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Of God and Bear

"The Bear and Girl discuss whether God exists…with surprising results."
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Author's Notes

"This is not your typical fantasy story about a talking Bear. To my surprise, Bear and Girl started talking about the existence of God, and wandered off into related matters. And you don't have to agree with Bear on any of this. He won't mind. There are lighter, less weighty stories behind this one, but this turned out to be important to the deepening relationship between Bear and Girl. BTW, the conversation with Ram Dass really happened, pretty much just this way."

The two friends sat together, watching the stars emerge in their crystalline thousands. Finally, Bear got up. “Follow me,” and walked off the porch.

The Girl followed him, but put her hand on his back to guide herself, watching the ground to keep from tripping. It was very dark.

He walked for a few minutes, then sat, and waved his paw at the sky. “Look,” was all he said.

She looked up, then turned in a circle and gasped. “Oh, my God!”

“Probably,” Bear said.

 

“Probably what?” the Girl said.

“Probably the stars are there because of God.”

She blinked. “Um…why ‘probably’? And how would you know?”

The Bear got up, and said, “Why don’t we go back into the cabin? I don’t think there are any short answers to either of those questions, and you’re going to get cold if we stand out here for long.”

Girl put her hand on his fur, and followed him back to the cabin over the bumpy meadow floor.

When they were once again safely inside, with the door closed and bolted, Bear built up the fire, then slumped down in front of it on the rag rug, cradling his head on his front paws. “Now, which question did you want me to attempt to answer first?”

The Girl thought for a moment, then said, “Why do you think the stars are probably there because of God?”

The Bear lifted his head, then nodded. “Right. Well, first, can we agree that there is no way to prove the existence of God?”

The Girl thought, and said, “I’d have to think about that, but let’s say you’re right about that…for now.”

The Bear chuckled, a deep gurgling sound in his chest. “Well, I actually asked God about it once, and that’s what He told me. But that’s a different…”

“Wait! What do you mean you asked God? Do you mean in prayer, or…in person?”

“In person.”

“But…how?”

“Okay, I can see this is going to be an even longer conversation than I thought. Why don’t you get yourself some food, then bring it back here and we’ll start there, okay?”

The Girl thought for a moment, then shrugged, got up from the sofa, and disappeared into the kitchen, returning several minutes later with a sandwich of tinned meat and mustard.

The Bear looked at her plate, and said, “I’ve made arrangements to get some fresher food for you. It should get here tomorrow morning.”

The Girl, who had a mouth full of sandwich, looked at him, and tried to speak, then hurriedly chewed her mouthful, swallowed hard, then finally said, “How…?”

“Look, which question do you want answered? We’re going to be here all night at this rate!”

The Girl took another bite, then mumbled around it, “Okay, I’ll come back to that one, too. So, how did you meet God?”

“Actually, an incarnation of God. Have you ever heard of a guy by the name of Ram Dass?”

She cocked her head and said, “It sounds familiar, but…” She shook her head, “Not sure. Tell me.”

“Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert, son of the president of the New Haven Railroad, and raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was the classic overachiever, eventually becoming a professor of clinical psychology, with simultaneous appointments, I think, at Stanford, Michigan, and Harvard. That’s kind of the textbook definition of the classic overachiever!

“But he became most famous for being Timothy Leary’s sidekick at Harvard, turning on and dropping out on acid – LSD. But when Leary was framed and busted for the possession of marijuana, he and Alpert were bounced from Harvard.

“He didn’t go to jail but instead went to India, looking for the purpose of life – which I know about, by the way – and…”

“Stop! You can’t just slide that by! What is the purpose of life?”

“Wrong question, and if we keep getting side-tracked, we’ll never get anywhere. So: back to God, right?”

Girl scowled, shook her head, then begrudgingly said, “Oh, okay…God.”

“Alpert literally fetched up at the feet of an Indian guru named Neem Karoli Baba, hoping for a miracle to transform his life – and got it.”

