Walking with faith
“Sing me again the saga of sin
of humans and hierarchies;
I’ll sing you the ballad of glacial bodies
of many creatures made of water and belief—”
—from “Of Eons and Epochs” in Copper Yearning, Kimberly Blaeser
Last night my daughter and I made another attempt at seeing an aurora, this time driving up to Glacier National Park much later, around midnight, with an Enya CD playing instead of bad ’80s rock on the radio.
While she dozed, I drove through the dark, fighting off minor panic attacks at the wholesale lack of visible highway striping because winter is only just ending and those lines won’t get repainted for a while, if ever this year; and crawling through the heavy fog that frequently hangs around where the highway dips down to cross the river.
Instead of a cloudy night with Moon just behind us and a bad photo that came out like an oil painting, the sky over the lake was crisp and clear and full of stars. No aurora in sight until I took some photos and we spotted a smear of red along the horizon. The patch of sky-color, which probably isn’t visible in the photo above, reminds me of one of those 3-D optical illusion pictures that were popular in the late 1980s and early ’90s. If I open the photos on my phone and make sure the screen background is dark and am not looking at it anywhere with sunlight, I can see the red. Otherwise, it’s invisible. Is it there?
Maybe, as with so much of life, the answer is up to each person who looks at it.
Last week a subscriber asked a question in the comments related to my self-description as an atheist, a question I actually always appreciate because it doesn’t seem to me that what I mean by it is what most people mean by it. It’s never a bad thing to be offered a chance to be understood.
I’ve been thinking about the question ever since then, and find myself strangely reluctant to talk about it more in depth, partly because I am an intensely private person—there are very few friends, even close friends, to whom I’ll open up parts of what might be called a true self—and partly because I wrote a long essay about this years ago and much of what I could say would be repeating myself. It centered around seeking faith in a Russian Orthodox Church in St. Petersburg, and the longing and loneliness that comes from not having it:
“From childhood on, I have always been told that atheism is a willful choice to reject God—a choice to say there is no god, no deity—and agnosticism is simply the empiricist’s way of saying that there could be a god but we don’t know one way or the other. . . .
“It never occurred to me to choose not to believe. Who would choose such a thing? Only the most self-confident and satisfied person would choose to live like this. . . .
Atheism was never a choice.”
That essay is ten years old. Older, actually, since it had been sitting around for several years before it got published. Let’s say fifteen years. A lot has changed for me since then, but I’m not sure the English language has been able to change with it.
Since I’ve been dwelling so much on language and metaphors recently, it did occur to me this week that “atheism” might not be the most accurate word for missing faith. I know what the popular, Richard Dawkins-type characterization of atheism is: like so many other things, some privileged white guy running around telling everyone else in the world what to think.
People point out that “agnostic” is an option, but agnosticism is doubt. What I experience—and I am sure that many others do, too, even if they haven’t identified it—is lack. Like something is missing, or broken. Faith in something goes back to the earliest evidence of human consciousness and I’m willing to bet further than most of us can imagine. It’s hard to take a comprehensive look at the entirety of human experience across millennia and continents and not believe that faith is part of being human.
What does it say about those of us whose experiences might have snapped that connection? What would a person’s life have to be built of to make them incapable of believing there’s something caring in the universe, no matter how much they might want to?
I’m not looking for sympathy about that any more than I’m looking for proselytizing. It’s just something I’d like people to think about.
The popular conception of atheism is not just that it’s a wholesale rejection of faith for oneself; it’s also a determination to tell everyone else that the things they have faith in don’t exist. I’ve never believed in that. I envy others’ faith more than anything else. So maybe “atheist” isn’t the right word. What would be the word, then, for the connections that seem to have gone missing?
When I published that essay, it was a few years into motherhood and I was still haunted by an experience I had shortly after my first baby was born nearly eight weeks early and hovering around not surviving for close to two weeks after that.
