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Friday, September 28, 2012

The Resonant Absence

“When people tell me they don’t believe in God, I say: Tell me more about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in him either…God is not God's name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each. Call it what you will--spirit, ground of being, life itself; it remains what it always has…an awe-inspiring, mind-bending mystery.”
- Rev. Forrest Church

A ministers shaping and delivery of his addresses is known by the technical name of homiletics. A minister’s homiletics, his or her series of addresses, is, in part, a project of developing a religious discourse that takes place over a long arc of time, and has to incorporate therefore a varied range of theological ideas for consumption by a particular public, so as to keep that pubic engaged and experiencing the religious life from multiple angles. But if variety alone were the main purpose of a minister’s homiletics, he or she is no better than a showman plying more endless distraction to a ready audience. No, homiletics, varied over time, should have some sense of connectedness to it, not least because one’s congregation deserves a theology with at least some coherence, however loose and pliable. After all, ‘re-ligio’ means ‘to bind up again’, to make coherent a disparate and confusing world. Articulating a coherent theology is why ministers receive a theological education, rather than just training in creative writing.
This week, I have been a Minister of Religion (according to the Commonwealth of Australia) for one full year. During that time, and for all my blogs past, I’ve been, I confess, somewhat cagey on one these key subjects: the subject of God, which is one of those key ideas which give shape and grounding to a coherent theology. That is, up til now.

There are reasons for this caginess. Not least of which is that the way ministers learn to talk about God in a context of academic theology, is characterized by fine distinctions, nuance, and sustained argument at the limits of literal language, and also by metaphor, allegory, and symbol. Such language is easily accommodated in the academic world but easily collapse when you try to make them more ‘user-friendly’. A  purely academic discourse doesn’t usually make for a gripping, engaging read for those who have the good fortune to be innocent of non-specialist theological language.

Now, I feel I can make abstruse theology palatable without doing its meaning too much violence, but it’s certainly a balancing act and therefore risky that you might lose a few along the way, but that’s not the only reason to be cagey about talking of God here. Fundamentalists both religious and atheist have crammed the popular mediated discourse about God full of crass simplifications and shallow slogans, and this of course has not helped frame a balanced, careful, civil discussion. In popular culture the discussion has become just another human cock-fight, with atheists on the one side and believers on the other, and never the twain shall meet: it’s a vexed issue, in short. Now, no minister wants to be divisive; one must maintain a certain graciousness no matter what the subject is, nor how vexed. You don’t want to draw a line and suggest the bad people are on this side and the good ones are on this. But that’s where we are with the vexed God issue, at least in the popular debate about God. So to talk about God here is to reframe the popular debate into something else.

I say, debate and discussion. It’s been more like a particularly bloody phase of an age-old war of attrition, a phase born out of outraged human fanaticisms in the post-9/11 world. Offenses to decency, morality, and truth in the name of God have been so appalling, that there has been bred a real desire to pull the entire religious project down, wipe to slate of history clean and start over. (As if we could!) But just as religious fascists tar all of secularism with the same evil pigments, so too have fundamentalist atheist authors like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens bundled up all expressions and language about deity into the same filthy blanket before beating them to death and throwing them onto the rubbish heap of history. The struggle lately has not been particularly edifying I think, with its sweeping generalizations, cartoonish villainy, and straw man arguments. So as a professional theologian, I feel it rather my duty to put forth a view that fits neatly into neither camp, namely my own. There are many who think and feel as I do, and the moderate, nuanced centre needs voices.
But should I get into this here, now? I know people get antsy even hearing the word "God". But I thought: ah, the heck with it. Put all the cards on the table. I’ve talked around the subject, so for coherence sake, and to advanced a more civil debate, here’s what I think. At the moment. And before I get started you should know that the following views owe a debt to theological writers Karen Armstrong and Marilynne Robinson.
To be clear from the outset: don’t worry. There has been no “Road to Damascus moment” in my life, no mystical experience, no sudden awakening. I’ve never had some vision where I feel God’s spoken to me (an event that would fll within the spectrum on schizophrenia). What follows is the fruit of 55-years’ rather more mundane experience in that struggle between God and No God, involving both head and heart.

