The Greatest of These

August 30, 2009 § 2 Comments


Aldous Huxley

Teddy Kennedy’s funeral was very moving. It reminded me of the Catholic funerals I went to in my teens—my uncle and my cousin? I can’t remember. So many people died in those years—my cousin in a car crash on the night of his high school graduation, others by illness and suicide—but I do remember that two of the funerals were Catholic, long, beautiful, with music and incense.

None of us had fathers we could talk about as Teddy’s sons did about him. We all wanted to. We remembered the good things and tried to make them be more than they were, as well as sometimes exaggerating the bad. Then I grew up, sort of, and watched my husband be a less good father than he should have been, and felt complicit because I was.  I was distracting him with youth and sex and freedom, and felt like I deserved his attention because his kids at least had a father, and I didn’t. If I were Catholic I would have gone to confession over that.

I try to respect faith; it awes me sometimes. But listening to the priest talk about Teddy being in Heaven with Jesus, and being with his dead siblings, I think: how is that not more delusional than my beliefs about romance that make me feel so stupid and sad?

The obvious answer is that if Teddy’s wrong he’ll never know it and while he was alive he had the comfort of it. After all, if there is no God and we die into darkness, how does believing this help us bear it? All I have is my cat, jumping up here now to present me with his amber and white furriness, glistening and clean, not quite angelic but pleasingly tangible. His small head and swanlike neck. His stupid, beautiful, tawny eyes.

I suppose the purpose of God is to be pure. Nobody we love here is. God can betray only us by not existing, and then it’s not anyone betraying us. But I can only say so because I don’t believe. If I did—if I were absolutely certain there was a God who saw and spoke and could change things, if I were like my Aunt Vera or Teddy, thinking all the doctrine was absolutely true—I’d want to kill the crazy bastard in a nanosecond.

My friend Philip thinks I don’t understand religion. He thinks I’m a Godless Unitarian hippie nonbeliever. But I savored faith early on, studying Aldous Huxley’s collection of sacred writings The Perennial Philosophy, which remains the best of its kind. He made me understand the sweet potency of a belief no human power could shake. I remember especially (from another book of Huxley’s) a description of a martyr holding fast under torture. Huxley made me see that once you’re in the place of torture, faith is all that will keep your mind in one piece. To renounce it in order to stop the physical pain is a false bargain. Your soul splinters.

This doesn’t apply if your faith is slim and you’re not being tortured. Huxley’s words didn’t make me believe—not on that level—but they made me understand the mechanism.

Still, I had radiant months and days of a faith that didn’t know quite where to land, that was looking at the worlds’ doctrines like a girl looking to marry. Trying to choose wisely. I had love and devotion to spare.  But I was like Eve. I wanted to know what I wasn’t being told. I got kicked out.


But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

But I still like Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt

April 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

David Foster Wallace’s suicide has excited a lot of comment, and one thing he wrote—a commencement address delivered at Kenyon College in 2005—has been widely disseminated. I came across it for the third time while reading blog posts about atheism. He says:

 “…in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”

This is heartfelt writing, and at one time it would have spoken to me loudly, but now I think it falls short. Pretty much any idea or passion can eat people alive, and religion has done so repeatedly, spectacularly, and horribly in the span of recorded history. I don’t think I have to remind anyone of the many instances. Nor do I think worshipping God inoculates you against a parallel or underground worship of material things.

The kernel of truth here is that it’s possible to worship God and stay centered and sane, while worshipping money or youth will never end well. Yet most people don’t worship these things. They’re seduced by them early or late, waste time in their pursuit, make decisions they come to regret, but this is merely human. This is how we learn. I doubt that the number of those who truly worship money, youth or sex—the people we all recognize as obsessive—is greater than those who worship God to a fault.

Wallace’s remarks express the soft liberalism, the ‘being spiritual is good for you,’ assumption that sets my teeth on edge. I know what it is to feel the inrush of joy, of gratitude for the beauty of the world and the love of other people, the astonishing surprise of life. I don’t refuse these feelings. I talk to the moon and the trees, and imagine they hear me. I take solace wherever I can.

But I don’t think it detracts from this to say that our brains—which are patched-together organs, add-ons and upgrades often colliding with older systems, causing mysterious glitches—are structured so that feeling gratitude prompts us to assume the existence of one to whom that gratitude should be offered. This awareness of a self-conscious other, of debt and reciprocity, is what has made human society so successful. That it overflows into the belief that there are more others than are visible is what happens when a new mental capacity is thrown into the mix of stay-alert-to-danger, use-all-your-senses-because-one-might-be-fooled animal armor.

