My existentialist grandma, my other grandma, and me

I grew up in southern California with a full quartet of grandparents, something Paul envies. My mom’s parents, Bernice and Judson Phillips, lived in Brea, near a park with a jungle gym shaped like a rocket ship. Grandpa Judd and I shared a birthday, and we celebrated together nearly every year.

My dad’s parents, Laura and Fred McGalliard, lived in Santa Ana, near the Santa Ana River trail, and we sometimes rode our bikes to visit them. Dad’s parents were devout followers of two religions: evangelical Protestantism, and Disney. If Mom’s parents had religious beliefs, it was never obvious. My family followed the religion of the elder McGalliards, and when we lived in Santa Ana, we went to the same church they did. (Churches, if you count Disneyland.)

When I was twelve, my father got a job with Boeing and we moved to King County, Washington, way out beyond the east hill of Kent. In a brand-new house mostly empty of furniture, we got the news that my mother’s father had lung cancer.

About a year after his initial diagnosis, my grandfather was gone.

When the subject of God was brought up — as it will be, during wakes and funerals and the like — my grandmother Bernice’s only expressed opinion was this: “If God is so great, why would he take my husband away from me?”

She mourned him for the rest of her life. I think she was convinced that the universe was a sadistic bastard, and she was never going to forgive it. Sometimes it drove me crazy — she was so negative all the time, and so stubborn in her resolve never to even try to be happy again. Other times I admired her determination.

Toward the end of her own life, my brother Mike and I visited her in the nursing home where she lived after a stroke left her unable to stay in her own house. We were chatting, and she said, “I don’t think you live on after you die.”

“Why do you say that, Grandma?” Mike asked.

Grandma made her sour, I-don’t-like-that face. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

I don’t remember exactly where the conversation went after that — hugs, maybe. Maybe my brother quoted Grandma’s favorite saying back at her: “Well, what do you know for sure?”

Wow, I thought. Grandma is an existentialist. Suddenly her fondness for the absurdist comedy of Monty Python, which I had previously considered delightfully out of character, made total sense. I felt great kinship with her, and also a pang of loss. Why had I never noticed before? We could have spent the last twenty years bonding over Kierkegaard and Sartre.

Then again, my grandmother was never much of a scholar — it might not have made any difference to her.

Laura, my devout grandmother, is now my last surviving grandparent. On our most recent visit, she seemed in remarkably good spirits regarding the prospect that the cancerous masses in her spine might take her life within a year or so. She talked about heaven. She wasn’t worried. “I know where I’m going.” She even told a little story about one of her — sisters, perhaps? Or maybe an aunt. I think she had a relative named Bernice, not my other grandmother, and so for rhetorical purposes I am going to pretend that’s who she was talking about.

“She said to me, how do you know for sure you’re going to heaven? ‘Bernice,’ I said to her. ‘You KNOW.’ And she didn’t have anything to say after that.”

Her eyes were twinkling as she spoke. Bernice. You KNOW.

I gave a vague nod and a smile, while my youth as a doubt-plagued evangelical flashed before my eyes. I considered the wisdom of grandmothers: “What do you know for sure?” vs. “You KNOW.”

I was raised in the church, but I take after my existentialist grandma. “What do you know for sure?” makes sense to me. “You KNOW” just isn’t the way I think. I mean, it’s not the way I think about anything. If you asked me, “how do you know the sun will come up tomorrow?” I would probably say something like, “well, I don’t actually know, but based on prior experience it seems to be the most likely possibility, and so I might as well go on assuming it will until it doesn’t.”

As a child, my natural uncertainty caused me a lot of consternation, expressed within evangelical framing as worry about my own personal salvation. Evangelical churches emphasize salvation through “faith alone” as opposed to “works,” and implicitly define faith as “overwhelmingly certain belief in the literal fact of.” Which is one thing I could never manage for very long. So as a kid I used to worry a lot that maybe I was damned.

Eventually I got to the age (15 or so) when I understood that there was, actually, no factual basis for religion — not mine, not anyone’s. Because my childhood religion had always been presented to me in literal-minded evangelical terms as true because it was a fact, when I realized it couldn’t possibly be regarded as a fact, my first assumption was that it must be untrue — a lie. But somehow that answer didn’t work for me. I retained a genuine emotional response to many aspects of Christianity, and for a while thought I might be experiencing esoteric spiritual “proof” (necessarily subjective rather than objective) that it was all true after all.

I looked at my feelings for a long time, thought about them, and even prayed about them. Eventually, I think I figured it out. All those years sitting in church, when I thought I had literally no choice other than to believe with all my heart, I struggled to find a way of looking at God, Jesus and scripture that would allow me to do that. And I had succeeded. My view of Christian teachings and what they meant and how they should be followed did in fact reflect my own true deep-down in-my-heart beliefs.

Of course, I differed from evangelical orthodoxy on many key points. The thing I really lost was the nagging worry that, in the areas where we differed, evangelical orthodoxy might be correct in some objective, fact-based way that I would learn to my everlasting sorrow in HELLLL!!!!!

I felt caught between two world views. On the one hand was literal-minded belief in the objective fact of things that could not be known, which I had rejected. But I had also rejected (for myself) atheism, strict materialism, the view that only that that which could be proven to be fact was important, was real. I still believed — for certain values of belief — in God and Jesus and salvation and the human soul and other spiritual matters. So I went from being unable to make sense of my doubt, to being unable to make sense of my faith. Why did I still believe these things the way that I did? It didn’t make any sense.

Kierkegaard — sometimes called a Christian existentialist — helped me understand my own religious impulses. He has a proposal that runs something like this: without God there is no meaning to the universe, but we believe in God, so there is meaning.

