This fascinating new documentary by Roger Nygard opens at Austin’s Regal Arbor Theater Friday 16 July.
Before 2009 Roger Nygard had directed documentaries TREKKIES and TREKKIES 2, produced SIX DAYS IN ROSWELL (a doc about UFO believers), directed episodes of various TV shows including The Office, The Bernie Mac Show, and The Mind of the Married Man, and directed the feature comedy about used car salesmen, SUCKERS. Somehow his forays into fans, cults, and comedy made him the perfect person to produce and direct a doc looking at contemporary religious and scientific beliefs in hopes of finding some common ground. THE NATURE OF EXISTENCE (2010) is a truly wonderful mosaic of sound-bite wisdom from all the major religions interspersed with the latest findings of science. In its 94-minute running time you will receive a crash course in science and religion and a goldmine of “suggestions for further reading.”
Who is this middle-aged man searching for meaning in human existence? Admittedly he didn’t start out with a very heavy religious upbringing. For him, Sunday mornings at the Episcopalian church were simply a barely tolerable countdown to brunch and pancakes. But then his father died when Roger was 13, and the teenager began wondering about the meaning of life (and death). The events of 9/11 made the 39-year-old, by then a relatively successful media producer/director/editor, consider that quest for meaning once more. He was especially disturbed by the apparent fact that the terrorists on the hijacked planes “truly believed what they were doing was right.” How can human beings, many who profess a belief in a God or higher power, arrive at such different ways of honoring that being or belief?
Nygard asked the question we all start out asking in our teens: “Why am I here and what is my purpose?” Unsure of his own answers, he began probing his immediate friends for their answers to those basic questions and then decided he needed to go further afield and travel over the US and then on out into the world asking religious figures and scientists about life, religion, philosophy, and meaning. As he states, “This documentary is my attempt to try to find meaning in the chaos.” Fortunately he doesn’t leave his sense of humor behind. While respectful of all the beliefs, he can’t help but occasionally reveal a bit of wry humor. It’s that light touch and easy-going tone that make this documentary, full of wonderfully provocative ideas, avoid the ponderous weight of similar documentaries which seem designed to show off the “brilliance and seriousness” of the filmmakers. Nygard presents himself like a genuine seeker without the baggage of neediness and preconceived knowledge. He just wants to have a conversation with a lot of interesting people and hear what they have to say. Their responses generally show how comfortable they feel with the unassuming filmmaker.
He started every interview with the simply impossible-to-answer question, “Why do we exist?” But naturally his respondents all feel they have “the answer”: “to serve God, to pray to Allah, to make a difference, evolution, because of our Karma, to figure out why we exist, sex and chocolate, to love, to have fun, to be caretakers of Mother Earth, masturbation, feeling emotions, friends, family, because God was lonely, I don’t give a shit, to find our path.”
Astrophysicist Stanford Woosley (UC Santa Cruz) establishes the scientific outlook on all existence which “started in this universe about 14.7 billion years ago when there was a big bang, maybe one of many.” His most intriguing statement is that we (humans, life forms) are simply stardust, originating from that Big Bang. His belief in this most complex form of evolution leads to a possible synthesis of science and religion: “We may be the path toward some ultimate intelligence…that would be virtually indistinguishable from what we call God.” Now that is a great way to kick off this cinematic journey toward understanding existence.
Since Dr. Woosley brought Him up, Nygard asks a lot of people: “Is there a God?” Christians, of course by definition, are sure there is a God. As are Muslims. As is Baba Ramchanrn Das, a nearly naked sadhu (yogi mystic) in India. A Taoist states a belief in many Gods, while a very calm, sweet, unassuming Buddhist says, “There is no god or any transcendental being.” Dean Barlese, spiritual leader of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe in Nevada, finds God (Great Spirit) in all of nature. Matthew Alper, author of The God Part of the Brain, believes that we are hard-wired to believe in god, an alternate reality, and an idea of eternal life. In other words, we almost can’t help but have such beliefs at some point.
