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Even as I was completing the final part of my “Am I a nontheist…?” series, I knew that the editorial constraints I had imposed to keep those posts focused might create a false impression.
They could be read as describing a hermit, or at least someone who relies solely upon what Liz Opp has called “spiritual individualism” (“The slippery nature of corporate faith“), rather than someone for whom worship and daily life with others are essential.
Granted, I am a very private person, and what I describe in those three essays are my private faith struggles and affirmations. The crux of my assertion in Part III is this:
[O]n the level of my private shuddering,…[w]hether I am in the midst of turmoil and despair or settled into the stillness and poise of the moment, I am not alone.
That certainty gets me through innumerable moments of pain and joy.
The composition of that passage was held up for several weeks, until a dear Friend gave vocal ministry in meeting for worship. I don’t even remember what she said, yet the words which responded clearly within me were: “I am not alone.”
Everything I had written up to that point was an apologist’s attempt to “explicate reasonably” how he comes up to the moment of leaping off the cliff of reason. I had been struggling for a way to explicate the next moment for my readers—even though I do not need an explanation myself.
Then, in that quiet circle, one Friend who does not hesitate to expose her tenderness said…something. All my trial sentences fell away, to leave four words.
What a delight!
I’ve not been listening very well to the silence recently, in solitude or in Meeting. My awareness fills, either with anxieties about family and work or with cleverly composed sentences for potential blog entries or “vocal ministry.” I tend to distract myself with “trying to meditate.”
As Liz wrote in the post cited earlier:
Sometimes among Friends, we fall unawares into a shared spiritual individualism: We each practice our own spiritual discipline on First Day during worship and appreciate how we can come to meeting and worship together, despite our differences of belief and even practice….
I acknowledge this about myself.
Yet when a Friend speaks, or when the silence gets deep enough, I am called to attention. The questions with which I had thought I was wrestling fall away.
Not into answers, but into a poised moment of simply being with these other people, being with everything. Being with the nurturing Heart of everything.
There are similar moments of transcendence as I struggle in pre-dawn solitude with anxiety about the “horizon of equally urgent, insurmountable obligations.” I wrestle with panic, I rehearse future actions and conversations, make fruitless attempts to prioritize.
Then something shifts. I remind myself by a prayer or a devotional reading that simply being with Mother-Father God is enough for the moment…and silence settles in.
Or I return to the bedroom. My spouse Jim—blessing that he is—can bring me back into being with simply by saying “I love you” and cuddling.
Or I walk from my parking lot to work, begin to say “good morning” to strangers, engage in a morning chat with my work partner Christa or other colleagues.
Being with other people changes the dynamic. It centers me down into the moment. Just do this now. Now this. Now this.
The empty path is not about “right belief” or “right action.” It’s not about “getting right with God.” These are all propositional things. They pretend to be measurable against some observable standard.
The empty path is simply about being with God. Noticing, allowing, living into the relationship itself.
That is why Jesus told his followers to call God “Papa” (Abba), and why he called his followers friends.
It’s just about being with each other in each moment.
And so it is.
“Someone should start laughing”
I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:
How are you?
I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:
What is God?
If you think that Truth can be known
If you think that the Sun and the Ocean
Can pass through that tiny opening
Called the mouth,
O someone should start laughing!
Someone should start wildly
Whenever anyone asks my spouse Jim if he believes in reincarnation, his droll response is: “Not in this lifetime.”
It is tempting to use that response as my answer to the title question of this three-part series. Tempting, first of all, because it approaches the question with laughter. Second, because it is confessional: it says merely that nontheism is not the language of my heart, not the language with which I presently describe to myself what sustains me in my interaction with Life. Third, because it is not prescriptive: it leaves the door open for other options.
Nontheist options: One of those options is the nontheism of empirical science and, more specifically, that of the research into the neurobiology of consciousness about which I have written in other posts (here and here, for example).
It doesn’t confound me to be told that what I experience as the “self” is what Antonio Damasio calls “a perpetually re-created neurobiological state,” a higher order construct maintained by the brain as a framework upon which to organize its neural representations of what the senses perceive (Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, pp. 99-100). Knowing how complex and powerful the workings of human consciousness are, I don’t feel that this empirical description diminishes me.
Another option is the curiously analogous nontheism of Buddhism. Here, too, though couched in a very different language than that of Western science, is that core recognition that the “self” is a transient, ever-changing construct. That what is Real is not so much the perceiver as the flow of things perceived.
