Am I a nontheist…? (Part II)

Part I: Languages of belief
Part II: Survival faith and practice
Part III: “Someone should start laughing”

“Survival faith and practice”

I value very highly the information we gain from authentic empirical science, honest scholarship and rational discourse. My schooling was classical, in the sense that I learned very early to recognize and to see as essential for human progress the difference between arguments arising from such rigorous disciplines and those arising from opinion and ideology.

The former sort of argument seems incontrovertible. The latter is not automatically excluded, but I understand it to be informing me more about the one voicing the argument than about the subject itself.

Nonetheless, I long ago recognized that I am at heart more of a poet than a philosopher. While I cannot bring myself to deny what reason demonstrates, a deeper, trans-rational truth rules my ultimate personal choices.

This acknowledgment explains, at least in part, a change of course from what I had planned to do as a follow-up to “Part I.”

There I said that I intended to address Zach A’s desire for belief “based on evidence” rather than on doctrine or superstition. Now it is clearer to me that—at least for this portion of my life—the “evidence” which sways me most may not be demonstrable to reason. It is, instead, what the first Friends called “experimental” knowledge: that is, subjective knowledge arising from personal experience and tested against the witness of fellow Friends in worship and community.

Here in my late 50s, I face what I assume many who survive to elderhood face: real responsibility for dealing with real mortality, my own and that of those I care for—whether they are parents, siblings and friends, or strangers across the globe.

I have always relished theory and scholarship of the sort which imagines “an eternity for discussion,” to quote Herman Wouk’s character Aaron Jastrow (see note). However, the challenges of the past decade have increasingly imposed upon me a different sort of spiritual economy. It is what I described to a friend recently as “survival faith and practice.”

What will get me past that fist of anxiety clutching my sternum when I first awaken each morning? What will carry me through each happy or challenging or despairing moment of the day, when “monkey mind” keeps chattering away with its litany of “problems that need solving as soon as possible”?

What will lift me above my grief and fear, as I watch my parents and age-peers dying, my own body declining, and my nation selfishly bankrupting the world?

In fact, I believe that Zach A gets close to defining crucial aspects our existential need in this age.

In a comment appended to his August 26th piece, “Carrying the Society as long as you can,” he writes:

I think the world needs a spiritual discourse based on method, not beliefs, even if they happen to be good ones.

In a later comment for the same post, Zach writes:

What I’m calling for is not pan-religious mush, but recognizing that ALL religions, far from being “all true,” are in fact all basically false, and that we pretty clearly live in a universe with no deity, no master plan, no karmic justice, no second life after death.

What we do have is an ability to love, to create beauty, and to seek the truth, all to make our short lives on this earth more meaningful. I think we would do this humble task better if we learned to do it without religion—to bite the bullet and face reality for what it is.

I agree that, if one sets aside subjective knowledge of the “experimental” sort I described above, this is pretty much all that we can rationally demonstrate to be true. Every attempt to coin some poetry, some universal religion, to lift us above existential knowledge to those salutary mysteries which reason cannot know founders on the human limitations about which I wrote in “Part I“:

Even at its most articulate, the human brain is not able to abstract its intimate experience into concepts and symbols which are at once fully nuanced and also wholly unambiguous to others.

How can we share with each other our common experience of this one Reality, and yet allow that our individual relationships with it are idiosyncratic and, in their inmost core, inexpressible?

I agree that whatever is true must be true for the whole human species, not only for those who have the “right” religion—or the “right” science, for that matter. From this perspective, both religion and science must be understood not as truths in themselves but as tools we use for describing to each other and operating upon what we observe and experience.

The advantage of science and its language, reason, is that it limits itself to what every observer can observe and describe unambiguously. That is also its disadvantage.

The disadvantage of religion is that no two creatures can have identical “experimental” knowledge of existence, meaning that no religion can be objectively true. This is what makes religion, used falsely, into such a devastatingly deadly weapon. Those who insist on the objective truth of their religion alone, and who also have the power of enforcement, can extinguish the core reality of other people—or the people themselves.

The advantage of genuine religion is that its language is storytelling. Storytellers and their audiences know that stories are “true” only in so far as they effectively evoke sensations, feelings, thoughts and urges to action which resonate harmonically with the “experimental” truth of each individual.

But wait! A masterful storyteller can change the direction and intensity of the audience’s reactions—for good or for ill. This is because stories intervene directly in the complex feedback loops which operate between physical experiences, sensory responses, and the brain’s layers of increasingly more abstract representation of what those responses “mean” and what it could or should do about them. Stories change how the brain imagines what might happen next and hence, perhaps, what it chooses.

Here, finally, is a clue to my current, stripped down understanding of “survival faith and practice.” I must sustain a homeostatic balance between two seemingly contradictory operations.

