Godly lucubrations

midnight Sleepless in the Bronx

The feminist writer Katha Pollitt once wrote that the religious hymns she learned in private school had no lasting impact on her. In recent years she sang them only as mocking accompaniment to her housecleaning chores. A fellow I once knew from my left-wing days at Liberation News Service chimed in with pretty much the same sentiment when he said that intelligent people dispense with God and Santa Claus by the age of twelve.

Every so often, especially during a sleepless night, I retrieve these comments from my store of thirty-year-old memories and set them down alongside my present-day thoughts about life, space and time, and inevitably I end up thinking about God. I always wonder if I am simply the chump who took her early religious training too seriously or the dupe who is still stuck in intellectual puberty. No amount of severe rational rebuke, though — from myself or others — ever really succeeds in making me kick the idea of God to the curb where every other ideological notion I’ve ever entertained has ended up.

If only I could settle this inner controversy I have about God, I think I would be all right with the world. I would no longer have to torment myself with thoughts about the Holocaust, or about the civilized Europeans who elevated murder to a kind of holy secular principle. I would accept that God had a plan for us that is beyond my comprehension but somehow within the scope of objectively sane discourse. I could assimilate the scores of other mass national murders too that burst through ordinary life with extraordinary regularity in just about every corner of the world except in the one where I have the good fortune to have lived my life. I would believe that each one of us has a reason for being on earth for a certain period of time, and that living for five minutes before being thrown alive into a pit is every bit as meaningful as making it to the age of ninety-eight in the loving bosom of your family.

On the surface of things, I’ve put my doubts about God to rest by living a Modern Orthodox Jewish life. I abstain from eating food that the Torah says is forbidden to us. I light Shabbat candles every Friday evening. I honor the Sabbath by not shopping, working, writing or using electricity. I brought up my son to behave in the same way. But I never accept with complete faith that the decision I made to act like a believing Jew is anything more than an act. I wish I didn’t feel this way, but I would be lying if I held up my faith to others as a fortress against the doubts and rational thinking that never cease to plague me.

If I am honest with myself, I think I am what some seventeenth-century English theologians called a latitudinarian. In effect, I conform to the normative behavior of my religious group without truly believing in all of its doctrinal underpinnings. I do so because conforming gives me a community to belong to and a middle-class way of thinking that gets me up and out to a job every day.

I remember what my life was before I took on this religious observance. In my “godless” twenties, I put very few controls on my behavior. My actions, however, did not lead to the adult life I sought, a life with a companion, children and social commitments.

So, by my early thirties, I wandered back to the religious observance I learned from my parents. The resumption of my old habits came a little too late to offset the years I’d wasted, but I was lucky enough to create some facsimile of a life I desired. If I hadn’t gone back to being observant, I really think I would be living my bohemian life to this day: Working at some underachieving, low-wage job so that I would have time to do my real work as a writer; living in a studio apartment in a marginal neighborhood; indulging my childless life by going to the movies and the theater every night, and feeling alienated from my God-fearing parents.

When I look at people from my generation who chose to remain “true” to their youthful ideals, I don’t envy them. I pity them. They are like perpetual children too stubborn to have evaluated the ideas they formulated about the world when they were seventeen.

Religion — the institution that the secular world maligns as the purveyor of narrow-minded thinking — is the very force that rescued me from a life of childlessness, low-level work and a shallow relationship with two people I love more than anyone else but my son.

Yet my actions, so many of them derived from the decision I made to be “godly,” do not in any way vanquish my confusion about God. Maybe all we are is a freak of evolution, and we simply have evolved into creatures who need to believe in God. Maybe human nature has certain laws that reward moderation and punish excess, the same way that our physical reality is constrained by gravity and the law of thermodynamics.

All I can say is that the most severe or flippant attack on the idea of God does not budge Him out of my mind one jot and a tittle. He is there for me to harass until the day I go on to, well, God only knows where!

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  1. The Dark Prince said

    Here is a quote from Santayana (in the excellent “The Story of Philosophy” by Will Durant, P 651, Sept 2006, paperback edition) that might be worth pondering:

    There are two stages in the criticism of myths … The first treats them angrily as superstitions; the second treats them smilingly as poetry … Religion is human experience interpreted by human imagination … The idea that religion contains a literal, not a symbolic, representation of truth and life is simply an impossible idea.

  2. The Dark Prince said

    And, I should have added, my sentiments are fairly closely mirrored by this additional quote from Santayana;

    “He who lives in the ideal .. and leaves it expressed in society or in art enjoys a double immortality. The eternal has absorbed him while he lived,and when he is dead his influence brings others to the same absorption, making them, through that ideal identity with the best in him, reincarnations and perennial seats of all in him which he could rationally hope to rescue from destruction…. By becoming the spectator and confessor of his own death and of universal mutation, he will have identified himself with what is spiritual in all spirits and masterful in all apprehension; and so conceiving himself, he may truly feel and know that he is eternal.”

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