Both of these models of consciousness have helped me in recent years, as I settle into a more mature way of walking through mortal existence. It is useful to be able to stop, take a breath, and say to myself, “Ah, this is simply the present moment, and all of these insistent thoughts and feelings are simply this organism’s efforts to interpret and respond to the moment.” Such poise is helpful, whenever I can relax into it.
Private shuddering: Yet there is something else of conscious experience which I miss in these models.
In his richly insightful Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Winter 2007) article, “The Democratic Dilemma,” Todd Shy contrasts the approach to liberal morality of Walter Lippmann, writing in the 1920s, with the current approaches of Jim Wallis and Michael Lerner. The passage which resonates most strongly for me is this one:
Wallis’s God is the champion of justice and the defender of the poor, but there is nothing about him as compelling as the elusiveness, say, of Luther’s God, or the inscrutability of Job’s. His God is not a God who hides; his Jesus is never bewildering.
Wallis offers us the clarion morality of the prophets, but not the shifting range of Old Testament experience. The bound child is pulled away from harm, but no knife has been raised by the godly over the ropes. Biblical writers grope to understand a difficult Creator; Wallis seems content with what he knows.
In the end, religion, like our other deep experiences, is disturbing, unsettling, even as it irresistibly holds our devotion. Liberals like Wallis need to engage us on the level of our private shuddering in order to energize our public commitments. After all, the success of religious conservatives is not the raw manipulation of an issue like abortion, but rather the education of congregations to see God as a being who would revolt at the abortion of a fetus.
The portrait of God is all. The rest is just elaboration, which is why Augustine’s famous quip, love God and do whatever you want, makes utter sense to the religious conservative, who wouldn’t dream of intentionally abusing it, precisely as Augustine knew. (p.70)
“On the level of our private shuddering.” That phrase pierces to the heart of our collective dilemma over the marriage of belief and action.
Wherever we are on the spectrum of belief, what we tell ourselves we believe—or disbelieve—can both drive and constrain our actions. Yet on the level of our private shuddering, a level at once more visceral and more spiritual than belief, something else drives and constrains us.
At its best, we do not know rationally yet are still convinced—on the level of our private shuddering—that whatever drives and constrains us is Something Else which is larger than any one or several of us.
Or at least we hope for that.
Belief versus faith: I know I confess to both shuddering and hope in the tales on Walhydra’s Porch. Though emotionally challenging, it is ultimately easier for me to give voice to both on that blog, simply because the intent there is storytelling.
Here on The Empty Path, where the intent is rational discussion, such topics are much more difficult to address. Reason insists upon the sort of precise correspondence between words and their denotations which is impossible in the realm of the Spirit. That realm demands poetry.
Part of what helps me is the distinction I make between belief and faith. Belief focuses on statements; faith, on actions. These are not mutually exclusive categories, yet I don’t need to have worked out a definitive statement of belief in order to live moment by moment on faith.
But what in the world am I talking about?
Survival faith and practice: In Part II, I wrote that “the challenges of the past decade have increasingly imposed upon me a different sort of spiritual economy,” what I call “survival faith and practice.”
I coined that phrase last October, well into the clinical depression which had been sneaking up on me since at least a year earlier.
As the Walhydra stories linked here relate, September of 2006 was when I first admitted to myself that my brilliant, compassionate mother was probably slipping into Alzheimer’s dementia (“In which Walhydra reconsiders“).
By March of last year, my sister and brother and I knew it was no longer safe for Mom to live alone, and we moved her to my sister’s home in Pensacola (“Which next thing?“). By June, Mom’s obvious decline was confounding me with grief, even while I struggled with anxiety over handling her legal matters and finances and the need to sell her home from 300 miles away (“Walhydra’s sadness“).
Shortly after I published Part II, I began the strange adventure—doubly strange for a former clinical counselor—of using anti-depressants and short-term therapy to climb back out of the depths (“Walhydra’s year of becoming mortal” and “Is it Spring yet?“).
Sharing this personal context is essential to demonstrating what I mean about faith.
Spiritual discipline: As my depression deepened over the past year, both practical and emotional necessity drove me to seek a more intense focus for my spiritual discipline. As I tell it in “Walhydra’s year of becoming mortal,”
[Walhydra] finally recognized just how much of her energy and concentration it was taking each day to tightrope walk with equanimity between anxiety and despair.
