Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Agnostic Credo and Vita

I just returned from three hours of rocking, propulsive gospel music by members of the congregation of the House of Refuge in Newburgh. These musicians live in the largely depressed East End of the city with the highest rate of violent crime in New York State. They face racism and poverty; we noticed members of the congregation with track marks and missing teeth, yet the mood was overwhelmingly joyous. Every performance insisted on thanking a benevolent deity for blessings and insisting on the certainty that the worshipper is heaven-bound. Hellfire, even morality itself, scarcely played a part. Every participant was wholly involved, possessed one might even say by the occasion, dancing and calling out and singing in ecstasy.

I was moved. One might think it scarcely plausible that a thorough skeptic like myself could appreciate the choir. Yet I think the House of Refuge embodies something of the essence of the religious impulse. Their elated acceptance is the opposite of a glum submission to the circumstances of life or indeed to the dictates of organized religion. Untroubled with doubt and little concerned with doctrine, they feel connected to a divine they embrace with the highest of rapturous spirits. Though I rejected my family’s less expressive Protestant church at an early age, I was touched and responded with admiration and envy to the singers from the House of Refuge.

Lacking any faith, I am an unlikely formulator of a credo. Does the position of a skeptic, believing nothing, lead nowhere as well? One might, like some ancients, argue that it is arrogant and unseemly to deny the common opinion of humankind and proceed then with a spirituality of the majority. One might act on Pascal’s wager and practice religion to be on the winning side just in case. Like many less sophisticated church-goers, those who take these paths seem to be able to believe what they wish to believe. My own beliefs have developed quite differently, out of a lifelong exploration of religion and in particular of mysticism that seems to me wholly consistent with a materialist world-view. Several observable facts lie at the foundation of the initial conviction that such a search is likely to be rewarding.

First of all, spiritual inquiry might begin with the established fact that all human cultures have religion. This is true around the world and all through history and as far back before as evidence exists. It appears as though belief in the unseen arose contemporaneously with language and art. [1] Such a universal cultural practice cannot be arbitrary but must be radically meaningful in some sense. Much of what passes for religion in both archaic and contemporary times is admittedly self-interested and shallow. People have always performed do ut des sacrifices and conjured what is simply magic, attempting to persuade themselves they have some control over a frightening environment. Yet surely it is absurd to imagine that the Ultimate Reality is in any way concerned with granting a defense against malice, a recovery from illness, a successful hunt, or a fulfilling and exceedingly long-lasting retirement in paradise.

Yet the universality of the spiritual quest implies an object. It is as unthinkable that everyone desires to reach an altogether nonexistent Ultimate as that human should suffer physical hunger in a world without food. We have as well a rich record, likewise common to all humankind, of the experiences of those convinced they have felt the presence of the holy or have even achieved union with god. In individual cases one might write off the saints of various belief systems as neurotic, psychotic, power-hungry, or sexually frustrated, but the persistence and the similarity of mystical experience around the world implies a deeper explanation.

As a lifelong littérateur I am familiar with the capacity for the symbolic forms in images and narratives to express the subtlest and most profound ideas and affects. Indeed, I have always regarded art as the most effective instrument for interrogating the cosmos and expressing the human consciousness. Religion, with its myths and rituals, is in one sense a subcategory of art. Our species’ greatest skill is symbolic manipulation, and religion records thousands of years of attempts to concretize the ineffable in forms understandable to our fellow humans.

The validity of religion as a nexus out of which aesthetic objects are created cannot be doubted, yet its dogmas can. There are some particular doctrinal elements that I find particularly implausible, yet which have appealed to many. The initial governing principle in many statements of religious belief is the necessity of faith, meaning the acceptance of a proposition as true without evidence. To have faith is considered a great virtue, though the difficulty is in deciding which of the countless varieties of “faith” one should adopt. Bobby Henderson’s Pastafarians with their deity of spaghetti and meatballs (including His Noodly Appendage) are consciously outlandish, but logically correct when they say their “deeply held beliefs” have equal truth value to those of any other supernatural religion. [1] Surely it sounds very like flimflam when someone praises the adoption of a whole philosophical and spiritual position on the questions of the very importance without any reason whatever. Suspicions rise higher yet when the proponent insists on the exclusive value of a single brand of belief while condemning all others, yet this is the habit of virtually all institutionalized religions. They advertise while seeking, like corporations, to out-claim their competitors.

The anthropomorphic personal god described as feeling love, anger, mercy, jealousy, even regret is, if assigned such characteristics, no longer an absolute. When I read that Noah burns a sacrifice and “the Lord smelled a sweet savor” (Genesis 8:21), I cannot avoid imagining the Old Gentleman leaning over the edge of a cloud to take a whiff. This is the stuff of myth – it is what we expect in a two thousand five hundred year old tale, but it is thinnest and least rewarding when taken literally.

