This I Believe: Alex Nelson (2021)

Thank you everyone, for having me here (virtually) and for taking the time to listen to me. I’d like to begin by talking about my childhood. I don’t know if I’m in the minority or not, but I was lucky enough to grow up as a Unitarian Universalist. As a child, this meant three things: 1) a love of coffee was expected and imparted at an early age, 2) at school nobody understood what religion I was when I loudly proclaimed, “I’m a UU!,” and 3) Blue Boat Home was like a family anthem. But there was another key aspect of my childhood that I think impacts what I believe like nothing else: freedom. Complete, absolute, unabashed, wonderful freedom. I don’t mean freedom in the sense of my parents allowed me to do whatever I wanted to. I mean that they let me think and experiment with how I wanted to think, what I wanted to believe. This is perhaps one of the most crucial elements and foundations of what I believe, namely because it allowed me to think some very controversial thoughts about one very controversial figure: God.

When I was first invited to participate in This I Believe, I was honored and humbled. So many amazing and wise people have spoken in this format before. I can remember several This I Believe speeches and how much they helped me consider and reflect on my own opinions about the universe. And here I am, a 21-year-old kid trying to make my way through life tasked with imparting some wisdom onto our already wise congregation. What on earth could I have to say that would be meaningful, new, insightful, or profound? Well, I can’t promise that I will have anything meaningful, new, insightful, or profound to say. But when I was thinking about what I wanted to talk about, I kept going back to my childhood, and growing up as a UU. My experiences when I was young, well, younger than I am now at any rate, have helped form my beliefs and make me who I am today. And there is one question in my mind about my beliefs that I have always been stuck on, ever since I was a young UU in RE: the question of the existence of God.

I’ve always had a tense relationship with God. I remember hearing an old joke about being part of a UU church that perfectly illustrates my beliefs about a higher power. It goes something like this: A newcomer comes to a UU church for the first time. She sits down, sings some hymns, and listens to the sermon. Afterwards, one of the regulars comes up to her and asks her what she thought of the service. The newcomer replies “I didn’t agree with anything that the minister was saying!” The regular smiles and says “Oh good! Then you’ll fit right in here.” I haven’t agreed with almost anything I have ever heard about God. And yet, here I am, fitting into this great spiritual journey all human beings are on, as both UU’s and non UU’s. I don’t have a great history of trauma or pain. Life has been relatively easy for me. And yet grappling with the question of God has been of utmost importance and spiritual significance for me. And so, I’d like to continue with a phrase guaranteed to break the peace of any family thanksgiving dinner; “I’d like to talk to you about God.”

My earliest moment that I can remember thinking about God was when I was very young, probably about 6 or 7. I was talking to my grandmother about my thoughts on heaven and hell, God and the devil. I told her that I thought the devil was responsible for us doing bad things, and then she told me that the devil was once an angel. I was utterly confused. How could the source of all evil come from something so supposedly good? Thinking more about it, it seems to me to be a parable of some sort, about how there is no such thing as an absolute. Anything in excess can be bad or fall from its good source and turn afoul. I think we’ve seen that in democracy these past few years. The rise of Trumpism, hatred, and division all seem to show that the angel of democracy has fallen somewhat. Of course, none of this nuance made its way to my seven-year-old brain. All I thought was how ridiculous that proposition of the devil’s lineage sounded, and how it seemed to me to be nonsensical.

This developed later in life to me being around 10 or 12 years old, proudly declaring to my mom and dad that I did not, in fact, believe in God. “How audacious and bold!” I thought, “to be the first person to reject the existence of God!” How wrong I was to think that I was the first person to ever think this way. Socrates, for instance, was accused by some Athenians of impiety, of disbelief in the Gods. Atheism is hardly a new proposition. And in many ways, this is understandable. Wars, plagues, famine, death, COVID-19, and countless atrocities seem to show that God is, at the very least, criminally negligent, and would be sued within an inch of His life if He was here on earth with us. But the litigious nature of God aside, the question of evils in this world remain very strong detractors to God’s existence. Just look at recent events, ones that I’m sure have been on all of our minds. The murders of Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, Ma’Khia Bryant, and countless other people of color are always a stain on the idea of God for me. As I watched and listened to George Floyd’s family thank God that Derek Chauvin was convicted, it occurred to me that if God really had been listening to them, perhaps George wouldn’t have died. This is something that philosophers have called “the problem of evil.” Essentially, it is the idea that God cannot exist as the traditional conception of Him (all powerful, all good, all knowing), because evil exists in such terrible capacity in the world. If God is all powerful, why would He let evil occur? Surely He has the power to stop it? And if He is all loving, why would he let evil occur in the first place? Even if it is necessary for some higher purpose, why would a caring or loving God make such evil a necessity? All of these questions surrounding evil in the world seem to condemn God to be, as Nietzsche says “merely a mistake of man.”