“Wait, what?”

“A miracle.”

Girl just stared at him, then shrugged. “Okay, go on.… No, wait. What miracle?”

The Bear heaved a deep sigh. “So, Alpert didn’t believe in this holy man crap, but couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something there. Finally, he wanted to get away from all the people surrounding the supposedly great guru, and went for a walk at a park far away, around a lake.

“Just totally confused about his life and what the hell he was doing, he finally gave up, and said, ‘Okay, God, I haven’t got any faith. Send me a miracle.’”

“Wait…that’s, uh… Matthew 20 or something, right?”

The Bear nodded, “Matthew 21:21. Probably.”

The Girl stopped, thinking, then nodded, “Go on.”

“When Alpert got back to the ashram, Maharaj-ji walked over to him and said, ‘Were you at the lake?’

“Alpert’s chest got very tight, and he said brusquely, ‘Yes.’”

“Maharaj-ji said, ‘While you were there, were you talking to God?’

“Alpert just looked at him, unable to breathe, but nodded.

“Maharaj-ji leaned forward and said, ‘And did you…ask…for something?’”

“Alpert fell apart, collapsed, and started to cry, and all his tension disappeared.”

“Wait…that’s not a miracle!”

The Bear looked at her. “Isn’t it?”

The Girl opened her mouth then closed it, and repeated that several times, then finally said, “But that’s only a story.”

The Bear nodded.

“So…”

“Look, did you want to hear about Ram Dass, or did you want to argue about the nature of miracles? You see, I really don’t care if you believe or not. But you asked, remember?”

The Girl started to pout, then shrugged, “Okay, go ahead.”

“Well, don’t be too long-suffering about it on my account.” The Bear chuckled deep in his chest again.

“So, Alpert studied with Maharaj-ji – who has had several other Western disciples, by the way, including Steve Jobs – then took the name ‘Ram Dass,’ meaning ‘Servant of God.’ Maharaj-ji sent him back to the West to work, because spiritual work is done in the marketplace, not on the mountain…”

The Girl held up a hand, “What do you mean?”

The Bear sat back and grinned. “Okay, grasshopper. If you’re building a building, for example, you don’t work in bed, do you? You go to where the work is, right?”

She nodded.

“Likewise, you do spiritual work where the work needs to be done. There’s a lovely Jewish parable about that, but that would be yet another diversion, so let’s save that for another time, shall we?”

“Uh…I guess.”

“May I continue?”

She nodded.

“So, Ram Dass, among many other things, started lecturing here in the West. I first heard of him when a friend of mine gave me a cassette tape of one of his lectures – the lecture was in Toronto, I believe – and I really liked it. It spoke to me, and seemed much more…accessible than most spiritual stuff I’d read or heard, including the Bible. Which I’ve read cover-to-cover, by the way.”

The Girl giggled at the image of a polar bear holding the Bible in his paws, then sobered up. “Sorry. Go on.”

The Bear glared at her, then went on. “Then I read that before he starts a lecture, Ram Dass goes out into the audience and chats with people. And I heard he was going to be in my hometown for a lecture, so I got an idea.”

Bear shifted and went down on his front haunches. “So, here’s this person, who claims to be an incarnation of God…which is part of Hindu mysticism, by the way…and if I went to his lecture, I might be able to ask him a question. I thought: how could I pass up an opportunity to ask God a question?”

“Wait…this is all very entertaining, but the son of the former president of the New Haven Railroad as God? I have a problem with that. He can’t be God!”

The Bear looked at her and grinned. “You’re sure about that, are you? Maybe a carpenter’s son would be a better candidate?”

Girl started to sputter, “But…well, yes! It’s in the Bible!”

“New Testament or Old?”

“Old. I mean New! You’re getting me mixed up!”

The Bear chuckled again. “You seem to be doing fine on your own. Anyway, let it ride, okay? Or we’ll never get back to God.”

She looked like she’d swallowed something sour, but nodded somewhat begrudgingly.

