Sunday, September 4, 2016


Georgia O’Keefe: Abstraction, White Rose, 1927


I stand n the lobby of a grand hotel.
Someone passes through the false room —

a slippery love sofa, a pretend fireplace —
someone passes and says, “America is

finished.” The faux marble floor is strewn
with wilted blooms. I begin to pick up

the withered flowers, the hotel as empty
as the city streets — only me, a stray housewife,

limp petals in my insufficient hands.
“Your dream of America is finished,”

says Lucrezia, pointing out the expensive
dead flowers, the mausoleum-like floor.

And Daisy, my former musical Danuta,
Daisy says, “America is a good place

to make money, but — real life is over there.”
How do we know what we love? Saint Yakub’s

church in winter, the snow-crusted coats,
a fugue of steam like breath —

the smell of wet wool, the borrowed
animal human smell. Some part of us

ascended, not the soul perhaps,
but more real than the synthetic perfume

sprayed on the stiff centerpiece bouquets,
though by now Warsaw’s Hotel Europa

has no doubt adopted these sprays and ways,
incense against the backward years

of animal touch and press —
no airy scallops of angels.

But on altars, flowers and candles
prayed in tongues, the wings

of the petals trembled, the glow of flame
mirrored in the chalices’ gold.

Pipe organ shook the stone pillars.
Roses, lilies, peonies, the triumphant

swords of gladioli — what it must have
cost, in winter. Back then in the communal

breath, the church gave us splendor.
Now it’s finished, hellfire and flowers.

~ Oriana © 2016

The first part is based on a dream. But it’s interesting that when I started writing about the dream,  not knowing where the poem was going, the fake “theater” of the hotel brought back memories of church — another “theater.”

The grandiosity and the make-believe. The make-believe of the hotel trying to impress us with dubious elegance and at the same time make us think we are in a cozy home-like setting is of course a minor matter, though some disquieting message hangs in the air, like the fake flowers that nowadays adorn the mausoleums in tribute to the “loved ones.”

The theater of religion is a more complicated matter. I’ve written plenty on the harm caused by religion. This poem, nevertheless, is mostly a tribute to the esthetic, theatrical aspect of it. That’s the closest some people have to a refuge from the pettiness of daily cares.

In this insane election season that literally juxtaposes the gilded everything in Trump’s luxury hotel-like apartment with photos of his Walmart-shopper supporters, it may seem strange that I should return to anything churchly. But the canonization of Mother Teresa also just took place, a medieval spectacle honoring a woman who thought that suffering was a gift from god and thus offered little if any medical care and pain relief to the poor (when it came to her own health needs, she was flown to the UCLA Hospital for treatment).

Did she really have a sadistic streak, like so many nuns of her generation? Was Nietzsche right when he called religions “systems of cruelty”? Thus — or perhaps for other reasons of which I am not even aware — I am back to the themes close to my heart.

weathervane, Cathedral of Bourges


“If, from one generation to the next, there is an increase in the purely human need for justice and order,” Milosz observes in one of his essays, then, he concludes, human perception of the ancient god necessarily changes also. “God changed into a malevolent, cruel demiurge, the tyrant Zeus, the tyrant Jehovah, because he was the god of nature, which contradicts and dissatisfies us; many people have opposed that god with a divine hero, a leader of men — namely, the rebel Prometheus, Lucifer (who often had the face of Christ), as did the Romantic poets.

(Blake famously said, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.” The literary critic William Empson argued that “Milton deserves credit for making God wicked, since the God of Christianity is a wicked God.”)


In a Paris Review interview, Milosz was asked,

~ Do you regard the god of Job and the god of the New Testament as two different gods?

Milosz: I don’t know. I guess we have entered the realm where there are no answers. ~

Blake: Behemoth and Leviathan

I suppose Milosz was being honest by saying “I don’t know” and “there are no answers.” Still, I can’t help seeing his answer as evasive. Of course those are two different gods, and the cruel and archaic god of Job is a drag on Christianity. Note that the god of Old Testament is never spoken of as “father.” That came strictly with Jesus. The god of the Old Testament is “the Lord” — and has similar titles of rulership.

