skeptics and seekers


On this lovely piece of property where Scott and I get to live and cultivate, we have planted in the past half decade over one hundred trees, though you would not suspect since the groupings limit the eye’s ability to correctly ascertain how much it is seeing.  We have a hedgerow of Leland Cypress, a dozen and a half new redwoods, several October Blaze maples, currently blazing right on cue as if they were in the Green Mountains of Vermont.  We have beech and birch and liriodendron (dropping their large golden leaves just outside my study’s window as I write) flowering plums, katsuras, two elegant cedars, a Colorado Blue Spruce on which to hang blue lights at Christmas, an Atlas cedar from the mountains of the Maghreb, planted to honor Trappist monks living amidst the poor, wantonly slain at Tibhirine in the far south of Algeria many years ago, their simple witness too much to bear to religious fundamentalists.   The surviving monks stayed on.

We have a Jujube, yes, like the candy and from which the movie palace sweet acquired its sticky name.  A dozen Japanese maples huddle together in the slash of shade on the house’s northern perimeter, along with a Hinoki cypress, their aesthetic sister, under which sits a Buddha now covered, after many years, in moss, befitting somehow his mission.  Douglas fir create a partial screen in front, where we removed many reedy old cottonwoods (farewell, Nebraska…).   This fenced land has seven old live oaks, Valleys, deciduous, majestic, with canopies that in the summer create total cover, and, in the winter, through which stars shine one does not otherwise see.   After several years of raking up their immense drop, I learned recently it is best for the trees to leave the leaves in place.  Ah.  O.K.

Fruit trees produce an abundance of apricots and figs and a smattering of peaches and pears too small yet to eat and enough pomegranates for the holiday table.  No cherries to speak of, not a jujube in sight, but plenty of quince, about a century late for jamming purposes.  The old plum tree produces hard little miniatures with stones too big for their skins.  The apricot has cankers, and will have to be removed.  Older and wiser orcharders told me you can’t really grow apricots in this part of Sonoma County.  I did, but not for very long.

But these are not the woods I have moved into.  Even saying I have moved denotes an inaccurate placement of the pronoun, and the wrong case for the verb.  Am being moved?  Moving?  Have been moved by?  Shoved?

Maybe wrong verb grouping altogether.  The more precise one is deform.  I am being deformed, or I am partially deformed, with some movement apparent towards a total deformation.  The forms, on which I have staked my life, actually, are melting.  No, withering away.  Falling apart.  Crushed by their own weight.  You get the picture.

The forms:  metaphysical assurity, moral absolutism, perfectionism.   More colloquially: understanding (of incalculable value), controlling (hello?), tasking, an inheritance of both Jansenist and Puritan forbearers with instructions on how to cram jam full a day, or perhaps a life, and maybe  even naming, Adam’s forlorn task.

Sometimes I can escape my body and float above and look down on this poor chap and all his efforts, genuine, sincere to a fault, and yet with a moral calculation to please and control the divine just enough to ensure some predicated outcome.  Some acceptance.  Some redemption.  Some abject atonement.  Some fulfillment of the tasks necessary, finally, to be found worthy.

Alas, no task, no matter how arduously performed, or how often, even to the end of one’s days, qualifies one.  There is no competition.  There is no reward.  No atonement.  No justification.  Your categories, dear Bill, are backwards.   Well, not even backwards.  No longer applicable.

The past eighteen months of my life have left me with one knowing, if you will: the divine (my awkward word) is not to be managed.  It is not to be defined.  It cannot be understood.  It cannot be manipulated.  It cannot be secured.  It cannot be disciplined.  It cannot be metaphysiced.  It cannot be natural lawed.  An asteroid rammed into Jupiter recently the size of the Pacific Ocean, and plot, if that happened to the earth, history is, shall we say, altered for all time. That being the case, in what lies the meaning, if at all, of our treasured lives.

Our imaginations have failed us, or at least not kept up pace.  Physics, particle, astro and otherwise, has over taken metaphysics, and all on which therein relied.  The universe is an immensity we cannot even though barely glimpse.  Hubble is the photographer to the divine court, and the billions upon billions of galaxies it suggests are a tribute to the divine imagination, always changing, or as Thomas Keating says, always just a bit ahead of where we might be.  To us, he is generous.

