I risk echoing Edie Brickell and getting choked by shallow waters before I get too deep on this post, but I was struck by what must be a rather elementary epiphany.
The only way I can get through house cleaning is with some podcast or another blasting louder than the sounds of running water in the sink; last night I was listening to James Finley talk about Meister Eckhart on Caroline Myss’s website. Finley was once a Trappist Monk who studied with Thomas Merton and is now a psychotherapist; Meister Eckhardt was a 13th century mystic and theologian.
The problem with cleaning with a spiritual soundtrack is that I can only really absorb 15% of what is being said, but the rest of the time is generally spent getting inspired by one particular idea and then running with it. This time, I was taken by the fact that I was listening to quotes from a medieval scholar while chopping vegetables, opposed to singing off key to an Alison Krauss song or catching up with the NPR news I have been ignoring lately. One of the most fascinating things about my fascination with matters of the spirit is the fascination itself (get that?). I am constantly left to wonder what draws me to meditate and study these discourses on the soul when it would be so much simpler to stick with fiction and watch a little more tv. Part of me is perfectly contented to know that faith is an integral part of me, in the same way that I have red hair and love animals. But the aspect of me that is never quiet, that must interrogate everything around her needs a response to those who cannot comprehend “because I just believe, that’s why.” And frankly, there are times when I need an explanation of sorts for my own questioning heart.
Certainly atheism seems to be a bit of a fad right now, and I have to admit I have read none of the best sellers on the topic; there is too much to read about what people actually believe to spend time on what they do not at this point (I’m sick of all this definition by negation these days anyway: “we’re the good people because we are not like them, the bad people”). So this is just the first breath of an epiphany that might stand as a response to those who seem to imply that faith in a Universal Being is mark of weakness, of a lack of self reliance or reason. This little revelation of mine is not informed by any systematic knowledge of theology, so it might be painfully obvious and been said a million times, but it is something that has suddenly become clear to me.
Countless multitudes believe in a higher power, in a universal being, in a creator. Even if, on the off chance, this faith held across so many traditions is just a ubiquitous myth, a global bedtime story that keeps us from panicking in the face of the void, couldn’t it be that this collective belief, this shared essence, is the Divine itself? “God” as we call her could just be the unity of all beings that springs from the very act of contemplating the sacred, in seeking a higher power. Shared belief (across creed and country) and the energy it creates is in itself something to believe in.
But beyond all of these examinations, “I just know” is both the final answer and the beginning of endless questions.
In my valiant and stumbling effort to describe yoga to my grandfather I was confronted with the weight of my own assumptions of reality and shared human experience. He asked at the most basic level, what is a yoga class like? Well, you know, it’s yoga in a room full of people with a person leading you through poses. What else is there to say? Come on, let’s talk philosophy and how all these postures are sweeping me along my spiritual quest! Oh wait, first we have to define and describe the room, the teacher, the poses, and yoga itself and explain what brought me to something as foreign as a four thousand year old discipline anyway…
I cannot keep leaving out the breaths between words, the leaps between aspirations, the years of error and fear and breakthrough that led to the person I am always becoming. I have to account for all that I am now before I can expound on such distant abstractions as spiritual quests. This must be a ridiculously elementary realization, but I know my reflections will root themselves in a constructive version of reality only when I ground my words in deliberate consciousness. For all that I have learned of late, the greatest epiphanies have emerged from interrogating the truths that have long been assimilated into who I am.
Rosemary Radford Reuther‘s Gaia and God: An Ecofeminst Theology of Earth Healing took me months to finish as I slogged through discussions of the foundational myths/ideas of Sumerian, Hebrew, Platonic, Hellenic, and Christian traditions – I am sure I am missing a few that she discussed at length, but I was just trying to get to the good stuff. The “good stuff” ended up being the last thirty pages in which she largely agreed with Carol Christ and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (with notable exceptions) and expressed her own theories on how we must live in mutuality with this earth and pursue a biophilic existence. She talked about reimagining energy production and transportation and the food chain and communities – all of the hard stuff that we refuse to hear is necessary to stop global warming (even if we secretly fear it really will be that hard). I skipped millennia of religious thought to get to the bit where she corroborated everything I believe already. After countless generations of destructive, wasteful, egomanical regimes bent on domination, the world is horrifically screwed up and only a lived philosophy based in the interdependency of all living things and the transience of the self will redeem us (but not in the Judgement Day sort of way…). Did I actually gain anything from this book besides a few interesting quotes and a vague reminder of the divisions inherent in Platonism and the negation of the material in Augustine? Is it a failing of the volume itself that the majority of it was taken with outlining the bitterness of patriarchy rather than defining an “ecofeminist theocosmology”? Is there really that much ground to cover regarding the cultural norms of the West that have made the subjugation of women and nature normal and even necessary to the propagation of civilization as we know it? Granted this book was written in 1992 and two theses on the spiritual aspects of Irish women’s poetry leave me in the unique position of having already absorbed the basic truths of Reuther’s thesis without forcing me to unlearn several thousand years of history. She was born in 1932 and I was born in 1979; the choir that educated me had been preached to quite effectively and was nicely won over before I even started questioning the absolute sovereignty of Christianity.
What I wish this book had given me was a coherent narrative that could inform my seemingly inherent belief in the sacredness of the earth and the human responsibility to all life on this planet. I realize my inability to draw such arguments from this book stems from my own lack of attention and the fact that I was an English major not a theology major (Boston College didn’t seem open to teaching my kind of religion as I defined it at 18…). It is my strong academic bent that pushes me to find evidence to support my thesis. I feel I cannot stand behind facts that I have not questioned deeply.
But wait, if my “seemingly inherent beliefs” can be translated into action and become something as fundamental as faith, do I need to find them in someone else’s book?