Writing the Unwritable

Susie Miller at Sojourn Ministries has an interesting post which brought back memories for me: why i write G-d…. Coincidentally perhaps, my friend Trev sent me something he’d written, also using “G-d” throughout. During most of my undergraduate years, I was part of a Messianic Jewish congregation in El Paso, which observed the Jewish reverence for the divine name by writing it with a hyphen, G-d.

That reverence is why the Old Testament is filled with the phrase (usually in small caps) “the Lord” instead of the ancient divine name, Yahweh. Most translations follow that tradition, which causes many verses to lose their original meaning. Compare “the Lord is God,” with “Yahweh is God,” which implies that Yahweh is God, and Baal, Moloch, Ashtoreth, et. al. are not.

Susan writes:

Thus i write G-d, like the Hebrews do: to allow there to be Mystery within the very name i use for The Incomprehensible Eternal One….to acknowledge the limits of our rudimentary language and its awkward inability to really name anything, beyond the accepted semiotic usage of the day and time…

On the mystical path, all words and pronouns seem woefully inadequate, and writing “G-d” calls attention to the fact. I might do that myself, except that I hate hyphens as no other mark of punctuation! Jacques Derrida would probably write “God” to show that we’re just borrowing a word for Something beyond all concepts.

icon of ChristA strictly impersonal metaphor, such as the Tao, could be “It”. . . but even capitalized, “It” seems too impersonal. The Sanskrit word Tat (That) seems much better, since “that” can be personal or impersonal. Early Buddhists spoke of Suchness, and called the Buddha “the one who has come from Suchness.” Some Christian mystics used similar words. Meister Eckhart called God “Isness”–emphasizing “him” as the Ground of Being, and Hildegard of Bingen called God hæcceitas, This-ness.

Eastern Orthodox icons of Christ have the Greek words Hō On (The Being) written on the halo’s cross (left), which is the Greek translation of “I am that I am,” the divine name in Exodus 3. Eckhart Tolle also uses the word Being as a substitute for God.

Pronouns are a special problem. The default divine pronoun is masculine and personal, in view of the very common (and often misleading) personal, masculine metaphor of God. Using “divine” sometimes gets around the need for possessive pronouns, but it seems rather weak. I like the definite quality of This, That, and Such, although they’re probably too strange for prime-time, and should be used sparingly.

For God so loved the world, that Such gave This only-begotten Son…

I usually fall back to the “defaults” for convenience. Any thoughts out there?

This This-ing

pen scratching paper, making pretty marks
marks stand for sounds,
sounds stand for thoughts,
thoughts stand for the jokes,
the jokes we call our selves.

pen scratching pager, making pretty marks
the question shows corruption;
the innocent can’t ask why,
there is only wow.

don’t ask why i write.
don’t ask what it means.
i needed meaning when i was lost.

now that i know that i don’t know
what meaning can i need?
no one writes–there is only writing.
no one questions–there is only asking.

there are no nouns, only verbs
no i, no we, no you, no other.
only this,
doing this, now, thusly.

be god, be this, be natural.
god, you, i
appearing and fading
here and there
as needed, as needed.

when a universe is needed
let there be light
and light there is.

nothing is done,
no one does.
there is only this thising.

© jon zuck, april 12, 2005, norfolk

Doubting and Faith

Today, I received an email from a reader in the Netherlands troubled by doubts. For me, I only began to believe after a time of doubting. I got the doubting out of the way in my youth, but I had to be an agnostic for long months before I became a believer.

Yet faith changes continue. My conception of God has changed from being “personal” (God has the attributes of a person) to being mostly impersonal (God is something far beyond personhood). I keep going back to the phrase “the Ground of Being,” used by Christian mystics for centuries, from The Book of Privy Counseling, to Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. *The Ground of Being* means that Beingness, Existence itself–with all that it contains–space, time, the Universe–springs from something that is so incredible it’s beyond the concepts of being or existence. Yet existence comes from it like the grass from the ground.