My precious categories are being shattered.  Missouri Valley Thomism (yes that’s the nomenclature used by Aristotelian metaphysicians at Saint Louis University and Jesuit environs mid-last-century) into which I was intellectually birthed 40 years ago is like an antique side car, clanging along next to the vehicle who dimensions I do not know nor cannot fully fathom but in which I find myself delighted to be travelling at a clip I cannot measure .

Eighteen months ago while on retreat I had an experience.  I attended to the experience, using what I had at my disposal, and did so sincerely.  Nonetheless, the experience got bounded by my limitations.  What else could I do?  I have my understandings.  I have my notions, formed by those I have thought much brighter than me, with candle power in excess of my own.  I have been attending to the One who was at the heart of that experience for a long time.  But my categories are so short, so clipped, so narrow, for all their breadth.

The divine, how can one say anything of this, I, like you, am experiencing is More.  Ahead.  All.  Ether.  Cupping the immensity of the universe in the anthropological hand which we provide him.  (So interesting, no?,  that humankind in inventing language did not create a fourth pronoun-set for the divine, instead relying on the third person singular masculine, now so entirely inadequate yet nonetheless clogging the pipes with its accreted corrosion).

We know so little.  And yet.

Saint Francis knew enough to touch the leper on her sores.

In Sonoma County, persons of accidental means are creating winter shelters for those whose accidental means have left them shelterless.

Paul Farmer is carrying medicine up the mountainsides of deforested Haiti to heal the sufferings of the most abject of human beings.

A woman I know has taken Bodhisattva vows to unite herself with those who suffer.

Parents are kissing their children good night before kissing each other.

Someone you love is weeping today with the immensity of which she carries in her heart.

We can’t pray disease away, nor keep our loved ones , let alone the worthies of every description in every place, from pain.  And every one is worthy.  So we do what we do.  And we pray for whom we pray.  Praying only changes us.  Our hearts.  Our capacity.  Our breadth.  Our deepening into mystery.  Our total trust in That which we intuit with our advanced evolutionary brains and hearts and souls to be at the source of all of this splendor and yet somehow imbedded in this immensity of suffering, too.  That must be suffering, too.

We can evade the suffering for awhile, some of us with those accidental means, seemingly for a long while. We can robe ourselves so finely that we forget our nakedness and the absolute reliance we have on others to sustain us.  We are no isolates, no independent actors, no self-reliant individualists.  We are only together even if our vocation calls us to be apart.  Our sinews are threaded to bones other than our own.  How different this is from the daily action agenda our electronic devices spew forth each morning.  How different from what I have planned.

So I am grateful to be in the forest, the place filled with the immensity of trees in which I am small and yet happy.  Fog in the morning, appropriately.  Deep shafts of light between the arched branches.  A soft floor for the inevitable falls.

And yet we are called into the desert with such regularity: the scorching sun, the altered vision, the parchedness of the land and the throat, the psychological lizards, the emotional cacti, mainly the sense of being in some untenable way, desolate, alone.

And the terrible news is, there are times the desert is the requisite place for our necessary tutelage.

And the time there leaves a lasting impression.  One is shy to forget their instruction: To give up the old categories.  To stop praying in the old ways to the old gods.  To stop idolizing the drossed bulls we have fashioned with such sincerity from our tired and ineffective beliefs.  Beliefs appear as so much smoke.  You thought you could grab them and hold them but they are elusive and now gone, a repetition of a mirage, leaving only the faintly acrid odor of ash.

If anything, we leave the desert with trust.  A mighty and de-glamorized trust.  Only trust.   It is a world away from belief.  There is no dogma to explain either the desert or the beauty of a supernova other than the dogma of awe.  To admit the paucity of the moral imagination and enter the realm of awe feels like salvation to me.

Mother Teresa (who I am not used to quoting) said: Do one thing.  Don’t take on the suffering of India.  Hold one outcast.  Spike Lee, likewise whom I’ve never quoted, says: Do the right thing.  We actually kinda know what that is, and it’s gonna cost us.  There is some whiff of suffering involved.  Chosen suffering, or at least a pinch thereof.

We are not in charge, really, of anything.  Our bodies will do what bodies do, and our minds, too.  History has a damnable tendency to repeat itself, and asteroids just fly into whatever planet they damn well please.  And yet, we are the recipients of grace, of beauty, of all of this created splendor.

