Talking About God

I didn't know what picture to use. So I used Jews because there's not a lot of us and it's good to shift people's expectations. And while I may respect the form of religiosity in this image, I am happy that it isn't the only form. This just doesn't look too, uh, enticing to me or for me. But whatever floats your boat. 

I really, really loathe the question, Do you believe in god? I have absolutely no idea what it means, what it wants, what the question is even asking. Is it asking if I go to synagogue? If I believe there's a Man who created all this and judges us? It's an idiotic question — not because there is no such thing as belief or god but because the question doesn't stipulate its terms. What does saying yes or no mean?

Part of the problem is that there is what Plato might call a natural definition and a conventional definition. That is, there is a God who derives His meaning from convention, from cultural institutions: to believe in God is to confess, to pray, to daven, to eat horseradish or little crackers or not eat at all for a month, to believe in an eternal Judge and a soul and all that business. I believe we often reply to the empty question of belief with the conventions in mind. Many people, for instance, grow up in strict, weird religious households or communities where onanism is verboten and queers are bashed and such, all in the name of God. For them, declaring themselves atheists is powerful, a release, an opening. I might even say it's a religious experience. 

But surely there's another question implied that has nothing to do with churches and synagogues, nothing to do with conventions: Forget all the churches and mosques and synagogues, all the dogmatic bullshit, and answer me this: Do you believe in something?

Kierkegaard claims that there are few Christians in Christendom. The challenge of believing that some skinny Hebe from Nazareth who poops and sweats and gets hard ons is the eternal god is, alas, too much for most to bear. Or so he says.  

Well, it seems to me, everyone believes in something, some kind of ideal or force. That something may or may not be named god but, from another perspective — from a natural perspective — it might as well be. All your actions have ideals and forces which run through them, animate them, explain them, justify them — even if it all happens behind your back. So I might say you believe in god or gods of one sort or another whether you believe it or not.

For example, in On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche claims that a belief in God is constitutive of an ideologic-philosophic-socio-cultural-existential regime. It is a belief in the unity of the subject. It is, moreover, a belief in the existence of a subject in the first place, that something called the subject exists, that there is an I and a you that comes from Him, whether you like it or not. That is, you can say my I doesn't come from God but, according to Nietzsche's genealogy, yes it does. Sorry, but the birth of your I and the birth of the One God go hand in hand.  

This God-given I exists beyond the material, and invisible, earthly world. It is meta-physical. For Nietzsche, the invention of God — of the Judeo-Christain God — is a way to judge the strong and noble by giving them a soul that the weak can hold responsible. Suddenly, the bird of prey is guilty for eating the little lamb. The I, the bad conscience, moral judgement: these all stem from a belief in God. And who is more judgmental, who clings to the I, more than so-called atheists? Yep, self-proclaimed atheists tend to be the biggest believers of 'em all.

From this perspective, then, there are plenty of people who would never say they believe in god but most certainly do. Ask many would-be non-believers the same moronic question — Do you believe in god? — and you get a panoply of moronic replies.

No, I believe in science. Oy! Frankly, I have no idea what that means. I realize in some circles, faith and science are opposed. But those circles frame the discussion poorly and, well, stupidly. Sure, there are self-proclaimed religious folks who believe God really created the world in six days and evolution is a sham. And there are those non-religious folks who believe facts are facts and religion is silly and evolution is the Word on high. To say I believe in science, not God is not to say anything at all but to invoke an achingly banal dichotomy and straw man of both religion and science. 

And the hilarious reality is that many claims to science mimic the worst religious zealotry. This is the truth! Anything else is heresy! Acupuncture is heresy! Shamanism is heresy! It's gobbledygook! Facts! Only Facts! Das ist die Varheit! As if there were absolute subjects — a God given I — who could stand back and see the world from afar to assess its truths. Science and its truths are predicated on the same ideological assumptions of a certain belief in God: Man was created separately from the world in order to judge and know the world. A certain kind of science and a certain kind of God were, alas, born together. Twinsies. It's no surprise, then, that from the right distance the religious zealot and the scientific zealot look identical. Ideologues are ugly regardless of what they profess.  

