O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
—William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”
Reading the Bible recently, the thick New English Oxford study edition I’ve toted around for twenty-nine years, I was electrified by John 3: 19–25. In this story Jesus is traveling and teaching, and he meets a Samaritan woman at a well in the heat of the day. It was against Jewish mores to have dealings with the tainted Samaritans, and to speak to an unknown, lone woman.
Jesus wows her by telling her he knows she’s been married five times and is living with a sixth man—why the shunned creature was at the well in the scorching heat instead of filling her pots with other women in the cool of the morning. Maybe she was infertile, a real deal-breaker in those days.
“Sir,” she replied, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews say that the temple where God should be worshipped is in Jerusalem.”
“Believe me,” said Jesus, “the time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on the mountain, nor in Jerusalem.”
This is a radical statement. What he’s staying is that God is not place-based—neither in a pagan mountain shrine nor above even Judaism’s highest holy Temple. God is far from clan-based. By dint of this: not race-based, nor nation-based. Jesus, as I see it, is moving God deeper inside us.
“It is from the Jews that salvation comes,” Jesus continues. “But the time approaches, indeed it is already here, when those who are real worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. Such are the worshippers whom the Father wants. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”
God is spirit.
Not a man in the sky. A spirit—something discovered by us, not created by us—is approached submissively in the human search for truth.
Thus indeed, as Jesus said, the kingdom of God is here, now. As any reader of the New Testament can see, Jesus labored to restore spirituality to religion, in large part by defining God anew and by clarifying core principles. Love thy neighbor. Forgive trespasses. His relentless attacks on human pride and on religious dogma are chronicled throughout the New Testament. He died for his pains, but made his lasting point.
My conviction flows from various sources, from years of reading about human evolutionary history and progress, from a base in my nature, in my suffering, in Christianity, in a heaping dose of Buddhism and a dash of Hinduism, notably of late in Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul. Eckhart Tolle’s writings, especially his religious synthesis A New Earth, have been enormously influential, so I’m tempted to admit I’m New Age and be done with it, except that I view that book as essentially Buddhist. I claim Christianity but I view all great religions much like the American Medical Association now views acupuncture: it works, no one knows why it works, and it doesn’t matter where they stick the needles.
I like Joan Osborne’s question in her beautiful song “One of Us”—with something like 10 million hits in various YouTube versions: What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home?
What if God is all of us? What if God exists within all of us?
What if God is that force in human evolution which drives “group selection”? This is the controversial notion that evolution is not just about pair-level “selfish gene” sexual selection but about traits that benefit the larger group. What if God is that force, which caused humans to begin their amazing self domestication—their selection for social harmony and against simian brutes? A separate intentionality within human evolution that impels our altruistic desires. Hitchens would attribute such human progress to the Enlightenment, but it goes back so much farther. And Dawkins won’t admit its possibility for what it introduces: the mysterious will that impels this search for truth, justice, mercy, goodness. That which was instantiated, in purified form, in Christ, Buddha, and Muhammed. Those qualities which humans have been idealizing for millions of years.
We have been selected to serve the whole of us as a living being, not just own own selfish interests.
My God is located in, and defined by, this, by humans’ unquenchable search for their own and their species’ true path.
That utter mystery that we and our science circle.
What if that’s God?
That for which we as yet have no name?
There’s despair everywhere, such lost faith in our species, but there’s yearning everywhere too. And neither that impulse nor anyone’s hard-won faith is misplaced. Not me, but some few blaze with joyous awareness—with Grace. Many are called, few chosen.
The afterlife? That’s a young person’s concern. But I place my spiritual afterlife in the collective spoken of by Carl Jung. One day, long after my body is dust and my egoic shell has vanished with it and others are living the human eternal self—that innermost core in which we’re all the same—around the globe human seekers will turn, more or less, to the same page.
This is my faith. It’s what drives me to my knees in prayer, down with the world’s other brokenhearted sinners, trying to tap what’s holy. I’m sure we’ll finally see and honor the greatest human mystery, not the banal reality of human evil but the real news of the goodness that dwells within and which we can access. Then maybe we’ll agree, at last, what we’re talking about when we talk about God.
Like me, Christopher Hitchens, angry child of God, didn’t have the final answer. And, sorry Uncle, not even Southern Baptists have quite solved the equation, not yet.
But of course there’s a God.
May peace be with you. Happy New Year. Namaste.
(Elizabeth Westmark has an interesting post, on her new reading blog, about Eric Weiner’s recent book Man Seeks God.)