To start with, it will be easier to get to what I think God is, or rather what I mean when I use the word, if I first clear the decks of what I do NOT mean by the word.
No longer an option for grown-ups really
Given all we know from science, it doesn’t make sense to me to talk about God as an old man in sky doing stuff. It also doesn’t make sense to me to speak of god as a creator in a literal way: “Hey, presto! Here’s a platypus! Here’s a solar system!” It makes no sense to me to speak of God as some other being, even if that’s the only way beings like ourselves can conceive of God, as a kind of vast other personage.  In fact, I’ll go furher: it makes no sense to me to think of God as some sort of discrete thing unto itself at all, for that would be to limit something which is by definition unlimited. So, we can’t say there’s "A God", as though he’s an item or a species. Such inadequate understandings of God, as just another thing in a universe of things, even the whole universe thing itself, reduces God inevitably to an idol—a fetishized image of ourselves, one that conforms to the limitations of our human thinking, and thus one that can give our likes and dislikes sacred sanction. That is of course where the danger in conventional religious thinking lies. (Funny how God likes the same things we do and hates what we hate. What a coincidence!) And, by the way, if it makes little sense to talk of God as an item or a being, it makes even less sense to ascribe gender to God. So what pronoun to use? Karen Armstrong prefers “It”, but again that supports the idea that God is some sort of object, and just seems to have the wrong feel for God somehow. (Like a 50's B-movie: "It", the non-thing from beyond!)

The idea of God as a gendered being or being unto itself or a thing is a fundamentally reductive, and literal way of thinking. The irony is that this reductive way of thinking about God has been constructed by scientific empiricism post-enlightenment, which encouraged people to regard statements about God as fact rather than symbol of a deeply felt human concern. This forced religion in general into an overly rational, dogmatic literalism, which actually gave rise to the sort of Christian fundamentalism we abhor today. This has indeed proven to be the worst form of spiritual tyranny, leading to Crusades old and new.

A scientific, literalist, materialist approach has so colonized our minds that we aren’t aware we’re seeing through it as a filter. But there are other ways of thinking about the world outside our heads. To describe what I mean, imagine this: If we could reanimate, say, Beethoven, and hook him up to a neurological measuring device while he composed a piano sonata, we could capture a precise reading of everything that was happening in his brain at the time. That read-out would tell us the whole story, EXCEPT the mystery of the music itself. This is what I mean about literal reductive ways of thinking: music is just frequencies of sound arranged in particular ways. But who experiences music like that? (If you do, you may be tone deaf. But  tone-deafness is not an impoverishment of reality, it’s an impoverishment of your senses.) This is the difference between brain and mind, the differences between two kinds of truth, the literal and the numinous. You don’t go looking for God in the former, literal realm. If you do, you won’t find him, you’ll find an idol that looks very much like you.

Another example: it would be possible to measure the exact number, size, weight, and colour intensity of every blade of grass on my lawn. The resulting calculation would be a kind of truth, but without a felt context for that information, what use is the information? Does it have anything to do with the quality of its shimmering on a summer’s day and what it does to my heart? Does that true information have anything to do with how it feels against my back when I lie on it while I look at the clouds passing? Anything we might mean by God, I submit, is far more to do with the latter experience than the former information. My subjective experience of my lawn or of music is a mystery and mystery is as real as the keyboard on which I'm now banging.