Of course, just as there are different notions of belief in god — that is, uncertain, humble curious, generous believers — there are different sciences. There is, for instance, a beautiful science that practices empiricism, a reckoning of phenomena in all of their multihued splendor. This kind of empiricism stands not opposed to but separate from truth. What happens happens and, most likely, it's always changing and so it goes and ain't it cool? I call this science but there are clearly multiple sciences out there, some less receptive than others. 

Another idiotic answer to the meaningless question: I don't believe in God but I'm spiritual. Jesus. What does 'spiritual' even mean? Does it mean you talk and think about your spirit, whatever that is — for those who call themselves spiritual sure as shit talk about it non-stop? That you buy the books? Go to retreats? Is there such a thing as someone who's not spiritual, who's not of the spirit?  It's all very odd to me. I find many people who profess to be "spiritual" actually espouse many of the beliefs I associate with belief in God, namely, that there is an invisible soul that transcends the material world. 

So when someone says I don't believe in God but I'm spiritual, I believe they're saying that they do believe in God but not in the conventional sense of anti-abortion, gun toting patriot loons (what a shame that this is what we believe religious is!). They don't want the cultural or conventional associations that come with using the words God and religious. The word spiritual, to them, invokes a different set of literature and associations: Ekhardt Tolle, Ram Dass, and yin yangs rather than the Gospels, Torah, and crucifix.

If you put this sticker on your bumper, are you "religious"?

To me, however, it's all just literature and icons and words that might or might not stir my heart, my belly, my mind, my loins, my life. There are no doubt as many douchebags who profess allegiance to Tolle as there are who profess allegiance to the Gospels or, for that matter, to so-called science. No group is free from zealotry or douchebaggery. And, of course, there is such a clear complicity between these beliefs — which is neither good nor bad but certainly belies their own sense of themselves. 

From one perspective, atheists, church goers, ardent scientists, and the spiritual all believe the same thing, more or less: there is a truth that is distinct from our bodies and it's out there to be known. This is not a condemnation or criticism. It's an observation meant to help frame how we talk about god, God, and religion. Everyone has a god of some sort. For whom are you an agent? (pace WS Burroughs).  

I do not mean to conflate ardent church goers with scientists with atheists. There are clearly important differences. But not in their belief per se; they all believe in the same God. But their sensibilities are so different. The way they speak, the things they read, the way they distribute the play of body, spirit, nature, order, and agency varies more or less. Is God vengeful? Or mysteriously capricious? Is nature indifferent? Or is there an implied teleology, a purpose, to nature's chaotic mechanics? The proper question, it seems, is not Do you believe in God? but Which God do you believe in?

All of this has me wonder would it mean to be godless. I'm not talking about atheists as atheists tend to be fervently devout. I'm wondering about the godless. I suppose that would entail someone so petty, so myopic, that all he cared about were his immediate, inane, physical needs — money, physical comfort, toilet paper. 

And yet this person is not an aesthete as an aesthete has a kind of ideal: pleasure, a relishing of the things of this world as if they were divine. No, I'm trying to imagine someone who is so absent to himself and to the world, so wrapped up in fear and anxiety, that whether he's eating sushi, drinking fine gin, listening to Bach's Goldberg Variations, making love, or davening to the kaddish he's still mired in his own worst bullshit.  

The godless are not indulgent. The godless are petty, boring, and banal, devoured by their own angst. As Kierkegaard writes, it's this and not physical disease that is the sickness unto death. Nothing is more awful, I believe, than to be godless. As the risk of invoking True Blood and suffering the humiliating consequences, to be godless is the true death, a blackness without resonance. 