The older I got, the more this question of evil was put to the test. As a part of growing up at WBUUC and going to RE, I had the chance to visit a multitude of other religious organizations during their respective worship times. I went to a Jewish Temple, an African American Episcopal Church, a Hindu Temple, and an Islamic Mosque. Seeing so many different perspectives on religion and the big questions and life really caused me to reexamine my own beliefs. Perhaps it was not God that I believed in, but Allah! Or maybe Brahmin, Vishnu, or Shiva. Or perhaps Siddhartha himself. But despite “trying on” each of these other religions, I never felt like I could truly believe. I couldn’t get past all of the evil and horrible things I was seeing in the world. Why would Allah let people use His name to harm others? Why would Yahweh permit the horrific abuse of the Palestinians? How is it that the Buddhist and Hindu conflict in parts of India is so violent and both religions are so peaceful? As I aged from a pre-teen to a full-on surly teenager, I became even more disillusioned with God and religion, even after trying to experience so many other points of view. I can recall a conversation I had with my dad. I talked about how awful religions could make the world and how that seemed to disprove the existence of God. My dad responded by pointing out all the good that religion does in the world. For one thing, it gives us the WBUUC Choir (which I will admit is a pretty good mark in religion’s favor). But it also grants people a sense of community and home, a safe space of being and belonging. And I agree with my dad! I love WBUUC, I love the connections we and other groups of people have all around the world, and I love the wonderful spiritual work we and other congregations do. But God, actually existing? Impossible. I couldn’t believe it, largely due to the problem of evil.

It’s easy to lose faith in goodness, humanity, much less God, in times like this that we live through. We are all sick of social distancing and COVID 19 keeping us apart and isolated. We are all tired of police killings of unarmed people of color. There are so many problems in the world, so how can there be a God? My 10-year-old self feels vindicated now, hearing these things spoken aloud. But there is an aspect of this God question that I have left out of this conversation, that I did not consider until recently. The problem of God is about so much more than just the possible existence of a white bearded man on the throne. It involves thought upon our mortality, morality, and connections with each other. So even though I’ve talked mostly about God for the past few minutes, I think that in reality I was talking about something more, larger than us in our time, larger than God himself even. And this is where I think my beliefs have evolved the most. I have always been so concerned with the problem of evil, that I forgot to look past the discussion of God’s existence and see the bigger picture; us. Humanity, people. My mom, my dad, my sister, my dogs. My church, my school, my community, my country, my world. These things are not mine; they do not belong to me. But I belong to them. We all belong to these things, and many others. The things that bind us together create a being, an entity, larger than us. This common unity we all share creates forces and actions that combat and destroy evil and put love into the universe.

I remember being 17 years old, hugging my family crying about the death of my dog. I can still hear our sorrow, I can still feel our shared grief, touch the love and warmth we all held in our heavy hearts that day. It is a deep well of emotion that is powerful and sad and wonderful and incredible all at the same time, and sustains me to this very day.

I remember being 16 and participating in a service trip to Guatemala. I remember helping members of a local community build a house for a family. A boy my age went and helped the workers build the roof, a roof that would provide shelter for his family. I will never forget the pride and love and sheer joy in his mother’s eyes as she watched her son build their house.

I remember a few days ago seeing a Facebook post going around about one of my favourite substitute teachers in high school, Mr. Ferraras. He needed (and still does) a transplant surgery, and the post was raising funds to help with the transplant. Even amidst this disaster of a healthcare system here in the US, we find ways to love and help one another.

I remember being in class, and reading the poetry of Neruda, Whitman, Ginsberg, Ferré, Blake, Llorca, Bard, and more for the first time. I can still feel their rhythm in my soul.

I remember the protests in the street, a beautiful chorus of voices calling out for justice, for peace. I remember tough, hard-hitting, conversations with family and community members about justice.

I remember that for every bit of bad news, every act of evil and evil situation, in each and every person is a beautiful seed of hope, love and joy. In every corner of the world, even in darkness, there is light. There is love. There is hope.

How could we not say that these things are all God?

I define myself as an agnostic. I don’t know if God exists or not. But I do know that we exist. Humanity exists. Love exists. Peace exists. Justice exists. And despite the problem of evil, the ever-present forces of darkness and despair, there is and always will be good. And this is the magic, the wondrous nature of being human, of our journey. We can be our own God, our own force for good and love. I don’t know much about the world, and I am still figuring out what I believe. But I proclaim, loudly and with love, that this, this I do believe; in us.