“So, if you had the chance to ask God one question, what would you ask?”

“What?”

“You heard me. What question would you ask if you could ask only one?”

“Are you really God?”

“Answer: Yes. Wasted question.”

“Does God really exist?”

“Answer: Yes. Wasted question.”

“Was Jesus God incarnate?”

“Answer: Yes – just like everyone else. Wasted question.”

“Ohhh! Bear! Um…Was Jesus the Son of God?”

“Answer: Of course. Wasted question.”

“No, I mean…wait, was Jesus the only begotten son of God?”

“According to Christians, yes. According to everyone else, no. Wasted question.”

She thought for a while, started to speak several times, then finally said, “I’d…have to think about it. What did you ask?”

“Well, I had an advantage on you. I thought about that question for several weeks before the night of Ram Dass’ speech, and discarded most of them as being either too specific – like your questions about Jesus – or too vague.

“So, here’s my question: Is there any physical evidence of spiritual existence?”

She looked off into the distance, “Physical evidence of… Okay, why that question?”

“Because it told me where I needed to go next. If there is, indeed, physical evidence of spiritual existence, I could go look at it, and evaluate it myself. If the answer was no, then I could stop looking and just accept that spiritual matters are beyond science and evidence.”

“So, what did Ram Dass say?”

“I was surprised. He closed his eyes and turned his head up, and took quite some time, thinking about his answer while people clustered around him, wanting to speak with him. Then, finally, he looked back at me and said, ‘No. It’s almost like asking if there is objective evidence of subjective experience. The two domains are mutually exclusive.’

“Then he turned to the next person.”

The Girl sat for a moment. “You must have been disappointed in his answer.”

“No! I was delighted! It meant that I could stop looking for proof of God’s existence, and start thinking about what I chose to believe and accept. Faith is faith, not evidence. Thomas Merton said something very much like that.”

“Thomas who?”

“A Trappist monk and essayist. Not important, let’s move on, okay?”

Girl looked at him, and almost asked Bear who he was, then decided not to, so simply nodded. “So, how does that get us to where you can say that the stars are probably God’s work?”

“Well, that’s where William of Occam comes in.”

“Okay, I know about him! A…Benedictine…monk of the, what thirteen or fourteenth century?”

“Franciscan friar, not Benedictine monk, but still very good. Born in the thirteenth, died in the fourteenth. Spot on. So, what’s Occam’s Razor?”

“Something about the number of hypotheses, I think.”

“Sort of. There are a variety of phrasings, but my favorite is: Whenever a phenomenon permits of more than one explanation, the simplest is the most likely.”

She looked up again, and started mumbling, “…the simplest is the most likely…Okay, right. Got it.”

“It’s not a law, like your so-called Law of Gravity…”

“Hey!”

“…but it is a very useful rule of thumb for sorting out explanations. Now, let’s keep things simple, and assume there are only two hypotheses. First, that God created the universe – whoever or whatever ‘God’ is. Right?”

Girl nodded.

“Or second, that the universe just happened, much as Richard Dawkins, the famed atheist, and evolutionary biologist, proposed for evolution in his book The Blind Watchmaker.”

She nodded again. “I haven’t read it, but I know about it.”

“Dawkins writes pretty well and has some useful things to say.” The Bear chuckled deep in his chest again.

“So, which explanation do you favor?”

The Girl looked uncomfortable. “Well, both, kinda. I mean, I believe in God, but I also believe in science. So much of our lives have been improved and affected by science that it’s kind of stupid to say it’s not true, right?”

The Bear nodded, “Yup. ‘The proof of the pudding’ and all that. But now, let’s examine this…scientific…hypothesis that the universe ‘just happened.’

“There’s a wonderful book, Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces that Shape the Universe, by the British Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, that crushes, in my opinion, the ‘scientific’ hypothesis. The six numbers are the universal constants of physics, including things like the strength of gravity; of the strong and weak nuclear forces; the relationship between those two; the density parameter, which is an index that measures the amount of material in the universe; and the number of dimensions in our reality, which is, of course, three: height, length, and depth.

