Letting Go of God

Dreyfus said that a lot of students in his class on Heidegger (which is standing room only and students waiting outside the door to get in) would fail because Heidegger is incredibly difficult to understand.  Dreyfus warned students that if they don’t have the appropriate philosophical background, they need to consider dropping the class. My philosophical background is limited so chances are, I’d fail his class.  But if I was in school at Berkeley and if there were no Berkeley Webcasts and I had the opportunity to take his class, I’d willingly take the risk.

My interest in philosophy is far more spiritual than it is academic. In specific, I am interested in philosophical ideas that merge with mysticism. Since the Enlightenment, academia has lumped mysticism in with magic, sorcery, the supernatural and all things irrational. This is tragic because authentic mysticism is intensely rational. Yes, it is also considered to be transrational, but the stepping stone to transrational thought is rational thought, not irrational thought.  (For the sake of clarification, let’s use A.R. Lacey’s definition of rationalism – any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification.)

Mysticism flirts with atheism because transrational thought makes the question of the existence of God irrelevant.  Mysticism is NOT an atheism, however, because it does not make the claim that God does not exist.  However you answer the question, “Does God eixst?” (“yes, there is a God” or “there is no God”) – merely points back to the question itself. Both atheists and theists have made the question important by insisting they hold the “right” answer, but mystics consider the question irrelevant because mysticism is rational. “God” (by any other name) cannot be known rationally, therefore any rational question about God does not apply. It makes no sense, whatsoever, to insist upon the existence or non-existence of God. If you insist upon God’s existence, then you are likely more into supernaturalism and magic than authentic mysticism. If you insist upon the non-existence of God, then chances are you worship rationalism in the same way theists worship a supernatural God. True, a lot of mystics use the term “God” to point to what is transrational.  But this does not mean they “believe” in the term.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche presents the parable of the madman. This madman runs out into the crowds exclaiming “God is dead”, and realizes he is at least 300 years too early for people to understand what he is saying.  Nietzsche isn’t telling theists that God is dead.  He’s telling secularists that God is dead.  Atheists may claim there is no God, but they don’t yet understand that God is dead.  Human beings created an ideology based on a concept that served humanity relatively well for centuries. The concept is no longer viable because we killed it. As Dreyfus said in his Existentialism in Film and Literature class, we abstracted it out of existence.  And as long as we believe in objective truth, we are forced to maintain a belief in a God’s eye view that has the ability to see this truth. Secularists haven’t eliminated God.  On the contrary. The role of God has been reassigned to science and reason. God is dead, but we don’t yet know it.

Many years ago, I was having great difficulty maintaining a belief in God and went through a frantic journey trying to find out everything I could about the history of the Bible, the history of the Jews, the history of Rome, Greece, and whatever else I thought might help. Through a series of connections with various bloggers (mostly on the now defunct Vox), I ended up at Hubert Dreyfus’ “Existentialism in Literature and Film” class I just mentioned. This sent me on an entirely new trajectory.

These days, I can say with confidence that I do not believe in God.  That is not to say I don’t think God exists. I simply think the question is irrelevant. I can’t even begin to tell you how long or how scary it has been for me to admit this to myself. There have been years of darkness associated with this admission because I simply have not wanted to acknowledge God’s death.

I think what was most difficult was letting go of the belief that there is an objective truth waiting to be discovered. I really thought I’d figure it out one day – that it all would make sense…

I still have so much to unlearn!

