I’m no longer religious, at least in any conventional sense, but for a good deal of my childhood I considered the possibility of becoming a priest. I’d lie in bed for hours reciting Hail Marys and Our Fathers wondering on the majesty of heaven, time, space, extra-terrestrials, the meaning of life, and the finite nature of everyone and everything I knew. I tried to imagine looking back on my childhood self as a wrinkled old man and wondered if there were any connections that could be made across space and time. As I grew older my nightly prayers and ponderings led me to seek out the spiritual writings of other faiths as well as my own in an attempt to understand, as best I could, who and where I was. As a teenager I became obsessed with Shelter , a Harikrishna Straight Edge band. I loved them not for their musical prowess but for their message of positivity, compassion, and encouraged self-reflection. It seemed they were after the same thing I was; a search for answers, a quest for certainty, a struggle to preserve something pure and noble.
From my late teens to mid twenties I went through a string of bad relationships, both with women and organized religion, which left me empty and disillusioned. Instead of contemplating the mysteries of the Universe or what God could or might be the churches I attended killed the spirit of divine contemplation and curiosity with shouts of “We know. We KNOW what God is, and what HE wants! We KNOW what happens after you die! We KNOW what’s right and wrong, who is good and evil.’ We KNOW who you are and we KNOW about hell!” I was guilted into following for a brief time. Luckily I eventually saw it for what it was, people creating God in THEIR image and shaming those who didn’t believe as they did. It led me to make choices and place my faith in things that I never would have, had I been following my heart and conducting my own search for truth.
By 25 I had altogether abandoned religion, even the thought of a church sent shivers of revulsion down my spine. I elevated history, science, and philosophy, things I had always loved anyway, to Godly status. They were the new vehicles by which I continued my search. Instead of Gandhi, Jesus, Buddha, and Thoreau my heroes became, to name a few, Daniel Dennett, Ray Kurzweil, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Dan Carlin, and Carl Sagan, people who first sought out knowledge and then formulated hypotheses on the nature of reality based on their discoveries not the opposite. I vehemently opposed, and railed against, organized dogmatic religionist and the fruits their beliefs. I tore down the book of my own spiritual upbringing by studying its history and pointing out, both to myself and others, the glaring inconsistencies, the unbelievable stories, and the many acts of violence and cruelty throughout. I believed, and still do, that religious fundamentalists of all varieties pose a terrible threat both to our growth as a species and individuals. I eventually whole heartedly embraced atheism.
The birth of my son awoke something in me I thought no longer existed; a deep compassion and connection to the human race at large, a feeling that there’s something larger, whatever it may be, than myself. Looking at my son made me realize it wasn’t God I was railing against, or angry with, it was others’ version of God they so ungraciously thrust upon me. I was angered that in my own quest for knowledge I had been taken advantage of and led astray by self-righteous people in search of nothing more than a justification for their way of life, wanting only to imprint their twisted version of truth onto others in order to make them ‘soldiers in “God’s army”, to fight against everything THEY thought was abominable.
I’ve decided to take back the God I knew as a boy, the God I see in the streams of light falling through the thick of a coniferous forest, the God I sense in the roaring silence of a meteor shower or on a mountain top, in the unfathomable expanse of the Universe, in the Jesus that turned water into wine, fed the hungry, and raised the dead ,in Henry David Thoreau and his Civil Disobedience, in Thacht Nhat Hahn’s Being Peace, in watching the sun set on a town where I’ve not seen it rise, in waxing lyrical until sunrise with madmen poets, dead beat scholars and criminals on the lam. I see my God in the eyes of my son, in poets, in the shuffling gate of random passersby and in the twinkling of stars long since burnt out. My God exists in the atoms of carbon in my body that have been around since the dawn of time, in supernovas, blackholes, and dark matter. Woe to you who put God in a box and create Him in your own image stealing the majesty of the unknown and divine contemplation from others!
It could be we’ re just insignificant bacteria floating through space on a mote of dust but just as easily maybe we aren’t and to make a normative claim either way is where the trouble begins, it’s the point at which we can forget, or worse yet, learn to turn our back on the numinous moments that make life so special, the glimpses of God that let us transcend our humanity and allow our imaginations to soar.
I’ve always liked the proverb Teddy Roosevelt claimed he picked up in Africa “ Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” A few nights ago I was driving home from jujitsu class when the phrase burst into my mind with new meaning. I had been watching one of the better guys at the gym allow weaker and less skilled guys get the better of him so they could learn. He knew he could beat them he had nothing to prove and didn’t want to risk hurting them. I thought about the parable of Jesus on the cross and how he could have called down all the armies in heaven to slay his captors but chose death over violence. Maybe it doesn’t mean be kind and carry a big stick in case but be kind and carry a big stick with the intent never to use it. Gandhi said it perfectly “I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment. Forgiveness adorns a soldier...But abstinence is forgiveness only when there is the power to punish; it is meaningless when it pretends to proceed from a helpless creature....”
Columnist Joshua Lorenzo Newett is a novelist, entrepreneur, and English professor at The Korean Naval Academy in Jinhae, South Korea. Saving Bill Murray, his second novel, was recently published here.
praying with a rosary image courtesy of Shutterstock