Religions tended to be intensely local and tribal in antiquity. Priests in ancient India, Greece, and Israel attributed their army’s victories to divine blessing and defeats to holy chastisement. To this day groups like the Amish, the Hindus, and the Jews do not proselytize. In effect theirs is a family god, passed down the generations but generally unavailable to those outside their community, surely a concept implausible in deity.

It is not only inconceivable to me that god should recognize ethnic distinctions; it is likewise impossible that revelation and theophany could manifest at only particular times and places. For instance, Christianity, insisting on the belief in Christ for salvation, writes off all those born in non-Christian parts of the world, many of whom in the past may never have heard Jesus’ name. Christianity invented a way to imagine that the old patriarchs who lived prior to Christ might have been saved, but the whole notion is ill-patched together. Clearly, whatever humans know of Ultimate Reality must be equally accessible at all times and places.

Morality is a preoccupation of most religions, yet ethics relates only to human society. Good and evil are defined by an act’s effect on oneself and others. In the natural world, and even more emphatically on its cosmic scale, morality cannot exist. Religious tradition prescribes two sorts of rules governing its followers’ actions. Some arise from the thoughtful and considerate practice of social life: prohibitions on killing, stealing, and unrestrained sexuality. These require no divine sanction; purely human considerations are quite sufficient. Other rules are purely ritual. Male Sikhs never cut their hair or beard as a show of piety; Buddhist monks shave hair, beard, and eyebrows for the same reason. The point of taboos is to create community. Hindus do not eat beef; Jews and Muslims avoid pork, the old Pythagoreans proscribed beans. Many groups insist on modest dress covering the body; sky-clad Jains go naked. Some uncover the head to show respect; some cover it. Whether arbitrary or morality-based, human behavior simply cannot be meaningful to the absolute.

Yet, in seeking to control people’s actions, religions have often sought to make their devotees believe that good character will be rewarded and evil punished, either through heaven and hell or karmic rebirth. There is a symbolic propriety to this reduction of ethics to self-interest, because after all, the primary reason we agree not to assault our neighbors, apart from the fact that many of us may not be so inclined, is to avoid being assaulted oneself. Yet is seems demeaning and childish to promise pie in the sky to hoodwink someone into cooperating.

I find myself defending the dignity of deity against those who would portray a grandly awesome, quasi-human as god. Very nearly all my objections arise of my unwillingness to put limitations on the godhead. I realize the value of these lesser visions of deity. People have different natures and different routes to spirituality. Some have a sensibility primarily responsive to devotion which might be symbolized by Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Rome’s Santa Maria della Vittoria. Devotional worshippers such as those in the Hindu bhakti tradition may require an anthropomorphic god as the object of their meditation. Others may practice good works, recalling the words of the apostle James the Just "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only" (James 2:24). Such a path is called karma yoga in Hinduism. Theologians may be regarded as pursuing enlightenment through knowledge, the route of jnana yoga, through ideas and reasoning after the manner of Aquinas or Nagarjuna. For me, the divine cannot have attributes, though to some this would amount to emptying the meaning of the grandest of ideas. Yet even in these lesser conceptions patterns are clear and well-established through the world and through history. Partial and flawed though the congruence may be, it is clear that there is considerable common ground on the highest reaches of spiritual theory and practice.

Not all traditions insist as singlemindedly as Jews, Christians, and Muslim on a personal god. The fact is that a number of belief systems ordinarily considered religious are essentially atheist. At least some varieties of Daoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism (as well as certain of the Skeptics, Epicureans, and Stoics of antiquity) construct religions or quasi-religious philosophical systems that do not depend on a supernatural god. [2] Each of these goes beyond mechanical materialism to promise some divine afflatus, some profound joy at the feeling of cosmic connection, a delight in the phantasmagoria of the phenomenal world while recognizing its dependent and ephemeral nature. I might compile a long series of texts, a sort of unbeliever’s, Bible promulgating a featureless deity, a skeptic’s god.

The first sentence of the Dao De Jing insists that no verbal statement can define the Dao.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad the universe is identified with Brahman and with the soul, and Brahman is described as "neti-neti" or "neither this, nor that." Adi-Shankara and others in the Advaita school of Hinduism write of the Nirguna Brahman, which specifically means the god without attributes. The Katha Upanishad describes even the gods as skeptics entertaining doubt. [3]

Buddhists both Theraveda and Mahayana, acknowledge the fruitlessness of inquiry into the “fourteen unanswerable questions” including issues of epistemology and the afterlife. One could scarcely conceive a skepticism more radical that that expressed in Nagarjuna’s Catuṣkoṭi or Tetralemma : “Any object or proposition cannot be said to exist. It cannot be said not to exist. It cannot be said to both exist and not exist. It cannot be said to neither exist or not exist." His view was the basis for the Madhyamaka school.

