Below is an email message from a Church of the Churchless reader. My replies are indented further, in italics. Interesting questions and observations from this person. I tried to make my responses in kind.
Brian, just a few quick lines to let you know how much I (continue to) enjoy reading your blog.
Hey, back at you. I enjoy reading your messages and comments. You write very clearly and make a lot of sense. In short, you remind me of me!
I’m slowly, very slowly making my way through your archives, as well as reading your more current articles as you write them (plus some random articles in between). Yes, it’s slow going, and I’ve just passed the 2005 mark in your archives. It’s slow going because much of what you write about cannot really be speed-read, and besides I find it rewarding to go all out reading all enclosed links and comments, as well researching myself on the ‘Net various references in your posts (and sometimes in the comments), many of which I am quite ignorant about.
Wow. You win the Church of the Churchless Reader of the Year Award. Heck, Reader of the DECADE. Congratulations. I suspect you are more familiar with my older blog posts than I am.
You were right : I can clearly discern your evolution from a recovering ideologue (religio-logue?) to a clear-thinking and very open-minded agnostic.
Well, thanks. My thinking (and feeling) naturally are biased by my upbringing, experiences, genetics, and other influences. I try to be open-minded, but it's tough to tell the difference between a reasoned preference for this or that, and a habitual irrational liking/disliking of this or that. I do change my mind frequently about philosophical and spiritual matters, which strikes me as a good thing.
Apart from the actual quality of the stuff we read, perhaps we best like and enjoy those writers whose writings resonate well with our own line of thinking. Well, in your blog I find a whole wealth of very well-reasoned-out ideas and thoughts exactly along the way my own mind seems to be running these days. And it’s great to have this huge mass of articles—far more and varied than any single book or set of books could have given me—to have to dip into, time and again.
I appreciate your appreciation. There have been times when I wondered whether it was worth writing the thousands of blog posts on this here Church of the Churchless. Hearing from someone like you makes me feel, "Yeah, it was."
As I had mentioned in my last comment to your blog, which you may perhaps have seen, your writings are extremely thought-provoking. (And the comments too : though sometimes downright asinine, at times they are thought-provoking too.) I have this whole list of questions that keep on bubbling up as I read on, but many of them I can myself find answers to on some thought, and sometimes your own further posts seem to address them. So I’ve stuck to my original resolve, expressed in my last comment, not to go shooting off further comments and questions without first reading up a good bit more of what is already there.
Yes, I saw the comment. You are "New Reader" in the comments on a post where I replied to a previous equally thoughtful message from you. I don't mind questions and comments; I just sort of feel that, given everything I've written on this blog over the past ten years, just about everything I could say, I've said. But since I'm still saying new stuff, I guess that feeling isn't true.
Perhaps I could shoot off just one question, though, at this time? (Please feel free to not answer : I’m sure you get too many similar emails and questions from readers to be able to address each one individually!)
Actually, I don't get a large number of emails and questions. I'm just really good at procrastinating and failing to answer the ones I don't get for a while. I almost always get to them eventually. It's just that I'm also a citizen activist in my home town, have another HinesSight blog, and also live in a non-easy-care house and ten acres that need maintaining, so those things pull me away from churchless blogging.
Given the whole uncertainty here, mightn’t the whole spiritual endeavour be thought of as a very uncertain bet—much too uncertain to be even undertaken in the first place? I mean, buying a lottery ticket can be seen as safe investment in comparison to the uncertainty of the spiritual quest!
Your own more informed ruminations have only strengthened my own more tentative thoughts on this: that buying into some particular religion is very dicey, and plain idiotic: and an open-minded spiritual quest is best. However, as regards the open-minded spiritual quest:
1. We do not know if there is any such thing as enlightenment or spiritual progress at all. Just perhaps there is: but quite likely there isn’t.
I agree about this also. I think there is something called personal development. That seems obvious. Each of us changes throughout our lifetime in various ways. There seem to be better and worse ways of changing. Whether some ways people change reasonably can be called "enlightenment" or "spiritual progress," that's another question.
2. Should there be something in all this, even then, should past record of such efforts be any general indication, the chances of my/your personally getting an unequivocal answer one way or the other seem slim indeed!
If you mean an answer to the Nature of the Cosmos, the Meaning of It All, Whether God Exists, and similar Big Questions, I agree that the chance of getting an objectively true answer is very slim. However lots of people arrive at subjectively persuasive answers that have a lot of meaning to themselves. I suspect this is the best we can do: feel that our answers to the Big Questions make sense to us, whether or not they do to anyone else. If we don't pretend that we have an objective answer that applies to everybody, just a subjective answer that applies only to us, where's the problem?
