The task has been put to me to explain myself. Where, exactly, do you stand? I am asked.
I’m not inclined to answer…not because of shame, fear, guilt, arrogance, or any other reason relating to reticence. I don’t speak much about it for the same reason that I don’t speak much about my breathing. I breathe, and beyond that there’s simply not much to say. I’m also disinclined to answer simply because it’s my belief that no answer can suffice.
The man next to me says he believes in God, but I find this shorthand comment lacking, because without hours of discourse (and most often that’s not even sufficient), I don’t know what it means when someone tells me he believes in God – and even then I can never get to the root of it. I can make the same statement as he, but until you understand what I mean when I say "God," it’s meaningless.
So before embarking on our attempt to speak what can never really be spoken, let us understand that no matter how well the explanation, religion can never be shared. It can sometimes be explained…to a certain degree. It can sometimes be described…to an extent of sorts, but the basic fact of the matter is that each of us is on an individual journey in life, and each of us is on an individual path to exploring the religious aspects of our lives. This is a fundamental truth even when we’re part of a well-defined community that shares our religious ideals. No matter how well "organized" a religion is, each member is still on his or her personal journey through that religion, meshing their own experiences, desires, and even more importantly, interpretations into their search.
But because the task is put to me, and I see it will only persist until I accede, I will try, even though the truest shades of meaning – given by personal experience and inner reflection – cannot be conveyed…only hinted at.
And because something such as religion – a thinking, breathing, living religion – is born from experience, we must first begin with some axioms that, to me, fundamentally drive the world.
The One Without the Second
There is a clear difference to me between the world as we see it and the world as it is. At this stage in our collective existence, the only way we can experience the world is through our perceptions, physical and otherwise, and because our entire relationship with the world is represented to us through these "perceptual filters," it seems unrealistic to say that we ever directly experience the world. We see a picture of the world with our eyes; we feel the texture of the world through our touch; we hear the voices of the world with our ears. Each of these representations of the world, though, are not the world in themselves, but a composite representation of the world that our senses give us.
Not that there’s anything wrong with this, mind you, nor is this to say that what we perceive is very different from what’s really there. It may be that what we perceive is very, very close to what actually is, or it may be that the degree of difference is greater than we know or suspect. It’s not really relevant to me how different they are – at least, not within the direction of this writing – only that they are different.
One effect of living in our perceptions is that we tend to take our perceptions for the thing itself. This is just as well and, it seems, necessary to exist effectively in the world. We can’t, after all, be continually challenging our perceptions, for then every act would require a chain of decisions that would leave us standing still all day. You’re much better off stepping back onto the curb through your assumption that the seemingly large object swerving toward you is a bus, rather than standing in indecision because you’re worried it might actually be an light-weight aluminum façade behind which rides a ten-year-old on a bicycle.
Part of our process in perceiving the world is to break it down into categories. We see the world as being composed of many parts. This and that. These and those. We name everything. We differentiate everything. When we encounter something we’ve never experienced before, we define it in opposition to everything else and immediately label it.
We consider everything in terms of their relationships to everything else. We only know this is this because it is not that. That, in a nutshell, is how we tell things apart. This ability to define and categorize things is necessary to our living well.
It’s very easy, though, to overlook one simple thing, and that is in the absence of our judgments, everything is only what it is.
It’s been pointed out to me that this idea is merely a basic law of logic and that it’s absurd to bring it up in a discussion of this context – that it’s self-evident that for any x, x equals x. In formal terms, it is called "The Law of Identity."
To "categorize" it in this way, however, thereby trying to remove its meaning, misses the point. To illustrate, I use the example of a coin.
This coin that I hold is round. It has mass, circumference, thickness. It has two sides, a head- and a tail-side, and an edge. It even has two corners, so to speak, where the edge meets the face of either side.
