It is ironic, then, that walking the spiritual path brought me to the realization that somewhere along the way a transformation had taken place. What had been an ontological certainty for me in the beginning, became a patchwork of stories, created by human primates as they struggled to give meaning to their provincial experiences of a flat earth.
Other than geology, one of the few things that managed to penetrate my profound ignorance and confusion during my freshman year at Capital University, was a single sentence from an introductory sociology textbook: What people believe to be true will have true consequences for them. Somehow the words burned themselves into my memory. Although I was clueless about their personal significance, and only vaguely aware of their application to the world around me, they accurately described my academic behavior as the result of my belief that I was stupid. It wasn’t until 20 years later that I discovered I wasn’t.
I prayed fervently and unceasingly to God for years. I wanted unambiguous answers to all my questions. I reasoned that if God wanted me to get it right he would speak in clear, simple terms, and that I would not be confronted with multiple, conflicting claims to the truth, nor would I have to guess what the answers were. I thought the scriptures promised that all I need do was knock, and the door would be opened. I was frustrated by the same response I got every time I asked God, “Who ARE you?” The Silence always seemed to answer back, “Who are YOU?”
One Sunday morning, circa 1974, I stood alone in the sacristy of the inner city church I served in Houston, Texas. It had been a large wealthy white congregation with a thousand families, but the neighborhood had transitioned to black in two years. By the time I arrived there were less than twenty adults, white and black, about 40 neighborhood children, and they had a history of conflict with the Bishop, the District and the local police. Because the congregation couldn’t pay its bills, including the bonds that were issued to build the large building when it was still a viable, white people’s church, the remnant had been placed on Mission status.
While I vested for communion I had my usual argument with the Presence about the way he was running the universe. Racism, ignorance, suffering, war, poverty, church politics. “Lord, why don’t you DO something!?” It was a typical one-way conversation with the Silence. Somewhere, from far off in my awareness, the words dimly echoed, “Why don’t YOU do something?”
* * *
You, Whoever You are,
if You are at all;
You, Who consume me with uncertainty,
You, Who whisper to me,
but never speak;
You, Who nudge me forward,
but never show the way,
You, Who unfold the pain of others,
while I seek and hurt;
You, the Teacher,
You, Who are present,
yet never seen;
You, Whom others claim to see,
Who hide from me;
* * *
So it was, on this particular Sunday morning, while I stood in the sacristy, mentally pounding on God’s Door, I put on layer after layer of vestments, appropriate to liturgical renewal—black pants and shirt, clerical collar, cassock, alb, amice, cincture, stole, and chasuble. All the while I felt miserable, because it seemed like my life was falling apart. What seemed so clear to others, was shrouded in uncertainty for me.
As I looked at my vested reflection in the mirror, everything neat, straight and in order, the Door finally opened, and a voice spoke to me. I was stunned. The voice seemed to come from behind me, as if someone were looking over my shoulder. It said, “You’re putting yourself on.”
What was important about that incident at the time was not that I thought I heard a voice speaking out of thin air, but that I understood it. I knew I faced a crucial choice at that moment. I chose. Beginning immediately with my vestments, I took myself off. That day I took an unexpected turn on my spiritual path—inward, through the open Door. I stepped through and leapt into the Abyss.
In one moment I had a sense of self tied to a role and career, in the next I had nothing.
* * *
Stop and remember
the close cloistered god womb,
the place in morning and evening
where chanting and incense awed you:
images of deity
tearing time and history apart,
consuming all. Selah
Dressed in the vestments,
weaving god words in the air,
conjuring images of the deity
clothing himself in the world,
assuming the flesh of life:
from the infinite void
alive in the dust and the earth . . . Selah
Now it is over,
this official god thing,
this wearing of robes and facades.
God's skirts no longer will hide you.
The thunder and magic are gone,
the hocus pocus of making god
from bread and wine. Selah
Stripped of the image,
will the god thoughts subside?
Will the haunting ego phantom disappear?
Will excuses be finished,
and the inner place opened?
Will you burst from the egg
and resurrect yourself
from nowhere, ex nihilo? Selah
* * *
Years later, after a great deal of wandering, searching and self exploration, I read Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. I don’t remember the exact words that finally made the light go on, but I decided to take the final leap of unfaith. At that juncture I asked myself what I needed to resolve in order to fully unsubscribe from the god-meme. The conundrum was my experience of the Presence. It didn’t take long to understand it. I had a ready explanation from years of reading about the nature of the brain and the experience of self. Split brain research described the experience of both hemispheres acting independently after surgery severed the hemisphere-uniting corpus callosum--each hemisphere unaware of the other’s existence. In my study and teaching I had come to describe the subconscious mind as the “other conscious” mind, and reasoned it was as awake and aware as the side that experienced “normal” consciousness. And so it is.
The bilateral nature of my brain created the experience of the Presence. My “normally conscious” verbal hemisphere sensed my non-verbal hemisphere’s awareness, but didn’t know the nature and locus of its existence. It described it as Presence, the Other, and talked to it as if it were God. Although the right side of the brain typically is non-verbal--I called it “the Silence”--from time to time it communicates verbally and simply, and that is exactly what I experienced in the sacristy of the church in Houston. With complete clarity, a part of me knew that I was fooling myself, and found the perfect context to say so.
When I finally located the experience of presence inside me, as me, I felt a dizzying shift of awareness. It was as if I had been observing the physical world from the outside, making/speaking an ongoing commentary about its meaning, which I believed to be true. Suddenly the walls of meaning collapsed, and I associated into the world. Nothing was separate. It was devoid of meaning, if you know what I mean. It is, however, the nature of the human primate brain to see patterns in chaos, and through the blessing/curse of language, to create cause/effect stories which it thinks are true. The more fearful we are, the more exclusive we believe our own stories to be. At some point in life, we can awaken to the dream we are dreaming, though there is no guarantee we will. The consequences of my leaps of faith and unfaith have been expansive, fraught with uncertainty, anguish, freedom, wonder and awe.
For me, It is not necessary to posit a creator to explain the existence of the universe. It is astounding that “what we call 'life' is a property matter acquires at a certain threshold of its organization,"** which leads to consciousness and self-perception, in us, as us. And while the antiquated and insidious religious idea of sin continues to create grave consequences in the minds and lives of so many human primates on earth, it is long overdue to be discarded in favor of the wonder and mystery of existence itself, and the realization that there is nothing remotely, inherently wrong with us.
* David Lintner