"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, December 19, 2014

Epiphanies–Not All They’re Cracked Up To Be

Harlan Bock wanted an epiphany in the worst way. The Pentecostal Johnson brothers were born again after taking Jesus Christ as their personal savior.  Our Lord had visited the Charismatic Doobey twins thanks to the passionate invocation of Pastor Dinkins; and Mr. Alphonse, the black man from rural Georgia who still shined shoes at Jimmy’s Smoke Shop, swore that the Holy Ghost had hugged him one day as he was walking home on Burritt Street.  Why not Harlan?

“I felt him, Mr. Harlan”, said Mr. Alphonse.  “He wrapped his arms around me, and whispered that everything would be all right.  That Mama Mabel would recover from her cancer, and that we would have a mild winter. It turned out that Mabel only had indigestion, and the snow melted so fast in February that the sewers overflowed, so that the ol’ Ghost was right. “I never prayed much to him”, he said.  “Never could figure out how the Holy Ghost fit into the Trinity; but there he was as plain as day, a kind of misty cloud just floating over the bank building until he settled on me.”

Harlan read stories about aliens who not only visited Earth but who took humans up with them in flying saucers, readjusted their DNA, rewired their circuits, recalibrated their blood chemistry, and returned them with a telemetry system connected directly to Alpha Centauri.

Magazines are filled with stories about near-death experiences.  The dying see their souls rise up out of their bodies, swirl to the ceiling in whorls of color, and get vacuumed up to a bright light. Others see their relatives who have been transformed by God, purified of all the nasty bits they had on earth, and beckoning to come to Paradise.

War and Peace is filled with epiphanies.  Count Andrei who lay bleeding on the battlefield of Austerlitz saw Napoleon and in an instant of clarity realized that he was only a man, and that the two of them shared a common soul and link to the Almighty. There are no mighty and no fallen.  All are brethren in Christ’s embrace.  On his deathbed surrounded by his sister and his beloved, it all once again became clear to Andrei.  Love was everywhere. Pettiness and strife were but distractions from God’s love.

Wordsworth was crossing the Alps in the cold winter fog when all of a sudden the clouds and mist cleared and there in front of him was Mt. Blanc in brilliant sunshine.  He too, had had an epiphany, a glimpse into the spiritual nature of the universe.  God had smiled upon him.

In other words, thought Harlan, it happens to everybody.  Father Brophy had preached endlessly about ‘the occasion of sin’ – situations in which sinning was easy. If you went to the beach, for example, you were bound to have unclean thoughts because of all the young girls in wet swimming suits, prepubescent nipples hard after a dousing in the cold surf.  Why couldn’t it happen the other way around? Occasions of epiphany?

Brother Mark, a cousin on his mother’s side, had joined a Benedictine monastery after his second year at Yale.  He had had an epiphany, but this one had no rhyme or reason.  He was walking back from a drinking night at Mory’s when everything on Chapel Street looked garish, tacky, and shabby.  “I know that Chapel Street is no Broadway”, he told Harlan, “but it was painful to look at.  It was as though God had turned on high-octane floodlights to show me life’s ugliness.”

Everything after that looked like the Las Vegas strip, Times Square, and the Ginza combined. “I knew that my only refuge would be the monastery”. 

The Benedictine Oblate Monastery was located high in the Adirondacks.  The Oblates were a conservative order, and although they were by no means ascetic, they observed partial silence, lived by natural and candlelight, and worked the gardens, beehives, and poultry sheds in quiet communion.

“It is a perfect place for me”, Harlan’s cousin said, “and maybe for you.”  Harlan had never considered the religious life.  To be honest he was after the quick fix of inspiration – a bolt out of the blue.  It didn’t seem to take much to have an ecstatic revelation – Southerners had them all the time – and rather than plod through the tedious life of seclusion, prayer, and hard bread, he had always hoped for the one unique personal experience.  If he were even more honest, he had to admit that it was not a glimpse of God or Jesus he was hoping for; just an open window to something other than the old bags and waiting rooms of his life. Spiritual ecstasy was not necessary or expected.