But notice all the terms I’ve used: circumference, side, edge, corner, face, etc. What I’m proposing is that all these various "parts" of the coin are mental constructs – categories – that we have devised in order to help us understand the coin in a certain way. We call this a side, that an edge, and this here a diameter. In reality, these are all simply judgments about the coin, because what the coin really is, is what it is. You can’t separate any of these named parts from the coin, and the coin would be something other than what it is now were any of these parts to be missing or different in any way. Shave off a side of the coin, and we’re still going to say that it has two sides, an edge, etc. Cut it in half, and our categories adjust accordingly. But as it is right now, it is what it is, complete in and of itself, and regardless of our coming along and measuring it and dividing it into parts in our mind, the coin is still simply what it is.
This is the fundamental concept of Yin/Yang. I’m sure you’re familiar with the ancient symbol, made of two parts, light and dark, swirling around each other, forming a circle. Most people believe that the concept symbolized is the "harmony of opposites." It is, though, something different than that, because it goes far beyond opposites altogether.
The two elements – white and black, female and male, night and day, strong and weak, up and down, is and not is – are not opposites, but complements. They do not oppose each other, but make up the whole…that is why they are joined in a circle…not because they are two things that work together or dance together or harmonize in any way, but because they are part and parcel of one whole, one thing…they are white and black in our mind, but in reality the thing of which they are a part is only what it is.
The division between the two – Yin and Yang – doesn’t exist. It is only in our minds as we separate and label them that they come into being. Without those judgments, all we have is the circle.
The circle is "the one without the second." It is the thing of which there are no parts except where we conveniently define them for our own use and understanding. Without our dividing things up (and in spite of us doing so anyway), the circle – indeed the world – is just what it is.
As such, while we can see many parts to the world, it is all irrevocably of the same system or entity, complete and whole unto itself, and we are a part of that as well. We exist connected to everything around us. To live as if we are not part of the world can be a dangerous and fatal illusion, which is – as a culture – what we seem hell-bent on doing.
I Seem to be a Verb
This is a quote from F. Buckminster Fuller, world-renowned architect, inventor, humanist, and philosopher. It is not an original idea with him; it goes back millennia.
We are not static beings. We are part of a process that runs through the entire world in which we live. It is an infinitely complex system, and like any system or sub-system, anything that happens in the system affects everything else, no matter to how small a degree. This is an idea that’s being confirmed through the study of chaos theory and quantum physics, just as is the idea of "the one without the second" being slowly confirmed by the studies in these fields. Without going into the formulaic details, we’ll just regard it as sufficient to say that the entire universe as we know it is a wonderfully mysterious and seemingly magical "system."
Because we are a part of the process (as are all things) – the same process of which the world is made – we are constantly moving, changing, growing, etc. There is no such thing as a static system. There is such a thing as a relatively stable system, which is what ours seems to be, but a static one is inconceivable given how we understand the universe works. Change and movement are the underlying features of every aspect of our system – and of us.
So, it is somewhat deceiving to think of ourselves as, say, a noun, which implies a static condition, not changing, and well-defined. Because we are always "in process," it is more accurate to think of ourselves as being verbs…action in effect, moving, changing.
The world itself is a process. And we’re part of it.
Everything is Relative
A lot of people hate this. The truth seems to be, though, that we can only define or think about things in contrast to other things. We have to relate this to that, and most of our thinking is done through comparison, weighing one against another, judging these in terms of those, and separating things in our heads. Indeed, if we were not able to do this, we would never have left the primordial pool!
So when I say "everything is relative," I mean just that. There seem to be no absolutes and no "hard-wired" laws written into the fabric of the universe. For every defined law of physics, for every universal law we have observed, we can take it on good faith that somewhere, in some time, there is an exception. Scientists believed that the Newtonian Laws of Physics were absolute until we discovered a whole new level of existence – the quantum level – where they not only don’t apply, we can’t make them apply no matter how hard we try! How arrogant are we now to assume that there are no more worlds to discover, that our current knowledge will not again be turned on its head?
