A God by Any Other Name

Now I know I really am getting old –I’m starting to think about religion. Well, perhaps it’s unfair to single it out like that. Religion, or at least wonder about existence is such a part of the human Umwelt that, like the air we breathe, it is an appreciation that is tempered by its ubiquity. But I am reminded of a section of a poem written by the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed.’ It is a beautiful image, and although the entire poem is a bit too religious for my taste, the metaphor has a universal appeal that I suspect transcends even sectarian boundaries.

Given what I take to be our omnipresent awe about life, I have to suspect that other sentient beings –alien beings- would have a similar acknowledgment of the Mystery of Being, and wonder about the unknown… Or does wonder suggest insecurity, and mystery, merely challenge? Would omniscience, if such a thing could ever exist, necessarily preclude curiosity? Belief? Reverence? Late night questions, to be sure…

I suppose the BBC article that I stumbled across a while back fell upon fertile soil: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20161215-if-we-made-contact-with-aliens-how-would-religions-react?ocid=ww.social.link.email Just how important is it for us to believe in something? To have questions?

Maybe there are no answers, but it reminded me of a heated discussion I heard one evening in a coffee shop that I visited after a movie. It was quite busy, as I recall, and I found myself sitting beside a group, deep in conversation. All four were leaning over their table, heads together, bagels long consumed, and coffees no longer steaming. They were young –in their early twenties, I would guess- and the only woman, a short-haired blond with horn-rimmed glasses and a black Rasta sweatshirt, was gesticulating with her finger to make a point. She seemed so enthusiastic, I couldn’t help listening.

“Archetypes? That’s so Jungian, Aaron…”

“And what’s wrong with that? How else could we explain it if we don’t assume some sort of a Collective Unconscious, Natalie?” Aaron was another bespectacled youth, with messy short brown hair.

She threw her arms up in mock protest. “You haven’t explained anything, though. I don’t accept that God is a black hole, let alone that She happens to be the one at the center of our Galaxy…”

“Can we please ungender the concept, Nat? How about it, or they, or something?”

She turned to the speaker, a large heavy man in a black leather full-length coat. “Fair enough John. Whatever we use is weird, however –especially gynaecomorphizing a neutral abstraction.”

“Love the word, though, Nat…”

She smiled at the third man, the only one with long hair. “Thank you Jag –makes me sound academic, eh?”

“But, come on folks,” Aaron was on a roll. “Just think about it, okay? The myth says God is outside of time, right? A black hole is outside of time…”

Outside of time…?

“Well, if time is infinite inside a black hole, then it amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it?”

There were a few seconds of silence while the others considered the idea, so he developed it further. “And where is the timeless Heaven the various religions talk about?”

Jag rolled his eyes. “You’re doing the same kind of thing that Zukav did in that old book The Dancing Wu Li Masters…”

My coffee was getting cold; I felt I should be taking notes.

“Come on, Jag –that book was about quantum stuff… And I’m not invoking Buddhism, or anything eastern like that.” He leaned further across the table. “No, you go to a black hole, you exit time. It fits with the biblical heaven, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t think the Buddhists even believe in God, do they?” John said this as he stretched and then leaned back on a wooden chair already creaking under his weight. “Or heaven, for that matter…”

“They believe in Samsara –that cycle of rebirth thing I think…” But Natalie didn’t seem sure, so John dropped his objections.

Jag attempted a sip at what was left in his cup, and put it down as soon as he tasted it. “But Aaron raises an interesting point, though…”

“I finally broke through, eh?” Aaron smiled and tried to high-five Natalie, but she just stared at him.

“What do you mean, Jag?” she said, caressing his face with her eyes, and blushing. She seemed obviously attracted to him. Maybe they were a pair.