Me, I hope I am not godless, even if I'm sure I have godless moments. I was depressed for several years, sensing and finding and exuding darkness — like the Great Evil in The Fifth Element, only less hegemonic. During this period, I had moments of grace when I could participate in the cosmic flow, feel the energy of life. Usually, this was when I walked in the classroom as the classroom became a most welcome respite from the pit I'd entered and become. At this time, the classroom was my church; my demented lectures, my prayers; my pacing, my davening. Those dark, dank Berkeley lecture halls became a place to summon and sense and experience the exquisite infinite flux of all things. 

How, then, might I reply when someone asks if I believe in god (or is it God? This is a field day for Derrida, the question itself hovering between speech and writing, spirit and flesh, as the very nature of truth and morality lingers in twilight)? Well, I'd probably avoid the question and slink away, back to my bat cave. Just because someone asks you a question doesn't mean you have to answer it.

But sometimes I like to throw people off, especially anyone who thinks they know who I am. Liberal middle class folks are the most insidious at suggesting "we" are all cut from the same cloth. Oh, that George W! What a ninny! they say with the most repulsive complicitous laugh. When such a person asks and assumes they know the answer, I say, Yes, of course I believe in god. 

For the most part, however, I do not believe in the One God — except when I'm feeling exceptionally guilty, something I've spent the majority of my adult life trying to shed. And I do not believe in a hierarchy of access to divinity. But I do believe there are some who live more thoroughly within a kind of grace (what is grace? That is a question for another time). We know these people when we meet them. They shine; they radiate; they shimmer. The cosmos itself moves through them harmoniously and poignantly, infusing them with wonder and wit and sundry wiles or, perhaps, radiant open naiveté. I think of my friend Francis Bossuyt, no longer with us, who just had that way — not wit or wile per se but unbounded wonder and generosity and a sweet, curious, palpable love of life.

For me, empiricism and belief in god are the same thing. Well, let me correct that. I'm not sure I believe in anything but I do believe with happening, with becoming, with the cosmos. I believe I am constitutive and constituent within the infinite flow of all things — stars, moods, winds, leaves, salamanders, art, the glow of this screen, the word "pumpernickel," and pastrami for that matter, not to mention russian dressing, affects of all and every sort, aliens of all and every sort, rye whiskey, Walt Whitman, my boy's locks of hair, theories of religion, the concept of god, the act of believing. There is nothing and everything out there because everything is right here and it includes me and this essay and my pathetic pubescent facial hair and the Torah on my shelf and what I believe and believe I believe and what I don't believe, too. It is all this. Always the procreant urge of the world (Whitman). 

We see a lot of it; we don't see even more of it. We don't necessarily feel all of it but we are party to its elaborate mechanics, its pulls and pushes, its magnetism and repulsions and even its indifferences. We are the surging, at least this inflection of it. 

Might I call this god? It depends on to whom I'm talking and what I want to accomplish. Religion is a way of distributing and assembling and arranging all these factors. It's a way of making sense of things. God or gods, spirit or spirits, truth or truths may figure somewhere in there. Or may not. This is how and why I read philosophy: all these different modes of making sense of it all. All these ways of talking about it. I may say I'm a believer but that doesn't make me one; it only has me traverse the infinite space between the conventional and natural definitions of the word god.

My point, I suppose, is that it's silly to ask or say I believe in God or don't believe in God. We all, hopefully, believe something, believe with something that inspires and enthuses and infuses us. Rather than ask: Do you believe in God? a better question is: Who or what or how are your gods? 


Lindsay Meisel said...

This really hit home, and then some.

When someone asks me if I believe in god, I always insist that I'm not an atheist, I just don't care. Who decided this was an interesting question? Why are you letting them dictate the terms of our conversation? Why are we even talking about this?

But after reading this, I realize my complicity in setting the terms I claim to dislike. Why not ask a better question instead of attacking the original question with bitterness and resentment? Those feelings are disingenuous anyway; I like getting the chance to reframe the question and turn the conversation.

