A mere two days ago I underwent surgery. Nothing too big: a septoplasty and turbinectomy. Minor surgery, but something that requires being anaesthetised none the less. Knowing the horror stories that accompany being left unconscious, maybe you may find it surprising that I do not fear it, even though my faith in a historicity of the Christian resurrection narrative is no longer.
The advantage of being through surgery, though, is that it left me with a few days at home, and this has given me the opportunity to write this very letter. I thought I’d tell you about what I believe in these days. I am sure many of you will disagree with it, but here goes!
There is a particular Christian personality which I deeply miss on these pages. I know her when I see her. She’s the type that is entirely content; have full faith in the power of what the resurrection represents, and see no reason why that message need to be, in some way, forced. To her, it does not really matter whether the resurrection event was historical (all the way through, including the descent of darkness on the land and the sudden appearance of prior Jewish saints apparently temporarily returning to life). I have a deep admiration for her, for she has wisdom in her eyes and she can see that life is manifold, and that inner peace may present itself to many people in various and different ways. If she believes in a physical resurrection, she does not depend on that believe to find peace. I have many such Christian friends, and they can see that myth and history can combine in order to give mankind a way of life that is neither better nor worse than any other, but that, if practised correctly, can provide for a true and deep sense of well-being. This wellbeing is brought on through reflection, she calls it prayer, and she knows that what happens here is more to do with her inner mind than the outside world. She senses a deep connection with the Divine, and she uses that connection to find strength. It is not important to her to know what exactly happened during the resurrection, because the happiness and fulfilment she experiences in this life, guided by this deeper sense of connection, is independent of the historicity of the resurrection. The possibility of a life beyond death is not safe-guarded by a need for urgent “salvation”, because she strives all the time to do the best in terms of what she possibly can. And though she fails constantly, she knows that it was the act of trying that was more important, and the hope that there will be another chance tomorrow. And should death knock a moment from now, hers will have been a life of merriment, of sharing with her husband; kids, and all their friends both religious and non-religious.
She may find herself talking with folk of the Islam faith, and nonbelievers, and; instead of telling them they are at fault, she recognises that maybe the way in which they have found a deeper connection to the world, the Divine, and a sense of peace with that, is not for her to judge.
I am currently listening to one of my favourite Händel works, a so-called anthem, recorded by the Trinity Choir; it is titled “Let God Arise”, and the specific movement I so love is “O Sing Unto God.” I was very naughty today. Even though I was specifically told to stay in bed, I popped out for a few minutes to the local Hi-Fi Corporation to buy a semi-decent amplifier (Pioneer, yeah, I know, Label Queen!) so that I can listen to music while I have to spend time in bed for the next couple of days. As I write this, I have turned the volume loud and as the music reverberates through the room I have a sense of respect for the kind of Christian I just referred to. In fact, listening to music like this is the closest I will ever come to experience what I call “the Divine” directly. I don’t use the word “God” simply because it suggests a male warrior-figure that sits up On High where He bestowed us free will only to see us totally destroy ourselves because of it; and anyways, “God” is usually called “Him”, which, in my honest opinion says more about the folk that first conceived of the Divine, rather than anything truly Divine. But I have a deep respect for her, this Christian person, and I miss her comments here on News24; for they would be very sobering. Alas, I also know that her words will be mocked, ironically, just as much by fellow “deeply devout”, i.e. conservative, Christians.
My sense of the numinous is multiplied by the idea of a powerful symbol in human history that utterly changed the path of mankind, for better or worse. I do not try to imagine for a minute that this event made the world a “better” place. It didn’t. But I also do not for a minute try to imagine that the world would have been a better place without this symbol. Along with such writers as John Shelby-Spong, Karen Armstrong, Don Cupitt and Uta Ranke-Heinemann I am content to use inner reflection (call it meditation, or prayer, if you will) to find what I must call “the present”, and use this strategy to better understand what the symbol I refer to here actually means to me; yes, I talk of the resurrection symbol; the cross I have to bear.