“Think of these six numbers as the dials to be tuned to define what kind of universe we have.

“Now here’s the kicker – it these dials were tuned even the tiniest bit differently, the universe as we know it would not exist! Then we would not be here, discussing it. And that’s on any one of the six dials.

“What are the chances that all six dials just happen to be set so precisely right so we can exist and be here talking to each other? The probability is so small that it would be ridiculous even to suggest it – except it happened.

“So, that being the case, let me ask you a question, one that the Astronomer Royal almost posed, but then ducked, in his book: Who set those dials with such infinite care? Or did this infinitesimally, ridiculously outrageous possibility just happen by chance?”

The Bear sat back, rested his head on his paws, and went quiet, watching her and waiting.

The Girl sat back, then said, “So – you’re saying God does exist?”

“No. I’m saying Occam’s Razor would argue very strongly that He does. But we don’t know God exists any more than we know that there is anyone or anything outside of our own heads. Or rather our own consciousness.”

The Girl sat staring at Bear for a long time, then stirred and said, “You’re a very strange…um…individual, Bear, do you know that?”

The Bear chuckled deep in his chest, “I think most people would agree with you. They certainly did before…well, before.”

She thought he might have been about to say something about his past, then stopped. Once again, she thought about asking him…then decided to try to be patient.

Finally, she nodded. “I can accept that God…probably…created the stars and the heavens. It’s what I was taught as a child anyway, and you make it seem so…reasonable. But your way of arguing it is so unusual. Do you believe in science?”

The Bear snorted, “You weren’t paying attention. Of course, I believe in science – to the extent that science needs my belief. It is self-enforcing. People who don’t believe in science – in the evidence of science – are fools, either because they are fooling themselves, or they are accepting the word of people who are either fools or knaves. But acceptance of science applies as much to questions of creation, evolution, vaccinations, and climate change as it does to why your TV goes on when you hit the ‘ON’ button.

“But I’m not a scientist. My father was. I’m a mathematician, and we’re a different breed of cat – or bear, as it were.” The Bear lifted his head and gave what seemed to be a silent laugh.

“But…I thought mathematics was science,” the Girl said.

“Another mistake fostered by our education system. Mathematics is more like art or philosophy than science. And it is the only area of human thought that is provable. You can prove any mathematical idea is right or wrong – or at least, correct or incorrect – mathematically. There are no grey areas. And it is totally value-free. It doesn’t make a particle of difference whether you're a communist, conservative, liberal, libertarian, anarchist, or anything in between.”

“So, how come people confuse math with science, as with STEM – Science, Engineering, Technology, and Mathematics?”

“Because science uses math, but math doesn’t use science – except in applied mathematics, where we are deliberately taking math and using it for science and technology.”

Girl looked far-off again, “So, science uses math, but math doesn’t use science.”

“Right.”

“Why not?”

“Because mathematics doesn’t need science. It’s a mental discipline that is divorced from the real world. It resides in the mind of mathematicians, and nowhere else. It’s actually rather spooky, if you think about it. Indeed, if you need proof of the existence of God, mathematics might just be it.”

Now the Girl was thoroughly confused. “I don’t…get that.”

“So, mathematics is something that exists only in the mind of mathematicians, does not exist in the real world, yet turns out to be the only mental discipline that is completely provable – right or wrong, with no uncertainties except for unsolved problems – and has immense applications to science and technology in the real world. How could that happen? By accident?”

Bear snorted. “I doubt William of Occam would buy that.”

“Oh-kay…so has being a mathematician helped you in your…your quest for God?”

Bear looked at her, the nodded, “Oddly enough, it has.

“I was raised a devout atheist. I told you my Dad was a research scientist. To him, God was a ludicrous fairy tale, suitable for gullible children, and that was the church I was raised in, that was my faith.”

