The God Question | Part Three

[Moral] practice has not been able to keep pace with the mind. Man has begun to say, “This is wrong, that is wrong.” Whereas previously he justified his conduct, he now no longer justifies his own or his neighbor’s.  He wants to set right the wrong but does not know that his own practice fails him. The contradiction between his thought and conduct fetters him.
-Mohandas Gandhi
Non-Violence in Peace & War, II-76

I don’t really understand myself,
for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it.
Instead, I do what I hate.
-Romans 7:15

The Problem of Me
In the summer of 1981, at the same time I was reading my friend’s pharmacology textbooks on LSD, I was also reading Gandhi. This was in part my Looking to the East phase. But it was also my looking within. I had begun to suspect myself as possibly my biggest problem.

That probably reaches back over my entire life up to that point. But over the last nine months I had come up against some unsettling indications that I was perhaps not the person I thought or hoped myself to be. The one I remember best had been the previous fall, when my friends asked me to help them with a proposed pot-growing operation. My gut told me was it was stupid and wrong, but the money that could be made turned my head. I was quite disgusted with myself over that. Why would I not only think but also act in a way so at odds with my self-professed values?

If I could be hard on myself in a very selective way, I was even harder on others, and also extremely defensive. I couldn’t take any sort of criticism; to me, it was always personal and never welcome. As a harsh judge of others, it seems I always assumed the same sort of harshness must have been behind the least bit of criticism directed at me. Underlying my assessment of myself and of others, was a complete lack of insight. I really did not get people. It followed that I didn’t get myself.

When I looked in the mirror, seemingly every part my persona had an opposing aspect. I was a clown who made others laugh but actually took himself far too seriously. I was violent yet peaceful, sensitive yet capable of being really mean, even to friends; serene and patient, yet plagued by anxiety and frustration; compassionate yet judgmental; wildly gregarious but often a loner, vain yet at times overcome with contempt for myself.

It wasn’t a pretty picture, fractured into these paradoxes, and obscured by shadows of unknowing. I wondered what do with myself. That summer I picked up a compendium of Gandhi’s writings. I thought initially that he could inform a decision I had already made to personally adopt a nonviolent lifestyle. Up until the age of 14, violence was part of my life. I chose that it would not be anymore. But in Gandhi there was more, a philosophy of living and working in the world that resonated with me. Non-violence does not sufficiently convey in English what he meant by Ahimsa. It was something greater and deeper than merely refraining from physical violence. It was peaceful and just action, not mere pacifism. It required much of the individual, from within the heart.

This is the only permanent thing in life, this is the only thing that counts; whatever effort you bestow on mastering it is well spent.
-Non-Violence in Peace & War, I-114

It also answered the militant Left and any others who saw violence and destruction as the only means to their utopia -  something I had only awakened to in the last few months in Seattle. And Gandhi insisted that freedom was for all, regardless of their beliefs or station in life.  Ahimsa met me where my desire for personal betterment intersected with my desire for social and political change – inner peace and world peace, so to speak.

However much I was taken with these values, reading about them and pondering them was as far as I got before I was distracted by life and the tumult of the next twelve months, and events that would send me in a very different direction.

* * *

House on Ronald AvenueI stayed with my parents for the summer, who had rented a daylight basement just across Bonner Park from the house on Hastings. Right away I started looking for a job. I had hoped to get on as a YCC crew leader, but was notified in March that I hadn’t been selected. I ran around to all the movie theatres in town, but couldn’t find a job. Dad told me that if I couldn’t get a paying job, I had to line up enough volunteer work to stay busy. That was the deal. I readily agreed, and right away went out to do it.

Missoula Art Museum

Missoula Art Museum

First I lined up a few shifts on the welcome desk of the Missoula Art Museum. We were showing a fantastic exhibit of the photography of Philippe Halsman. Between the exhibit and the hours I sat reading art magazines, my knowledge and appreciation grew, especially for painting and black and white photography.

Then I started serving at the Poverello Center, a NPO that served the hungry and homeless of Missoula. I would come and help with the food line they had every day at lunch. This proved a revelation to me. First, the admonition Gandhi made that we ought to live in service to others, that helping the poor was a special obligation, was now something I was suddenly able to practice every week. It also happened to have been what my parents and Church had taught me since I was little.

Second, it had a lasting effect on me. It was Christianity in practice. It was a direct and effectual expression of the way that Jesus said his followers should be in the world. I was struck by how I felt, giving my time and labor on behalf of others. It was awesome. I didn’t feel so bad about myself. In fact, while I was there, I didn’t think about myself. A year later this sense would revisit me and change my life forever.

The back of the Pov in 2012. A planned new building is scheduled to open in 2014.

The back of the Pov in 2012. A planned new building is scheduled to open in 2014.