A friend of mine was shaken by a spiritual experience he had, because God didn’t seem to be there. Of course not. In these glimpses where the Matrix is dissolved, God can’t be seen because there is no separation. In One, there is no “you” and “God;” there is just One.

Yet, in the manifested world, It is personal, because It manifests persons, and all that is. Everything we use to describe this Ground of Being falls short. It is mystery. Nothing stops us from trying to explain and describe It, but we can only describe Its energies and actions, as we can only see the wind by the movement of the clouds and dust.

Children sense this intuitively:
What created the Universe?
The Big Bang.
What made the Big Bang bang?

Who made the world, Mommy?
God did, Honey.
Who made God?

So we use words: God, Tao, Brahman, the Unconditioned, Emptiness, and on and on, though all words and names are insufficient. The Mystery pervades everything. Explanations are only invitations to engage the Mystery at a deeper level. Why do living things grow? Because their cells divide. Why do cells divide? Because of DNA. How does DNA make cells divide? Silence.

I ended my email response to him with this:

My teacher once said “the Universe is a mystery. If you could explain it, there wouldn’t be a mystery anymore.” . . .

Move the consideration from being a question in your head to a wonder in your heart. Love the mystery, devote yourself to IT, not as a question or problem, but as your life. Because, well, it is your life, and all life. Everything comes from the mystery, and there is nothing which isn’t full of the mystery. The mystery will sustain you as nothing else can. It’s the only thing there is!

It’s not about belief!

Farewell, John Paul

I haven’t read the book, but I’ve heard that in his novel Angels and Demons, Dan Brown (author of The Da Vinci Code) imagined the world largely ignoring the passing of the Pope. He was wrong. Very wrong. In fact, he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Millions—no one knows exactly how many—flocked to Rome to say farewell this week. Mourners included not only Catholics of every nation, but thousands of Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims. The heads of state of Iran, the United States, Israel, and Syria sat close together, and the latter two shook hands and renewed their commitment to peacefully resolve their differences.

Why have so many people been affected, including hundreds of millions of non-Catholics and non-Christians? Because he spoke to our most pressing needs—freedom, peace, and holiness. Yes, many of us felt he was not speaking to other important needs, but seldom has mankind ever been graced by a more fierce and dedicated champion of freedom, peace, and holiness, and none greater in the age when nuclear annihilation threatened to destroy the world, and materialism to destroy the soul.

Peggy Noonan has written a most illuminating account of how the Pope’s visit to Poland in 1979 precipated the collapse of the entire Iron Curtain. Read “We Want God“.

Blessed are the peacemakers. They shall be called the children of God.

Fight Club

Enlightenment on the dark side

To Boldly Fight What No Movie Has Fought Before…

Fight Club poster

I missed Fight Club when it came out nearly six years ago. But it looks like the timing was about right. If I had seen it then, I wouldn’t have been able to understand it as well as I do now, and I would’ve dismissed its spiritual themes out-of-hand. And yes, it DOES have spiritual themes. Sure, Fight Club is primarily a punch in the teeth, but it’s much more; It’s a black comedy, a rage-against-the machine manifesto, an apologetic of nihilism, an indictment of consumerism, and an alternative take on enlightenment, with some ringing and frightening questions to ask ourselves and the world. There are some spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to do that first.

The protagonist of Fight Club, (played by Edward Norton in an amazing performance) is unnamed, but for convenience, I’ll call him Jack, which he very obliquely calls himself in the film. Jack is not only lost, but all the tranquilizers of modern life are wearing off, and he’s beginning to feel the cosmic suckiness deeply. He’s tortured by his cruel job that weighs the value of human life against the company’s bottom line. Desperate to wrench a purpose from the offerings of McCulture, he tries to find happiness in possessions. “I flipped through the catalog and wondered: what kind of dining set defines me as a person?” (The next shot pans his apartment with IKEA catalog prices and descriptions showing beside every piece of furniture in the room.)

Jack longs to be someone else, someone who is free. On one of his many business trips, he muses “If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?”