No, no laws hold everywhere, and there are no absolutes in the universe (which makes us nervously giggle and realize that not even that statement can be absolute). Those who prefer to see things in black and white will find that there will be times in their life and experience where their philosophy will fail. We all encounter that to some degree, but those who hold to the rigid perspective of absolutes will have a much harder time dealing with it.
There is no such thing, then, as absolute right and absolute wrong, absolute up and absolute down, absolute good and absolute evil. These things are only defined in relationship to other things and the situations in which they present themselves, so while there may be a "best" and a "worst" (which in themselves are usually extremely subjective and therefore incredibly difficult to define), "right" and "wrong" are models that are very limited in their application.
Nothing is "True"
For me, Truth is a noble concept that has helped the human race achieve great heights. Objectively, though, something is "true" only when held up against some background or standard with which we can compare it. If the thing we’re examining meets all the criteria we’re stacking it up against, then we say it’s true. If not, then we may say it’s partially true or false. But…we still have to compare something to something else to determine if truth exists, and truth, therefore, is a relative thing. Absolute or objective truth, even granting that it may exist (a notion which I personally reject), cannot be experienced by any conceivable means.
The only truth that each of us has is our experience. Aleister Crowley said it thusly: What we believe is a lie; what we experience is the truth. What this means to me is that our beliefs, no matter how close to the real situation they may be, are simply models for the way we see how the world works. Our experience is the real gauge, though, for how accurate those beliefs are. If we constantly find that life flies in the expectation of our beliefs (which it will from time to time no matter what), then it may be worthwhile considering that our "belief model" is somehow not accurate and could benefit from revision. Arthur C. Clarke said: A faith that cannot withstand a collision with the truth is not worth many regrets.
What I take from all this is that my experience and beliefs should ideally coalesce into one thing and not be in conflict with each other. I recognize that if I have an experience, I can believe anything I want about it. I can decide that it was the best thing that ever happened to me, that it was the worst thing that ever happened to me, or that it was of no consequence whatsoever. It’s up to me to take what lessons I can from it, learn from it, and incorporate it into my being. So what, then, would be the best belief I can form about this? What would be the most realistic and the most helpful belief? I can only decide by examining the experience, as well as the sum of all the experiences before it, and by using a thoughtful, reasonable, and spiritual mind.
There is a clear difference in my mind between seeing ourselves as physical beings with a spirit and spiritual beings with physical form. I’m not speaking in too mystical of terms when I say that I favor the latter model, although I also prefer to transcend the notion altogether that our spiritual side and physical side are separate things. Because I am, in a sense, "one without the second," I am what I am and that’s all that I am. I can choose to see myself as having a spiritual side and a physical side – that’s fine. In the end, though, I’m not a mechanism made up of different parts, despite what the AMA will tell me…all my parts are different manifestations of the same thing.
In the same vein, I don’t suggest we have an intellectual mind and an emotional mind. People are always talking about their emotions and intellect as if they were two entirely different things, often at odds with each other. I prefer a more holistic idea: they are not two different things; they are the same thing. They are the same mind working in two different ways – much like an open hand and a closed fist are not two different things; they are the same hand working in two different ways.
For the purpose of understanding certain things about ourselves, though, it’s convenient to think of our various "parts." Spirit, then, is that "part" of us that is our connection with the world. You’ll recall my suggestion that the world is one without a second and that we are part of it…the spirit is the connection. As such, it is always truthful, as truthful as the world of which we are a part. As such, it is always constant, as constant as the world in which we live. It is that part of us that is the world, and that part of the world that is us.
Some would prefer to use the word "soul." Some would say "life energy." Some like "essence." These are all fine. Labels notwithstanding, we connect to everything.
There is no one right way to live. Daniel Quinn put forth these words. The idea, though, is one I’ve held all my life, and it seems implicit (if not overtly stated) in many ancient writings. In this one phrase, though, Quinn has articulated it better than anyone else I know.
