Gustav Klimt The Kiss, 1908
Tammam Azzam, Klimt's Kiss, Syria, 2013
“I'm still shell-shocked from the insight that if I believed that god existed, it wouldn't make any difference in my life,” I confided this morning to a dear friend. “I discovered the same thing a long time ago,” he replied.
He’s a visual artist. Given praying versus spending time in the studio, he knows which activity is going to lead to something beautiful — just as I know that no amount of “worship” (a hideous word; there used to be a sign in my neighborhood: WORSHIP FACILITY) will improve my writing, whereas taking the time for even a single revision will. If there is a deity, that’s how we glorify. That’s how we serve.
I don’t think that by magic I’ll continue to live after I die, but if something of myself can persist as a brain-free consciousness (I hear my mother’s uncontrollable laughter), fine. Nonetheless, what matters is what I/we do now, and not in that alleged astral future.
(I need to clarify that my mother was a neuroscientist; she worked at UCLA's Brain Research Institute. And yes, I did happen to hear her laugh uncontrollably when a believer talked about a brain-free mind. She didn’t mean to give offense; her reaction was automatic.)
Paradise of playing the harp and singing hymns for eternity? No wonder those streets paved with gold are so empty. (But threats of dire and unending punishment still keep millions from apostasy. Drop wrath and eternal torture and you get liberal Protestantism, i.e. “cultural Christianity,” i.e. the end is coming.)
Since I wouldn't be joining a church, nothing in my life would change. At least not much (though with my “god-within” definition, there might be a health-enhancing change — more about this later). And the only deity I could respect would not judge me according to belief, which is mostly an accident of birth, a matter of geography.
A MATTER OF DEFINITION: THE GOD OF PUNISHMENT
Since god can be defined in many different ways, I’ve come to realize that my struggle has been with the Judeo-Christian concept of deity — or perhaps only one version of that deity, the “god of punishment.” Karen Armstrong, in her A History of God, describes the abrahamic god as a totalitarian dictator:
A God who kept tinkering with the universe was absurd; a God who interfered with human freedom and creativity was a tyrant. If God is seen as a self in a world of his own, an ego that relates to a thought, a cause separate from its effect, he becomes a being, not Being itself. An omnipotent, all‐knowing tyrant is not so different from earthly dictators who make everything and everybody mere cogs in the machine which they controlled. An atheism that rejects such a God is amply justified.
(My thanks to John Guzlowski for providing the quotation)
GOD AS COSMIC INTELLIGENCE
Stephen Mitchell, a translator of Rilke and Tao-te-ching and The Book of Job, stated in an interview that the Judeo-Christian god is just as made up as all the other gods, and is not “the real god at the center of the universe.”
According to modern physics, there is no center of the universe. Any point could be taken as the center. And looking for the “real god,” I’ve decided, is like looking for the “real unicorn.”
I realize that religious apologists reply to this, “But there is an INVISIBLE real Unicorn out there — it’s just that you have to believe first, and THEN the Unicorn will shower you with blessings and perform miracles in your life.” That’s the “faith in faith” argument. We might as well argue for an invisible Great Onion, or an invisible anything.
But, if absolutely pressed to choose an external deity, I’d try to imagine something like an intelligent electro-magnetic field.
Some speak of the “sea of consciousness” — an echo of the Heraclitean idea of Universal Logos, the mind in which we all participate, holding on to the illusion of having separate minds.
There is no deny the collective psyche of humanity. But the proponents of the “sea of consciousness” understand it in a larger sense, beyond the human. Here we are in one kind of sea for sure: the waters of pure speculation.
Does the idea of cosmic consciousness help us live? Can we turn to it for guidance, protection, and other good things? Some think so: you “put forth to the universe” whatever it is that you desire in your life. And if the dream doesn’t come true? Then a greater good is meant for you. This seems much too convenient — but again, if it helps some people in their daily life, if it sustains their optimism and thus provides health benefits, why not. It’s harmless enough. No one will ever fight a jihad in the name of cosmic intelligence.
A possible "real god" at the center of the universe (Naomi Alpert)
GOD AS A STATE OF MIND
A more appealing definition: god is a blissful state of mind. Experiencing the divine could mean feeling tranquil, contented, fulfilled — the way we feel after great sex with the right person.
Lesser degrees of god would be just “feeling good.” (Sneering reader, hear me out: ethical content ahead.) Feeling good tends to lead to a more kindly perception of others. Happy people are nicer to others. And being nice to others also leads to feeling good: a virtuous circle. So god is not love so much as god is happiness — especially deep happiness, a sense of fulfillment.
I’m in agreement both with Jesus (the kingdom of heaven is within you) and with Pope JP2, who also defined heaven and hell as states of mind. In addition, “heaven is also the person of god.” Now, when we shift from "state of mind" to some actual but non-physical “person,” for me that's la-la land, and how about a sexy goddess instead.
God as a blissful state of mind might actually affect behavior. It’s possible to induce a feeling of bliss at will. Usually, if it’s “at will” it won’t last very long, but with practice, we could learn to extend the duration . . . This kind of “bliss meditation” would be excellent for health.
