Sunday, September 9, 2012

The "god" vexation

It seems to have been "forever": a deep human need to find a reassuring appreciation of the mystery of existence.

“Reassurance” is relative. Some cultures have populated the infinite with personifications of oppressive brutality, many have come to notions of more or less delicately balanced forces and a few to concepts of all-sustaining total goodness. Enter: "GOD". Or "the gods". 

In each case, appropriate human responses have been prescribed by religions or wisdom teachers: unwavering obedience, public or private sacrifice, formulaic worship and adoration, denial or annihilation of “self”,  obedience to codes of socially practiced goodness, obedience to codes of purity and “cleanliness”, the practice of ecstatic social ritual or private reflection and meditation.

Across the board, you can find all sorts of similarities… and all sorts of differences. Many of the differences can be traced to cultural insights, biases and practices (the tastes of the “gods” happily coinciding with the culture’s set of sanctions). Many of the similarities can be linked to widespread or universal human capacities (we share finite abilities), or to the daily needs of social animals: genes or survival.

But, no matter how the impulse is expressed or where you find the shapes of its expression, the existential mysteries still vex human consciousness: “god” does not go away.

This is where atheism fails, not because of its apparently watertight arguments but because "god" will not go away. And whether or not “god” or the “gods” take form in the human mind or at the furthest ends of the universe, or exist all-pervasively, is similarly irrelevant — in that case, we are just conjecturing about the gods’ location, not their existence. Either way, they are just as “present”.

There is one way to get away from the issue. That is to build a brick wall  around all we think we know and call the wall “the ends of the universe”… enter the “modern”, rational, “practical” man of action, the pragmatist who gets things done. As a cultural style, it produces the literalist, the materialist, the rule of law, the clinician, the accountant, dualism and fundamentalism thrive: you can only be “right” or “wrong”. Minds close. All becomes vanity.

The trap here is that there’s no “higher court” of appeal: there is no effective recourse for aesthetic, intuitive or “spiritual” values and “emotionalism” is a weakness. Nothing is sacred.

We have moved a long way from the Middle Ages, when magic pulled the strings, to the rising reign of the rational …and the danger is that human beings have always tended to swing between extremes.

We need “religion”, “spirituality” and “faith” in order to be fully human.

THIS is the “bedrock” of any faith… not what is “believed” but where we plant its foundations. It's the context, not the content that's decisive. And the context is the absolute mystery of existence.Where, in our being, is the seed of faith? How have we found it?

I don’t think the churches, collectively, know. I don’t think they even think very deeply about it, nor our culture and the directions in which we are pulled — at the deepest levels — by it.

But we are healthiest and happiest when we are most fully human; not necessarily when we are rich and clever.

We find “god” when we seek the wholeness of our own humanity.

Where are we going?

HOW do we go about that search?

Here are my thoughts:

CURIOSITY… as an youthful atheist I felt the purpose of life was to experience it all as fully as possible: in New Zealand in those days, that meant going up mountains, down caves, into the wilderness and, as often as possible, to the ocean: sailing, diving, surfing or just swimming. It meant partying and mixing it with different (mostly Polynesian) cultures. This led me to an awareness of an overriding unity that makes life “real” as opposed to something that passes by. 
I found that incidents began coalescing into narratives — there was some kind of unintelligible “meaning” to it all. I experienced this as the biggest “why?” of them all. So I tried doing stuff I didn’t think I wanted to do, just to push the boundaries and this led me into religion and on into Christianity (of a sort). I’ve sought meaning intellectually but, much more importantly, experientially.

OPEN-NESS… to life, people, places… accepting the unexpected, the “strange” and the “stranger”. It’s an amazingly diverse little World. Without open-ness I think my curiosity might have dried up. I feel I’ve come to faith by trying to be the least interesting person I know. At the same time, it is the stimulus — a vivid face of love — I’ve found among very different people that’s given me confidence to seek my “self”-hood.
But self-hood has no meaning to me without its connectedness to the “meaning” I began to discern as an atheist. While open-ness adds to the narrative (meaning) and self-hood — which inevitably becomes defined in the context of some sort of community — it does nothing to diminish the mystery: the mystery keeps expanding. Self-hood helps me enjoy the ride and, thereby, learn from it.

LOVE… love rises when I let myself be passionate about entering into experience. And love then energises and heightens the experience. I find it difficult not to feel love rise among most the people and in most of the places to which I’ve let myself be led. I’ve seen love expressed widely enough to conclude that “love” is a human being’s natural state. 
The distance any of us moves from that natural state is a measure of how screwed up things are. 
But I easily get immersed in and distracted by all sorts of beauty — beauty is, in my conception, god's language of love — and incessant drama, often as commonplace as a spider making a web, a fish in the river, a cloud unfurling in a high wind, the way a creature moves… and by watching people interact: you can learn more about people by watching their movements, gestures and expressions as they interact with each other than you could from a transcript of their conversation. And it all adds to the grand narrative of existence.

BUT there are obstacles.

• “Wants” and “needs”: To serve a need or a want is to narrow your frames of experience — it becomes necessary to exclude the “distractions”, to “focus”. The false premise behind pursuing “wants” is that fulfillment and happiness are “out there”. I can’t remember ever having seen  the satisfaction of that sort of “want” bring enduring pleasure or joy. On the contrary, it usually seems to spark awareness of some new “want”. I’ve known people who have been made made less happy than they expected by relief from desperate material need. The hope that sustained them through their direst times and gave them the resilience to last the distance… that was the basis of their joy — even after the need was satisfied. 
Most of us though, in the global middle class of “Western” societies generate wants and needs, it seems, for their own sake. So, blinkered by fanciful “needs”, we consume vast amounts of “entertainment” because we are blind to the torrents of stimulus that wash over us ever moment, everywhere we are. (According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s annual Communications Monitoring Report released on 4 September, the “average” Canadian watched 28.5 hours of television a week in 2011, up from 28 hours a week in 2010.) And entertainment annihilates awe.

• ANXIETY… is another enemy of faith. Anxiety is a culturally induced frame of mind that draws boundaries close and dampens interest in anything beyond one's immediate self.. Our own, very often groundless, little fears and worries about trivialities nag us away from curiosity and the risk-taking that open-ness to life requires. We are made to fret about our comfort zones and our fretting too often grows into fear. And fear is paralyzing. If anything can damn us, it's fear and anxiety.

As I said above: we are healthiest and happiest when we are most fully human; not necessarily when we are rich and clever. And, when we seek the wholeness of our own humanity, we find “god”.

1 comment:

Richard Dancer said...

Mike, your final paragraph says it all! I believe it was Origen, one of the early church fathers who said: "to know oneself is to know god." That's the big one!
If we are know ourselves, we must surely know our 'needs' and our 'wants' - needs as in necessities and wants as in our prejudices. I am forever asking myself: "is this what I want?" or "what do I not want?". More importantly: "what is the purpose? and "where is this leading?"