Many people, however, believe that there is one right way to live, and it’s always their way. It doesn’t take a whole lot of thought to realize that suggesting everyone live one way, no matter what that way is, would be fatal to our place in the system of the world. This system relies on diversity for its continuance. Diversity is the part of the process that ensures that it continues proceeding and doesn’t come to a screeching halt.
The fact is there are many right ways to live. Any way of living that allows us to live in alignment with the world and in alignment with the process is a right way to live. If we choose to try to buck the process, as we are collectively doing now, the process will find a way to compensate, and it won’t be to our best benefit. We can already see this happening on many fronts.
In terms of religion, this is equally true. We must not only have diversity in biological form and action, but also in cultural form and action, which includes religion. So we have Christians and Jews and Buddhists and Muslim and Hindus and Shintoists and Wiccans and Satanists and Republicans…all with their own outlook on things.
Well, who is right? Oh, but this question, we have seen, loses its meaning when we remember that "right" is not an absolute value. "Right and wrong" as a model is often not the best, if indeed it’s even usable and workable at all. They may all be right to some extent, wrong to a degree, and are most probably somewhere in between.
So what is religion, anyway? Is it merely an organized community of people following the same doctrine, worshipping the same god, viewing the world in the same way? While some people may think this is so, I can’t prescribe to it, for I think "religion" in a meaningful sense must be deeper than that. From my limited point of view, religion is a person’s attempt to explore his or her spirituality, either their relationship with God, with themselves, with the world, or any combination thereof. Because "spirit" is the connection with these things, religion is the means we use to explore that connection (or relationship). This lead us to an important point for me:
If Religion Explores Spirit, Then Religion is an Expression of Spirit
The manner in which we explore our connection with God (or the Creator, or the world) is also the manner in which we express that connection. The exploration and the expression are inseparable, both part and parcel of the same whole. The Christian religion is one way to express that connection, Judaism is another. Buddhism is yet another. Each of these explores our relationship with God (or the Creator, or the world) and in the same turn, expresses it. They are all expressions of a person’s spirituality. As such, none are "right" and none are "wrong." We are each free to explore and express our connection with God (or the Creator, or the world) in any way we choose.
Where some people fall short, at least in my view, is in placing their religion above that which the religion is set to explore. In other words, some people seem to forget the point (if they were ever cognizant of it in the first place) that the religion is the exploration of their spirit – instead they seem to feel or think or believe or assume that their spirit exists to support their religion. To me, this is like placing rules of grammar far higher in importance than saying meaningful things, or perhaps like spending so much time on table etiquette that one forgets to eat.
Dividing spirit and religion and turning one against the other in this fashion often leads to personal and societal conflicts which the religion cannot sufficiently address. Harmonizing the two and understanding that they’re really one and the same thing – a totality of expression – leads to a holistic view of the world, God, and humankind that in my experience invariably results in lifestyles that are more beneficial to the individual, those around him, and the world in general.
Necessary Qualities of God
Interpretations of God are, of course, highly personal. I was once involved in an extended discourse with an instructor of Catholic diocese, and I was struck by his confidence in the answers that the Catholic doctrine apparently provided him…answers which left little room for the mystery of God and which were founded on axioms that were, by definition, unprovable. Were I to accept the premises first, I might also have reached the same conclusions as he and his church had, but the very axioms struck me as counter-intuitive and so contrary to my experience that I could not.
The person next to me will not interpret God in the same way I do, which is fine…there is no one right way to live. My relationship with God is, like everyone else’s, a personal one and doesn’t require approval from anyone else. Although I can’t profess to know the nature of God, I will suggest that each of us can intuit what certain qualities God must have based on what we experience.
