"I love this world."
Send me out into another life
lord because this one is growing faint

I do not think it goes all the way.

Words From A Totem Animal W. S. Merwin

“The Laws of the Universe are God” Einstein once quipped, and I think he’s absolutely right, relatively speaking. Even so, the universe isn’t really made up of atoms, but stories, according to the poet Muriel Rukeyser, and we all must decide how to rearrange the molecules in ourselves and in our own lumbering bubble of a world in the right way, with an abundance of gritty dignity and as much pertinence (and impertinence as the case may be) and purpose as possible. Although our actions must be in keeping with the laws of physics, of course, the laws don’t give us the slightest hint as to how we should be; what we should do, every day, with the “little wisp of soul carrying a corpse” that is each one of us. And that’s the whole point, innit? It’s the monster question philosophers (Epictetus, quoted), syphilitics, princesses, priests and thieves have been trying to answer since time began: how to live. Properly.

Not only how, but how in the best way possible, for ourselves and for others. What is right and wrong? Why? And other whys like: why am I or we even here? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why us? Why now? And why is it better to live one way rather than another, if we’re just infinitesimal specks, each a lonely LaPlace’s Demon, solitary, predestined and futile, trying to live with some sort of easy, impetuous glee in our vast universe’s futile emphasis? If nothing we do matters, or deflects one errant neutron one iota either way, or freeze-frames even for a second the nimble tumble of time, why bother at all? Sic Transit Gloria Mundi – dust doesn’t remember the footprints of conquerors, the insinuated scoff of germs or the rusting temper of seamless steel – so what’s the point?

I’m not sure, but I am sure I don’t know. That said, I’m going to pooh-pooh the noisy drum-rolling of different religions, reject the arrogance of any half-cocked dilettante, as well as the idiot self-righteousness of some socialist utopia messiah. But before I do I have explain to you the grain of salt all this should be taken with, metaphorically and theologically speaking. I went into the Army lower than a lowly plebe, and emerged several years later with just about the same rank, which is impressive in a certain sense: it means I not only did everything badly the whole time I was there, but I did it badly with singular focus and consistency. Which was impressive, believe me, because only one of two outcomes were inevitable or allowed: you either fooked up and got kicked out, fast, man, or eventually bucked up and got promoted. So if you’re ever tempted to think of me as some sort of secular iconoclastic Samson with my arms around the Philistine pillars, you don’t have to worry about the whole temple ever tumbling down. I haven’t got the strength, or the strength of will to crumble anything; and I’ll leave the judging to the arrogant rabble.

When I was like eight, I remember showing off to my friend Kevin Brietbart, a kid as Catholic as they come, on the playground of the Vogel School during afternoon recess. I probably heard it from my older brother, or from one of the wiseasses in the class, like Gary Hapenny or Mark Killion – either way it certainly wasn’t me talking, or original. Googling it now I’m embarrassed at how insipid and sophomoric I sounded: “If God can do anything, then he can make a rock that’s so big he can’t pick it up. If he can’t pick it up, then he can’t do everything.” I’m not sure if this is called tautology or logical fallacy, but the point was that even at a young age I was an itch (which where I grew up meant a pain in the ass), and a know-it-all, the worst type of bothersome and annoying niggler that everyone rightly disliked. Still am.

But in a qualitatively different way these days. I’m not trying to seem somehow smarter, or to prove anyone wrong, to seduce, or to shock. Nope. I’m just trying to inquire, in my own mind at a minimum, to probe Socratically into the heart of the matter, what matters, and end up at the truth of things, in the fumbling box-and-cox of me and my beliefs, with a loose sovereign contempt for the hypnagogic comfort of unscrimmaged creeds. I’m not sure if I read it in the Bhagavad Gita, or if it was a paraphrased quote stolen from Gandhi, the emaciate, not the cravated London lawyer, that “Truth is God.” I agree. And I think it’s crucial that it isn’t the other way around “God is Truth.” The Bible says essentially the same thing, in so many words, all over the place, but I’m sure specifically in John if I remember correctly. I also believe that “Truth is Beauty,” but that’s a lovely Keatsian tangent for another time.

