Thursday, May 10, 2012

Lord, save me from my true beliefs!

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was an influential and sometimes  kick-ass Christian theologian. There is a church here in Northampton that is named after him. Reading Edwards' limping biography on Wikipedia, I realize that my image of him is even less reliable than what is presented in Wikipedia. Edwards lived in a time when a tightly-held moral rectitude was part of the landscape. Men were men and women had damned well better know their place. God was watching and he wasn't always happy with what he saw. In my mind, Edwards was a believer who convinced others (sometimes so well that they despaired and committed suicide) with a strict and elevated vision. His sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sounds pretty rigid to me, but my own rigidities and lack of information do not allow me to see Edwards as something other than a stick figure -- someone whose belief scares the pants off me without inspiring me to flesh out the man who was. So it goes with scary stuff ... the less you know, the scarier it can become. Edwards stands in my half-baked mind as the same sort of scary that the come-to-Jesus Christianity in the South can ... Edwards was a better thinker, but that doesn't change my willingness to shudder.

 On July 30, 1945, the heavy cruiser Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. The ship, which had been on a secret mission delivering parts for the atomic bomb that would soon be dropped on Hiroshima, went down in the 12 minutes after the torpedo attack. Because of the secrecy of its assignment, the Indianapolis maintained radio silence as I understand it, and so, when the torpedo struck, they did not radio for help. Of the 1,196 crew members, 300 went down with the ship. The remaining men, some 900 were left to the mercilessness of the sea ... subjected to dehydration and starvation and ravening sharks for four days before they were spotted by accident. Of those who 'survived' the sinking, only 317 survived ... that's how delighted and frenzied and hungry the sharks were.

The Indianapolis
On my scare-o-meter, the sinking of the Indianapolis ranks very close to the top. To be left and bereft and with no shred of caring ... in the open waters ... among the cries of those around you ... one by one picked off without a single gentle or consoling word ... a kind of whack-a-mole situation in which the moles are dispatched from below without apology or explanation or meaning. Yes, when it comes to deer-in-the-headlights fear, the sinking of the Indianapolis and the events that followed scares the pants off me.

But right up there with the Indianapolis is the world of true believers whose remorseless correctness seems to expand outward from some insistent, uncaring core. I can credit that such people feel an abiding and overarching fear, a doubt so deep that it demands a fulsome response, but the fangs and claws of true belief are as uncaring as any shark... attacking not only the world, but eating the true believers from within as well. It is really scary shit on my scare-o-meter. To find myself in such careless, insistent and unforgiving waters ... it frightens me.

But what occurred to me today is that the realms of the true believer -- the remorselessness of some rigid and pulpit-pounding true belief -- is only as scarey as I am capable ... capable of falling prey to a true belief beyond which I lack the courage to travel. I too have been there and done that and if there is a hell, true belief lies at the very heart of it... raging, fiery, convinced, unremitting ... burning the sinners who stand before their truly angry god. If there were a prayer to utter, perhaps it would be, "Lord save me from my true beliefs!"

From the religion of the intellect to the prayer rugs of Islam to the wafers of the Catholic Church to the goodness of any number of endeavors, to my own grasping for one life-preserver or another, nothing is quite so scary or so self-destructive as true belief.

But the scariness I find in a wider world is not something I can do anything about. The sharks of true belief may be out there and it may scare the pants off me, but the fact is, I can't do a damned thing about it. The only realm in which I stand half a chance is in the bathroom mirror. Do I have the courage to find a way to move beyond my own dearly beloved true beliefs? Sometimes yes, sometimes no ... but I can give it a shot. The idea that I might fail, that I would lie back on some comforting laurels of true belief and rest assured ... that's a pretty good inspiration since I find it so horrifying.

My Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, once said, when I asked him about hope and belief, "In the beginning, hope and belief are necessary. After four or five years of (Zen) practice, they are not so necessary." Hope and belief are the hand maidens of the true believer. But they are trumped (whether in Zen or the religion of the intellect or the promise of 77 virgins in the afterlife) by experience ... good old, in-your-face, sharks-in-the-water experience. Experience does not bend a knee to any true belief. Experience is as patient and uncaring as a hungry shark. And the trick is to embrace this shark rather than fleeing his gleaming teeth -- to trust what is trustworthy ... the untrustworthy.

Sometimes I have the courage, sometimes not. I know I am grateful for a tool like zazen or seated meditation. I wouldn't call myself a true believer when it comes to zazen, but I would say that, like finding a needed hammer in the tool box, zazen is a pretty good tool for addressing these shark-infested, belief-infested waters.

For the first four or five years, hope and belief are necessary. They inspire action.

After that, experience kicks in a little and the true believer of which I am so entirely capable and so frequently afraid can go suck an egg.

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