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Circling Enlightenment

One man’s story of the evolution of God

Grow
Wolf and mountains illustration on notepad

Pyrenean wolf (“Storm”) by Carol Wellart

There’s a Zen parable that goes something like this:

An unenlightened person stands
in front of a mountain and says,
“That’s a mountain.”

A semi-enlightened person stands
in front of a mountain and launches
into an agonizingly detailed description
of every rock, leaf, tree, animal, etc.—
and eventually concludes
that the mountain is a mountain
but not just a mountain.

An enlightened person stands
in front of a mountain and says,
“That’s a mountain.”

And that parable has some striking parallels to the evolution of my belief in god.

The Unenlightened Steve

When I was young I never gave God a thought. I simply assumed that there is God and I prayed as intently to escape death as I did to escape my father’s disapproval as I did for a Charleston Chew or a game-winning homer in my Little League. Later, I added on prayers for a passing grade in Chemistry, a ’57 Chevy, a hot date with Jane Salonen, peace on earth, good will toward men. It was all the same. God giveth. God taketh away. If He likes you, you get what you want. If not, tough noogies, you’ll be miserable. Or dead. In the meantime, pray like hell.

So… “God is.”

The Semi-enlightened Steve, Phase I

When the synapses in my brain and soul finally began to fire up, I started to recount to myself in excruciating, eye-opening detail the unfair and inexcusable, unavoidable, and inexplicable suffering and pain of life: war, genocide, earthquakes, slavery, cancer, starvation, addiction, birth defects, cerebral palsy, divorce, morbid obesity, psychosis, HIV/AIDS, ALS, progeria, ad nauseam. If WTF had been part of the cultural language at the time, I would have been muttering it all day, every day—a kind of Holden Caulfield Jesus Prayer. I quickly concluded that there simply could not be God—or god—who would be responsible for—or allow, or condone—all that abject misery. So I would be an atheist. I wrote poems about despair, loneliness, meaninglessness, futility. I read Sartre. I read Dostoevsky. I carried Camus’s Sisyphus around in my back pocket as a kind of talisman (and a paper pheromone to attract dark-haired and darkly dispositioned girls who like boys suffering existential angst).

The Semi-enlightened Steve, Phase II

A few years later, when a young marriage and the birth of our first child woke me nightly with the beautiful and awesome and awful and scary realities of life, I would sit by my son’s crib in the middle of the night wracked with love and fear, paralyzed with the knowledge of how fragile was life itself—and how there was nothing to do with that knowledge except tremble. In the darkness I saw how little I understood—or would ever understand—about how or why the sacred sits right next to the profane. How love mixes with hate. How evil feeds off good. Chaos unraveling the order of the cosmos. The utter goddamn mess of it all.

And when I admitted with trepidation that I could not be certain of anything, I saw how shallow and self-serving my atheistic declarations were. Humbled and scared, I slowly, stealthily (like Eliot’s crab) tiptoed out of the nursery and went to sleep an agnostic.

The Semi-enlightened Steve, Phase III

At first I was a wishy-washy agnostic—embarrassed by my inability to man up and hop down off the fence, to stand up tall and declare myself a believer or a nonbeliever. But as my life evolved and naturally became more complicated, I evolved into a proud agnostic, a righteous agnostic, one who sees the world for what it is—not what it should be. I saw how futile and self-serving and misguided was prayer. Me Me Me Me Me! And how arrogant were the ones who claimed to know God’s will.

The Semi-enlightened Steve, Phase IV

Then I got kicked in the teeth. Brought to my knees. Spent a hellacious month with my oldest son in Sloan-Kettering. Prayed to a God I did not believe in. Walked those quiet halls among hundreds of equally anguished souls, almost all of them desperately praying for miracles that would never come. Closed eyes in the elevators. Hands clasped in the cafeteria. Fingers fiddling with rosaries. Lips silently moving. All of us children, orphans, seeking mercy. I became a softer, perhaps less prideful agnostic, a “part of the human line” (Ellen Bass).

The Semi-enlightened Steve, Phase V

Phase IV was short lived. Walking out of that 16-story cancer ward each evening into the extraordinary melting pot of New York, I couldn’t help noticing that the world outside was not one community of lost and suffering souls, like the one I had left inside. The radio and newspapers were full of spiritually demoralizing stories of jihad, infidels beheaded, antisemitism, mean-spirited evangelicals damning to hell everyone outside of their narrow cults. One evening I saw a man holding up one of those endemic John 3:16 signs: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” No one else? I wanted to scream. What about my son?

The Semi-enlightened Steve, Phase VI

Over the next few months, months turning to years, I experienced a low-grade metaphysical malaise that eventually turned my feverish agnosticism into cold and clammy skepticism. The standard “It’s God’s will” revealed itself to be a cruel indifference, personal and institutional, to human suffering. A cosmic shrug. At this point, even if god was beyond my understanding, it was clear that the church, the temple, the mosque, any house of worship for that matter, was the wrong place to find God. Or god.

However, I did find moments of peace away from my son’s cancer—the deaths of several dear friends, the sobering truths of aging, the realities of an indifferent universe—through solitary walks in the deep woods around my home.

Wandering the mountain paths with no destination in mind, stumbling over roots and branches, I kept coming upon quiet and private sanctuaries, protected from the political and spiritual chaos all around. I’d sit on a log or a flat-topped rock, the sun on my skin, and just look around at the mess of the forest. Sitting all alone, I could not escape an insistent if voiceless feeling that nature actually makes sense—even if it is an awful sense in the way natural selection makes terrifying sense. Some overriding harmony that doesn’t explain or make amends for the senseless suffering of humanity, the unredeemable pain of all life on the planet. A sanctuary of faith for the faithless that there is order within the disorder.

The (Forever Edging Up On) Enlightened Steve

I don’t know how or why or what good it does anyone, but… “god is.”


This entry is tagged with:
Personal EssayBeliefsGodLife Changes

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