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For economic reasons, I am contemplating a 2,000-mile relocation. Such a thing would have been unthinkable only a few months ago, and here I am, investing considerable time and money to make it happen. I have only ever lived within two hours of the hospital where I was born.  I am a little nobody, and I may well leave the only home I have ever known. I am in my 40s. If I relocate, it will be tantamount to dying out of one life and being born into another.

We tend to invoke God at extreme moments. This is true even if God doesn’t figure much in our consciousness otherwise. Whether they pray, people often curse, mouthing names of the Almighty, when big, unfathomable things happen to them, when catastrophes befall, when there are personally cataclysmic shifts of any kind. The general principle that people who are normally not so interested in religion, tap the Divine when they face something huge, may explain why I have been thinking about God with uncommon frequency and urgency these days.

Welcome to Brothers and Sisters, the weekly meetup for prayer* and community at Daily Kos.  We put an asterisk on pray* to acknowledge that not everyone uses conventional religious language, but may want to share joys and concerns, or simply take solace in a meditative atmosphere. Anyone who comes in the spirit of mutual respect, warmth and healing is welcome.

Clearly, as an agnostic, I’m coming to experience God in unaccustomed ways in this uncertain time of my life. This upheaval in my personal circumstances has made possible a spiritual homecoming for me, a celebration and an embrace of my agnosticism. Dictionary.com—as good a scripture as any to me, even if it isn’t generally very poetic ☺--defines "agnosticism" as the belief that God is unknowable, or that “human knowledge is limited to experience.” I don’t really worship anywhere. I lack allegiances to any particular spiritual tradition, and may never acquire them. This description of my belief regarding the supernatural works for me; it’s one that allows, both for a fully rational worldview, and for an appreciation of mystery. It will most likely continue to work for me, come what may.

With that out of the way, let me share two contradictory-seeming notions of God, illustrated in two artistic works. One, in a pop song, portrays a tender and intimate and reassuring Deity; the other, a scene from a play, depicts a merciless one.  Both portrayals move and delight me in different ways, opening different doors in my mind.

Here is the song:

From a distance
The world looks blue and green
And the snow capped mountains white
From a distance
The ocean meets the stream
And the eagle takes to flight

From a distance
There is harmony
And it echoes through the land
Its the voice of hope
Its the voice of peace
Its the voice of every man

From a distance
We all have enough
And no one is in need
And there are no guns, no bombs and no disease
No hungry mouths to feed
From a Distance
We are instruments
Marching in a common band
Playing songs of hope
Playing songs of peace
They are the songs of every man

God is watching us
God is watching us
God is watching us
From a distance

From a distance
You look like my friend
Even though we are at war
From a distance
I just cannot comprehend
What all this fighting’s for
From a distance
There is harmony
And it echoes through the land
And its the hope of hopes
Its the love of loves
Its the heart of every man

God is watching us
God is watching us
God is watching us
From a distance

God is watching us
God is watching us
God is watching us
From a distance

From a Distance
Artist: Bette Midler, American, 1945 -
©2012, Lyrics2007

The words Bette Midler’s song “From a Distance,” are sweet, invoking an omniscient God of compassion. From the perspective of the Almighty, the song implies, we are all one family. Divisions are unimportant, and we should work to see past them. Yes, depending on your tastes, you may find the song sappy. But I’m so relieved that this pretty, engaging, sensuous song is not trying to sell me anything--not baby powder, not a soft drink, not the dogma of the Unification Church. It nourishes me with no strings attached. I find “From a Distance” to be innocent and sincere, depicting a God whom I can't fathom any better than any other mortal can, but whose possible beneficence I acknowledge. It's artful in its way.

In the refrain, “God is watching us,” "From a distance" confronts me with what I believe to be the religious impulse itself: the longing for the bone-level sense that something wiser and more powerful than human consciousness is outside it, enfolding it.  The song touches my (human) longing to feel perfect trust, for a context in which perfect trust is warranted.

