Lifting the burden of unbelief

**

I awoke with a sense of relief. A load had lifted. Was I tending toward spiritual sprightliness? But alas, what really had happened?

Yesterday was All Saints Day, or Day of the Dead. During this Sunday the church community is invited to step forward, if they wish, to light a small candle near the altar in memory of someone recently dead. I surprised myself, rising without premeditation to light a candle for Michael Bachem, who died roughly a year ago. It was also support for his wife, my friend – and like Michael, a soulmate. She’s part of my Portland family.

Saturday I was reading an essay by a philosopher I deeply admire, Kelly Dean Jolley, on Liturgy – not a theme I’d expect from a philosopher. He writes wonderfully about Wittgenstein and Thoreau and occasionally about Eastern Orthodoxy. The essay untied a knot of issues for me.

In Liturgical moments, he wrote, we are called individually and collectively to respond from the heart with shared words that are addressed to each other and also to a presence beyond — hovering behind the organ pipes, during the prelude, behind the pulpit, descending through stained glass windows or down from the ceiling arches, from anywhere the holy of holies might dwell.

   I.

 After church my little family of five gathered at Snow Squall for late brunch – an easy transitional (and by now, traditional) ceremony of communion and thanksgiving, complete with mimosas and eggs-on-toast. It’s ceremonial, and nearly Liturgical: we are present to each other and present to ourselves one by one inwardly, and open to a hovering love and goodness. I’d add “justice,” but focus on justice too easily leads to more injustice and melancholy than we want at our table.

 Love and goodness are often implicit in our conversations, embodied in the to-and-fro flow of heartfelt words and openhearted listening. We’re a family at peace in active listening and responsiveness to each other.

The Liturgical bread-breaking, wine-sipping, candle-lighting space of the church is transported lock-stock-and-barrel to our meals and then further outward to the wider community of neighbors and acquaintances, whether or not they’re local churchgoers, with whom we share neighbor-respect and love. Brunch is a transitional service half way to home. This immersion in Liturgical Reality, in its Lived-Reality, is totally new to me.  I’m quite startled that I’m in the midst of it all.

As if responsive to my transition, The Washington Post asks, “Love thy Neighbor?”  It asks this in light of a suburbanite’s tackling Senator Rand Paul on his front lawn. And the Post answers, “It’s not as strong as it used to be!” The suburbs are unburdening themselves of neighbor-love while I find myself unburdening myself of skepticism about neighbor love here in Portland.  

I let skepticism go without adding any new attestation of non-skeptical belief. Instead, I find myself attaining whole-heartedness and light-heartedness in simple things. My Sunday epiphany was lighting a candle to the dead. This lifted my unbelief about that Liturgical gesture. Now I seem to have slipped toward a congregational neighbor-love that spills out from my church. Liturgical space drifts like a cloud beyond the choirs, pulpits, and arched ceilings where it begins. It marks communion with others that defeats loneliness and persistently heavy hearts.

II.

I doubt belief or unbelief (faith or unfaith) is a crystal-clear all-or-nothing issue. I’d rather say, for me, that it’s distributed across areas of activity and concern, sometimes stronger, sometimes, weaker — everything from lighting candles to chatting over coffee to giving talks or sermons from the pulpit, and on to smiling at neighborhood strangers or speaking with them.  

When a provoking Fundamentalist or MegaChurcher asks if I’m a believer, I’ll retort with an immediate, “No!” (meaning, “not your God or Liturgy”) and I won’t bother to elaborate. Among zealous skeptics I’ll often refer passionately to Alyosha Karamazov, defending his belief. If friends from my church ask me, I’ll pause, wondering where to begin.

 In my 20’s I came to see that Alyosha and the Elder, Zossima – two of Dostoevsky’s near-saints — were far better than the skeptical, even murderous, brother, Ivan. And these believers were miles better than their father, a garbage-dump. But Alyosha and Zossima are literary figures. Do they bear on my own spiritual floundering?

I soon learned to answer Ivan’s jaded objections to his little brother’s “naïve” Christian belief. I came to see that Ivan’s brilliant story of the Grand Inquisitor, who confronts and arrests Christ, is an unintended defense of Christ — not a defense of the Spanish Inquisition. In seeing Christ embrace the Inquisitor who would burn him, I became a disciple. But then I wondered how Ivan, an atheist, could have invented this sublime and troubling fable. And without formal conversion could I really believe in Christ, not just Dostoevsky’s literary Christ?

These affinities for religious writers and figures, in my writing and teaching, meant that it became easier to accept the everyday religious life of my friends. By my 50’s, one or two were ordained ministers. I was not a skeptical and cruel Ivan (as I could have been in adolescence) but I was far from holding the gravitas of Zossima or Alyosha. I found Kierkegaard an enormously sympathetic thinker. I didn’t know any Megachurchers or Fundamentalists so I didn’t have to be an adamant skeptic. I was partially unburdened of disbelief.