So if literal, reductive ways of thinking about God are off the table, what’s left? How can I speak if not correctly, at least not incorrectly, about God? Let us acknowledge then that nothing precise can be said about God, because God is that which is beyond the ability of human reasoning to define. As theologian Don Cupit says: “We say God is ineffable, but we keep on eff-ing him.” If the concept is too vast to be A being, many have suggested (like Rev Forrest church in opening) that it may only make sense to talk about God as being itself. That which is. Or the Hebrew idea of Yahweh who introduces himself “I am that am”. Or as Thomas Aquinas put it: “Ipsum esse subsistens”. God is Subsistent Being Itself. The Eastern orthodox church has generally been better at this way of thinking. In the 4th century the theologian and monk Evagrius Ponticus warned thus: “Do not try to frame any idea of the deity.”

Absence can be meaningful
But without the use of words, without a clearly framed idea, we court mystery and invite the mockery of the literalist paradigm of our age. Where do we turn for any understanding or experiencing of a God as being itself? Many of us I know turn to nature. I think nature, although it may inspire us, can’t actually help us in this regard. Unless God is indeed the architect of the universe, or the stuff itself. This is no longer as it easy to sustain as it was in the time of Isaac Newton. He claimed the intricacy of the cosmos required the existence of an intelligent creator. God was needed to start the whole show rolling. So this gave support for the existence of the God of the Bible. However, if we begin to ask, well what happened before the big bang—something Aquinas and Evagrius would be asking if they were alive today--all we can say is, we don’t know.
Silence can speak with wondrous eloquence
 Silence. Absence of data.
What is the sound of silence?
How can absence be a presence?
Where is outside space? When is outside time?
You see what I mean by the limits of language?

Is this a dead end? No: it is a threshold. A threshold through which we may pass if we are brave enough.

What I mean by God is precisely that dimension of being which is beyond precise language, beyond our limited human faculties to conceive of, the vast silence, what I think of as a ‘resonant absence’. An awareness of what is missing from, or outside of, or beyond, what we experience with our mind and senses. But if God is fundamentally beyond us, how can we experience, or even understand, God? The good news is that there are precedents for approaching such a conception of the deity. Such a God was once absorbed or experienced, pre-enlightenment, through music, poetry, art, architecture, ritual and liturgy, through non-literal means, our way of existentially pointing to what is beyond our fathoming. Liturgy especially, which would have included ALL of them centuries ago, having the purpose of putting you in a more receptive frame of mind, one which is non-literal, which approaches the teaching of all the great religions not as assertions of fact, but as allegory, as poetry rather than science, an acknowledgement of mystery AS mystery, something over which we arrogant humans may have NO mastery. But we keep on effing the ineffable. Or as Woody Allen said, “God is silent. Now if only humans would shut up about him.”
Not seeing something doesn't mean nothing's there.
 Which is a way of saying I’m nearly mercifully done and I hope this hasn't been too much to ask of you, but I think a church that doesn’t talk about god once in a while is simply afraid of the notion. And a minister that never mentions him can’t expect people to know what he means when he uses the word. Now you do, or maybe you’re more confused than ever. People will ask: so you’re an atheist? And agnostic? A closet theist? I’m not an ist or an ism or an ic; I think for myself, which is what, after, all, Unitarians are meant to be doing.

Because finally whatever we might mean by God is all about us and how we perceive God. And that’s why it’s important for any religious project to maintain a sense of the value of human beings’ experience. Our subjective experience of life is a spectacular argument for our singularity among all things that exist—this strange amphibious creature that swims in nature but is afflicted with a capacity for reflection that can transcend nature. It is through that capacity only that I think we can have an experience of God, a kind of un-knowing that prevents idolatry, of making God in our image and likeness. “Do not try to frame any idea of the deity” means ‘empty your mind’.

And this approach is not new or my invention, but the most ancient form of spiritual practice. 'Blessed is he who is without sensations in prayer', said Evagrius-- none of this seeking for some kind of insight, or even a warm glow. You can’t feel God any more than you can think God, says Karen Armstrong. The Greeks called the approach of un-knowing ‘kenosis’. It’s the great satisfaction that occurs whenever we go outside ourselves, as we do through art or through love or service. It is what Buddhists and Hindus do through meditation, what the Quakers claim to experience through silence. To achieve that state in which the emptiness resonates with being. That is where we find God.