The problem of “man’s inhumanity to man,” Bette Midler implies, results from a failure to adopt God’s perspective; people killing each other thwart the benevolent will of the Almighty. But Midler's soothing lyrics don't meet the real theological challenge, that presented by fate, by the random-seeming course of human affairs in which God's will is ambiguous. In a world of justice and equality, where people treated each other well without exception—and presumably fulfilled God's will perfectly in that way--awful things would still happen. Children still would die. God would allow this?

The playwright Tony Kushner meets the challenge of the ambiguity of God's will in one 2-minute scene in his long play about AIDS (at the start of this clip), “Angels in America.” The play is set in the 1980s. In this scene, from the HBO version, Harper Pitt, the young Mormon wife of an LDS Reaganite lawyer and repressed homosexual Joe Pitt, contemplates ending her troubled marriage. She is in the New York City LDS cultural center, apparently after hours, conversing with a plaster replica of a Mormon pioneer woman who has inexplicably risen up out of a covered wagon and is speaking.

“Harper: In your experience of the world. How do people change?

Mormon Mother: Well it has something to do with God so it's not very nice.

God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can't even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It's up to you to do the stitching.

Harper: And then up you get. And walk around.

Mormon Mother: Just mangled guts pretending.

Harper: That's how people change. ”

― Tony Kushner, Angels in America, Part 2: Perestroika

Angels in America, Part 2: Perestroika
Artist: Tony Kushner, American, 1956 -
©2012, Goodreads, Inc.

Kushner’s scene confronts us with two possibilities, neither of which flatters God. As the pioneer woman implies, nothing that involves God is “very nice.” Indeed. In creating this scene, I believe Kushner aims to respect real-life people who endure horrible losses of every sort. He posits, through his characters, that God may be indifferent to human suffering, not hesitating to afflict mortals, to advance an impersonal grand design they may never fathom.  Another, more disturbing possibility is that God is a sadist, who actually hurts people on purpose, who seems to enjoy hurting people. Either way, God is a bastard. Mortals simply cope. The play’s illumination of this possibility delights me, much as Bette Midler’s “blue and green” world does, in a different way. I love it.

Even more than the words in the script, I love Harper Pitt’s face in the HBO version of this scene. Harper's situation is especially difficult, because the solace of, "You were hurt by someone acting against God's will," isn't available to her. God is inscrutable. As she listens to the pioneer woman describe change, and God’s role in change, Harper is smiling and almost weeping. It’s her expression of relief. The pioneer woman is speaking Harper’s reality, making sense of it, and Harper feels understood for the first time. Harper’s near-weeping-grin is about more than relief; it’s also Harper’s acknowledgment of grandeur and beauty in the face of reality. Here Kushner goes Bette Midler one better: Harper’s face acknowledges even paradoxical grandeur and beauty in the face of the horrendous. Harper, contemplating divorce, with an uncertain future, realizes that perhaps there is more to her existence than what she can grasp right now. Perhaps.

But enough about Harper Pitt. Back to me. I thought for the longest time that being "agnostic" meant I had to be "en route" somewhere, in terms of spiritual belief, in this lifetime. I conceived of my "agnosticism" apologetically, as merely a humble stepping-stone between the credulous, childlike absolutism I had left behind, and the sophisticated, mature spirituality I would one-day grow into. "Sophisticated, mature spirituality." Hmmm, what would that look like, exactly? My life is puny, relative to forces that shape it, and it could be upended altogether, shortly. I could end up being blown away, like a dried leaf across a vast continent. Under these circumstances, "not knowing," about God or anything else, is just fine. While not static, by any means, my "agnosticism" doesn't need to be justified as part of a progression towards superior knowledge of the universe. I don't have to apologize for it. For me, agnosticism is dignified and compassionate and honest, just as it is.

Originally posted to karmsy on Sun May 27, 2012 at 04:52 PM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets and Anglican Kossacks.

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