Sunday, August 20, 2017

One Writer's Journey, Cont'd: Taking It on Faith

“This is the day the Lord has made.”
            These words echo in the back of my mind every Sunday, but what do they mean? In my upbringing, they were taken literally: God, known as Jehovah or Yahweh, created heaven and earth and all living creatures. He creates each day anew, and we should be thankful for the opportunity to rise and breathe, and for everything that comes our way, whether pleasant or not. It’s a very useful phrase. It directs believers’ attention away from themselves and their own concerns. It focuses our thoughts, however briefly, on the mystery and majesty of the world and encourages us to live each day to the fullest.
            These words are also part of the refrain of a song sung at my church nearly every Sunday. The full refrain goes, “This is the day the Lord has made./I will rejoice and be glad in it.” I have sung these words for over 20 years. In some ways, they seem like a typical Sunday school song for small children—nursery rhyme inculcation into the faith. But even for adult, they are powerful, simple, and can be misleading.
            Like all spiritual songs and teachings, these words open the door to conversation—with God, with other teachings, with other believers or non-believers. They are not meant to be the final word. Unfortunately, many believers abandon dialogue for a simplistic faith which requires (or allows) them to avoid questioning anything. The Lord said it. I believe it. Period.
            I have never believed this way; over the last few years, however, my faith has undergone trials which have transformed and shaped it, as all trials do. I have come to view the world and my place in it in different terms. I no longer see God as an omnipotent Wise Man (He was always a man in my theology), looking down on us from above and rewarding or punishing us . . . a cosmic Santa Claus. I no longer see God as outside of anything but inside and all around us. It’s arrogant to say we are God, but I think it’s humble and truthful to say we are a piece of God.
            (I struggled in writing the above sentence as to whether to use part instead of piece. A number of my friends would support part of God without hesitation. However, piece of God challenges us more. Piece suggests a fragment, a broken part, minuscule and worthless. But a tiny piece can also be indispensable, such as the piece of a puzzle or a gear in a machine. A piece of glass is sharp and dangerous. Too many of us have used our shard-like qualities to hurt others, so  piece will stand.)
            I also no longer see heaven as a grand and glorious place of castles awaiting us when we die. I have too many questions and doubts. A dear relative of mine spent the last years of her life striving in vain to convert members of her family to her way of thinking. She feared that, when she died, these loved ones would be absent from heaven. To me, this doesn’t sound like heaven.
            I have no idea what awaits us when we die. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps we simply stop. In the meantime, I take comfort in Saying 113 of the Gospel of Thomas: “. . . the kingdom of the father is spread over the earth, and people do not see it.” Each of us, these words suggest, can transform the world around us into heaven, yet most of us choose to live in fear, ignorance, and selfishness. Transforming the world is hard work. The hardest tasks begin inside each of us.
            So, does this re-purposed faith make me an atheist or agnostic? Some might say it does. To me, labels only limit people. They limit how we see ourselves and how we interact with others. Yet labels define who we are as human beings: We understand our place in the world and how we should act by associating with others who attach themselves to similar labels: Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, male, female, African-American, Caucasian, working class, academic, musician, writer. Unfortunately, many of these labels are seen as opposites instead of what they truly are: a means of categorizing our experiences instead of shutting out others. 
            For most of my life, I have considered myself a Christian; this label still holds meaning for me in the sense of belonging, serving others, and being a certain way in the world. It has less to do with what I actually believe or how I relate to God. Today, I prefer to think of myself as a questioning human being—one who hasn’t figured it all out but who has drawn a few conclusions based on what I have learned and experienced. These conclusions work for me right now. They may not work for anyone else. And they may not work for me tomorrow.
            But that’s life. To me, that’s also the ultimate message of those words: This is, indeed, the day Lord has made. Tomorrow will take care of itself.
            I’ve been asked to share some of the books which have shaped my present thinking about faith, life, and being in the world. A few are listed below. Each represents only a piece of a puzzle—a different way of looking at the world or challenging modes of thinking. None offers the final answer to anything, in my view, but each offers a step along the journey. Enjoy the ride!
  • Ellenberg, Jordan. (2014). How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking. New York: Penguin.
  • Haidt, Jonathan. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis. New York: Basic Books
  • Holiday, Ryan, and Hanselman, Stephen. (2016). The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living. New York: Penguin.
  • Mishra, Pankaj. (2017). The Age of Anger: A History of the Present. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
  • Tippett, Krista. (2016). Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. New York: Penguin.
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