“Hell!” Walhydra says. “It’s taking concentration just to make myself get out of bed in the morning…let alone do tai chi foundations, sitting meditation, bike riding, prayer, breakfast, or any of those other things which might nudge me toward wanting to do another day.”
Eventually, I saw the depression for what it was. Describing the deaths of father-in-law and friends and the decline of my elderly parents, I wrote:
This is not just temperament, or circumstance. This is Walhydra’s own personal version of what every human being faces: death and the certainty of death.
It’s enough to make one want to be beyond feeling.
And that, Walhydra now realizes, is what she has actually been working on in her haphazard morning rituals over the past year: trying to be “beyond feeling.”
She hasn’t been denying causes of grief or fear, yet she’s been trying to avoid the slippery slope of melancholia. In the process, her brain has done what that organ knows how to do: suppress its own chemistry until Walhydra was deep in depression.
Applied nontheism: In my desperate efforts to regain stability (at least momentary) before I began taking anti-depressants, and in my much more successful efforts since, I can observe the combined application of those two nontheisms I described earlier.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (aka SSRI anti-depressants) help the brain to reestablish neurochemical homeostasis, so that disturbances from the environment or from imagination do not disable thinking and choice with emotional reactions which are way out of scale. There (grossly oversimplified) is the nontheism of neurobiology.
Taoist tai chi practice, zazen meditation and the disciplines of prayer I’ve learned from Quaker silent worship help consciousness to observe and let go of the flow of thoughts and feelings, without needing to react to or act upon any of them. There (grossly oversimplified) is the nontheism of Buddhism.
I can and do rely upon a discipline of mindfulness informed by both neurobiology and Buddhist psychology, whenever I remember to calm consciousness and recenter it in the moment. This is a discipline of maturity for which I am very grateful.
Something Else: However, on the level of my private shuddering, I am far more grateful for Something Else. Whether I am in the midst of turmoil and despair or settled into the stillness and poise of the moment, I am not alone.
Here is where reason falters, where I have to shift to mythopoetic language in order to suggest what I cannot define.
In Part I, I described becoming “a refugee from the ‘christian’ world” after I came out as a gay man and left Lutheran seminary in 1973.
On one level, the search I began then is for a living, breathing coherence in personal belief. What is the true character of God and our relationship with God, when orthodoxy condemns the homosexual love I have come to understand as a God-given blessing rather than a curse in my life? What is the true nature of salvation, when orthodoxy denies it to non-believers?
On a deeper level, as I acknowledged at the end of Part II, my coming out of Christian orthodoxy is a somewhat uncomfortable search for a way around the notion of “obeying God’s will”—or, better, a search for a living, breathing version of obedience which I can affirm and practice. What if those who reject homosexuals and non-believers are right? Or, if they are not, how do I perceive and follow that real “God’s will” which is beyond orthodoxies?
On the deepest level, the level of my private shuddering, my search is for what Thomas Merton calls “the possibility of an uninterrupted dialogue with God…a dialogue of love and of choice. A dialogue of deep wills” (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 16-17).
In other words, a search for relationship, not with “God” as learned from and defined by others, but with Divine Presence as experienced in consciousness, unmediated by words and concepts.
Recall Todd Shy’s words quoted earlier: “The portrait of God is all.”
In the depth of depression, as I was finishing Part II, I reached the following passage in my reading of Merton’s New Seeds:
In all the situations of life the “will of God” comes to us not merely as an external dictate of impersonal law but above all as an interior invitation of personal love.
Too often the conventional conception of “God’s will” as a sphinx-like and arbitrary force bearing down upon us with implacable hostility, leads men to lose faith in a God they cannot find it possible to love. Such a view of the divine will drives human weakness to despair and one wonders if it is not, itself, often the expression of a despair too intolerable to be admitted to conscious consideration.
These arbitrary “dictates” of a domineering and insensible Father are more often seeds of hatred than of love. If that is our concept of the will of God, we cannot possibly seek the obscure and intimate mystery of the encounter that takes place in contemplation. We will desire only to fly as far as possible from Him and hide from His face forever.
So much depends on our idea of God! Yet no idea of Him, however pure and perfect, is adequate to express Him as He really is. Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than about Him” (p. 17).
Yes, yes, and yes.