Stepping in the Light – A Few Final Notes

Before I put Stepping in the Light back on the shelf, I want to just go through a few of the things I highlighted that may or may not have been addressed in the study questions…

  • I didn’t realize that Quakers denied holy days and holy seasons.  Macy says this isn’t to deny them, but to say that all of life is equally a place of God’s life and power.  Our lives are our sanctuaries.
  • Quakers value the Bible, but they uphold that the “Inspirer is greater than the inspired writings and is still active.”
  • Quakers teach that order rises from within, not from coercion without.
  • Worship is not about what we do outwardly or inwardly, it is about what we allow God to do in us.
  • I liked this quote on the plaque in Macy’s friend’s home:  “Let the guest sojourning here know that in this home our life is simple. What we cannot afford we do not offer, but what good cheer we can give, we give gladly.”
  • Macy says to escape the tyranny of “What did you do?” and “What did you accomplish?” as the driving forces in our lives, we need to see ourselves as part of the world rather than the world as merely a platform for human activities. If we can learn to stop in wonder, we can also stop our frantic pace. While saying, “That’s good” in delight can be very meaningful, asking “What’s it good for” is not always a useful question.  One expresses gratitude, the other the expectation that the world exists for human activity.

Stepping in the Light: The Ocean of Light

At last – the last set of study questions from Howard Macy’s Stepping in the Light. (I’ve really gotten a lot out of this exercise):

1.  How readily are you able to live in the confidence that “the power of the Lord is over all”?  When you’re able to do that, how does it affect your living?

I am a control freak!  So this has not happened very often. But it has happened on occasion.  I am much more peaceful, centered and open when I quit trying to control everything and let things be what it is they are. I also make much better decisions.

2.  What are the occasions that the “ocean of darkness” seems particularly vivid or powerful to you?  What’s the chance that you’re giving darkness too much credit?

I think the fear of darkness can be the greatest darkness of all.  St. John of the Cross teaches us to enter into the darkness and to accept it. That’s how we bring light to it.  Life usually only seems dark to me right before that time of the month, however.  I go into some terribly dark space once a month but it doesn’t last very long and I always know I’m OK while I’m in the midst of it.  Right after my father died was probably the darkest period I have ever encountered in my entire life, however.  There was just so much falling out from under me all at once right then – so much that I had always thought of as stable.

3.  In what ways may we collaborate in God’s work, letting our light penetrate the darkness, convinced that God is prevailing?

By getting out of our own way.  There is a place within us that “knows”, but we have so heavily obstructed it by doubt, second guessing and trying to maintain the status quo that we barely pay attention to it.  By getting centered and giving up our expectations and desired outcomes, we collaborate in God’s work.

4.  Given the circumstances of your life and culture, why might it be good news and bad news for you if God were to act powerfully against the darkness you see?

I live in suburbia where most people still drive huge SUVs and all of us drive more than we should.  We’ve been in drought mode for 2 years and there is a lot of fear that we’ll have a significant water shortage and water will become privatized in the near future.  We are also seeing increasingly violent storms. I’m afraid we are all completely blind when it comes to what it is we’re doing to our environment and the consequences awaiting us around the corner.  There are plenty of warnings, but very few of us are truly paying attention.  I think it will likely take something horrible to make us wake up and that would be horrible, scary, news.  But if it inspired us to finally start caring for our earth, maybe it would also be good news.

5.  How can we come to a place of confidence and rest in Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God” (KJ) and Habakkuk 3, even if everything falls apart, “I will rejoice in… God my Savior?”  (v. 18 NIV)

By learning to accept what is.  We can’t really change anything until we are willing to fully enter into reality.  We must be willing to find our center and know that even though everything’s a mess, it’s all OK. Until we reach this place, we will be unable to enter upon the pathless path for fear of the dark.

Stepping in the Light: Light-Hearted News

Second to last group of study questions from Howard Macy’s Stepping in the Light:

1.  Why is the man on the Quaker Oats box smiling? How representative is he of normal Quakers or was he borrowed from a Lutheran Oats box?

I’ve never been around that many Quakers. The virtual person I know via the blogosphere is always smiling in my mind’s eye. He seems like a genuinely happy person. Macy has a nice smile too, but a sort of tired heaviness which was probably just the long trip in to San Antonio from Oregon. I mention that because the only person I have known well that was a Quaker was a clown by trade, but she was one of the saddest people I ever knew.  She very rarely smiled outside of the clown costume.

I think Macy is right, however. The Good News is good news that is meant to bring joy and happiness, not heaviness and sorrow.