You’ve probably watched a cat stretch — a whole-body stretch that blisses out the kitty. That’s our role model. Calling happiness god is not necessary — it doesn’t make much difference. But it might be a slight enhancement: like people who love classical music and equate it with god — it might make them listen to it more often and with greater blissful attention, which is also great for health.
The god as happiness = god within = the kingdom within = bliss within, while purely internal, does affect the outside. A happy person has no interest in buying an assault rifle (“and then we’ll see who is the real alpha male”) and lots of ammunition in order to shoot schoolchildren, college students, or people at MacDonald’s. That’s an ugly and extreme example, yes. The reality of having on average one school shooting a week made that the first thing to come to mind.
Let’s quickly detox from that by considering what a happy person might do. S/he might decide to go to a nursery and buy a beautiful houseplant, or maybe a tree to plant in the yard — more oxygen and shade, less pollution. Or s/he may get together with friends, or go to the library, or take a walk on the beach, listen to music — the list of enjoyable activities can go on and on. A pleasant chat with a neighbor? Sure. A happy person tends to make other people feel good too.
On the other hand, if we equate happiness with sin, as the hell-centered old-time religion was inclined to do in lots of situations (e.g. sex = sin), that is bad for mental and physical health. That’s poison.
Cat asleep in Istambul, photo by John Guzlowski
A SENTENCE IN THE DESIDERATA
At this point, if I were to accept any kind of religion, it would have to be not only credible, but also life-enhancing. The only quasi-religious situation that proved life-enhancing was my first encounter with the Desiderata when I was 17. I was walking around downtown Washington, DC, just a few weeks after my arrival in the U.S. I came across a poster of Desiderata displayed on the windowpane of a bookstore. “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.” I liked that, and kept on reading. When I read: “You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here,” I was thunderstruck.
“You are a child of the universe; you have a right to be here” instantly engraved itself on my mind. I had a right to exist because I was a child of the universe! This had never occurred to me before. I realized that in fact I did not think I had a right to exist. It was a tremendous relief to come across this simple validation. I remember the physical sensation of calming down whenever I contemplated those loving words. They seemed to be healing a huge wound.
Later I saw that I was far from alone in feeling I had no right to exist. After all the author of the Desiderata would not have written that sentence if he’d assumed that all people knew they had the right to exist.
Max Ehrmann composed the Desiderata in 1927, but the text is timeless. Just a year ago I read a post on Facebook from a woman who was reading a book for cancer patients while she was undergoing treatment; one of the affirmations was: “I have a right to live.” It made her burst out crying, having realized that all her life she’d been unsure if she had a right to live.
The author of the book for cancer patients was wise enough to know that this was the case with many people — they did not feel they deserved to live. (This is particularly true of women, I suspect, and all those who grow up with the message of being inferior — you’re bad, you’re second-rate, unwanted — it would be best if you were dead).
Only now, recalling how intensely affected I was by the statement, “You are a child of the universe; you have the right to be here,” I wondered: but hadn’t I heard something like “We are all children of god” in church? I honestly don’t recall that. It seems to me that this phrase entered the collective consciousness later, about the same time as “God is love” and “God loves you.” When I translate those words into Polish, the language in which I’d have heard them if they had indeed been spoken, the novelty is revelatory: no, I never heard them back in the years when I was struggling to love the god of punishment.
I do remember having been told that god could read our minds and see every sin; no sin could be hidden from him and his “justice.” We were required to love and obey god, and to praise him for his goodness. But god owed us nothing, we were told. If not for the blood of the Lamb, we’d end up impaled on the devils’ pitchforks and tossed into a fiery furnace, or held down in a cauldron of boiling sulphur. Those raised in the old-time religion did not think that such tales were not suitable for children.
MY FIRST RELIGION LESSON
But even if I had been told that god loved us, I would not have believed it. The impression that he was a mean old man was established during my very first religion lesson. I was very disturbed by the story of Adam and Eve, and how all of us were punished because they ate the apple. Pain and disease, the enormous pain of childbirth, hard, exhausting work, and finally death itself — the punishment continued and would never end. Or rather, it would end for those few who made it into heaven, but not for non-Catholics or even the majority of Catholics, who did not really love god.
The punishment of Adam and Eve seemed totally disproportionate with the offense. To curse one’s children and throw them out of their home for their very first disobedience seemed monstrously cruel. Another problem was the collective nature of that guilt and punishment. All of humanity was still being punished for the disobedience of the first two humans? I didn’t have a vocabulary sophisticated enough to think in terms such as “disproportionate” or “collective guilt” — but I felt something was terribly wrong.
The other children in the class also looked unhappy and disturbed after hearing the story of Adam and Eve. One little boy protested that if it happened to be him in the garden, he wouldn’t have touched the forbidden fruit. Several other voices joined his: “I wouldn’t touch the fruit either!” The nun shrugged: “You too would have sinned because human nature is sinful. If it happened to be you in the Garden, each of you would have disobeyed.” She seemed to take pleasure in our distress and her certainty that we would have sinned. It was her triumphant smile that finally silenced dissent.
