I don’t always believe in God, but I believe in God.
I wrote that statement on my list of writing ideas/prompts. It became this 9-minute read.
Recently, in my Medium space and my journal, I’ve been writing a lot about “God.” Although it’s what I’ve felt inspired to write, doing so doesn’t feel entirely natural to me. While it doesn’t feel entirely natural, some of the pieces I’ve recently written about religion and spirituality have been my favorites.
When did I become that person who frequently writes about God??
Jews don’t define themselves as Christians do.
Judaism is more about the group. Christianity is more about the belief in Christ and related teachings.
In late October, I wrote about being in awe of Nick Cave’s Ghosteen, a recording that includes existentialism and faith as themes, and album art that was inspired by Noah’s Ark.
Old beliefs, new learning
Spirituality and spiritual practice aren’t new to me, but they have taken front and center in my life more recently.
Spirituality and spiritual practice aren’t new to me, but they have taken front and center in my life in the past several months. I’ve heard and read concepts that I was previously unaware of and with increased frequency.
I can explain some of the reasons for these occurrences. Undoubtedly there are more reasons than that.
The seeker is sought
Spirituality has enveloped me. I didn’t seek it, it sought me.
Here are some of the “random” occurrences:
Four months ago, I received what felt like a clear vision of my future, a vision that has guided me every day since. Before that:
- When I turned on an episode of Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend last April, I didn’t know that I would hear Stephen Colbert tell Conan O’Brien about “magical thinking” as they shared experiences about Catholic guilt.
- Why have I heard and read words such as “grace” and “divine” more often this year? You might guess that people are writing about these concepts more often now than before, that we’re in a particular cultural moment. However, some of the expressions that I’ve encountered were produced years ago.
- After years of hearing songs by The Breeders via The Pixies, why did it take Ben Lee’s cover of Divine Hammer for me to notice the song?
- And why am I more drawn to songs by songwriters that overtly address spirit?
Why have I turned to music more actively, when it was more passive in the past? When reading some chapters of a Joni Mitchell biography in their entirety and skimming others, why did I zone in one a single line in which she described one of her bass players as, “somehow in possession of the divine.”?
It’s not just about choirs in houses of worship and praising whatever entity one prays to; it’s not exclusive to the “Christian Rock” genre. Music may bring people closer to “God” — even if it’s a God they don’t know they believe in or it’s not a specific version of God. That feeling. That energy. “Source”. That with many names. Musicians are instruments of power that might or might not be labelled “God”. If you watch a musician in The Zone, in a trance of sorts, it’s as if they’re lead by unseen forces.
And then there’s Ghosteen.
Spirituality has enveloped me. I didn’t seek it; it found me.
Faith vs. belief against religious baggage
Here’s the thing:
I have faith, yes. I feel guided, yes. But I still feel strange when I say, “Belief in God.”
I mean, what is “God”?
I still have doubts. It’s not that I think it’s all one big coincidence or that I don’t think there’s more.
I know there is.
There is so much that none of us can comprehend. The word God is loaded, you know? I’m not the first person to make this observation.
When you mention God to people, they bring their own baggage and associations into the interpretation.
People’s upbringings influence their beliefs. Resenting parents for forcing you to attend Sunday school when your friends are playing; Being “made” to go to church or synagogue for prolonged services; The punishing nuns; The misbehaving clergy; The “forced” family dinners; The bible quotes.
None of these are my experiences (for example, I liked going to synagogue and seeing my friends even though I didn’t like having to “dress up”), but these examples might be real for you.
I think that the religious baggage and negative connections help clarify the temptation to call myself “agnostic,” even though I feel a physical reaction to that word that tells me it’s wrong.
(My physical response to incorrect statements or information is a twinge on my back between my shoulder blades.)
I wonder, “People might negatively judge me.”
People might. I don’t care much if they do, but I do care a little.
I also know that lots of people share my beliefs. Last week I received a newsletter with a subject line that spoke the language of a seeker. Inside I learned that the writer is going through a similar existential experience as me. He seems to be searching for something. He seems to be trying to discover the secret. I never reply to notes from strangers — even if I’m on their newsletter mailing list — but I responded with validation and support.
And like mine, the writer’s experiences aren’t new to him. Perhaps he’s being guided again or more clearly hearing the noise that never left. We’re often re-told and re-taught.