2.  How is it possible to be funny and serious at the same time?  In what ways can you imagine Jesus doing this?  In what ways can you imagine doing this?

I love the idea of Jesus as stand-up comedian. What a concept!  I bet it’s right on, too.  If you’re eye is giving you trouble, just pluck the danged thing out.  It won’t give you any trouble anymore. I highly doubt Jesus really wanted anyone to pluck it out!!  He didn’t seem like the sadistic sort.

I think some of the most serious commentary about the state of the world today comes from The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on the Comedy Central.  Bill Maher’s Religulous was hilarious yet utterly serious at the same time.  Michael Moore is both hilarious and serious.  I remember reading that the prophets of old very often used stunts to get attention. Comedy is a sort of stunt.

I suppose if I got back into a Christian community, one way of lightening up would simply be not taking the seriousness of others so seriously.  That’s usually where I get into trouble – serious people seriously depress me!  By nature, I am kind of dingy, silly and worthy of being laughed at on a fairly regular basis. (Ask my husband and kids – they are always laughing at me about some ditzy thing I’ve said or done that I don’t notice until they point it out to me.)

3. Some suggest that at its core the Gospel is comedy.  Surprising, unexpected things happen – the hopeless outclassed folks win; the too-good-to-be-true becomes true; and, as with Abraham and Sarah, the nothing’s-too-difficult-for-God erupts in great laughter.  How does Paul continue that theme?  How does that invite us into light-hearted discipleship?

I’d never thought of the Gospel as comedy before, but I wonder if what is really meant here is the Bible?  I always think of the Gospel as the first four texts of the New Testament, which could potentially be viewed as comedy in the true literary sense, I suppose. As far as Paul goes – he is constantly talking out of two sides of his face – just like Jon Stewart. You are never quite certain exactly which point it is he is trying to get across.  Is he being sarcastic?  Serious?  both?  It’s a very interesting idea.  Macy has a book called Laughing Pilgrims: Humor and the Spiritual Journey.   Might be worth taking a look at sometime.

4.  “Publishers of Fluff…” barely begins to fill out its full catalog potential.  What suggestions do you have for other lightweight titles?  The backhand of the essay also suggests that folks need to feed on more than froth.  What kinds of resources would you recommend?

There is an awful lot of fluff out there!  Stuff like The Secret, How to Make Money Using the Secret, and all of the crap that professes to be spiritual but is still based completely upon the manifestation of materialistic desire rather than the transcendence of it.

What do I recommend?  Well, these are the books that come to mind off hand as having had the most influence on me (the list is much longer than this, of course!):

  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig
  • The Ashtavakra Gita
  • The Bhagavad Gita
  • The Book of Job
  • The Psalms
  • Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith
  • Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Freidrich Nietzsche
  • The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Jesus’ Plan for a New World, Richard Rohr
  • Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl
  • The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
  • Paradise Lost, John Milton

Stepping in the Light: Joy in Justice and Mercy

More study questions from Howard Macy’s Stepping in the Light:

1.  Historically Friends have naturally connected service and compassion to genuine discipleship.  How is it that “justice and mercy” grow naturally out of “walking humbly with God?”

“Walking humbly with God” requires that we recognize our place in the world.  We are typically so busy trying to “be God” that we often forget that we are finite human beings. Our main focus is often on creating invulnerable political societies, coming up with technologies that can make us invulnerable to disease and decay, and even creating religions that tell us we’ll live forever and be invulnerable in another world which makes the fate of this one, and those living in it, ultimately non-important. We tend to be hubristic rather than reverent and humble.

The truth is, to be human is to be vulnerable and walking humbly with God is a sort of celebration of this vulnerability and a recognition that we genuinely need one another because we all exist together. This world and all who live in it, matter (they materialize for us and with us).  We discount one another and ourselves through the walls we build.    Walking humbly with God requires that we tear down those walls and be willing to truly “see” the “other”.

2.  As we continue to declare the “good news of peace,” what might be some practical ways both to call people to be reconciled and to teach them to become reconcilers?

