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I live in the American South and it seems you cannot drive more than two blocks in any direction without coming across a church. In fact, I have seen a crossroads where all four corners each features a different church. They come in all varieties, from the most sedate Episcopalian, to the most frenetic Holiness. There are so many different types of Baptist, that I wonder that anyone can be confident that he has chosen the right one and not by accident found the shortcut to Hell. 

Church is so completely built into the culture, that it is taken for granted. The first time I visited my barber here in Asheville, N.C., he made for casual conversation by asking me which church I went to. I had to squirm a little and let on that I don’t go to any. “I am not religious,” I said, understating the case rather diplomatically. 

I have no religion; I’m not even an atheist. Being an atheist seems like wasting your time angrily proving that Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist. I haven’t had a religious impulse since I was 9 years old. 

Anyway, the South must be the only place in America where churches outnumber convenience stores. You find them everywhere and in every economic register, from the banal brick churches with large parking lots that minister to the bourgeoise, to the strip-mall storefronts that cater to the more out-there fringe-element evangelicals. In one, the parking lot is filled with Buicks and in the other, with pickup trucks and aging Datsun hatchbacks. 

My favorite is a church just north of Greensboro, N.C., that looks something like a high school pre-fab gymtorium with words in large letters on its front that can be read two ways. I’m sure its believers only see “God Can” as a profession of the capabilities of the deity. But I prefer to think of it as a place of canned piety. The tin roof only reinforces the image of a  kippered divinity. 

The newest pestilence among the churches is the clever changing sign out front, advertising either a Bible verse or bad pun. These can be entertaining, although I wonder what a real old fire-and-brimstone preacher man would have thought of them. Not much, I suspect. 

I know of two such preachers, one on my side of the family, and the other on my wife’s. I grew up in New Jersey among Norwegians, and the first church I ever went to, as barely more than a toddler, was Trinity Evangelical Free Church in Teaneck, N.J., where the presiding minister, Pastor Anderson, gave his sermons in Norwegian and although I didn’t understand the language, there was no mistaking the import of his message: He was a hellfire and damnation sort, who poked his finger at the congregation, wagging it as he scolded them at the top of his voice. We were all damned, for sure. I have been told that away from the pulpit, E.W. Anderson was a kind and mild man with a good sense of humor. It’s a side of him I never saw. 

(Pastor Anderson may have been ahead of his time in at least one regard: From 1931 to 1936, he broadcast a weekly radio program — in Norwegian — every Sunday. His religion may have been old-fashioned, but he took advantage of emerging technologies.)

RD Bell preaching

The other is my wife’s grandfather on her mother’s side, a wiry and contentious old man named Rhudy Dolphus Bell. No one seems to know where he earned his ordination, but he was a severe and unforgiving man, always ready to consign the sinner to an eternal rain of fire. He was known in his time to padlock churches where offending parishioners had been caught in — or suspected of — sinful behavior, and he would post a sign on the door: “Because brother so-and-so was seen at the dance hall with sister so-and-so, who is not his wife, this church is officially closed.” Of course, he had no official authority to do such things, and was thus rather taken for a crank. 

RD Bell baptizing

That old-fashioned Old Testament fire-in-the-eyes preaching was much more common in the past than it is now, outside of televangelists ranting and weeping on the airwaves. R.D. Bell regularly took part in so-called camp meetings, aka tent meetings, aka revivals, when the preaching went on all day long, with preachers spelling each other as they wore down, like tag-team wrestlers. 

Of course, the king of the revival circuit was Billy Graham, who ran things on an industrial scale. 

The Cove

I live in Asheville off Exit 55 of Interstate 40. That is also the exit for the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, which is fashionably set upslope on the mountain on the far side of the highway. This is Billy Graham country. The bypass around downtown is the Billy Graham Expressway; there is a bronze statue of the man in Ridgecrest, just east of Black Mountain at Exit 66, and Graham’s home in Montreat, just north of Black Mountain; Montreat is a religious retreat community that looks like the vacation home of old money. The houses tend to be cobbled from stone set among the trees, and Lake Susan sits in the center of town, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Real estate values are astronomical. 

Lake Susan, Montreat


Graham is an interesting case. Less Old Testament than many evangelists, he preached against racial segregation and even allowed, in some moments, that even good non-Christians might be saved. 

