existentialist cafe

life is sacred

Month: May, 2013

in the year that king uzziah died…

When I was a senior in college and things had begun to weigh heavily on me I got in my car and drove north through Mercy County to the Polk water preserve with my binoculars. I left behind uncertain futures and strained friendships, and came for woods and water, and to look for birds. Houses, trees, and streams were painted with bright jewel tones, and the country roads wound through places I had not seen before. With the fresh new air in my face and the sweet scent of the countryside, the world seemed to conspire with me in my plan for rejuvenation.

I found the preserve without much trouble and parked my car in a small gravel lot on the edge of a green field. The old scarred signboard told me with faded paper that this place was open to hunting at other times of the year, and that there were pair of ponds not far, hidden now by the tall mid-spring grass. The place was overwhelmed by red-winged blackbirds and their distinctive, brilliant kreonkaleeee. I watched them for a while flitting back and forth from telephone wire to tree to tall grass, then took my binoculars and set out to find these ponds. I was attracted by some strange-looking birds, ones that I had never seen before and followed them to a large rectangular body of water, obviously man-made. I realized soon enough that these were juvenile blackbirds, not yet with their glossy black coat, but the wing bars were already distinctive. Flashes of iridescent blue caught my eye, and I spent some time watching field swallows wheeling about over the water.

These darting bolts of blue held my attention so that I was startled out of myself by a great commotion of water, wing, and air somewhere behind me. It sounded like a great tumult, coming from the other pond still obscured by the grass; but what could make such noise? I scrambled hastily through the grass in time to see rising into the air a pair of bald eagles and a great blue heron. There was almost no time to register the sight – what luck! here to stumble upon them, and the hefty majesty of the eagles strange against the elegance of the heron – and they were nearly out of sight, the eagles gaining altitude quickly on the warm air, the heron speeding toward other water and other fish. Silence then. Even the locusts had stopped. I thought that they were, like me, in awe. Then I realized that they were waiting for me to explain the authority upon which I had stumbled into this holy conference. Had I traveled to a different world? Is that why holiness seemed to hang heavy as altar smoke? I was suddenly aware of the clumsiness of my clothes and my upright gangling gait. Sobered, I walked down to the creek, took of my shoes and washed my feet and my face in the water.

I stayed for some time longer, then got in my car and returned. When I arrived back at the school it was an unfamiliar world, like one seen in the wrong end of the binoculars. I saw some of my friends in the parking lot, and we went out to get some pizza. It took a while for the haze to shake from my mind, the pond and the sun and the black spots disappearing into the sky.

I think perhaps the thing that frustrates me most about evangelical atheists is that they are quite willing to buy in into two-bit, popularized notions of the divine rather than taking the concept seriously and examining it rigorously. They seem to keep watch on a peculiar style of reactionary, unreflective Protestant Christianity and that apply that style wholesale to all religious people. It is straw-manning at its best.

But to be fair, evangelical Christians are quite willing to buy into two-bit, popularized notions of psychology. Perhaps it is the nature of those who are interested primarily in convincing you that they are right, that they do not stop to think about what they do not yet understand.

“The world is charged,” says Gerard Manley Hopkins, “with the grandeur of god. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”

And we are charged to be witnesses. We are the organ upon which the music of the spheres is played. We must only admit the breath that every day is being emitted from the world, and it will sound through us in delicate and glorious music. High and piercing, low and tremorous. Electrified, the body sings. Some call it destiny, others inspiration, to be compelled by a force that does not seem to originate from within us. It is simply what happens when we tune our antennae. We are a speaker which resonates with the frequencies that whirl around us, a multitude of trees falling in a multitude of forests.

quick guide to pluralism

People believe different things. What do we do about it?

