Thursday, February 17, 2005

Thoughts on Deities (for Grace)

Over at What if no one's watching, I asked Grace why she wanted there to be a deity. She gave such a thoughtful answer that I thought I would put part of it here and include some of my own responses to her. For those of you who are deists, please understand that I am NOT trying to "convert" anyone--I find that activity reprehensible, no matter who's doing it. What I am trying to do is explain what I see from my perspective. Grace's words are in italics.

One of them is because I don't want to feel like I'm in this alone--I want there to be someone bigger than me watching out for me.
This brought to mind the old Mel Brooks/Carl Reiner 2,000 year-old-man routine, where the people worship Phil, mostly because he's bigger and stronger and will bop them if they don't. When Phil's killed by lightening, they realize there's something bigger than Phil. I've come to think that the potential interconnectedness and interdependencies of human (and other species') lives is, in fact, bigger than any of us. I realize that that's much less protective, and much more amorphous, and much more fragile, than the notion of a protective deity, but it's the best I can do on this. As a central part of my doctoral work, I explored how language and practice--what we say and what we do--are deeply and profoundly intertwined, and it convinced me even further that the fact that I'm sitting here touching keys and you're someplace else reading these words--and understanding these marks on your computer screen--speaks to a much deeper connection than we really understand. I don't think it's magic or mystical, mind you, I just think that a lot of it operates on levels that aren't easily or consciously accessible. As for the notion of a deity watching out for me personally, well, that really doesn't fit with the horrors that people actually suffer.

Another one is that I can't stand the idea of never again seeing the people I love who have died, and in order to believe that I am going to see them again, I sort of need to believe in a God, some conception of Heaven, something.
I really do understand this one, in the sense that I have lost many people and a part of me wishes deeply I could see them again. Because I was raised as an atheist, I never thought this was possible, however. I still miss those people, more than I can tell you, but I don't believe I'll see them again. That's terribly sad, but death seems to be an unavoidable part of life. I wish I were better at the Buddhist thing--the notion of meditating on one's death--but I'm not. I do like the idea of a boddhisattva--someone who has achieved enlightenment but who chooses to continue the cycle of rebirth until all beings are enlightened--because of the compassion in the notion, and I try to act as if there were such a thing and I could be that thing, but I do that more because I think it helps me be kinder.

One of the biggest ones is that I want a community to be part of, and the kinds of communities people I know seem to find in their churches seem so great. I want to be part of that, and I think becoming part of it would be a lot easier if I actually shared beliefs with said community.
I connect with this in many ways. When you move to a new city as a single, childless adult, there is no obvious way to meet other people, and I suspect churches often fulfill exactly this function. I've had to create my own communities, and, while I have the most wonderful, motley collection of friends a person could possibly want, it's a lot of work. I can tell you some of the things I've done to create community, or try to, but a church definitely provides a ready-made one. And, yes, sharing their beliefs would be vital, I'd think. I've contemplated joining the Quakers, precisely because I like so many of their approaches to the world, but that deity thing would probably get in the way, at least in some meetings. (In others, not so much, I think.) I think that what I'd say to you, Grace, is that you should figure out which beliefs are most important to you--and a particular conception of deity or divinity may not be the most important, or even in the top five--and choose a belief community that aligns most closely with the beliefs that are most important to you. What attracts me to the Quakers is: the simplicity of their worship; their notion that divinity resides within all beings; their commitment to equality; their commitment to peace and reconciliation; and what I know of their services (though I've never attended one). I guess, when push comes to shove, I really don't need another community all that much, and I'd be afraid the deity thing would be a huge problem between us, but that's one of the places I'd go if I HAD TO (for some unknown reason) pick a community.

There are a more shallow set of reasons as well. I like church, especially ritualistic church. It makes me feel centered, safe. I like the routine of it, the symbolism, the quiet, sacred space. I want to have a legitimate share in that space and not feel like an imposter in it. I want to a person who knows the words to the hymns and the proper responses, who knows when to say "and also with you" and "Amen."
I don't think this is "shallow" at all. I think we all want to belong. I think we all need rituals, large and small (I think OCD is that need gone out of control). I've said here before that a teacher once posited that the "essential" human characteristic is pattern-matching, and I think there's something to that. We think that ritual will keep us safe. It probably doesn't, or at least most of them don't, but it does serve to make the world feel more manageable. It orders our relationships in ways that enable us to do other things. Take yoga, for example. The "point" of yoga is to be able to meditate. The physical practice of the asanas is supposed to enable us to clear our energy channels, clear our minds, so we can meditate and let go. Whether or not I believe all of the energy channel stuff, I do know that the familiarity of the asanas, and their practice, does help me align myself, in the shallow, physical sense of "align," but also in a different, less embodied way as well. A lot of yoga has become hip and pretty these days, which is probably why I prefer older teachers, but there's a real there there, too.

The biggest reason, though, is simple curiousity. I want to know if there is a God or not, and I don't think factual evidence that I find believable is going to surface, or that it would be enough even if it did. I want to have some strong feeling about it, one way or the other. Agnosticism is fine when you don't care, but as I get older I do care, I want to have a theory of what is going to happen when I die that I actually believe and don't just find interesting. I want to be able to commit to a position of some sort, driven by something inside myself. I want to feel faith. I feel like I am missing out on some basic human experience by not having it in my life, and I am missing it.
I'm curious, too--I wouldn't mind being wrong about the lack of deities, for example. I think the least likely version of a deity is the vengeful, punishing deities so loved by the fundamentalists of every religion, but, hey, I could be wrong about that, too, which means I'm in for a long, painful afterlife. Whatever. What's going to happen when I die? I'm going to feed the worms. If I've done any good works, they will live after me, either in physical (e.g., written) form or in the things I've taught other people. The people I miss, who have died, they're still alive inside me, and I try to pass along what was most valuable to me about them. (I believe this is the Jewish notion, as well, that we have an "afterlife" in the form of what people remember about us. That's why the closing scene of Schindler's List was moving.

I can't help with the feel-like-I'm-missing something thing, though. I'll think about it, and maybe add more later.


Blogger Ann said...

Very nice; very interesting; very representative of what I believe, too. I especially like the "potential interconnectedness and interdependencies of human (and other species') lives." Only I call them "relationships" and believe that they go beyond humans and animals: We have relationships with flora, too, and inanimate objects, and abstract concepts, and even events that happened thousands of years before we were born. The butterfly effect and all that.

So not only are we not in it alone, we need other people and things and ideas to exist--and other people and things and ideas need us to exist.

I have never been able to understand the comfort many people find in ritual. I mean, I respect it, and I believe in it, and I think it's generally important--but I've never been able to access it. However, I do value routine; I need something I'm familiar with, something I can expect, some artificial order to the possibilities of linear time. I think ritual is different than routine, but I can't articulate how. Any thoughts?

3:27 PM  
Blogger Emma Goldman said...

I'd say it's a spectrum. At one end is purely functional routine--ordering activities not just in ways that make sense (socks BEFORE shoes) but that may serve some other purpose. At the other end (I would argue) is exorcism or faith-healing--the expectation that a particular set of magic words, said by the right people and in the right setting, can affect an unseen as well as a seen world. Somewhere in the middle are more performative acts--like marriages, or criminal adjudication, for example--where the ritual changes the status of some of the participants. Perhaps, as one moves toward the ritual end of the spectrum, such changes are more prevalent? I'd have to think more about it, but that's my off-the-cuff answer.

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