3. And finally, should one actually arrive at an answer, then there is nothing to suggest that that answer will have been worth these years of search. (It seems like that the truth may well be along the lines of the Buddha’s anatta, no-self. That there is nothing and no one at home. Or, of course, not—but that seems most likely to me. Should that be the case, well then, what on earth have I achieved with my hours and years of search? Why not just kick the whole thing aside, and instead simply concentrate fully and unreservedly on a hedonistic / material existence, making the most of this life, and seeking only pleasure and material happiness—one’s own, and others’?)
Hmmmmm. Personally, I feel that if I can come to a full intuitive experiential understanding that the "self" I've been trying to look for and realize my whole life doesn't exist, this would be marvelous. After all, almost all (maybe every one) of my problems stems from a feeling of "this shouldn't be happening to me." If there is no "me," yay! The existential aspect of my problems is solved. I'm just left with the here and now physical reality of them, not a lingering sensation of "why me?" and "could this have been avoided?"
Also, you are assuming the reality of what philosophers call "counterfactuals." Namely, alternatives to events that have already happened, so they can't happen in reality since they pertain only to the past. Your question also seems to assume that free will exists, which implies a concurrent assumption that a "self" capable of freely willing also exists.
How do you know that a personal answer to a search regarding life's meaning isn't worth all the searching? Wouldn't you need to have experienced both the answer and the searching to know this, along with the impossible counterfactual alternative: what your life would have been like absent that answer and that searching?
I don't believe in either the "self" or free will. So I don't consider that I could have done anything different with my life than what has actually happened in my life. Same applies to you and everybody else, in my opinion. Thus I don't accept the premise of your question. If someone is drawn to seek an answer to the Meaning of It All, and someone else finds satisfaction in the pursuit of worldly pleasures, this simply means that they are different people doing different things in life.
I think everybody is seeking happiness. I enjoy pondering philosophical, scientific, and spiritual subjects. Other people enjoy pondering how to grow a fruitful garden, or take strokes off of their golf handicap, or a myriad of different goals. Each of us is doing what we have been determined to do -- that word "determined" meaning an absence of free will in the matter. Also, I obviously haven't spent my entire life on the sort of searching you describe. I've done many other things: gotten married (twice), raised a family, had a career, pursued athletic skills, learned ballroom dancing, etc. etc. etc.
That is my question, should you care to address it. Basis your own extensive experience and thoughts along these lines (since what else do we have after all to base our answers on?), would you say this is an effort really worth taking?
Well, see above. There's my answer. I don't believe we have a choice in deciding whether "really worth taking" applies to us. For me, and I assume most readers of this blog, it did. For the many people who find what I've blogged about over the years totally uninteresting, it didn't. Thus whatever I say to you on this subject is just one more influence that gets dropped into your mind/brain. I doubt that my answer, "Yes, it is an effort really worth taking," will be the deciding influence on you or anyone else.
I suspect that you already know the answer to your question, the answer for yourself. That is the most importamt answer. Indeed the only answer, since I don't believe there are objective answers to the Big Questions of life, only subjective personal answers. We feel better when someone else comes up with our own answer, but that doesn't make the answer any more objectively true.
Again, perhaps it is not right to ask that question in those general terms, since how can you decide what is worth doing and what is not worth doing for another person, far less for people in general? So let me rephrase that question for you particularly, in personal terms, in two parts:
First, given your current level of life-long experience, if you could go back to your 18-year-old self with this knowledge and experience and thoughts (your own future self’s knowledge and experience and thoughts, not someone else’s)—well, would you still have spent such a large chunk of your life in this quest?
Not a valid question, since I don't believe in the reality of counterfactuals, of events that could have happened, but didn't. If they could have happened, they would have. And maybe in an another part of the multiverse (if such exists), I did live my life differently. But in this life, the other one I know, the only experiences I am aware of are those that actually happened. I really spend zero time wondering whether I did the right thing about anything in my life. Everything I have done was the only thing I could have done.
And second : looking now at your current, 60-year-old self : given your life-long experience, why do you still persist with your daily meditation, your “spiritual” readings, and your “spiritual” ruminations? Is it plain habit? Is it a case of not wanting to write off large amounts of sunk costs (in terms of time and effort already put in)? Is it because you simply do this unthinkingly? And having now thought about it consciously, would you still continue doing it? Why exactly—can you spell it out?
Because I want to. Because I enjoy doing what I'm doing. Because my wanting and enjoying aren't in my control, nor is writing the three sentences in this paragraph.
Needless to say, I’m not challenging your position in any way, nor am I questioning (as in challenging) your personal private beliefs and thoughts and actions. Just seeking your particular answer to a question I ask myself, in the hope and expectation that your own thoughts may go at least some small way in facilitating the answer I seek for my own self (and must ultimately arrive at myself, for myself).
"At myself, for myself." Very true.
Thanks again for the lovely blog you’ve got going. (And thanks to Google—and serendipity—for having led me, unsought and quite by accident, to your Churchless website!)