Am I a nontheist…? (Part III)

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

“Someone should start laughing”

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:

How are you?

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:

What is God?

If you think that Truth can be known
From words,

If you think that the Sun and the Ocean

Can pass through that tiny opening
Called the mouth,

O someone should start laughing!
Someone should start wildly

Hafiz i-Shirazi,
in I Heard God Laughing,
rendered by Daniel Ladinsky

Whenever anyone asks my spouse Jim if he believes in reincarnation, his droll response is: “Not in this lifetime.”

It is tempting to use that response as my answer to the title question of this three-part series. Tempting, first of all, because it approaches the question with laughter. Second, because it is confessional: it says merely that nontheism is not the language of my heart, not the language with which I presently describe to myself what sustains me in my interaction with Life. Third, because it is not prescriptive: it leaves the door open for other options.

Nontheist options: One of those options is the nontheism of empirical science and, more specifically, that of the research into the neurobiology of consciousness about which I have written in other posts (here and here, for example).

It doesn’t confound me to be told that what I experience as the “self” is what Antonio Damasio calls “a perpetually re-created neurobiological state,” a higher order construct maintained by the brain as a framework upon which to organize its neural representations of what the senses perceive (Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, pp. 99-100). Knowing how complex and powerful the workings of human consciousness are, I don’t feel that this empirical description diminishes me.

Another option is the curiously analogous nontheism of Buddhism. Here, too, though couched in a very different language than that of Western science, is that core recognition that the “self” is a transient, ever-changing construct. That what is Real is not so much the perceiver as the flow of things perceived.

Both of these models of consciousness have helped me in recent years, as I settle into a more mature way of walking through mortal existence. It is useful to be able to stop, take a breath, and say to myself, “Ah, this is simply the present moment, and all of these insistent thoughts and feelings are simply this organism’s efforts to interpret and respond to the moment.” Such poise is helpful, whenever I can relax into it.

Private shuddering: Yet there is something else of conscious experience which I miss in these models.

In his richly insightful Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Winter 2007) article, “The Democratic Dilemma,” Todd Shy contrasts the approach to liberal morality of Walter Lippmann, writing in the 1920s, with the current approaches of Jim Wallis and Michael Lerner. The passage which resonates most strongly for me is this one:

Wallis’s God is the champion of justice and the defender of the poor, but there is nothing about him as compelling as the elusiveness, say, of Luther’s God, or the inscrutability of Job’s. His God is not a God who hides; his Jesus is never bewildering.

Wallis offers us the clarion morality of the prophets, but not the shifting range of Old Testament experience. The bound child is pulled away from harm, but no knife has been raised by the godly over the ropes. Biblical writers grope to understand a difficult Creator; Wallis seems content with what he knows.

In the end, religion, like our other deep experiences, is disturbing, unsettling, even as it irresistibly holds our devotion. Liberals like Wallis need to engage us on the level of our private shuddering in order to energize our public commitments. After all, the success of religious conservatives is not the raw manipulation of an issue like abortion, but rather the education of congregations to see God as a being who would revolt at the abortion of a fetus.

The portrait of God is all. The rest is just elaboration, which is why Augustine’s famous quip, love God and do whatever you want, makes utter sense to the religious conservative, who wouldn’t dream of intentionally abusing it, precisely as Augustine knew. (p.70)

“On the level of our private shuddering.” That phrase pierces to the heart of our collective dilemma over the marriage of belief and action.

Wherever we are on the spectrum of belief, what we tell ourselves we believe—or disbelieve—can both drive and constrain our actions. Yet on the level of our private shuddering, a level at once more visceral and more spiritual than belief, something else drives and constrains us.

At its best, we do not know rationally yet are still convinced—on the level of our private shuddering—that whatever drives and constrains us is Something Else which is larger than any one or several of us.

Or at least we hope for that.

Belief versus faith: I know I confess to both shuddering and hope in the tales on Walhydra’s Porch. Though emotionally challenging, it is ultimately easier for me to give voice to both on that blog, simply because the intent there is storytelling.