Milosz often mentioned that the apparent cruelty of the Judeo-Christian god was a profound problem to him, whether in terms of natural evil (disasters, “everything devours everything else”) or of non-interference with (and seeming indifference to) human-caused evil. Being well acquainted with evil, Milosz expressed doubt that a good deity could have created this world. The poet found some consolation in the idea that Christ allegedly understands suffering and suffers together with us, but he admitted to feeling attracted to Gnosticism, which posited an evil god or “demiurge” who created this world, and an inclusive, loving "true god" who sent Jesus as his messenger. 

(Of course there is some question as to whether Jesus can be regarded as “all good” — see The Bad Jesus by Dr. Hector Avalos — and no, we are not talking about relative trivia like cursing the fig tree.)
To go back to Milton and Milton’s portrayal of a “wicked God” (though of course Milton tries very hard to “justify” that god. By our standards, Milton lived in dark, cruel times. Yet even then the punishment for the Original Sin possibly already seemed cruel, disproportionate. If Milton had to strive at epic length to “justify God’s ways to man,” he must have felt that such justification was needed; he spared no effort trying to rationalize what must have begun to be perceived as god’s cruelty. The twisted logic of “felix culpa” that created the need for a “bloody ransom” also required complicated theological maneuvers.

 (My paraphrase of the rest of the essay)

But it wasn’t just the Romantics who had problems with the unpleasant character of Yahveh. To the Marxists, “the market [was] an extension of the struggle for existence and nature’s cruelty . . . The enemies of revolution loved to appear as the defenders of a religion threatened by atheists, while those atheists hated them as the priests of an inferior god, Zeus, Jehovah, otherwise known as the Devil.”

The Marxists advocated an economy based on cooperation, not competition. Milosz saw the opposing movement as “Americanization” — a brilliant insight, I think, that goes beyond the outmoded duality of capitalism and communism. He also pointed out that certain intellectuals take perverse delight in visions of catastrophe and apocalypse. In my observation, it’s mainly Christian fundamentalists who are very big on apocalypse. Here we see torture porn in the form of vividly imagined “tribulations.”

The Romantics’ sympathies with revolutionary movements, and Romanticism as part of the larger rebellion against the cruel god so vividly portrayed by Milton who was trying to “justify” him — here we have much material for thought.

~ Milosz, Selected Essays, 235-245.


“There is no hell. God wouldn’t be so cruel,” my mother said, out of the blue. I was ten; I realized that she wanted to relieve my anxiety about going to hell. Instead of feeling grateful, I was appalled at her blasphemy. Hell was where Jews and Protestants went, and the rest of humanity. Heaven was for a small percentage of Catholics (Matthew 7:14: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it”). Maybe only one percent, and even this only after centuries of purgatorial fire for all but the saints. But neither heaven nor hell, the destination of practically all of humanity, could be called into question.

It was also the first time that I heard “god” and “cruel” in close proximity. It was all right to say that the pagan gods were cruel, but to use any negative adjective to describe the Christian god was taboo. At that age I did not dare think for myself; I lived in terror of “sinning in thought.” But I had an older and more pious cousin (she said grace before each meal) who also denied the reality of hell. She said that those who don’t go to heaven simply cease to exist at the moment of death. She too obviously could not endure the idea of a cruel god, with hell as torture porn (Tertullian promised Christians that looking from heaven into hell would be a lot more entertaining than going to the circus).

I think that as the West continues to progress in ethical thinking, god will be seen as more and more cruel. Some have observed that Christianity should have dropped the Old Testament and made Jesus the only god, more plausibly merciful. And perhaps it's not too late, given the daring theological maneuvers in new definitions of heaven and hell proclaimed by JP2.

Culture and the concept of god: cruel men invent a cruel god, and then the cruel god makes men self-righteously cruel — a vicious circle. Robert Wright wrote a fascinating book, The Evolution of God. The stress of hard times correlates with cruel deities; as life gets easier, god “mellows.” His chief function is no longer smiting the enemy.

The higher the standard of living, including the social safety net, the less emphasis on hell, usually, until the more progressive denominations come close to a hell-free theology. In their view, the wicked will be simply annihilated — that's why this school of thought is called “annihilationist.” My cousin was an annihilationist without knowing it.

As the need for revenge and punishment diminishes, our understanding of evil becomes psychological rather than religious. We view evil-doers (e.g. abusive parents) not as sinners but as emotionally damaged human beings in need of healing, not of more cruelty dealt out to them. Hell as pointless eternal torment becomes repugnant.

