Letting go of God

Author: Nancy Mairs

I am fed up with feeling sorry for God. “Poor God,” I sigh in response to one horrific headline after another, “the things they are doing in your name."

The world is being battered senseless by bad news. God will love you on condition that you believe that Jesus will personally save you from the inconceivable horrors God has cooked up for everyone else. God will love you if you submit totally to God and use whatever means you can to expand the territory in which everybody else does so too. God will love you unless you permit the aforementioned expansionists to encroach upon the territory where you worship God. God will love you as long as you fight to the death to protect the land God gave you 3,000 years ago, no matter who else lays claim to the same area and how many of them you have to kill in performing this sacred duty. All these messages reveal a great deal about human nature—the guilt, the fear, the territoriality, the arrogance—but virtually nothing about the Creator.

Recently, I’ve come to recognize that inward rue and apology are not good enough responses to the very public and often violent appropriation of God’s name and God’s will to justify such outrageous beliefs and behaviors. Although I have never quite overcome my embarrassment at speaking of these matters, repressed as religious utterance was first by my family and then by my thoroughly secular academic career, I now view my reticence as mere self-protection. Even though 82 percent of people in the United States pray to God daily, according to one study, religion has taken on an unsavory character for many, appearing to have fallen into the hands of dirty old men or to have been co-opted by simpleminded little boys brandishing at some “evil” opponent a holy book in one hand and a weapon in the other. Who wants to engage in practices at the risk of being taken by the world for a pervert, a terrorist, a superstitious simpleton, or an outright nutter? I don’t want to be taken for one of “them"—the ones who boast of possessing God’s exclusive affection and consign to perdition all whose beliefs differ from theirs.

I know God. I do not mean that I have a special intimacy with God, either direct or mediated by some human or divine representative. I know God in the way that anyone is aware of the reality in which she is embedded. And what I know differs so radically from the views commonly taken as “religious” nowadays that I feel compelled to speak out. By so doing, I intend to redeem God from the ones who hold the Holy One captive in their own system of belief. Failing to perceive that Yahweh, Shekinhah, Allah, the Buddha, Krishna, Olorun, Áwonawilona and countless other focuses of worship manifest Holiness, no one of them more than any other since Holiness cannot exceed itself, God’s captors each believe they’ve laid hands on the “true” God, as though God could be anything but True. They snap and snarl and tear at one another’s flesh like curs while God watches, weeps and (I’ll have to return to this point again and again) embraces them all.

The compulsion I feel is not imposed by God. God does not want me to speak out in defense of the Holy, any more than God wants one political candidate or another to be president of the United States or the United States to dominate the world, whether economically, politically or religiously. God does not want. Period. That’s not who or how God is. The need to reduce God to a person having mental states with which we are familiar—desire, anger, retribution (but seldom, alas, a sense of humor)—does God little service and ourselves even less. We would do better to stand before God in silence, allowing the Holy to open to us without our definition or direction. Only God can say what God is. We can only allow ourselves to be taught.

Hard lessons

Sometimes the lessons can be a little rough. A few years ago, not for the first time, I fell flat on my face. Literally. In my life, multiple sclerosis serves to translate metaphor back into materiality, as I bear ample scars to attest. This time, purple stained my swollen left eye and jaw; the crowns on my two front teeth, put in place after an earlier fall, chipped; my lips puffed out in a parody of a sexual pout; and inside the lower lip, four sutures held together the raggedly bitten flesh. As the swelling pressed both inward and outward, I floundered in a fog of painkillers, hating them but grateful for the periods of respite they afforded. Just then I also fell flat on my face figuratively, yet another grant application turned down, and no anodyne could dull the stab of despair this sort of rejection always brings. Body and soul united in one long moan.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told, often by strangers as they observe my crippled form, “God never sends us more than we can handle.” I know that they mean to comfort me for what they assume, quite wrongly, to be a wretched fate, and so I grit my teeth and smile—but weakly. I despise pious clichés, not merely because they falsify experience (most of us face, from time to time, more than we can handle) but because they distance and distort the Holy. “God” doesn’t “send” the events of our lives, for good or ill. What happens, happens.

On rainy days, which come seldom enough in the desert, my elderly white cat used to stare out the back door, then turn his green gaze on me and open his pink maw. “Mwrk!” he would say in a voice ridiculously ill-suited to his bulk.

“Don’t look at me,” I told him every time. “I didn’t do it. It’s not my fault.” He never believed me. Why should he? I caused the kitty kibble to materialize in his bowl. Mine was the warmth against which he pressed, rumbling sonorously, on winter nights. With me around, doors opened and closed at his petition and dreadful shouts issued forth whenever he chased the black cat, equally elderly and a quarter his size. And every so often, despised water descended from the sky, flooding the hollows under the privet where he preferred to lie before an owl swooped from nowhere one night and carried him away.