My minister-friends, to my liking, ran against the grain of all-too-human common secular and anti-religious predilections. They knew I responded to spiritual cues from Kierkegaard and Thoreau, from the Whirlwind’s Voice in Job, and from the Christ who confronts the Grand Inquisitor. The Bible was central for them but none were thumpers or proselytizers. They saw no threat in my portion of unbelief. It wasn’t noted. Even if our communion was not Liturgical, we shared Christian neighborliness and sensitivity to Creation and respect for the history of Christian belief. But the ideas of communion, neighborliness, or Liturgy were not forefront for me yet.

  III.

 I could say that I believe in the God of Alyosha but not of Joseph Smith, that I believe in the God of Job but not in the God of his friends, that I believe in Quaker Silence and Gregorian Chant and in the God of Glory Bach addresses in his St Mathew Passion.   I can work from the bottom up, finding an experiential basis for the presence of the Divine. “Voila! Wow! Let’s start with that infant’s smile, or the grandeur of the sea!” Experience can be exquisite and exclamatory. In contrast, I feel very uncomfortable working top down from a thesis that God exists — with these attributes and intentions, and not those. I’d reject taking God as an explanatory hypothesis.  I’d begin with the tangible, the tactile — with poetic-religious evocations of the effects this God seems to have on my immersions in everyday life. When you ask me, “Do you believe in neighbor-love?” or “Do you believe that Bach’s St. Matthew is Liturgy?” the questions open toward friendly and fruitful probing. They don’t encourage quick retorts. The issue of God or belief should be invitational, not the presumption of a “Yes-or-No” option-box to check.

I love art and music, Rembrandt and Bach, but that’s a shallow confession if I can’t say what sort of music or art, which portraits of Rembrandt, which parts of which Bach Prelude I love. The more I can follow up, the less shallow my attestation of love. If I believe, I need to say what sort of Christianity, what sort of Liturgy, what sort of God. I’ll vouch for the God of Psalms (most of the time), but avoid the God who stalks Moses and wants to kill him. I don’t want an explanation of God’s desire to kill – that’s beyond excuse.

 IV.

Appeals and responses in Liturgical space – hearing the appeal of the candle and answering it through lighting it — take place in conversational space. We live, move, and have our being in listening, responsive, conversational space. Even quite silent gestures and actions are interpersonal and conversational.

We are to some extent rational and knowing, political and religious, passionate and death-tending animals. But these stretches of our existence play out in the give-and-take of tacit or explicit conversational responsiveness.

We listen and respond to starry nights. We smile with smiling children. We are attracted or repelled by rumors of war or whispers from the Divine. Actions and passions are crucial. These too are interpersonal and communicative. In solitude we are in subdued inner conversations with ourselves and our settings. Even the primal “brute struggle for survival” is not just power versus power. It occurs within conversational dynamics: “It’s you or me, brother!” “I’d rather kill, and die a soldier, than starve.” “Save your family first!”

An exclamatory interpersonal response is as fundamental as an explanatory one — in fact, it’s more fundamental. We exclaim that we fear or are in love, are attracted or repulsed. Explanation is for a quiet hour apart from the immediacy of exclamatory response. An address arrives from the world. I have a startle response to it, or a subdued acknowledgement of it. Then, sometimes, I wonder what has just happened and I crave an explanation. Or else I might continue to bask in the excitement of a startling sunset or kiss or cadence. But whatever draws my attention and elicits exclamations: Think of that! What’s going on!  Where did you come from! puts the explanation-train in motion. Or I’m content to just bask.

I need to leave the urgency of explanations to get back to living and a cup of coffee, or a remembered kiss. Of course we might start explaining in the casual way we start cross-word puzzles, as a distracting pastime. But it seems enough to stick to explaining what elicits a degree of exclamation. And exclamations easily survive, and should survive, explanations – which have to stop sometime. After I’ve “explained” Bach I should still be moved by him, beyond all explanation. And if exclamatory, “wow-reactions” or sublime-responsive living in an inexplicable world is indeed worthwhile, then it’s worthwhile listening for more than explanations.

 In Liturgical space I speak words of Liturgy and mean them. I can say “Shana Tova” during Rosh Hashanah, or the Days of Awe, or say “Lila tov” for “Good night.” I shift from initial mimicking sounds to uttering sounds with sense for me and others I address. With time I’ll know when I mean words from the heart, rather than only repeating conventional jabber. I might say “For thine is the kingdom and power forever” merely to show my knowledge of a text rather than to enter the Liturgical space in a dance of praise to a presence who listens, well beyond my ken.

 If I utter the words of the prayer, “Mother-Father, hallowed be thy name” do I feel the resonance of “mother-father” deep within – or is this like singing German lieder, where I let the words flow out, however beautifully, in great ignorance of their full meaning? (I can make them moments in a musical phrase without making them moments of inter-personal rapport.)

