Should you talk about ultimate reality? I think so, but one of my good friends expressed a different opinion yesterday. Fortunately, our conversation was not exactly a dispute, for we found pleasure in it — at least I did. But then, I think about religion quite often and like to talk about it. I often feel puzzled because it is rarely a part of my discussions with friends.
When I was a child, religion came up as a topic many times a day, though I did not enjoy the discussions because the motivations were unpleasant. We were a fundamentalist Christian family, and my mother owned God. It was understood that she would dispense access to the divine on the basis of her moral appraisals, but only after repeatedly gloating over her possession of the Almighty and her contempt for anyone who failed to recognize her proprietary claim. Eventually I threw it all over, more or less with the same reckless defiance as Huckleberry Finn when he resolved to go to hell rather than turn over his black friend Jim to his rightful owner. I think that unconsciously I had prepared myself for eternal damnation in preference to supercilious salvation. Still, I remember that my gut clinched up at the sound of a familiar hymn. My resolve must have been ambivalent.
And then one day, after I had become a divorced mother, while I was hanging diapers on the clothesline, I got angry at God. How unfair he was, allowing himself to be owned by my mother! God damn God, anyhow! However hard I tried to be a decent person, that would be insufficient, for I would have to follow her rules to get just a little bit of God’s love! What kind of God would that be? Not one that I could worship. God had to be good, or he wouldn’t be God. And any God belonging to my mother was ipso facto not good – neither merciful nor fair.
But maybe the true God was different. Maybe whatever it was, was as accessible to me as to her.
With that thought, my own deepest aspirations revived. I had been suppressing the natural longing that lies in the center of every soul. I remember that surprising discovery, the recognition that I – indeed, everyone – crave some continuous awareness of the divinity, and that the quest for that is the what the whole journey is about.
Maybe “quest” is the wrong word, for I don’t think one has to go anywhere or do anything in particular to attain God's love. There’s nothing lacking. I don’t have to do anything to win it, for I already have it. Everyone does, however misguided or wretched. This is not a "belief" of mine. It's just my sense of how things must be. Anything else would be wrong, hence not worthy of the supreme intelligence that supports the universe.
So in a way it is true that there’s nothing to do or say. Nothing is missing, so nothing further is required. Discussing the nature of ultimate reality changes nothing.
Still, it is good to recognize that holy impulse in each other. Conversations can open up or close off the space for any expression of the innate spiritual quest. I prefer openness. When there is a taboo against mentioning ultimate reality, I feel constricted. This constriction is not unique; the same feeling occurs whenever I know that some important issue is being avoided – whether it’s about politics, money, sex, alcoholism, marital problems, social disgrace, or an impending death.
But my friend Joanna said yesterday that it is unnecessary to talk about spiritual questions. She mentioned a meeting with some Baptist friends who are liberal, generous, and committed peace activists. Yet they spent a lot of time trying to find biblical texts that justified their own good deeds. This seemed unnecessary to Jo. She said that they already knew what was worthwhile, so why did they need to square it with doctrine. Why not just go ahead and do the work that they know needs to be done? That theorizing (or is it casuistry?) seemed pointless to her. She pointed out that the Buddha refused to comment on the nature of ultimate reality. Some things should not be discussed. You will only get tangled up in confusion!
I understand her point. There’s some validity there. But I am very attracted to Michael Lerner's ongoing campaign to create a spirituality for the Left. He claims that people really are spiritual, and many of us need to have that orientation recognized as legitimate. Because the Left is determined to hold only a secular discourse, anyone who wishes to integrate spiritual discussions into conversations about politics must turn to the radical Right, for we are excluded from mainstream liberal discourse.
It’s not just for political reasons that I accept Lerner’s argument. It’s because I want to be able to talk about what is most important to me. And that includes my sense that I am being led – as everyone else is too. That’s a dangerous thing to say these days. In fact, it’s the best way to gain a reputation for near-madness. Nobody is supposed to be guided today, for according to our official, secular point of view, there is no meaning in the universe, and there is nothing that each person is supposed to be doing. There is no vocation, no calling.
So I thank those people who will leave room for that conversation. There are a few. You know who you are, and how much I appreciate you for it. Thanks be to God.