On the one hand, I need to be mindful that circumstances just happen, that they are not organized purposefully around my particular life. Such mindfulness is exceedingly difficult, because everything about animal existence militates toward action to preserve the individual creature and its sense of “self.”

In order to make effective choices for survival and well-being, my brain assigns “meaning” to circumstances. It manages its interactions with life by telling alternative stories to its consciousness and then choosing among them. The ability to do this is a key advantage of consciousness but also its most dangerous pitfall. Consciousness almost always mistakes the stories for the array of circumstances to which they point.

If I neglect mindfulness, “monkey mind” drives me to act primarily out of my great attachment to or fearfulness of mere stories which it has imagined in order to interpret circumstances.

On the other hand, since functional consciousness is storytelling, I need to be able to tell myself inspired stories which will not only sustain survival but uplift it, make it not just bearable but desirable, a blessing to myself and to those around me.

This second need brings me back to Zach’s concern for “a spiritual discourse based on method, not belief.” In a comment for his March 27th piece and again in “The post-religious destiny of Quakerism,” he cites the following from British Yearly Meeting’s “Advices and Queries” as a guide to spiritual practice:

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts.

I embrace this advice as a method for “mindful storytelling”—even while I chuckle at the irony that it is not rational advice but itself a form of storytelling. That is, it expresses poetically a choice to affirm certain abstract values, as well as a belief that the working out of these values is perceptible to “the heart.”

Can I simultaneously tell myself such life-giving stories and remember that I am “only” telling stories? Can I balance my faith in the “experimental truth” of such stories with an awareness that they are only true in that they point to something Real yet inexpressible?

Here is the deliberate irony in the title for this series of posts, “Am I a nontheist…?”

First, the question pretends that the “I” is something which has a discrete, objective existence and continuity, rather than a dynamic flow of interpretations of and reactions to events by an organic consciousness.

Second, the question pretends that “Nontheist,” “Pagan,” “Christian,” etc., are labels for mutually exclusive factual descriptions of reality, rather than names for categories of story…all of which I tell myself as my need to understand that dynamic flow shifts and turns on its course.

In the next part of this series, I plan to “come home” to the confession which I originally thought would end Part I.

In my private faith and practice, I am comfortable with using more or less traditional Christian “God language.” I know what this shorthand stands for in my self-talk about “experimental” experience. However, since the “coming out” crisis of my seminary year, I have been very wary of using that language publicly.

I usually explain that wariness as a means to avoid misleading or being misunderstood, since what my “Christian God stories” point to privately does not correspond with the popular understanding of “Christianity” or “God.”

However, Liz Opp has reminded me that there is a deeper motive for my resistance. I have a major difficulty with the notion of “obeying God’s will.”

(To be continued)

Note: In Wouk’s War and Remembrance, the sequel to The Winds of War, American Jewish author Aaron Jastrow, now a prisoner in Auschwitz, is arguing about life with a Gentile fellow prisoner and friend.
[I must paraphrase, since I have no copy available.]

The friend asks, “Why is it that you Jews always speak as if time were an illusion, and we had an eternity for discussion?”

Jastrow replies, “Because time is an illusion, and we have an eternity for discussion.”

10 comments On Am I a nontheist…? (Part II)

  • Hi, Mike:

    I’m in a hurry, which may be what caused my difficulty in understanding what you’re getting at. I love the stark precision and incisiveness of Zach A’s pithy “…but recognizing that ALL religions, far from being “all true,” are in fact all basically false, and that we pretty clearly live in a universe with no deity, no master plan, no karmic justice, no second life after death.”

    It appears that you differ, but I couldn’t find anywhere in your statement a similar “bottom line” presentation of what you do believe. You state that “… a deeper, trans-rational truth rules my ultimate personal choices”, and that yours is “experimental” knowledge based on personal experience and perception. That seems to me to move you into that other realm that is beyond reason, meaningful to you but not rigorously testable by reason and objective fact. Is my perception right, or did I miss something?

  • Michael Austin Shell


    Thanks for your question.

    I appreciate the starkness of Zach’s declaration, yet in its words it does not know about the universal phenomenon of grace. Experiences of grace are undeniably real to the person who has them—to the people who share such stories.

    You are right that there is no “bottom line” presentation in Part II. There may not be in Part III. To borrow Zach’s notation, I am reaching for a method of faith and practice, rather than for a belief.

    You are right that I am reaching for a way to tell stories about “that other realm that is beyond reason, meaningful to [me] but not rigorously testable by reason and objective fact.”

    In my own ponderous, meticulous way, these early blog entries are intended to lay a foundation for sacred storytelling. I’m trying to explicate as best I currently can this dilemma:

    I embrace the nontheistic understanding of the world described by scientists such as Antonio Damasio [see Reading]

    I know the experience of grace, I rely upon it for “survival faith and practice,” and I want to be able to communicate about it articulately.