A few things you might not know about Graham. When he was a boy, he loved reading Tarzan books and, according to his father, would hang on trees and try out the old Tarzan yell. “I think that yelling helped develop his voice,” his father said later.

St. Anthony of Padua

And, after he received the calling in 1937, while a student at the Florida Bible Institute near Tampa, he was known to paddle to an island in the Hillsborough River where, like St. Anthony of Padua preaching to the fishes, he would practice his sermons and “preach to the birds, alligators, and cypress stumps.”

By the way, Graham’s college degree, from Wheaton College in Illinois, is in anthropology. Who knew? 

I mention Graham because I have a personal confession to make. No, not that kind. 

My parents were relaxed when it came to religion. They both grew up in religious households, but seemed to have taken the lesson away from their upbringing that they would not force church on their children. My father, especially suffered from religion. His father — my Pop-pop — had been a successful homebuilder in New Jersey and quite well off, but lost it all in 1929, when my father was 10 years old. The old man tipped into the religious mania, banning dancing, radio, music, and anything that might be considered fun, from the home. They went to church two or three times a week, and all day Sunday. It was quite a constrictive childhood for my father and his five siblings. 

They never said it, but I believe my parents decided they would never visit that on their children. 

My mother’s mother wasn’t quite so bonkers, but she was pious, and her apartment was filled with religious trinkets and devotional pictures. When I was young, she lived with us. And when I was 9 years old, she took me to Billy Graham’s 1957 Crusade at Madison Square Garden in New York, where he preached to sold-out crowds nightly for 16 weeks. I was young and impressionable; Graham was riveting and inspiring.

I had been to the Garden for Rangers hockey games and the Ringling Brothers circus, so I knew the venue. But I had never seen so many people packed into it. At first, I wasn’t sure who was talking. Graham sideman Cliff Barrows did most of it, acting as an emcee for the show, but I thought at first he was Graham. After all, he was as far from me as home plate is from the outfield bleachers. The choir sang, and George Beverly Shea dropped his pear-shaped baritone down into the depths of what I now recognize as bathos. 
But when Graham finally came out and began sermonizing, he was electric. It was my introduction in crowd psychology, and the power of oratory over the masses. My friend, the late Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who fled Nazi Germany told me how he had listened to Adolf Hitler speak when he was a teenager and how, he said, even as a Jew, “I could hardly keep my arm from raising in the Nazi salute.” Hitler had that effect on his audience. There must be something to that. I would never otherwise compare Billy Graham to Hitler, but Graham had that kind of hypnotic effect on his listeners. And when it came time, at the end of his speaking, to “come forward and accept Jesus,” I was ready to go. Let me go down. But my grandmother said I was too young, and wouldn’t let me go. I rankled, but I stayed up in the bleachers. The mood soon passed. I never had a religious moment again. 

There may have been something in Graham’s relentless activity, because his minion, Cliff Barrows lived till he was 94; Graham till he was 99 and Shea until he was 104. 

But then, famous atheist Bertrand Russell lived to be 97. 

Waterlilies Brookgreen Garden, SC

Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — when I was still earning a crust as an art critic, I wrote a nasty review about a painter who had genuinely made me angry. This artist had some currency in the region, and a cadre of fans. I was not one of them.

Some years later, I discovered that the review I wrote had caused the artist to stop painting altogether for five years. When I was  asked if I felt bad about that, I always said, no, I felt I had performed a public service. There was a smugness in my flippancy which I now regret.

Because, now in my senescence, I have become somewhat gentler, and regret the tone of that review, although I cannot gainsay the content. (When I met the artist many years later, when she came to a lecture I was giving — after she had survived not only my review, her hiatus from work and a fight with cancer — she was surprisingly forgiving and said she did not hold the review against me. I don’t know why not.)

She has recovered from her cancer and from my review and recently mounted a new show. She still has her cadre. I wish her well. But I do want to explain my anger. It wasn’t simply the quality of her work, or its purported subject.

I didn’t get angry over her technique, which was rather sloppy — I’m sure her fans call it “spontaneous,” although I took her to task for it. And I didn’t get angry over her popularity. Certainly lots of popular artists are awful, sentimental, shallow — but there are also quite popular artists who are among the best. It’s hard to knock Van Gogh or Monet for being popular, although the general run of popular, in the demotic sense, tends to be in the Thomas Kinkade and LeRoy Neiman or P. Buckley Moss camps.