Even in the insistently literal-minded Abrahamic religions, the same worldview breaks through. In Christianity the author of the Divine Names, the so-called pseudo-Dionysius, using ideas already elaborated by Proclus and Plotinus, set forth an entirely apophatic vision of deity. For his translator John Scotus Erigena as well God is “nothing,” but rather “the negation of all things.” [4] Contrary to much of his tradition, Moses Maimonides declares god to be wholly without attributes. [5] I know little of Mu`tazila Islam but I understand it approaches a similar sort of negative theology.

Furthermore, each of the theistic traditions has produced mystics whose transports are described in such a variety of mythic languages that they may well be considered to share their essence while differing in rhetoric. To those inclined to accept the notion of a perennial philosophy [6] the insights of the mystics are relatively free of cultural specifics and lack the exclusivity that informs most orthodox ritual and theology. The fourteenth century English Cloud of Unknowing suggests that the worshipper who feels even the “kindness” and “worth” of god must abandon those thoughts and plunge into the “thick cloud of unknowing.” [7] Yet rather than striking the author as a descent into a frightening abyss this realization generates an in him an extraordinary state. The mystic may feel the divine as heat, light, sweetness, music, or as an exalted form of love, transforming the ordinary self into an effortlessly virtuous serenity, marked as well by the sort of joy that is visible today bubbling up from the belly of the Dalai Lama in public events.

The enlightenment of the great tulku for all his esoteric lore seems to me essentially similar to that of the gospel singers from the House of Refuge. Millennia of evidence support the conviction that these people and countless others from all corners of the globe possess something precious, something worth pursuing, something that opens one’s eyes, not only making life livable, but rendering it a delight. For the Pentecostals and the Yellow Hat line of Tibetan Buddhists it may be a simple matter of acquiescence in an inherited tradition, while for others a dense undergrowth of imagery and story must be decoded or bypassed. A total skeptic, I find myself still rooting around in the mudpool of the world to seek the kernel of enlightenment. Neither swine nor divine we pursue the mystery of divinity (and such subsidiary enigmas as death, love, and epistemology) animated somehow from with an impulse virtually universal in our species. [8] One need take nothing on faith; we have records in every generation of those who realized their own relation to the cosmos and thus their own true nature.

We can hardly know the truth about the universe, astonishing as we find the glimpses given us by astronomers, since we can know nothing that is not mediated by our own sensory apparatus and consciousness. Yet there are many examples of those who turned this limitation into an opening by focusing on altering the subjective mind itself, seeking enlightenment and liberation within rather than information or a helping hand from gods without. While no one can alter the galaxies or create gods by wish-fulfillment, people can to some extent direct their own thoughts, sometimes with dramatically satisfying results. If religion and philosophy are conceived as the search for the best way to live a human life, the mystics, for all their apparent focus on the beyond, seem to have devised a highly effective technology of the mind for living in the mundane.

My path to the positions outlined here was hardly unique. Many others in my age cohort, the first year of post-war babies, read the same books and responded to the same social influences. I suspect a brief sketch of some details of my own development might reveal significant likenesses (as well as equally important differences) with the experience of others.

A normal middle-class child growing up in the Midwest of the 1950s, I attended church, Sunday school, and vacation Bible school like all my friends. I was encouraged to pray before going to sleep, and I believe that for a few years I did. All the same, I withdrew from this Methodist upbringing in preadolescence. I had come to dread the interminable hymns, slowly winding through six solemn verses of Charles Wesley’s poetry. During the sermons, which tended toward such topics as “Women of the Bible, Part 7,” I invented a system to pass the time by counting the organ pipes and calculating how many seconds longer I would be contained in the purgatory of a pew. I recall during my church’s confirmation classes asking the unimaginative minister incredulously if he thought a pious and humane Hindu man who practiced kindness to his neighbors and followed the rituals of his culture would be condemned to hellfire. The reverend gentleman’s confident response (“Only through Jesus!”) convinced me that, though he had an honorary Doctor of Divinity (and was fond of the title), he could know very little about the divine. Part of the run-up to church membership was to submit a spiritual diary covering the weeks of the course, but I never wrote a word. Until the day I was received into the church I feared that he might fail to include my name from the roll as a result of this omission.

A few years before I had read Joseph Gaer’s 1929 book How the Great Religions of the World Began, [9] a survey that, for all its chatty anecdotal reductiveness, gave me a good deal of information and more than enough reason to doubt my pastor. I think I was in sixth grade when my parents purchased Life’s book of The World’s Great Religions, and I read and reread and studied the photographs. When my sixth-grade teacher assigned the construction of a shoe box diorama depicting a scene in history, I illustrated the legendary meeting of Confucius and Laozi.