His roommate at Trumbull suggested that he do acid.  “Now that will clear your jaded sinuses”, he said.  “Talk about epiphanies!”

After all the hoopla and fol-de-rol surrounding LSD, Harlan had to try it. Maybe this was what he was looking for after all – a shot of chemicals, a quick boost into the unknown, and momentary but temporary ecstasy. If he didn’t like it, he could sell back his tabs.

As fate would have it, Harlan had a bad trip.  Instead of beckoning lights, flashes of brilliant inspiration, images of The Risen Masters, and feelings of unbounded and limitless peace and compassion, he witnessed first hand the visions of Hell described by Father Brophy at nine o’clock Mass.

“Do you smell his foul breath?”, Father Brophy asked as he looked out over the congregation. “Does the fiery brimstone burn your eyes and your throat? Do you feel his scaly cold skin when he brushes against you? Do you hear the anguished, tormented screams of thousands of sinners desperately trying to pull themselves out of the Lake of Fire?”

So Harlan smelled the foul, fetid breath of the Devil, touched his reptilian skin, felt the fire of Hell lick at his feet, and heard the awful screams of the damned.

Despite his misgivings and hopes for a short-order inspiration, he decided to spend a weekend at a monastic retreat at Brother Mark’s and see if the pious, prayerful environment might be conducive to some sort of a revelation.  He tried really hard, followed his cousin’s instructions to the letter, and woke up full of good intentions and better expectations.  However, no matter how hard he prayed; no matter how penitential the cold, stone surroundings; and despite the devotional fervor of the resident monks, he could only think of Mary Jane Remlin and her bounteous, full, and succulent breasts. Or his mother’s pasta fazool; or sailing off of Martha’s Vineyard.

Each time his mind wandered, he pulled himself back, stared at the large crucifix over the altar, and meditated on Christ’s suffering, Calvary, la via dolorosa, and His glorious ascension into heaven.  When that didn’t take, he fixed his mind on the fearful Old Testament God of punishment, righteousness, and the Exodus of the Hebrews.  No good.  Nothing worked, and his thoughts always returned to Mary Jane lying down with her legs up.  Mary Jane in the shower caressing her thighs.  Mary Jane on top of him.

Harlan was disappointed and angry at himself.  Not only did he not have an epiphany, he couldn’t even muster up enough mental discipline to keep sexy Mary Jane in the background.  Perhaps the monastery was not the most conducive place for enlightenment – too quiet and too pious.

He tried everything – walking through mountain meadows and climbing high peaks; attending Holy Roller services in Indianola, Mississippi; listening to Bach fugues on the great organ of St. Sulpice in Paris; mortifying himself in Easter processions in Barcelona.

“How did it happen?”, he asked Herman Beatty, a Mississippian who had found Jesus at the First Baptist Church of Indianola.  “I don’t know”, Herman replied. “It just happened.  One minute I was sitting there listing to Pastor Dinkins, and the next I was on my knees in the middle of the aisle, looking up at Jesus with tears running down my face. “

Harlan knew that nothing ever ‘just happens’.  “Preparation, preparation, preparation”, Don Logan says in Sexy Beast about bank jobs, an adage which could apply to anything. Herman Beatty had been primed for his epiphany.  Years of Bible study, prayer, inspirational sermons, and an environment where the presence of God was never any farther than the corner drug store.

“Maybe I should just give up”, he said to himself. “Let it all hang out. Chill.  Cool it. Relax.” He practiced what he called a ‘demi-Hindu’, a technique adapted from Indian sadhus who were able to clear their minds in order to let the spirit of God enter. As he walked along K Street to his office, he deliberately freed his mind from critical observation (ugly woman, bad shoes, brooding lawyer) and tried to record sensory perceptions without cognition. Seeing without thinking, Swami Sri Ramakrishna had written.