I argued a lot with Mark. Daring to relate my dalliance with Gandhism, I was met with exhausting objections: it isn’t practical, it doesn’t work, they are hopeless ideals. I wasn’t able to defend something I had just begun to read about. I felt deflated. Back in Seattle (before or after the summer, I don’t recall) Mark also contended vociferously against altruism, that nothing humans did was truly selfless. I believed that we could act for the benefit others and against our own.

Well, of course I did. I hoped I was doing good, and not solely to satisfy myself. Just a little bit of good work did a heck of a lot to counterbalance how badly I felt about myself most of the time. It suggested that I had at least some good impulse, that I wanted to serve some higher purpose. Sometime in the past year, I had what I considered a revelation. I don’t know how it came to me, but it was the realization that bad people – selfish, mean, violent, treacherous – must be unhappy people. Which was the cause of the other, I couldn’t say, but happiness and badness couldn’t reside together.

I had read enough to know that according to Buddhism, human suffering comes from selfish desires. When I turned for a few hours a week from my selfish desires to the needs of others, to help feed the hungry, I felt perhaps that was true. At the Pov I also met some Children of God who lived a vagabond lifestyle as ‘missionaries,’ denying themselves many physical comforts ‘for the sake of the Good News.’

This was not the end of the variety of spiritual paths I was presented with. In Seattle the Church of Scientology spotted me as a promising target, and I couldn’t seem to get away from them: three or four of my co-workers were Scientologists. In fact, I seemed to be wearing a t-shirt that signaled to all the major cults: “Easy Mark. Proceed with Confidence.”

Yes, the religious smorgasbord was spread before me. Yet for all my searching over the last couple of years; all of the different religious people, ideas, groups and cults I had encountered; the books I read, the hallucinations I had, the hours of pondering and debating, I was still in the dark. Neither the Catholics, the Protestants, Gandhi, Camus, Aquinas, the Scientologists, the Mormons, nor the Children of God had shown me the way out of my questing and confusion. And, right or wrong, I hadn’t latched onto anything that seemed to answer the problem of me. I was no better off, as far as I could tell.

One day I was standing at a bus stop in Seattle, wearing my Easy Mark t-shirt. A girl approached me with a clipboard and a pen. I knew right away that she was a Scientologist, and I knew exactly what she was going to say. This had happened a couple of times before. They ask you questions, and don’t even pretend to mark down your answers. The questions are meant to make you emotionally vulnerable to their recruitment pitch: “We can help you with that.” One thing leads to another and a few months later you are penniless and insane, awaiting the big alien invasion. In Portland once, I went as far as being walked to the downtown Church to get a personality test. But I got the heebie-jeebies and left.

“Hi! I’m taking a survey,” she said, flashing a friendly smile and standing about six inches closer than a complete stranger would. “Could I ask you a few questions?”

I am constitutionally incapable of telling someone to get lost. And saying no was just plain rude.

“Okay.” How was I thinking this was going to turn out? I don’t know, dear readers, I don’t know.

“If there was one thing about yourself you would like to change, what would it be?”

Only one? I thought. “Hmm, I’m not sure,” I lied. Now I just wanted her to go away.

“Isn’t there something about yourself you’d like to change?” The smile was fading.

I squirmed. Without even knowing me, she had my number. How’d she get it? I had a fresh incision from my chin to my belly button, and she was tugging at the stitches.

“Probably.” But I’m not telling you.

Her tone became impatient. “Like what?”

“Um…”

“Come on, all of us have something!”

I shook my head. Angered at my failure to comply, she walked away in a huff.

There were a lot of things I would change if I could, including knowing how to talk to someone like that without becoming flummoxed, and letting myself feel guilty for making her mad. Weak, slow on my feet, not knowing what a boundary was between myself and another person, not even a stranger. “No, thank you, I’m not interested, have a nice day,” would have sufficed. But no, one question from her and I need some medication.

Worse was the real answer to her question. I couldn’t have begun to put it into words, but the feeling plagued me of not being good, or good enough, or knowing what to do about it. I never killed anyone, or raped or tortured anyone, but what if what’s wrong with me is what’s wrong with other people, the people I judge, the people who anger me, shock me and repulse me with their outrages against my sense of moral order? If I can’t change, then how can they? I have no interest in becoming some kind of saint, but something is wrong with me. Maybe it means I’m in the same fix as the people who make the world so wrong. The people who made the world wrong a thousand years ago as well. In other words, the people who made me question the faith of my mothers and fathers. Where do I look next?

Who knows?

The Road to Emmaus #2 by Daniel Bonnell

The Road to Emmaus #2 by Daniel Bonnell

Part Four (coming soon)

The God Question | Part Two

Warning: drug use, scholasticism.

