Thresholds and Totems

Literally “The straw that broke this camel’s back.” In 1987. The final snowflake before the avalanche. The last pebble on the scale, shifting the balance.

Sure, continuous questioning had enlarged the fissures in my “faith” over the three years since leaving the Pallottine seminary in Dublin, Ireland. Years in which my spittle, bailing wire, and duct tape rationalizations were proving ever less effective at containing all my thoughts in either a “Catholic-shaped” or a “God-shaped” ball.

But THIS essential idea in the meme (and expressed much more verbosely in a philosophical tract assigned by Dr. Keith Algozin, as part of my Junior year Metaphysics course at Marquette University in 1987) is the one that ushered me woozy from the classroom into a chill November night, forced to give voice to the undeniable: “I can no longer say I believe in God.**”

The absurdity! That a believer could unilaterally claim God either always existed or sprung, sui-generis, into existence out of nothing, while denying that stance to someone suggesting the same of “The Universe.”

I realized, the “God” asserter is on no different footing than the asserter of “Infinite Universe.” Either infinite, or springing into existence from nothing. Identical heaping plates full of “I don’t (can’t?) know.” Now what?

There are few moments so indelibly stamped in my memory, as that cold November evening: Snow flakes falling out of an inky void, so recently rendered chaotic and indifferent. Buildings around me smearing in a Van Gogh-esque “Starry Night” blur. A literal quease gripping my stomach.

I stopped to steady myself, clutching the stone retaining wall surrounding the St. Joan of Arc chapel. It still stands as the center of Marquette’s campus — ostensibly the original, a totem disassembled, carried from France, reconstructed stone by stone to its original, “authentic” state. In Wisconsin. A literal touchstone for a myth.

Around me — in my swirling mind — the “stones,” formerly comprising my house-of-cards worldview, lay in a pile. Which will I be able to re-use? Which simply must be discarded? What might I build from this collection of broken, missing, and extra pieces? Like other disillusionments, when I learned that what I thought I knew to be unequivocally true was revealed to be nothing but hearsay, or arrogant ignorance — this moment marked a new beginning.

There is no avoiding such moments. All you get is the choice: Will I try to rebuild the original structure, brick by brick, and pretend it never fell? Or will I comb through the rubble and find what remains usable in whatever I build next?

The long rebuilding began, but I had no intention of recreating the cathedral that fell. The funny part is that I DID attempt to build and equally “True” structure, only having to repeat the cycle when the next unbidden revelation, or unavoidable conclusion repeated the cycle.

In 1987 I stopped believing in “God**,” yet through the subsequent 33 years, experience revealed more and more unknown and mysterious to me. Nothing yet has inspired me to resort to “God did it!” But the more curious, complex, and inexplicable the universe unfolds itself to be, the more I understand that _some_ of the encoded lessons in a society’s religious myth are profound distillations of ideas and fears that every human has pondered since the beginning of pondering. There really is a collective unconscious into which we are born, and within which we must orient and establish ourselves.

There IS nothing new under the sun. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Players on a stage; sound and fury, signifying nothing. What a long strange trip it’s been.

(** “I can no longer say I believe in God.” Those who know me recognize this statement is nuanced. It can be (and has been) finessed a number of ways. As written above, it is the literal expression of a 22 year old seeker. I’ve modified the statement over the years: “I can no longer believe in the God I was taught (indoctrinated) to believe in.” I should extend this to say, “And I won’t apply the label to anything in the future, either. We can discuss historic “Gods” as concepts and myths. But let’s not taint future mysteries and ecstasies with a loaded word that almost certainly proscribes any conversation into circles too small, tribal, parochial and brittle to enjoy.)