Thus two doctrines got established before the end of our first religion lesson: our innate wickedness, and god as a punitive parent. I could not bring myself to love this harsh “father,” so different from my own father, a gentle and loving man (and an atheist, thus doomed to hell). And if I could not keep the most important commandment and love god, then I too was doomed to suffer in hell forever.
Masaccio, Expulsion, 1425
VENGEFUL, DISTANT, OR BENEVOLENT?
I agree that in the Western world religion has grown more lenient. Less hardship means a more compassionate religion, according to Richard Wright’s The Evolution of God.
However, believers in a benevolent god are still in the minority. Here is an interesting passage from Andrew Newberg’s and Mark Waldman’s How God Changes Your Brain:
Only a quarter of Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelicals embrace a loving God, whereas less than 14 percent of black Protestants and Jews see God as a benevolent force. And of those who are unaffiliated, only 5 percent see God in a kindly way. Since most of the Old Testament describes a wrathful God, this may be the primary reason why so few people see God as a symbol of eternal love. To see God as primarily loving, a person must embrace a liberal interpretation of the Bible, ignoring or rejecting the vindictive passages. (p. 110)
But can we ignore or reject the cursing of Adam and Eve or Noah’s Flood? One reviewer observed that the movie Noah presents god as Godzilla. But isn’t Godzilla a rather minor monster by comparison?
I think it’s time to declare that bible stories are mythology. That detoxifies them — well, almost — and opens the door to “liberal interpretations.”
The statue of Godzilla in Tokyo
THE MORTAL PRICE OF LOVE
And mind you, there was a time in my mid-teens, for about two years before I left the church, when the question of god’s existence was a source of ultimate terror and agony. Mind you, what was at stake was eternity.
I record both this terror and its resolution in this poem:
DYNGUS: EASTER MONDAY
Father always managed to splash me,
laughing as I’d run, shaking off
a trail of drops. The Church frowned
on the puddles of this pagan
baptism, told me I was a sinner.
in the town where I was born,
a baroque naked angel
held golden scales to weigh
good deeds against sin.
Heaven was up, hell was down.
the soul huddled like a chilled bird.
Mother said, “There is no hell.
God wouldn’t be so cruel.”
At ten I was aghast at the heresy:
hell was where my mother was going.
At fourteen I said, “If God exists,
let him strike me with lightning.”
I waited, trembling with terror.
For five minutes I could hardly breathe.
Pigeons cooed, fragile sunlight
redeemed the rain-streaked masonry.
I began to walk fast, away
from that first-communion girl,
lilacs in her arms, moist and heavy,
veins crossing the silk of leaves.
Across an ocean of baroque clouds,
that country still exists. Other children
pick up yellow pebbles
on a Baltic beach, believing it’s amber.
Another girl wakes on Easter Monday,
her father hidden in the kitchen,
the water in the basin
dancing with impatient sheen.
My cat wakes me up at dawn,
the silent liturgy of sky
rimmed with narrow gold.
I wade in the gathering
light of resurrection.
In the yard, purple spires of lilacs.
I agree with a chittering bird:
it is only practical to be happy.
Again I will climb
the same mountain,
follow the bleached star
of dry yucca where the trail
sharply turns. I agree once more
to the mortal price of love.
At dusk I come home to Mozart,
my one-candle vespers.
The notes shape a brief heaven.
Fog erases the pine-dark hills.
~ Oriana © 2014
Yet even in childhood I had my own sense of the sacred, the poetics of beauty that makes religion superfluous — though beautiful stained glass can certainly be a part of that adoration.
At fourteen, once I decided that Christianity was just another mythology, I could breathe again. But in young adulthood I began to wonder again. The return to Catholicism was out of the question, but I still thought that the existence of god, the “real” god undistorted by the crude manipulation of the collective psyche by various churches, was THE question. I didn’t just read Nietzsche. I also read Kirkegaard, who demanded a leap into the unknown, the absurd, the utterly demanding.
And now all of sudden I know that at least as far as my life is concerned, the quest is over. The answer is: it doesn’t matter.
I can’t get excited by the idea of a cosmic consciousness either. There is no way I could believe that the universe is listening to everyone’s desires. If so, then we are back to the old absurdity of billions of petitionary prayers. And this reminds me how intensely many inmates of concentration camps prayed.
One evening in Auschwitz
the women in her barracks began to pray.
Their prayer grows and grows,
a chant, a hymn, a howl –
it carries far
into the searchlight-blinded,
electric wire-razored night.
The Kapo rushes in, shouting,
Not so loud!
God is not hard of hearing!
And my grandmother laughs.
Then she begins to sing:
Many have fallen
in the sleep of death,
but we have still awakened
to praise Thee,
she sings to the God of Auschwitz.
Her voice does not quiver.
~ Oriana © 2014
Ah, a theist might say, sure, god allowed Auschwitz — because god will allow anything in order to preserve the sanctity of free will. In terms of human-caused evil, that is a pretty strong argument.