In future posts I will tell more about myself by writing more about the idea of God. For now, in saying that I am not a nontheist, what I am acknowledging is that I have made peace with and understood the value of my “native religious language.”
It is the mythopoetic language in which I first learned to conceptualize and describe the experience of “the Divine.” It is not a language for definition—certainly not for doctrinal formulation. It is, rather, a language for evoking spiritual shuddering.
As I wrote in “Is it Spring yet?“:
In the past few years, though, Walhydra has been looking for the pre-theological core of her faith, her spiritual enthusiasm [from Greek enthous, entheos, possessed, inspired : en-, in + theos, god].
Guess what? She found its roots in the positive visceral childhood experiences of Lutheran Sunday School, her father’s sermons, her mother’s organ-playing, and the hymn-singing of the congregation’s old ladies.
What an interesting surprise!
This actually makes sense, though. Ever since childhood, the real Jesus—who is far more real than any of the “Christianities” seem able to express—has been Walhydra’s hero.
Walhydra imbibed all of those Sunday School stories and sermons and hymns, to the point that Jesus became a real presence for her, a divine human of fierce integrity and fierce compassion. Whenever anyone makes false claims in his name, he lets her know. More to the point, whenever Walhydra causes harm or tries to hide, he lets her know.
Another way to say this is that my faith is not about what I believe but about what I trust.
When I am in turmoil or despair, my child’s heart turns to a personified Divine Presence, to a “God” who, as Frederick Buechner writes, is “a God like Jesus, which is to say a God of love” (“The Clown in the Belfrey,” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, p. 125).
When I am poised in sacred stillness, I feel the joy of “being right with God, trusting the deep-down rightness of the life God has created for us and in us, and riding that trust the way a red-tailed hawk rides the currents of the air” (Ibid., p. 127).
In between these times, I experience the constant shifting of my trust, my faith. As Buechner writes:
Some days it’s easier to say Yes than other days. And even when we say Yes, there’s always a no lurking somewhere in the shadows, just as when we say no there’s always a Yes. That’s the way faith breathes in and breathes out, I think, the way it stays alive and grows. (Ibid., p. 129)
And so it is.
In my previous post, I mentioned my wariness of both orthodoxies and gnosticisms, and I affirmed the primacy of an individual’s immediate experience of Divine Presence in daily faith and practice. A number of challenges complicate the effort to live by such an affirmation.
Over the past three decades, I have taken refuge in the paradoxical religious life of a solitaire.
My faith and practice are rooted in the Christ-centeredness of my Lutheran upbringing and Quaker convincement, yet they are also profoundly influenced by Paganism and Buddhism. The paradox rests in this: I have a faith-led life for which belonging in community is essential, yet I cannot participate in community confessions or rituals which fail to resonate with my inner sense of what is true.
How does one sustain and advance such a life? How does one maintain both personal authenticity and authentically committed involvement in community?
I came to Quakerism because I recognized that such paradoxes are explicitly acknowledged and embraced in the Quaker tradition. Now I see these questions being visited anew in Quaker and allied non-Quaker dialogs online, in print and within and across religious communities.
In future posts, I want to go deeper into these paradoxes. For the remainder of this post, though, I want to describe three needs of human consciousness which remind even solitaires like myself that we cannot be human without other people.
Discerning what is real: The first challenge is that the human brain, as part of its normal functioning, creates, stores, retrieves and intermingles representations [see note] of both material world experiences and imagined experiences. The latter are representations which the brain pieces together from its inner repertoire of sensations, symbols and significances, and which it presents to consciousness as if they might actually have happened or could happen.
Without ongoing communication with other people, I cannot learn how to distinguish adequately between material and imagined experiences.
Granted, as I mature in attentiveness, I may become more disciplined in making such distinctions. However, no child can come to have such full and effective use of human consciousness without interaction with others, without receiving experience-based guidance and feedback from successful peers and elders.
As an important aside, I should note that both material and imagined experiences are real. That is, both have real effect on the brain’s perception and interpretation of its life. Both have real influence on how I understand myself and how I interact with my environment and with other people.
The all-important process of reality-checking, which for sanity’s sake I must learn from others, is not about saying that the material is real and the imagined, unreal. It is about discerning from which sort of reality a given experience arises.