That Christianity is based on cruelty seems, on the face of it, a strange idea that contradicts the mask of the “religion of love.” But already Nietzsche observed: “Religions are, at bottom, systems of cruelty.” Can Christianity survive without hell, and thus with no obvious need for salvation? Can the cruelty of the crucifixion remain its foundation, along with the cruelty of hell? It will be interesting to see.


Ursuline nuns, North Dakota, 1943

I remember Polish nuns in this type of headgear, though it could be even bigger and stranger. My mother explained to me that this was standard medieval dress, not meant to differ from how other middle-class women dressed. The nuns simply preserved the medieval garb as their habits.

Those stiff, starched sides of their wimples were actually blinders, preventing side vision. Think of the cruelty of putting "blinders" on humans (only women, naturally). I know, it was sinful to look at the world, to be interested in its natural beauty and other attractions . . . "Discipline of the eyes" -- you look down, and ahead if you have to. But you don't just look around, or stare up at the clouds, which might lead to the thought that perhaps there is no one up there -- a thought that kept occurring to me almost whenever I looked at the clouds (and I loved clouds very much, all the shapes and the wild variety of them; I loved their scientific names, like stratocumulus). The spiritually safe, "modest" and correct thing was to gaze downward like a good girl with no curiosity, only obedience.

By the way, the Facebook friend who enlightened me about the “blinders” also said that one nun was so frustrated with her that one time she sputtered, “You  . . . you are . . . a SEAGULL.” Hmmm . . . maybe she meant the freedom and joy of flying, the sea and the sky . . . while she was earthbound in the heavy habit and the starched "blinders."

I remember an interview with a monk where the monk confessed that he thinks every day what it might be like to be married and be a father. He concluded, "I hope god is pleased with my sacrifice." Even if a god did exist, where does it say he would be pleased with the sacrifice of family love, especially  if the one making this sacrifice seems to be obsessed with what he may be missing? And this wasn't an order that did anything good out in the world, so the monk’s life seems a tragic waste.


Who says that crazy garb can stop people from having fun? Here are nuns going clamming


~ “The rumors spread faster than the blaze that engulfed London over five days in September 1666: that the fire raging through the city’s dense heart was no accident — it was deliberate arson, an act of terror, the start of a battle. England was at war with both the Dutch and the French, after all. The fire was a “softening” of the city ahead of an invasion, or they were already here, whoever “they” were. Or maybe it was the Catholics, who’d long plotted the downfall of the Protestant nation.

Londoners responded in kind.

Before the flames were out, a Dutch baker was dragged from his bakery while an angry mob tore it apart. A Swedish diplomat was nearly hung, saved only by the Duke of York who happened to see him and demand he be let down. A blacksmith “felled” a Frenchman in the street with a vicious blow with an iron bar; a witness recalled seeing his “innocent blood flowing in a plentiful stream down his ankles”. A French woman’s breasts were cut off by Londoners who thought the chicks she carried in her apron were incendiaries. Another Frenchman was nearly dismembered by a mob that thought that he was carrying a chest of bombs; the bombs were tennis balls.

“The need to blame somebody was very, very strong,” attests Adrian Tinniswood, author of By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire. The Londoners felt that “It can’t have been an accident, it can’t be God visiting this upon us, especially after the plague. This has to be an act of war.”

As far as we know, it wasn’t. The fire started in the early hours of the morning of September 2 on Pudding Lane in the bakery of Thomas Farriner. Pudding Lane was (and still is) located in the centre of the City of London, the medieval city of around one square mile ringed by ancient Roman walls and gates and rivers now covered and forgotten. Greater London built up around these walls in the years after the Romans left in the 4th century, sprawling out in all directions, but the City of London remained (and still remains) its own entity, with its own elected Mayor and home to around 80,000 people in 1666. That number would have been higher, but the Black Plague had killed roughly 15 percent of the entire city’s population the previous year.

Farriner was a maker of hard tack, the dry but durable biscuits that fed the King’s Navy; he’d closed for business on Saturday, September 1, at around 8 or 9 that night, extinguishing the fire in his oven. His daughter, Hanna, then 23, checked the kitchen at around midnight, making sure the oven was cold, then headed to bed. An hour later, the ground floor of the building was filled with smoke. The Farriners’ manservant, Teagh, raised the alarm, climbing to the upper floors where Thomas, Hanna, and their maid slept. Thomas, Hanna, and Teagh squeezed out of a window and scrambled along the gutter to a neighbor’s window. The maid, whose name remains unknown, did not and was the first to die in the fire. 