The next year I discovered Evelyn Underhill’s Christian-oriented books on mysticism, a rich source of quotations from the European mystics, as well as the Dover reprints of the Sacred Books of the East series. I had a look at R. B. Blakney’s Mentor Dao De Jing (titled The Way of Life) and felt at once at home and entranced with the very first verse. I began to consider myself a Daoist Buddhist. Though I found no point of contact between the spirituality I was earning about and my Methodist church by middle school I had decided the highest possible ambition was to be an ecstatic mystic. [10]

In high school I pursued these interests and began reading D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and Joseph Campbell and paying special attention to Buddhist references in the Beat writers. I discovered that the Theosophical Society’s American headquarters were next door to my home town in Col. Olcott’s grand old mansion with its fascinating Victorian library filled with Asian philosophers. [11] Exposed to Vedanta, I read Upanishads and then Huxley and Isherwood upon which I could only conclude that I was a Daoist Buddhist Hindu.

At university I followed Huxley and Watts in the use of psychedelics and found the alteration of consciousness with LSD roughly comparable to other methods such as fasting, chanting, meditating, and the practice of austerities. In the middle sixties we took the drug very seriously indeed, carefully designing the trip and discussing its implications for weeks afterwards. I was learning Greek and trying to digest the immense interconnected fabric of ancient myth. I wrote my senior thesis on Christopher Smart’s visionary madhouse poem Jubilate Agno under the direction of an eighteenth century scholar who could only scratch his head over my excitement about this wild work he viewed only as a curiosity. Later in graduate school I made a particular study of medieval mystic poets and translated Mechthild von Magdeburg while spinning theories connecting mystical texts with literary theory.

Toward the end of my undergraduate years I began attending a Friends meeting, in part to bolster my dossier as a conscientious objector in case push came to shove with my draft board, but also because of a real sympathy for a brand of Christianity without a leader, practicing group meditation without insisting on Christian belief. [12] That they had such a magnificent radical social tradition, not only on war, but on race and virtually all others issues only heightened their appeal. I joined in 1968 and attended meeting for about ten years. During unprogrammed meeting for worship people simply sit silently. Should any one feel moved, that person may speak. After years of sitting quietly in meeting, I was not once moved to speak.

I not only made a poor Quaker, I feel itchy and impatient while sitting zazen (though I once could pull myself into an uncomfortable full lotus) and I have miserably failed as a yogi quite a number of times even after persisting in what I considered good faith efforts for months. Yet, I think I have caught sight of the footprints of the Ox of Ultimate Reality; I may even have seen his tail disappearing into the thickets once or twice, [13] and I can hardly give up the pursuit now whether or not I ever progress, indeed, whether or not there is an ox at all.

1. Lord Bertrand Russell made precisely the same point in a more decorous manner in his 1952 essay “Is There a God?” when he declared that, were he to claim there is a teapot orbiting the sun between earth and Mars, he could hardly expect others to believe him simply because they cannot prove that there is not. For another materialist’s evidence on the origin of the supernatural see J. David Lewis-Williams’ excellent The Mind in the Cave.

2. Or agnostic or “transtheist, “a term used by Paul Tillich and Heinrich Zimmer to describe those who may accept the existence of deities, but for whom these superhuman entities are not the Ultimate Reality. Of course the Jain tirthankaras are venerated as people worship gods and a Daoist or Buddhist temple will include no end of deities, flamboyant and restrained.

3. Katha-Upanishad I.3.15.

4. Periphyseon, “nihilum” I, 447c, “negatio omnium” III.686d.

5. Guide for the Perplexed, I: 57.

6. The concept of a philosophia perennis was first proposed by Agostino Steuco drawing on neo-Platonic ideas of Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. The idea was accepted by the neo-Vedantists. See Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy.

7. The Cloud of Unknowing, tr. Clifton Wolters (Penguin), Ch. 6.

8. Freud in The Future of an Illusion claims never to have felt the “oceanic” sensation about which Romain Rolland had written him, but perhaps his superego was suppressing more archaic sensations arising from beneath.

9. Gaer had taught at Berkeley and was involved in New Deal programs such as the Federal Writers Project, the Farm Security Administration and the Treasury Department and then served as publicity director of the Political Action Committee for the CIO.

10. It is only in part self-satire when I recall that at this time I considered careers as a mystic, revolutionary, and poet, before selecting the last as the most practical choice.

11. Olcott was an American military officer and attorney who became interested in spiritualism when writing an article for the New York Sun about séances. He was a founder with Mme. Blavatsky and others of the Theosophical Society and, like her, an early American Buddhist. He is well-known in Sri Lanka for his work there with Buddhist and educational groups.

12. Since the early nineteenth century many Friends have regarded Christ as divine only in the same sense that all humans are if they act on their inner light.

13. See the Ten Ox-Herding pictures which occur in many Chinese and Japanese versions and are popular in translation. The best-known version is that by Kuòān Shīyuǎn from the 12th century.

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