Here on The Empty Path, where the intent is rational discussion, such topics are much more difficult to address. Reason insists upon the sort of precise correspondence between words and their denotations which is impossible in the realm of the Spirit. That realm demands poetry.

Part of what helps me is the distinction I make between belief and faith. Belief focuses on statements; faith, on actions. These are not mutually exclusive categories, yet I don’t need to have worked out a definitive statement of belief in order to live moment by moment on faith.

But what in the world am I talking about?

Survival faith and practice: In Part II, I wrote that “the challenges of the past decade have increasingly imposed upon me a different sort of spiritual economy,” what I call “survival faith and practice.”

I coined that phrase last October, well into the clinical depression which had been sneaking up on me since at least a year earlier.

As the Walhydra stories linked here relate, September of 2006 was when I first admitted to myself that my brilliant, compassionate mother was probably slipping into Alzheimer’s dementia (“In which Walhydra reconsiders“).

By March of last year, my sister and brother and I knew it was no longer safe for Mom to live alone, and we moved her to my sister’s home in Pensacola (“Which next thing?“). By June, Mom’s obvious decline was confounding me with grief, even while I struggled with anxiety over handling her legal matters and finances and the need to sell her home from 300 miles away (“Walhydra’s sadness“).

Shortly after I published Part II, I began the strange adventure—doubly strange for a former clinical counselor—of using anti-depressants and short-term therapy to climb back out of the depths (“Walhydra’s year of becoming mortal” and “Is it Spring yet?“).

Sharing this personal context is essential to demonstrating what I mean about faith.

Spiritual discipline: As my depression deepened over the past year, both practical and emotional necessity drove me to seek a more intense focus for my spiritual discipline. As I tell it in “Walhydra’s year of becoming mortal,”

[Walhydra] finally recognized just how much of her energy and concentration it was taking each day to tightrope walk with equanimity between anxiety and despair.

“Hell!” Walhydra says. “It’s taking concentration just to make myself get out of bed in the morning…let alone do tai chi foundations, sitting meditation, bike riding, prayer, breakfast, or any of those other things which might nudge me toward wanting to do another day.”

Eventually, I saw the depression for what it was. Describing the deaths of father-in-law and friends and the decline of my elderly parents, I wrote:

This is not just temperament, or circumstance. This is Walhydra’s own personal version of what every human being faces: death and the certainty of death.

It’s enough to make one want to be beyond feeling.

And that, Walhydra now realizes, is what she has actually been working on in her haphazard morning rituals over the past year: trying to be “beyond feeling.”

She hasn’t been denying causes of grief or fear, yet she’s been trying to avoid the slippery slope of melancholia. In the process, her brain has done what that organ knows how to do: suppress its own chemistry until Walhydra was deep in depression.

Applied nontheism: In my desperate efforts to regain stability (at least momentary) before I began taking anti-depressants, and in my much more successful efforts since, I can observe the combined application of those two nontheisms I described earlier.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (aka SSRI anti-depressants) help the brain to reestablish neurochemical homeostasis, so that disturbances from the environment or from imagination do not disable thinking and choice with emotional reactions which are way out of scale. There (grossly oversimplified) is the nontheism of neurobiology.

Taoist tai chi practice, zazen meditation and the disciplines of prayer I’ve learned from Quaker silent worship help consciousness to observe and let go of the flow of thoughts and feelings, without needing to react to or act upon any of them. There (grossly oversimplified) is the nontheism of Buddhism.

I can and do rely upon a discipline of mindfulness informed by both neurobiology and Buddhist psychology, whenever I remember to calm consciousness and recenter it in the moment. This is a discipline of maturity for which I am very grateful.

Something Else: However, on the level of my private shuddering, I am far more grateful for Something Else. Whether I am in the midst of turmoil and despair or settled into the stillness and poise of the moment, I am not alone.

Here is where reason falters, where I have to shift to mythopoetic language in order to suggest what I cannot define.

In Part I, I described becoming “a refugee from the ‘christian’ world” after I came out as a gay man and left Lutheran seminary in 1973.

