My Religious Life
March 2, 2012
On one level religion is an expression of the inexpressible. It’s founded upon mystery. But when we try to express the inexpressible it nets confusion and we end up with doctrines as obscure and arcane as the instructions to operate a Comcast remote —which may be appropriate because that’s what the religions of many are: a multiplicity of otherworldly choices long on faith but short of rational understanding.
In a smart move to avoid confusion Jews at first steered clear of speaking the name of God. Some ancients surmised God is ineffable and decided it might be best not to speak the name of a being no one knew anything about— an obviously powerful one at that. Among other things, any name they dreamt up might offend god. Who knew?
Inevitably though¸ the names came —you can’t shut up a born labeler. Eventually we had as many names for god as we have religions. Besides plain “God” we have (or have had) Elohim, Yahweh, Adonai, Jehovah and El Shaddai (or just plain El), Allah, Vishnu, Brahma, Krishna, Rama, Wele, Jok, Nyam, Lesa, Cuta, Jesus, The Holy Spirit or, simply, Father (to name a few).
Some say, The Great Spirit, but I humbly say, I haven’t a clue.
Actually, one of the best names for god I ever heard (we’re told) was spoken by God to Moses out of a burning bush. God told Moses he could call him “I Am That I Am”, which pretty much says it all without revealing too much. If it really was god who said that, you might think he or she was being coy. If it was some 4000 BC story-teller, he was probably hoping to dodge a lightning bolt.
This wisdom of not speaking God’s name (a name the framers of the US Constitution assiduously kept out of our fundamental legal document, clairvoyantly seeing a train wreck if we took that road) is, I think, best addressed by the Taoists. Without getting into technicalities they referred to the inexpressible as The Tao, or “The Way”.
In fact a character referred to as Lao Tzu (who scholars say may or may not have been one individual) in a book called the Tao Te Ching (that he may or may not have written alone), approached the problem of the unspeakable by noting:
If you talk about the Tao, it’s not Tao. If you name it, it’s something else. What can’t be named is eternal. Naming splits the eternal to smithereens. Not tangled in desire you embrace the unknown … Call it no place. No place or darkness.
Think about that. Anything you say about the Tao (or God) is bound to come up short and leads, inevitably, to confusion.
Scan the global religious landscape before you argue the point. What do you see? I see a sect for every nuance, a god for every whim and a war for every god. This is again why our Jeffersons and Madisons (who, unlike congress, actually thought these things through) kept god out of the constitution; they knew we must keep a wall between church and state. And this is why an intellectual featherweight like our Rick Santorums and Joni Ernsts ought to be kept as far away from the power as an enlightened electorate can keep them.
But what about that “place of darkness” referred to by Lao Tzu; must that not be an evil place? No. This would not be the bad darkness dreamed up by fundamentalists and populated by Satan, liberals and independent women. It would be a darkness more like one written of in a little book penned by an anonymous Christian mystic of the late 14th century called The Cloud of Unknowing: namely, a state of humility.
It says there, “of God Himself can no man think, for thou hast brought me with thy question into that same darkness, and into that same cloud of unknowing,”
The level of high degree stupidity it takes to think that threatening the rationality of our constitution with religion is almost majestic. To look at history and see what religious conflict has wrought, to look at the theocratic chaos of the middle east, to remember the brutality of religious conflict in Yugoslavia and, finally to ignore the wisdom of the founders as the far right of the United States desires and to still want to make the US a “Christian Nation” envisioned by a big chunk of the GOP is to step back in time to one of very bad darkness indeed.
In religious matters humility’s best, it keeps you grounded and out of other people’s bedrooms. You want to pray, fine, just do it in a closet as Jesus advised.
My mother was a devout Catholic, but she was no Michelle Bachmann. She was a good woman who understood that her god was, by all evidence, pluralistic. She knew that every view of god offered something, but cost something as well. Whatever my trail was through several expressions of the ineffable, it was launched by my mom and her faith and became:
My Religious Life
I was Catholic,
but was not universal enough
when I was.
I was Protestant,
but did not protest enough
when I was.
I was a Transcendental Meditationist,
but was not transcendent enough
when I was.
I was a dilettante Buddhist,
but (unlike the lotus) I failed to bud
when I was.
Now as a Taoist
in an inscrutable plan
I’m most content, because
it’s nothing I can really talk about
if I am.