Tuesday, January 13, 2009

In place of belief

No one can contemplate the universe -- from the teeming machinery of a single cell to the snowstorm of galaxies that fills visible space and time -- without confronting the mystery of why there is anything at all and why what is is what it is. If you want to call that mystery God, then do so.

And too it seems part of our biologically evolved nature to long for certainty of belief and refuge in a greater meaning. If you want to call the thing longed for God, by all means do so.

If the unknown and unknowable source of the longing and the curiosity and the awe is God, then count me a theist.

But the word is historically invested with an almost unerasable quality of personhood, human artifice, justice, love -- all the trappings of anthropomorphism. We tend not to see through a glass darkly, but in a mirror brightly. If the reflection is what we mean by God, then count me an atheist.

Chalk it up, if you want, to my long immersion in the Catholic mystical tradition, but whatever God I deem worthy of that name is the deus absconditus, the absconded God, the God who hides in a cloud of unknowing, the God who does not answer when John of the Cross implores --
Where have you hidden away,
lover, and left me grieving, care on care?
...imploring the empty air.
No sign for me to mark,
no other light, no guide/
except for my heart--
the fire, the fire inside.
The fire inside! The raging fire of curiosity, of wonder, of reverent attention, the fire that is the signature of a human consciousness that seeks to transcend our baser instincts through art, music, science, and -- yes -- religion. Here are a few stanzas from a poem of Grace Schulman:
I thought of Hopkins and his praise today
when I studied the pure symmetry
of cross-stitches on an oak leaf's underside
and knew that love is nothing less than accuracy:

the fire that I lit this morning flares
sapphire and violet as it gasps for air;
the blackening logs, the smell of cedar wood
are what I have of an evasive God.
Attention, praise, accuracy: These are the cardinal virtues of the religious naturalist. We listen, in whatever silence we can manage, for the strains of a distant music, knowing neither the composer nor the player, and when, having been afforded those few moments of grace, the music stops, or hides, or becomes obscured by the clamor of making one's way in an imperfect world, we give thanks, not to someone, but to existence itself, of which we are an inseparable part.

(The Schulman poem is "In Place of Belief," from her most recent collection The Broken String.)