Again, no go. By trying to free is mind from cognition, he found that he was even more critical than before.  Now everything he saw turned on some switch in his prefrontal lobes, hypothalamus, and cerebral cortex.  His neurons were firing on high-speed automatic. His mind raced a mile a minute.

Eventually he gave up.  It hadn’t been a total waste of time, he thought.  He was able to finally put to rest the cockamamie, cracker ideas of ecstatic revelation, spiritual vision, and rebirth.  He filed away Swami Ramakrishna and his Way to Nothingness; and shelved Wordsworth and his hopelessly romantic notions about the divinity of Nature.

More importantly, once he had given up his weird search for Something Else, he found that The Here and Now was just fine.  He loved Mary Jane Remlin’s tits. He loved rolling around with her on her nasty shag carpet.  He helped himself to seconds and third on his mother’s pasta fazool and eggplant.

“Epiphanies are not all they’re cracked up to be”, he thought. cracking a crab claw at Waterson’s by the Bay. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Can Atheists Be Born Again? Of Course They Can

Bell Freeder had been brought up right – Catholic but with a good dose of Puritanical discipline; a Jewish respect for Biblical law; and a secular humanist’s healthy sense of logical inquiry and rationality. Despite this eclecticism, Bell was first and foremost a Catholic.  He was in marketing terms ‘an early adopter’.  The religion took hold even before The Age of Reason and his First Communion. There was something special about the Mass, the priests’ ornate vestments, the perfume of incense and burning candles, the mystery of the confessional, the choir, the processions, and the palm leaves.  It was only many years later that he put it all together and matched display and ceremony with the profound philosophy behind them, but even as a child he had an innocent appreciation of the majesty of God.

He was a faithful supplicant through his high school years, walking the two miles from his New England boarding school to the local Catholic Church in town, giving generously from his allowance, and keeping his childlike faith alive.

This was not easy because The Lefferts School was a non-denominational institution and a feeder for the Ivy League.  As such, religion was given a pass except for the obligatory Sunday service – Protestant to the core, but ‘non-affiliated’ to those prospective parents who were non- or marginal believers who still felt that some religious grounding was an important component of education and school life.

Dr. Hoskins was the Chaplain of Lefferts, and although he hewed the non-denominational line out of respect for the school administrators, he was a Christian through and through. Although he tried his best to speak only indirectly of Biblical teachings and injunctions in his Sunday sermons, he couldn’t help himself, held high  his dog-eared copy of the Bible, and quoted chapter and verse like a Southern Baptist preacher.  He had enough secular training and good sense to know when it was time to pull up, return to the safety of nostrums and platitudes.

Dennis Hoskins was a jerk, and every Sunday when he stood sanctimoniously at the pulpit, spun his treacly homilies, and bowed his head in prayer, Bell shook his head.  The fact that he had to trudge two miles in the snow to St. James Church every Sunday and hear the same parables and smiling suggestions gussied up in Catholic liturgy and mystery made matters worse.  Perhaps it was only a matter of venue.  St. James was a far cry from the cathedral-like church in New Brighton where he grew up, created thanks to the wealth of a line of industrialists, doctors, and lawyers for a hundred years. There the celebration of the Mass was close to what Bell imagined were the Masses of Chartres, St. Sulpice, and Notre Dame.  St. James looked more like a one-room schoolhouse than a church – clapboard, minor steeple, narrow aisle, mudroom, and cluttered vestry.

More than likely the chink in Bell’s spiritual armor came from both pastors’ predictability. Although Father Murphy was considered a firebrand and powerful speaker, his sermons about carnal sin, adultery, evil, and the stench of the Lake of Fire were old hat, boring, and uninspiring. Dr. Hoskins’ weekly invitations to charity, compassion, and peace were familiar, tiresome and tedious.

In any case, Bell went to chapel, then trod off to church every Sunday, read his missal, sang hymns, knelt, bowed his head, and raised it to receive Holy Communion.  The two services were very different but got mixed up in his mind.  Who was doing what to whom? What did Jesus say again?

