I have a recurring dream. I’m walking, as an adult now, through the West Philadelphia neighborhood where I grew up. It appears similar to what I remember as a kid, but it’s changed enough so that I no longer feel a part of it. It feels strange and distant and perhaps a little dangerous.
That’s religious belief for me. I sometimes say as a joke, ‘Hey… I used to woike in that town!’ When push had REALLY come to shove, however, I’d discovered that no amount of earnest and childlike wringing out the washrag of my belief in God could help me clean up the mess of my interior life. I now no longer believe in God, insofar as God is represented as a mighty, just, and loving being cast in the image of Homo sapiens but dwelling always beyond his reach… always apart, always above, always knowing better. The God I thought I knew and trusted didn’t meet the criteria. Either he was weak, stupid, indifferent and cruel, or, more likely, with one stroke of Ockham’s Razor he had shaved himself right out of existence.
Call me the Prodigal Son of Atheism. My return, at 60, to the irreligion of my post-Bar Mitzvah youth has had no effect whatever upon the quality of my love for truth, my sense of wonderment at the miraculous tapestry of the natural world, my failure and success at the daily struggle to live a fair, tough, and loving life. The only difference now is that if I decide to state a belief or take a stand on a moral issue, it’s MY heart that’s on the line. There’s no deity shape-shifting itself into a trampoline at the bottom of the cliff. This life of ours is no picnic; it’s no walk in the park. Our ovarios and cojones better be prepared to be both strong and resilient. Some of life’s unseen punches are bound to hit below the belt.
I used to correspond occasionally with an American spiritual teacher. Once I wrote him: ‘Dear Uncle, Christ said that birds have nests and foxes lairs where they can lay their young, but that he himself had nowhere to lay his head. Then a Zen Master said, ‘Let him lay his head upon the non-existent pillow.’ Uncle, what possibly could be meant by “the non-existent pillow?” ’ The teacher wrote back: ‘WE are Christ’s non-existent pillow. Did you notice?’ In other words, if lovingkindness, mercy, justice, the honoring of the earth and her offspring will happen at all WE must provide the vehicle. You and I: shards of dust whose very existence could be a trick of the light. We got the job along with the gift of self-reflective consciousness: to negotiate among the depths and shadows of our inner life – our inherited, half-remembered, wild, instinctual animal life – and come out with a course that serves the larger purposes of love.
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