  1. Seclusionists – people don’t need to believe our thing.
  2. Inclusionists – people need to believe our thing
  3. Universalists – everyone needs to believe our thing.
  4. Universal seclusionists – our thing is the thing among all things, but we’re not going to invite you to the party.
  5. Particular seclusionists – our thing is a thing among all things, and we’re still not inviting you to the party.
  6. Passive seclusionists – we believe our thing, and if you want to join us then that’s cool.
  7. Active seclusionists – we believe our thing, and we will try to stop you from joining us.
  8. Specific inclusionists – we only want the backsliders to believe our thing.
  9. Universal inclusionists – we will try to get other people to believe our thing.
  10. Verbal universal inclusionists – we will try to convince other people to believe our thing.
  11. Violent universal inclusionists – we will try to force other people to believe our thing.
  12. Positivists – The thing is rational, so if we all think rationally we can agree on what the thing is.
  13. Post-positivists – Nothing is rational. Everyone gets their own thing, which might also be the same thing but I don’t know. Or maybe everyone’s got a piece of the thing?
  14. Relativists – tomato, tomahto, let’s call the whole thing off.

There are things that I would like to write. I would like to write about the way the hawk wheels on his wings, and his shadow scatters the birds. I would like to write about the way the evening settles in, with its blanket of lilac and makes the beer sweat. I would like to write about the desert. Most of all, I would like to write about religion, but this is the thing that I know the least about. To be clear: I know all about religions. Not as much as some, but enough. I know about the ascendancy of myth, about the liturgical dramas of word and ritual that arose to tell those myths. I know about the crosses that people bow down to. I know about the gods and goddesses and about God and Godde.

But I do not know about religion, which is what the hymn-writer wants who wrote “give me that old time religion.” I know about having a faith, but not about having faith. Someone once said, “God, I do not love thee. I do not want to love thee. But I want to want to love thee.” Thrice-removed faith.

Does this seem somewhat bloated? Perhaps it is a little, or more than a little. What does faith matter? Faith may not be something which can be seized or held on to. I have always thought that faith is like the docking station between the human and the divine. “Faith is being certain of what is unseen,” which is taken to mean, “Believe in this thing which you do not have evidence to believe in,” or “Have a feeling when you whisper to yourself the name ‘God,’ and then call that feeling God.”

Did Jesus always have constant consciousness of the presence of God? It says that he was “like us in every way, tho was without sin.” If there is no experience of doubt, how could he be like us? But it also says that “we shall be like him,” and that he is the “first fruit.” Perhaps then it is not that Jesus did not doubt, but that he did not despair in doubt; though he slogged through this human swamp he was not mired in non-being as we are. He suffered the same confusions that we all experience as we move through the phases of childhood, adolescence and adulthood, but unlike us he was not confused about his confusion. He bore it honestly and authentically, without apology and without pretension. I think that I let my doubt sit in my stomach like a stone, it distracts my attention, I stumble over it. There may be a time when faith is like a pen writing words across the page of our mind – we look, and there it is. There may be times when faith is like a fire, far away, which we can see but there is no warmth.

We’ll see how long this lasts.

I added a new page with a list of books I am currently reading, books I recently completed, and what is on the horizon.

In the woods

i spent some time in the woods today in silence and was rewarded by a hummingbird far from feeder or flower darting to and fro among the pines

the lilac bush in my path held my feet fast no matter how hard i struggled to escape like a bug enraptured by the light and it lingers still

patient old oak tree
little squirrel makes more noise
than you thought he could

the river in the tree

“The lawn is full of south and the odors tangle, and I hear today for the first the river in the tree.” ~emily dickinson

What a delight, to have one’s eyes opened, to see the pure form within ever-constant change. William Styron, reflecting on his mental illness, writes of a contralto passage from a Brahm’s rhapsody:

“This sound, which like all music – indeed, like all pleasure – I had been numbly unresponsive to for months, pierced my heart like a dagger, and in a flood of swift recollection I thought of all the joys the house had known.”

The fog thick as a blanket, one note like a shaft of sun, a comrade in white sent from heaven to minister to the sick, dying man, stranded on the battlefield of depression. There are weights that press against our chest for so long that we no longer notice they are there until they are suddenly lifted. When the ball and chain fall away, we may feel like dancing, but afraid that we do not know how. No wonder that for some time our shoulders may still droop, and our feet may still drag.

