But sometimes I try to chew over something with a little more weight, and this summer, I picked up two books that had pretty intriguing titles to me and which also seemed to fit my current state of mind: Brad Warner's There is No God and He is Always With You and Frank Schaeffer's Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God. Both titles have an internal paradox about the nature of the divine and the relation of the individual to it: How is a non-existent being always with one? Isn't believing in God kind of not the point of atheism?
Well, in keeping with the spirit of my reading--yes and no, to both.
This is the first book I've read from Warner--I will probably pick up a couple of his other titles based on this one. He tackles the question of God from the point of view of a Zen practitioner, in a tradition that really isn't concerned with God, as such. It's a book in part about the looking for transcendence (he describes books that describe transcendent experiences as "enlightenment porn", which I think is kind of spot-on) but also admitting the limitations of our ability to grasp or articulate what that exactly is. He explains that from an eastern perspective, the Hindu or Yogic tradition describes Brahman or the ultimate reality as "neti neti" or "not that, not that"--in other words, to drop one's preconceptions about what reality or the divine is.
At the same time, he's aware that some believers and nonbelievers alike approach the concept of God with definite preconceptions in mind. This is the sort of thing Western people often come to Buddhism to try and shed themselves of--but he doesn't see the point of ditching a whole useful concept because other people might be awfully tetchy about what the concept represents. Buddhism itself doesn't explicitly reject gods--deities and hells abound in different traditions. The point though, seems to be to approach the idea of God also without preconceptions.
I think I get this from coming around the other way at the problem--I am not a traditional practitioner of anything, and a more of a general student of anything having to do with spirituality. For me, rejecting symbols, traditions, systems of spiritual thought, in some ways was about not having words put in my mouth about what it is. You know--it. The ineffable. The thing atheists try to boil down in a philosophical retort until it fits on a bumpersticker. The quality that tells you that "Whatever you have done to the least of these, my children..." is a more moral statement than "Blessed is he who takes the babies' heads and...", and that either of them are more impactful beginnings than "It was a dark and stormy night." Which is like a baby refusing to talk unless it gets to make up its own language, in a way. Even if imperfect, I need a way to talk about it, because even if I don't like the idea of calling it "God"--it's something. It's not to say that godlessness is without wonder or the appreciation of the mystery of all that's yet to be discovered and the aspiration that lifts us from the caves to the stars; I just feel like maybe this part of the human experience, even the mistaken parts, are a deep education in what we are as people.
I've never quite met God myself, but I'm not sure I'm through with him/her yet.
Anyway, Warner is funny, self-effacing, a deeply down-to-earth author whose thoughts ramble as if in conversation with the reader. I enjoyed that feeling of rapport.
Now, Frank Schaeffer on the other hand, is like an old friend. I don't know him, but I have reviewed him before (a book critical of the New Atheists back when I was at my, um, atheistest) and damn it--he is entertaining, engaging, and autobiographical almost to a fault. But he engages a very provocative thought--being a believer and a nonbeliever at once. And I think I get that, too. Not directly. But for those schooled to religious thought, trained up in it, for whom it is a habit and refuge, even the idea that it isn't literally true never takes away from the quality of it. And maybe it shouldn't, as the idea of religion--religio --to bind. To fasten oneself, strengthen oneself, relate to the moment.
I liked this book as a Dharma of Grandfather Spirituality. He finds the ties that bind in the everyday with a fierce love. He is religious out of habit, but spiritual because of feeling. And his impressions aren't dismissible.
But you know me--I'm a flippant wench. So I'll leave you with a thought that hit the spot for me in my present frame of mind, even if it seems a little odd--I found a really relatable way to think about religion for someone like me, via the guy who does Dilbert.
Religion is similar to software, and it doesn't matter which religion you pick. What matters is that the user interface of religious practice "works" in some sense. The same is true if you are a non-believer and your filter on life is science alone. What matters to you is that your worldview works in some consistent fashion.
If you're deciding how to fight a disease, science is probably the interface that works best. But if you're trying to feel fulfilled, connected, and important as you navigate life, religion seems to be a perfectly practical interface. But neither science nor religion require an understanding of reality at the detail level. As long as the user interface gives us what we need, all is good.
I've often thought of religion as an add-on to my basic package that runs imperfectly on my wetware. I've installed simulation models, but sometimes, I still get error messages ("Stack overflow exception") that advise me I probably need to update my GUI to handle the current apps.
I really hope they have patches now for the known errors, though.