Winchester was entitled to his magical sense of my powers. His brain was the size of an immature Brussels sprout at best. In infancy, human creatures, though differently endowed, make similar conjectures. All of us go through a stage of belief in the Almighty Parent before whom we are powerless, who dispenses and withholds at will, who knows our every thought and action even when out of view and judges them, often severely. But we can go through it into a spiritual adulthood in which we recognize that God, though infinitely mysterious, is no magician, is not indeed an entity at all but rather an eternal unfolding in which all creation—even Winchester, even I—have our parts and bear our responsibilities.

No Force hurled me from my wheelchair face down on a tiled floor. Heedlessly, I left my wheelchair turned on and struck the joystick with my forearm, whipping around with such momentum that I pitched out. In future, I would be wise to attend to the little red button more closely. Nor did any Intelligence poison the minds of a panel of judges against my work. I have perhaps mistaken my own merits, or the judges have, but God surely has not.

What happens, happens. The Anglo-Saxons had a word for this observation, wyrd, which they used in ways that resemble our use of “fate” or “divine will.” Perhaps because my lineage can be traced to the speakers of that flinty tongue, I am drawn to the tone of resignation in the word, the sense—born perhaps of a severe climate with a short growing season when there were few remedies against exposure, starvation and illness—that events simply occurred, unwilled, uncontrolled. This did not lead to defeatism, since I am here to affirm that the race survived, but to a kind of immersion in and acquiescence to whatever life brought next.

If there’s anything the modern mind cannot bear, it’s the suspicion that no one is in charge. Individuals want to control their own destinies, and they expect assistance in the venture from a variety of social institutions. If a smooth course gets disrupted, someone can always be found to blame: the negligent parent, the inept schoolteacher, the corrupt cop, the sleazy manufacturer, the greedy lawyer, the power-hungry politician. Most would not lump God in with this unsavory assembly, but in attributing life’s accidents to Him, unconsciously they make of God a similarly remote and even inimical other (to whom they invariably refer with the masculine pronoun) just for the reassurance that Somebody is in control.

Better, I think, to embrace chaos, which has, physicists have discovered, its own weird elegance, and to admit that no Supreme Being stands outside creation taking charge, in the comforting way the vestigial infant in each of us would like to think, of the events that befall us. God is the whole: the fall, the pain, the healing, the new fall. . . . We are never left alone to face the tests an Almighty Examiner chooses to set for us. We, like the rest of creation, are in God, of God, and God is unfailingly present as Whatever Happens Next.

God as a process

For many of us, the idea of God as a verb—a process, specifically an unfoldment, without origin, without end, without site or stint or cease—seems too vast and cold to provide the sense of spiritual relationship we crave. We simply don’t relate to processes. We may observe them, we may participate in them, but we don’t talk to them person to person. We need a listening entity. We need God to sit still. I think of God in terms of rudimentary quantum mechanics: as a wave until collapsed into a particle by my focus. In this state, God can be imagined as a static Being who can be addressed. When I look away, God reverts to waviness and flows on. The particulate form provides me the means to speak both to and about the Holy.

Although I believe that perfect prayer should consist of praise for the All and meditation on the Mystery at its heart, my own prayer tends to lapse into petitions to a sort of Parent: “please, please, please.” I tend to pray hastily, often in a panic, or by rote. I’m most apt to ask for trivialities, like money, or impossibilities, like being cured of my multiple sclerosis. I don’t believe in divine intervention. I believe in miracles, but only as random inexplicable events. I know that God doesn’t hand out treats in return for my good behavior, just as I feed biscuits to my Labrador retriever when he sits on command; nor does God chastise me for my sins. I am not the object of the Almighty’s operant conditioning. Nevertheless, a low mutter—even a whine—of petition accompanies me throughout my days.

I am shamed by the baseness of my spiritual life, but I also recognize petitionary prayer as a habit developed out of that magical childhood thinking I mentioned earlier. I want my own way. I want God to give it to me. Right now. The fact that we “outgrow” childhood doesn’t mean that we shed it altogether; every phase of our selves dwells in us and informs subsequent development. Not surprising, then, that old elements emerge and re-emerge, often without any apparent reason, like the dark heads of seals erupting through the ocean surface. The challenge is to identify and acknowledge them without permitting them to cramp mature experience.

Some people get stuck. Some people make a religion out of their stuckness. In it lies the basis of fundamentalism, I think. The deity is represented psychically as a forbidding Father who looms out of the primal scene to pronounce a long list of commandments and an even longer one of prohibitions on pain not merely of death but of infinite torment, an orientation corresponding to the most elementary stage of moral development. He has revealed these principles once and for all in sacred writings or oral tradition to a chosen and enlightened segment of humanity, often requiring that His followers proselytize nonbelievers and, in some practices, exterminate whoever refuses to convert. Both speculation and diversity are anathema.

