Archive for April, 2013
If you trapse around this blog any, you may notice terms like spiritual atheism, authentic spirituality, ennoblement of the human spirit. These same concepts are explored at some length in Religion is God’s Way of showing Us it’s a lot Earlier in Human Evolution than We Thought. (Abbott Press will bring this book out for me in a month or two.) And so, the book Spiritual Atheism had been on my radar for some time.
After a few preliminaries from various writers and philosophers discussing the implications of God’s death, Antinoff introduces us to the Zen concept of a koan, a paradox stated as a terse dilemma. Antinoff offers us a great one, “[T]he koan burning within the West, in western culture as a whole and in its individuals, has been given its most fundamental expression by Dostoyevsky, in the mouth of his great character Kirilov in the novel The Devils. ‘God,’ says Kirilov, ‘is necessary, and so must exist… Yet I know that he doesn’t exist, and can’t exist.’
“These lines first spoken in 1873 will plague us for the next thousand years. They form the koan that cannot be walked away from.” Antinoff goes on to point out that this state of affairs leaves us dissatisfied and restless.
“The nonexistence of God does not diminish human beings’ spritual need, mortal, finite human beings, unable to be satisfied in what is mortal and finite, long for the infinite. The most important question for the spritual atheist, therefore, is whether it is possible to acheive the infinite, to transcend our finite, mortal condition in a world without God.” Or so Antinoff says.
“Nonetheless,” he says, “the death of God constitues a pivotal moment for the West. For Neitzsche” [who pronounced God dead for western civilization], “God was the subconscious projection originating in the depths of the human need for spiritual preservation, the ‘antidote to practical and theoretical nihilism.’ The untenability of God forces the insufficiency of the finite, the insufficiency of the human, to center stage.”
Spiritual atheism seems to come out of a much darker place for Antinoff than it does for me. He quotes quite a few observations on the inevitability of death from many religious traditions and points out our basic existential anxiety (the anxiety that because we exist, because we are alive, we will die).
OK. We’ll grant him his historical perspective on the loss of God as a touchstone of sprituality. BUT if we take a much longer perspective, say over evolutionarily deep time, we can see greater cause for celebration. Humankind’s rising. Yes, we’re out there, exposed. We always were. We took a detour into religion. It may have been necessary; we may never know. Now we are humankind emerging. We are becoming. It’s a continual process of improvement with no upper limit.
Antinoff then explores through other thinkers how our consciousness was foisted upon us and not of our choosing. He says this gives us a spiritual loneliness that can’t be overcome by love or sex as evidenced, he says, by the divorce rate. Neither, Antinoff says, can artistic or creative accomplishment overcome this loneliness even when transcendence is the goal of such art.
As a prelude to Part 2 of Spritual Atheism, Antinoff sums up that the individual is his own obstacle when he paraphrases twelfth century Zen master, Wu-men, “to attain the ‘wonderous awakening’ the barrier without a gate must be passed through. The barrier is not an object. The barrier is he or she who seeks to pass through the barrier–the ‘I.'”
At this point, Antinoff takes up in Part 2 his painfully slow development of his thesis that Buddhist enlightenment is the answer to the impasse and our eternal (or not) stuckedness as beings who can go nowhere. Among his ideas for a way forward is this: with no God we must have an atheistic religion.
Antinoff considers meditation as a path at some depth and how it deals with our intractable spiritual delimmas. He talks about the mystical peak experiences that he says are possible despite widespread belief to the contrary, but warns that having that ecstatic peak isn’t a true obtainment of enlightenment even if exciting and entertaining.
Obviously any writer can take his book anywhere he wants to go, but I was disappointed in where this one went. I was hoping it would be all that spiritual atheism could be, all that it might encompass. It does develop an origin of spiritual atheism, and follows a line of reasoning that leads to a narrow path. That path is the authors earnest prescription for way forward and a destination, and although, it leaves me ambivalent, it might serve others well.
Consider a man, an early man, maybe 100,000 years ago or a little more. Just like his animal counterpart of 4 to 5 million ybp, he thinks there’s someone out there in the dark. He can hear this someone in the wind. It may be the same someone who brought the fire. They remember a lightning bolt that appeared to be thrown to the clan but then struck a tree. Was it the gift of fire? Or was this force evil? Did he try to strike the clan? Or was it just a warning? They tried to keep the fire, but didn’t know how.
“Uuhhh. Uhhhh.” They asked the fire to come back. Nothing happened.
The next time they thought this powerful One was coming (they thought he hid in the storm clouds), they repeated their plea. “Uuhhh. Uuhhh.” Nothing. All the men came into the tribe’s clearing. They all began, “Uuhhh. Uuhhh.” It was a distressing noise. The strong man rammed his staff on the ground. It startled the others. He tamped a spot softly with his staff. He tapped the spot harder and harder, then he spoke the word on the beat. “Uuhhh! Uuhhh!” He leaned toward the others emphasizing the sound and the beat. “Uuhhh! Uuhhh!” Slowly they joined in. And as one, they raised their voices, Uuhhh!! Uuhhh!!” Nothing happened.
The next time storm clouds gathered, the clan assembled on their common ground. The strong man pounded the ground. They all chanted, “Uuhhh! Uuhhh!!” After a while, they became tired. As they were about to give up, lightning struck in the distance.
Renewed, they began chanting again. “Uuhhh!! Uuhhh!!” The strong man continued pounding the beat. The leader of the hunt stepped before the men and spread his fingers wide. He made his hands quiver as if it was a prelude to some coming event. The men, continuing the chant, spread out into the open meadow beyond the clan’s compound. They kept their voices strong. It was hard to hear them over the gathering storm so they stood their ground. One of them motioned to the man farthest out to stop. He was into a creek up to his shins. A blinding bolt of light burst out of the man’s chest and he fell dead into the stream. The crackle of thunder reached the others. Son of a bitch! the strong man said, though, in the words of their day, “UH uh uh UUUUHHH!!”
When the next storm gathered the men again met on the pounded ground of the clan’s common. The strong man tamped the beat, the others chanted. The leader of the hunt palmed the air in front of him with both hands indicating the men should stay put. There were a few lightning strikes visible, but no fire appeared. This went on for a few months. The men started stamping their feet to the beat of the chant. It seemed to ease the monotony of the monotonal chant.
At the next storm and chant session, a weird little guy, who’d yet to hit the first animal on a hunt, had his spear with him! He started tapping it to the beat of the strong man’s staff and the tribal chant. Every so often, after a downbeat, he’d raise his spear toward the storm and it caused the men’s emotions to swell until they let out a yell. The tribesmen looked at each other. One by one, they slipped away and returned with their spears. Before long, the tribe was tapping their spears, chanting, and pointing toward the storm and shouting in unison, “UUUHHHH.”
Soon enough, the lightning struck a tree on the meadow. The hunt leader motioned for a couple of men to fetch the fire. As they got to the tree, lightning struck again. They both fell dead. “UH uh uh UUUUHH!” said the strong man.