The sins of this painter I refer to — aside from painting poorly — was that she presented her work as “spiritual,” and surrounded it with all the cliche buzzwords that accompany such pretensions. The show was called “The Lotus as Metaphor,” and it purported to lead us on a spiritual journey.

There is a whole class of artist who gush spiritual, a quality less evidenced in the work, but more in the words they pack around their work. They claim a kind of spirituality and it is usually of the soft-focus kind that blurs all inconvenient edges. Often they pick up the conventional symbols and signs of a religious tradition and use them like bumper stickers. This is mistaking the Völkergedanken for the source.  Not so much spirituality as it is cultural tourism.lily-lotus comparison

The particular show that got my dander up was a series of paintings of “sacred lotus.” The first problem was, she had not painted lotus but waterlilies. Not the same plant, not the same cultural meaning.

It isn’t that I was being pedantic about botanical nomenclature, but that I have noticed over the years that those who wax ecstatic about the spiritual often have such an indifferent relationship with the real.

The lotus (genus Nelumbo) has a different growth pattern, leaf shape and flower — to say nothing of cultural meaning — than the more common water lily (Nymphaea). The painter’s plants were not clearly drawn, but they grew more like Nymphaea, have the heart-shaped leaves of Nymphaea and the flowers of Nymphaea.

This may seem like caviling, but I firmly believe that before you start jumping on the otherworldly bandwagon, you should learn something about this world. This retreat into “spirituality” evidences a certain medieval contempt for the world that is not earned. In fact, as any dedicated artist knows, looking closely at something, as when you draw it with total concentration, will lead you to the edge of mystical experience. (See: https://richardnilsen.com/2012/06/21/apple-of-my-eye/ ) Without the commitment to this world, you cannot break on through to the other side.

Rather than starting with the here and now and taking the path to eternity, the artist seemed content with the road map. She approached spirituality from the exterior, with not a hint of introspection. She started — and ended — with the public symbol — borrowed though it be from an alien public — instead of finding a fresh, direct and personal symbol that might express personal experience. Borrowed profundity isn’t profound. It is hearsay.

That kind of facile pontificating on “harmony with nature” and “celebrating the joyousness of life” is what I call “Mah-jong mysticism,” the kind that seems to satisfy bored middle-class housewives with too much time on their hands. Surely one should be suspicious of any warm and fuzzy mysticism that tells us only what we want to hear. And make no mistake, this sort of thing is usually quite self-congratulatory.

In fact, after seeing these paintings, I’m not convinced the artist has ever had a mystical experience more profound than the buzz from white wine at a gallery opening. The artist wore the word “spiritual” the way some coffeehouse poets used to wear berets.

The paintings were like third- or fourth-generation color Xerox copies of Monet waterlilies, with all the subtlety of color and drawing sucked out. Indeed, my initial response was generated by the effrontery of copying Monet so blatantly and yet so ineptly.

It isn’t that waterlilies aren’t a perfectly good subject, but for many of these paintings, the painter adopted the same angle of view, the same distance from her subject and the same loose, scumbly brushwork that is so familiar from Monet. The debt was too obvious.

monet waterlilies st louis

monument valley 2It was as if she hadn’t looked at waterlilies at all, but looked at Monets instead. This is secondhand experience, like reading the Cliff Notes instead of the book. If she had looked at waterlilies intently and followed them down into the depths of her mind and heart, she might have painted something astonishing. That’s what Monet did. But imitating the look of Monet is no better than standing at the visitor center of Monument Valley and photographing the Mitten Buttes, thinking you have equaled Ansel Adams.

Her art mimicked the words and images that have conventional currency among those who bask in what is held to be spirituality. But those words and images have less to do with genuine spirituality than they have to do with conventionality. They are like gamepieces in a board game with all the rules known and understood, at least by the initiates. They are Tarot cards, ouija boards, seance knocks, and are at root just as fraudulent.

All this might well provoke a bad review in the local newspaper, but it might not, in any other critic, provoke anger. My reaction was not merely to the work on the gallery walls, but to an entire class of thought, a class that seems to me to be cheating. I felt cheated. Here the world is all around you, a vast forest of burning bush speaking “I am that I am,” and yet the artist does not see it, but rather gives us the names of metaphors other people have used to describe the ineffable. I have always called this “imitation art,” not just imitation of already existing art, but imitation of the origin and purpose of the genuine article. It is a variety of “play-pretend,” and avoids the real work of art to give us instead a pale simulacrum.

