Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lowest Common Denominator

Everyone formulates their faith in their own way. Some people simply receive it as handed off from the previous generation. Some base it solely on their lived experiences. Some reason it out as best they can, and keep it rational.

Mine is probably a combination off all of these. But the fat man sitting on top of all of them is an image I have had in my mind for as long as I can remember. I suppose it may have come from one of those logic riddles, the ones that start, "a man is lying naked in the middle of the desert..." How did he get there? Well, it doesn't really matter. The fact is he is in middle of the desert, naked and alone. This is the image.

This is my existential locale, where my faith chews over my lived experience like cud, over and over, digesting it slowly, and bringing it up again and again to re-eat. What keeps coming up as the ingredients of (my) faith is: 1) the locale of the desert; 2) nakedness; 3) aloneness. Let me see if I can flush out some thoughts on each of these themes which constitute the theme of existential faith. You will see common themes in each; they seem to be inter-related.

Think about this through example: you get in your car to make a long drive to a friend's house. On the way you pass through deserted areas, be it mountains, wilderness, or desert. The car breaks down. There is nothing and no one in sight for miles, and you left your cell at home. You are in a hostile environment that does not comfort, does not tell you that everything is going to be ok. You become thirsty and hungry. Night comes, and your clothes are insufficient for the temperature. Is this so unlikely a scenario? After all, you were not planning on breaking down. You assumed your car was like a womb that you could be comfortable in and protected from the outside world as you made your way to a friend's house--a true friend who said he would 'always be there for you.' Where is he now?

It is not the friend's fault you are alone, but simply the reality of the present situation. The environment becomes a house of mirrors reflecting our insufficiency back unto ourselves. Suddenly, unexpectedly, we find ourselves in a situation in which we have nothing. The environment is not like a womb at all, but a barren wasteland where human beings are not welcome. The desert is where we come face to face with our own insufficiency as autonomous beings.

We are born in the womb. This is not really a desert at all, but an oasis of life, where we are not alone, but conjoined to the mother. In this way we are in constant communion with our source of life, and have everything we need. We are naked, warm, and well fed. But then birth comes, and with it complete alienation from everything we once knew. Our communion is broken. We are alone among alien people; and yet, they are our own species. Life is spent attempting to replicate the communion we once had with our mother through communion with others.

Lacking a physical bond (the umbilical cord), however, all communion will be ,in a sense, unwhole. The closest we get to true physical, emotional, and spiritual communion is sex. And yet it is a short lived enjoyment of intimacy. We come together for a time, and are then ripped apart. Orgasm is like the birth of a fruitfly. It is born, and it dies soon after. We forget our communion, and get up to make a sandwich. We are alone once again.

Aloneness is the lowest common denominator. When everything in our life is reduced to rubble, as it sometimes is, it is the state we find ourselves in. As soon as we are born, we are soon to die. We are entertained for a time--60, 70, 100 years--and then we are faced with our solo departure. Nakedness is our true state of being. We experience birth alone, we die alone, and we are distracted in between.

And so the lowest common denominator is me--alone, naked, sitting in the desert. This is where Jesus faced himself, and his arch-nemesis, for forty days with no food. He did not live in the desert, but found himself there, as the Spirit "drove him out" into the wilderness. We are shipwrecked unto life, and collect material scraps to keep us clothed--friends, movies, ipods, shoes, etc (they are all 'etc.') We make friends to keep from being alone, because "it is is not good for man to be alone." We live in suburbs or cities, away from the desert. That is ok. But it is not our true state of being.

When we are forced to inhabit that existential space (be it a real wilderness or one imagined) where we have no clothes, no friends or family, no safe space, this, to me, is where faith shows its true colors. Few enter it willingly (who would want to?), but rather, at some points in our life, those most valuable times, we are "driven" to that empty space where there is nothing but God or emptiness. In this void, what we choose to believe--Being or nothingness--is there. Without nothing, there would be no Something. And yet, in nothingness, there is Something. Faith becomes a currency that is suddenly worth something.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Fear and Trembling

I hate driving. Driving for me is like walking with a loaded gun; I am always conscious of the possibility of killing someone (or myself) whenever I get into a car. There is a true terror in consciousness. However, I don't experience this dread when I ride in a car with someone else. I relax, since the responsibility of safely guiding us is resting on someone else's shoulders and not my own.