At first, few were overly concerned about the fire. London was a cramped, overcrowded city lighted by candles and fireplaces. Buildings were largely made of wood; fires were common. The City of London’s Lord Mayor at the time, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, will ever be remembered as the man who declared that the 1666 fire was so small, “a woman might piss it out”. But Bloodworth, described by diarist Samuel Pepys as a “silly man”, wasn’t the only one to underestimate the fire: Pepys himself was woken at 3 that morning by his maid, but when he saw that the fire still seemed to be on the next street over, went back to sleep until 7. The London Gazette, the city’s twice-weekly newspaper, ran a small item about the fire in its Monday edition, among gossip about the Prince of Saxe’s unconsummated marriage to the Princess of Denmark and news of a storm in the English Channel.

A second report on the fire that week, however, was not forthcoming. Within hours of printing Monday’s paper, the Gazette’s press burned to the ground. By the time the newspaper had hit the streets, Londoners were very much aware that the fire that the Gazette reported “continues still with great violence” had yet to abate.

Several factors contributed to the fire’s slow but unstoppable spread: Many of the residents of Pudding Lane were asleep when the fire began and slow to react, not that they could have done much beyond throw buckets of whatever liquid – beer, milk, urine, water – was on hand. A hot summer had left London parched, its timber and plaster buildings like well-dried kindling. These buildings were so close together that people on opposite sides of the narrow, filthy streets could reach out their windows and shake hands. And because London was the manufacturing and trade engine of England, these buildings were also packed with flammable goods – rope, pitch, flour, brandy and wool.

But by Monday evening, Londoners began to suspect that this fire was no accident. The fire itself was behaving suspiciously; it would be subdued, only to break out somewhere else, as far as 200 yards away. This led people to believe that the fire was being intentionally set, although the real cause was an unusually strong wind that was picking up embers and depositing them all over the city.

That people believed that the city was under attack, that the fire was the plot of either the Dutch or the French, was logical, not paranoia. The English had just burnt the Dutch port city of West-Terschelling to the ground just two weeks earlier. As soon as the fire broke out, Dutch and French immigrants were immediately under suspicion; as the fire burned, the English authorities stopped and interrogated foreigners at ports. More troubling, however, was that Londoners began to take vengeance into their own hands, says Tinniswood. “You’re not looking at a population that can distinguish between a Dutchman, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, a Swede. If you’re not English, good enough.”

“The rumors reach a kind of crescendo on the Wednesday night when the fire is subsiding and then breaks out just around Fleet Street,” says Tinniswood. Homeless Londoners fleeing the fire were camped in the fields around the City. A rumor went up that the French were invading the city, then the cry: “Arms, arms, arms!”

Several people judged to be foreigners were hurt during Wednesday’s riot; contemporaries were surprised that no one had been killed. The next day, Charles II issued an order, posted in places around the city not on fire, that people should “attend the business of quenching the fire” and nothing else, noting that there were enough soldiers to protect the city should the French actually attack, and explicitly stating that the fire was an act of God, not a “Papist plot”. Whether or not anyone believed him was another issue: Charles II had only been restored to his throne in 1660, 11 years after his father, Charles I, was beheaded by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces. The City of London had sided with the Parliamentarians; six years later, Londoners still didn’t entirely trust their monarch.

The fire finally stopped on the morning of September 6. Official records put the number of deaths as fewer than 10, although Tinniswood and Jeater both believe that number was higher, probably more like 50. It’s still a surprisingly small number, given the huge amount of property damage: 80 percent of the city within the walls had burned, some 87 churches and 13,200 homes were destroyed, leaving 70,000 to 80,000 people homeless. The total financial loss was in the region of £9.9 million, at a time when the annual income of the city was put at only £12,000.

“After the fire, there seems be a lot of paranoia that is was a Catholic plot, that Catholics in London would conspire with Catholics abroad and force the Protestant population to convert to Catholicism,” Jeater explains. The struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism in England had been long and bloody, and neither side was above what amounted to terrorism: The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was, after all, an English Catholic plot to assassinate James I.

