All Faith is Autopsy
“I am both happy and sad—there should be a word for this—when reciting the ‘Mourner’s Kaddish’”.
I offer you, belatedly, a Christmas prayer, of sorts. But first, a caveat: I don’t pray, at least not in the conventional sense of Merriam-Webster’s 1a definition: “an address (as a petition) to God or a god in word or thought.” I have hoped, I have begged, I have wanted, but my expression of these needs and desires is not directed to God or a god but to an amorphous something: a sense, a force, a presence, certainly nothing remotely personified.
I do not call this thing God, the meaning of which has gone missing: now, and perhaps always, misconstrued, misappropriated, and mistaken. I see religion as a mostly dark force, too often, full of hypocrisy, distrust, and intolerance. The light at the end of the tunnel may be an optical illusion, or worse.
I presented a paper in October at the first annual John Updike Society Conference. As I looked over a room filled with scholarly Updike enthusiasts, I began my talk: “I am neither a scholar nor an Updike enthusiast.” Likewise, I proudly declare myself a nonbeliever—an atheist-leaning agnostic Jew—more comfortable defined against the dominant culture than by it.
I acknowledge the idea of God and gods, the human need to conceive of something powerful and supernatural. The concept has legs, no doubt, but is one that I won’t deify (a logical fallacy?) and don’t fully trust. What isn’t clear is how exactly this way of dealing with the chaos of human existence is anything more than an intellectual crutch. Whether necessary, useful, helpful, satisfying, or inevitable, we are still talking about a story, a metaphor, a premise: a temporary and man-made solution to the soul sickness that afflicts human hearts and minds. What we fear—the uncertain, the undesired, the unexplainable—still remains.
When I pray—and now I’m talking about definition 1b: “an earnest request or wish”—I am mostly speaking to myself. I am trying to convince myself that something is possible or necessary. I am trying to wake myself to a reality denied or desired. It may be a call to action, a cry of humility, a comeuppance.
My prayers are often an expression of disappointment or dissatisfaction, with myself, others, or the disfigured state of the world. When I pray, it is often out of desperation, a last resort, equivalent to a deathbed conversion writ small. My prayers are a pushing away of momentarily overwhelming pessimism rather than a fostering of daily optimism.
We all find reassurances from one source or another: human contact, intellectual or physical engagements, money. When those things seem askew, at risk of being lost, we look for something else. But even under such circumstances, I offer only the prayers of the godless, the godforsaken, the goddamned.
I have prayed over sporting events, before, during, and after (see: 1986 World Series, Game 6). I have prayed for romantic entanglements to become disentangled. I have prayed for good health for myself and those I love. I have prayed for luck and for confidence. I have prayed for aspects of my true self to be known and for others to remain unknown.
One of my brothers, a Messianic Jew, recently posted on Facebook that he’d been ill but was recovering thanks to antibiotics and prayer. Many would argue that there’s no downside to the latter but I don’t believe this to be true. There’s a certain abdicating that happens with prayer, a giving over of responsibility that provides comfort but also presents inherent dangers. I wonder which of the two antidotes my believer brother would give up first?
In the current state of our often graceless culture, in which our well being is increasingly threatened—by super bacteria, viruses, and weapons of mass destruction; by greed, hate-fueled ideology, and institutional (government, educational, family) decay—I understand the impulse to cede control.
On the rare occasions when I attend synagogue, my mind wanders, riffing on isolated passages of liturgy or scripture, contemplating boredom and slowed time, thinking unspiritual thoughts about the mundanitities of my to-do life. I am rarely able to focus on a rabbi’s sermon from beginning to end. An exception was a 5769 Yom Kippur take on—or, rather, take down of—Joe Lieberman and his support of Evangelicals who are literal believers “in apocalyptic prophecies that predict violent punishment at the end of time for Jews who reject Jesus.” Lieberman, an observant Jew, is diabolically acting counter to his long-term best interests, the ultimate result clearly not good for the Jews. The talk held me spellbound start to finish, despite my weakness from the fast, as it’s so rare to find whistle-blowing discourse in the cozy confines of any organized religion.
Religious observance seems to be more about obligation, ritual, and tradition than spirituality. These are not bad things but shouldn’t be a final destination.
I am not against faith or without it. I believe in and feel the goodness and wholeness of things when connected to the people and things that I love.
I am both happy and sad—there should be a word for this—when reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish. I perk up at the sound of the Shema . On the night SchoolLess was born, in a euphoric state, I cursed Hitler and the Nazis, finding both joy and redemption in the new Jewish life I helped create.
While my stepfamily—Christian by birth, if not inclination—went off to the woods (we are in the Swiss Alps) on Christmas Eve for some half-religious, half-pagan ritual—fire and snow, song and prayer—I stayed in, a jet-lagged Jew. I feel engulfed here by German language, culture, and demeanor and can not help thinking back to my Nana Ruth leaving Königsberg, in the wake of Kristallnacht on a boat bound for Ecuador, a way station on her journey to America. My great grandparents, many of my great aunts and uncles, were not so fortunate.
How does that reality not explain, at least in some way, me?
Updike saw the world as theologically driven but was better at suggesting questions than answers. Any hint of certainty gets lost in the enveloping fog of nihilism , his failure to find absolute truth—in the form of Rabbit Angstrom or, for that matter, in the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard—feels right to me.
The epigraph for Rabbit, Run reads:
The motions of Grace, the hardness of the heart; external circumstances.
– Pascal, Pensées 507
As I sit here not skiing (I prefer not to), listening to a Bach Fugue, thinking back to whence I came, I have some requests on this Christmas Day, wishes for people of all faiths and beliefs—but most insistently, grant me this indulgence, for SchoolLess and SmallerMan—a prayer, of sorts, if you will:
Be mindful of the motions of grace, fight the hardness in your heart;
do not allow yourself to be overwhelmed by external circumstances.
May these efforts lead you to seek, and find, goodness— in yourself, in others in the world at large— and may they help you become more whole and more holy.
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