What I Really Believe, For Goodness' Sake
People sometimes ask what faith I am, or what kind of faith I have. I’ve often fallen back on the “I’m spiritual, but not religious” response that I’ve now heard so often it’s became all but useless for me as any sort of fair explanation. I especially regret not trying to find a better way to address this for my own children who have asked about it through the years. Unfortunately my capacity to talk, and talk some more, has exceeded their capacity to listen for such extended periods, and I can’t fault them. So I had always hoped a general silence after a sentence or two, followed by as many decent acts as possible, would help them understand.
Being a conscientious, though religiously unaffiliated member of a Reconstructionist Jewish temple has inspired me to think about how deeply one’s sense of identity may be engrained within a family. I wasn’t raised within a strong framework of ethnic/spiritual legacy, so to witness it so beautifully expressed as it is at temple has been a powerful experience. A sense of legacy is important, even in regards to a faith that is not well-defined, so I do want to attempt to explain some of my beliefs here, because…
Each of us is a curator of the culture in which we live, whether or not we believe it…and also a curator of family life, however outside the traditional ours might appear to others, or to ourselves. While we can hope whatever good works we have done will live after us, the basic tenets of our earnest beliefs should not be interred with our bones. We make the world, not the other way around. I guess I could call that the central tenet of my personal belief system.
I take a God or Ultimate reality consciousness seriously; I also agree with whoever said that we are spiritual beings having a human experience. That one’s hard to argue, because whether or not you believe in any kind of God/Atman/What have you, whatever animates us is clearly not of this body; because that’s eventually left behind as a useless lump of flesh, while whatever animates us disappears to the heavens or the ether. I find the “we are only a series of complex electrical impulses” argument somewhat plausible but incomplete because - not to muddy the waters too much - a series of impulses to me doesn’t account for the beauty of the capacity of consciousness. Anyway, believing that we are spirits having a human experience has the side benefit of making us accountable in a deep sense for the well being of one another, which resonates for me as a living belief system.
Am I clear yet? Uh, onto a few details.
Raised Christian, or rather, having raised myself that way, I am either still one or not one, depending on which Christian, from what tradition, is judging a) the motive behind, and nature of, my questions, 2) the depth of my assertions, and 3) the sincerity of my desire to live in truth as Jesus would as the very embodiment of a truth operative. In the latter I’d fail as often as do even those Christians who wholly approve of their own ideas for unassailable reasons like claims of infallibility of written Biblical languages. I just don’t get the infallibility argument, because I understand how hard it is to translate a few lines of a poem, much less epic writings. You absolutely must have a sense of culture, time, and what it was to be flesh way back when. You have to know what the buzz was! Compounded by the reality that what we call the Bible was written in different languages and affected by countless translators, how can we say our understanding of truth, based on continuously recycled words, is the only way to anywhere?
Put another way, the same map you may use successfully to get where you are going might get me lost.
Ah, I hear Rabbi Jesus saying, “Transcend the meaning of any word that’s not alive and remember I wasn’t Christian either,” but from where the voice really comes I can only speculate. I like the way it sounds though.
Once I heard this claim from a fundamentalist pastor: “If Jesus were so mortal that he was not conceived of a virgin, nor bodily taken to heaven, still I would believe in Him as my example, my savior.”
Regardless of how one views his position, that man had courage. For me he represented a love most vulnerable, because of course he was attacked by the brethren. Defenseless, he held firm without anger. A world of condemnation would not shake his conviction. I like to think Rabbi Jesus would have approved.
Words are Tools that only Represent a Person, Idea, or Thing Somewhat
I told another instructor at CSU-Chico that I believe that all knowledge is transmitted from person to person, and any key texts are vital but secondary. I believe the same about matters of faith.
So, first I’ll say something about a representative sample of:
People who distinguished themselves by doing decent things or being there for me, aka Good Folks I Have Known:
- Two grandparents who loved me from the day I was born and made me feel I was almost perfect when I was so extremely far from it
- A particular child chosen because he needed me -before I realized how much I needed him
- A South-side Chicago pastor working a few jobs to keep his family fed who lovingly responded to an emotional need he saw in me, a young stranger to him. He reached through a great deal of anguish that overcast day; I felt perfectly understood and listened to in the space of moments. The experience felt miraculous. I metaphorically picked up my cot and walked away, having arisen from my private lifeless state.