Several years ago, on one of the high holidays, a Rabbi for the congregation that I was a member of put faith and knowledge in this context:
I know my child’s age. I have faith that God exists.
Those aren’t the exact words, but close. I’ve been paraphrasing it since I heard it.
“God” is a word
I’ve known people who claim that they don’t believe in God and subsequently explain beliefs that sound God-like to me. It’s not up to me to comment on their semantics or to suggest that they’re not using “God” because they’re afraid of the word.
Energy. Source. Spirit. Inner Guide. Intuition. Chloe (that female name popped into my head randomly). It is all part of the same world.
Origin stories, Old Testament and New
We’re all in this together. Somewhere in the New Testament, it says that none of us is separate in the eyes of the Lord. I‘m not well-versed in the New Testament. In my many years of Hebrew Day School, I learned the Old Testament without retaining much. I had tutors. My memory mostly contains the first couple of the five books, and well-known stories told like fairy tales. I know several of the highlights, though.
I’m pretty new to the New Testament. I only recently learned that the Apostle Paul was a new identity for Jewish Saul, who had mocked and then found Jesus.
…while traveling the road to Damascus, Paul (then known by his Hebrew name, Saul) heard a voice asking him, “Why do you persecute me?” He responded: “Who are you, Lord?” And the Lord said, “ ‘I am Jesus whom you persecute” (Acts 9:4–5).
(Source: Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ, 2019. The Crown Publishing Group.)
Three days of blindness followed, and then, according to Rohr, “the hater was baptized into a rather universal love.”
It wasn’t a typical conversion, nor a “new school, new me” situation.
Of course, these are all parables and not accurate historical accounts. As Rachel Held Evans wrote in Inspired,
Origin stories are rarely straightforward history. Over the years, they morph into a colorful amalgam of truth and myth, nostalgia and cautionary tale, the shares of their significance brought out by the particular light of a particular moment.
Practicing humanity through disagreement
As a Jew reading a book about Christianity by a Franciscan priest, some sections of The Universal Christ were problematic for me. However, reading it taught me a lot about the Bible and those problematic parts offered opportunities to practice patience, acceptance and non-attachment.
These opportunities to practice these essential life skills are more significant than having my beliefs validated.
I enjoy reading the stories, but practices of patience and non-attachment are so important, especially at a time when we as individuals are so polarized in our beliefs.
To put it in another biblical context, we need to love our “brother” like ourselves, even if our brother/sister sounds bat shit crazy. I think that if Jesus were to walk among us using the language of today, He’d say that we should especially love those who sound absurd. We tend to label fundamentalists as “crazy,” and I think that part of unpacking the baggage mentioned above is an attempt to distance ourselves from the fundamentalists.
Back to this word “God”
I got some fantastic gems out of The Universal Christ. Here are a few:
In God you do not include less and less; you always see and love more and more.
This one speaks to faith. You don’t need to call the higher power “God” for this statement to resonate. “In Source,” “In spirit,” “In Inner Guide,” “In Chloe.”
(I still have no idea where “Chloe” came from, but I’m rolling with it because it’s amusing.)
Anything that draws you out of yourself in a positive way — for all practical purposes — is operating as God for you at that moment.
I don’t need to explain this one. I believe that this is how religion should be defined. Unfortunately, what some people call “God” draws them out in a negative way. As Evans said in Inspired, the Bible is open to interpretation, and the same passages can be used to argue for or against a topic.
And here is an excellent reminder by Rohr about life and spirituality:
Spirituality is about honoring the human journey, loving it, and living it in all its wonder and tragedy. There is nothing really “supernatural” about love and suffering. It is completely natural, taking us through the deep interplay of death and life, surrender and forgiveness, in all their basic and foundational manifestations.
Amen to that.
So, where do I stand on this God thing? It varies in intensity, depending on where I am in my life.
Regarding writing about God and religion, I prefer to space out those posts, interspersed with other content. I’ll bank this post in my Drafts, and write another (or more) to be published first. I’m not a one-trick pony. This isn’t my “niche”.
What matters most
In the end, what matters is being a loving, compassionate person. The rest could be considered helpful tools and accessories. You don’t need belief or faith, you don’t require specific practices or to follow particular traditions. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read any religious texts. Reading the Bible(s) isn’t necessary to learn how to be a good citizen of the world.
These are helpful, but everything you need is already within you. What works for me might not work for you.
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