Many years ago my then wife announced apropos of nothing at dinner with my parents that I was an atheist. I was the most surprised person at the table because I had never applied that label to myself, always holding that to define beliefs by what you didn’t believe was a bit spurious. I was reluctant to use agnostic even though that came closer to reality because I thought, again, it said nothing of what I did believe and expressing my ignorance seemed obviously redundant. My parents were not surprised, having known I had ‘left’ the church a long time before but they did take this occasion to debate whether my baptism at age 9 would still get me into heaven. Their answer seemed to be no, I was condemned to hell. They did not think to ask what I did believe, which was just as well because my beliefs at that point were still entirely inchoate.
Over the intervening years I have pondered and developed some sort of belief that I might could hold. My now wife Betty has helped with her rich humanity, my pursuit of poetry and art through Langer has helped with the conceptualization, and more recently I re-read Monod’s Chance and Necessity. Better late than never, I now think I have developed a creed that renders my spiritual beliefs with some adequacy. I call it my creed but actually it is only an incipient one because I think a creed by definition is shared by others. Oh well, I never claimed to be orthodox about anything, so I will now go over my creed giving an exegesis line by line before writing it down as I recite it in my daily meditation.
I keep a simple faith.
I have always believed in KISS: keep it simple, stupid. This derives in part from an agnostic tendency, i.e., the thought that in the last analysis we do not know anything about what lies in the mystic beyond, as I have come to term the domain we apprehend of (or make up the sense of) what used to be termed supernatural, because, as should be clear to regular readers, I hold everything in every domain to be natural. This also comes from my reading Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, one of the earliest and still one of the highest expressions of mysticism. Consider the 14thchapter:
Look at it: nothing to see.
Call it colorless.
Listen to it: nothing to hear.
Call it soundless.
Reach for it: nothing to hold.
Call it intangible.
It merges into oneness,
Not bright above,
Not dark below.
Never, oh, never,
Can it be named.
It reverts, it returns
Call it the form of the unformed,
The image of no image.
Call it unthinkable thought.
Face it: no face.
Follow it: no end.
Holding fast to the old Way,
We can live in the present.
Mindful of the ancient beginnings,
We hold the thread of the Tao.
What lies beyond our ken is important (we should appreciate our ignorance more fully); it is ancient, enduring, and except for this book of Lao Tzu’s, nearly impossible to characterize through our intellect. When I keep a simple faith, I admit my ignorance of greater things while acknowledging my sense of something beyond and so maintain a boundary to my knowledge, to what I really know. As Lao Tzu says in #71:
To know without knowing is best.
Not knowing without knowing it is sick.
To be sick of sickness
Is the only cure.
The wise aren’t sick.
They are sick of sickness,
So they are well.
I, too, at least, am sick of sickness. And, as I see it, even thinking about the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, much less debating or fighting over it, is stupid (and sick), and as I said in my last post, I avoid the land of Stupid as best I can.
I believe in the presence of spirit.
I have long had some apprehension of the mystical beyond; beginning in my boyhood, expanding in my late teens and early 20s, and steadying in its course as I studied symbolization and aesthetics (thank you, Susanne Langer), I sensed the presence of spirit. My wife Betty helped me to see this gift whole, a necessity for filling in the blanks. I think of spirit (not to get too complicated here, remember, KISS) in various guises: the Tao (the Way) of course, but also, following Einstein, who said he believed in god if it was Spinoza’s god. Spinoza in the 16thcentury developed a remarkable understanding of the universe as a lawful, regular and integrated entity; in its processes lie the sweep of fate. Good thing he kept this under wraps because the religious authorities at the time claimed to know how many angels danced on that pinhead and burnt people alive for disagreeing with them. I also think of spirit in a somewhat animistic sense (still keeping it all natural) in what Amerindians referred to as mother earth, not our property to do with as we please but to carry out our responsibility as stewards; of course I now think of this as Gaia, the planet earth infused with life glowing blue and green in our region of the cosmos.
With my re-reading of Monod, however, I came to a more definitive understanding of spirit. A famous Catholic of his day, Francois Mauriac, said of Monod’s definition of spirit that it “is far more incredible than what we Christians believe”. This is what is so incredible: Monod considered that we have a duality within us, a physical body and brain that operates mechanically according to physical laws and a mental consciousness seemingly(I echo Monod by saying ‘supposedly’) independent of such mechanics. His and others’ objective analysis shows this to be an illusion,
“But it is so well within, so deeply rooted in our being, that nothing could be vainer than to hope to dissipate it in the immediate awareness of our subjectivity, or to learn to live emotionally or morally without it. And besides, why should we have to? What doubt can there be of the presence of spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.”
So yes, I believe in the presence of spirit and must acknowledge that this spirit as conceived as Monod did is so incredible that ‘belief’ is a more appropriate word than ‘know’.
I wrote these first two precepts of my creed to use in a poem (I might post it someday soon) around 1995. The next two I developed from reading Monod’s Chance and Necessity, but travel on for awhile before the next post.