But let us consider “natural evil,” such as illness. To gain yet more perspective on petitionary prayer, it’s instructive to visit any cemetery, and I don’t mean a historical one. Just an ordinary one, going back maybe 50-60 years. By all means go to the children’s section. So large? With all the progress in medicine?
Of course in the past it used to be much, much worse. Centuries ago, child mortality was horrific. Some parents lost ALL their children. And some children lost their one parent, then another, before they could even remember them clearly.
So a “friendly universe” is not in evidence. Deism is the doctrine of God the Utterly Indifferent (to steal from Kurt Vonnegut). But as both the Taoist masters and Rabbi Kushner advise, we can connect with reality and align ourselves with its laws. The universe is beyond good and evil, but it’s magnificent nonetheless. An evening walk is a necessity for me — I need to look the night sky, and feel we are at least at the margins of the sublime. But I'd take that walk regardless of any metaphysical beliefs.
As for Taoism as an organized religion, I'm not about to join a temple. I went to the main one in Los Angeles. Most of the offerings (flowers, fruit, and beads) were in front of Quan-Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. This of course brought memories of votive candles before the icons of Mary, who also functions as a goddess of mercy (she never punishes). I don’t mind merciful goddesses, nor the various goddesses of death and regeneration. But they are of cultural and historical interest. In terms of my life: no difference.
The Black Madonna of the Gate of Dawn in Vilnius, my grandmother’s favorite
What does make a difference is the practice of certain principles that originated in the Eastern traditions: serenity and not trying too hard. “Not struggling and not delaying” is one of my favorite mottoes. “Not struggling” is particularly applicable to creative work — you can’t force inspiration. By not struggling you let inspiration flow from the unconscious when it is ready.
Not delaying is extremely useful when it comes to practical matters. Taking one small step is not overwhelming. “The secret of success is getting started,” as Mark Twain (allegedly — but who cares?) observed. I also like the idea of doing only one thing at a time, and doing it slowly and deliberately. When I remember to do shopping and cooking and cleaning in a relaxed manner, as meditation, it does make a difference. Whether these marvelous principles come from Taoist or Buddhist wisdom doesn’t matter. What blissful contrast with Catholicism’s cult of suffering and mortification of the flesh.
Not struggling and not delaying, doing only one thing at a time and doing it slowly, without pressure — these are jewels that confirm that heaven is a state of mind, and it is within us.
THE GOD OF EMILY
I also feel some empathy for Emily Dickinson’s ecstatic attitude, and her desire to see god as “this Curious Friend” (note: a friend rather than lord or father) — only to discover “Infinitude — Had’st Thou no Face / That I might look on Thee?
My period had come for Prayer—
No other Art—would do—
My Tactics missed a rudiment—
Creator—Was it you?
God grows above—so those who pray
And so I stepped upon the North
To see this Curious Friend—
His House was not—no sign had He—
By Chimney—nor by Door
Could I infer his Residence—
Vast Prairies of Air
Unbroken by a Settler—
Were all that I could see—
Infinitude — Had’st Thou no Face
That I might look on Thee?
The Silence condescended—
Creation stopped—for Me—
But awed beyond my errand—
I worshipped—did not “pray”—
~ Dickinson, 564
The face of the “infinitude” (aka “the Curious Friend”) turns out to be the world, and that’s that the speaker ends up worshipping, rather than praying to. Rather than seeking god’s house with a chimney and door, and a personal god with a human face, she is ultimately content with the “vast prairies of air.”
Dickinson is an ecstatic poet — perhaps the most ecstatic poet this country ever had. Whitman has passages that come close, but arguably he’s too realistic to be quite as transcendent. Dickinson is constantly awed by the world. She may not be able to pray, but prayer is a meager thing -- it's “tactics” that “miss the rudiment.” The speaker has no need for prayer when she is filled with awe — worship comes naturally to her.
Note that Dickinson writes in a period when people took “heaven” pretty literally as the sky (in many languages it’s the same word). God lived in the sky, his literal throne somewhere in the clouds. The world consisted of three levels: Hell — Earth — Sky (“heaven”). Milosz laments the loss of both heaven and hell, leaving us only the earth, a place of nature where “everything devours everything.” Of course Milosz loves nature too — but no need to go into his metaphysical struggles (is god the same as nature and its non-violable laws, or the opposite of nature?) and love-hate relationship with the natural world. Dickinson’s slippery beliefs are a headache enough to those who’d translate her into a consistent worldview.
Fortunately, we don’t need any such sacrilegious translation. It’s Dickinson’s language that delights more so than any specific meaning. “Vast Prairies of Air” — that one line would be enough for me.
Chicago from a distance
SOMEONE TO SAY THANK YOU TO
Finally, I remember a friend who asked, both wistfully and rhetorically, “Don’t you sometime wish there was Someone to say thank you to?” Yes, I can imagine a certain warm glow of saying that thank you. I can also imagine wanting to shout “You bastard!” But if that Someone never coalesces into a being, it makes no difference — except, oddly enough, in terms of blame.
