God is a Loaded Term

I’m a regular reader of CNN’s Belief Blog. More often than not, the blog’s contributors have refreshing takes on the role of faith in American life. They also don’t shy away from addressing the subject from the point of view of non-theists. (CNN in general has become a magnet for theist/atheist arguments; they seem to crop up in the comments section of many of their articles, even when the article isn’t about religion.)

This past week, the blog highlighted the response to an iReport by Deborah Mitchell, a Texas mother of two teenagers. (iReports are stories sent to CNN’s website by users — an exercise in citizen journalism). Mitchell’s report has garnered the second highest number of page views of any iReport, and the most comments of any submission.

The title? “Why I Raise My Children Without God.”

Predictably, there was considerable backlash in the comments section. Some tried to have the report flagged as inappropriate in an effort to have it removed. But many others — including more Bible-belt moms hiding in the atheist/agnostic closet — applauded her bravery. Yes, bravery — because non-believers may well be the most hated minority in the country.

I have quite a bit of sympathy for freethinkers (the term I use for atheists, agnostics and all manner of religious skeptics). This was the road I took to Zen Buddhism. It was Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian that helped me shake off the last vestiges of my Catholic guilt. Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll are two of my heroes, freethinkers unjustly ignored by American history. I am truly saddened that Christopher Hitchens is no longer among the living.

Like Deborah Mitchell, my wife and I also decided not to raise our children with organized religion, and to be free and open with them concerning questions about God and spirituality.

When our daughter was born, we did not have her baptized. Much to my relief, this did not cause any problems with the more devoutly religious among our friends and family (perhaps one of the perks of living in New Jersey). In fact, my wife’s grandfather, who had been an officer in the Knights of Columbus, never once questioned us about it, never tried to sway us, and never changed the way he treated us. I found this so incredibly decent that I decided we could meet him half way. We had our daughter baptized when she was eighteen months old (which I know pleased my mother-in-law as well as her father) and also our son shortly after he was born. But that was the extent of our involvement with any formal church.

As our children grew, questions about religion would come up. I would always try to answer them by starting with “In the Christian tradition” or “In the Jewish tradition.” When they would ask what religion we were, I would tell them we were all baptized Roman Catholics but we don’t go to church, and that I was now a Buddhist. I told them they could claim to be either. As near as I can tell, they usually told their friends they didn’t have a religion. And again, this doesn’t seem to have caused any problems.

Questions about God were trickier, because “God” is such a loaded term. When I was younger, my stock response to the question “Do you believe in God?” was “Define your terms.” Of course it was always God as they imagined him in the Bible. I say imagined because I’ve found that a good many people who profess to believe in the God of the Bible have actually read very little of the book. And then my answer is “no.” I’ve felt for a long time that whatever God may be, he or she is in desperate need of better PR.

I have told our children what others believe God to be while admitting that I just don’t know (and that no one else does, either). I’ve always found agnosticism to be the only intellectually honest position, since theism and atheism both seem to require a degree of certainty that I feel is unwarranted.

My children are acquainted with the basics of the Tao and of Buddha-nature. This is how I’ve approached the idea of God, and this seems to make sense to them. One day I’ll also tell them about Emerson’s Over-soul. I know our children don’t believe in a God that sits in judgement up in the sky, dishing out rewards and punishments. They understand that doing good, that acting from a kind heart, doesn’t require these.

I’ve also tried to teach them to appreciate the value others find in religion, and the difference between private faith and religion-based social policy. There is a time and a place for understanding personal needs of the spirit, and a time and place to defend freedom of the mind and heart.

I really do miss Hitchens.

[2013]

A Good Day in “Church”

My father considered a walk among the mountains as the equivalent of church-going. ~ Aldous Huxley

This morning I left the house with my rakusu, but also with my backpack, my iPad, hiking boots and socks, a copy of Emerson’s Nature and a volume of Whitman’s poems. Which was silly, because when I awoke this morning, I knew I was going out to the woods instead of the zendo.