The deep roots of art is a profound love for the things of this world. Not ideas about things, but the things themselves. We live so much by habit and fail to notice what is about us. Not merely raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, not just birdsong and clouds, but the smell of hot tar on the road, the hurt of a stubbed toe, the layer of dust on the enamel gloss of a car hood. And not solely the physical manifestations of the world, but the inner workings as well, the emotions and sensations, the perceptions and the occasional borborygmus. That is, the entire world filtered through your sensibility. It is only when you are not aware of the world and the things of the world that you find existence so drab and monotonous that you need to invent a bogus “spirit” world to revitalize your life, to make it — and you — feel special.

hare krishnaThose who see “auras,” read horoscopes and feel the cold presence of “emanations,” seem precisely those who are incapable of finding the transcendent in fleas or sphagnum moss. Those who wear yellow robes in downtown Cleveland and chant “Om” are not actually connecting with the source, but with an imitation of it. The Edgar Cayce-ites, the crystal gazers, the astral-projectionists and clearers of engrams, seem not aware of or interested in the fact that the ordinary world given us is astonishing enough on its own. Nothing they have come up with matches the weirdness of an elephant or coconut or the shimmering skin of a squid.

I suspect any use of such buzz words as “energies,” “toxins” or “healing.” They are bogey-words, intended to invest their users with a sacerdotal shine. You can have Atlantis; I’ll take the Bronx. I can predict what  you will find in Atlantis — such things are defined by the conventions of the occult, and seldom vary much — but I could never predict what I might find on any house on any street in the Bronx, or in any city. The real world is too varied and multifarious and constantly challenges our expectations.

cezanne

So, I say, look at those apples and pears in the Cezanne painting, look at the roofs and olive trees in the Van Gogh, or hear the birdcalls transmogrified in Messiaen’s music, or regard the madeleine in Proust. Engage with the world, become engorged with it, swallow it whole, let it illuminate your inner life and become the passageway to transcendence. All of it, good and bad, joyful and hurtful, fulfilling and frustrating, pointed and aimless.

It is inexhaustible and inextinguishable.

Mercator map

Topo mapAn ideology is like a road map. It contains a schematized version of the world. But, it is always a simplified and distorted version. It may show the roads, or be covered with circles of topographic tree rings, or be great blotches of geological information. But it by necessity ignores a great deal of information to clarify some single small aspect.

It is hardly surprising, then, that a conservative sees a different world from a liberal; one is looking at highways and the other is looking at landforms. But this is not simply binary: The libertarian has a different map from a neocon, the religious right has yet another map, and the fiscal conservative yet another — and all call themselves, in one sense or another, conservative. The same variety can be found at every point in the political spectrum. Just consider how many spatting socialist parties join in war against each other.

geological mapAnd all of this is only the plethora of maps held by political enthusiasts. Politics, after all, is only one tiny corner of human consideration. Look at the range of literary theory, from Formalism through Structuralism to Post-structuralism, from deconstruction to neo-Marxian criticism. Each of them has its own roadmap and each ignores any tiny detail that might confuse the clarity of their ideology.

Or religion. No, let’s narrow it to Christianity. Or further, let’s narrow it to Protestant Christianity with its Methodists, Lutherans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists — oh, heck, lets just look at Baptists. There are Free Will Baptists, Primitive Baptists, African-American Baptists, Landmarkism, Missionary Baptists, Fundamental Baptists, Progressive Baptists, Reformed Baptists, Sovereign Grace Baptists, Southern Baptists and Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestination Baptists. And that only scratches the surface. Each is separated from the others by a map that emphasizes some single detail that serves as sufficient cause for a schism from some parent group, whose roadmap leads directly to Hell.

Treasure Island map

Treasure Island map

(This is the sticking point for Pascal’s wager: That if you don’t believe in God and he exists, you go to eternal damnation; if you do believe and there turns out not to be a God, then you are no worse off than if you didn’t believe. Therefore, said Pascal, the smart money is on believing: You have a one-in-four chance of salvation; the atheist belief has a certainty of annihilation. The fly in the ointment is this proliferation of sects. Which God do you place your wager upon? Choose wrong and, whoosh, you slide down the chute to perdition. That one-in-four bet now looks more like the state lottery.)

