Part the Second

Thu 12/17/09 at 4:35 pm

For those of you who don’t already know it, I’m on the list awaiting a lung transplant. [Well, maybe someone has arrived here through or the like.] I have severe COPD; i.e., “end-stage emphysema” as it was called back in the days of plain speaking. Since being diagnosed, I have spent a fair amount of time contemplating my mortality. For some, such contemplation results in a taking up, strengthening, or renewal of faith in a higher power or powers. For me, it has proved the opposite.

If all goes as planned, these next few blog entries will prove precursors to getting back to the writing of my novel, The First Voice (“Voice”). Depending on the way my existential winds blow, however, it may remain unfinished. Thus, I thought I’d use this entry as an opportunity at least to present a piece of what has been written. I do so because as it happens, Elfredge Bettisdatter, Voice’s protagonist, has traveled a spiritual path nearly identical to mine. A while back she had occasion to review this journey one fine afternoon while riding the subway from the 14th Street stop in lower Manhattan up to St. John the Divine:

For this trip under the island, Elfredge opted for the express train. Maybe I’ll even walk from 96th. Dad would be so pleased I’m going to a church on Sunday. Religion had played a major role in her childhood. Weekly attendance at Sunday school and Sunday services was mandatory. No comics until afterward so we’d be in a proper frame of mind. Each night the family gathered for devotions, and then bedtime songs and prayers. Now I lay me. Way scary. Summers brought Bible school and Bible camp. Epiphany was her favorite church holiday. Come to think of it, that might have more to do with Joyce than the Magi. Still, my favorite participants in the Christmas story were those three wise men. Maybe I should take a closer look at Zoroastrianism.

Elfredge grew up across the street from the Lutheran Church she and her family attended. God’s House. Specifically, God the Father. The church was never locked, and she would often stop by on the way home for a quick audience. The glowing red light above the altar informed her that God was “in.”

If anyone had asked, Elfredge would have said that she pictured God the Father as He was depicted on Michelangelo’s ceiling or in William Blake’s illustrations. If she stopped to think about it though, Elfredge realized that, in her mind’s eye, the presence she felt was a great brooding dragon draped over the altar. Upon hearing her enter the sanctuary, He would open the monocular eye facing her and readjust His giant head ever so slightly for the best viewing angle. He never spoke, only listened, and for that reason these encounters were, for the most part, dissatisfying. Even so, she usually felt somewhat better simply for having articulated her wishes, couched, always of course, in terms of doing His will for her life. She envied her Catholic friends who were permitted to ask for specifics without qualification.

As for the other members of the Trinity, for many years she had the feeling that the Holy Ghost awaited her somewhere. She also somehow knew that before any such encounter could occur she first had to come to terms with Jesus Christ, and she found the whole Son of God thing troublesome. She had tried desperately to believe. Christ, however, turned a deaf ear to her entreaties to come into her heart. For a while, she would only recite the first and last parts of the Apostle’s Creed, remaining silent during the middle section. She wanted to avoid committing blasphemy just in case Jesus being the Son of God and all was true. She lacked the strength of character to decline to be confirmed, and would have totally understood had God seen fit to strike her down by lightning rather than permit her to take her first communion. I believe. Help my unbelief! Afterward, whenever possible she would cut out of church just before that part of the service.

Belief or no, Good Friday had a profound effect on her. 3:00 p.m. It is finished. The temple curtain. Torn asunder. The cross on the altar draped in black. God in all Three Persons dead. Black Saturday. On Easter Sunday, Elfredge would sit in the balcony by herself, and look down upon the communion of saints in their Easter finery and she would have fleeting sensations of what it meant to be a member of the Body of Christ, a communicant. Then the first shaft of sunlight would beam through the stained glass window behind the altar, the brass choir would sound, and the congregation would rise as one. A person would have to be dead to fail to thrill as the worshippers began to sing in glorious four part, descanted, harmony, “Christ the Lord has risen today, Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, lay, ay, loo, oo, ya.” Pooh-pooh Lake Wobegon all you want but Garrison himself has waxed poetic about singing with Lutherans. Even then, faith eluded Elfredge, and the exhilaration of the moment gave way to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Eventually, belief in a Creator God went by the wayside, and, finally, Elfredge gave up the Holy Ghost. On off days, she might echo Gloucester. We are as flies to wanton boys; they kill us for their sport. Overall, though, she viewed the human race as an evolutionary anomaly. A fluke of the universe. The Number 3 screeched into the 96th Station, and Elfredge returned to the material plane.