Or rather where I do. You will have your own views, of course, and I’d love to hear about them. But the point is how to live with the God we find. To remind myself what that’s like, I particularly find useful the sound of resonant silence that occurs just after a final chord and music stops, that resonance where the rafters seem to still ring with sound waves. Or looking at the seemingly dark places between the stars. The poet Dennis O’Driscoll says God is like "being in a dovecot after the birds have all flown". Absence, silence like that.

Maybe this nothingness is nothing pure and simple, but this awareness of what is missing, or what forever must elude us,  reminds me that we are always and everywhere in the presence of the infinite, that there will always be much more beyond what we know or can know. It is an absence that seems to beckon, a silence that seems to call, me, us, toward it.
Do you hear that? Some call it desolation, emptiness, nothing.

Others call it God.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

After Life: A Unitarian View of Mortality

"Transformations" by Thomas Hardy
Portion of this yew
Is a man my grandsire knew.
Bosomed here at its foot,
This branch may be his wife:
A ruddy human life
Now turned to a green shoot.

These grasses must be made
Of her who often prayed,
Last century, for repose;
And the fair girl long ago,
Whom I often tried to know,
May be entering this rose.

So, they are not underground,
But as nerves and veins abound
In the growths of upper air.
And they feel the sun and rain,
And the energy again
That made them what they were!
Well: here’s a cheery topic for a sunny Sunday on the very cusp of a southern hemisphere spring. That poem is one I usually reserve for Easter, as it is really not about death, but re-birth. It also confirms something I’ve always known about the English: they are pagans at heart. Or perhaps more charitably,  “eco-spiritualists”. Though set in a country churchyard, Hardy’s poem offers an essentially materialist view of immortality: the stuff that was you becomes the raw material for new life. Matter doesn’t disappear, it merely transforms. Of course, you don’t experience this new life in any direct sense: you are gone. The trees and grass and flowers you become, while living, aren’t conscious, at least not in the way we are at this living moment. So this materialist re-birth both is and isn’t you, and when we think about it, such a transformation is probably rather cold comfort. Knowing our matter transforms does not really quiet what we really fear: the end of the ‘selves’ we are right now.

as nice a place as any to put your bits  
Hardy’s lovely materialist view is what we can know for sure will happen to us After Life. But beyond that…? Call it what you will, consciousness, soul, spirit, awareness, our essence, ‘who we are’—what happens to that after our lives are over? Answering this is arguably all religions’ raison d’etre.  Hobbes wrote that all religions derive from this fear, and the subsequent field of psychology tends to agree. The Abrahamic faiths offer the consolation that you never do lose the self--we never die in the sense of oblivion. Instead, we are assessed according to how we lived this life, and then spend all eternity enjoying the reward or paying the debt. Death as a cosmic settling of the bill is thought to be one of the reasons many people have turned from these traditions: the mythology of heaven and hell became literalized and rather than merely being figurative inducements to live a good life, they became a literal celestial architecture--that failed to be observable once we had telescopes. Like discovering the elaborate lie of Santa Claus, post-enlightenment western culture has never really forgiven these religions for ‘lying’ to us so elaborately about our mortality.

It’s not just western religions—death’s not actually fatal for Buddhists either. Likewise for the Buddhist, there is no death for the simple reason there is no ‘self’. All our memories, desire, anxieties, attachments, and such that make up our ‘self’ is but a persuasive illusion that distracts us from the reality of pure collective consciousness—our “Buddha nature”—which we share with all sentient beings. This true nature is unborn and therefore undying, and all Buddhist practice involves detachment from the illusion of ‘self’. Our egos don’t like this and fight hard against the practices, which is why Buddhist practices are hard. But the aim of all Buddhist practice is to annihilate that ego. Since there’s no self there,  no one perishes, and thus the enlightened can handle death with equanimity.

