Friday, November 17, 2017

religion as a buttress and bulwark

I think Julia told me her boyfriend's father, who died recently, was a Seventh Day Adventist. As a result, Julia told me in a phone conversation, her boyfriend had, growing up, lived in a lot of different countries as his dad pursued a course of spreading the good word.

But the death was a lingering, languorous one fraught with pain. But worse than the painful indignities that dying visited on the dying man was the fact that his lifelong faith did not sustain and succor him. The family was aghast. The dying man, father to Julia's boyfriend among others, railed against the religion he had followed in lock-step all of his life. It was as if he were saying to his God, "Why are you visiting this pain on me when I have been so faithful to You?!" He ranted and forswore what had once been so dear and his near kin were reduced to trembling: Wasn't religion a means of addressing death in good spirits? Wasn't it a bulwark and a buttress? The old man was adamant in his ire according to Julia. How this affected Julia's boyfriend she didn't say, but it must have been a surprise at a minimum.

Strangely, as one who had spent close to 50 years embracing spiritual life, I found the story consoling.

I had called Julia because, in the distant past, she had been a brick when it came to piecing together my book, "Answer Your Love Letters: Footnotes to a Zen Practice." I knew nothing of internet vagaries and Julia knew the codes. More than that, she was willing to put them at my disposal. The book would never have been published without her hard work.

In the course of collaboration, I learned that Julia was also an artist whose work and mind I liked. It was a recollection of that fondness that prompted my phone call: I thought she might offer some good input on my idea to create a peacenik button saying "If you really want to honor our veterans, stop making them." I thought I might scrape together the money to have the button printed up in bulk and then distributed for free ... maybe at VFW halls.

But it had been a long time since I talked to Julia and in the years gone by she had come to the conclusion that although she hated the man called Donald Trump, she was happy with what he had done in Washington. "I can only watch Fox News now," she told me without rancor as she got around to why she would not help me with the button. She was among the angry who felt disenfranchised and dispossessed by the government that was meant to represent her. Despite all the years gone by, I had expected her to be on my liberal page in the present as she had been on my liberal page in the past. Life has a way of disregarding the fondest of expectations.

And so we segued into other topics as people of our age can. I am 77 and Julia is in her 60's, I think and neither of us is interested in a teen-ager's shouting match. Age softens the edges that righteousness can sharpen. Anyway, we took a slow curve into other realms ... stuff like her boyfriend's father and his cranky demise.

The old man died without a good word for the religion he had folded himself into with gusto. The course correction seemed horrific to those who gathered around his death bed. A sorrow. A betrayal. And yet ....

To me, it seemed a blessing. Or anyway it seemed to bless my waxing sense that the purpose of donning spiritual life in the first place -- the sole nourisher, in fact -- was learning the ability and understanding that comes/came with divestiture. Far from leaning on some staff of reassurance, a believer is best served, especially when confronted by death, when all reassurances are set gently aside.

Think of it: No baby ever slid down the vaginal pipe attended by religion or spiritual preference. The sole capacity of the newborn is the capacity to suck, to nourish itself, and to live. Religion and its precincts were add-ons -- succor for the suckers who already know how to suck. This is not meant as a criticism of spiritual effort, which has many fine attributes, nor of God. It is an acknowledgment of the way in which human life unfolds. Each is born in his or her time and the Post-It's are glued on after the fact -- the habits and capabilities and successes and failures and all the other little notes that shape the person who could use a little reassurance from time to time.

Not for a moment would I disparage another's spiritual leanings. Atheism, like credulity, is pretty simple. I would only suggest that as the child once outgrew boots and clothes as winters passed, so the clothing of spiritual life might face a time when it was appropriate to put all reassurances aside. No need for anger or for joy.

It is simply what happens when the reassurances lose their assurance...

With an assurance that only death can provide.


  1. Feel sorry for your friend and her family.

    I’m confused about who did the railing the boy friend or the father. Whoever it was got tripped up by one of the oldest traps in the book of religion: expecting magical improvements in this life for doing good deeds. I know of no religion that teachers that simplistic notion, but it is very common.

    As to whether those good deeds will be rewarded in some way in some beyond is at best guaranteed by some supposed laws of karma or Heavenly Award, but at worst should only be seen as being completely unrelated. The reward, the result was to be garnered in the act of helping itself. The smile, the relief, the gratitude.

    I’d personally be more upset if I meticulously watched my diet, exercised moderately for two hours a day, conscientiously slept 8 hours a day and took my meds, visited the doctor according to scheduled and then got a serious decease than if I prayed, chanted, meditated and did numerous good works and still got a serious disease. I think we studied Job in Relgion in Grammar School where we were taught “God Works in Mysterious Ways.” By a religion that had its share of deep thinkers, deep prayers, superior administrators and successful politicians. (As well as degenerate slime balls.)

    A Buddhist meditation teacher I once studied with frequently would remark, “It’s all in how you take it.” I have little doubt he was onto something.

    I know nothing about the 7-Dayers but given the reaction, the incident leaves me with a head scratcher.

    As for watching Fox News only. That sends shivers up and down my spine. That’s cult behavior.

    I watch Fox from time to time. They present an alternative universe. A universe with few facts but lots of opinion stated as fact. I remember when Canada refused them a license when the regulators confronted the network with its lies and then network would not promise to stop.

    The last time I watched Fox they were praising Dr. Ben Carson as the smartest and wisest African American. Linguistically alone it was a bizarro form of racism, factually it was an insult to all other Black Scholars, Scientists, Artists and Businessmen.

    I most respectfully beseech your friend to google critical thinking skills, learn them and apply them.

  2. Andy -- Tnx esp. for pointing out a confusing references to whom I was talking about. Your words prompted a small rewrite. Unfortunately, I have no one looking over my shoulder and can get tangled in my own shoelaces.