Gary M. Laderman, Professor of Religious History at Emory University, wryly states, “I don’t want to say that God is purely a figment of people’s imagination, but it is.” Actor/monologist Julia Sweeney (“Pat” on SNL) succinctly sums up her belief through the title of one of her books, Letting Go of God. Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, finds the idea of God as a conscious being who forgives sins and answers prayers “the most preposterous piece of lazy succumbing to wishful thinking that you could imagine.”
God or no God or gods or goddesses, what can possibly be the purpose of human existence? Playwright, poet, essayist Amiri Baraka sees our purpose as expanding our consciousness. Sylvester James Gates, professor of physics at the University of Maryland, believes that one of humanity’s purposes is to witness the universe. Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine (“promoting science and critical thinking”), goes one huge step further and finds our purpose, as a species, to be the colonization of the entire cosmos. Novelist Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game) says, “What matters is that we feel…we are part of a purpose greater than ourselves.”
No matter what our beliefs while conscious in our present life form, we know we will all die eventually. That awareness and, for most, fear of death is doubtlessly a basis for the creation of religion many millennia ago throughout the world. The presence of grave goods buried right along with ancient skeletons proves a belief in an afterlife, but visions of that life after death profoundly differ. Even Christian views of the afterlife seem to be evolving, sometimes in very strange ways. Rob Adonis, a wrestler for Jesus, states boldly, “In heaven I’m gonna have abs of steel and have a great tan.” A far cry from pearly gates, gold-paved streets, and harps. The Buddhists and Hindus both accept an idea of reincarnation. Professor Alan F. Segal, Columbia University, has written Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion, which considers a myriad of images of an afterlife and concludes that even without religious beliefs, many Americans believe there is some kind of existence after this earthly life. They just don’t have to worry about the traditional concept of sin as a barrier to one version of the afterlife, heaven.
Los Angeles Nation of Islam minister Tony Muhammad succinctly sums up his idea of sin: “Thought can be corrected, the deed done caused the damage.” Taoism believes that violating the Tao (true nature of the world) is a sin. Many others weigh in with ideas about sin, not just against a god but against one’s fellow beings, human or animal, or against Mother Earth herself.
By this point in the film, finding common ground among all these beliefs is obviously proving difficult, if not impossible. Maybe it’s time to decide what is “the truth.” Oh, God, this will open up yet another can of (golden) worms. Rabbi Baruch Kaplan makes it seem easy: “Truth is what the Torah says.” Longtime film and TV director Irvin Kershner (STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), says, “Only art comes close to trying to answer truth.” There is a cacophony of other ideas about truth, which leads us right into one reason why there are so many religions and schisms within religions. Why do we even need religions?
David M. Wulff, professor of psychology and author of Psychology of Religion, says that Freud described religion as “an attempt to recover the security of infancy.” A crying child sees his/her mother suddenly appear and tends to the pain, sorrow, or fear. The child begins to believe that by crying out, a giant being will come and take care of the problem. The transition to belief in a God who will hear and answer our prayers is not such a great leap. Among some of the lesser known religions that Nygard learns about are Sikhism and Jainism. Kanwer Deep Singh, a Sikh, explains the three requirements to be a Sikh: “meditate on God [the universe itself], work hard and honestly, and learn to share.” Jainism has five principles: non violence (against any living creatures, including insects), truth, celibacy, non-stealing, and non-possession.
While in India, Nygard learns that the political/spiritual liberator of India, Mahatma Gandhi, though born a Hindu, was influenced by Jain beliefs. As India and Pakistan were being partitioned, Gandhi planned to meet with the leader of Pakistan to insure peace between the two countries even in a time of turmoil, mass migration, and death. Instead, Gandhi was assassinated by a fundamentalist Hindu, another example of the dangers of extreme, fundamentalist religious beliefs.
In Jerusalem, a holy land for the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Nygard goes to the Hill of Calvary and the Wailing Wall. He continues his conversation with the intriguing Rabbi Baruch Kaplan, who reveals his Talmudic interpretation: “God exists, exists in a state of absolute isness. Beyond time, beyond space. God creates infinite reality, finite reality. He is beyond both. Beyond limitation.” Even without a belief in God, Buddhism contains some of those same complex thoughts of reconciling opposites and emphasizing nowness and isness, words not well conveyed in English.
