Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind. —Emerson, Self-Reliance
*defined by Webster's Third New International Dictionary as: 1: the state or quality of being indwelling or inward or of not going beyond a particular domain: inherence: as a: the condition of being in the mind or experientially given b: in Kantianism: the condition of being within the limits of possible experience — contrasted with transcendence 2: the indwelling presence of God in the world
Recently, I realized that I tend to do some of my best thinking while walking. On Sunday, Dave and I went on a glorious hike up the side of Mt. Hood, and as soon as we were following each other down the trail, feet padding softly on the forest floor, the words just started to flow. Having my body engaged in the repetitive motion of walking seems to free up my brain. I think part of it has to do with the movement, and part of it comes from not having to look at someone’s face while you’re trying to articulate something. I’ve noticed that I always get writing ideas when I go running, which have generally evaporated into the mental ether by the time I’ve gotten home, showered, and made my way to the computer. And whenever D and I go for an after-dinner stroll around the neighborhood at dusk, peering at houses, previously inchoate thoughts seem to well up and spill over into speech.
For some reason, we were talking about god. I started it.
I said that I think belief in god, or in some sort of intelligence or consciousness or disembodied force underlying the creation, basically just comes down to a feeling which you either have — or you don’t. Dave says he doesn’t, and never has. From his early childhood he remembers feeling, simply, definitely, that there was no god. I asked him if that was a scary feeling, if the universe felt cold and empty and threatening. He said no, but that staring up into the stars is scary even if you DO believe in god, unless, of course, you believe in one of those pajama-wearing, bearded, father-figure types, who’s prone to intervention, and will whisk you off to your own personal salvation.
I always have had a god feeling, I think, although it has evolved considerably, and blinks in and out nowadays. I do remember being terrified by death at a very early age. We were driving around in Boston’s Back Bay, looking for a parking spot, and while sitting in the backseat staring out the window I had this shattering epiphany that one day, I would not exist, and people would still be driving around looking for parking places, living their lives, going on without me, not even noticing or caring that I, ME!, wasn’t around. How was that possible? In the fullness of my consciousness, enthroned in the unthinking egotism of a child, my mind simply could not contemplate its own non-existence. Really, I’m not sure my so-called adult mind is any better equipped to contemplate it. Apparently around this time I made bedtime a hassle, refusing to go to sleep, crying when my parents left me. My father eventually soothed me by telling me that although my body would, one day, die, the essential part of me — my soul, consciousness, the true Self — was eternal, and could never be destroyed. I think this was a comfort, but I can’t remember now.
Anyway, I have a more complicated religious/spiritual background than Dave, who was raised in a household that was more culturally than religiously Jewish. I was simultaneously brought up in the Catholic church, and, in case that wasn’t enough, a cult (a term I am not employing frivolously) devoted to an interpretation of Advaita Vedanta. So there’s certainly a lot to write about there. But in brief, I was exposed to a lot of religious/spiritual doctrine as a child, and I do remember one period when, at bedtime, I would lie in my bed and imagine I was holding God’s hand. Except that since He was God, His hand was unthinkably enormous, and all I could do was hold out my cupped hand, and He would rest the tip of His massive finger ever-so-lightly on my palm.
I got over that kind of conception of a “relationship” with an anthropomorphized, father-figure type of god pretty early, it seeming to be pretty clearly a child’s conception of a god. But what I can never quite wrap my head around is how many millions of adults stay permanently in this phase. I mean, even though I know that faith is the primary virtue in most monotheistic religions: Have faith. Be like a little child. Leave everything to God. Just believe.
Well, I don’t believe in ‘faith’ anymore. Anything that makes simply believing a virtue is out in my book. In fact, nothing seems more pernicious to me. Why should we simply have faith? The world is incredibly fucked up, and we should be questioning, questioning, questioning, and if the answers are not forthcoming, because, goddamn, these are the hard questions, then we should not fall back complacently on some cliche like, god works in mysterious ways. It is hard for me to respect people who have never challenged their belief system, stepped outside it for a moment, doubted, experienced the dark night of the soul without the anodyne of belief. What if there is no purpose to our lives, what if the universe is vast and chaotic and random and our insignificant lives have only what little meaning we are able to construct out of them in this world, right now? What if there is no grand design and the stars are just dying suns, unimaginably far away? What if there is no antidote to entropy? What if we really are alone here, and when we die, we simply cease to exist? If you haven’t at least entertained these thoughts as equally, perhaps more likely, possibilities than the alternatives proposed by religion, if you have remained safe in some comforting safety net of faith, then, I’m sorry, but I don’t find such faith a virtue, nor do I respect whatever religious doctrine requires it of you.
To stand in doubt, to acknowledge that we don’t, we can’t have the answers, that anything that purports to explain the universe is just a nice story for children, that our certainties are few and mostly unpleasant, is the only honest stance.
Where is my god feeling now, you ask, after such a rant? I tried to describe it to Dave as we hiked along (and engrossed in conversation, missed the trail turn-off and hiked a good, oh, three or so miles out of our way. It was pretty, though.).
Somehow I do, still, have that feeling. I cannot justify it or even explain why. I just feel that there is meaning in life, in the universe. I just don’t think it’s understandable or provable. I think it is an irreduceable mystery, and has to be.
Rather than “top down,” my god feeling is more “inside out.” It’s a feeling that at the core of things, there is . . . something. I imagine zooming in with a giant microscope, first to the level of the cell and its amazing, industrious workings, then to molecules, then to atoms and their tiny electrons whizzing around, and then to . . . subatomic particles, I guess, and then to . . . space. Farther in and farther out. Oceans of space. Permeating everything. And when I imagine that space, it doesn’t feel empty, but full. Full of what, I don’t know. Something ineffable. And that’s neither religious belief nor scientific fact, just an inchoate, incoherent feeling I have.
Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion . . .
It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on our memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day. Trust your emotion. In your metaphysics you have denied personality to the Deity, yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color. Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee . . .
The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure that it is profane to seek to interpose helps . . . Whenever a mind is simple and receives a divine wisdom, then old things pass away—means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour. . . If therefore a man claims to know and speak of God and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not.
— Emerson, Self-Reliance