“The day they called my husband and me at home to tell us that John needed a second air tube, and that he was ill enough they might need to move him to a tertiary care center, my reality ground itself into little pieces. I could do nothing for an hour but huddle on the floor and sob as I hadn’t done since I was a small child. I was so scared.
That same morning, I had woken up suddenly, just after seven, certain I’d heard John’s voice calling to me. Crying for me. I felt that he was in pain and needed me. It was only later I found out that I’d heard him, a forty-five-minute drive away, at the same minute they’d cut his chest and inserted the tube. I knew because, of course, they wrote down the times of all procedures, and I had checked the clock when I’d woken up (to see if it was time to drag out the breast pump), two hours before they called us at home. That is the part I’ve never told anyone.”
Many would call that a religious experience. Many would say “spiritual.” All I could say was that there were things in this world I could not explain.
This is where the snapped connection comes in. I’ve had other experiences like that. And there was the time I walked a labyrinth in Norwich, England, while researching my book on walking and received an incredibly powerful message that lives in me to this day. I would like to walk labyrinths all the time just to touch base with it again.
Once, last year I was sitting by a river, at a spot I love, and water spoke to me. The river had something to say, and I listened.
I don’t know that I’m comfortable anymore with the description “atheist” but I honestly don’t know what to replace it with. “Spiritual but not religious” conjures up way too many unpleasant experiences with unpleasant people, usually involving a campfire and a guitar and probably a whole lot of hamfisted and thoughtless cultural appropriation. To say that everything is connected, everything is alive, is perhaps the closest. Is there a word for that? Maybe not in English.
I wonder sometimes if English has had its day. There are languages with far more acknowledgment of life inherent in every syllable without bowing to hierarchies that burden almost all of it—life, that is, as well as syllables. Maybe it’s time to start retiring some of its less relevant words. There are, as they say, no atheists in a foxhole.
English can’t even capture last night’s aurora encounter. Did we “see” it if the only appearance of color was on my phone’s camera? And even then, the red streak is only visible if the photos are viewed under certain conditions. Have I fulfilled my promise to see an aurora, or do I need to try again? (Going to see an aurora is never a waste of time, even if unsuccessful, but the combination of night driving and the next day’s tiredness are . . . a lot.)
Maybe faith is the same. Maybe if I turn my mind slightly and look at things in a different light, under the stars, I’ll find what I’m looking for. I suspect that whatever happens will remain private, between me, Moon, the rivers, mountains, trees, and stars. Or maybe not. Maybe it will show me an entirely different way of talking about everything, including myself.
Ninepipes National Wildlife Refuge, where I spent some time the other day and heard many red-winged blackbirds but, due to the thick fog, only saw two. They were there, even if I couldn’t see them.
No list this week. I’ve got a few big deadlines coming up and have been very overwhelmed and also for some reason am not sleeping much.
I’m doing some preparation reading for an upcoming Threadable circle on Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Belonging—thanks to Stefanie for a fantastic selection of recommendations!—and also have been reading:
Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons, her research on commons-based ownership and management systems for which she received the Nobel Prize in economics.
Steven T. Newcomb’s Pagans in the Promised Land, which was disconcerting because he leans heavily on the book Metaphors We Live By, which you might remember reading about a couple weeks ago, and I picked the book up a day after finishing that post.
I’m making very slow progress on Abdullah Öcalan’s The Sociology of Freedom, which is well worth it. Öcalan has been a leader in the Kurdish struggle for liberation and has been in isolation in a Turkish prison since 2011.
Wergen: The Alien Love War, by Mercurio D. Rivera, which, if you like science fiction, is I promise much better than its godawful cover indicates.
I’m in the middle of Cherie Dimaline’s book of short stories A Gentle Habit and also recently finished Hunting by Stars, her sequel to The Marrow Thieves.
One very short essay to recommend: Hao Jingfang’s “I Want to Write a History of Inequality,” which accompanied her Hugo-nominated science fiction short story “Folding Beijing,” both translated by Ken Liu.