Back to Einstein. I don’t think you or anyone or any particle down to the smallest boson can refute, or even ever violate the fundamental laws of physics. You may not be able to prove them either, but that doesn’t make them any less true. I’m certain that there’s no way to travel faster than the speed of light, even theoretically – no thing and no one can or ever will, even a billion years from now. By the same token, you cannot go back in time – it is an unforgiving arrow in one direction only. I don’t know why, and I certainly can’t explain why, but it is. There is nothing bigger, in fact there is nothing else besides the universe – the universe is everything. And we are in it and of it – inextricably, intertwined with and slaves to all the other laws too, like the Conservation of Energy. And each one of us is made of atoms, and those atoms in our bodies behave according to the Quantum Field Theory, and they can never not do otherwise.

I also believe that “I” am my mind, and my mind is my brain, that three and a half pound clump of glorious, variegated goo. I think everyone for the most part believes that. All the thoughts, experiences, dreams, scars and desires that make up me, my unique and individual self, reside in the billions and billions of neurons in that aforementioned wonderous, pullulating gunnysack of electric urge and ideas stuffed inside my skull. We may not be much more than a bunch of aristocratic monkeys, but If you believe in The Core Theory, which, for all practical purposes, you do because otherwise you wouldn’t be here on earth, because there wouldn’t be an earth, then once you’re dead, you’re dead. Why? Because there’s no way for the information that makes up “you” to be transported through the air or atmosphere to somewhere else. There’s nothing to do the transporting either – no atoms or combination of atoms that can take “you” away (unless it’s Calgon) to heaven, or hell as the case might be. There is no physics or chemistry that exists or that ever will exist that would make this possible. There’s no way. And when anything dies ­– you, me, other mammals, plants or planets, those atoms turn into other atoms and other things according to the laws of nature.

So once we die, we rot. Simple as that. Of course I’m not that happy about it – I don’t know if I’d like to live forever – but 10,000 years or so might be nice. On second thought, my-ex would probably live that long too, so forget about it. All joking aside, it makes me want to love every minute of this temporal wodge of wabi sabi I’ve been given as profoundly and sincerely as possible. Think about it: we’re each blessed with only about 3 billion heartbeats – so I’d advise you to try to make things better for yourself and everyone around you, wherever you are, however you can, immediately, and hurry up about it. There is no upper limit to virtue, and the monosyllable of the clock is loss, loss, loss.

That said, I’d like to swerve into a little imagination corner for a moment – what if there really were a heaven, what would it look like? If it was perfect bliss, which by most definitions it is, that would mean it is unchanging, since if it’s perfect right now, it’s perfect in one second from now, it was perfect one second ago, and in one minute from now it’ll still be perfect, ad infinitum. It cannot change at all, ever, never mind from one moment to the next, because that would mean it wasn’t perfect the instant before. David Byrne knew this, and sung without irony “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” It can’t be any other way.

More poetically, Wallace Stevens addressed this same conundrum in his ruminative, magisterial poem Sunday Morning:

Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores

That never touch with inarticulate pang?

Which reminds me of a quote I read or heard about I think Dostoevsky, something along the lines of: if everything was perfect the first thing any sane person would do would be to smash something just to give him relief from the grinding tedium of happiness and contentment, some unexpected but welcome problem to bury his frustration in. Bliss is boring and banal and makes men immediately or eventually go mad. I think this is ‘inarticulate pang,’ when we’re faced with the reality of heaven, that Stevens was talking about. But there is never a perfect, or even a possibility of perfect. Heaven is here; messy, cruel, unfair, but dense with now. Now.

Let's undigress back prosaically to the remaining unanswered God/not God questions. You’re probably wondering why is there something rather than nothing? Why is the universe the way it is? Why us? Why are we here if we’re not part of some cosmic design, a fancy and elaborate eternal plan? Good questions and a natural human response to the unknown, the unknowable, triggered by both fear and curiosity is because God made it so. I think that’s presumptuous, egotistical, self-serving and wrong. My answer is there is no reason, or even a simple/complicated explanation that’s necessary – the universe just is. I know Leibnitz and many other greater minds than mine have argued against that theory, most convincingly in The Principle of Sufficient Reason, and if you’re interested in the history and specifics of that masterwork you can find it easily online. I don’t buy it. I think that it’s human nature to want to have an explanation, a logical, underlying understanding, a cause-and-effect geometry and symmetry to our lives. But that doesn’t mean there is one.