And of the knowing beyond knowing of something More.  Something  Other.  Something Deeper, Penetrating, Mysterious.
God, the commonly held word to capture something beyond even the imagination and the limits of the limitless universe, appears to have endowed this evolving creature Homo Sapiens, (ah, sapientia, wisdom) with a capacity to feel deeply this knowing: of empathy, of relatedness, of love, our best word, our very best word.

In this must our wisdom lie.  It is contrary to imposed suffering, injustice, war, violence, exclusion, shame, power.  We know just a smidgen about it, but the yeast of that smidgen is enough.  From it love bread will rise.  We can trust, and we can gain our fill.  What else offers such hope and possibility and insight and vision and splendor.  What else?

A few weeks ago I wrote on this blog about the things I have learned from people who frown; a month before that about the joy of living in a neighborhood with people whose customs challenge me. I must be in a diversity mode these days.

Maybe that (plus my arrival in Tokyo for a two-month stay) is what led me to recall an episode of many years ago, when the reverse side of this mode shocked me–and reminded me how much we human beings share even when we’re being self-centered.

I was sitting on a cushion across a low table from my friend Manabe-san, engaging in a conversation about religious things. Our visits were intended to help me learn Japanese, but their primary effect was to stimulate my mind and deepen our friendship.

“I am convinced,” Manabe told me, “that Japan is God’s chosen country.” I think I gasped.

The thing that made his comment surprising was that Manabe was a deeply conservative Christian. Jesus, for him, was God’s only son; failure to believe in Christ sent a person to hell. “God’s favorite nation”–even though fewer than one percent of his fellow countrymen were Christian?

Why was he so sure, I asked, and he provided well thought out answers.

These days, I am less interested in Manabe’s answers than in the ideas his comment has fostered in my own set of beliefs as I have pondered the favorite nation idea across the years.

1. Manabe is simply wrong if he thinks Japan is better–or more “chosen”–than other countries, or if he thinks his land has some “special,” God-given right to power and prosperity. Japan is no more God’s favorite place than Israel is. Or the United States. Or Afghanistan. A universal God does not play favorites.

2. Yet Manabe is right. Japan is indeed God’s chosen land. So is Iraq. And Ireland and Namibia. Just this morning, as I went for a newspaper, I noticed Tokyo’s Olympics slogan stretched across an elementary school playground: Nihon da kara dekiru, “This is Japan; so we can do it!” That’s true, I thought, just as much as it would be true if one substituted Brazil, or Spain, or the United States. If the divine spirit flows through us all, we’re all capable of remarkable things.

3. This equation ought to apply to every area of life, not just to politics and national culture. My faith is special; some days I’d even call it “the best”–just as I would the faith of spiritual seekers in every religious tradition.

My family is wonderful; so are the Blegens, and the Chartoffs, and the Hoshinos, and the Husseins. To love my family passionately need not diminish the equally superlative qualities of other families. Nor should the specialness of theirs lessen the love I have for my own. As with faith and nation, it is not a competition.

The Quakers get my attention when they assert that there is something of God in each of us.

It is easy to see that in my two-year-old grandson Ryu. When he asked his father the other day where poop came from, then declared after hearing his father`s explanation that he must be eating poop, I grinned and saw something divine. That was easy.

That divine spark should be equally easy to see in the woman who comes by each morning and sorts through our neighborhood garbage, to make sure people have discarded the appropriate things for that day. My temptation is to dismiss her as eccentric, but there is a divine brightness in that fastidiousness.

There is that of the divine too in the fifty men and women who show up at 7:00 every morning at the nearby park to exercise loudly. And in the rule-inclined postal clerk who last week sent me home, grumbling, to get the right sized envelope. Even in the right-wing zealots who blare their nationalist slogans from soundtrucks and make me grimace.

I may dislike their views; I may wish them away from my nighborhood; I may even invoke imprecations on them. But I cannot deny that spark of spiritual energy that makes their commitment to something bigger than self wonderful–indeed, divine.

Again and again I am taken aback when I consider how much we human beings share. Even when we think different thoughts and follow conflicting ideologies, even when our customs vary, we nonetheless laugh and love and hurt and smile at the same things. We share a need to serve and a vision of giving ourselves to something beyond and above ourselves. That which joins us is too profound, in my reckoning, to be anything but divine.