A Buddhist parable of how the practice prepares one for death involves a monk who kept a teacup by his bed. When he went to bed each night, he emptied it; when he woke each day, he righted it. When a puzzled novice asked him about it, the monk explained that emptying the cup represented his acquiescence to his own mortality—it reminded him that since he had done all the things he had to do that day, he was ready for death to come to him. Each morning when he righted the cup, it means he was ready to accept the gift of a new day. Taking it “one day at a time”, as they say.

The Buddhist approach accords with that of the Greek and Roman stoic philosophers who remind us that it is non-sensical to fear death. As it either a dreamless sleep or a new kind of life. Either way, nothing to dread.  Lucretius in his tract On The Nature of Things says that our self after life is in exactly the same state as it was BEFORE life. We have no anxiety, no fear about the time before we were born, so it makes no sense to have anxiety and fear about the time after our lives. Stoics overcome the fear by making death nothing.

And yet, excellent despite such excellent advice from east and west, we human quaking sacks of unenlightened meat do not tend to live with any equanimity about dying. We spend much of our lives in what Sartre called a counterfeit immortality—lying to ourselves in effect—believing that this state of being we’re in will go on forever, and so we spend our lives evading and escaping death by inventing fanciful beliefs in an afterlife, cryogenic freezing, or the idea that if we’re lucky we can be continually renewed physically through medicine, and other such science fictions. We get fooled by lasting a long time, mistaking that for permanence. We never think it will happen to us. Like a careful driver who’s never had an accident, you begin to think you’re invincible rather than simply fortunate. The death of others may cause us grief, we may fantasize about our work living after us, or our genes travelling through time in our children, but our own death for most of us remains a conceptual impossibility because the state of being dead cannot be imagined by a being who is not. 

Oblivion is more total than we can ever bring ourselves to even try to imagine. Certain. Indeterminate. Invincible. And entirely personal—the meaning of your death can’t be understood through the death of others. It’s yours alone.

A religion that can’t offer some way of coping with what happens after life isn’t going to be very popular. There’s more cash flow in peddling fantasy, and one of the functions of religion is the social utility of keeping everyone calm, and diverting them from the fact that they are all on a kind of slow fire. I’ve always found far more consolation for mortality in poetry than in religion; if the poet can face it and even make beauty of it, at least I know I’m not alone in my fears and longings. Take this poem by Philip Larkin. “Aubade”. (Literature geek alert: An aubade is a morning love song about lovers separating at dawn).

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
--The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused--
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

That is without question the bravest thing I’ve ever read on the subject. Not a shred of sentiment. Not a flicker of the man flinching. Larkin faces the horrible thing, and somehow his facing it, and his way of saying it, makes the thing less scary. He has to work that day and so gets up and does. As if to say—“Miles to go yet, before I sleep.”

We in the  21st century have created, or at least subscribed to, a materialist view of our life, and yet many persist in imagining their after life to be immaterial but continuing. We are very confused on the subject. Like Hardy in the poem, I too used imagine the bits that were me becoming trees and grass and flowers, and so into insects and birds, and mist. And rain. Comforted me to know I would still be at home in this lovely blue-green world and more intimately part of its workings, nourishing in my After Life more broadly and deeply than ever I would have been able to in my Before Life. I even planned to be buried in a simple biodegradable box with a Maryland white pine planted over it, the better to haste the material bits on their way into that service of unfolding life.

And the fantasy didn’t end there, for I also imagined my collected works—this address included—being passed down to my children and theirs and so on down the genealogical line, so the best of my spirit was preserved like essential oil. And that essence  would go on in all the people I had taught or touched in my life or who had loved me and I them, and so I would remain a part of them in some obscure, though lasting, way. And oh, the funeral I imagined! The serried ranks of mourners from near and far and past and present having the occasion to put into words what they thought was best in me, that best of me they would cherish and hold fast in their memory. And a broken voiced granddaughter reading by the upturned clods of soil, from a poet, again--

Do not stand at my grave and weep,

I am not there; I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,

I am the diamond glints on snow,

I am the sun on ripened grain,

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circling flight.

