My spiritual journey began when I was 7 and I declared that I absolutely did not believe in God. I declared that God was a preposterous hypothesis, of which I had no need.
These days, when I meet someone who says they don’t believe in God, I ask them what they do believe in. They usually say they believe in love, justice, and getting out of bed in the morning and putting one foot in front of the other. And then I say, “Good! We believe in the same God!”
I can say something about religious diversity. Amongst my four immediate family members several traditions are represented: Judaism, Hinduism, Christian Science, Presbyterianism, Unitarian Universalism, paganism, Darwinism and raging Atheism. I guess I’m a Jewish Christian Unitarian Universalist agnostic with Buddhist philosophical leanings who does a lot of yoga. For short, that’s Jew-X-U-Bu-Hindu. As you can imagine, I think a lot about religious diversity.
I can’t say what God is. No one can. All I can do is describe my experience of God. For me, God is not something to be believed in, but rather named. For me, God is another word for things in life that are life-giving, abundantly creative and constructive, restorative and just. I think of God as the life in me that wants to be lived, despite how often it is obscured by my ego, my pain or my laziness. God is the life in me that is trying to connect with other people and move forward. For me, God is not a given, but rather a giving of myself to what is being asked of me by a friend, a family member, a sweetie or a stranger.
For me, it is important that my faith is not about belief or cognitive acquiescence or suspension of disbelief. I like Protestant theologian Paul Tillich’s notion that “faith is the act of being grasped by ultimate concern.” For Tillich, being “right” about what God is might be comfortable, but it is not faithful, because faith requires humility and a sense of the enduring mystery. For Tillich, engaging with questions and doubts about the ultimate is an act of faith. Your questioning, your rejection of this and that, your seeking: it is all a very fine prayer.
Religion is essentially a way of keeping people together. Take the word itself: Re-ligio. Ligio, to bind. Re, repeatedly. It’s about community, peoplehood, legislature, behavioral mores, common language and symbols. I believe that a religion is a symbolic system, a framework of images and language that expresses the divine but is not itself the divine.
If you think religion is ridiculous and there’s nothing about it you can use, then fine—don’t be religious. Say you find more challenge and deepening by reading Jung, Rilke, Dante, Neruda, Steinbeck. By practicing engaged, embodied meditation. By doing yoga. By thinking about what commitment, hope and friendship mean. By putting those thoughts into play. By loving people when they are broke or sick or sad. Hey, that’s what Jesus was trying to get the disciples to do, right?
In my first year of formal religion scholarship at Union Theological Seminary (as I described in my last State of Formation blog post Blood, Guts, and Getting Over Humps), I felt trapped by my increasing comfort with the violent and militaristic language of some religious texts (ie, some books of the Bible). I wondered, am I promoting this language and becoming complicit with the violence and myopia of Biblical traditions by advocating familiarity with biblical texts?
What I arrived at is that my familiarity with the Bible does not equate to an endorsement of the sectarianism and bloodshed described in its pages. By understanding the historical contexts in which the thousands of contributors to this text were writing, I have come to understand that the Bible is a very human document, a document not advocating violence but rather explicating the unfortunate byproducts of humanity’s search for meaning, community solidarity, resilience, and survival in the face of oppression and social mores. The Bible, especially the more documentarian approach of the First/Old Testament, is a historical document that is layered more explicitly than most ostensibly “objective” historical documents with the interpretive devices of poetic allegory, aphorisms and calls-to-action that the First Testament prophets are known to undertake in their screeds against their own community. Those prophets were as pissed as any of us are today at the pathetic divisions of religion and the mechanistic displays of religiosity that obscured the spirit of self-transcendence and good neighborliness they were intended to convey.
I don’t promote the Bible as a blueprint for how humanity should conduct itself; no indeed, in fact, it is more of a warning by example of the dangers of religionism. It is description, not prescription. But in my experience of making peace with biblical texts as a testament to centuries of human struggle for meaning and morale-boosting, rather than as a recommendation for how we are to self-critically evaluate our behaviors, relationships and ethical dilemmas, I have my way into appreciating its scope and value. Moreover, I find that looking at the Bible as a literary piece is a worthwhile undertaking. Leave out the bone-dry boring bits in Chronicles and Kings, and focus on Psalm 52’s crushing conveyance of inadequacy and frustration with one’s inevitable failings.
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Or Psalm 27’s anguished resolve to courage in the face of doom:
Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.
Or Psalm 139’s exquisite meditation on the inherent worth of every human being as part of the universe of ever-evolving and struggling beings who never reach the end of their questions about why we are here and why it can hurt so much:
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.
I have long been frustrated—that’s too gentle a word for it—how is disgusted?—by the ways in which biblical texts are corrupted, manipulated to support destructive agendas, and used in plainly tacky ways. It is true that my historical-critical approach to the Bible is a minority perspective. But I’m also a realist, and I know it’s not going anywhere, and seeing as the majority readings are so pervasive I think it’s a worthwhile project to lift up the insistence that this text and all of its nasty bits are not an advocation but rather a record.