      There’s a wonderful moment in the film version of Brideshead Revisited when a crass outsider meets those from the family estate to ask for the daughter’s hand – no doubt wanting to marry her for her riches as much as her beauty. He learns that as Roman Catholics the Brideshead family will not abide marriage to a non-Catholic. Impatiently, he asks, “Well, what do I have to say?” – as if rattling off a formula will make him an instant Roman Catholic. Surely, words of belief count only when declared in Liturgical space, attuned to the resonances of Liturgy.

   V.

My penchant for disbelief never interfered with my singing religious music – Bach’s passions, protestant hymns, weekly choir anthems. In fact, I had a musical- religious meltdown decades ago in the midst of singing Bach’s St. Mathew.

I was onstage as the tenor-evangelist utters Jesus’ cry, “My Lord, my Lord, why has thou forsaken me?” and gives up the ghost. The stage and audience fall motionless, silent. Death is present. The reverential silence lasts and lasts. The conductor is stock still. I shook, stifling tears. At last the chorus enters pianissimo. “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden . . .” After three measures I can crawl in. That moment left a lasting crack in my unbelief.

Before falling in love with Maggie Smith, I disbelieved there could be spunk or beauty or attractiveness in age. Growing up I had no encounters with lovable, quirky, elderly relatives or neighbors – only cranky or quiet ones. My ageism festered undetected. It was a burden that continued to seal me off from wise elders, the beauty of canes, or the loveliness of smiles creased with age. It’s now crystal clear that neighbor-love means unburdening myself of disbelief in the loveableness of my neighbor, of whatever age. Maggie Smiths and Candles for the Dead and Infant Smiles are now in a Liturgical space previously inhabited only by Bach Passions. And there is still much ignorance and disbelief to dismantle.

    VI.

We get to faith or belief – if we do – by this or that belief, perhaps, or by this or that encounter. Some just follow the footsteps of their mothers, fathers, and relatives. They’re born into it and live happily ever-after. Some suffer through divorce from an inherited marriage and move only cautiously toward a new tradition or belief. Some shop. Endlessly. Some are foxhole or crisis converts.  My path is not exactly any one of these. Perhaps all paths are unique. I’ve moved toward belief by learning what it is to embrace, and be embraced by, Liturgical space. And by unburdening myself of obstacles.

In youth I absorbed a kind of cocky anti-authoritarianism (not entirely a bad thing). Emerson intoned, “He would be a man (– let’s add, or a woman) must be a non-conformist.” That was my mantra. Even in high school, Thoreau was a hero because he was anti-slavery, anti-bourgeois consumerism and avoided Concord’s well-heeled churchgoers. He preferred tribal Native-American Liturgical space, and the crazy Liturgical call and response of loons across the pond. And as I came to teach Kierkegaard and Tillich and Marcel in the University, I could maintain an anti-authoritarian, anti-zealot stance while teaching unmistakably religious thinkers sympathetically. In their own time they were religious outsiders.

 In college suspicion of Liturgy fell in with suspicion of reigning politics, racism, and war-mongering. What escaped suspicion, and deserved unstinting belief, was Blue Grass, Socialism, Death of God Theology, Dylan — and the Yippee dogma of Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” We had to bend as our bodies entered fortydom and more. We had to unburden ourselves of disbelief in the middle-aged or middle-classed. The moneyed classes remained off the map.

Unbelief happens outside Liturgical space.  Politics ought to be the communion of the city or polis, with a mildly Liturgical space emergent at inaugurations and perhaps in grieving the dead. But politics is more a hopefully civilized, negotiated struggle for power than any call and response in Liturgical space. There is little room for song or communion, heart-to-heart action or deep listening.

If everyday life has become largely politics, including the politics of workplace and even of family life, there will be little place for faith or belief. For me, sensing Liturgical space, the space of spirit, is the richest way for me to understand and enact the heavens and vows of communion, good-will, mutual blessing, kind-heartedness, that are at the heart of Christian faith.

To enter belief through Liturgical space sidesteps the trap of holding to a set of assertions or cognitive theses, say about God’s attributes, the beginning of the cosmos, or eternal life. Clutched tightly in hand, these theses are recited by rote or held at an examiner’s distance for revision or critique. They are far outside the Liturgical space that offers rich portions of bracing and consoling religious life – singing, candle lighting, praying, weeping at funerals – portions waiting our gentle embrace.

  VII.

The unexamined life is not worth living. As a philosopher, you’d expect me to say this. But we also need a life centered in and radiating out from mutual embrace. We need – I need — a life of candles for the dead and blessings for the new-born, of giving alms for the needy and sharing good humor with the neighbor, of grieving great loss. I need the gifts of Liturgical life invading secular life at least some of the time. And I trust that in some subtle, unprovable, unarguable sense, life gives the values that are the ultimate measure of any life I could call my own.  

 

 

 

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