His torment is beginning to affect his health. He can’t sleep, and in the great American tradition, asks his doctor for a pill to fix everything. Instead, he’s given a different prescription: tuning into pain instead of avoiding it. When he goes to a support group for testicular cancer (which he doesn’t have), Jack is amazed at the release that comes from hugging and crying instead of repressing pain. Having found the cure for his insomnia, he starts going to a different support group for every day of the week, and finds that in being able to freely weep, he’s able to freely sleep.

Trouble enters Paradise, however, when Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), another healthy support group “tourist,” starts attending all the same groups he does (including testicular cancer!). Her presence cramps his newfound emotional freedom. They agree to split the groups between them, and fight over who gets what: “Bowel cancer? You can’t have bowel cancer, I want bowel cancer!”

Soon Jack finds himself without a home, his apartment and all his possessions having been destroyed in an explosion. He turns to Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a soap salesman he met on his last flight. Tyler seems to be everything Jack feels he isn’t: confident, contemptuous, and above all, free. Jack was in search of a meaning for his life, but Tyler wants nothing except hard-edged reality itself.

Jack: I had it all. I had a stereo that was very decent, a wardrobe that was getting very respectable. I was close to being complete. . . .
Tyler: We’re consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra.
Jack: Martha Stewart.
Tyler: Fuck Martha Stewart! Martha’s polishing the brass on the Titanic. It’s all going down, man!

Tyler goes on to inform Jack that “the things you own end up owning you,” which I believe St. Francis of Assisi said as well. Tyler’s style, though, is hardly Franciscan. Tyler introduces Jack to another way of working with pain: creating it and embracing it. He asks Jack to hit him as hard as he can. Tyler returns the favor, and voilá, instant male bonding sans hugging. Jack moves into Tyler’s house, a condemned squalid mansion which is more painful to behold than any of the ensuing fights. (Think of the toilet in Trainspotting getting an hour of screen time.) They become the best of friends, regularly beating the crap out of each other behind their favorite watering hole.

Soon other patrons beg to have their turns in the bare-knuckle matches, and Fight Club becomes a weekly event in the bar’s basement. (Eventually, the meetings become daily). A silent communion grows between members even though no words are spoken. (The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.) Jack begins wearing his bloodied shirts and bruises to work as though they’re the cutting edge of fashion. “I got in everyone’s hostile little face. Yes, these are bruises from fighting. Yes, I’m comfortable with that. I am enlightened.”

Jack at Tyler's

When Marla calls Jack after she’s taken an overdose, Jack walks away, but Tyler saves her. Soon they’re involved in an intense sexual relationship, much to Jack’s annoyance, although she only talks to Jack (the reason for which becomes clear later on).

Tyler has a disdain for almost everything except awakening Jack from fear and malaise; he’s a rogue guru with the perfect disciple. By losing all his material possessions and moving into Tyler’s pigsty, Jack has renounced worldly comforts as much as an ash-covered sadhu in a cave. And he does make progress. Jack increases in confidence and awareness: “the cries of the men were the tongues at a Pentecostal Church, and every Saturday night we were born again; we were redeemed.” The scene where he finally decides to leave his job is as funny as it is shocking, and will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt trapped in a soulless environment.

You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.

—Tyler Durden

Lessons progress from slugfests to horrible ordeals (a chemical burn, a self-inflicted car wreck, and more), which Tyler forces on Jack to make him “hit bottom,” because Tyler insists that “only when we lose everything can we do anything.” However unpleasant this may be, enlightenment teachers have been saying it for millennia. Jesus said: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains but a grain of wheat.”

If the first act is a black comedy about consumerism, and the second, the drama of a brutal education, the third act is a surreal revolution. Tyler begins giving destructive (and often funny) homework assignments to other Fight Club members. One group sabotages an environmental poster to say “Did You Know You Can Use Old Motor Oil to Fertilize Your Lawn?” Another group commits precision-arson on a skyscraper to turn it into an enormous happy face.

Jack determines to stop Tyler when he discovers that the former Fight Club (now Project Mayhem) has spread to cities across the country, morphing into an all-American terror network. Like bin Laden, Tyler has some dramatic financial targets in mind, although Project Mayhem goes to pains to make sure no one dies unless it’s one of them.