Nancy Gibb's most recent essay in Time ("The Loneliest Job," January 12, 2010) about presidential decision making is case in point. She quotes Dwight D. Eisenhower, who sums up the this notion of existential dread that surfaces when "one man must conscientiously, deliberately, prayerfully scrutinize every argument, every proposal, every prediction, every alternative, every probable outcome of his action, and then--all alone--make his decision."

The weight of a country rests on a president's shoulders. But the weight of our salvation weighs on each of our own. The authentic self--the only self that God cares about--is that "pearl of great price" that demands we sell all we have and buy it. We are left alone to make the choices that constitute such a self.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sin is No-thing

In the famous Zen koan often referred to as “Joshu’s Dog,” a monk asks the Zen master Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” to which Joshu replies “Mu,” or “no thing.” Mu is represented in the Chinese language as a negative character, but as Zen master Taisen Deshimaru explains, “it [mu] is not a negative idea. Mu is not relative to the fact of existing; it's nothing. It is very difficult to explain. What is mu? Nothing and everything....Mu does not exist. Mu exists, but without noumenon. A great koan.”

This well-known koan offers an interesting ontological paradox that applies to our conceptions of sin in the Christian West, which is, “how can something exist without actually existing?” Few would deny that there is evil in the world, and yet its existence is affirmed only by phenomenon, the trail of tangible disorder that sin leaves in its wake. In the words of Deshimaru, sin exists, “but without noumenon.”

Julian of Norwich, the 14th century anchoress, said that "sin is nothing." How is this so? Like a parasite, sin feeds off goodness. It twists and deforms the good, but it would not exist without it, just as "darkness" would not exist without "light." The assumption is dualistic, equating "light" with "goodness," as the book of Genesis paints it.

Sin is not some monster roaming around on its own (though one would think otherwise after reading St. Paul). Rather, it is the monster we create that cannot live without us. We birth it, give it life, by our actions, and subsequently allow it to feed off of us our entire lives, deforming our good nature and marring our world. Sin is very real, and yet it does not really exist. Understand? Mu.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Robs Fobs needs an ENEMA!

Dear Readers,

I am totally constipated. I push and push and no words come out. My thoughts are curled up in a tight nervous ball in the bowels of my mind, and are starting to stew and ferment in their own toxins.

Give ole Rob some things to write about.
Leave a comment and let me know what you'd like to read...I promise to write about it.



Saturday, January 9, 2010

This reminds me of Daniel Johnston's "A Little Story"

I saw Jesus and the Devil they looked just the same
I saw Jesus and the Devil they looked just the same
And folks were willing to follow, but no one came
We were willing to follow but they looked just the same

I felt Jesus and the Devil, could not tell 'em apart
I felt Jesus and the Devil, could not tell 'em apart
I heard a knockin' on the door 'Let me into your heart'
But it mighta been the Devil, he is awfully smart

I saw Jesus walk on water but I coulda been wrong
I saw Jesus walk on water but I coulda been wrong
And if I really saw it then I'll sing 'em this song
But I got to be sure, because, his road, it is long

I saw the Devil in the Garden, he was bringing Good News
I saw the Devil in the Garden, he was bringing Good News
He told me I could be in charge and then he brought me a noose
I put it right around my neck, I thought I'd wear it (just loose)

And then I tried to get on track again, I tried to be good
I tried to get on track again, I tried to be good
I was looking for the answers, I was reading The Book
But I couldn't find the answers, though try, as I would

I talked to Jesus and the Devil, they talked just the same
I talked to Jesus and the Devil, they talked just the same
And if God is really Good, the Devil, he knows His game
I talked to Jesus and the Devil, they talked just the same.