Daniel Coffeen said...

It's one of those questions people ask, almost casually, and I've never, ever known what the fuck they mean. And this has always irritated me. Which is not fair. People ask all kinds of silly questions all the time. What's your favorite color? Who's your best friend? Discourse exceeds the poor question asker.

Ergo, my attempt to shift the discourse. At least for the three people I ever interact with.

Anonymous said...

interesting post, and interesting affects of it :)...... early, when someone asked me "do you believe in god?" i usually replied like "yea...., so what's about your girlfriend, have you noticed her hair?" ---because i was afraid, afraid that somebody would know my deepest things.

But now, after reading your essay, it really opened a lot of new questions like: "do i have to answer this at all? it can be boring topic and wasting of time", "what saying "yes" would do? - the person will like me more?", "what saying "no" would do? - he/she would try to prove me the opposite?" and .. so on.

so now this question seems not so secret and private like it was before (to me) :)

But anyway, there's a one follow up question: "What are the obligations after saying "yes/no?" (or are there any obligations at all?)
If person says "I believe in God" - does he has to give a change to every homeless he met after he said this? he might think: "well, I told this girl I believe in God...so i should now behave properly, otherwise she might think that i am a lier and a bad one" :) and it lasts for about 15 minutes..
Or if a person says "No, I don't" - so from now on, we can judge all his life from that perspective: "Oh, you know Joe, he doesn't believe in God - that's why every girl dumps him." or "-Joe is a jerk! - Yea, he doesn't believe in God."

And I noticed, I can be wrong, but, this question (and other silly questions) never (!) never boost a conversation - it's just the asker make this face expression and probably says to himself "Okay, so now I know something about you. .... I can't use it. ...At least I can tell this little fact about you to our common friend". :)

roca de carioca said...

A humbling and provoking read with a delightful tempo...

I liked your "distance" with which you viewed and treated varying discourses and dichotomies. The perspective really invited me to consider the nuances of said discourses, dichotomies, and affects.

As others have mentioned, the question itself presents an awkward situation because I've often found it's self interested, even in a selfless or intimate conversation. It makes me want to respond, "it depends on how you see things," because of the entrenched "conventional definitions" that often encumber the query. I need to know how she/he feels about it so I can tap into the right realm for a response that will most clarify how I make sense of things, how I feel things.

Maybe that's my response to your questions, too. How I feel things is my relationship, relinking, religion to god. How I filter and take things up is because of my beliefs, old (lesser so, but inevitably still) and new, and that filter shapes my rituals.

It's almost like when I would take several classes in a semester and create a sort of narrative connection to make sense of all of them. The essay written by that narrative would be a slice of my gods because it's really what I processed from those classes, whether the essay was written or not. That slice is part of the mosaic that I suppose constitutes the god concept for me, though it's not one made of mortar and tiles, but of some other solids in an amorphous goop infused with nebulous gaseous concepts, like a carbonated gumbo. And the solids, liquids and gases are different slice forms. And apparently I eat my gods.

So the soup's metaphorical consumption or consideration or creation is a ritual that connects me to my divinities. And it follows that there's a variety of rituals and soups, even for me.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I love this figure of gods as soup, a conglomeration, a mixing and cooking and stewing, a sloshing about. It allows for the amorphic nature of it all. The question tends to imagine a pointed reply as it asks for a yes or no. But if we're talking about soup, a soup made across time through to this moment, then there can be no yes or no. All there can be is: I like my soup! Or: I eat my soup.

In fact, whenever someone asks me if I believe in god, from now on that's what I'm gonna reply: I eat my soup.

@ Steve: I believe there is only obligation if the believer believes he or she has such obligations. No belief necessitates others. I suppose the real issue here is that belief does not determine action as much as action determines, defines, delimits belief. If that makes sense.

Thanks for joining the conversation, by the way.

stephen peterson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
roca de carioca said...

glad you dig it

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