Tag Archives: Joan Osborne

Christopher Hitchens, God & me, pt. 3

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”

III.

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.)

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Christopher Hitchens, God & me, pt. 2

L-R: Angel, Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, and my son, Tom, in Florence, Italy

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence

—William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”

II.

The late Christopher Hitchens was like that dread baptismal tank. I cowered before him.

Sure, I admired his courage and his skillful prolificacy—I saw him as a great if often wrongheaded journalist of ideas—but flinched at his rage and at his sheer meanness. Especially regarding the straw-man figure of God he erected in order to mount an attack in the shadow of his intellectual superior, the atheist evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins.

As a friend said, it is significant that Hitchens and Dawkins are both British. In the European way, England mixed religion and the State—which is to say, it mixed religion and politics. While established religions tend to become political and prideful entities, formally merging them with politics—the most cravenly primate of necessary human activities—is bad medicine. And, besides, the two world wars so ravaged Europe that they put the quietus on any glimmer of a heavenly God.

Europe, by and large, is now spiritually spent for at least those two reasons.

But whatever his case, Hitchens seemed willfully, belligerently, gleefully tone deaf and clueless about religion. And I imagine him contemptuous even of spirituality—just, to him, more watery weak-kneed warm and fuzzies covering terror at death. Admit it, the disciple of Dawkins seemed to sneer, it’s all about our selfish genes. He called himself, in contrast to the deluded religious, a man of the Enlightenment. He failed to see that the principles he worshipped flowed from the same deep well as religion and were fostered by religion.

But I must explain what I believe, and that’s hard and it’s tricky.

The least of it is that mentioning religion positively, let alone invoking God, now inflames most people. The bigger issue is that my notion of God is evolving and is cumbersome to explain. Hitchens, along with those whom I imagine as true believers, including more than a few in my extended family, might see me at best as a soft-headed New Ager. At worst, they’d peg me as just another secular humanist.

But to Hitchens I’d also be a cowardly atheist who can’t man up like him and look squarely at life’s ugly reality—that it’s a bitch and then we die—and so dresses up his secular humanism with fairy tale garnish about a man in the sky.

That’s true only if you accept one literalist notion of God. If you don’t assume the adult task of defining God for yourself.

The Jews, who discovered God 3,000 years ago, did place him in the sky above their temples. He was an angry coot, as we know, a parental super ego sore displeased with his brood. But even though I believe only metaphorically in that God, I see profound significance in the Jews’ discovery and in their moving God into the sky, lifting one God above a welter of demigods.

Their insight was of historic and evolutionary importance.

Next: I open a fresh can of whup-ass on Hitch and define my God.

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Christopher Hitchens, God & me, pt. 1

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

 —William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”

 for Tom, with Kierkegaard among the dark Danes

I.

 Three years ago, as my mother lay dying, her youngest sister, Carolyn, died unexpectedly in Texas. Mom dispatched me from my home in Ohio to the funeral, as her designate. Instead of returning to Florida to see Mom again, one last time, I made my way to a vast Southern Baptist Church outside Dallas. Mom and I had a vexed relationship, our harmonics clashed, and that was something I could do.

The minister delivering Carolyn’s eulogy was a kid fresh out of seminary. Irritated as I watched him flail his feet around for all to see behind a clear-glass pulpit, it occurred to me that postmodern style had gone way too far. But then, my boyhood church had had a terrifying plexiglass baptismal tank front and center.

“Carolyn is in heaven with the Lord,” he said. “And she’s in a physical place with a physical body.”

“Amen!” said a beloved uncle, the last of the sons of Delbert and Mittye Rounsaville, Atoka, Oklahoma. My surviving aunts murmured their assent. My cousins and I sat in silence, realizing, perhaps for the first time, that we’d entered a new realm of adulthood. We sat among children of the latest generation—we were their age when we’d first met our Aunt Carolyn.

On her last morning, Carolyn, recovering from surgery, had done her Bible study in bed. She told her twin sister Marilyn, who checked on her, that she was going to rest. Then, apparently in her sleep, she died. A blood clot, they said.

I called Mom to tell her about the service. “It was beautiful, Mom. Aunt Carolyn was really loved. Everyone was there, and people from the church. You would have loved it.”

That was true as far as it went. But I’d been shocked to hear a minister take for granted a belief in a physical afterlife. Accustomed to mild Methodist guidance for twenty years, in a college town in Indiana and in a rural Ohio church, I’d forgotten the literalist notions I must have heard as a boy in the Southern Baptist church.

Our baptismal tank in our small church was kept sloshing. And someone had to get saved every service. Always I sat, rigid with fear, willing myself to invisibility. Once in high school I attended there with another Winn Dixie bagboy, a sweet pothead, who wept and rose, marched his tear-streaked face down the aisle.

In Dallas what truly appalled me was my sense, heightened after chatting with him, that the boy preacher didn’t believe a word of what he’d said. He wanted to comfort, I suppose. But his fancies and his deceitful mien left me feeling ill and angry.

“Everyone’s working on the same problem,” my uncle, a Baptist deacon, told me after the service, surely sensing my angst. “But Christianity got the answer. Some others came close. But it’s like math. There’s only one right answer.”

I was torn between admiration at his certitude and outrage at his blindness. One thing that’s always fueled my hope: the similarities of the world’s great religions.

But my uncle wasn’t too sure, even, about Catholics.

He said he was put off by their emphasis on opulence and on Mary. I understand the former—so many poor people have given so much to that rich church—but after lots of thought I decided I like what to me goes along with it: their use of icons. In a Catholic church, an image of Jesus, sometimes life-sized, dies in agony on the cross; giving Jesus a body makes him both more real and more potent a symbol for those who feel nailed to their own crosses. Of course, there’s something to be said for the way Protestants have purified the cross, turning a torture device—it killed slowly by preventing the crucified from exhaling—into an object of worship. As for Mary, I like the diversity—another human character to identify with—and the way she counters the church’s sexism. Protestants go to the opposite extreme: Mary’s almost missing.

Whenever I get really depressed, I think I should become Catholic. Just submit to its flawed authority, join its humbled masses. Then I realize I’m probably Protestant to the core.

(Merry Christmas, Tom.)

Next: I cower before the mighty Hitchens as before that dread baptismal tank.



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