The perspective I hold, however, will only seem true – or even acceptable – to those who have a similar foundation beneath their outlook on life to mine…hence my previous explanation of several fundamental points. Because I see the entire world/universe as an interrelated process, I also see God as a part of everything around us, and everything around us as a part of God. There are some who believe that God created everything but that is he still somehow separate from everything that He created (the principle of first cause and first divinity). As such, to suggest that God is evident in the trees, earth, rivers, and mountains is labeled as pantheistic, close to Paganism (a much-slighted and little-understood category of religion, I’ve come to gather), and anathema to their way of thinking. Indeed, this outlook of separation of God and His works in its worst form and combined with a need to bring the world to conformity can lead to such things as complaints against Disney’s Pocahontas, with the claim that it promotes "earth-worship" and "paganism," and the various efforts of Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association who, in their manic attempts to uncover evil, regularly count the occasions that the word "penis" is spoken on various television shows and publish their findings, thereby frequently exposing their own membership to the very offenses they work to prevent.
But I digress. As is clear by this time, I cannot hold to the idea of a separate God…it is inconceivable to me that God is not a part of everything around us, everything in us, everything between all that, that is and is not. For me, God is not above the process; God is the process. I feel this because what I believe is a lie, and what I experience is the truth…and that is exactly what I experience when I listen to my breathing, when I feel the wind blow across my skin, every time I feel the warmth of the sun, the wet of the rain, and every time I taste the wet, sweet juice of a crisp apple.
All my life, I’ve felt the world is a sacred process, that we are a part of that process, that this process is immediate and present, and that our involvement in it is equally so. When Daniel Quinn followed his train of thought from the premise of There is no one right way to live to this idea, which he expressed in a later book, I knew it would be overlooked by many who were attending only to the sociological issues he was exploring…but to me, the premise is paramount to understanding the entire construct of what he’s trying to say. When we, as a group, recognize that we are a part of everything around us, up to and including God, there will be a cultural shift like none that has ever been seen in the history of humanity.
But there are those who actively reject these premises. They’re locked into the subservience to God, the servile worship of God, the unreachable grace of God’s being. Despite Jesus telling people in plain and simple language that they could be just like him, people today still say that his divinity is unreachable to us and that we are mere men and women while he was the only Son of God.
I have an arrogant side that leads me to respond thusly: Bullshit. A divine and sacred being cannot create something that is not divine and sacred itself. Period. If you were to paint a painting or compose a song, the work you create would necessarily and unavoidably be an expression of yourself. Even if God could create something that was itself not sacred or divine, how could He want to? What would He create that would not be an expression of Himself?
Because we are part of God, it is through us and the rest of the world that God experiences Himself. Through every tree, through each of us, through the way in which we live our lives, God experiences His own being in a way that He would not otherwise. Consequently, on the level of God, everything is sacred and meaningful, even those things we may personally and from our point of view find horrifying and abhorrent. Creation didn’t bring about the horrifying and abhorrent things; we did, and it was just as sacred an act to do so as all of our greatest achievements – because it’s just one more dimension to the experience of God. Everything, after all, is relative.
God is ever-present because our world is ever-present. God is true just as the world is true. God neither requires or demands any more worship or respect than the rest of the world does, for the rest of the world –and us – is God.
To worship God is to worship ourselves. To pray to God is to pray to ourselves. If we care to, we pray before we eat – not only to give thanks, but to remind us that eating is itself a sacred act and to do so is to affirm our place in the world and the process that is God. We are emanations of God, manifestations of God, as is the world in which we live. We are holy and divine, just like the trees, animals, and stones that surround us, for we are all part of that great process.
I speak of God here because it’s as good a term as any. If you care to, go back over the preceding paragraphs and substitute "Allah," "the Creator," "the Great It," or whatever terms suits you best. Some would say there is no God, but might admit that there is a universal process, full of interplay and intrigue. If that’s the case, then just say "the process" instead of "God." If you do this, you’ll notice that the meaning of what I said just doesn’t change.