The Tyler Durden School of Enlightenment

Jack’s final transformation is in realizing that he is not a separate person from Tyler at all. Although this twist is familiar by now (I can think of four other titles with the same surprise), its spiritual meaning really comes through here: there is no separate person; there is just One only, although there are different bodies and different wills. Jack had the enlightened teacher within him all the time, and as he progressively released his perceived needs—possessions, job, nice enviroment, fear of pain, fear of causing pain—he began to uncover his true nature—unbounded, free, powerful, and finally capable of love.

There’s a reason why no religion teaches awakening until first creating an underpinning of morality, namely that awakening is not dependent on morality. Without morality and compassion, Brad Warner cautions in Hardcore Zen, enlightenment can make people even worse creeps than they already are. Goodness is about the needs of beings in Creation, but awakening is simply realizing the truth that all things are one, all distinctions are false, and you are free. An awakened person can either be a savior like Jesus, a saint like Francis, a sage like Lao Tzu, or a nihilistic rogue like Tyler Durden. Even the Bible teaches this: Jesus said, “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”, and St. Paul said that “all things are permissible, though not all are beneficial.”

To an outsider, it appears that Tyler cares only about the permissible part, but he sees himself as guided by an internal vision of what is truly beneficial for the world. He will do whatever is necessary for Jack get past the lies of the world and experience the freedom of his spirit, and he extends his “guidance” to others. In one scene, he successfully motivates a convenience store clerk to continue his education and realize his dream. (Tyler does this by pointing a gun to his head!) Tyler explains that having been giving a new lease on life, the clerk is going to live more fully than he ever had before.

pic of Tyler and Jack

Hollywood Jesus has an excellent review of Fight Club by Simon Remark, who also sees Tyler as a spiritual teacher. On the discussions page, another reviewer considers Tyler a Christ figure. Glenn Jordan points out:

The men gather not to inflict violence on others, but to have violence inflicted on them. This to me is the key to the film. FC was established for those men who have been numbed and brutalised by the culture they live in. Everything that Durden does is designed to subvert the intentions of the thuggish and to awaken the senses and the spirit of those who have been numbed to reality.

He goes on to compare Tyler using his blood to secure the basement from Lou to Christ using his blood to redeem his followers from Satan. Jordan also sees similarity between the entrance test for Project Mayhem to that of religious orders like the Benedictines, with evidence of determination and renunciation.

However, others compare it to the Hitler mystique, and caution that Tyler is dangerous, violent, and obscene. You almost certainly do not want Tyler to be your teacher, and you absolutely do not want him to be your waiter! You also have to ask if Tyler is any better than the world. Just as the meaningless consumer culture emasculates men, he uses the threat of emasculation to control the police, and even himself.

Personally, I’m glad for the moral cushioning that religion gives the world, and I’m very grateful that my teacher is a much nicer fellow than Tyler.

The First Rule of Project Mayhem: You Do Not Ask Questions

So here are some questions you shouldn’t ask:

  • What is the moral difference between exporting Communism, exporting jihad, or exporting democracy through invasions and revolutions?
  • Is our way of life really better when tens of millions of Americans find it unendurable without medication?
  • Is it better for thousands of people in a country like Iraq to die every year through crime and insurgencies or through totalitarian oppression?
  • If capitalism enslaves people, is it right or wrong to oppose it?
  • What is the difference between Jesus violently turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple, and Tyler’s assault on the corporate temples of power?
  • Is Tyler/Jack simply crazy? Does he get better?
  • Do the members of Project Mayhem become free, or have they just enslaved themselves to Tyler instead of mainstream culture?
  • Is there more purpose in wars than in boxing matches? Underneath the rhetoric, justifications, and apparent causes, is the violent drama in the world ultimately an attempt to alleviate cosmic boredom?
  • Does Jesus want you to be a good citizen?

When you think you have the answers to these questions, look at them again, and ask yourself, Am I sure? How do I know? How do I really, really know, apart from conditioning?