In Italy Nygard naturally is surrounded by the powerful symbols of Catholicism. While looking at statues of Padre Pio, he learns about the priest’s stigmata, spontaneously bleeding replicas of the nail wounds in the hands of Christ. Through Padre Pio, the love of God and suffering became the same thing, which partially echoes Buddha’s belief that life is primarily suffering. In Rome Nygard’s humor gallops to the foreground as he calls out to the Pope riding by in a procession: “Why do we exist?” Getting no answer, he tries to arrange an audience with the Pope and gets as far as a cardinal who says that it would cost $20,000. Thinking the audience would be worth no more than $200, Nygard is shown to the door – leading outside. Still following Catholic links, Nygard next travels to England, specifically to the ancient Ely Cathedral, which contains a new statue of a blonde-haired Virgin Mary exulting in the news that she is to be a mother. She is truly a 21st century conception, one which could keep “the church” contemporary through evolution. Of course, her forward-thrust hips disturb some parishioners.
While in England it would seem wrong to not visit Stonehenge, so Nygard dutifully goes to that mysteriously sacred place and meets a modern-day Druid, Arthur Pendragon (coincidentally, I’m sure, King Arthur’s family name). And why not have a bit of cultural reincarnation?
In China Nygard discovers that even the recently dead can become venerated like gods. Mao was obviously the candidate for deity within China’s recent past. But wanting to know more of ancient China, the filmmaker travels to Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, the very pragmatic philosopher who sought harmony in all things. He provided texts clearly defining right and wrong action, which leads Nygard right into his next topic, morality.
A Chinese Confucian believes that a country or society [and doubtlessly a person] without a sense of shame is unacceptable. A Buddhist monk states that those who think about their next life do good things in this life. Richard Carrier, author of Sense and Goodness Without God, believes that “living your life with compassion and honesty” is sufficient and that all other virtues follow from that pair of ideals. Physicist Leonard Susskind, the father of string theory, believes morality to be a Darwinian adaptation, since reciprocal altruism exists even among chimpanzees. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
And can morality lead to happiness? Author Ann Druyan (widow of Carl Sagan) finds happiness in “closeness to other people and marijuana.” Hmmmm. Carl DID smile a lot. Since neither Druyan nor Sagan believe(d) in an afterlife, they must have made every minute count while together. Julia Sweeney believes that happiness is a byproduct of having purpose and meaning. Dancing, smiling, giggling Sri Sri Ravi Shankar finds an easy/complex answer: “Happiness is realizing your true nature.” Dr Andrew Newberg, a neurologist, boils happiness down to the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. A bit more dourly, Irvin Kirchner states, “No one can truly be happy. You can have moments of happiness.” Which may be accurate but certainly isn’t fun to contemplate.
And then we come to the problem of the soul. Does it exist? Do all living creatures have one? Minister Tony Muhammad, Nation of Islam, believes that “everything created by God has a soul and a feeling.” Yet, one of the Middle Eastern Muslims says that “according to Islam, animals have no soul.” Taoism goes even farther and includes everything, animate/inanimate, as having a soul. One of the scientists takes it all away and says, “The soul is a type of wishful thinking that resides in the frontal lobe.”
So, can a person be “spiritual” even if not having a belief in God or a god? According to one of the interviewees, “24% of Americans claim to be spiritual, but not religious.” Professor David Wark describes a wonderful difference between religion and spirituality: “You don’t kill anybody for having a slightly different version of spirituality.” One wishes the same could be said for religions, but for millennia people have been killed in the name of this or that god.
By the end of his journey, Roger Nygard has obviously enjoyed meeting this diverse array of fascinating, thoughtful people. He doesn’t have “the answer” to the meaning of life or the nature of existence, but he has really found a reason for his own existence, even if he doesn’t realize it: travel, meet people, ask questions, record answers, see wonderful sights, and share those golden places and people with us, his audience. What a fortunate man to have set out on that journey. He is really like a modern-day Siddhartha.
Austin Film Society
For more information and ideas
Arbor show times: http://www.imdb.com/showtimes/cinema/3936
Official website of THE NATURE OF EXISTENCE: www.TheNatureOfExistence.com
Sri Sri: http://www.srisri.org/