Sunday, September 13, 2009

Kimmel Harding Nelson Residency: Day 7

The Ten Commandments on the front lawn of Otoe County Courthouse; Nebraska City

Attunement on a Sunday Morning

I'm a generalist. As such, I'm inclined to connect the dots between purportedly distinct realms of inquiry. It's impossible, of course, to conduct a truly holistic survey, but my crude efforts have led me to conceive of life - what we know of it, at least - as a component part of a vast, even infinite superorganism. I freely admit to finding value in mysticism, and this superorganism notion is readily dismissed by some scientists and scholars as mystical metaphysics, but science itself speaks to an integrity beyond human comprehension.

As Loren Eiseley describes it,
"[This is] one of life's strangest qualities - it's eternal dissatisfaction with what is, its persistent habit of reaching out into new environments and, by degrees, adapting itself to the most fantastic circumstances."
Eiseley was an anthropologist, and he claimed to be a man of "no religion." That may be so, but Eiseley's writing offers humility, wonder, gratitude, and communion in abundance. As I see it, those are the four pillars of religious practice. The fourth of these vital practices, communion, is alluded to by the very word "religion," from the Latin religare, meaning "to bind" or "to tie." Religious action aims to bind the individual to society and, in turn, to the greater whole.

For a decade, I proudly identified as an atheist and, by the measure of most religious people, my cosmology and metaphysics still qualify me as such. It occurs to me, on this Sunday morning, with Nebraska City's church parking lots at capacity, that many of this town's good Christians would reject my claim of religiosity, and not only because my practice rests on a Jewish foundation. My doctrine-less faith appreciates the stories of the Hebrew Tanakh, the Christian New Testament, and the Muslim Koran as parables, poetry, and anthropological artifacts. I read these books in the same way that I do the Tao Te Ching or Herakleitos; they are annotated, analyzed, interpreted, digested, then, in the fullness of time, returned to for a new understanding. But these collections are not my sacred texts. In the eyes of most religious believers, that disqualifies me from tribal membership. Thank G-d.

First Baptist Church; Nebraska City; September 2009
Sign reads, "Faith Removes Mountains Or Tunnels Through"

Still, I am a religious believer, in my way. My holy books are written by biologists and physicists, naturalist poets and essayists, as well as rabbis, ministers, and theologians. None of them is the word of an interventionist, judging god, even though all of them are necessarily part of a greater, unknowable whole, the aforementioned superorganism.

It doesn't matter what you call this organism. As essayist and literature professor Doug Thorpe writes in Rapture of the Deep, "Call it the sublime, call it the Tao, Om, or I AM; still the names don't hold." I most often call it The All, The No-thing, or Hashem, literally "The Name." In the Tanakh, when Moses asks the name of the Presence he has discovered in the burning bush, It replies, "Ehyeh asher ehyeh." "I will be who I will be," or "I will be that I will be." You can call It whatever you will, for It is you. It is also me. It is the sidewalk; It is the grass of the Otoe County courthouse lawn, on which Nebraska City authorities have installed a carved monument to the Ten Commandments, an act that approaches violation of Thomas Jefferson's shrewd "separation of Church and State"; and It is the ether connecting all of these.

Lutheran Church facade; Nebraska City; September2009

If the faith that has grown in me is dogmatic in some way, it is in its insistence on universalism. Literally translated, "universe" means "one turning." Our universe is just that, one breath, one round, one cycle. All that we know and all that we don't know, everything that we can imagine, is but an infinitesimal sliver of The All, one note of an eternal symphony. Even Herakleitos, ancient proponent of reason and science, turned to poetics when he contemplated ultimate meaning; "Nature loves to hide," he wrote. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for universe is olam, a derivative of alam, meaning "to conceal." Jewish mystics, like many of their Hindu, Sufi, and Christian counterparts, believe that God is hidden in the universe, an ineffable force that pervades every dimension, known and unknown.

Theoretical astrophysicists
now suggest that our universe is but one component part of a multiverse, requiring of us another Copernican shift; yet again, the superorganism is re-conceived. In that stretch of the mind are humility, wonder, gratitude, and communion. Science and philosophy, it seems, can also be religious.

Water tower; Nebraska City

So, yes, I'm a religious believer. Paintings, sculptures, and other hand-crafted objects are among my adored icons, but I find occasion for worship in every place, in every form, in every moment. The Monarch butterfly that flapped yoyo-like this morning in front of the KHN Center's kitchen window is worthy of exaltation. I recognize that, for some other viewer, the insect may be ignorable or irrelevant. For others, it is an idol. So, too, might the weathered brick of a downtown Nebraska City building be deemed a clay calf by unimaginative or close-minded "believers." Placing my palm on this brick today, though, my thoughts range through eons of geologic time to consider the primeval mud from which, eventually, we emerged as a gasping fish thing.

Doubtless some of the folks singing inside the walls of the Lutheran, Episcopalian, Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches this morning don't share my enthusiasm for our scaley ancestors. But I'm not concerned with their narrow definition of religion or their selfish understanding of "truth." Although I no longer consider myself a materialist, I'm an unremitting idolater. To those that would condemn that impulse as sacrilegious, I offer Eiseley's reaction.
"People have occasionally written me harsh letters and castigated me for a lack of faith in man when I have ventured to speak of [..] some greater unity that lay incalculably beyond us. [...] They distrust, it would seem, all shapes and thoughts but their own. They would bring God into the compass of a shopkeeper's understanding and confine Him to those limits, lest He proceed to some unimaginable and shocking act - create perhaps as a casual afterthought, a being more beautiful than man. As for me, I believe nature capable of this, and having been part of the flow of the river, I feel no envy."
And I feel no envy, either. There is only dumbfounding, smiling celebration.

Love is, I think, a bit like religion. Humility, wonder, gratitude, and communion are requisite in both, and, as Thorpe puts it, love "demands of us a new way of being in our old world." Religion might be construed as a love affair with The All. It's not always easy, but religious attunement can turn each day, each hour, or each instant, into "a new way of being." Every step is a psalm, every directed gaze is a prayer. Truly, on the streets of Nebraska City this morning, I am an exuberant, enthusiastic mystic.

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2009

1 comment:

Donald Frazell said...

You are missing a word. Sacrifice. One must pursue truth no matter the consequences, no matter how hard the work, or the possibility of death.

Man is the one creature who will not only fight to the death for their famly, but die to save a complete stranger. This is as profound a demonstration of god as any I can think of.

Of course, another human "quality" is self delusion. We can be easily caught up in a lie, and die, or more likely kill for it.
balance is key, not the moderation of the ancient Hellenes who wre far from moderate themselves. But always understand supposed opposites are part of the whole, and must resolve them in ways that temper our decisions, yet also envigorate them. Opposites always go hand in hand, for it is our limited comprhension that makes them appear as such.

To sacrifice ourselves is love, to sacrifice others is evil. Those who will not, or cannot will never understand this. And so to understand life, one must live it. It cannot be taught.

art collegia delenda est