This latest blog posting was made in full lucidity of mind (as far as I could tell). It was conceived as a “proper” poetic response to remarks by a poet. What is “proper” to poetry is not proper to science … and poetry has a precision of its own that must be understood properly.
THIRSTY, HOMELESS AND AFRAID
A prose poem
In a recent letter, a friend wrote:
If I believed in god, I would consider life a gift. As it is, I think life is an amazing, mysterious stroke of luck!
In a sense, this may seem a strange way to begin a short essay on my idea of what “religion” really is, and should have been all along. But I believe my friend’s aphorism captures the two essential elements that must characterize our sense of the sacred.
The first is the real truth about the universe of matter. Our organisms are emergernt forms extruded by that universe using nothing but its own constituent particles as tools and material. No “God” did this. The discoveries of science and a lifetime of daily experience all shake down to the simple common sense conclusion that “there is no ‘God’.” This is not the time or place to “prove” that conclusion. But anyone who has lived past childhood knows the dead do not rise, prayers are not answered, the good are not rewarded nor the evil punished. The poor and weak are not protected and the meek do not inherit the earth. If this is the work of “God,” there is no “God.”
The second is the uncanny ability of human beings to “see,” to “understand” what exactly they are looking at. “… life is amazing, mysterious …” We all recognize the undeniable accuracy of that statement, despite the often intolerable conditions that characterize life for all of us, some of the time, … and for some of us, all the time. Why do I call it undeniable? Well, do you deny that life is “amazing and mysterious”? See? Can you imagine anyone in their right mind that could? … QED!
It’s not irrelevant that my friend is a published poet. But don’t get carried away. Despite what some believe, being a poet doesn’t come with a grant of knowledge — a gnosis — an x-ray vision into reality. The poet is not special because she “sees.” We all see. It’s simply human to “see” just as it is simply human to have common sense. What the poet brings that is special is the ability to say, clearly, precisely, perfectly what we all see. That’s how we are able to recognize poets when we meet them — we know that they have found the words to say what we see. The poet is a wordsmith. We cherish them. They are important to us. It is a stroke of great luck that they are among us, and we mourn them when they pass, for we we could not say what we see without them … and that means we could not really see what we see.
She said, “life is amazing, mysterious.” I have already “proved” the statement is undeniable. Therefore it can serve as a proper premise from which proper conclusions can be drawn.
“To amaze,” evokes the image of a “maze,” a labyrinthine trap designed to perplex and confuse. For us “amaze” means to astonish, almost at the level of shock and awe. We encounter something we cannot deny but also cannot understand, something entirely unexpected that elicits an acknowledgement of great power, or size or value. We see it everyday in myriads of examples. We are amazed to see 100 tons of steel flying through the air and to realize we made it happen. We are amazed that a tornado can lift a semi off the ground and fling it across the road like a child’s toy. We are amazed that the milky way, in which our honeyed planet swims, is 100,000 light years wide. If we ever got to the end of it we would have to travel at the speed of light for another two million years just to get to our neighboring galaxy. In our universe there are, minimally, 100 billion galaxies like ours, each with 100 billion stars. (Yikes. This amazement is bigger than I thought. It’s starting to overwhelm me.)
We are amazed that a distracted act of uncontrolled passion between a man and a woman (or a boy and a girl, or a rapist and his victim) produces a human being … I am dumbfounded. I bristle at the thought. My wonderful parents whom I thought “loved” me, weren’t even thinking of me, or gave a hoot about whether I would even be “created” much less that I would be me. I could have been my brother, for all they cared, or someone else entirely … maybe even a girl! They were just having fun. And here I am. I am in total shock! To be amazed is to to be confused, astonished, perplexed. (I’m not sure I always like being amazed.)
OK, that’s enough. Let’s move on. The next word from our poet’s precision workshop is “mysterious.” Now, at first sight this word seems a little more congenial. The “mysterious,” after all, fascinates us. We look at something and then again we are not sure what we are seeing. It makes us look harder, and think. It’s a mystery. We like those kinds of things, so we are drawn to the mysterious. We have a sense there is more here than meets the eye, something lurking in the shadows behind or below what I am looking at. All of a sudden I feel a little scared. What could it be, this strange ominous “more”? Will it seriously change what I thought I saw? Don’t I need to know what it is … could it hurt me? What is it?
But wait. There can’t be anything else there. I know what I was looking at. Why does it evoke this sense of “beyond” or “deeper” or “bigger”? The poet knows what we are all looking at, and she also knows what we all “see,” that’s why she said “mysterious.” We “see” more than what we are looking at. The word “mysterious” helps us to remember that. We don’t have the words, but we know what we saw. The poet found the words for us. When we heard her words we knew she was right … for we know that we saw “more,” but we don’t know what it was. What was it? The poet doesn’t tell us. She doesn’t see any more than we do. But she knows one thing for sure: we all see more. That’s the experience. That’s why we all agree, the poet’s word was accurate, precise, perfect. “Mysterious.”
So, where am I going with all this? Religion is poetry. And just like our poet, it offers words … songs … dances — symbols of all kinds — that are supposed to say what we all see. But religion sees no more than we do. And those that think it does are mistaken. Like any poet it is limited to finding the words to express what we all see. What do we see? Life is amazing and mysterious … and there is no “God.” Life has emerged from the energized particles of matter that slowly, carefully, like the wordsmith in her wordshop, let their spontaneous energies coalesce, and coalesce, and coalesce again until, most improbable of all lucky random unexpected improbabilities, my parents had wild frenzied sex and holy shit! I am here!
Am I ever grateful for that whole immense chain of causes, eon after eon, organism after organism, species after species for 13.7 billion years that so patiently built out of chemicals and slime this vast incomprehensible machinery of life. We are an ocean of energized particles whose infinite thirst for existence can no longer be hidden or denied … because that’s what I am. Everything I am or want is them. I am the outward display of their inner dark secret. I am matter’s energy turned inside-out, made naked for all to see, thirsty for life, homeless and afraid — and able to see it all.
I am awed and grateful for this incredible, incomprehensible, amazing, mysterious, improbable stroke of luck.
And I am grateful to our poets, old and young, who try to find words for us. It is not easy.