“If god lived on earth, people would break his windows,” says a Yiddish proverb, and rightly so. We are better off without such that kind of someone.
I doubt that someONE exists, but there are certainly MANY to whom we can say thank you — including trees, grasses, animals. The recipient makes no difference. But gratitude does. It makes us happier. After decades of rejecting happiness in favor of achievement I am happy to conclude that happiness does make a difference. And if anyone wants to argue that obviously I have found god, why not?
'THE CHURCH BUILDING WAS TOO SMALL FOR ME"
I don't know when I lost my faith. It was a gradual thing. Part of the problem with faith for me was that I was very sexual when I was a kid in the 60s, and religion kept telling me that sex was bad and that I was damned to hell for all time. I was constantly going to confession, two, three times a week. It was crazy. Then when I was like 20 I ran into a priest who told me in confession that sex was not a sin, and that I could stop confessing it.
Imagine. This shook me.
At the same time I had a room mate, a fallen away catholic, who was reading Nietzsche and Heidegger and Marx and arguing with me about how dumb my faith was.
So there I was finally. Sitting in a church one day and realizing that the church building was too small for me. It was a physical sensation. Everything seemed to be pressing down on me, the ceiling, the people, the priest, the paintings.
And so I left.
That was the last time.
Religion seems like a construct. People trying to make sense of the universe and getting really pissed off at you if you dislike their construct.
Imagine poets damning people to hell for thinking their poems weren't the true and final vision of all reality.
I often wondered what kind of hell it must be for male teens to be Catholic (as the nun said, and none of the 8-year-old girls understood, “Everyone knows it’s filthy to touch yourself”). I was very lucky, having left just as I turned 14. I can imagine the tortures I would have gone through. A narrow escape!!
Marvelous . . . You put into words how many of us have come to feel. I will have to give much thought to all of this but one word has always bothered me in connection with religion and god and raising children in the way churches taught and possibly still teach: “obey”: obedience to rules and who makes them in the first place. Many of the things you discuss about the years you struggled with what you had been taught in church are the same concerns I remember having but it took me much longer to voice them. As a child I already couldn’t believe that there was a place called heaven that had streets paved with gold and not with, for example, jacaranda blossoms. And blood sacrifice was just not something I could accept.
Re: “obey”: it’s any particular church, a corrupt human institution claiming to be the only one to possess the truth, that interprets scriptures and tells you what to obey. Not god, but priests. It’s a huge scam. Catholic church is the worst that way, having falsified the second commandment, invented the Purgatory and masses for the dead that you can buy — so easy to see the greed. It’s always illuminating to ask who gets rich off the “faithful,” aka “the sheep.”
I always learn something myself from writing the blogs, and this time it was the little sentence that Yahveh cannot be a symbol of love. I knew that, but the sentence put it in a neat capsule. If Christianity didn’t insist on keeping Yahweh, it would be a more pleasant religion. But we’d then have to get rid of the idea of Jesus dying for our sins as a human sacrifice to Yahweh. We’d say: he was crucified by the Romans, period. Sad, but that’s all.
I guess we’d have to get rid of the Apocalypse too, and those ridiculous streets paved with gold. That’s what impressed people: gold, precious stones.
I’m afraid there is so much we’d have to reject, we might just start over. God as a happy state of mind suits me best. There’d be no wars if people’s religious practice became focused on feeling happy (hey, I’ve traveled a long way since I quit depression).
Protestantism and Catholicism are two different religion, in my opinion. And then you have liberal Protestantism and the fundamentalists, again two different religions.
Yahweh can’t be seen as a symbol of love, but Christ can. I think the Trinity was precisely an attempt to make god look more loving through Christ.
Even Christ would have to be “edited” to be seen as a symbol of pure love and mercy rather than the judge at the Last Judgment. First he says, “Judge not” and then he’s supposed to return as the ultimate judge, tossing most of humanity into hellfire.
There are things I’d like to salvage from Christianity, especially “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” That, the idea of non-revenge, and the golden rule: treat others as you’d want to be treated. I know the golden rule isn’t specific to Christianity, but it’s stated and re-stated there in neat ways.
Otherwise, for those who really need some sort of “Something Out There,” as my New Age friends put it, there is always the mystical path, with god as a state of mind — but also, if it helps, some vague presence “out there.” “God is happiness” is my best formulation yet. Make it “contentment” or “joy” or “peace” — whatever works best for you. In terms of needing a church for that family feeling, here in California we are lucky: there are groups that just gather for meditation but don’t require you to believe that the world is only 5,000 years old or that Mary was a life-long virgin. And, above all, that bloody archaic nonsense that Jesus died for your sins.
Speaking of animal/human sacrifice, Jesus as Lamb and the Holy Spirit as a Dove — doves were a less expensive kind of sacrifice. So we are still heavily into the archaic, and I’d prefer to have nothing to do with the Trinity, so obviously fabricated and unnatural, excluding the feminine.
I agree that it doesn’t matter if God exists or not. What matters that we are kind to our fellow human beings, gratitude, and living in joy.
Love how the blog opens. Your attitude about living in joy in the moment and living for this lifetime is so similar to the Chabad movement.