“Wait…atheism isn’t a faith.”

“What would you call a belief system that has no objective proof? Atheism is a religion like any other. A kind of pointless one, as René Descartes pointed out because it’s a bet you can’t win. But it’s a religion notwithstanding. They just don’t hang a sign outside the door.

“Anyway, I was an atheist until I started thinking for myself. I knew nothing about religion – unless you count Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny – but was finally exposed to people who did believe in various religions – mostly Jews and Christians – when I was in university.

“And, like a good little scientist – I started as a physics major – I listened to various testimonies and evidences, including those relating to cosmology, with an open mind.

“I finally decided that I wasn’t smart enough to be able to decide the ultimate questions of Life, the Universe, and Everything, and that ‘42’ wasn’t a sufficient answer for me. So, I started describing myself as a lapsed atheist, which I thought was amusing.

“I kept encountering people, fine, intelligent people, who believed in God in some way or other, and it made an impression on me. By this time, I had graduated university with a double degree in mathematics and computer science, but really felt like a mathematician in the way I thought.”

Girl stirred, “So, how did that affect your thinking on God?”

Bear sat up, “First, I need to describe the difference between the way a scientist thinks about a problem, and the way a mathematician thinks about one.

“When a scientist encounters a brick wall, a problem for which he has no solution, he has no choice but to keep beating his head against it until something gives. After all, it’s reality, right?

“But a mathematician doesn’t have to do that. He – or she, and there have been some brilliant women mathematicians, such as Ada Lovelace, the woman who effectively invented the concept of computer programming in the 19th century – will beat his head against that wall for a while, then simply define their way around it, by changing his assumptions.”

“But that’s cheating!”

“Nope, that’s mathematics. A mathematician has a different way of looking at the world than a scientist. Now, let’s consider the brick wall presented by the question of the existence of God.

“We’ve already agreed that you can’t prove your way to God, so what can a scientist do when faced with that particular brick wall? They should give up and admit that they don’t know. Only many scientists don’t do that. They assume their conclusion instead, that God doesn’t exist, which is a logical mistake. They dismiss the existence of God – much as my father did – without seeking evidence, let alone seeking proof.

“Instead, I, as a mathematician, looked at the problem and said, ‘Let’s assume that we are on the other side of this brick wall. What would the world look like, and would it produce provably false results? This is an approach mathematicians call reductio ad absurdum.”

“In other words, I said, ‘I’ve spent all these years assuming that God doesn’t exist. What happens if I assume He does exist?’

“And that made an enormous difference.”

“How so?”

Bear thought for a while, “Well, to start, it made me look at people differently. Instead of being merely evolutionary competitors, they became children of a common Father – or Mother, as may be. My attitude towards people became much more positive, and I started giving people the benefit of the doubt more often, and taking myself less seriously. And that made my life sweeter in exchange.

“I found death easier to deal with than before. It was still distressing, but I felt I would see these people again, so it wasn’t as sad. Likewise, I found life easier to deal with, that I wasn’t alone in my own skull.”

“Empirically, the best answer is the result that produces the best result. And believing in God produces the best result for me…at least, most of the time.”

The Bear paused for a long time then, looking out the window at something only he could see, and the Girl waited, sensing something profound was disturbing him.

Finally, when he showed no sign of saying anything further, she said, “Bear, you must be terribly lonely here. I can’t imagine that talking with…chipmunks, for example…is very fulfilling. And you don’t seem to interact with humans much.”

His head swiveled to look at her, then down at the floor. He shook himself, then said, “I’m sorry, I’ve been prattling on about metaphysics and stuff. You should go off to bed. With your injuries, your body needs the sleep!”

“Please, Bear – you’ve been so good to me. Let me help?”

The Bear turned and looked at her, staring for a long time, then said, “I’m sorry, Girl. I’m…I’m not ready. Yet. Maybe never.”

She looked at him, and swore he had tears in his eyes – and asked herself, do polar bears cry?

 

 

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