And two very kind subscribers sent me an unlocked PDF of the paper about Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist critique of property, which I’d mentioned in the land ownership post on John Locke. Which means I can share it for anyone who’s interested.
There's a whole cottage industry that I think of as "off-ramps for evangelicals/fundamentalists." One of its books, "Finding God In The Waves," was the end of my "deconstruction" journey. I had reached the bottom; all the parts were laid out for inspection. I could finally start rebuilding.
In that book, Mike McHargue offers a list of different theological categories, and splits "atheist" into three: the "lack of belief" style, the "antitheist" style (Dawkins fits this category), and the "nontheist" style. Looks like this article offers a similar distinction: https://authorofconfusion.com/2018/03/24/what-kind-of-theist-are-you/
Maybe the extra categories will be useful to you, too?
I've been listening to The Overstory for the past two months and it's making me want to be some sort of animist. I like the "ecotheist" idea someone else mentioned here. I feel like part of the "religious impulse" is a longing is for some larger mysterious narrative in which to find purpose, to be swept up in, at which to marvel. But like, how does the actual natural world not offer an excess of that, every moment, to anyone who stops to look?
Ezra Klein's discussion with Richard Powers gets into "scientific animism" some: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/28/podcasts/transcript-ezra-klein-interviews-richard-powers.html
Quoting the most relevant part:
> EZRA KLEIN: You bring up the arts, and I think people typically do — and I will say, of course, that you are a quite profound practitioner of this. I don’t think anybody who reads “The Overstory” ever looks at a forest quite the same way again. But I also want to go back to your idea of the humble sciences or the humbling sciences. I’ve heard you say before that you’ve become something of an animist, but I don’t get the sense that you mean an animist in the way you’ve had that in some religious traditions. You seem to me to be something of a scientific animist.
> And I’d like to hear you reflect on that, because there are a lot of people like me who yearn for a religion-like force, despite not themselves being personally religious. You can’t just will yourself to believe in things, but I’ve been struck that your path has been simultaneously quite spiritual and scientific. And I think people sometimes note things like scientism is a belief system. But it’s not really a constructed one in an intentional way, but I’ve begun to see people beginning to build out of the humbling sciences a worldview that seems quite spiritual. And as you’re somebody who seems to me to have done that and it has changed your life, would you reflect on that a bit?
> RICHARD POWERS: Well, sure. If we turn back to the new forestry again and researchers like Suzanne Simard who were showing the literal interconnectivity across species boundaries and the cooperation of resource sharing between different species in a forest, that is rigorous science, rigorous reproducible science. And it does participate in that central principle of practice, or collection of practices, which always requires the renunciation of personal wish and ego and prior belief in favor of empirical reproduction. At the same time, the vision that results the new understanding of what’s happening in the forest floor profoundly increases my sense of that system having agency, and having power and subtlety and anima in a way that seems less metaphorical than it did before.
> The more we understand about the complexities of living systems, of organisms and the evolution of organisms, the more capable it is to feel a kind of spiritual awe. And that certainly makes it easier to have reverence for the experiment beyond me and beyond my species. I don’t think those are incommensurable or incompatible ways of knowing the world. In fact, I think to invoke one last time that Buddhist precept of interbeing, I think there is a kind of interbeing between the desire, the true selfless desire to understand the world out there through presence, care, measurement, attention, reproduction of experiment and the desire to have a spiritual affinity and shared fate with the world out there. They’re really the same project.
I loved reading your thoughts on this--and how do we explain those moments that we know with a child or loved one that is simply unexplainable by terms we are schooled in. I think it would be surprising to have others share similar experiences--there are so many like that we keep to ourselves, because there is no explanation. Maybe explanation is too rooted in the dualism that we are indoctrinated with, between subject and object, mystery needing to be explained. Explanations are fascinating, and yet there is always more than just that--explanations don't describe the feeling or experience of such occurrences. Maybe faith isn't the word--maybe more it is just a knowing that there is always mystery. And how allowing for that, witnessing it, noticing it, is the key.