“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”
-John 4:48

The Knowledge Problem, or Doubting & Thomas

Let’s talk about Sunday mornings. Circa 1976, when I was twelve. There was fighting over the bathroom, lots of hollering. Bickering and jostling in the car on the way to church. Morphing from brat to boy, as we went from the car to the sanctuary.

I would sit through the Mass, bored, compulsively fidgeting, and occasionally entranced by the wondrous interior of the neo-gothic building. I would stare at the brilliant stained glass windows, which portrayed the saints, mostly as they were being martyred. I found the St. Lawrence window a little hard to accept. It showed a large grill ornately carved from solid stone, which I was told was the device on which the saint was, uh, fried, I guess. Broiled? Simmered to taste? They burned him. That seemed very cumbersome to me. Once I said out loud, “Why didn’t they just drop that thing on his head?” Very likely I was more suited to making martyrs than being one. The window of St. Stephen, my namesake, also fascinated me. He was being stoned to death. I had no idea who he was.

The Mass is beautiful, smells good and is gorgeously adorned, but I could make no connection between the rite and my life as it was the moment we walked out of the building back to the car to jostle and bicker our way home.

The warm feelings I often felt during the service were, I thought, the most you could experience of God. The only other time I felt anything like that sense of awe and coziness was watching sunset or the ocean. It was nice, but it didn’t answer any of my questions. It may have hinted at it, but it didn’t put me in touch with God.



Confronted with serious questions about the nature and character of the Catholic Church, at 13 I began to wonder how it was that I was to know anything regarding God. I really did not have anything to go on.

The following year I was back in Portland. Perusing my mom’s books, I first reached for the Bible. I turned to the Gospels, looking for the Jesus that so impressed me a few months before in Jesus of Nazareth. What I found seemed to be in a foreign language, incomprehensible. The words on the page were dead to me.

I put the Bible back and pulled another book out. It was a collection of writings by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), derived mostly from the Summa Theologica, his 3500-page exposition of Christian doctrine. There, in Part One, under his treatise on God, I found his reasoned arguments for the existence of God.

Concerning the Divine Essence, we must consider:
(1) Whether God exists?
(2) The manner of His existence, or, rather, what is NOT the manner of His existence;
(3) Whatever concerns His operations—namely, His knowledge, will, power.

Concerning the first, there are three points of inquiry:
(1) Whether the proposition “God exists” is self-evident?
(2) Whether it is demonstrable?
(3) Whether God exists?

-Summa, Q. 2.

I took it to my bedroom, and struggled with it for some time, trying to draw out the answer, the dawning truth, the solution to the problem of knowing.

Thomas_Aquinas_by_Fra_BartolommeoI answer that, Everything which is raised up to what exceeds its nature, must be prepared by some disposition above its nature; …Hence it is necessary that some supernatural disposition should be added to the intellect in order that it may be raised up to such a great and sublime height. Now since the natural power of the created intellect does not avail to enable it to see the essence of God, as was shown in the preceding article, it is necessary that the power of understanding should be added by divine grace.

-Summa, Q. 12. Art. 5

Thomas holds that apart from God’s gracious intervention, the human intellect lacks the understanding it needs to see the the essence of God. What about seeing, perceiving God himself? How does one obtain this grace?

It seemed like a mirage. I could see the dim outline of what he was saying, but as I looked at it, the tangible and certain truth I needed would fade. I wanted something I could grab hold of, and his logical arguments weren’t giving it to me. His thinking was way beyond my grasping. Even if I could follow him, he could only help if I were trying to reason my way to God.

Too, Thomas was a product of the same medieval church that was so problematic for me. He endorsed one of the singular crimes of the Church, something unique neither to Catholic Christianity, medieval Christianity nor to Christianity at all:

I answer that, With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death. For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life. Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.

-Summa, Q. 11. Art. 3.

People_burned_as_heretics

Of course, not only Christian dissidents but infidels aplenty fell victim to the stake, the sword and the torture chamber: Jews, Muslims, pagans and the falsely accused. Poorly done, boys.

* * *

In the medieval world, called by some ‘the age of faith,’ I noticed that the supernatural was a present reality to those who believed, at times entering the natural realm in the form of miracles, visions and spirits – both good and evil. It seemed to me that if an angel or a long-dead saint, or Jesus himself visited you, your days of doubting and questioning were over. That would pretty much seal the deal. Of course, I doubted whether such events ever took place and did not expect any such visitation, but I did think it would sure be helpful.

This thinking led me to the conclusion that instead of philosophical or theological arguments, what I needed to settle the question of God’s existence and the truth about our faith was an experience, some glimpse of the other side, the eternal, the transcendent – hopefully real enough that my questions would be answered in a moment. It was like wishing I could fly, I sensed, but with a little more hope of the possibility. I was a dreamer, though, and this was likely just another dream. I never even made it a prayer.