And no, I’m not a nihilist or a pessimist, or a skeptic who’s educated just enough to be dangerous. I don’t know if I’m right; but I don’t know why I’m wrong. As I said in my last article, I consider myself a ‘devil’s advocate.’ I say the universe doesn’t require the active or passive presence of a God to exist – and all I have to do is come up with a universe that doesn’t need a God and the theory of necessity is disproved. Ok, a point in space is a universe. I’m being serious. It’s not our universe, but it’s a possible universe, and it doesn’t require a God to exist. Not to be glib, but I also think ours, no matter that it’s infinitely more complicated than a point in space, doesn’t need a God either. Why couldn’t it be godless? Why wouldn’t it be? Do you need a God for your own cosmological comfort and terrifying temporality? I say believe in yourself instead. Either way, the Big Bang happened – and the universe is flat and infinite whether we like it or not.

To try to lighten things up a bit, literally, I’ll throw in a side bar asterisk, courtesy of Lawrence Krauss, and one that I find as beautiful as he does. Krauss says that supernovas (exploding stars) shine with a brightness of 10,000 suns, and even though a star only explodes once every 100 years, we can see hundreds of them every night (since there are billions and billions of stars), and they are the most poetic objects in the universe. Every atom in our body comes from the bursting apart of stars, and the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than the atoms in your right hand. We are all stardust – the elements that make us up – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and iron and all the things that matter for evolution weren’t created at the beginning of time, but were formed in the nuclear furnaces of stars. And the only way those atoms could get into your body were if the stars were kind enough to shatter and then shower us with life. So forget Jesus – hundreds of millions of stars died so you could be born.

I’m being only slightly facetious. But there are other questions that would perplex me if I were a theist: If God created us in his own image, and for our benefit, and we’re the only life form in the universe, why are there billions and billions of other galaxies besides our own Milky Way? Physics says we don’t need the others to guarantee our survival, so why would He bother? If you say that He created them because those are the laws of the universe he formulated and he was just playing by his own rules, then you can take God out of the equation and the argument still holds.

Along the same lines, if God created the world for us, then why did he also create random evil and innocent suffering? You would think he wouldn’t have done that, since he was making the world specifically for our benefit, and out of love supposedly. If you believe a kind and just God wouldn’t have darkened our doors with natural disasters, disease, plagues, infant mortality, etc, then isn’t the fact that they are a normal part of everyday life an argument against His existence? I don’t know, but the absence of evil might be a better argument for His existence. Maybe. But I’m sure that math isn’t moral, that computation doesn’t imply judgment, and that the universe is benignly, supremely indifferent. How could it be otherwise is a question definitely worth asking ­– in fact I think it is the only question worth asking.

And why us homo sapiens rather than other animals or life forms? Because He  created man in his own image, in the image of God created He him as the Bible tells us. Sure, but I’ve been studying the nature and mystery of consciousness, and theoretical physicist Sean Carroll predicts that it will one day be completely understood – the leaps and bounds taking place in neuroscience will soon allow us to map the brain as easily as we can take an x-ray of your teeth. But for now we’ve got to ask what exactly is consciousness, the awareness that we are alive, the cogito ergo sum realization that we uniquely feel as humans? Carroll explained that even though we really don’t understand human consciousness in toto, we can study the steps in the evolution of it.

Biologists have been examining the primitive flatworm, C. Elegans nematode, because it only has 302 neurons, as opposed to our 85+ billion, and they’ve successfully identified one of those neurons (don’t ask me how) whose job is to tell the nematode whether it’s looking at itself or the rest of the world. In essence that singular nematode neuron answers the question “Is this part of me or is this the mud?” This simplest of perceptions gives the nematode a miniscule amount of self awareness, and you can imagine how, if that continued to develop through natural selection over eons, it would be a good and even a great thing. We’re not that far along evolutionarily speaking, maybe ten million years or so – from nematode to toad to prince – which is a zeptosecond cosmological blink, but there it is.