Mercator projection

Mercator projection

The world map most of us remember from the walls of our schoolrooms was the Mercator map, which attempted to show the oceans most accurately to aid navigation, while distorting the landmasses to accommodate that. We have become so used to the Mercator look, that any other map looks somehow “wrong.” If you take the Peters map, for instance, it looks highly ideological, as if it’s trying to make a propaganda point. Of course, it is, but so was the Mercator map. Where is Europe? Why shouldn’t China be at the center?

Gall-Peters projection

Gall-Peters projection

Try to take the globe and flatten it into a map and you are forced to distort. No way around it. The problem is that a map is not an accurate depiction of reality, but a schema, a simplified, diagrammatic visual representation.

Goode homolosine projection

Goode homolosine projection

Comedian Steven Wright once said, “I have a map of the United States … Actual size. It says, ‘Scale: 1 mile equals 1 mile.’ I spent last summer folding it. I hardly ever unroll it. People ask me where I live, and I say, ‘E6.’ ”

But even life size, the map is still flat when the world is all bumpy, and Wright’s lifesize map is still on the human scale.

Norwegian coastlineConsider the fractal nature of the Norwegian coast (as designed by Slartibartfast). How many miles of coastline is there in Norway? Depends entirely on how accurate you want to be. If you look at it as the crow flies, it is something like a thousand miles. But there are all those fjords and inlets. Add them to the calculation and you wind up with an accepted length of 25,000 miles — enough to circle the globe. But that doesn’t count the islands. Add those and you are up to 80,000 miles. But let’s lower the fractal scale: The usual numbers are calculated in a rather crude way. The fjords might be considered, but how about the river mouths leading to the fjords, the creeks feeding the rivers, the constant wavering of shoreline zigging and zagging. Look at it not at a mere human scale, but on the microscopic, and you realize that you can re-add-up the length of the coast of Norway to something like infinity. Reality is that infinity. Existence is overwhelming. So forgive me if I snort at your conservative roadmap, or your Marxist theory of history, or your prescriptive grammar.

It is no different from any other version of reality, any ideology, religion, artistic convention or psychological theory. Reality is maimed.

And so, ideology is always mistaken. Always. It cannot be otherwise.

road mapEvery ideology is based on a synoptic description of the world, a limited model of the way things are: a map. That map, whether it is the right-wing Mercator of nationalism, privatized economy, traditional marriage and organized religion, or the left-wing Peters of fair distribution of wealth, cultural tolerance, the evils of a class system and mistrust of big business – that model is always too simplistic, too limited, too rationalized, too coherent, to encompass the vast, unwieldy, incoherent, and imponderable experience of being alive.

Our lives, among the swirling trillions of stars, the millions of species of plant and animal, in the midst of an atmosphere ruled by chaos theory, with the billions of synapses in each of the billions of brains that populate this ball of dirt, are too complex to fit into any ideology. Is the standard-bearer of Progressivism a millionaire? Is the Christian conservative a secret frottagist or Republican pedophile? Is the classical scholar a fan of hip-hop?  Does the Andean priest speak Church Latin? We should never be surprised.

No ideology can grasp the shifting variety of the world: When we look for the particle, we find the wave; when we look for the wave, we find the particle.

missionariesThe time was, that when Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s Witnesses rang my door, I would argue with them. Not angry arguments, but bantering ones, at least on my part. It was a pleasant form of entertainment.

“Did God create the animals before he created Adam? Or did he create Adam first? The Bible has it both ways, you know.”

Or: “Where in the Bible does it say that it is the inspired word of God? Is that belief not as deeply buried in tradition — unexamined tradition — as the Catholic saints that you disparage or the veneration of Mary?”

I’ve read the thing from end to end, and while I can see why the faithful might come to the belief that it is inerrant — just as the Islamist believes in the Quran or Republicans in Fox News — nowhere have I found a Bible verse that makes that claim.

Some of those door-jambers would argue points, some would be flummoxed and a few would engage in genuinely interesting dialog. I enjoyed the back-and-forth.

Mainly, they wanted to know if I had been “saved” and I could never quite understand what I needed to be “saved” from. Being human?

They were usually so earnest, I eventually came to feel bad toying with them.

I was a proclaimed atheist at the time, and although I didn’t recognize it then, those door-frame debates were the rituals of atheism, as regular in form as the Eucharist or full-immersion baptism.