“Well, let’s suppose Aaron is on to something here, and there is somehow an awareness of a power to which we are all subject. I mean the stars in our galaxy are all rotating around the central black hole, aren’t they? So, if there are other inhabited worlds out there in the galaxy, maybe they’d experience the same awareness, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe the black hole exerts some kind of force or field on the galaxy that our earth calls spirit, or god. It gets interpreted differently, of course –we all have different cultures, and different surroundings –different exigencies… So perhaps aliens would have their own explanations for this force…”

John sat forward again and leaned into the table. “Do any of you realize how teenage this all sounds?” He glanced over at me and rolled his eyes.

I guess they knew I was listening. Of course I’d been staring at them one by one as they talked. Natalie tore her eyes from Jag and stared at me like a teacher would at a student that was interrupting. But she wasn’t angry –just surprised that I was listening. “Sorry, sir. We really get into these post-pub discussions…”

I smiled and sat straighter in my chair. “Please don’t apologize. I’m intrigued by your arguments…” I leaned forward on my table again. “Especially your God of the black hole,” I said, looking first at Aaron and then at Jag. “And I’ve often wondered how our terrestrial religions could accommodate such different creation myths.

“I’m from the Carl Sagan era, don’t forget –remember the Pale Blue Dot photograph by Voyager 1 from 6 billion kilometers away? It kind of emphasized just how un-special we and our precious sun are in the galaxy, let alone the universe…” They all nodded politely, but I had to be careful -I was the alien in their midst… “But like Aaron and Jag suggested, maybe what we call religion is just an evolutionary balm for a consciousness that demands identity in the midst of cosmic anonymity.”

I sat back in my seat, rather pleased with my obfuscation. Memories of my university evenings flooded back.

“Whoa,” Aaron said, staring at me -puzzled that I even had an opinion, perhaps. “You make it sound so… I don’t know… depressing!”

Natalie glanced at Aaron and then stared at me for a moment. Her eyes were soft and reassuring, but I could tell she was once again the patient teacher, hoping not to embarrass me, the older, slower student in the back row who would probably never understand. “Not depressing, Aaron,” she said turning away from me with an encouraging smile- “Hopeful…” And she reached out and squeezed Jag’s hand.

Whether it was a secret message to him, I couldn’t tell, but I felt acknowledged at any rate. Comforted, if not accepted -I was from a different time than them, after all.

‘Age considers, youth ventures,” as Rabindranath Tagore once wrote. It probably never occurred to them than I was like them… once.





The Hills are Alive

The other day a rock spoke to me –well, I suppose it was more of a boulder if you want to quibble, but it caught my attention anyway. There were no words, of course –rocks do not speak in words- but there was something about it that announced its presence. A speck of mineral perhaps, or a gleam of quartz that watched me as I approached and then signalled me to stop. Commanded me to stop. And when I bent down to examine it more closely and ran my fingers over its stubbled skin, I suddenly realized how poorly we define Life; how spirit, or something akin resides in everything –if only because our focussed perception grants it a special existence: a place somewhere inside our heads, a neurological pattern to which we assign a meaning, a memory that entrains feeling. We breath our own life into nature…

Could it be a search for kinship that makes life bubble from the most unlikely sources? The feeling that if we could only bridge the abyss that seems to yawn indifferently between the I in here and the rest –the it out there- we would not be so alone? That if there really were a spirit that enlivens those things which encase us, trap us in ourselves, we would be members of the club to which we have been so far excluded?

Every so often, the barriers drop away; sometimes it is on a trail in the mountains when I feel the boundaries dissolve, the cage disappear, and I am wandering not in wilderness, but in myself -in us– And I am as much out there as inside my head –a secular agape

As I age, it seems to be happening more often, and although it is epiphanous and profound, it is also worrisome. There is a stage in life when the experience is no longer seen by others as merely idiosyncratic, but pathological –a sign that things are short-circuiting in the control panel, or are at least being rerouted, being forced along a detour that never succeeds in finding its proper destination.

