The way sunlight amuses itself on water.


I have only perused a few sections of the book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, but I was so struck by the beauty of the following passage that I wanted to post it here:

The search for God is a reversal of the normal, mundane worldly order. In the search for God, you revert from what attracts you and swim toward that which is difficult. You abandon your comforting and familiar habits with the hope (the mere hope!) that something greater will be offered you in return for what you've given up. Every religion in the world operates on the same common understandings of what it means to be a good disciple--get up early and pray to your God, hone your virtues, be a good neighbor, respect yourself and others, master your cravings. We all agree that it would be easier to sleep in, and many of us do, but for millennia there have been others who instead to get up before the sun and wash their faces and go to their prayers. And then fiercely try to hold on to their devotional convictions throughout the lunacy of another day.

The devout of this world perform their rituals without guarantee that anything good will ever come of it. Of course there are plenty of scriptures and plenty of priests who make plenty of promises as to what your good works will yield (or threats as to the punishments awaiting you if you lapse), but to even believe all this is an act of faith, because nobody amongst us is shown the endgame. Devotion is diligence without assurance. Faith is a way of saying, "Yes, I pre-accept the terms of the universe and I embrace in advance what I am presently incapable of understanding." There's a reason we refer to "leaps of faith"--because the decision to consent to any notion of divinity is a mighty jump from the rational over to the unknowable, and I don't care how diligently scholars of every religion will try to sit you down with their stacks of books and prove to you through scripture that their faith is indeed rational; it isn't. If faith were rational, it wouldn't be--by definition--faith. Faith is belief in what you cannot see or prove or touch. Faith is walking face-first and full-speed into the dark. If we truly knew all the answers in advance as to the meaning of life and the nature of God and the destiny of our souls, our belief would not be a leap of faith and it would not be a courageous act of humanity; it would just be...a prudent insurance policy.

I'm not interested in the insurance industry. I'm tired of being a skeptic, I'm irritated by spiritual prudence and I feel bored and parched by empirical debate. I don't want to hear it anymore. I couldn't care less about evidence and proof and assurances. I just want God. I want God inside me. I want God to play in my bloodstream the way sunlight amuses itself on water.
When she says that faith isn't rational--because that's what makes it faith--I would probably phrase that a little differently. I would say instead that faith is not empirical, which is not quite the same thing. I think that religion can be rational (or irrational) in certain ways, but that it deals with a greater level of experience that lies beyond mere empirical knowledge.

When I was in college, after having rejected the fundamentalist religion of my youth, I became a dogmatic empiricist. I thought that logical positivism was the be-all and end-all of human reason, and that since God could not be proved by empirical means, one had to reject the idea of God out of hand. I was naively confident in this sort of philosophy of knowledge. Later I came to realize that this belief in logical positivism was in its own way just another layer of simplistic thinking, in its own way as simplistic as the fundamentalism I had superseded. As Karen Armstrong put it in her book A History of God,
The kind of statements to which [logical positivist A.J.] Ayer referred work very well for the objective facts of science but are not suitable for less clear-cut human experiences. Like poetry or music, religion is not amenable to this kind of discourse and verification.
Because religion doesn't restrict itself to the immediate experience of objective facts--God, I would argue, is most certainly not an "object" like any other to which objective facts easily apply--I think the most important point that Elizabeth Gilbert makes is that she is not interested in the insurance industry. Faith is not insurance. Those who claim their belief in God is a surefire ticket to an afterlife have bought wholesale into the insurance model. But as Ms. Gilbert points out, faith necessarily entails doubt. The leap of faith into the unknown necessarily involves an unknown. And it is a poetic leap at that. The leap itself is its own reward, because there is no assurance of where the leap will take you.

What she seeks is what many of us with a spiritual inclination also seek. We just seek God--pure and simple. I can think of no more beautiful religious sentiment than what she said at the end of that passage that I quoted from above: "I want God to play in my bloodstream the way sunlight amuses itself on water."


Ray said...

lovely quote - thank you for sharing it. In buddhism one talks of taking refuge (in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) This is placing our faith, our wholehearted trust, in something greater than our "little selves". We all take refuge in something... our work, family, country, material possessions, drugs... a spiritual path is taking ultimate refuge in a "bigger picture", and all true religions are about being a little more selfless and compassionate. Doubt is a component of faith because of our delusion (in the buddhist sense) or sin (as in Tillich's understanding as "seperateness")

Cynthia said...

My book club at church is reading this one for the month of Sept. I am forwarding the post for further contemplation and discussion when we meet to go over the book with our usual fine-tooth comb.