I totally agree that Stephen Mitchell’s “Real God” is just as bogus as anybody else’s.
The blue eyed kitty overlooking music is an excellent image of the Divine.
Love your story of learning about the first sin in the garden in Eden and how you thought about it as a child.
DYNGUS: EASTER MONDAY should be dedicated to Rabbi F. Let him read it and tell you an atheist can’t write a soulful poem.
Let me clarify about Rabbi F. I went to his lecture at the Jung Institute in Los Angeles. I think the title was “God as the Ultimate Other.” Somehow it turned into the “eye in the sky” that keeps us “behaving,” since human nature is hopelessly wicked. Without god, we’d simply slaughter one another. And this was supposed to be a “progressive” rabbi.
To his credit, Rabbi F suggested that whenever we make a big statement about a group we dislike, in place of the name of the group we should put “Jews” — and then we’ll see if the statement is simply pure prejudice. He didn’t follow his own advice, however, when he said that atheists don’t seem capable of understanding symbolism, and “I don’t see how an atheist could enjoy a poem.”
God as joy, god as happiness — I’ll take anything other that the old “god of punishment.”
GOD AS A PSYCHOLOGICAL PHENOMENON
Jung said something to the effect that he acknowledged the reality of a god instinct. What he didn't know, he said, was whether it came from without or within. I think Jung was lying in order to posture to his science friends — he believed he knew: It came from without.
Though it is called psychologism (explaining everything as a psychological event) and is thought intellectually irresponsible by some, I adhere to it — to me the god mystery is nothing more than an event of the psyche (from within). It's the only way I can make sense of the variety of religious experience around the world.
I have left the door ajar to leave room for mystery. I've gone this far — I acknowledge a Moreness. Something larger. Something other than. Nothing more to be said. I’m good with it. And since the time I killed my dysfunctional god many years ago, I've experienced being driven into the present — “no looking beyond, no longing for an afterlife,” as Rilke wrote. It's a great place to be. Far more satisfying than the cognitive tension I experienced trying to reconcile the god myths with my life. (And I can thank the Moreness — I don't know if my words float away on the breeze unheard but I feel better.)
It’s difficult to pin down Jung’s ever-shifting beliefs. In “Seven Sermons to the Dead,” god is the star within. “Answer to Job,” on the other hand, seems to reify the archaic Hebrew god making bets with Satan and speaking out of the whirlwind, a narcissist devoid of ethics and empathy. Jung later tried to back out, saying he should have used the term “god image,” which would imply an image, or concept, created by human beings.
But I agree with you: Jung tried to pass as a scientist. At the very least, as Freud correctly noted, Jung was an occultist, a believer in the paranormal and the afterlife.
As his doctoral dissertation attests, and as I discuss in detail in the post “Jung in the World of the Dead,” in the end Jung realized that his cousin Helen was making up the spirit world on the basis of what she’d read (about the civilization on Mars, for instance — Jung himself gave her a book the subject, a popular best-seller one hundred years ago — it’s astonishing to realize how far scientific knowledge had advanced since then). Nevertheless, he seems to have turned away from his own discovery of cryptomnesia (“hidden memory”) as the basis of all creativity (as well as false memories, one might add), and rekindled his attachment to the “spirit world.”
Maybe it was his hotly denied yearning for a strong father in the sky — he saw his real father, an erudite theologian, as a weak man. Or maybe it was mainly the influence of his mother, a devotee of the “spirit world.” For whatever reason, Jung apparently wasn’t “hard-headed” enough to push through to the logical conclusion: it’s all made up, it’s all a product of brain function.
So what if the “making up” wasn’t conscious lying, but rather the workings of the unconscious. He wasn’t content with material welling up from the unconscious, including of course information processed from the environment. This strikes me as odd given his psychiatric experience with hallucinations, the hearing of voices, the psychotic belief that one is already dead, etc. But then there wasn’t much knowledge of brain function in Jung’s time. It’s still striking that Jungians almost never use the word “brain.” They are more likely to talk about the “astral world” and how the spirits there broadcast our thoughts to us.
(I'm not making it up; when I pointed out to one lecturer that this belief is common in paranoid schizophrenia, he shrugged: “This knowledge comes from Hindu holy men.” When I responded that fasting, for instance, is well-known to lead to hallucinations, he said he didn’t care if people thought he was crazy. I didn’t think he was crazy — just credulous. A “skeptical Jungian” is an oxymoron, I suspect. They seem to have a terrific drive to believe in something “out there” — including demons, renamed as the “demonic function,” not to be confused with the “daimonic function.”)
The word god can be used as a metaphor for almost anything, I’ve noticed. I personally like “that which is the highest” — in line with Rabbi Kushner’s “the sum of human ideals and aspirations.” But is it useful to say “god” when we mean ideals and aspirations? Or is it just confusing, since there is really no getting rid of the term’s archaic baggage and mythology, much of it turning around wrath and vengefulness — a crude attempt to manipulate the gullible, pre-scientific masses?
