Presented at Twin Cities Friends Meeting (St. Paul, Minnesota, USA), spring 2000 or so
I received a list of questions to help me prepare for this morning’s talk. I understand it was just intended to help me approach the subject of my spiritual journey, and not as a set of directions.
I considered politely setting the list aside, trying to speak from my heart without being reactive. But I crashed so violently into the questions, and the slippery conception of God they hinge on, that I felt I needed to address that tension.
The list is prefaced with a sort of disclaimer: “The use of ‘God’ here refers to that Great Mystery, the Inner Light, the Holy Spirit, your Higher Power that is in all things seen and unseen.” This seems to read as a broad, easy conception referring to no particular belief, but perhaps to a goodness and greatness at the heart of everything and everyone. And it made me squirm.
Some of you are aware that I don’t believe in God. I also don’t believe in a goodness and greatness at the heart of everything. The world has not presented itself to me that way: The hundred humiliations of my childhood, the afflictions and addictions that nearly destroyed my siblings and me, the Nazi regime that killed my grandfather and millions like him, lions and tigers that eat their prey alive, earthquakes and volcanos and tornadoes that burn, crush and tear us apart without reason or regret.
Generally, I’m quicker to forgive the cruelty of human beings than the cruelty of the world itself–unlike the stones, people suffer for the privilege of consciousness. Some of these cruel tendencies in the world have grown gentler, most often by the efforts of kind and ambitious human beings. For the most part, though, the cruelty continues, is a central aspect of life on earth.
Another aspect of life on earth is its extraordinary richness, grace and beauty. I walk through the woods in the fall when everything is dying, or in the spring when everything is coming to life, and the rich odor of dirt and last year’s dead leaves rises from the forest floor. It’s hard to experience that living poem and still blame death, though I do blame death, for the suffering of our lives.
I’ve enjoyed walking in the woods for as long as I can remember, but it was only a few years ago, on a forest walk in October near Winona, that this other, gentler side of death fell on me like a ton of flower petals. The most compelling aspects of life–the way our children play and learn and grow, the way our parents soften and slow down and find a warmer place in our hearts in their last years, the way nature’s beauty is most breathtaking in a time of transition–all this depends on the fact of death. It makes me remember that cruel and honest line from John Updike’s “Rabbit is Rich,” when Harry is gloating about the Toyota dealership he’s inherited from his father-in-law: “Great thing about the dead. They make room.”
This recognition of the beauty and richness of the world doesn’t mean I let the world off the hook for its cruelty. Quite the opposite. Much of the richness comes out of my affection and sympathy for creation in its suffering. King Lear is beautiful carrying his dead daughter onto the stage, but no one should have to suffer like that. It’s not right, no matter what God says.
So there’s a contradiction at the heart of my atheism. I live in a world without God, but I’m angry, outraged, obsessed, with the idea of God. Much of my poetry takes the form of an argument with God. I’ve always thought Job was the hero of his story, and God a petty tyrant trying to win a bet with the devil, then blowing smoke to justify his bad behavior to Job. That story–in fact, most of the Old Testament–rings true with the way I see the world treating it’s people.
Sometimes believers have suggested that I’m not really an atheist, but I don’t know it yet. They mean well, but they’re wrong. It’s a fundamental contradiction, a paradox–not an error to be corrected. I went on a Split Rock poetry retreat a few years ago, where a Methodist minister’s wife told me she thought I was “haunted by God.” I don’t know about that, but I like the image.
I have a sort of faith–perhaps even a strong faith–but it has little to do with belief or an expectation that things will turn out well. In fact, I’m quite certain things will not turn out well–we’re dying, it’s what we do. My faith has to do with knowing what is important: giving ourselves as fully as we can to our lives here and to each other, regardless of the future. We are living, we are suffering, we are dying, we need each other: I believe that with all my heart and mind. I don’t love despite my Godless pessimism; I love because of it.
Not believing in God is not a choice I have made. It is not a decision or the outcome of a logical formula. It is the way I experience the world, and I live entirely within my human experience. It would be easier for me to stop breathing than to start believing.
This community, filled with good-hearted seekers and believers of every sort, is my community. Ever since I began to feel that connection, nearly ten years ago, I’ve been struggling to understand what my role is here, how my atheism might be anything but a barrier, an awkward silence. I’ve never lied about or been ashamed of my atheism, but I have been silent when I should have spoken. It’s a hard thing to talk about, particularly in a faith community. It’s been a sort of “coming out” for me, slowly forcing myself to bring it into conversations where it’s relevant, hearing the whole range of reactions, mostly kind and curious, sometimes perplexed, always respectful.
The way this community has welcomed me, aware or unaware of my godlessness, has been lovely. I wouldn’t want to change a thing. I certainly don’t want people to be uncomfortable speaking of God in my presence, in fear of offending me. I love the way you love God. I love even more the way you love one another. I’m grateful for this chance to tell you the way I love you: without God.
I’d like to end by reading a poem, then hear any questions.
Sleeping With The Trees
While the trees
slept, someone gave them a soul.
Waking, their black branches wept
at the thunder. Rain
swelled the soil’s breast
heavy as hunger. The forest’s many mouths
began to suck. Long and deeply
lost, still wet from the rain, a man
came into this nursery
of ancient infants,
heard their branches coo
and gently cry. Out of the soft soil,
the lushness of death
rose and filled his nostrils. He breathed,
and breathed again,
spread his arms wide
until the end of fear.