God: an Appreciation

I’ve been thinking about God a lot lately. This isn’t such a novel state of affairs. Although a “serious Zen practitioner” now for decades, I was raised Christian; I continue to marvel at the tenaciousness of these roots in my own psyche, and keep considering its influences on the culture I’m inextricably bound to. After another intense, decade-long deep dive into the floral Mahayana Buddhist universe, I just reread the New Testament for the first time in at least 20 years. As you’d expect, it was by turns challenging and comforting, and so familiar I struggle to believe it’s been that long.

Many Buddhists I know are proud atheists (a phrase which seems redundant; they do tend to go on about it, don’t they?) I admit to being confounded by the whole issue: God or No-God. The Buddhist line is really, “Drop it. Concentrate on life and mind, and accord.” That sounds nice enough, but it’s just too easy. Our culture, this civilization around us – the super computer in your pocket, the energy that runs it and every machine around you, the streets and the cars on them, the water coming out of the taps, the planes above our heads, the museums, the universities, every civil rights movement, unprecedented abundance and well-being per capita, this human body and the food its been sustained on – these developed in rigorously Judeo-Christian societies, and were mostly furthered and maintained by “God loving/fearing” people. All enduring cultures have explicit orientations to something transcendentally, spiritually sacred. Whether justified or not, this is all being explicitly and systematically targeted. There can be no mistake about that. I reflect a lot on what is at risk, and what needs to be affirmed, or sorted. In some ways, I always have.

I feel somehow built for faith, even if the doubt is strong enough to match or exceed it. As an amateur facilitator of Zen meditation/practice, and as a philosophically-inclined artist, I feel like a doubt merchant as much as a promoter of faith, and it’s not always joyous work. I love faith: feeling faith, witnessing faith, and promoting faith. But we want the real deal, not counterfeit, don’t we? We can smell a fake, and life can feel like one long often arduous process of winnowing the golden wheat of truth from delusional chaff, within and without. Something we might call Soul demands adherence to certain deep values, and that we sometimes publicly speak to and affirm them. And certainly plain reason must be honored, in harmony with facts. This is the stuff that a civilization is built of.

As a child I felt impelled toward the church, which was the only apparent avenue to express a life of faith where I grew up. My parents weren’t church goers, but my grandparents and other families around me were, and I was implacably drawn to it, in a non-fundamentalist way. Happily, I attended mostly quite benign liberal protestant churches. They were of various denominations, but all resembled each other enough to seem basically indistinguishable. As a teen I got obsessed with European writers like Kafka, Hesse, Frankl, and Camus (such a serious young man). I can’t say I was a full-fledged “existentialist.” I just liked Camus’ essays, and the war-weary, no-nonsense, secular attitude of a lot of European thinkers and artists. I went to an art college but considered dropping out at one point to study philosophy. Instead I met old John Cage who, smiling the most genuine smile I’d maybe ever seen, talked about Zen; then I met some actual Zen monks, and threw myself headlong into that. One Zen teacher and tradition led to another, and the years passed.

I remember wondering at times back then if my literal Puritan heritage was some kind of insurmountable liability; now I think I mostly just felt the pangs of an active conscience in a post-’60s, roknrol cultural context that almost mandated you lose it. At the same time, I was crazy about “American Artists,” making American art. Demuth, Scheeler, O’Keeffe, the great tragic Marsden Hartley, right through to Reinhardt, Judd, Martin, Irwin, and Turrell. There were writers like WC Williams, Frank Waters, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Jim Harrison, William Least Heat Moon, and Leslie Marmon Silko. This is not to undercut the even more visceral influence of American popular music, bands like REM, Husker Du, the Replacements, Uncle Tupelo, and others who each somehow tapped related veins. There was a lot of Jazz, and blues – Bird, Monk, Trane, JL Hooker, and Lightnin Hopkins were guiding lights. An American milieu.

My personal mentors were Cage, heroic light sculptor Dale Eldred, and a slew of Buddhist teachers who said, don’t go to Asia! Stay here, practice on this dirt, this landmass. Time abroad made me love it more. Time in the east of it made me love the mountain west more. Time in the midwest inevitably led to more time spent in the southwest. There have been plenty of indigenous teachers and friends, with influential time spent on reservations, and listening to stories from before the conquest.

Sometimes, when I imagine the holiest thing I can think of, I see a rippling creek, and tall grasses; early or late day sun streams through trees; there’s a peak-roofed clapboard house, a piece-work quilt on a bedroom wall, and a clean, smooth, unvarnished slat floor. Out back, a trail leads into some woods, fields, or hills. Not much more or less than that. I’m amazed at this quintessentially American, relentlessly protestant internal image, and how it’s oriented things. I’ve fought it. Schools, tech, economies, and the world tell you to make things more exciting. Sensational. Revolutionary. And you can’t argue. I just happen to really like boring. Luddite simplicity, of a kind. This too is an American impulse. It has a moral component. We’re not all just obnoxious consumers and loud-mouthed tourists. We are this other people, too.

I fear many people today want to burn down this transcendent-seeming imago. I know the impulses in my own psyche that would burn down the house, or let it fall into disrepair. Can it be enough to attend to such a place, if only in mind? To keep a warm or cool breeze moving through it, and the roof water tight? Modest attempts are made through art, and in words as well-arranged as I can shape them, when notions come around. Sometimes too, the devil needs his due. Maybe that’s time for a bonfire in the yard of said house, even some sacramental substance leading to a bit of chaos around that fire. There has to be room for that, but I’m not one for living continually on that edge. Some are drawn there, but they’ve been given plenty enough cultural rope to hang themselves at this point, and too many lately seem enthusiastically bent on hanging others.

We need healing images. Are these images of God? I’m no santero, though I deeply appreciate that iconic approach and mindset. I’m a protestant Zen non-objectivist, with a powerful aversion to making graven images myself. How can you depict the smell of sage or pine on a mountain wind? How can you transmit the feeling of a settled heart by that imagined creek? How do you protect the very existence of a culture that can make such thoughts and feelings possible? So I say, God bless the extroverts, the champions, the disruptors, the Shaivite chaos agents. I guess I have to settle for being mostly a reserved child of Vishnu, the preserver. I want to sustain things, protect them, support reliable places for people to decompress, recover, and renew. To be still and know God, the great good God of many ancestors. A redeeming God of presence and forgiveness, in an overwhelming, incomprehensible, yet trustworthy cosmos.

Despite all the trips, all the visions, all the spectacular insights, and plenty of tussles, I always return to this house. The still floor; the plain, mathematical quilt; a quiet path into the woods…

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