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Ambiguity, Faith and the Supernatural--Whom Do You Trust

Holy Man with Snake--Kathmandu 1992

Ambiguity, Faith, Superstition, Belief in the Supernatural.

I was thinking of something that happened to me many years ago. After I came down from a long trek in the Himalayas I was recovering from a bout of dysentery in the Kathmandu Guest House. One afternoon I looked out of my window into the courtyard, one story below, feeling the mid-April breeze wash over my wasted body.

Down in the dust in the shade of a tree I watched a tall, stately old Nepalese man, wearing sandals, worn denim pants, and a western style sport coat. He had an elegant purple turban, wrapped around his gray-white hair, and he had a beautiful, full white beard. Sitting about him were several Westerners, listening intently as he spoke to a young French girl. Curious, I walked downstairs, through the dark coolness of the lobby, out into the sunny courtyard.

As I moved closer to the group under the tree I could hear the old man telling the girl her fortune—he had read her palm and he was carefully explaining what he had “seen” there. I was enthralled—the more I listened the more I too wanted to have my palm read. This confounded me because I am cynical when it comes to such things as palm reading, tea leaves, crystal balls, and other supernatural jiggery-pokery.

But something here was different, exotic and mysterious. There I was in the strange and beautiful country that separates India from Tibet. Somewhere in the mountains above us Shangri-la awaited the explorer who was strong enough, patient and persistent enough, and who believed enough to keep searching. In such a place it is not difficult to put doubts and suspicions aside. I did so, and when the old man finished with the girl I took her place to have my face and hand closely inspected.

The shadows in the courtyard grew longer as the sun edged down toward the rooftops of the ancient, dark buildings of Kathmandu. I sat and listened to the dignified old man as he, in lightly accented English, told me what was to be my future. A woman, travel, money—he spoke of the usual things and yet, I felt something more. Had I been in the West, home in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, I might have been disappointed. But there, under the influence of the tallest mountains on earth, under the spell of an ancient city and an aging, white-haired fortune-teller, I listened. As cynical and worldly as I like to think I am, I wanted to believe in an old man in a turban—I wanted to believe that I could glimpse the future and that it held promise.

When our ancient ancestors became sentient enough to consider the horror that their lives were going to “end” at some point, either from sickness or old age, enemy spear or carnivore’s jaws and claws, they sought an escape from the nothingness of death. Mortality is terrifying and final. It didn’t take long for the ancients to conjure up gods, spirit, afterlife, heaven and hell, and other supernatural elements that could help them avoid the inevitability of mortality and answer the questions that they posed to nature. God, the afterlife, spirit, heaven, hell and other supernatural elements—these are things that holy men used to give our ancestors hope and keep them in line. And “holy” men today still do.

I read the other day that religion is important in peoples’ lives because people don’t like ambiguity. I’m pretty sure the people referred to there aren’t poets. Poets strive for ambiguity for poetry, the ultimate distillation of language. Ambiguity in poetry is a way of saying more with less; it gives you more bang for your buck.

So what is it about ambiguity that upsets people? Is it the idea that there is no such thing as a sure thing? Is it that the big secret is that there is no big secret?

The point is while some people, like poets and philosophers, work with and embrace ambiguity, most people are uncomfortable with the uncertainty. They want to know the answer, the secret, the truth. It is why people attend church or read deeply into philosophy.

I remember my “Intro to Philosophy” course as an undergraduate years ago. We first spent a week proving the existence of God. Then we spent a week proving that God does not exist. Good starting point for philosophy. It worked for me and made me love philosophy, even though it didn’t help me with doubt.

But doubt makes life interesting. It is healthy and makes us question things that others tell us. I’m glad both my sons doubt religion. They heeded my warning about not trusting anyone who says they have all of the answers. Snake oil salesmen, con men, and holy men. At the end of the day, the doubt and questioning, the fear of not knowing that people have trouble with, all comes down to faith.

I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post that holy men still use the fear of death and possibility of an afterlife to keep us in line. It is about control and it’s even more about money. Have you seen the Vatican? Seen the mansions, limos, and private planes of the television evangelists? I know, I know I’m not being fair—religious institutions provide substantial amounts of cash and other aid for all sorts of causes. They do wonderful things. But many of these organizations have the ulterior motive of bringing non-believers into the fold. Creating more numbers who will contribute part of their hard earned cash to the church.

Maybe it isn’t such a bad thing. Religion gives people hope that a “better” place awaits them after their life on earth. I guess religion is ambiguous as well. Some good, some bad, some true believers honestly trying to spread “the word.”

But, who knows? I don’t have the answers. Certainly I’d love to believe in someone or something with all the answers, like that fortune-teller in Kathmandu years ago. But, deep down I knew it wasn’t real. I just wanted it to be real; I wanted to believe. Religion is seductive. It says to you: “follow me and you will find all of the answers. Follow me and you’ll have eternal life.” But, I can’t lie to myself. I doubt. I don’t blindly trust. I thrive on ambiguity.

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