Another question I always ask my believing friends is: What if there is a God, but there is no heaven, i.e. the universe is the exact same either way? Can you have God without an afterlife? Can you have a God without Judgment Day and hence have no possibility of salvation or condemnation? I say yes, it’s possible, but that’s not the God most of them want or envision.

I mentioned in my last article how my good friend Ken told me once that I was the most Christian non-Christian that he had ever met, and how I think the cardinal virtues should be lived by everyone, regardless of whether they believe in God or not, whether there is any ultimate accountability, a final divine moral weighing at the end of our lives. Which leads me to the overarching question “How are we supposed to live?” Whenever I’m asked this, I quote Marcus Aurelius: “Live in the present, with virtue.”

I don’t have much to add, except it’s a lot harder to do than you think, and that you should definitely aspire to live it proactively and seriously because, once again the cliché is true: virtue is its own reward. Living well is a creative act, not a discovery – you don’t find an excellent, artful life in a missal or a prayer, you make it. Transcendence is found in the doing, and the right thing is always the right thing. Period. I don’t need a supreme being who will judge or reward or punish me post facto to tell me that. The magnificence of your kindness or generosity and patience itself is the right reason – recta ratio agibilium. I’d also add that it’s wonderfully curative and liberating to be positive and grateful every day, if nothing else for the simple abundant miracle of your own improbable being.

I’d advise throwing in handfuls of fun and a liberal sprinkle of laughter throughout the mundanity, too. Practice nerve and verve, always. “Without music life would be a mistake” averred Nietzsche, so why not just listen to Yo Yo Ma’s ruthlessly audacious Suite No. 2 in D Minor by Bach with a dainty, whole-hearted Whitmanesque abandon and wonder once in a while?

A final question: if there was no us, i.e. no intelligent life anywhere in the universe, would we even be wondering about the existence of God? We wouldn’t, obviously, because we wouldn’t be here to do the wondering. But is it only because there is life that the question of God becomes jarringly pertinent? If there was a lifeless universe, would that also need a God, or an us to be present for it to exist, to be validated? It seems like the ‘does the tree falling in the forest make a sound or not’ conundrum writ just a bit larger. Would the photon from the Big Bang 13.72 billion years ago that somehow and finally reaches my eye exist if I didn’t see it? I'd say no.

I was at a wedding or maybe a christening several years ago and sat at the luncheon afterward with a fascinating and lively older woman who, come to find out, was a retired nun, a former Mother Superior. I was a bit surprised because I didn’t know nuns could retire, and I won’t make any off-color jokes about it, but I asked “Cynthia” what she did all day now that she was defrocked, so-to-speak. I was hoping she’d tell me how she’d gotten a little rambunctious with her new-found freedom, broken the bad habit of chastity and obedience, and gone out and painted the town red on more than one shameful occasion. I was rooting for an arrest at least, or a narrow escape, an illicit tryst or two, perhaps a couple of hilarious and daring close shaves? No such luck. She told me she said the rosary every morning in chapel, taught catechism class on Sundays, and went on regular religious retreats. She also volunteered in different capacities, and travelled to Africa every year to build houses for the poor through the church. Civilian Cindy was still praying daily for salvation and wisdom, always inching closer to Jesus Christ, with humility, redemption, absolution, meaning and purpose – the usual predictable obsessions – and hoping that one day God would come without bell.

My daughter Cate, who was about four at the time, bounced up to me at the table and with her blue-eyed ebullience and charm immediately won the nun but not me over, even though she interrupted us. I wasn’t fooled one bit – she only wanted something from me, and I could tell by her fluttering lashes and deciduous smile she was probably going to get it. I introduced her, and the Reverend Mother asked her why she was so happy. Cate said “Because I love this world.”

God or no God, so do I.

Photo ©Hubble/NASA

February 04, 2020 — Johnny Mustard