August 27, 2012 § Leave a comment
The question we all have as human beings is “what lies beyond our limit?” We just watched the film Another Earth where humans are faced with the perplexing realization that there is another earth mirroring our own, even another self completely synchronized with us.
In reality, when we come into contact with other people, their inner being transcends us. They might let us into a few thoughts, but other than that, we will never fully know them.
But to find another replicated self – would we recognize ourselves? Would that other self transcend us as well, as though we are looking at a stranger? Would you feel competitive of your other self? Would you find your other self ugly? Would you be annoyed by your other self? Would you love your other self? Would you tell your other self to get over all their hang-ups and get on with life?
Just as we will never meet our other self, we will never meet our idea of God. In Gordon D. Kaufman’s book, God The Problem, he states, “If there were no experiences within the world which brought us in this way up against the Limit of our world – if there were no point at which man sensed his finitude – then there would be no justification whatsoever for the use of God-language (Kaufman, 49).”
To embrace what lies beyond the limit, we talk of God in ways that we can understand from our experience of human relationships.
“…God is spoken of as lord, father, judge, king, and he is said to love and hate, to make covenants with his people, to perform “mighty acts,” to be characterized by mercy, forgiveness, faithfulness, patience, wisdom, and the like – all terms drawn from the linguistic region of interpersonal discourse (Kaufman, 62).”
In the Webster’s Dictionary, the word God is defined as “1 cap : the supreme reality; esp : the Being worshiped as the creator of the universe.”
When I say that I do not believe in the existence of God, I am saying that the belief of a creator and a ruler do not measure up in our current state of reality, or even within the context of the past and ancient history. He was the explanation that existed before we had a scientific explanation, used as a way to interpret people’s experiences. People desire to make sense of things, but the problem is, God does not make sense.
I am in awe of our cosmic universe, so much so, that I find it impossible for our existence to be so limited by this idea of God. To me, we are looking too far out into the distance, when the answers all lie within us, within and beyond our massive and destructive home on earth.
“Indeed, we have learned, that it is precisely by excluding reference to such a transcendent agent that we gain genuine knowledge of the order that obtains in nature, are enabled to predict in certain respects the natural course of events, and thus gain a measure of control over it (Kaufman, 120).”
So there is no direct encounter and never will be – no way to interpret God outside of our own imaginings – in which case, God is actually a mirror of our own humanity – full of insecurities, the need for affirmation and praise, the desire to be close to these humans who are always so distant and cold, the desire to have their obedience, to incite dominance, to be in charge, to have control. Why does God mirror the fickle childishness of a human being? And if God is the creator, then who created him? The answer seems obvious – human beings created him.
“When feeling is given a dominant place in shaping the interpretation of reality or the world, a religious world-view results (Kaufman, 214).”
Lately, every time we see my parents, my mother has to make a comment about God’s existence. God is woven deeply within the fabric of my family. He is given praise for all the good things. The universe is over-simplified through Bible stories taken literally. My mom celebrates the day that she will “go to be with Jesus.” It’s not by my father’s intelligence and diligence in over forty years of hard work that brought them financial security. No, it’s God.
The last time I wrote about religion, I was extremely angry for being raised without a choice. Writing is good therapy, and I’ve come to a new place of peace and acceptance. I feel released through my own realizations and views on life. But I’ve also chosen to keep those views separate from my family life. They have an idea of what I think. The problem is, no matter how much I bring it up, they will forget it, or write it off by tomorrow. My mom especially, has selective memory. She blocks out the things that she can’t handle. Especially since, according to their belief, I am “lost” – whatever that means.
When I am with my family, I do my utmost to respect them. You cannot argue with a mind-set, culture, history, or the entire fabric of someone’s life. They will do anything to shut out conflicting views, to keep the cognitive dissonance at bay.
Family is extremely important to me. So I hold hands with them when they pray, I smile and say nothing over the Jesus comments, I listen to my nieces simplify the world by stating the Bible as fact. In the meantime, I hope that as my nieces grow older, they begin to see that life isn’t so cut and dry.
Coming from children, religion makes sense. But from adults, I expect more. Sigmund Freud said, “The roots of the need for religion are in the parental complex; the almighty and just God, and kindly Nature, appear to us as grand sublimations of father and mother, or rather, as revivals and restorations of the young child’s idea of them… when at a later date he perceives how truly forlorn and weak he is when confronted with the great forces of life, he feels his condition as he did in childhood, and attempts to deny his own despondency by a regressive revival of the forces which protected his infancy.”
A universe that circulates around our own egos – that sounds like a man-made myth if ever I heard one. We are all in the struggle of existence whether we like it or not. We will all one day fall prey to death. We have no real control.
“May it not be the case, moreover, that the very act of believing in God is in itself morally dubious? May this not be largely an attempt to avoid taking full responsibility for ourselves and our lives by creating in fantasy a “heavenly father” into whose care we can place ourselves when the facts of life become too unpleasant (Kaufman, 14)?”
I find this over and over in people who dedicate their lives to God. Life is just too much for them. They would like to whitewash all the realities that are too painful for them to take. It’s a coward’s way out.
The older Christians in my life all believe that I will come back around. They were “wanderers” in their twenties and thirties, and are convinced that by forty or fifty, I will realize that my demise is nearing. There are too many things I cannot control. My body will start failing me, or friends will start dying off. I’ll be faced with the futility of my existence. I don’t think they understand, that I have already experienced all of those things.
It seems to me, when people leave faith behind, they fail to search beyond faith. They avoid the question of spirituality altogether. Then eventually, they inevitably end up going back to what feels comfortable, to what they knew in their youth.
My dad told me, “Never stop searching,” with his hands clasped tightly around my shoulders in a desperate attempt to get through to me.