In part, this conclusion of flukedom comes from there simply being too many shared “plot points” among the hundreds, if not thousands, of “one true religion(s)” that have come and gone from the beginning of human sapience. I include here a couple from the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditons. For instance, imagine my surprise a few years back, when, as a near lifelong admirer of Leonard Cohen, I learned that for Muslims, the story of Isaac is the story of Ishmael.

For those of you unfamiliar with matters religious, the big three patriarchal religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) share Abraham as The Patriarch. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Yahweh, in return for Abraham’s agreement to worship Him as the one and only true God, entered into a covenant with Abraham promising that he would be the father of nations. Well, the years went by and Abraham and his wife Sarah remained childless. Eventually, Sarah, seeing as how Yahweh was preventing her from conceiving, gave her Egyptian slave-girl Hagar to Abraham as a wife. Hagar and Abraham, who was 86 at the time, had a son named Ishmael. Fourteen years later, Sarah conceived and bore Isaac.

The Hebrew Bible contains an account of Yahweh’s command that Abraham offer Isaac as a burnt sacrifice. Just as Abraham, in his unwavering obedience, begins the downward sweep of the axe to kill Isaac, Yahweh stayed his hand and provided instead a sacrificial ram that just happened (wink, wink) to have caught his horns in a thicket. Isaac went on to become the progenitor of the Jewish nation, and, by extension the Christian “nation” through Jesus (assuming His mother Mary’s lineage, like that of her husband Joseph, can be traced back to King David).

With the birth of Isaac, Sarah made Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael off into the desert where they would have died of thirst but for Yahweh a/k/a Allah’s intervention. The Koran also contains a section chronicling Allah’s command for Abraham to offer his oldest son as a sacrifice. Thus, Muslims maintain this son was Ishmael. Moreover, Muslims believe the name “Isaac” was inserted into the Hebrew Bible at a later date, and therefore represents corrupted text. Ishmael went on to become an expert with the bow (according to Genesis) and the progenitor of the nation of Islam.

And how many of you know that Muslims, too, await the second coming of Jesus Christ? Indeed, I still remember the first time I read the section addressing this belief in Wikipedia. I was blown away. The section as it appears today has been reworked somewhat, but I still have a copy in my notes of the Wiki entry which read as follows:

The mainstream Islamic view of the second coming maintains that Jesus was replaced by a duplicate who looked like Jesus, and that it was the duplicate who was crucified while the real Jesus was lifted up to Heaven by God, where he is waiting to descend during the “last days” when corruption and perversity are rife on Earth. He will then wage a battle against the false Messiah or Dajjal, break the cross, kill swine and call all humanity to Islam.

I realize that two examples or two hundred examples of “both sides can’t be right” will fail to persuade most of you that maybe as far as religions go we humans made it all up in the first place. Even I, who can state unequivocally that I believe ours is a random, indifferent universe, still find myself at times imploring a God in whom I no longer believe to make it so my brother is no longer dead.

Besides, proving or disproving God’s existence begs the question. Think about it. Whether God exists is neither here nor there. Let’s say at some point the Hubble telescope (or the Very Large Array) manages to zero in at the precise location of the creation of this universe and the pictures of the swirling cosmos that gets sent back to earth looks remarkably like an old guy with a long white beard. So what? So what unless God knows we exist and does indeed take a personal interest in each of our individual lives. If God has no plans for us or will to be done, then whether or not there is a God doesn’t much matter in our little corner of the universe. And if that’s the case, well, to borrow a line from Joni Mitchell, it all comes down to us.

next post: Fragment 2
previous post: Part the First


  1. It’s beautiful to watch the application of your cognitive surplus. Write on.

    Comment by mark justice hinton — December 17, 2009 #

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