Fall Harvest Moon
Circling the question of faith, reimagining it, reconstructing it. A project that now seems life long. One that has the character of silly putty, picking up whatever I apply it to.
My initial and continuing fascination with the idea comes from a sense of restriction that I feel within the religions that I’ve encountered intimately; a sense of restriction that belies their first attraction, a totalizing claim of one sort or another: Ours is the one true God. Find release from all suffering. If only you practice wu wei. Find the universal within the particular. And, of course, the odd bunch, the U.U.’s, defined best by the joke: a religion named for two beliefs shared by none of its members.
That personal akedah (binding in Hebrew, as in the binding of Isaac), that moment when the new faith seems to have a uniquely powerful grasp on things, especially things unseen, has always, for me, been followed by finding a ram in the bush. The ram is the realization that, yes, there is truth and power, vision and nuance here-after all, I’ve climbed this Mt. Moriah with the wood for my own sacrifice bundled on my back-but it’s not what it claims. Rather what it is and what it claims points outside of its hermeneutical circle, affirming the presence of a sacred realm, a holy reality; but, then making the absurd claim that somehow it contains all, has it wrapped up in a series of truth claims that, if only you declare fealty, the curtain will pull back. Oz himself will be there.
So the sense of restriction is itself the clue. But, it’s a yellow caution light, not a red, stop, go no further signal. No human invention can or will encapsulate the universal, the cosmic. However, this eagerness, this passion to understand and embrace something beyond an individual life, beyond a community’s life, beyond a specific historical moment, validates the search. At least to me. It says to me as well that the search, the hunger to find a larger context for our mayfly moment, is not absurd, not futile, not pointless.
Back in my college days, when everything seemed up for grabs gender roles, political assumptions, establishment values, many of my friends turned to Eastern religions: Buddhism and Krishna worship, a bit of the Tao, anything that didn’t seem to have the taint of Judaeo-Christian civilization. I wanted to stick with religious traditions of the West, reasoning that the most accessible clues for a life of faith would come within the culture which shaped me. Even religions, it seemed to me then, were culture bound and the most likely chance for a spiritual break through would come without having to laboriously take on another culture’s religious clothing.
Today I’m more relaxed about that sensibility, having learned a good deal from Taoism, Hinduism (I’m a devotee of Shiva.) and from that strange brew, Chan Buddhism, a mix of Taoism and Buddhism that became Zen in Japan. I also gained a great deal from the other, peculiarly Western notion of existentialism. I’ve been immersed, whole life immersion, in three religious institutions: Christianity (Methodist, U.C.C., and Presbyterian), Unitarian-Universalism, and now Reconstructionist Judaism. I’ve also been immersed, whole life immersion, in existentialism, and to a lesser extent, perhaps not whole life, but a significant immersion in Taoism.
I suppose you could conclude that I’m feckless, unwilling to touch down, perhaps a lover shy of commitment. Might be true. From the inside it feels like I’ve been true to the pilgrim, the seeker within, a lover of questions, always suspicious of answers. That’s where reconstructing the very idea of faith comes from. Why does faith have to create a sense of restriction? Why does it have to push toward a holistic claim that is logically absurd?
I’ve come to believe recently that the notion of revelation is a key to this whole enterprise. What is revelation? How do we know it when we encounter it? Well, that I now believe, is exactly the deposit of wisdom all religions carry for us. No, I’m not suggesting all religions are essentially the same, that at their core is, say, love. Hardly. Religions are as particular and strange as any human creation can be.
What I am suggesting is that each religious tradition, including the prefers to not be called a religion of Buddhism, gives us clues to the nature of revelation, to the way the unseen, the sacred, the holy, the other manifests itself. The tendency, shown over and over again, to assume that the particular revelation is what’s important rather than the nature of revelation itself seems only natural to me. A mind shattering encounter with whatever lies beyond the day-to-day, the quotidian feels so powerful that this one, like Mohammed, or the gospel writer Mark or Matthew, the scribes of the Diamond Sutra, or the Rig Vedas, even the oft maligned Joseph Smith and his missing gold tablets, must have revealed it all.
No, that mind shattering encounter precisely proves that all has not been revealed. Why? Because Mohammed’s vision differs from Joseph Smith’s which in turn does not match Krishna escaping from the jail as an infant, or the conclusion that all that matters is following your chi. But. Something encounters these minds. Something so powerful that it can change the lives of millions, billions, effect history, turn nations into enemies, spill copious blood.
It’s the breakthrough of the universal into the particular, the moment when, for at least one person, the wizard’s curtain in the Emerald City is pulled back; but, what is beheld does not create cynicism, but joy, intimacy, knowing of a deep sort not available, apparently, to most of us.
So the key thing we learn from any religion is how to know such moments, how to find that small crack in our daily life that can be pried open to reveal wonders. This has gone on too long for today, but let me give you a for instance, then I’ll quit for now.
In the story of Abraham the brilliant Jewish commentator, Avivah Zornberg, suggests that a key source of such mind shattering moments comes in relationships. That is, our most common life experience, that of contact and interaction with other humans, can uncover glimpses of what is beyond. I’m going to leave this here because I want to eat breakfast, but more on this later.