The artist Paul Gauguin was in despair when he painted his final masterpiece - a cry of bewilderment at the riddle of existence. He slashed three dramatic exclamations at the top left hand corner of the painting: 'Where do we come from - What are we - Where are going.' These are not so much a title as a signature, a testament to the quest that comes with our humanity.
When the first of these three big questions is asked innocently by a puzzled child or reflected upon in awe and amazement by parents at the birth of a baby, it is not a scientific but a religious/philosophical understanding that is being sought. It is a question about the ultimate source of our being.
The second question is of most immediate concern to us in everyday life. What are we meant to do with our life? It is an invitation to ethical and moral responsibility. How should we live? How should we relate to others and the world at large? The injunction is to 'know thyself and know thy world.' The urge is to discover what, if anything, is the purpose of our life and how to live in accordance with that purpose.
The final question has been asked from time immemorial whenever we are confronted by the recognition of our own mortality and the death of loved ones. What happens to our (and our loved one's) precious being after death? Is this temporal, finite existence all there is? Does life matter ultimately? Is it simply 'a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing.'?
People tend to answer these questions along a very broad continuum of belief, depending on whether they are religious, agnostic, atheistic or nihilistic.
At one end of the continuum are the religious fundamentalists of all denominations. Typically, they have a certain belief in the existence of a real, external, omnipotent God who created the universe, who determined its physical laws and moral rules, and who has issued clear, final answers to each of these big questions which are to be interpreted by religious authorities and followed by the faithful.
Less dogmatic are those who also believe God's Word is true but who argue that discerning its truth requires caution and involves interpretation, which is ultimately a matter of individual judgment and conscience. They recognise a need to be more open to other interpretations as our knowledge of the world increases.
Somewhere near the middle are the agnostics. They have difficulty believing in this God because science convinces them that the traditional religious beliefs about the nature of our world cannot be true. They also recoil from the many abuses which have been perpetrated in the name of religion. They prefer to keep an open mind and/or make no personal commitment one way or another.
For some people the above analysis of faith as a matter of belief or disbelief in certain fixed religious concepts is not at all adequate to their experience. They are aware of something 'bigger' but find it hard to talk about. John Robinson gave voice to this in his liberating book Honest to God in the 1960s.
There are depths of revelation, intimations of eternity, judgments of the holy and the sacred, awareness of the unconditional, the numinous and the ecstatic which cannot be explained in purely naturalistic categories without being reduced to something else.
The question of God is the question whether this depth of being is a reality or an illusion, not whether a being exists beyond the bright blue sky or anywhere else. Belief in God is a matter of what you take seriously without any reservation, of what for you is ultimate reality.
With a changing cosmology, belief in a separate omnipotent being beyond the sky became impossible for many religious people. Radical theologian Paul Tillich, in Dynamics of Faith, emphasized the need to re-conceptualize God as 'Being itself'. God, for Tillich and many modern progressive religious people, is the name we give 'to this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being.' As Shakespeare recognised: 'To be, or not to be. That is the question!'
For people who think about Being in this way, the religious dimension of life is the experience of being attracted to and grasped by a power that continually transcends all human categories of knowledge and understanding.
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