1. INTRODUCTION: A NEW AWARENESS OF EXISTENCE
During the late hours of a long journey through life, one would like to pause and, as a parting contribution to the struggle of fellow travelers, possibly leave some useful advice, encouragement or comfort. How does one dare to do that, especially when the vision of life is not just a rosy one and some basic observations do not bring comfort? How can one dare to present a critical view and, thereby, take comfort away from burdened fellow travelers? My life had good and difficult periods. I received assistance from others. Now, I would like to contribute assistance to others – to my close relatives, to my friends, to the strangers among my fellow travelers who happen to read these words. How can one do that? By lifting one’s eyes to the greater structures one was able to perceive in this existence and by learning from the smaller details of the path through life. Fundamentally, one searches for valid knowledge about this existence we find ourselves in. This should lead to the efficiency of our effort. The valuation of our experience of living, however, comes from our emotions, diverse as they are, from materialistic satisfaction to the most noble sentiments. In either case, we run intellectually and emotionally into the unsolvable contradiction between striving for the greatest good for the most and for the respect for the rights and needs of the individual. What actually occurs is mostly a result of our mental formation and processes. This writing shall contribute to those. Here it is:
Many people have a rather clear concept of the world they live in and of their personal lives. I envy them – if they have really thought about it and are sincere. For some of us, though, the concepts of the world and life are not quite so clear. We cannot grasp the ultimate forces behind destiny, history, nature, and the universe. We see too much that cannot be understood and too many contradictions between the various philosophical, religious, and political tenets we are expected to accept in our diverse cultures. We are not at all sure about the meaning of our lives or the right course to pursue. As we grow older, neither our childhood faith nor our adolescent philosophy of life is as clear or solid as it used to be. As our lives progress, we experience and observe the reality of practical life and participate in a wide spectrum of human experiences. Even then – or, even more so – the results of our intellectually trained thoughts and the (hopefully) matured emotions of our hearts do not suffice to answer our questions; nor are they unequivocal.
Upon further reflection, I concluded that my own perceptions of existence and life were formed largely by my upbringing, the books I read, the people I associated with, my environment, and the communities and countries I have lived in. Are these subjective perceptions objectively tenable and sufficient? What other perceptions would I have arrived at or chosen if I had lived somewhere else or if I had been totally on my own in this world?
An interesting thought occurred to me one day: What if I had just come into existence on that day, at that age, totally on my own? What if I had no knowledge of any prior cultural influences, of any prior perceptions, commitments, or habits of thought? What if I were not settled in my deep respect for Christian values and in Western suburban life? At first, wouldn’t I be amazed that I exist? Wouldn’t I ask many questions? This new attitude of looking at existence in a new light, in an attitude of unencumbered new exploring, is what I want to call the “Awareness of the Phenomenon of Existence”. The resulting attitude of mental freedom is the thread through the thought process in the presentation that follows.
What thoughts came to my mind when this new awareness of existence occurred to me? First, I was startled by existing! I was startled by having been given a body, a mind, a personality, and the chance to be where I was for a limited period of time called “my life”. I accepted the factual knowledge that I, together with billions of other individuals, was on a rather small planet of one among billions of stars in a galaxy, at a point about 30,000 light-years off its center. I accepted as fact that there are billions of other galaxies of billions of stars in the universe, all having already existed for billions of years. This sets an interesting scale for the small significance of my own limited existence – which lasts only for a few decades.
Here I am now. How do I proceed from here? As is typical of human nature, I have questions of origin, meaning, purpose, and, mainly, direction to pursue during my existence. After some reflection, I arrive at my main question: Is there a creative and controlling force in the universe, a God, or merely a vague “Structure Providing Essence of Existence”? And what, if anything, can one rightly know or believe about this God if there is one, or about this “Essence”? Why do I and the world around me come to exist – is there any purpose in existence? Is there an order behind the evolution of existence in time? If so, what brings that order about, and how is that order structured? What are the objectives of any evolution, if there actually are any objectives at all? Can I or anyone else have any meaningful contact with the force or essence behind existence, with God? In other words, is there a personally reachable and responding God? What would it mean to me if it were found that God had not given directives to the human race, would not judge individuals or nations by their moral actions, and was not reachable by prayer? What would it mean to me if there were no active spiritual force, no God, and, mainly, no purpose in cosmic existence? What significance or, mainly, direction and guiding parameters (values) can I establish for my own life under either scenario for the limited time span of my existence?
There are many other probing questions. First, however, a problem consists in defining a suitable approach to the finding of some answers to all those questions. Other people have thought about these or similar questions. Their answers diverge over a wide range of religions and philosophies, from primitive to sophisticated, from Western to Oriental. Then, in the course of history, science occurred and added a modern intellectual perspective. Finally, there are one’s own observations and thoughts, one’s own practical experiences and respect for human sensitivities. How does one proceed from here in venturing out in this new “awareness of existence”?
This is the proposed sequence of steps:
* A formulation of what I call the “Fundamental Questions of Existence”
* The definition and analysis of various acceptable and promising sources of insight
* An analysis of the mental (intellectual and emotional) decision-making process
* A review of the scientifically observed reality in this world and of the proposed spiritual beliefs or interpretations
* The synthesis: Answers to the “fundamental questions about existence”, including considerations of practical life, human sensitivity, and personal observation
It is not surprising that, in the end, I could not arrive at objective, provable, and universally valid answers to all of the “fundamental questions”. However, in the course of this attempt, I did accomplish some clarification for myself – and, possibly, for others.
All too often in everyday life, one has to make decisions without knowing all the answers – all the facts, or all the consequences. In many situations, life demands that we take a stand, that the conduct of our life be consistent with the ground rules we give preference to. Only by taking a stand can we give some measure of direction and character to our own life, though not necessarily to the lives of others. Only such taking of a stand gives strength and clarity to our actions, if not our convictions.
I want to point out a specific problem that occurred to me in writing about religion. I was trained in the sciences and have led a professional life in industry. Consequently, my perspective in writing about religious matters is too easily that of an intellectual observer. Does such a perspective do justice to the human emotional concerns of the “soul” – especially in situations of suffering, compassion, or loneliness – and to the searching mind’s domain of theology? Religion, however, must relate to this world. Religious insight must also relate to the nature of the universe and the conduct of human life. On the other hand, what we really look for in our religious thoughts and emotions are the concerns of the “soul”, however defined. May these not be too easily overlooked? The ultimate human reality is in our minds and emotions of our “hearts”.
An interesting side effect can result from the proposed inquiry into the new attitude of awareness, even a marveling at existence. This side effect is an attitude of increased curiosity, a spirit of inquiry, sometimes contentment with limitations, feeling at home on Earth. The effect also should involve more of a caring attitude toward fellow beings in existence. But it also may bring some insecurity, for some even fear, in any case great awe regarding the dimension and complexity of existence and the greatness of whatever order and forces are acting in it.