It doesn’t matter. These are all different labels and perspectives for the same thing. What this thing is, I don’t intellectually know or logically understand. Spiritually, though, I grasp it quite well, even without knowing its nature, and I know this because I can feel it.
Whatever it is, God or the Creator or Allah or the Process, whether it’s sentient or benign or simply a "thing," it is simply what it is. It is "the one without the second." Even in the Bible, which many consider to be the final word, God describes himself in this manner: "I am that I am."
The modern-day bible is monotheistic (one God). The original Hebrew texts are polytheistic (many gods). Some religions have one god, some two, some dozens. It doesn’t matter. There is no one right way to live…no one right way to hook into the world of which we are a part. Each is true; each is not. What it is transcends our notions of "true" and "not-true." If religion explores our spirit – our connection with whatever we’re connected to – than it makes perfect sense that millions of people will find millions of ways of doing this. I think even if we are to grant that God exists in the Christian sense – as a self-aware divine being – then for me it must be a necessary quality that he regards all religions equally, for they are all attempts to see his face (or faces), and the explorations are but another way for God to experience Himself through us. In this sense, no one religion is any more meaningful than any other. For him to expect that we all follow one religion only would be to deny Himself the experience of Himself in other ways – and to deny the diversity of the world which is needed for our existence and which HE Himself put into play.
I am interested, perhaps more than some people, in exploring this connection…this spirit. I find this image helpful: a large tree deeply rooted in the ground with hundreds of thousands of leaves bursting from its many mighty branches.
The earth in which the tree sits is the world. The trunk of the tree is our connection to the world, our deep rooting in it. The branches are the many categorical ways in which our spirit manifests itself, and the leaves are all the various religions we use to express the spirit – thousand upon thousands…millions upon billions of them.
Given my feeling that any religion I might select is but one viable option among many to explore this spirit of which I speak, I find myself inexorably drawn not to the leaves, but to the trunk of the tree.
So, belief in God, Pan, or anything else (or elses, plural) is each person’s choice. They’re mostly all good ways to explore our place in the world. This religion or that religion…I have little problem with any of them that aren’t harmful or malicious – and these latter ones I still accept with regret.
But we come to the point of this entire essay…what am I, exactly? What label would you feel best applies? I am definitely a religious person, one whose religion is a living one, one borne of the world regardless of what deity or creator you care to assign it to, and one of which I am constantly aware with every sacred breath I take. It is never set aside for the convenience of the moment, any more than I can set aside the next heartbeat, and it underlies everything I do.
Am I a theist? It depends on whether or not we feel we have to be constrained by the three basic categories: theist, atheist, or agnostic. An agnostic is one, I understand, who reserves judgment on belief in God in the absence of further evidence or experience ("gnosis" being the root word operating here). But I have experience and therefore belief…I simply don’t care if one calls it God or anything else. Its nature is unknowable to me, and rather than seeking answers, I am inspired by the mystery.
An atheist is one who wholly rejects the notion of God. That would definitely not seem to apply here…but a theist is one who definitively believes in a god or gods. Neither would that seem to fit, for while I experience something, I don’t concern myself with what we call it or what its nature really is. Could there be, then, a fourth as yet undefined category into which I fall? Or am I, like everything else, simply what I am?
The problem of definition seems to be that until I define God, I must myself remain undefined – and I refuse to define God because I cannot define that which is undefinable. If God is some kind of sentient being, then I know through experience that I fulfill his expectations by living my life, which through me gives experience of what He is. I do this by living as a part of what’s around me and honoring it in whatever way I know how. If there is no God as a sentient and divine being, it doesn’t matter, the end result is the same. I live as part of the world and honor it in whatever way I know how.
Whatever God is (or the Creator or Allah or the Process or the It or the Vast Void), I revel in Him or it without knowing what He or it is. I live as a part of it all, and that’s a joyous, mystical, magical place to be.