This morning, as I washed dishes and cleaned house on a Sunday morning, while Tammy was at church and I was elbow-deep in soapy water, I was reminded of what to my mind stands as the clearest statement of my theological persuasion these days. It’s to be found in a song by one of my Argentine bands, Enanitos Verdes (Little Green Men, for those who need a translation aid), called–simply–Estoy Dispuesto. I Am Willing.
The lyric (translated) runs as follows:
I have spent a lifetime
Waiting for an answer.
There’s a time for everything;
There’ll be a time for this as well.
The passing glow of headlights,
The twinkling of starlight
Is only a reflection
Of a past reality.
People always talking to me
About hell and heaven,
But I simply can’t believe
That things could get much worse.
All I need to find my way
To grace is to really see you,
Because when all is said and done,
It’s love that truly saves.
Because today I’m willing,
I am ready, I’ve got the time,
And I know that what I feel is real.
Today I’m willing,
I am ready, I’ve got the time,
And I know that what I’m feeling
In this very moment
Pish-posh! you say. This is not theology! This is merely the ramblings of secular over-confidence, at best, and outright atheistic defiance, at worst. Whatever floats your tiny little boat. To me it’s theological truth at its finest.
If God is in his heaven and all is right with the world, then I suppose you have a point. However, if you can honestly look around you and tell me that all is right with the world, or that anyone’s in control, then I would recommend a good pair of glasses. If you can articulate a logical explanation for all the crap that goes on in the world, given the reality of a benevolent–nay, even a just–God (a god, that is, who wouldn’t grace the pages of your standard Greek mythology text with the greatest of synonymity); if you can explain where the justice is in blaming humanity as it stands for the actions of some guy and his wife who ate an apple several thousand years ago (for the literalists among us) with any level of cognitive consistency; if you can justify to me the accepted system of sin and go to Hell, get Jesus, keep sinning, and go to Heaven, whether or not your basic character changes one iota (leaving all the folks who haven’t “got Jesus” but actually behave themselves, standing out in the cold); if you can rationalize the ease with which we accept everything as proof of God’s “being in control,” however good OR bad it is (making God the occupier of what James Thurber might describe as “the catbird seat”); if you can come up with a convincing reason as to how the same God who through his son preached a message of unconditional love also commands us to put down those who don’t necessarily believe or live as we do, or to burn Holy Books in the guise of spreading holy love, or to persecute the families of fallen soldiers by way of wielding the judgment hammer of the Lord; if you can pull off any of these Herculean feats and still look yourself in the mirror at night, then more (or, ideally, less) power to you.
If, however, God is NOT in his heaven, where is he (or she, or it)? Look around. Feel the moment. Forget about what may or may not happen when you die, and get a grip on what’s happening while you live. As the song says: I know that what I’m feeling right now is real. Since I know that this is real (barring the neo-Platonic thinkers among us), why not make that the focus of my faith? (And, yes, I will call it faith, even though I can see it and touch it and feel it, no matter what Hebrews says.) A faith that sees past physical differences, be they of race, economic status, or lifestyle choice, to the basic human connection underneath. To say that we were all created through the same agency is to recognize that we’re all brothers and sisters, regardless of the church we go to (or mosque, or synagogue, or temple, or none of the above) or don’t go to.
Is one who follows Jesus marching down the garden path? Not at all, assuming they’re truly following Jesus and not just indulging in a bit of brand recognition. Neither is the person who truly follows Allah, or Bhudda, or Krishna, or Joseph Smith, etc., etc. The lifeblood of religion–when it isn’t being used to condemn the “others” among us–is to reveal the connection between us and everyone around us. Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, indeed! The deeper meaning of faith is to underline the need we as humans have to carry a purpose, to be on this planet for some reason other than paper-pushing and pencil-grinding, and to serve as a reminder that the answer to these questions is out there to be found, if only we can stop lobbing Bible verses at each other long enough to see it. And, just as one object may be viewed from various angles and not lose its identity, so one answer can be perceived from a variety of viewpoints without forsaking its fundamental meaning. The blind men’s elephant was still an elephant–they didn’t so much need a sighted person to tell them what they were truly experiencing as they did simply to stuff it and listen to what the rest were saying. When it comes to world religions, we’re simply a gaggle of blind men feeling up a very complex elephant. If we listen, instead of pretending to omniscience, we may actually begin to understand what we’re dealing with.
Anyway, digressions aside, why not base our faith on what we DO know is real instead of insisting on a foundation in the clouds? Whether or not we’re bound for Gloryland, at the moment we’re stuck in Crapville, along with every other human being on the planet. Sometimes I’m neck-deep in the mud, sometimes you are–either way there’s always one of us to help pull the other out. But we can only do this if we embrace a belief system that challenges our passivity and complacency–and (my apologies to those who may disagree) this Heaven does not do. If faith is all about what comes next, then what happens today doesn’t matter, and if what happens today doesn’t really matter, then we’re all free to simply cross our arms, twiddle our thumbs, and let it happen. Never mind whether or not we have the power to stop it. The poor, well, they’ll inherit the kingdom, so who cares if they starve to death in the meantime. How many times have we heard the terms “social justice” or “social gospel” derided in church as beneath those who have a greater end in sight? How many times have we bothered to ask those in need of a little of either of these how they feel about the situation?
My little green guys raise a valuable point, which is simply this: God is not in a church or in a particular religion. God is in a touch, in a look of understanding, in a mutual recognition of the spark, the basic human sameness, that makes us all one underneath. God IS in us, just perhaps not in the way we’ve all been taught for most of our lives. In any case, the Jesus I seek to follow, the Bible in which I choose to believe–these are the Jesus who never demanded to know “who goes there?” before reaching out and acting, and the Bible that tells of the Pentecostal crowd who heard what they needed to hear as they needed to hear it. It is the Bible that pointed out that unfamiliar is not the same thing as unclean. This is a faith I can get behind.
But, dude (you may protest), what about John 3:16? What about “I am the truth and the way and the life, etc.”? Or “There is no other name…”? Well, dude (I might respond), what about ’em? Is that the answer we’re looking for? Perhaps. One of the curses of finitude is that I may very likely be wrong. But what if it’s not? What if we’re all straining so hard to see Russia that we never realize we have a backyard? What if the answer is much closer at hand than all that, and what if it’s an answer we can share, instead of one we must keep only to ourselves? What if, to the chagrin of foes of Joan Osborne, God IS one of us? What if the answer we seek is sitting beside us on the bus, or asking us for help on a crowded street, or dying of hunger or civil war on the other side of the world? What if the answer isn’t metaphysical at all, but as tangible as can be? What if it has a face and a name, and maybe looks at us out of the mirror every single day? Are we listening? Are we willing? Because, even if Heaven is real, we were put here for a reason, and I have to believe that that reason has more to do with the kind of person I am than it does with my geographical location on a Sunday morning…