So I think Manabe was right, though in ways he might not have realized. The Japanese are God’s chosen. So am I.

I have long appreciated Bill Maher.  He is a very funny and irreverent guy, two qualities I hold near and dear. I also have a soft spot for lampooners of religion.  So I eagerly, expectantly took my seat with popcorn in hand to watch Maher’s sacrilegious movie, Religulous.

Maher’s frolics take him all over.  He journeys, for example, to a peculiar truckers chapel where he meets with  truckers and chides them about their evangelical beliefs.  He makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land adventure park in Orlando where he challenges the faith of the one dimensional guy who plays Jesus in the park.  Among other excursions, he interviews gay Muslims and tours the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, keeping his tongue steadfastly in cheek.

His commentary is sprinkled with one liners—and some of them are very funny.

He toys with his subjects, and, just when it seems he is going to cross over the line, Maher shuts his mouth and simply smiles.  To his credit, Bill Maher is not disrespectful of the religionists he so readily disparages.

Nonetheless, this is a gotcha documentary as is captured in the movie trailer’s funniest and most telling moments.

But even though I laughed out loud while watching this movie, I couldn’t help but think of the best selling books written in recent years by atheist authors.  I especially remembered Christopher Hitchins’ book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.   Hitchins and the other atheist authors claim that God does not exist because God cannot be proved by rational or scientific means.

They are right about that.  The existence of God (however understood) cannot be proved.

As I say in my book A Voluptuous God, I agree—God cannot be proved.  This Mystery we call God can only be experienced. The experience of this Mystery confounds the intellect and boggles the mind.  And as the mystics have properly suggested, God is a mystery that cannot be defined.

But Bill Maher doesn’t allow for the experience of God as an inexplicable Presence. He doesn’t go there.  He understands God only as a Big Guy in the Sky, a Supreme Being who takes sides (as in going to war in Iraq or convincing someone to become suicide bombers).

Maher makes a shallow and one dimensional case.  He seems to lack any comprehension of a God who might be a more ubiquitous, deeper or subtle Presence.

In this way Religulous lacks depth.

It is endearing that throughout the movie Maher says that he doesn’t pretend to have the answers—that he just doesn’t know.

Bravo, Bill!

But it is one thing to say that who/what is the meaning of God cannot be easily defined by any one religion.  It is another thing to say that this supreme mystery lives at once in our experience and beyond our grasp.

If Bill Maher were in my documentary I would ask him if he has ever had a moment while out in nature—say standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, on a cliff overlooking the ocean, or in a vast forest—or perhaps a moment with another human being where he lost self consciousness. If I were interviewing Bill Maher, I would poke and probe, asking him questions like: Have you ever been so open to a moment that you stopped thinking about yourself and felt perfectly connected to the moment you were in?  Then, I would ask, “Could that moment of unity consciousness be God?”

In the world’s religious traditions the mystics teach that a God who is a product of dogma is not God.  The mystics say to experience God is to experience the mystery of life’s unity. But in Religulous, Maher only rails against a literalist religious understanding that insists that believing in God as an excuse to see the world as us and them.

This, in part is why Maher claims the mantle of agnostic.

He says he doesn’t know what the truth is.  Nor do I.

But even though I don’t claim to know it definitively, I do feel that I have experienced it.  I have experienced a mystery that connects me to life, to others, to this moment.  And I believe, almost every human being has at one time or another experienced this mystery.

I call this mystery God—and in my experience this mystery cannot be limited or defined.

I love Bill Maher’s brazen honesty and biting sense of humor.

I just wish he would have gone a little deeper.

He could have closed his documentary with quotes from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said, “ God is not a hypothesis derived from logical assumptions, but an immediate insight, self-evident as light.”  Or perhaps something from Mahatma Gandhi: “You must watch my life, how I live, eat, sit, talk, behave in general.  The sum total of all those things is my religion.”

Maher is right in saying he doesn’t know. Indeed, none of us does.

But the greater ambiguity is knowing there is something in us, in life—something larger, more mysterious and connecting than we can possibly comprehend.  

Unfortunately, Religulous  is totally devoid of any awareness of this greater ambiguity.