Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Random Page from the Novel
Bartholomew (not Bart, not Barty—he really does prefer to be called by his full name) was once deeply religious, but split with any sort of God during graduate school. In fact, he was president of the Atheist Society, surely not an easy position to occupy at his Midwestern university. His argument is the same argument all atheists and agnostics put forth—that there is no objective proof of God’s existence. I have to say, I agree—but that’s precisely what distinguishes knowledge from belief, and that even within the realm of knowledge there are different kinds of knowing. A Kierkegaardian approach, you could call it—if you’re the kind of person who feels the need to name-drop nineteenth century philosophers in your everyday life (chagrined as I am by my own intellectual elitism—I do). There is also, for me, a need: for something bigger and more perfect than I, for some overarching something to give life meaning, to rescue the human condition from utter tragedy and absurdity. Yet as Anne Sexton, one of my favorite poets, wrote, “need is not quite belief.”
In moments of pragmatism (perhaps even cynicism) I tell myself that I believe because it works—just like millions of other people believe things not because they are demonstrably true, but because they function. In truth, even scientific theories and models are sometimes known to be untrue, or at least not the whole truth: still they persist. The orbital theory of electron shells, for example, is not the whole truth; it’s given way over decades to quantum theory, string theory, grand ideas that seem to require multiple degrees (if not Stephen Hawking’s glimmering brilliance) to fully understand. Yet because Niels Bohr’s original ideas allow us—the men and women on the street, the college sophomores in chemistry class-- to feel our fingers tightening around the otherwise unknowable and ungraspable, we propagate them. I’m not saying God is like orbital theory, but I’m also not saying She isn’t.
An interlude into the past: I wasn’t raised to believe these things. It’s become popular lately for people to say, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” In Ithaca, the hippie-occupied town where I was an undergrad, this more often than not translated into “I’ve participated in lots of women-only drum circles and sweat lodges, and I believe in the healing powers of crystals.” I’m not knocking hippies. Had I been born a few decades earlier, I might well have been one, and in some people’s estimation (Bartholomew’s) I still am, and I’ve taken part in a ladies-only drum circle or two, complete with bonfire and sage smudge sticks. I have a cramp-bark and cohosh herbal tea blend (called ‘MoonTime,’ I shit you not) which I drink when I’m on the rag. I draw the line, however, at the healing powers of crystals. Rocks, even pretty ones with complicated crystal lattice structures, are ultimately just rocks. Don’t get me started on people who pay to have their chakras aligned, or the upper regions of their colons cleansed.
Anyway. The best description of my upbringing would be “religious, not spiritual.” Think Old Testament rather than New, if that works for you, or imagine God not as Light and Love but rather as a temperamental despot, a celestial police officer with Bipolar Disorder.
‘Come, my children,’ He says, ‘and I will lead you out of slavery into a land of milk and honey.’ Not bad.
‘I’ll protect you, and be with you as a pillar of cloud by day, and pillar of fire by night, so you never feel abandoned.’ Sounds good, especially to someone like me with heavy abandonment issues.
And then Moses goes up a mountain, and the people have been wandering in the desert for what feels like forever, and Moses is taking his sweet time coming back to them (or so it seems). Fear gets the better of them, and so they build a golden calf, and have a little bit of a party—because, hey, you can only wander around in the wastes of the Middle East for so long before you have to blow off some steam. Finally Moses comes back, and rather than finding his people waiting prayerfully, he sees them dancing and singing to the golden calf—the ancient equivalent of having a house party while your parents are away for the weekend. And lo, Moses and God were both severely pissed. Not go-to-your-room-and-think-about-what-you’ve-done pissed. Not you’re-grounded-until-your-grades-improve pissed. This was slaughter-three-thousand-people pissed. The point being, I guess, that if you get sent to your room (or your tent), the punishment may help prevent you from committing the same sin again, but if you get your head lopped off, you’re damn sure not going to repeat your transgression. Well, not everyone died, right? Well…Exodus 32:35—“And the Lord struck the people with a plague for what they did with the calf Aaron made.”
So. There's that.