    Hang in there, and maybe I’ll get through my foundation-laying before long.

    Blessèd Be,

  • Michael,
    My first reflection is on the traps of language, including the Aristotelean “is” of identity. (If I “am” this, I cannot be that.) When people ask me about my religious/spiritual beliefs these days I am wont to answer, “I’m either a gnostic or agnostic, depending on where you put the ‘a’.” The Vedic concept of Bramhan (“thou art that,” or, as St Francis is said to have put it, “what you are looking for is what’s looking.”) is very hard to express in words, because to posit the non-dual implies duality. (How many zen masters does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One and not-one.)

    When one experiences The Numinous/Godhead, it can be very tempting to give a name to “what it was” one experienced — but must one? I like the last quatrain of Leonard Cohen’s poem, The Embrace: “And when you rise from this embrace/I trust you will be strong and free,/And tell no tales about His face/And praise Creation joyously.”

    Proposition: Whether or not there is a God is purely a matter of definition.
    God is only a word, and one can substitute “love” or “the Force” and still be getting-at the same thing. I think what a person says about “it” speaks more of the seeker than the sought.

    Another thing I might say these days when asked about spiritual beliefs is that I feel drawn to the philosophy of monistic idealism, rather than the prevailing philosophy of material realism that undergirds current Western science. What if (matter and) biological manifestation is/are byproducts of consciousness, and not the other way around? If it’s all “the only dance there is,” then one can omit the whole God question.

    Glad you’re sharing the fruits and seeds of your search, though.


  • Michael Austin Shell


    Thanks for your comment. You write:

    Whether or not there is a God is purely a matter of definition.
    God is only a word, and one can substitute “love” or “the Force” and still be getting-at the same thing. I think what a person says about “it” speaks more of the seeker than the sought.

    The last sentence is one of my main themes.

    As to the first two, I have, indeed, been saying that “God” is a word, yet to say “only a word” may miss the complexity and challenge of what I am exploring here.

    How do we tell each other about our respective unique experiences of the one Reality, when we have only words? How do we help each other toward fuller awareness, when we have only words? How do we warn people away from dangerous paths, when we have only words?

    In Quaker meeting for worship one morning, I was moved to say: “We are all here in this circle because we share a common faith in something which we each name and describe differently. So, what is it we are sitting around?”

    There’s no useful answer, but posing the question in different ways and storytelling about different experiences of the Real help.

    As my old, Isle of Wight friend Molly used to say, “Ain’t life a hoot?!”

    Blessèd Be,

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  • I’ve started at the beginning of your blog, and worked my way to the start of this post… It all resonates very strongly with me. Insufficient language is such a difficulty. All I can say is that my understanding of what you’ve written, corresponds to a very large degree with my own innermost feelings about these things. It is a continuing struggle because we put such value in deep, and clear, understanding, but the more understanding we attain the more impossible it is to communicate it with anyone else. And as the person leading the seder I attended last week quoted from our Jewish teachings: “even the most learned person must pass on his knowledge, for if he does not, it is as if he knew nothing at all”. I appreciate very much your efforts at passing on what you have come to know.

  • Cheryl,

    Thanks for this comment and thanks, especially, for choosing to read through the blog posts as you say you are doing.

    I started The Empty Path as a challenge to myself.

    For most of my adult life, I’ve been fairly certain inwardly about what I believe. However, I’ve been very wary of “confessing” my faith and practice publicly.

    As you have noted, “Insufficient language is such a difficulty.” My wariness (for the most part) has little to do with fear of being perceived as a heretic. It has everything to do with not wanting to be misperceived as believing or advocating something I do not.

    The paradox for me in communicating about faith and practice arises precisely because I am quite comfortable using my idiolect of “Christian” in private. After all, I know what I mean. In public, though, every word, term, affirmation, sacred story, etc., is freighted with centuries worth of publicly contended connotations, expectations, etc.

    The Empty Path is my experiment at putting the translation from “Christian” into “Michael” (and vice versa) out there for other to read, consider, argue with, etc.

    That means that the posts do, as you have intuited, build upon each other.

    In fact, I feel as if I am just now “clearing the decks” enough to begin speaking directly from the Silence, rather than continuing to parse every term, concept and metaphor, contrasting “what people assume this means” with “what I mean.”

    [The most recent post is a prime example of this newer approach.]

    We shall see what happens.

    BTW, the Stephen Jay Gould epigram at the top of the sidebar was a very careful selection. Gould was a convinced nontheist who, nonetheless, took religious language and its deepest significances with ultimate seriousness. I’ve always admired his brilliant science and his lucid explication of science for the educated lay reader. He words on metaphor sum up my experiment.

    Thanks again, and
    Blessèd Be,

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