I replied, “I never will.” I wish I could please him, and be what he wants me to be, but I have to be myself. I will never go back to where I came from. I will move forward and live to the utmost before my body turns to dust. And believe it or not, I’m okay with that.
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August 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is so rich with lyrical prose that I had to read the first page three times before moving on to the next. She flips back and forth effortlessly between a deep southern African American dialect into literary narration. I found myself speaking out loud in the tone of her dialogue, just to listen to the way it rolls in and hangs there, like humidity in the calm before a storm.
The plot follows a woman named Janie as she struggles to find herself through imagination, love, and experience. When the book was first released in 1937, it was attacked for not fitting within the African American protest tradition of the 1930’s. The lives of Hurston’s characters are rich and varied; not the diminished, victimized culture portrayed in other works of Black fiction at the time. The main focus is on a woman’s right to life, while race is merely the framework of her culture.
As Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it in the Afterword, “… the social realism of the thirties, and the cultural nationalism of the Black Arts movement – was the idea that racism had reduced black people to mere ciphers, to beings who only react to omnipresent racial oppression, whose culture is “deprived” where different, and whose psyches are in the main “pathological.” … Socialists, separatists, and civil rights advocates alike have been devoured by this beast (199).”
This is an idea that shouldn’t, but still does, persist in some ways today. When I was a poet in New York City, I grew tired of listening to the African American poets perform angry diatribes against racist white people. At every single reading, it always happened. Rather than action, it was reaction. I deal with my own kinds of anger, and I understand how difficult it is to exorcise that as an artist. A part of the process in expressing anger is to move forward, but it’s easy to get stuck. By playing the role of the victim, you avoid personal responsibility. You cannot always blame someone else for your lot in life. You must take action, no matter the obstacles.
Zora Neale Hurston’s voice is extremely relevant for today. Rather than fighting for or against race, she celebrates culture, which is something different entirely. She shows us, that regardless of outside factors, we all search for the same thing – for life, for soul, for the full human experience and the freedom to have it. She brought more humanity to the Black experience than any of her contemporaries.
Janie is on a search for love from the time she blossoms underneath the pear tree. “She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was marriage (Hurston, 11)!”
Janie’s grandmother wants her to sit and do nothing – the ultimate achievement for a 2nd generation woman past the time of slavery. Her grandmother arranges a marriage to an older man who is stingy and has plenty of land, but Janie doesn’t love him. She escapes with Joe who is on his way to the first all-black town to build a life and community. But in his efforts to be a successful businessman and mayor of the town, he fails to recognize Janie as a human being and sees her only as the object of his possession. He desires the ownership he was denied before, from all things and people. Janie is not allowed a voice, and Joe’s accomplishments (in his mind) serve to make her a great woman.
“… Ah told you in de very first begginnin’ dat Ah aimed tuh be uh big voice. You oughta be glad, ‘cause dat makes uh big woman outa you (Hurston, 46)”
At his death, she finally transitions, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it, from “object to subject.” She is rich with an empty life. Leaving it all behind means nothing to her if she can have what the pear tree knows every spring. A young gadabout named Tea Cake sweeps her off her feet. He loves her, and lets her be exactly who she is. They go fishing all night, shoot guns, and take off to work “on the muck” all summer long in Florida. She goes from wearing fancy dresses to overalls, and everyday feels brand new and alive.
But nature is a brute force, and a massive hurricane destroys their new life together. In the end, it doesn’t matter as much that Janie loses Tea Cake, as much that she experienced what everyone is looking for – love. She is fulfilled by experience, complete and refined in her own self. Now, just sitting there doesn’t seem so terrible, when her mind is full of beauty.
“Dey gointuh make ‘miration ‘cause mah love didn’t work lak they love, if dey ever had any. Then you must tell ‘em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore (Hurston, 191).”
Anyone who dares the world for love can relate to the character of Janie. I spoke to a poet the other day. He told me that when he was younger, he didn’t finish his PhD. because he went through a divorce. But in the process, he fell in love and became a poet. When I told my husband this, he said to me, “Heartbreak is better for writing poetry than love.”
I replied, “But first you need love to experience heartbreak.”
It’s true that I wrote my best poetry when I was broken. All of my best poems were inspired by men who could only see me as an object, not a human. Likewise, I could only see them as my teachers and not my equals. I was in the chrysalis phase that, Janie as well, took so many years to fly out from.
What I thought was love was only fantasy. And when you live inside of fantasy, reality is not allowed to exist. Nighttime is the only time for this sort of love, in the daytime there are too many reminders – that I was an object left behind on the bed for more important things, a side-note, a thing whose roots to the earth must be ignored since mothers and fathers and even friends remind a man that a woman is a subject and not just an object.
Zora Neale Hurston was a prolific writer until she fell into obscurity in the early fifties. Her work could not be simplified, her ideals could not be categorized, and this made her ambiguous. She was accused of molesting a 10 year-old boy, though she was in Honduras at the time of the crime. Still, the charges damaged her career.
She worked as a maid in Florida, and failed at a string of jobs. Ten years later she died in a welfare home. She was virtually forgotten until the writer, Alice Walker, wrote an article for Ms. magazine in the early seventies, on how she went in search of Hurston’s unmarked grave to give her the recognition she deserved. Since then, Hurston’s work has gained popularity and been recognized for its importance.
But her obscure death and eventual poverty are upsetting to me. I relate to the string of miserable jobs that never work out. Her financial struggles and the fight against what she wrote in an essay entitled “What White Publishers Won’t Print” demoralized her, and diminished her output. Hurston did not feel like a human being without pen and paper – the curse and the gift of being a writer. If you are truly a writer, there is nothing else for you, but to write. In the end, she did her best to give us the keys to understand ourselves. I am grateful to Alice Walker, for bringing Hurston’s work back from the dead.