Just say "No!" to oversimplification!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Sense in Praising God

In my first years of grade school I would spend afternoons at the babysitter's, reading. Much of what she had available was by Mark Twain -- a little bewildering to me then, but not dull. Then on Sunday mornings I would go to the Methodist church then meeting in a bowling alley a few blocks from home. Occasionally I would find my parents' Bible, gathering dust on a small shelf in the hall, and read from that. 'Revelation' was one frightening book, but the scariest thought for me was an eternity of 'worshiping God' -- whether that meant continually bowing down and throwing crowns at God's feet, a form of calisthenics that sounded very boring -- or the continual harps and choirs expected by Mark Twain's small town church members.

I came to agree with Mark Twain that this concept of God sounded very touchy and egotistical -- and certainly I knew no other. I would find myself arguing inside with God -- whom I certainly couldn't believe in, not after reading much Bertrand Russell... but whose existence couldn't be disproved either. "That had better not be what You are like because I'll have to eternally oppose You and get punished forever. That would be very heroic, but doesn't sound like a pleasant sort of future." By late high school I was going to a Unitarian church because I'd heard  it was okay not to believe in God there, and that did sound like one way I might meet girls... but I also wanted to know, "Is there or isn't there?" And I enjoyed one inconclusive Sunday morning at the San Francisco Friends (Quakers) Meeting -- invited by my best friend, and feeling this might give God a better chance to speak for Himself.

But from early on in college, where I'd started trying illegal herbs and cacti -- and at last, real LSD -- I not only couldn't rule out God's existence -- but over a few years became unable to deny that the world wasn't fitting into any mechanistic pattern, that whatever senseless thing was going on in my life was unmistakably meaningful. A Sufi teaching, that humanity has one divine Teacher, continually working to enlighten us -- was the hypothesis that made the most sense, the belief that increasingly confirmed itself the more I acted on it.

When I returned to college, waiting for practical classes that never became available to me -- I spent a semester taking some intriguing courses in the Religious Studies department. One day the 'Old Testament' professor mentioned a persistent tradition, hinted at in all the major world religions -- that God had created the world by fragmenting himself, by becoming each and every living being.

How could God be 'part here, part there, and all of God in each place' -- yet limited, in each person, to some separate human identity? Obviously true, obviously bewildering!

I did eventually return to the Society of Friends (a long story); and ten years ago my wife Anne and I spent a school year at Pendle Hill, a strange wonderful Quaker institution near Philadelphia. The teacher for our synoptic gospels class was friends with Rabbi Marsha Praeger, of the Jewish Renewal synagogue in town -- and so we were all invited to come see a hint of the worship practices Jesus would have grown up following.

Anne and I entered the room, sat down among a group of people chanting in Hebrew, followed along in the phonetic booklet we were given -- and immediately started weeping. An extremely 'Rationalist' young member of the group was similarly overcome, had to leave to recombobulate emotionally, asked to speak to the Rabbi alone afterwards. I heard later she'd had an intense feeling of Jesus being present. Some visitors must have been moderately affected -- while a few spoke later of looking at their watches, wondering "Are we done yet?" Anne and I, of course, returned every week after that as often as we were able.

Why do they do this every week, come together to share a meal and bless God in ancient yet catchy Jewish tunes? Why does God 'command' this? And why do they think that having 600+ such Commandments is a blessing? Not because God needs it, but because "praising God is good for people."

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