It happened to me again as I walked through a suburban park on a cold and windy afternoon. Dark and ominous clouds had palled the sky, threatening more than the damp grey maelstrom sweeping through the wildly dancing branches that cloistered the gravelled path. The world was a dervish, and for a moment –in the briefest speck of timelessness- so was I…

But I was on my way to visit someone, so I thought I would confess my angst to him. Friends, after all, are the only proxies of boundary-breaches we are allowed. George, an emeritus professor of Philosophy, would accept that, although it would only come after a hard-fought slog through the peregrinations of his mind. I just solicit his opinion in extremis –when the topic is important, and resolution is fraught with pitfalls. Satisfaction rarely comes unbruised.

Despite the wind –or perhaps because of it- I found him wandering in the November remnants of his garden when I arrived. As usual he was wearing the blue woolen toque he’d knitted for himself, and the heavy, grey, ankle-length coat he donned at the slightest provocation. His smile on seeing me approach through the storm of swirling leaves percolating above the lawn seemed to vindicate his choice of clothes.

“Goz!” he shouted above the wind when he saw me.

I hate it when he calls me my childhood nickname, but I suppose it’s the price I have to pay for his friendship. “George!” I called back, trying to vilify the sound, but I think the nuances I had intended were lost in the turmoil that surrounded us.

“I’m just seeing how my perennials are doing,” he said, ignoring any slight that might have slipped through the curtain of noise. “Still some chives over there,” he yelled as if I were still somewhere in the fountain of yellow leaves on the grass. Then he pointed to a rather nondescript patch of mud near his feet. I didn’t see anything even resembling the carcass of a chive, so I smiled and tried to twinkle my eyes, at the boot print he seemed to be indicating.

My theatrics were lost on him, of course. “No, no Goz, the chives are over there,” and he nodded his head at something over his shoulder, presumably. “Here is the buried treasure,” he continued almost reverently. “Potatoes.”

I couldn’t see anything but dirt and footprints, so I walked over to inspect the area more closely. I don’t garden, so the significance of the trodden earth was not at all apparent even when I bent down for a closer look. “Uhmm…”

A condescending smile suddenly surfaced on his face. “You don’t see anything do you, Goz?” I despatched my eyes on what I hoped would be a search and destroy mission on his paternalistic expression, but he parried them with a shrug. “I left a few in the ground. They’ll awaken next spring and the miracle of Samsara will again emerge.”

I also find it irritating when he waxes pedantic and pulls some reference or other from his head like a magician’s rabbit. I’m not even sure he realizes what he’s doing –it was so much a part of his former existence.

“This is such an interesting time of year, don’t you think?” he continued, as if he were about to draw my attention to another bullet point in his PowerPoint presentation. “It’s almost as if we assume that there is death all around us. Even the dirt seems drab and lifeless doesn’t it?”

I searched his face for a moment, fully expecting him to follow with the usual parable of spring rebirth, but he remained quiet for the longest time and scanned the little rock terraces he’d built for his plants over the years.

“I sometimes wonder what we expect of life,” he said, after picking up a heavy rock that had fallen from its place in one of the granite walls. He replaced it carefully and wiped off its muddy surface with his hand then stared at its rough, variegated veneer for a minute. “And why we privilege things that grow, over those that don’t…” He glanced at me. “Is there really a difference, or is it an arbitrary assignation of unearned value?”

I didn’t say anything, but I couldn’t help but wonder if he was scratching the same facade I had felt.

“Reversion to the mean?” he suggested after a moment of letting his eyes wander across the garden to the mountains, just visible above the trees that ringed his yard.

“Pardon me?” Sometimes he let his thoughts escape, unintroduced, from their usual playground in his head.

He smiled and sent his eyes to perch on my face, but I had a feeling he was somewhere else. “It’s not exactly that…” he admitted with uncharacteristic candour as he sorted through the permutations and combinations he had unleashed inside. “…But, it seems to me that we have confused the properties with the thing exhibiting them -the adjectives with the noun. Conflated them, in fact…”

I shrugged in hopes he would think I was following him, but in fact we both knew I wasn’t. And yet I had a feeling that we felt the same, but used different words. That although there is no doubt a boundary that separates eccentricity from madness, idiosyncrasy from dementia, we were both watching from the same, but distant shore.