There are also arguments from beauty, love, and mystery. The existence of beauty and love allegedly prove the existence of god — because “only god could make a tree” and where does our ability to love come from? The way I see it, the existence of beauty proves the existence of beauty, and the existence of love proves the existence of love — and the ability to love evolved through the usual processes of evolution. Let’s not muddy our thinking with terms burdened with archaic nonsense. Mystery? The more science discovers, the more remains to be discovered. Dark matter and dark energy? Quantum entanglement? We’ll never run out of mystery.
Let me end this section on a little joke that some would argue is not a joke, but simply reality. A rabbi admits to being an atheist. Someone asks, "How can you, a rabbi, not believe in god?" The rabbi replies, “That's just what’s so great about being Jewish. You don't have to believe in god, just in being Jewish.”
Broadening this, I’d like to say, “You don’t have to believe in god, just in being human” — in the best meaning of “human.”
Speaking of the old-time religion and dysfunctional god, I can’t help but notice a general mellowing, not only in Catholicism but also in the more liberal Protestant churches. I’ve read that the Protestant left started mellowing already during the nineteenth century, especially in America. Theologians decided that most Christians went to heaven. This had nothing to do with their goodness, but only with redemption through faith. The message of Christianity, they proclaimed, was not about what god requires us to do. It’s rather about what god has done for us.
Maybe this is pushing it too far, but it seems that, taken to its logical extreme, the message of mainstream Protestant Christianity is “Relax! You don’t have to do anything. Enjoy life. Afterwards, you will be in paradise.”
Yet it’s the liberal Protestant churches that have experienced the greatest decline in membership. No single factor accounts for it, but I suspect that one of the unexpected factors in this decline is the undemanding, picnic-centered character of those denominations. They don’t provide the sublime.
Long ago I wrote a poem about the longing for the sublime:
Sunsets surpass us in their dying,
clouds smolder to fiery wings.
We leave in colors of forgetting,
so we can be remembered
in one phrase –-
unlike the hundred-petal
rose windows of cathedrals,
their everlasting sunset.
Purple flames, viridian blossoms –-
let me be unafraid
of the unknown country
we try to tame with angels.
The rose windows confess
how we yearn to be ravished –
but saints tell us god lives within:
a small, still voice, like the ocean
whispering in a seashell –-
a voice we hear, or do not hear,
when we wake
in pain, in dark, and far from day.
~ Oriana © 2014
There's a book titled God and the Philosophers. It's a collection of essays about the life journey of each of the contributing philosophers and their work to solve the god riddles. It's been many years since I read it but at the time I was surprised by the fact that most of them, when they reached the end of their journey, returned to Christianity in the form of the Episcopal church (can't remember the number but I'm thinking 15 out of 20). I asked why and I could only conclude it had the most possibilities to encounter the sublime (as you say). The broad doctrinal strokes of liberal Christianity allow for subjective interpretation, much like walking into a fine painting -- we never experience it as someone else does. This is why I appreciate and am somewhat drawn to Unitarian Universalism -- it's covenant based, not doctrinal. If I were to join a church, UU would be the one.
I see the decline of the mainline liberal churches differently than you do. I think it has to do with the lack of fear — they don't promote divine wrath (in response, I think, to the doctrine of universalism). Further, most, if not all, of the people I've known that belong to these churches (I'm thinking Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, UU...) are well educated in many ways — this in contrast to the growing churches where the majority exhibit little philosophical, psychological, or theological intelligence or sophistication. I was raised in, educated by, and worked for one of these churches and it takes me a only few minutes of discussion to decide in which group a person belongs.
Or, the decline could simply be that for too long Christianity has been writing checks it cannot cash and people are justly fed up. Those who remain in the mainline churches are cultural Christians and live for the social experience.
And I think you hit on an important insight in Rose Windows -- we do long to be ravished. But this is an ancient story and says more about our psyches than our god constructs. Elijah was told thousands of years ago that god isn't in the storm but in the still, small voice. We just haven't learned that lesson. God relations (even if god is our crafted myth) are not really different than our human ones, are they? Expectations are the termites of relationships (Henry Winkler?). We've asked too much. We've expected too much. This is where the Process theologians so appropriately craft a god with a primordial and consequent nature. If I needed a god, theirs would be a good one to consider.
I started writing about the difference in education between liberal Protestants and the fundamentalist denominations like the Southern Baptists, but deleted all that — I didn’t want to digress and digress. For me everything connects with everything, and it takes a lot of self-control — and/or time pressure — to stay close to the focus.
Yes, the desire to be ravished. God as the ultimate lover. Non-existence should not be a true obstacle, knowing how easily the brain can throw together a neurological god. Talk about the brain as a process theologian! A composite image from the paintings that have absolutely nothing to do with what the historical Jesus probably looked like — likely little taller than five feet, for instance — combined with some irresistible movie stars, refined or macho, according to taste . . . but awesome beyond that, beyond words. Still, there is an erotic undertone that’s equally obvious in Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Catholicism is rife with this eroticism, mostly of an unwholesome S/M variety.