There are these things that call us back to life, and in so doing bequeath in us a new awareness of deep, abiding beauty. There is nothing like being grateful for the one bird singing outside our window, for the one child laughing, for the one note played piercingly high. There are these things that come uninvited to our darkened hearth, and bring their light and charm with them.

I could cry salty tears
Where have I been all these years
Little wow, tell me now-
How long has this been going on?

There were chills up my spine
And some thrills I can’t define
Listen sweet, I repeat-
How long has this been going on?

Oh, I feel that I could melt
Into heaven I’m hurled
I know how Colombus felt
finding another world.

Kiss me once, then once more
What a dunce I was before
What a break, for heaven’s sake!
How long has this been going on?

Canoe to nowhere

Coreander: Have you ever been Captain Nemo, trapped inside your submarine while the giant squid was attacking you?

Bastien: Yes.

Coreander: Weren’t you afraid you couldn’t escape?

Bastien: But it’s only a story.

Coreander: That’s what I’m talking about. The ones you read are safe.

Bastien: And that one isn’t?

It was Descartes, I believe, who said “As much as you are able, once in your life, you should doubt everything.” He’s right. Faith worth having can survive any assail of doubt, if the doubt is honest (insincere doubt has got to be the worst thing in the world; it turns people into sickly, self-admiring, cynical creatures).

I would add to Descartes’ advice: as much as you are able, once in your life, you should risk everything. Again, if the risk is sincere–if it has in mind a pearl which is worth the price being paid. Doubt is risky, if we have put all our money on the belief that is being doubted. It is a cognitive type of risk  It is different from the risk of, say, moving to Philadelphia to pursue an art career, a move that carries more uncertainty than certainty, and may not come to pass. Whatever dream is worthy of investing everything to attain.

Certainty of death… small chance of success… what are we waiting for?

Risk is, well, risky. There are 90 feet of space between first and second base, 90 feet of liminal space where we aren’t here and we aren’t there, and we have a good chance of being caught in a run-down. Our arrival is not guaranteed. It’s no wonder that most of us prefer to stay put on first base. If someone is able to coax us to second with a slap single than that is fine, but to take it upon our own shoulders to get there (because they may very well not hit the ball) is something else altogether. But we’ll get back to the dugout somehow. Either we stand on first until our chances are all gone, we go for it and get caught, or by the grace of God we go for it and we make it home.

Risk makes us vulnerable. We are exposed. Our safety net is pulled away. We are in danger of physical or psychological harm, maybe even annihilation. Our evolutionary heritage has left us both cautious of danger and quick to face it. We have a sense that good things, like elephant meat, require risk. And those that survived those risks left us with a penchant for leaps of faith and lucky strikes.

And what about the lonesome hominid staring out in the vast expanse of an ocean who in a fit of holy insanity outfitted a canoe for a long voyage to nowhere and ended up hands and knees on a Polynesian shore? Now we are talking about a real leap of faith. Now we are talking about the treasure hidden in the field for which the man sells all that he has to buy; now we are talking about the one lost sheep, for which the man will leave his 99 and go to look for it; now we are talking about the kernel of wheat which, to bear fruit, must first fall to the ground and die. And now we are talking also about the rich young ruler who went away sad, because the price of the kingdom of God was too steep. Count the cost.

The liminal space, the passage way, the wilderness. Certainty and understanding are stripped away. Here is a place of thieves and snakes. Here you meet God, but not the God that you knew; here God appears as a monstrosity, unfamiliar, unknown, and disturbing. If you return, you will be changed. The end can not be seen from the beginning; this is why it is risk. And who you are in the end will not be who you are in the beginning. But when the shaking ceases, that which is unessential falls away; that which is permanent remains.

The Peace of Wild Things

This poem was very dear to me while I was in seminary.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

— Wendell Berry