My religion, therefore, is not atheist; but it is not classically theist either. Gone are the days when I saw in the Divine an interventionist being that meddles with human affairs in order to “repair” the damage that the gift of free will brings. In fact, I am even content to know that free will may not be quite as free as some make it out to be. I can see some of us are more in control of our current situation, and some of us less so; that may be due to addiction, physical (or brain) damage or deep psychological affliction. Whatever the case may be, the agency that is referred to as “evil” occurs when that delicate balance of billions upon billions of events neurological, physical, chemical; is disturbed in whatever manner. You may choose to call it “possession”, it could well be “depression” or even “cancer”; or even “temporal lobe Alzheimer’s”, but I do not believe that “spiritual” events occur entirely independent of physical ones. Your experience thereof may be deeply spiritual, but I think in all likelihood a physical cause will be present. We can debate forever which came first, i.e. was the physical “disturbance” caused by a spiritual “event” (or vice versa), but that is chicken-or-egg thinking: the one causes, and is caused by, the other. If you find it hard to imagine how “thoughts” can affect the physical brain you forgot that those very thoughts are themselves represented by physical events happening in the brain!
Getting back to “the present”: tomorrow morning when you wake up next to your partner, wife or in the same house as your parents; instead of doing what you always do first, i.e. hurriedly check that Blackberry for the latest Facebook update; go to your partner (wife etc.) and look them straight in the eyes; then tell them how much you love them, and kiss him/her. Now, you don’t have much time here! Look in their eyes. See that sense of trust, love, hope, gratitude and appreciation. That is the expression of the Divine. Not through some ancient book. Not through endless debate. Not through showing how much better you know. Just that humble acceptance of love; that is where I see the Divine. My wish to reflect on “the present” is to find ways to remind myself to behave like this at all times. Knowing how easy it is for me to get angry, to be frustrated, to be hurried, to take first and ask later; I use this strategy of meditation to remind me how important it is to look for the Divine. But not in the grandiose, not at the church, not with fellow religious folk. I see the Divine in the ordinary beauty which is life itself.
So if you want to call what I have a religion, it must be the religion of the ordinary. It is a simple affirmation and gratitude of being alive. I recognise that life is temporary. Because it is temporary, it is endlessly beautiful; every moment is itself a Vanitas painting flowing from beautiful moment to beautiful moment. I recognise that things that I once found joyous will over time lose their brilliance. On the one hand it brings a sense of nostalgia, but not without thanks. We may fight chicken-egg-style ad infinitum whether the distinction between what is right and wrong is God given or something which has been in development via evolution for time immemorial; but that does not matter: however it has become possible, we somehow can tell this distinction. Dooyeweerd felt that each modal level could not naturally arise from the others (if I understand correctly), but that a higher Persona; Sphere of the Sovereign was needed to bring about all the lower modalities; that may be true. But then again, as Jacob Klapwijk argues, maybe higher modalities can evolve from lower modalities. It is too early for us to really understand how, but the hope of learning more about ourselves ,is the silver lining to the painful cloud that our own misfortunes represent.
To finish off, if the reader is really interested in understanding my present view better, I can whole-heartedly recommend the authors I mentioned above. Shelby-Spong and Don Cupitt view the world somewhat differently, but both understand the value of the resurrection symbol.
Let me finish by wishing you all the very best today. Go sit outside this afternoon. Now that spring is dawning, the trees have brought forth new leaves. Be reminded that in the Northern hemisphere these events are timed with the Jewish month of Nissan. The month in which Passover is celebrated and during which a series of events occurred through which peoples’ hope for renewal was strengthened and which brought about an awakening to a different way of life that understands that morality is not merely something passed down from “the elders” but which can be experienced from within.
Breathe in the fresh spring air and sit still for a moment and cherish what you see before you. My search for “the present”, more important that letting go of all my selfish aspirations, is also about recognising that I have a running simulation in my head of what the world “ought” to be like. So easy is it for me to say: “if only everyone did …” and ingratiate myself by imagining that the way I imagine the world could be, is better than what it really already is. What meditation has taught me is to be a fly on the wall of my own thoughts: to sit and see when I find myself thinking “if only everyone did as I did” and then to say “Hey there, mate! BZZZTTT!!! The world survived pretty well before you came and it will darn well after. So, spend less time worrying about how much better the world could be if people just did what you think they ought to; no, be still, embrace the present; and worry less.”
The present is fleeting. The beauty of life is bound up in affirming this, and being thankful. The rest, as Ecclesiastes recognised, is but vanity… however, contrary to Ecclesiastes, in my opinion, that it is fleeting, does not make it meaningless. In fact, every interaction you have with someone, matters. Remember my wish for you to go to someone close to you and telling them you love them? Go do it, you may think it is all vanity, but to them, it matters.
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