In the absence of such a unlikely occurrence, I was left where I was. I wanted to believe, but more, I wanted to know. I remember about this time (eighth grade) reading Thoreau’s statement that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Wow, I remember thinking, I feel like that. I don’t want that to be the way I lead my life. If there was no God, and I never had an answer, and I was left thinking that my life had no apparent meaning or purpose, then that is exactly what my life would be: quiet desperation. The prospect was depressing.

Over the next year or two, I could no longer honestly make any profession of faith. During my sophomore year, Dad had strongly encouraged me, stopping short of insisting, to attend a youth group at the Catholic church that he and Jane had begun to attend. I did so for a few months, but when they stopped attending, so did I. This was the same time that I began to party, drink and use drugs. They were a nice group of kids, and the leader was a guy in his twenties who showed real caring for us but had little to offer someone in my situation. What does an apologetic for the faith sound like from someone who lends little or no authority to Scripture or to the Church? I don’t know. I never heard one.

At 16, I remember telling my girlfriend – who had been raised a Lutheran – that I was an agnostic. I told her my doubts started with the Church. By this time I had undertaken to look beyond Christianity for answers. With my exposure growing up to the counterculture of the 70s, I naturally looked to the East. I read some Buddhist writings. It did not, and never has, made much sense to me. It just did not resonate with me. I was thinking within mindset I was raised with. In fact, it made me skeptical of claims by Westerners to fully embrace and comprehend the traditions of the Eastern mind. It’s really very different. I freely admit: I didn’t get it. But I didn’t give up on it right away.

Further, I was also wary of New Age spirituality. A girl in English class once asked me in a dreamy voice, quite out of the blue, “Have you ever tried astral projection?”

“Have I what?”

“Traveled out of your body to the astral plane.”

“Uh, no,” I confessed. “Have you?”

“It’s like totally intense. You should try it.”

Given my desire for a supernatural experience, you’d think I might be tempted. But I thought she was loopy. I wasn’t entirely sure she had returned from her travels. Besides, I had my own travel plans.

I was going to drop acid. I was very interested, but I put it off for quite a while because I had reservations about it. I wanted to make sure it was safe. After I had already taken two trips, I decided  should consult a travel agent. In the summer of 1981, now 17, I returned to Missoula from Seattle, where I had moved in February. My friend Matt Crowley was a freshman at the University of Montana, studying pharmacy. I asked if he had any information about LSD. He loaned me two or three of his pharmacology textbooks, and I read very word they had about the hallucinogen. There were two things I wanted to learn. One, How dangerous or safe was it? And two, What kind of supernatural experiences had people reported after taking it?

I have only a vague recollection of what I read about the risks, but I concluded that the danger was mostly psychological, and based on my first two experiences, decided it wasn’t a concern.  Instead I fastened onto the users’ reporting they had “seen the face of God” or had some other opening to the cosmos or the eternal. My thinking was right out of the 1960s. What if there was something to it, what Timothy Leary and others have been claiming? What if the effect of LSD is to open an unseen reality to our conscious minds that we cannot see otherwise? Suppose it was the missing ingredient: “some supernatural disposition should be added to the intellect in order that it may be raised up to such a great and sublime height.” As far as my friends were concerned we were all doing it for fun. But known only to myself, I was hoping for something more: a spiritual experience that would lead to knowledge.

I never received the experience I sought. But that summer, I took acid with perhaps five or six friends. We were at the house of a friend who’s father was a minister. I found a small icon hanging on the wall near the front door. And I was hypnotized by it. It was an image of Mary and the infant Jesus. I stood and stared. Perhaps five minutes, perhaps twenty – who knows? In their shimmering faces I thought I was understanding something, connecting with something that reached across time, as if persons thousands of years and miles apart were suddenly face to face and knowing each other, smiling at each other, communicating without words. I believed I was looking into the infinite beyond. It made some kind of sense to me, and I told myself I needed to remember, after I came down, what it was I had just been shown or discovered or felt. But I couldn’t. It completely eluded me.

Is that how it is?, I wondered. Is experience always that temporary? Can it be just as much a mirage as Thomas’ logic, or Zeffirelli’s movie? Does it just dissipate like holy incense on Sunday morning? I know it was a hallucination. But how much more convinced would I be by any other sensory experience? Doesn’t every experience fade with time and doubt? Am I hoping for something that won’t actually give me what I need? Am I looking for the wrong thing?

Who knows?

Detail, The Conversion of St. Paul,by Caravaggio.

Detail, The Conversion of St. Paul, by Caravaggio.

Part Three…Part Four