And yes, the liberal Protestant churches have soft-pedaled “sinners in the hands of an angry god” and consequently people don’t stay in church out of fear, as “fire insurance” (an actual quotation). My liberal-Protestant friends with their enviable lack of Angst have already in childhood concluded that they don't have to do anything or even believe in anything; being all-loving, god will accept them (and their pets) anyway.
Yet another factor in the decline is the historical distance from the biblical times. It’s not just that the modern era is so out of kilter with the human reality thousands, or even mere hundreds of years ago, the era of supernaturalism. Even when supernaturalism still reigned, there was an eclipse of the primal god. Here I strongly recommend a book by Richard Elliott Friedman, The Disappearance of God. He traces the decline from the very active god in the first five books of Tanak to the hidden and finally absent god in the last books.
Christianity then brought a renewal of the initial intimacy — a god who walks and talks. But after 2,ooo years, distance has set in again. And the failed promises, yes. And seeing how prayers can’t heal, but medicine often can. And the obscenity, after Auschwitz, of claiming that god created us for his pleasure. And natural evil, and the suffering of animals — and many other things, but I have to restrain myself.
As I point out throughout the blog, if I were to adopt some form of faith, it could never be a return to my childhood’s monster up there and the monsters down below. If I were to join a church, it would have to be one similar to that university town Unitarian church described by a friend: they’d host lectures, recite Whitman, share art. A gathering providing intellectual and artistic stimulation. My friend moved, and never found a replacement.
It’s fascinating to watch all this as a cultural phenomenon: somehow Christianity can no longer deliver, but Buddhism has become popular, at least among the educated. What’s next? As Steven Pinker pointed out in The Better Angels of Our Nature, violence has declined dramatically, so perhaps, at least in the west, we are learning to become kinder to each other and finding this life infinitely precious.
With apologies in case you are already familiar with Pinker’s findings:
ADDENDUM, JANUARY 8, 2015
Why do I continue to post these links? Because I agree with Bill Maher that there are no great religions. All religions are stupid and dangerous. All should be criticized.
But there is another thing of interest esp in this video about the pastor's "year without god." He discovered that it didn't really make any difference in his daily life. He always was a caring person, and he has remained a caring person. For me, way back when I was 14, at first there was a marvelous difference — just not going to church and not going to confession, which I esp hated, felt so liberating. For him, there was a loss involved — the set of neat explanations, the theological "theory of everything," was gone. Later it was just life as usual. And now if I became a Unitarian, say (thinking of the least offense Christian denomination), that would likewise not make any real difference.
I'd miss god if he's ever had been presented to me as a being with whom one can have a meaningful conversation, maybe even crack a joke — and not with me on my knees either, or prostrating myself like Job before "might makes right" — but the way best friends can talk.
And more from Ryan Bell:
ACKNOWLEDGING THE ABSENCE OF GOD HAS HELPED ME REFOCUS ON THE WONDERFUL AND UNLIKELY LIFE I DO HAVE ~ former Pastor Ryan Bell
[I’ve had an identical experience: atheism deepened the meaning of life for me. Once I understood that this is it, there was a new urgency. If I waste this amazing opportunity to be happy and to touch the lives of others, there won’t be another chance.]
I was feeling small against the beautiful and terrifyingly indifferent sea before me. Then I started to feel grateful. "What are the chances that I would be sitting on this beach right now, looking at this remarkable scene of beauty?" I thought. I was struck again by how unlikely my existence is.
One question I've been repeatedly asked is how my life has any meaning without God. While I had heard dozens of Christian apologists claim that meaning cannot be found without God, I had a curious experience. My appreciation for life and its potential increased when I stepped away from my faith.
My experience is that acknowledging the absence of God has helped me refocus on the wonderful and unlikely life I do have. This realization has increased my appreciation for beauty and given me a sense of immediacy about my life. As I come to terms with the fact that this life is the only one I get, I am more motivated than ever to make it count.
I want to experience as much happiness and pleasure as I can while helping others to attain their happiness. I construct meaning in my life from many sources, including love, family, friendships, service, learning and so on.
Popular Christian theology, on the other hand, renders this life less meaningful by anchoring all notions of value and purpose to a paradise somewhere in the future, in a place other than where we are right now. Ironically, my Christian upbringing taught me that ultimately this life doesn't matter, which tends to make believers apathetic about suffering and think that things will only get worse before God suddenly solves everything on the last day.
The problem [of life’s absurdities] is not solved by inventing a God in which to place all our hopes, but rather, to face life honestly and create beauty from the absurd.
Without dependency on a cosmic savior who is coming to rescue us, we are free to recognize that we are the ones we're waiting for. If we don't make the world a fair and habitable place, no one else is going to do it for us. Our lives matter because our choices affect others and our children's future.
Life does not need a divine source in order to be meaningful. Anyone who has seen a breathtaking sunset or fallen in love with another human being knows that we make meaning from the experiences of our lives; we construct it the way we construct any social narrative.
Free from false expectations we are free to create purpose, share love, and enjoy the endless beauty of our world. We are the fortunate ones. There is no need for fear to have the last word.