Right now, every week I visit my friend who suffered the swarm of strokes. We are past being able to talk. Instead I read the psalms to him.
A couple of weeks ago it appears he had another stroke. As he’s now in hospice there is no formal diagnosis. His involvement in my visiting and reading the Psalms to him is pretty much limited to trying to repeat the last few words of each psalm.
These are hard moments. And. And so many things.
Among them I’m becoming intimate with those psalms, and the deity that is at the center of them. This has led to a flood of feelings and thoughts.
God was actually my first great spiritual crisis.
I wasn’t far into my adolescence, maybe I was thirteen or possibly fourteen. And religious questions burned hot for me. Among them the question that burned hottest was, is God real? I had serious doubts. Was God simply the figment of, well, of all sorts of very human needs? Or not?
I had other problems, but they mainly had to do with the Bible and its glaring inconsistencies. This mainly mattered because in my childhood religion the Bible was supposed to be God’s inerrant word. Actually. “God’s Word” with a very capital “W.” However, all one had to do was compare the gospels to know there were problems. Grownups who showed how the four versions could be reconciled without someone making a mistake, or were simply wrong, were clearly playing intellectual games, even to my thirteen or fourteen years-old mind.
But, the real deal, and I got that quickly was God. And rather specifically the God of the Bible. Although there appeared to be several versions available. So, most specifically, the God that my people said was the God of the Bible.
It took me a couple of years. Eventually, in a world where there is so much that I don’t know, I became pretty clear about one thing. There is no being like a human being but much bigger, who exists outside of the world and from time to time intervenes in history. I don’t recall when I stumbled upon Xenophanes famous quote, but, well:
“If cattle and horses, or lions, had hands, or were able to draw with their feet and produce the works which men do, horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make the gods’ bodies the same shape as their own.”
Bit by bit the whole core structure of the Christian story fell away. No timeline from creation to judgment, no heaven, no hell. For some of my friends that was it, and they settled comfortably into atheism, or if they weren’t annoyed and were being rigorous about what can and cannot be known, into agnosticism.
But that wasn’t my experience. The catch for me was when I resolved whether God was real in that very specific sense used in my fundamentalist Christian world, God didn’t simply go away. For me the question morphed. If God was not anthropomorphic projection, was something else that deserved the word?
It didn’t take a wide reading of the world’s religions to understand there were many ways to approach the profound messiness of what is. And it felt to me like this quest was terribly important.
It was elusive for me. But quickly I found the hint for it was in how Hinduism seeks moksha, and Buddhism seeks awakening. For me as a child of the West, as someone who didn’t believe in a God out there, I began to believe I had the question wrong. It wasn’t “is there a God.” Rather it was “What is God?” What if God was moksha or enlightenment?
With that question I found my great quest. And I began to look for a method. A path. A way.
Something I read fairly early on was the story of Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann read Homer and thought it likely the story was based in fact. He found the site, and he dug through the various layers. But he did it rough, and as I read the account in fact Schliemann dug right through the layer that would be the most likely “Troy.”
While this version of Schliemann and Troy requires more nuance, I personally found a hint for me on my spiritual quest. There is a Goldilocks place in religious quest. On the one side it’s the history of human’s owning and despoiling the world. On the other side, it’s all atoms and quarks. There is some place, some right place, where one can find something.
I intuited it would need to be some sort of middle way, something that excluded neither head nor heart. I wouldn’t have been able to put it like that, but I was stumbling along in the dark, and intuitively I found I needed both hands, brain and feeling.
With Zen I found the method. Witnessing. Bare attention. On the other side of my scrambling mind, when I attend things happen. The Zen master Eihei Dogen warned if we project our consciousness, if we look out, that is the delusive world. But, if we simply (such a rich and difficult word), if we simply let the world come to us, that is awakening.
I’ve applied this approach to my life for a lifetime.
And things began to unfold.
Back when I was in seminary I observed how “God is a hole in the language into which we throw our fears and hopes.” One of my professors heard that and said, “Yes, James. God is whole in the language into which we throw our fears and hopes.”
It was a small linguistic trick, but it was also a pointer.
I’m good with either. I’d go farther than that these days. God is a perfectly good word for the sum of it all. The whole of the many moving, rising, falling, parts. God is the birthing of things. God is the sustaining of things. God is the dying of things.
So, at the very least Spinoza’s God.
But is there something more? I felt in my bones the answer is yes.
And, as I approach the mystery, as I have approached the mystery, as I continue to do so, out of this raw encounter I reach for words. The Zen tradition of practice calls us to the ordinary. A constant pushing away from conceptual traps. In furthering this attempt at unleashing the restrictions of our ideas, one of its conceits in language often is to use abuse as praise. As we get closer to the heart of the matter it is even more important not to be trapped in the tangle of words.
And God is a most tangling word.
In Zen, contrary to what some casual readers might think, ordinary language or language of the ordinary very important. But, within the way words and language also begins to mutate and take its own shape. Prose begins to dissolve, and poetry begins to replace it.
And here the traditional language of the West and its God appear. Or reappears. For me, anyway.
When we look honestly and barely things arise and fall in complex intimacy. Everything is causally connected. Everything is encountered intimately. And, when we front into the empty, what are we encountering? Here I find God.
I don’t find a God in that classic Western understanding of an entity with a human-like consciousness which starts the whole ball rolling, occasionally reaching into the works, and will in time bring it all to a close. So, in that sense I’m a nontheist. Although it acts that way in my dreams. As a human being I find my encounter so intimate that all those ancient human-like words, and feelings, all the feelings noble and base, are part of it. And in that sense, I find myself a theist.
When Mohammed said God is closer to you than your jugular vein, I get it. Totally. Completely. Down to the beating of the blood in my jugular vein. Here in this place there is no separation.
The West has a long tradition of a nondual, where our encounters are all relational. The Zen line comes to mind, “you are not it. But, in truth, it is you.” That thing. That place. Totally ordinary. And, it calls forth hymns of praise. Lots of alleluias in the face of the mystery. Like a fire.
Albert Camus once said “I shall tell you a great secret my friend. Do not wait for the last judgment, it takes place every day.” A hint and a pointer. Heaven and hell exist, but they belong here, in our lives and minds and hearts. The God that is quick to anger and punishes and rewards exists. Here. Now.
We understand this, and the ancient languages of East and West, all fall short, and all point. Life and death join. Not one. Not two. And from that a great fire.
In Carl Barks’ poetic paraphrase of the Sufi master Rumi.
The wakened lover speaks directly to the beloved,
“You are the sky my spirit circles in,
the love inside love, the resurrection-place.”
The words rolled from my mouth. All the sorrow of it. All the memories piled inside that skull, and mine, too. All the words that can’t be said. All of those things.
the Islamic tradition that tells us God is love, lover, and beloved.
Ishq Allah Mabud Lilah
Sorrow and joy woven fine. Longing and finding not separate. And alive. And personal.
And my reading the psalms to my friend.
And the God of the psalms. It has something to do with a deity separate from the world. But mostly these feeling sung out of the psalms are angles we humans have when we open into the mystery. Maybe not angles, but angels.
At those moments of grace where we genuinely touch the not one, not two, we experience it as we are. As humans. As creatures of hate and love. Mutable. Fragile. Dying from the moment we are born. Filled with longing. And with embraces, if we’re lucky, with embraces.
All of it more intimate than words can say.
And at some point we need words. We are creatures of words. And, a word for this, the all of it, is love. And a word for this love is God. The God that is love, lover, and beloved. That God. All the dancing energies that manifest in this birthing and dying world.