On one level, the search I began then is for a living, breathing coherence in personal belief. What is the true character of God and our relationship with God, when orthodoxy condemns the homosexual love I have come to understand as a God-given blessing rather than a curse in my life? What is the true nature of salvation, when orthodoxy denies it to non-believers?

On a deeper level, as I acknowledged at the end of Part II, my coming out of Christian orthodoxy is a somewhat uncomfortable search for a way around the notion of “obeying God’s will”—or, better, a search for a living, breathing version of obedience which I can affirm and practice. What if those who reject homosexuals and non-believers are right? Or, if they are not, how do I perceive and follow that real “God’s will” which is beyond orthodoxies?

On the deepest level, the level of my private shuddering, my search is for what Thomas Merton calls “the possibility of an uninterrupted dialogue with God…a dialogue of love and of choice. A dialogue of deep wills” (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 16-17).

In other words, a search for relationship, not with “God” as learned from and defined by others, but with Divine Presence as experienced in consciousness, unmediated by words and concepts.

Recall Todd Shy’s words quoted earlier: “The portrait of God is all.”

In the depth of depression, as I was finishing Part II, I reached the following passage in my reading of Merton’s New Seeds:

In all the situations of life the “will of God” comes to us not merely as an external dictate of impersonal law but above all as an interior invitation of personal love.

Too often the conventional conception of “God’s will” as a sphinx-like and arbitrary force bearing down upon us with implacable hostility, leads men to lose faith in a God they cannot find it possible to love. Such a view of the divine will drives human weakness to despair and one wonders if it is not, itself, often the expression of a despair too intolerable to be admitted to conscious consideration.

These arbitrary “dictates” of a domineering and insensible Father are more often seeds of hatred than of love. If that is our concept of the will of God, we cannot possibly seek the obscure and intimate mystery of the encounter that takes place in contemplation. We will desire only to fly as far as possible from Him and hide from His face forever.

So much depends on our idea of God! Yet no idea of Him, however pure and perfect, is adequate to express Him as He really is. Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than about Him” (p. 17).

Yes, yes, and yes.

In future posts I will tell more about myself by writing more about the idea of God. For now, in saying that I am not a nontheist, what I am acknowledging is that I have made peace with and understood the value of my “native religious language.”

It is the mythopoetic language in which I first learned to conceptualize and describe the experience of “the Divine.” It is not a language for definition—certainly not for doctrinal formulation. It is, rather, a language for evoking spiritual shuddering.

As I wrote in “Is it Spring yet?“:

In the past few years, though, Walhydra has been looking for the pre-theological core of her faith, her spiritual enthusiasm [from Greek enthous, entheos, possessed, inspired : en-, in + theos, god].

Guess what? She found its roots in the positive visceral childhood experiences of Lutheran Sunday School, her father’s sermons, her mother’s organ-playing, and the hymn-singing of the congregation’s old ladies.

What an interesting surprise!

This actually makes sense, though. Ever since childhood, the real Jesus—who is far more real than any of the “Christianities” seem able to express—has been Walhydra’s hero.

Walhydra imbibed all of those Sunday School stories and sermons and hymns, to the point that Jesus became a real presence for her, a divine human of fierce integrity and fierce compassion. Whenever anyone makes false claims in his name, he lets her know. More to the point, whenever Walhydra causes harm or tries to hide, he lets her know.

Another way to say this is that my faith is not about what I believe but about what I trust.

When I am in turmoil or despair, my child’s heart turns to a personified Divine Presence, to a “God” who, as Frederick Buechner writes, is “a God like Jesus, which is to say a God of love” (“The Clown in the Belfrey,” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, p. 125).

When I am poised in sacred stillness, I feel the joy of “being right with God, trusting the deep-down rightness of the life God has created for us and in us, and riding that trust the way a red-tailed hawk rides the currents of the air” (Ibid., p. 127).

In between these times, I experience the constant shifting of my trust, my faith. As Buechner writes:

Some days it’s easier to say Yes than other days. And even when we say Yes, there’s always a no lurking somewhere in the shadows, just as when we say no there’s always a Yes. That’s the way faith breathes in and breathes out, I think, the way it stays alive and grows. (Ibid., p. 129)

And so it is.

Blessèd Be.

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