrating his own wit and intellectual superiority.
Even though I shared the same question with that other guy (it was after all, a perfectly reasonable question), his attitude turned me off. Whether one calls himself a doubter, an intellectual, a skeptic, a freethinker, a logician, or whatever is no license to disrespect other people and cast their views aside. Doubt is ugly when used in this manner.
The healthy way to doubt is to always be open — not always accepting — but always willing to listen, to process, to discuss. When I ask doubting questions, the purpose is never to destroy the other person (well, unless that person is already being an insufferable ass), or to prove that I am better than him. Rather, my goal is always to come to a greater understanding of truth than the one I started with before. It is perfectly possible to be skeptical, yet not come across as being arrogant and spiteful, and it would make for more interesting and stimulating conversations.
I grew up in a Christian environment where doubt was hardly encouraged. Faith was a virtue. Doubt was not. The foremost illustration of this is the biblical story of Jesus’ disciple Thomas who claimed not to believe in his resurrection unless he saw his risen body and touched his wounds. When Jesus did appear to him and erase his doubts, Jesus said, “Blessed are you because you see and believe, but more blessed are those who do not see and yet believe.” And from those words sprung up an entire culture of faith, of not seeing yet fervently believing.
The first thirty something years of my life were spent aiming for this kind of faith. The urge to doubt would always be attributed to my human weakness or even to the wiles of the devil. But the deeper I went inside Christianity, the more discordant I would feel. Yes, there was always the heat of the moment in worship, and there were days when I felt that I was indeed in god’s loving arms. But these were also peppered by moments of doubt. I would always wonder if answered prayers weren’t just coincidences; if the faith I felt wasn’t just leveled up wishful thinking; or if the feelings I had for god’s presence weren’t just that — feelings.
Then a thought came to me: if I believe that god created me, then he must also be responsible for creating this machinery in me that makes me doubt and think and reason. And since this is so, why should I not then trust this thinking and reasoning of mine? What if all I ever believed in was just other people’s beliefs imposed upon society for generations? What if my doubts were the way to truth even if a lot of people (at least in my circles) didn’t seem to share them? Didn’t Jesus say that the gate was narrow and only a few people ever find it?
Ultimately, I was confronted with this question — would I be willing to let go of all I ever believed in my search for truth — yes, even Christianity, the bible and the concept of god that Christianity has imposed upon me? And for me, this was harder than it sounded. It was like being in the middle of the ocean hanging on to a piece of wood, without any land in sight, and deciding whether or not to let it go so I could swim faster to where I wanted to be. I also realized the irony of it — that it takes so much more faith to doubt than to believe. So I took a leap of faith and began my journey of doubt.
In that journey, I went to church less and less because church for me had just been a meaningless habit and the sermons were just rehashed ideas that I heard over and over throughout the years. Even the idea that “we go to church not to receive from god but to give him our worship” seemed stale because if god were everywhere, then I could most certainly worship him anywhere, even in the toilet. Conversely, I could be in church every Sunday with my mind wandering elsewhere and it wouldn’t amount to an iota of worship. So I decided to give up this false pretension and would not go to church unless I really wanted to, but not for reasons of appearances or habit or to “be a good influence” to my kids. (Yes, I got flak for this when my eldest daughter decided she didn’t want to go to sunday school also, but that’s another story).
I began to read books and listen to other teachings that were outside the norm of Christian propriety, and my horizons were widened and I realized that there were also a lot of people like me — much more than I thought there would be — and in the midst of my doubts, it was a reassuring thought.
Of course, I could not avoid the whispers going on behind me — Christian friends, relatives and acquaintances talking about me, reading my blogs and saying that I was going astray — but I got most of this information third-hand. These people I heard about never approached me and asked me head-on what was going on with me — except for a couple of them — and I appreciated their willingness to listen and their acceptance (of me, not my way of thinking). Although hearing the words, “I’ll just pray for you,” is grating to my ears. I know they mean well but it just sounds so condescending — like “I know something you don’t. I’m someplace better than you, so I’ll just pray for you until you realize that.” I know they don’t mean it that way, but still, it does sound that way.
In the tail end of this journey (which means just about over a year ago), I discovered freethinking and a group called Filipino Freethinkers through a close friend of mine. And when I read about it, realized that this was me (I just didn’t know what it was called). Though this group has been closely linked to atheism, it actually isn’t and its members are a mixed bag of different believers and unbelievers. The basic creed of a freethinker is that you may have your own set of personal beliefs but you don’t go around imposing them on others as if it were THE truth. “To a freethinker, no idea is sacred; all truth claims are subject to skepticism, rational inquiry, and empirical testing.”
A freethinker embraces doubt as a way of life, for it is through doubt that one gets to really dig in and think about what one believes in — not just to swallow everything the church, priest, imam or rabbi says. One of my favorite quotes comes from Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest, who says “to doubt is infinitely more important than to adore. To question is infinitely more important than to believe.”
Some time ago I took a step of faith into doubt, and have never regretted it since. I feel more spiritually and holistically in tune with myself, my thoughts and my emotions than I have ever been before. There is less fear and guilt, and more love and compassion for me and for everyone around me.
Such is the beauty of doubt.
Edit 2012-04-12: Here’s my friend Matt’s take on doubt: http://ragingrev.com/2012/04/an-insurance-policy-against-doubt/