Then, at some point, I lost interest. I gave up arguing; it had become repetitive. At that point, I would say to anyone who asked, that I was a “lapsed atheist.” Not that my beliefs had changed, but that I no longer participated in the rituals.

I was happy for anyone to believe anything they wanted; I still am. But I cannot share those beliefs. They are something I cannot partake of. While much of the world goes on slaughtering each other for using the wrong name when addressing their deity, or for not eating fish on Friday, or eating pork chops on any day, or cutting or not cutting off tender bits of anatomy, or whether God does or does not turn into a loaf of bread, my current response is a sigh. After all, some of these people believe a three-personed god surrounded by winged godlets and opposed by an evil god named Satan somehow counts as monotheism. One scratches one’s head.

Most peculiar to me: God killed his son because he loves us so very very much. Is this something God’s dog told him to do, like Son of Sam? It’s as if God were schizophrenic; we lock people away who contemplate such things. For good reason.

These are not the only peculiar things that human beings believe, and it seems that a need to believe is inbred and genetic.

The question of god seems so unnecessary. I suppose when the DNA was handed out, the part of the sequence that causes one to believe was left out of my portion. I just don’t see the point; and now, I don’t see the point in arguing over it. You can have whatever supernatural beings you want, as long as you leave me out of it.

I certainly recognize that for some people, the need for a deity is intense, and I cannot gainsay their belief. Again, I see such sincerity in their quest, in their faith. But there is nothing in me that responds to the same issue: an invisible man who lives in the sky and grants your wishes?

Nowadays, I just say I have no religion; I’m not even an atheist.

Because, let’s face it, for most people who make the claim, atheism is a religion. It is a creed that needs to rebel against Big Daddy and destroy him. Atheism on this level feels adolescent in impulse. For me, it seems just as silly to deny something that doesn’t exist as it does to pray to it. Simply let me go my way and you can go yours. Just, please, don’t slaughter me over it.

Victrola

From the “Preamble” to James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).

Above all else: in God’s name don’t think of it as Art.

Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.

Really it should be possible to hope that this be recognized as so, and as a mortal and inevitably recurrent danger. It is scientific fact. It is disease. It is avoidable. Let a start be made. And then exercise your perception of it on work that has more to tell you than mine has. See how respectable Beethoven is; and by what right any wall in museum, gallery or home presumes to wear a Cezanne; and by what idiocy Blake or work even of such intention as mine is ever published and sold. I will tell you a test. It is unfair. It is untrue. It stacks all the cards. It is out of line with what the composer intended. All so much the better.

Get a radio or a phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, or of Schubert’s C-Major Symphony. But I don’t mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down on the floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music. 

Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? It is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is; and nothing can equal the rape it does on all that death; nothing except anything, anything in existence or dream, perceived anywhere remotely toward its true dimension.

mormon miss 1

The time was, that when Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s Witnesses rang my door, I would argue with them. Not angry arguments, but bantering ones, at least on my part. It was a pleasant form of entertainment.

“Did God create the animals before he created Adam? Or did he create Adam first? The Bible has it both ways, you know.”

Or: “Where in the Bible does it say that it is the inspired word of God? Is that belief not as deeply buried in tradition — unexamined tradition — as the Catholic saints that you disparage?”

I’ve read the thing from end to end, and while I can see why the faithful might come to the belief that it is inerrant, nowhere have I found a verse that makes that claim.

Some of those door-jambers would argue points, some would be flummoxed and a few would engage in genuinely interesting dialog. I enjoyed the back-and-forth.

Mainly, they wanted to know if I had been “saved” and I could never quite understand what I needed to be “saved” from. Being human?

They were usually so earnest, I felt bad toying with them.

I was a proclaimed atheist at the time, and although I didn’t recognize it then, those door-frame debates were the rituals of atheism, as regular in form as the Eucharist or full-immersion baptism.

Then, I at some point, I lost interest. I gave up arguing; it had become repetitive. At that point, I would say to anyone who asked, that I was a “lapsed atheist.” Not that my beliefs had changed, but that I no longer participated in the rituals.