On a personal note, I do not think that religion is a good route for everyone, and I would never insist that folks who seek spiritual flourishing have only religious or traditionally religious routes to take. I myself am as untraditional a religious person as they get. My attraction to religion is specifically subjective, and I was so deeply troubled by the violence of religion in this world that I felt I had to journey into its lair to find the other side of the coin. Thus my journey to a hesitant, intuitive and wholehearted appreciation of the Bible as a fascinating document of human history, one that has been employed as a tool and as a weapon to leverage nefarious and just endeavors in history. My relationship with it is complicated and restless, but in a different way than it was before when I just wanted to throw it against the wall. I’m even beyond wanting to excise what seems worthwhile, as did Thomas Jefferson. I think the whole damn bloody thing is something that I have found worthy of clear-eyed, openhearted investigation and guarded reconciliation. I always called myself a pluralist.
By pluralism I do not mean former President George W. Bush’s brand of pluralism, in which every world religion is an equally valid path to Jesus Christ. I mean an attempt at respect for wisdom, no matter the source. I enrolled at Union Theological Seminary after my Christian grandfather died and I realized that, in order to deserve my own identification as a pluralist and a trans-traditionalist, I needed to learn more about Christianity, the one religion I wanted nothing to do with. I needed to find out why I was so resistant to it. So, I went to Union to stare down the beast. And you know what? The beast was me. Me, who was drawing conclusions about an entire religion based on the vocal, visible conservative minority. Learning about Christianity has changed me profoundly, as much as I am still too proud to admit it to my cool, godless friends in Brooklyn.
I believe that one’s own faith claims—or lack of faith claims—will shift, must shift, in response to the many milestones of human life. I changed when my maternal Grandmother died; I changed again when my paternal Grandfather died. I changed when I went to Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome when I was 17. I changed when I went through a big breakup. I changed when I fell in love again, years later, and I changed when we broke up over a mess of betrayal and lies. I changed when I realized that something that doesn’t “make sense” isn’t necessarily untrue, and that there are “other ways of knowing” than just through brains and facts. I changed when I read the New Testament and hated every minute of it. I grew through opposition and being forced to figure out why I was so offended and frustrated by it. I changed when I worked on a farm all summer and realized that God is just like fertilizer: the crap that makes us grow.
I was in Chicago recently, visiting my friend, the poet Christian Wiman (and the editor of Poetry Magazine). I was gazing out his front window when I saw a knot in the wood of his front porch. It had a shape just like an apple. The wood even had a nick just like an apple stem. I was deeply charmed by this accident in the wood grain. It struck me as an uncanny miracle. When I had a closer look, I saw that there were about ten identical apple-shaped knots cut carefully into surfaces all over the porch. I felt so stupid for being enchanted with something I thought was a coincidence, a delightful accident, a miracle even—when the truth is that I had just had a limited and obscured view of the whole picture! But then, I realized: isn’t it charming that some industrious woodcutter would cut out ten little apple knots on this porch? Faced with that diligent ingenuity, I was tickled all over again.
It’s like the spiritual journey. Maybe you grew up believing in the physical miracles of the Bible, the parting waters, the waters walked on, the waters changing into wine. Maybe later in life, you realized or decided that these are myths. That religion is a house of cards. Maybe you felt mislead or that religion had nothing to offer you, or to me, clear and rational thinkers. Then maybe, if you are like me, you realized yet later that the important question is not: did it happen? But rather: what does it mean?
This very shift in your question: that’s what I call God. That’s what I call the life in you living brightly, making meaning, rising above the physics of circumstance and leaning into the poetry of significance and engagement. First, the apple-shaped knot on Christian Wiman’s front porch fence is a miracle. Then it is a disappointment because it was intentional, human-made, ordinary. Then finally it is a triumph of human creativity, clever and crafty and indeed divine—as the divine spark is in all of us. Voila: God. God is here, and life is strong in you, bidden or not bidden. I think we are all more in union with life than we think we are. We focus so often on our shared brokenness, but what about our hidden wholeness? We all have within us a thrust toward constructive engagement with life and with other people that is profoundly propulsive and growth-oriented. We all have within us a life that wants to be lived, that is speaking to us and through us.
The way into loving life and naming God, for me, has become some combination of gratitude, self-discipline and care for others. And loving God (and if you are among those for whom God-talk is mystifying nonsense, and I am often among you, let’s say “loving life” because it is the same thing)… well, that kind of love carries the same kind of risk that romantic love carries. I can say to my sweetie as well as to life, “I don’t know how you will handle my love or the gift of myself. I don’t know whether you’ll reciprocate. To find out, I just have to go ahead and love you first.”
But I am finding that the more I give myself over to the life in me that wants to be lived, the more I keep learning and talking and listening, the more I ask what is needed of me and do my authentic best to deliver, the more I get back.
Please do something with me now. Think of something you hope for. One thing. Anything. Like, stop reading and do it now. (Then scroll down.)
Thank you for engaging your hope with me: it was a very fine prayer. At this moment, thinking about hope right here with you, this deeply agnostic, diversely religious Jewish Christian Buddhist agnostic who does a lot of yoga sees life wanting to be lived. And if you’ve related to anything I’ve said today, then maybe, probably, we believe in the same God.