The official report issued to Parliament rejected much of the testimony as unbelievable – one committee member called the allegations “very frivolous”, and the conclusion declared there was no evidence “to prove it to be a general design of wicked agents, Papists or Frenchmen, to burn the city”. It didn’t matter: The leaked excerpts did much to solidify the story that the fire was the work of shadowy Catholic agents.

Having someone to blame was certainly better than the alternative being preached from the city’s remaining pulpits: That the fire was God’s vengeance on a sinful city. They’d even named a particular sin – because the fire started at a bakery on Pudding Lane and ended at Pie Corner, opportunistic preachers took the line that Londoners were gluttonous reprobates who needed to repent now. Pie Corner is still marked with a statue of a plump golden boy, formerly known as the Fat Boy, which was intended as a reminder of London’s sinning ways.

The Catholic conspiracy story persisted for years: In 1681, the local ward erected a plaque on the site of the Pudding Lane bakery reading, “Here by the permission of Heaven, Hell broke loose upon this Protestant city from the malicious hearts of barbarous Papists, by the hand of their agent Hubert, who confessed…”. The plaque remained in place until the middle of the 18th century, when it was removed not because people had had a change of heart, but because visitors stopping to read the plaque were causing a traffic hazard. The plaque, which appears to have cracked in half, is on display at the Fire! Fire! exhibition. Also in 1681, a final line was added to the north-face inscription on the public monument to the fire: “But Popish frenzy, which wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched.” The words weren’t removed until 1830, with the Catholic Emancipation Act that lifted restrictions on practicing Catholics.

“Whenever there is a new bout of anti-Catholic sentiment, everybody harks back to the fire,” says Tinniswood. And 1681 was a big year for anti-Catholic rhetoric, prompted in part by the dragonnades in France that forced French Protestants to convert to Catholicism and, closer to home, by the so-called “Popish Plot,” a fictitious Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II entirely invented by a former Church of England curate whose false claims resulted in the executions of as many as 35 innocent people.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire of 1666, London was a smoking ruin, smoldering with suspicion and religious hatred and xenophobia. And yet within three years, the city had rebuilt. Bigotry and xenophobia subsided – immigrants remained and rebuilt, more immigrants joined them later.

But that need to blame, often the person last through the door or the person whose faith is different, never really goes away. “The outsider is to blame, they are to blame, they are attacking us, we’ve got to stop them – that kind of rhetoric is sadly is very obvious… and everywhere at the moment, and it’s the same thing, just as ill-founded,” Tinniswood said, continuing, “There is still a sense that we need to blame. We need to blame them, whoever they are.”

It’s difficult for us to imagine just how horrific city fires used to be — and such fires used to be quite frequent. The Great London Fire was neither the first nor the last, but its intensity and circumstances gained it the most notoriety.

The diarist John Evelyn wrote:

“The noise and cracking and thunder of people, the fall of towers, houses, and churches, was like an hideous storm, and the air all about so hot and inflamed that at last one was not able to approach it, so that they were forced to stand still and let the flames burn on, which they did for near two miles in length and one in breadth. The clouds also of smoke were dismal and reached upon computation near 50 miles in length. Thus I left it this afternoon burning, a resemblance of Sodom, or the last day. ... London was, but is no more!

Samuel Pepys described the fire:

“We stayed till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it. The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once; and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruin.”

Of the 80,000 inhabitants, 70,000 were made homeless.

Among the positive consequences: London was rebuilt in stone, not wood, and property insurance was created.

Replica of old wooden London set on fire on the Thames in commemoration of the Great Fire.


The Catholic mass evolved out of the priestly tradition of ancient Judaism. The priestly tradition was centered on animal sacrifice and a ritual meal. Of course no lamb is killed; a “communion host” is used as a kind of substitute. The origin of the word “host” is Latin “hostia,” meaning “victim” — the sacrificial animal — or, in the case of the mass, a human being who is also believed to be divine. The Catholic dogma insists that the host is transformed into the literal flesh of Jesus (“body of Christ” makes it seem more abstract and less cannibalistic), and the wine into his literal blood.

Protestantism, on the other hand, happens to be similar to rabbinical Judaism, which is centered on reading and discussing a portion of a sacred text. Thus the “liturgy of the word” versus the Catholic “liturgy of the Eucharist.” A symbolic meal of cracker and grape juice is also a feature of many Protestant churches, but denominations differ widely in their interpretations of the meaning of this meal, especially when it comes to the degree of the bodily presence of Christ.