I’m not sure I know what it is meant by this, or maybe I simply resist it because it has been so long since I’ve been part of a Christian community.  If I were to be reconciled by a church, it would have to be an intentional community where people are gathered together in order to be stripped naked.  But it seems to me such communities are few and far between within Christianity. People primarily go to church to be entertained, to have a sense of belonging, or to feel they are on the “right” side.  But rarely do people go to church to let down their defenses, although I know this is sometimes true of some urban communities that are open to criminals, the homeless, and people with AIDs, etc.  And maybe some of the Pentecostal Churches in the deep south, too.

How could I be reconciled with the church? I suppose it’s possible. It’s been almost 10 years since I’ve been a member of a church and I often miss it.  Books like this tend to help because they remind me of what Christianity was supposed to be.  I’m just not impressed with what it has become and often think the best thing I could possibly do is cut that final threat that has me tied to it and become a Buddhist.

3.  The Bible often tells us that God loves the world more than we can imagine and shows special care for the oppressed, the poor and the vulnerable. God’s love will bring deliverance and justice. How does knowing this guide our action and give us hope?

When people exhibit a genuine openness and receptivity, it’s freeing. I remember being in a UU Church and a woman was both giving a sermon and singing songs inbetween. Her message was basically that the broken belong and are welcome.  Her message was wonderful, but in practice she was much more elite – very intellectual and standoffish.  Sometimes I think that might be how I am.  Deep down, I believe the broken belong and are welcome.  I, myself, often feel broken!  So what right do I have to judge anyone?  But I am imperfect when it comes to being open and receptive to others.  I tend to build up walls that keep people out.  At some core level, I do know I am connected.  I think that is what the Bible means when it says that God loves the world.  Deep down, in some core place, we know that’s true.  And the more we know it, the more we are able to see past our own broken-ness and open ourselves to the broken-ness of others.

4.  What specific needs for justice and mercy might guide our meeting’s ministry in our own community?

Personally, if I were to go back to a Christian Church, it would be an open and reconciling community toward the LGBT community.  And it would have to be very actively involved in this reconciliation – not just paying lip service toward it.  Providing food and shelter for the homeless, promoting peace and environmental discipline would all be big pluses, too.

Stepping in the Light: Living Well Together

Still more study questions from Howard Macy’s Stepping in the Light:

1.  Many people long for significant community, partly because it’s so hard to experience in an extremely privatistic culture.  How can individuals take the initiative to steadily be a part of the church community?  How can the meeting act to welcome and nurture individuals?  How do we move toward mutual trust?

It seems to me that the only way to build significant community is when everyone is involved in a common thrust or movement. I think mainstream churches that have overcome the division around gay rights, for example, offer significant community because members have a goal in common – LGBT rights.  Of course, the same is true for those against gay rights.  I guess that’s kind of the problem with churches these days. They tend to be heavily divided over political issues.  But I imagine that’s always been the case. Didn’t George Fox leave the church over political issues?

I guess I just don’t have a lot of faith in Christian institutions being able to build significant communities. I think these days, people from various religions build significant communities outside of their communities of worship, not within them. There is a movement underway, but it transcends religious institutions.

2.  The New Testament vision of the Church is of a people built to together which transcends ethnicity, gender, social class and all other ways we normally divide into groups. What steps can we take to treasure one another genuinely beyond all other boundaries?

I think what we need is beyond what Christianity, alone, can provide.  We need to build a community of prophets – those from all spiritual walks of life (including spiritual atheists) who can lead the rest of the world into a new level of consciousness. We have to be willing to break out of our old allegiances or there will be no transcendence.

3.  Brainstorm ideas about how we might stir up hospitality in our life together?

The idea of hospitality really made me stop and think. I remember being at a friends home and she was complaining about how some woman from our kids’ class came over and just sat and talked for an hour.  “Didn’t she know that people have things to do?”  I remember being kind of appalled by her attitude but I’m afraid I’ve taken it on, of late, too.  Not quite to that extreme, but I sometimes find myself hesitant to invite people in, especially if my house is messy.  I’m not as open to have my son’s friends over anymore, either.  We used to have a house full of people all the time, but I prefer a little more quiet, of late. 