I’m not arguing with David Foster Wallace anymore. That’s one passage of his writing; he had many other things to say. It’s the culture of faith without rigor, belief without thought, that bothers me. It’s sanctimony and religion used to oppress that rouses ire. When my grandmother, a staunch Catholic, visited us during my childhood, my father would drive her to church in his underwear so she wouldn’t try to talk him into going inside. He did that because the Church had wounded him. I don’t know exactly how–he died when I was very young–but his anger and fear left a vivid impression.

I know Catholicism is more than what happened to my father. I’ve read Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine, Francois Fenelon, and John Donne. I’ve even met a few wise Christians, and could have met a lot more if I wasn’t such a recluse. Yet it rankles when people think religion is safe. It’s not intended to be safe; it’s not safe when it’s done right; it’s certainly not safe when it’s done wrong. 

It’s taken me some time, since I moved into the agnostic-atheist camp, to regain the pleasure of transcendent moments. I shied away at first like a hurt child, not wanting to be fooled. But that passed and I became able to value them, to make use of them to love other people more actively, to remember what I have rather than what I don’t have, to listen to the accumulated wisdom of the race. (Not that I always pay attention. Sometimes I’m too busy obsessing over money and sex.)

Those moments don’t oppose my stepping back to say: I can’t explain the world or the source of mystical feelings, but the idea of God as a sentient being that cares for me and everyone in particular doesn’t accord with my experience.

And to worship Spirit or Energy not otherwise defined (in my circles, a popular choice) seems like an oxymoron to me. One can imagine such a vague Power, but worship requires a sharper focus. Worship is love, which is why it attracted me so strongly in my youth. But now I prefer loving my cat and my favorite humans. I’m happy to ascribe whatever virtues I possess to the success of my simian ancestors in learning how to get along, and the tonic effect of reading great books.

I had a theological argument tonight with a close friend. Maybe someday he’ll convince me. That can happen. But for the present I feel strongly about the need to stand up for those without faith, those who don’t worship, those who don’t know how the world was created or what death means, and live with it.

(If I’m mistaken about God or the Gods, I hope I end up in the silvery court of the Moon Goddess or the Kingdom of Immortal Trees. I’d hate to wake up in a Hieronymous Bosch painting.)


“God is Love,” My Mama Said

April 27, 2009 § 2 Comments

The New York Times has an article* about how atheists are now organizing, coming out of the closet as they put it, asserting discrimination akin to, if not as severe as, that suffered by gays. The gay analogy is particularly apt, since the first task for gays was to win credence for the idea that discrimination based on sexual orientation is not okay, not simply to be expected. Atheists will also have an uphill battle to get people to understand that their complaints have merit. It’s apt but also depressing, since gay rights is a new chapter of Western Civ, but this country was settled by those fleeing religious persecution. Atheism doesn’t have to be a religion for the equivalence to hold; all that matters is that the persecution is because of religion. It’s not really a subtle point.

I live in New York, so I’ve never faced anything like the problems of the South Carolina couple mentioned in the article: the husband fears that if his wife makes her atheism public, it might imperil his job. But to read about it makes me angry in that particular way one gets angry about an injustice visited on one’s own kind.

When it’s a great coup for the President of the United States to grant respect in his inaugural address to those who don’t have faith along with those who do, it’s past time for atheists and agnostics to assert themselves intellectually and politically. And although I can generally do without Christopher Hitchens, and don’t agree with everything in Richard Dawkins’ book, it did astonish me when those books were reviewed by the usual East Coast critics, and they seemed more worried about giving offense to the  religious intelligensia than anything else. They reminded me of shopkeepers in border towns afraid that raids and skirmishes will hurt trade—an entirely reasonable concern for shopkeepers in border towns, but critics are supposed to be in a different business.

I don’t consider myself an atheist, exactly. My position on any of the ‘great’ questions—the meaning of life, does God exist, what is truth, what is evil—is militantly agnostic, which is to say that I find it preposterous that humans should believe it possible to ever understand the real nature of the universe, our place in it, how much we know and how much we don’t, or even whether these questions have any meaning at all.

