Atheist Believers: A Religious/Existentialist Wedding
The meaning of the word God, in my congregation during my formative years, was conventional, literal biblical, bearded guy in the sky taking notes, who’s been naughty, who’s been nice. This got challenged, or should I say devastated, when I walked into a design class in art school conducted by Myron Kozman – think Richard Dawkins mischievously assailing received wisdom.
The standard response to information that conflicts with one’s point of view is either denial or point of view adjustment. My congregation, confronted with Professor Kozman, would have chosen, hands down, the denial. Migrating from Lutheranism to Bohemia made the paradigm adjustment choice feasible for me, still received wisdom I suppose but more thought out this time: Existentialism – Dylan’s line in “Visions of Joanna” sums it up, “We’re all sitting here stranded, doing our best to deny it.” As did Sartre and friend’s bleak take that there is no God, or s/he’s dead, no supernatural, a big NO to all that. Earth is a rock in space. Isolated individuals are subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, and the nets of chance… and especially there is indifference, if not hostility, from a lifeless backdrop and a ruthlessly competitive economic system mirroring Darwin’s fitness test.
Glimpses of an enlarged, more appealing perspective began to appear in the 60s, at least in the West, in the form of Eastern thought, Buddhism and Hinduism, delivered by Hesse, Huxley, Alan Watts, the Beats, LSD and The Beatles. But these remained occasional, not always consistent, hazy if intense glimpses untilEckhart Tolle’s books brought the various strands into sharp focus. Others may have arrived at this view before Tolle, and as clearly but I’m not aware of them (Huxley’s book Islandcomes close). And the point is the view, not who gets credit for it.
The three phases I’m describing, that I went through, could be thought to be incompatible, irreconcilably antagonistic, or they could be seen as paraphrasing each other, pointing at the same thing. The language of Christianity (or any other religion) could be metaphoric, standing for or pointing at a difficult to describe reality. Existentialism could be seen to be pointing directly at the reality itself. Both views must jettison some baggage to arrive at a happy marriage: Religion must recognize the Mythology of its language, dropping the literalist interpretation that renders it ludicrous; Existentialism must quit its pessimistic and arbitrary conclusion that reality is horrifying. When the marriage is consummated we are in the Great NOW where the barricade of mind chatter is set aside, leaving a non-narrative presence, a felt recognition of interconnection, of Oneness, with its healing component, the peace, as the preacher says, that passeth all understanding.
I once said to a friend that all the religions are saying the same thing, just different language. I could see him process this and hesitatingly agree. I added, “Even atheism.” which he clearly could not accept. I wasn’t even sure what I meant when I said it. Thinking it out I reached this explanation: the story of any religion, say the Jesus story, is designed to bring one to an awareness of being, an awareness where interconnection is self-evident. The story serves the same function as ritual, the church service, saying of the rosary or chanting. That makes the story not literal history but a parable or myth. But how could atheism serve this same function? Well theism is belief in god. The fundamentalist idea of God is certainly at odds with atheism for an atheist considers that notion wishful thinking or projection without foundation. But if we define the word God as the intelligence obviously characterizing reality, none but a fundamentalist, atheist or not, could disagree. We might prefer a different word for it but IT is self-evident. And then it’s not a stretch to note that discreet moments and entities come into and out of existence and so postulate a source out of which they come and to which they return, call it essence, expansive continuum…. or whatever words satisfy, even God. Thus we pronounce this couple, Existentialism and Religion, joined in, if not holy then wholly, matrimony.
What comes after life? Same thing that comes before life. What’s that? It can really only be felt but it can be pointed at with words. There is what some in the East call “The Ground of Being” out of which all of what we call existence emerges, appears and disappears, dust to dust, ashes to ashes… to the degree that we identify with fleeting physical reality, the illusion of temporality, fear of death will dominate. What is happening here is thoughts (identifying with illusion, seeing/thinking it passing, seeing/thinking it leading to personal pain and extinction) creating emotions, fear, feelings of vulnerability. When you still the mind’s ceaseless chattering you can feel interconnection, the ONEness of the great NOW which is your essence, out of which flows the illusion of passing, sequential time. Attempting to picture an afterlife is part of the wish to extend the illusion, part of the identification with form as opposed to essence. Essence can only really be felt. It can be thought, that is, words can point at it but to know it is to feel it. This has been called prayer, meditation, connection, heaven, oneness, peace, insight… words pointing at the felt interconnection, the eternal oneness of reality. The key is, when the mind is still, one’s essence can be felt and that is the ultimate reality, that is who you are, your real self. As Eckhart Tolle has it, “To feel and thus to know, that you are; and to abide in that deeply rooted state is enlightenment.”