I’m not sure why a walk in the woods was preferable to going to the zendo. I know I’ve always been rather solitary (even my kids have now picked up on this and will chastise me about needing to be more social). So I don’t know if it’s that or my growing sense that the Japanese cultural aspects of Zen — meaning the rituals, chanting and sutras — do not resonate with me as much as the ideas of Buddhism. I absolutely find value in zazen, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the precepts, but everything beyond that seems to me to be beyond the point. And then I will check myself with “Well, are you just being lazy? Or being a fair-weather Buddhist?”

Now I see that it’s not laziness. I have plunged headlong into my studies of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, precisely because their lives and work resonate with me. I danced around with them (superficially) for years, and now I feel like I’m finally “getting it,” finally feeling immersed in it. And I think it’s because it’s American.

This isn’t racist or jingoistic: Buddhism as flourished precisely because it has always adapted itself to the culture of its new hosts. I’ve felt for sometime that there were common themes in Zen and New England Transcendentalism. Now I find that, while Emerson and Thoreau were, to varying degrees, influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, a lot of what I took to be their Zen-like thought was actually rooted in Greek and Roman stoicism. So now I’m getting acquainted with the Stoics, and sure enough, there are striking parallels with Zen.

So these ideas have arisen at all times and in all places (which happens to be one of Emerson’s themes). The writings of the Transcendentalists resonate with me because I recognize the ideas from my own thinking as well as from my Taoist and Buddhist reading, and because it is writing grounded in my own culture.

Between this and my continuing doubts regarding rebirth and karma across lifetimes, I’m just not sure I can still call myself a Buddhist. Based on my beliefs and outlook, it still makes sense to me. It just may not make sense to other Buddhists. But then, a true Buddhist would never refer to himself or herself as such.

I wrote the above while sitting in my car at the boat launch on the north side of the Monksville Reservoir. When I finished, I took a brief stroll down to the water, exchanged pleasantries with some fishermen, and went back to the car to head over to Long Pond Ironworks for a short hike.

When I exited the parking lot onto the winding, fairly desolate road leading back to the main road, I had what I can only describe as a “Twin Peaks Moment.”

There, pacing slowly up and down the road, was a Japanese man (certainly east Asian, but struck me as decidedly Japanese) playing bagpipes. This was wonderful on many levels.

One, we were in the area of New Jersey known as The Highlands. Two, after reading some of Nature and writing the above about Zen and western culture, what are the odds of being met with a Japanese man playing bagpipes? Three, he seemed to be improvising (and doing it beautifully), occasionally throwing in almost jazz-like quotes from “Amazing Grace” (granted, a staple of bagpipers everywhere, but it also happens to be my favorite piece of music ever). I lowered my windows and slowed down. When I was along side him, I gave him a thumbs up and he gently nodded while continuing his performance. I kept driving slowly, listening to the pipes fade with the distance, then happened upon a young woman in the middle of the road, standing still on rollerblades and holding a cellphone to her ear but not talking. When I looked toward her to offer a greeting nod, her face was expressionless, and her left eye was eerily cold and dead.

When I pulled out onto the main road, I couldn’t stop laughing. Whatever choice bit of synchronicity this was, I took it to be an omen that I’m on the right track. It was exhilarating.

The short hike at Long Pond was beautiful and peaceful. I stopped at one of the lookout platforms and read a little bit of Whitman:

Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.

I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames,
clack of sticks cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of
work-people at their meals,
The angry base of disjointed friendship, the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his pallid lips pronouncing
a death-sentence,
The heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves, the
refrain of the anchor-lifters,
The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streaking
engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color’d lights,
The steam-whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching cars,
The slow march play’d at the head of the association marching two and two,
(They go to guard some corpse, the flag-tops are draped with black muslin.)

I hear the violoncello, (’tis the young man’s heart’s complaint,)
I hear the key’d cornet, it glides quickly in through my ears,
It shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast.

I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,
Ah this indeed is music—this suits me.

A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.

I hear the train’d soprano (what work with hers is this?)
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess’d them,
It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick’d by the indolent waves,
I am cut by bitter and angry hail, I lose my breath,
Steep’d amid honey’d morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death,
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.

[2011]