- A well-known Chicago philanthropist who, for many years prior to his death, took me under a fatherly wing to offer guidance that I might build a future as a person able to contribute what I could to a world in need.
In terms of matters of faith, for me, the beginning was the people, whose yes, miraculous presence reinforced words that have long mattered to me, but which could never have stood alone and apart from these people as articles of faith:
- “Make straight in the desert a highway for God.” Isa. 40-3
- “It’s easy to be curious; it is difficult to love. But if we want a knowledge that will rebind this broken world, we must reach for the deeper passion.” Quaker writer Parker Palmer, writing in To Know as We are Known. I read this in my twenties.
- “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I will give men for you, and people for your life.” Very loose translation of Isa. 43-4. These are the words that hung on my kitchen wall when I was a young mother.
- From a Buddhist friend: “Relax your grip on what you think is true,” and “if you think the truth hurts, try living without it.” Around 15 years ago if not more…how time flies. Thank you, Daniel Drum.
- “How’d you dare to tell me / that I’m my father’s son, when that was just an accident of birth?/ I’d rather look around me / compose a better song/ ‘cause that’s the honest measure of my worth.” Jethro Tull, Aqualung side two, “My God.” 1972! My God that was a LONG time ago.
- Most of the biblical book of Wisdom - The oldest headings ascribe the book to Solomon, the famed representative of Hebrew wisdom. I first read it in a Roman Catholic Bible that was given to me at baptism and found its way to my hands when I turned nine years old. I turned to the book of Wisdom because as a kid I thought it would be a great opportunity get the scoop on life (heh heh heh) in a world I just didn’t understand. Though it fell short at the time, I have always enjoyed that Wisdom is referred to as a “she” in this book. Though much is slanted toward those of a different place and time, here is a sample of its, well, wisdom:
Wisdom is glorious, and never fadeth away, and is easily seen by them that love her, and is found by them that seek her…He that awaketh early to seek her, shall not labour: for he shall find her sitting at his door.To think therefore upon her, is perfect understanding: and he that watcheth for her, shall quickly be secure. For she goeth about seeking such as are worthy of her, and she sheweth herself to them cheerfully in the ways, and meeteth them with all providence. For the beginning of her is the most true desire of discipline. And the care of discipline is love: and love is the keeping of her laws: and the keeping of her laws is the firm foundation of incorruption: And incorruption bringeth near to God.
I so believe that. Wisdom above me, below me, behind me, in front of me. (Which is a very First Nations / American Indian way to express myself). Not always fun, and Ms. Wisdom sometimes picks a fight with me, but she keeps herself fairly near nonetheless with her endless teaching opportunities. As Pema Chodron says, “With unfailing kindness, life teaches you what you need to learn.” That’s wisdom for you. Unfailing to them that seek.
Switching literary gears, the following is pure Taoism, not religion, from the Tao Te Ching, as translated by Steven Mitchell. I found this work in the early 1990’s. Like the monk Thomas Merton and many others representing traditional faiths, I find a good deal in it – literally.
Approach it and there is no beginning;
follow it and there is no end.
You can't know it, but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.
Just realize where you come from:
this is the essence of wisdom.
Seems to fit well with the following from author Annie Dillard, writing as a regular person on the dark nights of the soul in Teaching a Stone to Talk:
In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has
warned us. But if you ride these monsters down, if you drop with
them farther over the world's rim, you find what our sciences can-
not locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether
which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and
evil its power for evil, the unified field: Our complex and inex-
plicable caring for each other and for our life together here. This
is given. It is not learned.
The Word is alive, and tag, we’re it, for better or worse. This is the spiritual truth I found God by whatever name in, and anyone reading this can probably see why it took so long to explain to the kids.
May our lives all be as singular as a fine artist’s creation; hard to explain, but eminently relatable.