Ah-ha, I thought. Just as when I encountered deism — the realization that you could believe in an awesome creator God without believing him to be a narrow-minded busybody who concerns himself with violating the normal laws of cause and effect (which he designed, incidentally) in order to change who wins a football game or who does or does not die of cancer — or when I encountered existentialism and realized there was actually a word and an entire school of philosophy for how I had felt my whole life — I could feel the pieces of my own personal universe slotting into place.

Now I understood: religion is the way humans create meaning in the face of the void.

Religion has, in its own history, served many different functions — but I believe those functions got attached to it out of convenience more than anything. Since every human culture had something like a religion, it was a handy way to convey notions about what foods you eat and when you plant the crops and how the world came to be here and how you build a canoe and why snakes have no legs. Legal codes, authority hierarchies, behavior codes, history, community, mythology, art, folklore, storytelling, magic: all of it got hung onto religion because religion was there to do the hanging.

But in the culturally diverse modern world, we have uncoupled many of those traditional functions from religion. We have arts that have nothing to do with the gods explicitly (yet many of us feel art somehow still as intrinsically sacred). We have science to give us real answers to many of the questions where we used to just make up crazy campfire stories involving gods and such — questions about what the sun is, or how humans came to be different from other animals. Here in the USA, we have a legal code and system of governance that explicitly attempts religious neutrality (much to the consternation of some). We even have values-oriented but non-religious organizations to give us community, things like the world of SF fandom, or political activism, or the Girl Scouts. (The Boy Scouts, alas, with their explicit no-atheists policy, is more of a quasi-religious organization. But we’ve got those too.)

And yet, there are still questions — existential questions — like “why are we here?” and “what’s the point?” — which do not have answers in fact. Science doesn’t answer them, although scientists often turn their sense of wonder and awe at the universe itself into a kind of answer. (For example: I believe my father, an evangelical and a scientist, always identified the evangelical God as the GOD WHO MADE THIS FREAKING AMAZING MIND-BLOWING UNIVERSE WOO-HOOO!! and worshipped accordingly.) Art does answer them, particularly the art of storytelling, and yet the same answers don’t work for everyone.

Religion is real, and meaningful, but it is not objective. That’s the reason it’s not like science. Science is objective. You don’t have to believe in science for it to work — no matter what you think, it’s working for you right now! But religion works BECAUSE you believe it. Your belief is the point. Your belief is why it helps you do something with your life other than gibber in the face of the nameless void until you expire of either terror or ennui.

So, you can see the evolutionary survival value, actually.

I think now that it is probably natural for many people — maybe most people — people not me, anyway — to just assume that whatever answer they have to “what’s the universe all about, then?” is correct, and move on with their lives. They aren’t even consciously aware of the way they conflate belief in fact with belief as conviction. They don’t know how badly they’re confusing the little natural-born existentialists sitting there in the pews who will drive themselves crazy trying to work it all out. I didn’t have anybody to tell me that things could be true without being objective literal fact.

If you stick strictly to the facts, it goes like this: we’re born, we do a bunch of stuff, and then we die. Eventually the sun burns out, followed some time later by the heat death of the universe. The end.

I recognize that answer as factual, literal and objective — all things that my religion pretended to be, but wasn’t. Still, I don’t like that answer. It feels wrong. And it doesn’t help me get through my life, really, not if I end it there. So I construct meaning — necessarily subjective and personal — in the face of the void. In defiance of the facts, I believe that some things matter, and try to act accordingly. If it doesn’t matter, then it doesn’t matter, does it? You might as well try to make things better. You might as well try to do the right thing.

That was the meaning I took away from my childhood Christianity — the two commandments. Commandment one: to love God with all your heart and mind and soul. I translate this one a bit, because my god is more of a personification of the universe itself, and often I hesitate to call he/she/it “god” because I think that’s too much anthropomorphizing. But love with all my heart and mind and (assuming it exists) soul? You bet. That was one thing I got from my father: this universe will blow your mind at every step with its amazing awesomeness. It’s just too cool to feel like it’s the result of purely random chance. So I regard it as an amazing work of art, the work of art that makes all other works of art possible, and it just floors me, sometimes, with its glory. But it’s full of pain, too. I don’t fully know how to make sense of that, but sometimes I think it’s like this: when you draw a picture, you draw the shadows, because that’s how you see a thing is there. Maybe, without pain, we wouldn’t even know how amazing the universe is. But I don’t know. I don’t know everything there is to know. I don’t think I have to. (And I don’t believe anybody who claims that they do.)

I believe that many things cannot be known, by a mortal human, in this life.

The second commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. Well, I try. People are damned annoying, actually, and it’s hard. But I do love them. I love what we are capable of. I love our moments of creation, our moments of mercy and grace, our moments in awe of beauty, our moments of love. I believe we are all in this together. I believe that I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. I believe all you need is love. I believe that every human is flawed, and could be better. I believe that every human has a spark of the divine, the transcendent, the inexplicable.

I believe in salvation as something that saves us, in this life, from our worse impulses. I believe in redemption. I believe in goodness as action, faith as action, as what you choose to do in the face of despair. Read Lord of the Rings — Frodo and Sam on the last legs of their trek to the Crack of Doom — that is how I see faith. And so I believe in it, but not the way I was raised. I see faith in — well, in an existential way. It’s what you choose to do, knowing that you cannot know for sure.

Can I call myself a Christian existentialist, and unite the wisdom of both grandmothers?

And if I do meet them in a heaven someday, I imagine that all of us will be pleasantly surprised.