I would like to become more open – more hospitable.  Not sure how this would work with my completely introverted husband, but I’d love to have random people over all the time and to make extra at every meal for those who might drop by. That would be fantastic!

4.  What barriers and attractions are there in entrusting ourselves to “the care of the meeting”?  How can we make that an inviting reality?

Not sure about this one.  What I imagine is a bunch of people involved in Integral Spirituality, getting together to meditate and share ideas. The “care of the meeting” would be a willing oppenness and receptivity to one another.  That could be so cool!

Stepping in the Light: Embracing Leadership

Still plugging away at Howard Macy’s study questions from Stepping in the Light:

1.  What are some ways we can assist and encourage elders and other leaders in our meetings?

Can’t answer this one, not being Quaker.  It seems to me that the vast majority of people in churches today are the elders.  But I guess elders, in this context, is more how the Presbyterians use the term: those in lay leadership positions. When I think of elders, I think of my friends parents from high school who were Elders in the Presbyterian Church.  They were very good people and I liked them.  But they seemed more like normal parents than spiritual leaders, and I always had the feeling that becoming an Elder in the Presbyterian church was also more a matter of economic prestige than spiritual wisdom.

Of course that’s the Presbyterian Church and not the Quaker Church.  Having grown up in the Methodist tradition and then becoming Catholic when I married my husband, I have no experience with Elders, whatsoever. It is my experience that the lay leadership in Methodism is completely voluntary.  It isn’t assigned and it doesn’t hold any sort of prestige over other parishioners. Same with the lay leadership in Catholicism.  Even if you take a lot of classes to get catechetical points and run classes, etc., any reverence given to such folks is earned, not assigned.

Maybe Elders aren’t necessary to Quaker meetings.  Being an outsider, they seem completely antithetical to the Quaker idea that all are called by Christ to serve.

2.  One of the readings suggests that the word “elder” leads a double life.  What steps can elders and others take to make the verb “to elder” a positive word about guidance, care and encouragement?

I think anyone who assigns themselves the role of “elder”, in religion or in life in general, needs to be willing to enter into the story of another. I think Macy is absolutely right!  Those in leadership roles should be the movers and shakers, not the guardians of the status quo. If Elders would realize that perhaps the way out is not necessarily a reinforcement of the ways of old, they would connect with others and be much more effective.  (And perhaps the young people would not be turning in droves to the mega media churches.)

3.  Sometimes elders are viewed as people who protect what is, who just guard the past.  How can we help elders become a group that holds our core values and, at the same time, leads with vision and initiative toward the future?

OK – forgive me for not understanding this question.  If you genuinely respect your leaders, then won’t this be a natural process?  Doesn’t this only become a problem when a religion is no longer truly viable?  Isn’t any “help” offered merely yet another attempt to guard the past?  If the Elders are no longer serving the congregation, perhaps they are no longer needed.

4.  Which leaders specifically should we hold in our prayers?  What should we pray on their behalf?  How might we assure that such prayer is happening?

I think Christian leaders like the one over at the Naked Pastor (David Hayword), Fr. Richard Rohr, Brother David Steindl-Rast, Father Thomas Keating, and the minister at Trinity United Methodist Church (Sid Hall) are worthy of being held in our prayers because they are today’s prophets. They are struggling with a way to maintain the core values of Christianity while meeting the reality of our world today.  This often requires letting go of a lot of values and really digging into the true fundamentals of Christianity (which is not what the fundamentalists do!!!)  Strange that there are no women on this list!  There are plenty of female leaders I could list as being worthy of our prayers, but they are leaders in traditions other than Christianity.  Marianne Williamson (whom I think is another leader worthy of being held in our prayers, but not exactly Christian), has often said that we need to get more women into spiritual leadership roles.  I’d never really thought of it before until just now!!