The payoff for adopting the posture of a child who is sure to perform all manner of bad behavior unless obedient to God’s strict tutelage? Absolute assurance of God’s protection of and preference for the self (and, by extension, those who share the self’s beliefs and practices) and, for obeying the rules, the reward of a lifetime: heaven. When Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air, asked Tim LaHaye, co-author of the wildly successful Left Behind series of novels, whether he believed that he would go to heaven, he replied without a nanosecond’s hesitation that he was confident of it but that she, a Jew, would not. Many of us would have to scrutinize our consciences, and in the unlikely event that we found nothing blameworthy there, we might still conclude that God will have to decree our ultimate destination when the time comes. But once a fundamentalist subscribes to a set of divine precepts, the way to eternal bliss is clear and unquestionable.

I do not doubt that such a belief system consoles its adherents. I would happily leave them to their comfort—in this harsh world where one may fall on one’s face at any moment, who could begrudge it?—if only they would leave me to mine. But because a fundamentalist system is rooted in teachings believed to be absolute and inerrant, the spiritual flexibility I enjoy can only be condemned as heterodoxy and sacrilege. I remember a minister admonishing me that I must, in my nursing-home work, endeavor to bring people to Jesus even on their deathbeds so that they would not be damned to eternal punishment. A system so rigid and fearful walls God up with His believers in a hermetically sealed box, a big one, often crowned with a dome or a steeple, or a little one in which God himself has scribbled his instructions. Probably I cannot persuade its adherents to open their souls and embrace the Whole in which they live. No word can breach that barrier. All I can do is to reveal what I know.

The Holy among us

I often cast my meditations in terms of Jesus’s teachings because my entire life has been steeped in them, not because I consider them singularly apt. They echo and are echoed in utterances about sacred matters throughout history. I do not believe that “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” [John 3:18]. You do not have to believe in Jesus Christ in order to lead a holy life. I do not know why anybody would tell you that you did, unless to scare you into being good by threatening you with untold horrors in the afterlife, where wickedness must be punished since it is so seldom on this side of the grave. I’m not persuaded that there is an afterlife, not in the sense most people conceive it, but if there is, I doubt that it will be given over to your chastisement. No, I’m afraid you’ll have to be good on your own, without threats or bribes, although the Jesus of the Gospels provides some helpful instructions.

You don’t even have to believe in God in order to be good. That is, God will enter the world through you whether or not you think that God exists. Lately, I’ve begun to wonder whether the world and all its denizens might be more likely to survive if fewer people believed in what they call “God” (or “Allah” or what have you), since the deity they construct and worship is so often dangerously cruel, exclusive and demanding. This one (and many faiths insist that “He” is one, even though they obviously have no idea what oneness is), inviting division and intolerance, can hardly be called “holy."

In short, millions of self-identified religious people just don’t “get” God. In this regard, Eastern teachers better communicate the quiet receptivity true holiness requires. According to the eighth-century Chinese monk Pai-chang, “Since there has been enlightenment in the past, there must also be enlightenment in the present. If you can attain now and forever the single moment of present awareness, and this one moment of awareness is not governed by anything at all, whether existent or nonexistent, then from the past and the present the Buddha is just human, and humans are just Buddhas."

Moreover, the contemporary Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh makes clear, we are essential to the presence of the Holy among us: “When we say, ‘I take refuge in the Buddha,’ we should also understand that ‘The Buddha takes refuge in me,’ because without the second part the first part is not complete. The Buddha needs us for awakening, understanding, and love to be real things and not just concepts. They must be real things that have real effects on life. Whenever I say, ‘I take refuge in the Buddha,’ I hear ‘the Buddha takes refuge in me.’” Thought about in terms of such reciprocity, God cannot be a possessible entity, the property of some, the enemy of others. God comes to us all, bidden or unbidden, and we all serve as God’s safe haven.

Even though I don’t fret whether anyone else believes in God, I am happy that I do. Awareness that I am immersed in the Holy encourages me to attend to and appreciate every element I encounter. I do so more readily with some creatures, objects and events than others, I confess; and I do so more happily with those I can admire than with those I must endure, admonish or correct. With certain politicians I have so far failed altogether. Seriously, in God I know that all creation is interconnected and sacred and that I must live in it responsively and responsibly.

I don’t think that my belief confers meaning to myself or anything else. I’m pretty sure that the cosmos is meaning-less in any human sense of the word, without purpose or consequence. It is not for. It is. Yahweh, in Hebrew Scripture: I Am. What God offers is not significance for a chosen few but mystery for whoever chooses to see it, an inexhaustible source of devout astonishment.

Nancy Mairs, a poet and essayist living in Tucson, has published eight books, among them Ordinary Time, Waist-High in the World and A Troubled Guest.