Consider a dog, a crab, a mosquito. Can any of these creatures see the limits of their experience? Human self-consciousness, culture and our rapidly growing body of scientific knowledge don’t suggest to me infinite capability. I remember as a child asking someone (my mother, my math teacher?) what the biggest number in the world was and having it explained to me that there never could be a biggest number because whatever number you come up with, all you have to do is add 1 to get a bigger number. That was the sort of thing that used to give me shivers.

Believing in God is one way of acknowledging human fallibility and encouraging wonder and awe at the mystery of existence, and I was attracted to it. I spent my 20’s reading about religion, mysticism and other esoteric traditions, and concluded that all we know is that people are full of desire, fear and hope; have vivid and similar imaginations; and that certain disciplines and activities affect mental states, sometimes remarkably.

I was gravely disappointed. I wanted to find the meaning of life. I wanted to contact greater-than-human intelligences. I wanted my spirit to go on after death. I still do.  I just don’t think any of it is likely, anymore than it’s likely I’m going to wake up able to fly.

But I wonder where it will lead, atheists demanding respect. The ideas of evolutionary biologists about why human societies have been almost uniformly religious are often interesting, but the most important part is that human societies have been almost uniformly religious. Is it possible for people to hold on to the faith that so many crave without believing they must shout down those who don’t believe?

For some, of course, it is. But I’ve come across a number of (intelligent) people’s musings about faith lately. None of them seem to understand that faith is deepened by doubt, just as love is deepened by trial. God can’t be disproven. Nobody should worry about that. We’re nowhere near smart enough.

One of my less pleasant chores when I was young was to read the Bible from one end to the other. Reading the Bible straight through is at least 70 percent discipline, like learning Latin. But the good parts are, of course, simply amazing. God is an extremely uneven writer, but when He’s good, nobody can touch Him.

~John Gardner

Did St. Francis really preach to the birds? Whatever for? If he really liked birds he would have done better to preach to the cats.

~Rebecca West





Terror the Human Form Divine

April 3, 2009 § 1 Comment


Rape of The Sabine Women, Jacques-Louis David, 1799

Rape of The Sabine Women, Jacques-Louis David, 1799

Writing yesterday’s post, in which I strayed onto the subject of the tortures women were subjected to for religious beliefs—and for practicing adultery, witchcraft and other female perversions—left me a little shaken. Looking at pictures of medieval torture devices, so varied and ingenious, not to mention fiendish, made me grateful we had model airplanes, Lego and build-your-own-fallout-shelters when I was a kid; that now we have Apple Store Genius Bars.

People are nasty. This is not news. But the extent and pervasiveness of human depravity is either something you keep being surprised by or can’t for a moment forget. I know that under the right circumstances I could kill and be proud of it. I’m not sure what it would take to provoke me to torture. After reading one of my recent entries, Philip has taken to calling me Demon, a name we can both joke about since neither of us has ever had dealings with real wickedness.

Although he’s had more contact than I have. Besides working for a Republican city councilman, he used to chat with mafia killers during breaks in trials when he was a reporter. One of the Gambino underbosses, Tommy Biloti, approached him once with a vague threat—which I imagine delivered in that indirect sinister style they all learned from the movies—and Philip deflected it with a joke about the guy’s hairpiece. Somehow that sort of thing works with men, don’t ask me why.

He was threatened another time in a Staten Island restaurant by a wannabe Mafioso. The poor sap had to call to apologize, implying that one of the ‘made’ guys ordered him to because wasn’t cool to mess with a reporter. Remember that the next time you realize that in our lifetime, reporters may go extinct.

Journalism will be like fiction again, like memoir, epic poetry.The monsters and craziness won’t go away, only their painstaking documentation. The irrational is our default mode, where we go when we’re let off the leash. But there will always be the device-makers and the warriors, who won’t forget the important relation between cause and effect, or the necessity of measure, right materials, and accurate record keeping.

A certain Swedish chimp gathers rocks to get ready for opening time at the zoo.* Scientists make a big deal of this: an animal planning ahead.

How else can you hurt people properly?




Any mental activity is easy if it need not take reality into account.



It always strikes me, and it is very peculiar, that, whenever we see the image of indescribable and unutterable desolation—of loneliness, poverty, and misery, the end and extreme of things—the thought of God comes into one’s mind.

~Van Gogh


Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And secrecy the Human Dress.

~William Blake



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