I am the soft star-shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there; I did not die.

Like Woody Allen I want to achieve immortality by not actually dying. And embarrassing as my fantasy is to relate, we all harbour similar thoughts. But none of that fantasy is actually about dying—it’s about living forever.

Material immortality related by that poet and by Hardy is perhaps life’s final and most enduring vanity. Because if you think about it, all the mourners will pass away too and everyone that’s ever even heard of me will too, until there will one day be no one left who knew or even heard of me. And the tree they plant above me will one day turn to dust and all the other trees it seeds likewise. The insects and microbes that fed on it and them and me will likewise pass away and their offspring, as well as the birds that fed on them and THEIR offspring and so on ad ridiculum. And before maybe three or four generations it will be as if I never existed, and people will think no more of me than they do of Johann Schmidt born 1662 died 1741 in Augsburg, Germany. And in the more distant future we even know that all this lovely blue-green world will be ripped to shreds when our sun expands as it must and fling all these bits back to the stars from whence they came. Oblivion so total mocks the vanity of the memoirist, our hopes that WE will go on forever. Which is why we do NOT think about it much. And maybe we SHOULD, because that material view is not the whole story…

Hard materialism is a just philosophical assumption like any other, an assumption that there is only matter, there is NOT more in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in any of our philosophies. To the hard materialist, the brain is just a 1.3 kg bag of water, carbohydrates and fat, subtly organized through evolution to provide us with the useful illusions of thought and freedom and will. And yet the depth and complexity of our subjective experience of our ‘selves’—our mind’s presence--feels very real, and not an illusion, despite what the Buddhists say.  And then there are the reported after-death experiences—you know, the light at the end of the tunnel, and the loved ones greeting you. Are these clearly perceived experiences a reality or just self-medicating symptoms of a dying brain? It very much depends on the view you choose to take. Neuroscientist David Eagleman puts this well when he says that in the 21st century “we know way too much to commit to a particular religious story…they’re too small-thinking to possibly be correct….but at the other end of the spectrum…we know too LITTLE about what’s going on in the cosmos to commit to strict [materialism]. Uncertainty may be an uncomfortable position, but certainty is an absurd position.” In an infinite universe, anything’s possible. Even angels and harps, I guess.

Which is to say that the man in the pulpit (me) who is expected to offer a religion’s consolation for our mortality has only this to offer: “Err…search me!” No, that’s not quite true. Though I do not believe in After Life, life after death, I do believe in Life Before death. And the first step in creating your own consoling attitude to your own death is to Appreciate your LIFE. Whatever that looks like to you---whatever gets you out of bed in the morning with a song in your heart. Do THAT and do it to death, just as long as it hurts no sentient being. You know what that is, too, and if you don’t, best you find it. Start today.

The awareness of our impermanence can easily encourage you to live more in each moment. Don’t waste the moment ruminating on the PAST—it’s gone and you can’t alter it. Don’t waste the moment fretting about the future—it’s uncertain and you can’t count on it. All you have is NOW. Learn to Love being alive right now, and you’ll minimize regret when your moments run out. And as its spring, you can take your cue from the Mayflies that are now emerging in the rising Australian spring. Proper Greek name “Ephemeroptera” meaning ‘winged things lasting only a day’. That’s us—winged things lasting only a day. One day—but how gaily the Mayflies live that day. And yes, here’s a snatch of poetry about them you may want to hang onto, from the poem “Mayfly” by Louis MacNeice.

Barometer of my moods today, mayfly,

Up and down one among a million,

One only day of May alive beneath the sun...

They never have the chance, but what of time they have
They stretch out taut and thin and ringing clear;
So we, whose strand of life is not much more,
Let us too make our time elastic and
Inconsequently dance above the dazzling wave.

Damn death. Long live life.