Amoral characters are exceedingly rare in mainstream film. (We like our heroes good, and our villains evil. It distracts us from the difficult truth that the light and dark, yin and yang are simultaneously within us, that we are created in God’s image, the ultimate source of both what is perceived as “good” and “evil.”) Besides having an amoral character, Fight Club also surprises by not taking sides. You are free to draw your own conclusions. In fact, “You are free,” is really the only message.

That said, Fight Club isn’t perfect. It’s extreme, it’s too long, and it’s often painful to watch. Marla’s role is almost wasted in the latter half of the film, and the Project Mayhem segment is not at all convincing. Yet this movie is making a tremendous impression on multitudes of people. Six years after its release, IMDB users rank it the 36th best film of all time. [Update: as of February 2021, Fight Club is now the 11th-highest rated film on IMDB] It is a rare thing: a truly original film, a study in non-theistic spirituality, and a stinging indictment of the lies of the world.Movie stills © 1999 Twentieth-Century Fox.

Originally added April 23, 2005

Come as a Child

Akilesh has a wonderful post at Graceful Presence about how awakening is a restoration of the original mind of the child. I hightly recommend it.

Jesus said so many years to go to just come as a child. We can’t accept it. We think it means have childlike faith in the Biblical narratives or the Nicene Creed. It just means to see the divine magic of reality.

Trev Diesel recently posted his thought, “How strange that we should be here at all.” The wonder doesn’t lie in explanations, even the explanation that God loves us so much that he made the Universe. The wonder is just this. And the other wonder is that we don’t see it.

The Pope is Passing

pic of JPIIThroughout the day, I’ve gone to Yahoo! and refreshed the page to see if there’s been any more news concerning the Pope.

I’m 44 years old, and I was raised Baptist. After a born-again experience that radically changed my life when I was 13, I devoted myself to apprehending as much as I could of what God had for me. The adventure took through every major expression of Protestantism, and 10 years ago, into the peace and turmoil of the Catholic Church (and beyond). I’ve never really known a Catholic Church that wasn’t headed by Karol Wojtyla, the pope known to the world as His Holiness, John Paul II.

By the time you read this, chances are that John Paul will be “dead,” a word that I have to put in quotes, because any mystic knows that there is no such thing as death. But his smile, wave, and sometimes-infuriating tenacity will be gone.

Most popes have been chiefly administrators of the Church. John Paul II was a maverick. He traveled to every continent and nearly every country of the world, praying for peace and preaching peace. Behind the scenes, he would meet with dictators and urge them to practice tolerance. He was instrumental in preventing the democratic movements in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union from going the way of Tiananmen Square.

He lobbied consistently on behalf of the poor, against the exploitation of poor people by rich people, and poor countries by rich countries. He argued for dignity, fairness, and kindness to all, since all are created in the image of God. He fought against war and the death penalty; he had seen up close the horrors of war and killing, when the most terrible seizure of brutality that humanity has manifested enveloped his country.

He never wavered in proclaiming Christ as the Savior of the world. Yet he reached out with kindness and love to leaders of other religions, and invited the world to dialogue. He publicly asked God’s forgiveness for the Church’s past sins.

To many Catholics like myself, his weaknesses seemed to be in his official role of governing the Church. He resisted the reforms of Vatican II, and interpreted them as narrowly as possible. He scaled back the ministres of laity within the Church, as the priesthood continued to wither away. He often seemed unable to give the grace to more progessively-minded Catholics that he would give to the world in general. Proponents of change often found themselves silenced or censured, such as Matthew Fox OP, Anthony deMello SJ, Leonardo Boff OFM, Tissa Balasuriya OMI, not to mention dozens of lay teachers. The Church remains a largely pre-modern institution in a post-modern world, locked in Thomistic views about sex, birth control, and the capability of women to minister.

But whatever else can be said of him, he gave his all. He gave his heart, his hope, his health, and his life for his convictions and the world. He loved God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength, and he loved his neighbor as himself. He will be missed, and he will be remembered.

Requiescat in pace, Papa Johannes Paulus.

Frontline has an excellent biography of John Paul II.