The chink became a large crack at Yale thanks to religious indifference, the lack of obligatory services, and the spirit of rational inquiry.  In other words, the balance of rationality and belief which had been carefully maintained by Bell’s parents got out of whack.  Here there was only rationality and no belief.  He never gave in to secular humanism.  Although he was feeling less and less at home with religious ceremony, he still kept his strong belief in God and in Jesus Christ.  There was no reason to abandon faith simply because of impatience with ceremony and insufferable cant.

Being born again is common among Protestant evangelicals.  It is not only a common occurrence but a goal – an ideal that everyone hopes for.  The idea of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ in a moment of glorious epiphany is what every Pentecostal and Charismatic Christian dreams of.  Catholics are often jealous of their Protestant brothers and sisters because they get to see Christ in their lifetimes while they have to wait for resurrection.  The old Temptation of Christ again, taken literally by the old synods and kept alive by Pope after Pope.  “Man does not live by bread alone”, said Jesus, offering the hungry not material sustenance and alleviation of misery but the promise of a heavenly paradise; and the Church did its best to make a living by nurturing this promise. Being born again means you can circumvent the Church, ignore Biblical text, and receive the spirit of the Lord.

Being a born again atheist seems like an oxymoron; but the abandonment of faith came as suddenly and unexpectedly to Bell Freeder as to the most devout Southern Baptist. He was walking down Fifth Avenue one day not long after graduation and passed by St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  It was Palm Sunday and parishioners, dressed in pink and seersucker were just exiting the church, palm fronds in hand. “Fuck it”, he said out loud; and from that moment onwards God played absolutely and irrevocably no part in his life.  He was finished with religion and felt what a born again Christian must feel after receiving Christ – light, happy, carefree, and liberated. He never looked back.

He never hesitated when people asked him his religious affiliation. “None”, he replied. “None whatsoever”.  The more religious of his friends probed him for more information.  Although they could understand agnosticism, the idea of a total rejection of God was unthinkable.  Bell answered simply, not wanting to get into predictable eschatological arguments.  “I am indifferent to religion”, he said.

His new atheistic life was as enlightened as he imagined a born again Christian’s to be. He could now look at life without the restricting lens of guilt and obligation. There was no reason to go back to first principles, to consider the religious basis of morality, or to make love and charity into spiritual expressions. Things simply were.  God was irrelevant.

Ironically Bell Freeder was an ‘early adopter’ of atheism just as he was Catholicism. Few people in the early 60s had had such neutralizing epiphanies.  Few atheists in America ever admitted their lack of faith; so Bell’s uncompromising indifference was met with surprise and alarm.

Over the next few decades, more and more atheists came out and admitted their dismissal of anything religious; and more recently began to come together.  Atheist Clubs were more popular than Key Clubs on campus.  Atheist conferences were held every year with more and more registrants. Atheist publications and websites proliferated; and atheists were invited to participate on religious panels and talk shows.  In short, atheism was fast becoming a non-religious religion.  Atheists  their own Ten Non-Commandments (‘There is no God, and no need to put false idols before him because he does not exist’; ‘The words God and Christ are textual references which are to be deconstructed’, etc.)

Bell was uninterested in any of this latter-day group-think.  In fact he was as scornful of it as he was of the harangues of Father Murphy and Dr. Hoskins, the pomp and ceremony of the High Mass, and the ecstatic conversions at the First Indianola Baptist Church of Christ.  Religion was more a matter of community than anything else, he thought. Nietzsche was right.

So Bell Freeder dismissed Atheism as summarily as he dismissed Catholicism or Protestantism.  His epiphany had acted like a good drain cleaner.  He had been purged of any and all greasy religious hairballs. His system was now like new.

Occasionally he wondered why this spiritual Drano was poured when and where it did. It was not a coincidence that it happened in front of Catholicism’s biggest temple to faith; but then again, why not? God is ironic.  “Oops”, he said out loud and smiled. “Irony is ironic”, and went back to his breakfast.