Learning language: The second challenge arises because the faculty of imagination is, in fact, essential if the brain is to reach its full human potential for dealing with both outer and inner reality. The brain must accomplish increasing levels of abstraction: from neurological representations of sensory experience, to representations of categories of experience, to representations of possible changes and interactions among categories, and so on.
In other words, it must be able to name and conceptualize. It must learn language. And it is other human beings who introduce the infant primate to the experience of language.
I will return in future posts to how language both aids and confounds faith and practice and the sharing of faith and practice. The key point here is that the native language I share with those who first taught me becomes increasingly less exact and effective, the less material and more abstract the experience about which we strive to communicate.
Sharing companionship: The third challenge is even more basic and visceral than the human need for imagination or language.
We need company. We need nurture and affection and companionship. It is undeniable that we primates are hard-wired as social animals. At our healthiest and sanest, we live by sharing and cooperation, not by solitary foraging or predation.
Acknowledging this third challenge leads me full circle back to the paradox with which I began this post. I cannot be a solitaire alone. I must have deep, caring interaction with other people in order to sustain myself as a sane and healthy animal, in order to continue to discern what is real, and in order to be able to give expression, either inwardly or outwardly, to what I discern.
And that last points up another paradox. If I experience something and cannot express it, my ability to integrate it into my faith and practice is stymied. However, if I focus my attention on trying to express inexpressible experience, I lose the flow with which Spirit waters my life.
I come back, then, to the divine invitation to be in the present moment—but with an added dimension: the invitation is to be in the present moment with other people, as well as alone.
Even when we cannot agree about how to express what we experience. Even when we cannot trust for certain that we share the same experience or, worse, fear that our experiences contradict each other.
Again I come back to the divine affirmation: when you and I are together in faithful attentiveness, what saves and restores us is not attention to”you” or to “me” but attention to the Divine Presence.
And so it is.
Note: I am borrowing—and grossly oversimplifying— Antonio Damasio’s usage of the term “representations” in Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Viking Penguin, 1994, reprinted 2005) and later works.
Damasio’s research and writing are pivotal in explicating our growing understanding of the neurobiological basis and functioning of human consciousness.
On Easter of 2006, I began making my way, chapter by chapter, through The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version, that 1994 publication of the Jesus Seminar which gathers together new translations of the canonical gospels, the reconstructed Signs Gospel and Sayings Gospel Q, the Gospel of Thomas, and fourteen others from the first three centuries of the Common Era.
It was as I began reading the second century gnostic Christian Secret Book of James, just this past week, that I reached clearness on why I have always been wary of either the “right doctrine” of religious orthodoxies or the “secret knowledge” of ancient or modern gnosticisms.
My bone-deep conviction, arising from my childhood apprehension of the witness of Jesus, is that every human being has an intimate, unmediated and salutary relationship with what many of us call God.
That relationship cannot be one which depends upon living by right doctrine or secret knowledge. It is implicitly familial, a birthright which no human agency can grant or deny. Wherever there seem to be rifts or torments in the relationship, those arise from the misperceptions of human beings, not from the reality of God’s interrelationship with us.
This conviction seems to me also to be at the very heart of Quaker faith and practice. When those seekers in seventeenth century England lay aside scripture, liturgy and sacrament to “wait upon the Lord,” it was because they had come to recognize how finite and fallible any forms of human concept and language are when it comes to representing the living Truth of that divine interrelationship.
In effect they were saying: “If God is real, then only God’s own direct mediation with us is real. Anything else is transient, mortal.”
Christ was very much engaged in teaching his disciples to see a new face of God, one they’d never dared let themselves see before, and to enter a new relationship with God, in which fear is no longer even conceivable. The face of God that Christ pointed to was characterized by the fact that this God could be addressed as “Abba,” “Dad.”
(To be fair, there was precedent for this in the ministry of the Old Testament prophet Hosea, who predicted that when the faithful were finally reconciled to God, they would cease addressing him as “Boss” and begin addressing him as “Husband.”)
This speaks to the heart of what I have learned in the thirty-some years since I “dropped out” of Lutheran seminary, the heart of what I have returned to in returning to that childhood apprehension of Jesus.
The day-to-day reality of faith and practice, what sustains me in every private grief or joy, in every public conflict or celebration, is not grounded in belief or knowledge. It is grounded in the immediate experience of relationship with the Divine Presence,
Nearer than breath,
Closer than hands or feet.
And so it is.