I was happy for anyone to believe anything they wanted; I still am. But I cannot share those beliefs. They are something I cannot partake of. While much of the world goes on slaughtering each other for using the wrong name when addressing their deity, or for not eating fish on Friday, or eating pork chops on any day, or cutting or not cutting off tender bits of anatomy, or whether God does or does not turn into a loaf of bread, my current response is a sigh. After all, some of these people believe a three-personed god surrounded by winged godlets and opposed by an evil god named Satan somehow counts as monotheism. One scratches one’s head.son of sam

Most peculiar to me: God killed his son because he loves us so very very much. Is this something God’s dog told him to do, like Son of Sam? It’s as if God were schizophrenic; we lock people away who contemplate such things. For good reason.

These are not the only peculiar things that human beings believe, and it seems that a need to believe is inbred and genetic.

The question of god seems so unnecessary. I suppose when the DNA was handed out, the part of the sequence that causes one to believe was left out of my portion.

I certainly recognize that for some people, the need for a deity is intense, and I cannot gainsay their belief. Again, I see such sincerity in their quest, in their faith. JehovahBut there is nothing in me that responds to the same issue: an invisible man who lives in the sky and grants wishes?

Nowadays, I just say I have no religion; I’m not even an atheist.

Because, let’s face it, for most people who make the claim, atheism is a religion. It is a religion that needs to rebel against Big Daddy and destroy him. Atheism on this level feels adolescent in impulse. For me, it seems just as silly to deny something that doesn’t exist as it does to pray to it. Simply let me go my way and you can go yours. Just, please, don’t slaughter me over it.

seventh seal knight

Can you choose to believe?

Some people seem to think so. You consider a menu of possible beliefs and choose which you like best. The American church scene certainly gives you a host of beliefs to sign up for: Not only Catholicism or Mormonism or Christian Science, but a hundred different versions of Protestantism, each with its heartfelt shibboleths. And there are thousands of varieties of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam. And let’s not forget that Atheism is a belief, also.

So, you scan the menu and choose.

Blaise Pascal offered a bet: Believe and be saved. If there turns out not to be a God, then you have lost nothing. Fail to believe and maybe nothing happens, but if there is a God, then you lose your bet.

The problem is, of course, that the bet isn’t merely whether there is a god or not — putting your chips on the red or the black — but which god will save you and which will cast you to perdition: With so many choices, the odds are always against you: The house wins.

But you cannot merely choose. It sounds good until you try it. There is, after all, a difference between joining a church and believing what it teaches. seventh seal knight looks up

There are plenty of examples of people choosing one religion over another for political or survival reasons. Composers Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn each converted to Christianity to further their careers and escape the anti-Semitism of their time and place. It wasn’t at all uncommon in earlier centuries when one’s religion could disqualify one for certain jobs.

But did they believe in their adopted religions? That’s another question altogether.

For belief cannot be a matter of choice: You can believe only in what seems true. You don’t choose a religion and decide to believe its tenets; you decide what you believe is true, and look for a religion that offers those beliefs to you.

Believe simply isn’t volitional. You believe because you think certain things are true. Ineluctably true.

That doesn’t mean that what you believe is true — people can believe all kinds of odd piffle — but that those who believe do so because those ideas seem true to them. Whether it is religion or science, fiction or the ravings of a tin-foil-hat Tea Party Republican, you can only believe what rings true.

This is so even for those young academics who profess not to believe in any truth, that truth is all just relative. But of course, they believe it is true that there isn’t any truth. You cannot escape it: If you believe, you do so because you perceive it as true.

There are certainly people who wish they could choose to believe. There are those without faith who suffer from their inability to believe. They desperately want to believe, like the knight in Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal.

What holds them back is that they cannot choose to believe something that doesn’t seem to be true, no matter how beneficial it would be if they could enforce that choice. Faith has, after all, many demonstrated benefits.

But if you don’t think there is a god or a savior, you cannot pretend there is.

Conversion happens when you accept that the religious tenets are true. It isn’t logic or reason that defines truth for us. We each have inclinations of genes and upbringing. seventh seal subtitle

Our emotions as surely as our syllogisms govern what seems true to us.

Some people are credulous and can accept as true any amount of silliness. I know a man who converted to a new religion every six months or so. He has been Baptist, Buddhist, Catholic, Methodist, Hindu and Evangelical.

One religion he joined actually worshipped triangles and explained the entire universe in terms of three-sided figures. There was not an ounce of hypocrisy in him: He believed each religion in turn was the true one.

Yet, if you cannot choose to believe, you can nevertheless choose to be open to possibilities, to allow yourself to learn about things you had previously been closed to. You can choose to look and listen.

Maybe you’ll be lucky.