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.


Rob Peach said...

Permission to post on my fb wall? I hope you don't mind. If so, I'll take it down.

Rob Peach said...

To echo you, and in the words of Alan Watts, (God, I'm original):

"In man so-called primitive cultures it is a requirement of tribal initiation to spend a lengthy period alone in the forests or mountains, a period of coming to terms with the solitude and nonhumanity of nature so as to discover who, or what, one really is--a discovery hardly possible while the community is telling you what you are, or ought to be. [Sh]e may discover, for instance, that loneliness is the masked fear of an unknown which is [her]self, and that the alien-looking aspect of nature is a projection upon the forests of [her] fear of stepping outside habitual and conditioned patterns of feeling. There is much evidence to show that for anyone who passes through the barrier of loneliness, the sense of individual isolation bursts, almost by dint of its own intensity, into the 'all-feeling' of identity with the universe. One may pooh-pooh this as 'nature mysticism' or 'pantheism,' but it should be obvious that a feeling of this kind corresponds better with a universe of mutually interdependent processes and relations than with a universe of distinct, blocklike entities." (cf. "Nature, Man, and Woman" 31-32)

Of course Watts is here referring to specifically male initiation rituals, but the fact of our existential emptiness--our shared loneliness--is very real for man or woman. And it's a loneliness that we all have to deal with on a continual basis. At least those of us who choose to acknowledge, such as yourself. And it's good that you're able to name it. It may indeed be more emptiness than loneliness.

Either way, you're--we're--given now an opportunity in that feeling--unreliable though feelings may often be--to more authentically connect or, better, fill up, with the universe.