When I think of the Eucharist, I remember a moment when doubt hit me with unusual force, and quite by surprise. I was perhaps 13. The priest who was our religion instructor was explaining various parts of the mass, and got to the Eucharist, the miracle of the wafer turning into the flesh of Jesus and the wine into Jesus’ blood (Catholics are required to believe that this astounding transformation really takes places; it’s not merely “symbolic”).

“The priest does it by saying one of the four prayers,” our instructor said matter of factly. We hushed and stared, somehow not prepared for this. “There are four eucharistic prayers he can choose from,” he reiterated.

The priest changes a wafer into human flesh by saying a prayer? I felt hit by a tsunami of disappointment. The priest produces this stupendous miracle by saying a prayer?? One of the four magical prayers??

I knew from experience that prayers were worthless — not that I ever dared say it, but I think on the unconscious level I was certain of it. And saying a prayer seemed not only trivial and ineffective but also was an example of archaic magic: you say the ancient prescribed words, and, next thing, the laws of nature of violated.

What did I expect? Not a recourse to archaic magic? I did not have any specific expectations, but vaguely wanted something a lot more mysterious and powerful than “one of the four prayers.”

Later, long after I left the church, I learned that “hostia” did not mean “wafer,” as I assumed in childhood. It meant “victim” — a reference to the sacrificial animal, harkening back to the primitive mode of worship centered on animal sacrifice. The idea of altars flowing with blood was repulsive.

A Catholic apologist might reply that all agree there is no change in chemistry. On the molecular level, the wafer (or cracker) remains a wafer (or cracker). That’s actually how it seemed to me, since sometimes the wafer would get stuck to the roof of my parched mouth — remember, we were not allowed to eat or drink anything before taking communion — and when I delicately and most reverently tried to dislodge it with the tip of my tongue, I could taste only the bland wafer and not any kind of meat.

No, the apologist would say: the transubstantiation takes places on a transcendent level, and it is a mystery ungraspable by the human mind. The appeal to mystery “explains” all manner of religious absurdity. But we were emphatically taught that the change was literal; it was as physical as the perpetual virginity of Mary — and if we didn’t believe such things we would burn in hell, along with the Protestants. All non-Catholics went to hell back in that era, and a lot of insubordinate Catholics also.

After the right prayer changed the wafer into flesh and the wine into blood, there followed the “Elevation” of the chalice and of the host, which signified sending the sacrificial victim up to heaven. This, too, was such a naive, childlike make-believe that surely no intelligent modern adult could fall for it. But when we went to church, we left modernity and intelligence and adulthood behind.

But Elevation was ultimately a minor gesture in the magic theater of the mass, a finishing touch. (Of course given the belief that the universe was created by an invisible man in the sky, anything else is just a finishing touch.)

Speaking of finishing touches, I ceased to believe and left the church the moment one particular thought crossed my mind: “It’s just another mythology.” This is still the best summary of it. But when I consider the years of growing (and agonizing) doubt that preceded this crucial insight, that moment was long in preparation. In fact the rejection of religion almost happened when I heard these words about the mechanics of the miracle of transubstantiation: “The priest does it by saying one of the four prayers.”

Photo: Lissa Kiernan


~ “Only half of American Christians can name the four Gospels, only 41 percent are familiar with Job, and barely half of American Catholics understand Catholic teaching about the eucharist. Yet if Americans suspect that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, or wonder if the epistles were female apostles, then maybe the solution is to fret less about doctrines and more about actions.

“What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?” McLaren asks in “The Great Spiritual Migration.” “Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?” ~


(from readers’ comments)

1. The religion in today's world which comes closest to what Jesus taught is Buddhism. It has a clear moral code to refrain from harming living beings; it stresses contemplation--or meditation--which transforms human beings. It does not have a political agenda (did Jesus have one? It's hard to say) and does not seek power. Of course, there are always exceptions--Myanmar being a case in point. Above all, Buddhism is not doctrinal, it is based on how you live your life. That is what Christianity desperately needs.

2. What Religion Would Jesus Belong To?"

Don't know.

But he would not have preached the gospel of unregulated free-market capitalism.

3. ”Buddhism does not accept a theory of God, or a creator. According to Buddhism, one's own actions are the creator, ultimately."