--Daniel Kursten Daniels. "Jesus and the Devil."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

All My Friends Will Soon Be Strangers...

I have not experienced any strong emotions since I fell in love with Debbie almost a year ago, thanks to mood stabilizers (Abilify) and SSRIs (Zoloft, Wellbutrin). They--my emotions--are like old, wild friends I used to know--the way you drift apart from your high school friends during college, and drift away from your college friends upon graduation--their memory and our escapades fading in my mind a little bit more each day, til it seems I am a totally different person than I was just a few years ago when riding the dizzying highs and lows of mania/depression, left alone and abondoned to a strange realm of the commonplace. I have not been 'cured,' but I have been effectively treated for my illness. I live a relatively normal, stable life.

My medication has worked so effectively that I don't feel like a walking zombie (as I did on Lithium), but I don't 'feel' much at all. The flame of exuberance has become a pilot-light. I don't have strong opinions anymore, am not feverishly working on some new project, experiencing an explosion of thoughts and desire to create, seduced by passion. Normal is predictable, and kind of boring.

Still, if someone asked, I would tell them it is better than the alternative. A lot of those emotions, I think, are associated with being younger and things being new and exciting. I will turn 30 in a couple of months, and stability is looking more attractive than craziness, and I am just starting to settle into life, rather than bouncing around its brim. Craziness looks a lot more like a nuisance than any kind of siren song.

Still, I miss the fire, that Zorba-zest for life and all its little things of joy and sorrow. Can I have both--stability and passion? Is it the meds, or has life just become more common-place? Do I need a new set of eyes? Yes! But how to achieve that? I'm phasing out the Zoloft, so we will see if that helps any. It's amazing to think I could just stop with the meds and that emotional instability, the good and bad of it, would start to drift up to the surface again and begin to creep over my mind like a vine, til normalcy is strangled out in its boa-constrictor grip and reality as I know it puffs out its last breath, surrendering to the black light of the naked, untouched mind, sinking, slowly, to the bottom of the sea.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Stayin Alive

The Inquirer ran a story this Sunday about the Orthodox churches in Northern Liberties, which are struggling from declining numbers and changing demographics. A quote by a religious leader in the community got me thinking: "Nowadays, people like to be different from their parents, who wanted to be members and belong to things." Do people of my generation no longer want to belong to things? No. They want to belong, but they want their belonging to be on their terms. When they don't want to belong anymore...well, that's that. That, I think, is the plague of the 'spiritual but not religious' trend: People not appreciating being told what's what by somebody other than themselves.

The article also got me thinking about the breakdown of marriage and religion. I often liken my becoming Catholic to a marriage between myself and the Church. There were no take-backs; the deal was for better or for worse, and as my parents said of their own marriage, 'divorce was never an option.'

Nowadays, options are the name of the game. "It's not that I don't have a spiritual dimension in my life," said Rick Schroder, 49, who moved to Northern Liberties because of it's 'very cool bohemian ambiance.' "[But] organized religion is not doing it for me." Organized religion "not doing it" for people is a common complaint. If you think about it, the same complaint could be made against marriage. "My husband/wife is just not doing it for me anymore." "I'm just not into the whole 'for better or worse' thing." Etc.

The rabbi of a Jewish bowling league at North Bowl in No. Libs stated in the article, "[the league] is just as important as the religious thing for creating community. Not everybody likes praying." Come again? As I see it, trying to have a spiritual life without prayer is like trying to drink water that's missing a hydrogen or oxygen atom. It's like a marriage without sex, or communication, or whatever. It is a major part!

I admire the Orthodox holding their spiritual and theological ground in the face of a hard-pressing modernity and not conceding to trends, or trying to market their religion. They are going to continue to struggle and will have to adjust, but I'm sure they will survive. Just as the institution of marriage has survived, and will continue to survive, through the commitment of people who put their own petty wants and ego-driven desires--sometimes, their very selves-- aside for something greater than themselves.When those building blocks begin to crumble, watch out...for that's when a society begins to fall apart.