"Fundamentalism is terrifying because it is based purely on emotion, rather than intelligence. It prevents followers from thinking as individuals and about the good of the world."

Jesus has much more in common with the Dalai Lama than he does with the Prosperity Gospel Pyramid Scheme Pastors and Christian Shariah Lawyers poisoning America.

4. What religion would Jesus belong to?

My best guess is Judaism since, to the best of my knowledge, Jesus never "converted" to another religion.

I can't say that I am shocked that only 50% of American Christians can name the 4 Gospels.

We can, however, be thankful that, if elected, President Trump will mandate that "Merry Christmas" be said during the holiday season.



~ “Many theists enjoy an ongoing relationship with a person of their own invention, one whose existence depends on their continual re-creation. When you tell them this person doesn’t exist, you are contradicting an experience they know to be real because they themselves are generating it. Losing that would come at a great psychological cost.

I’m not suggesting here that people are aware that they are doing this, and I recognize the presumptuousness of claiming to know what’s going on in another person’s head. I get onto Christian friends for doing that to me all the time (e.g. “You’re really just angry at God”). The main difference is that in a sense I have already walked a mile in their shoes (or maybe ten), and I remember how my own relationship with God worked in the past.

Looking back, I can see how I actively worked to conform my own perceptions to match my devout expectations. I learned how to “hear God’s voice” and I reveled in it for many years. Of course I wasn’t one of those who went around telling other people that I knew what God says about this or that — I simply enjoyed my own personal experience of this person who I sincerely thought was real, and was talking to me personally in one manner or another.

Over time you get really good at it, especially if you’re smart. Too many atheists who have never been on the other side of faith suspect that religious people are less intelligent, but that’s not necessarily the case. The more intelligent you are, the better you simply are at rationalizing what you already believe. And for the record, I’ve seen the exact same dynamic happening among “skeptics” as well. Maybe with us it’s not about invisible beings, but we can be terribly good at defending our own pet issues, allowing our own feelings to cloud our judgment about certain things. We’re just better arguers.

But back to my main point: Since they are the ones creating their own personal experience, no one but they themselves will be able to effectively uncover what’s going on inside their own heads.” ~

In the movie A Beautiful Mind, the protagonist spends decades relating to three people who he later discovers are figments of his own imagination. But he experienced them as if they were real. No amount of argumentation or explanation could help him see that these three people only existed in his imagination. And do you know why argumentation didn’t help? It’s because when you yourself are doing the work of creating a person in your own mind, nobody else but you can change your mind. Nobody. And it doesn’t do any good for someone else to argue that the person you’re experiencing doesn’t exist because to you, he does exist. He exists because you make him exist. In the end, the protagonist of the movie had to finally come to a realization himself that the three people he had grown to love and need were not aging in any perceivable way. One day it finally occurred to him that something didn’t add up about that. Real people age. These people didn’t. That finally did it for him. Nobody else but him could make him come to that realization. It had to be him.


I remember a former ordained minister expressing a nostalgia for the years when he carried on a “rich conversation” with god in his head, and a hope that after many years of agnosticism he’d eventually resume that relationship, that conversation. I instantly wondered if that’s possible, once you realize that you yourself are creating the subjective reality of god.

Maybe not, except under conditions of great stress and thus an intense need. Still, perhaps Pascal was right: if you go through the motions, i.e. start praying even though you don’t believe, and persist with it, belief might eventually happen, on the “fake it to make it” and “the mask becomes  the face” principle.

But I'm not sure if that’s a sure thing. We have competing neural networks, or, if you prefer, “multiple selves.” One self might want to restore the internal god talk, but it’s bound to encounter resistance from the weak but hard to silence voice of reason that keeps making irreverent remarks about your imaginary friend. 

Hypnos, the god of sleep

ending on beauty

How many times have I heard the locks close
And the lark take the keys
And hang them in heaven.

~ W. S. Merwin


This will never be as famous as Shakespeare’a

the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate

~ Sonnet 29

but Merwin’s lines touch me more.
I realize the irony of ending this blog post with an invocation of heaven. But that’s the complexity of things. The dream of “heaven” will always be with us. Rather than think of a “better place” in the sky we need to focus on this world. What if everyone cared for the earth? What if everyone were kind? Let us dream daringly and precisely. 

Photo: Nephtali Santiago

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