Moving into a house where I already live is turning out to be more time-consuming than I anticipated. But the beautiful weather lured me into taking a short walk yesterday morning, in between working on a new batch of bread up at my parents’ house. Sundays are always a good day to go walking, regardless of the weather, due to the relative quiet. There isn’t as much traffic on the highways, and most noise-making businesses are shut down. Despite my left-libertarian views, I’m a strong supporter of blue laws.
We’re rapidly approaching the peak of fall color now. Almost all the trees and shrubs in the understory had turned, and shone like stained glass in the morning sun. As I started up the trail, I found myself thinking of a poem by my friend Teju Cole that I had just re-read a couple hours earlier: “The God Walker.” It originally appeared last year in his blog miracle speech, which is no longer online, but was also included in a soon-to-be-published anthology of blogger poets called Brilliant Coroners, of which I have an advance copy. “In the forest near my house / I have taken my god for a walk,” it begins. This is “a household god, / bred for an apartment’s confines,” but by the end of the poem, seduced by the forest smells, he “goes a little wild.”
“Walking with God/Jesus” is one of those clichés that makes intellectual snobs like me keep Protestant Christianity at arm’s length. I like how Teju subverts it in his poem, going out for a walk not with some abstract, omnipotent father-figure but instead with something like a familiar spirit — if not, indeed, Man’s Best Friend (“his wolf ancestors calling to him, / the god flares his wet nose”). “Household god” makes me think of the fetishes — described as “gods” in the King James Bible — which Rachel stole from her father Laban when she fled with Jacob (Genesis 31:19-34). I like the recognition that our images of the divine are limited not only by our own imaginations, but also by the physical environment we associate them with, and our tendency to keep them on leashes. One of my biggest problems with most formalized religions is the way they domesticate and sanitize divinity in the process of making it safe for mass consumption. Usually the trickster persona is the first to go. And once god(s) can no longer legitimately just fuck with people or unleash chaos without having their divinity called into question, you enter the maze known as theodicy, or “justify[ing] the ways of God to Man,” in Milton’s memorable phrase. Aspiring to worship an omnipotent God, we end up instead with one alarmingly subject to human approval, and risk psychological damage in the process by creating a situation where if bad things happen, it can only be our own fault — or at best, the fault of a fallen trickster turned into a cosmic bad cop.
A slightly more conventional but equally creative and whimsical take on divinity comes from another blogger friend, graphic artist Natalie d’Arbeloff in her new book of comic strips, The God Interviews. I bought a copy from her when I was in New York last month, and actually got it inscribed by God, as channeled by Natalie. He gave me two Xs, which I hope represent kisses — if not, I could be in big trouble.
But probably not from this God, who is very much the all-loving sort. He gets out of the theodicy trap in the usual way, by talking about freedom, though with a fun analogy: “You know that thing when a novelist creates characters and they start to have a mind of their own?” God asks. “Yes, but that’s fiction. I’m talking about reality,” says Natalie’s cartoon alter-ego Augustine (no, not that Augustine). “In this reality I’ve given my characters freedom,” says God.
“Freedom to destroy ourselves and the whole shebang?”
“Freedom to reach my destination in your own time in your own ways.”
“And the destination is?”
Can you really call it freedom, though, if a higher power had to grant it? To my way of thinking, freedom of action is intrinsic to all living things. If it makes sense to talk about divinity at all — and an intuition of “something more” often persuades me that it does — then I think we must be careful not to separate it too much from the way things naturally work. My worldview doesn’t have any room for a supernatural, I guess. The new idea of divinity as an emergent property of complex living systems has definite appeal, though, especially to someone with a strong animist bent.
It’s only fair to point out that Natalie is very much a visual thinker, and the power of her argument is diminished by reducing it to text alone. God is of necessity anthropomorphic — male and brown-skinned, usually barefoot and wearing a t-shirt that says “God,” though his size and sometimes his apparel varies to suit the occasion. So again, as with Teju Cole’s poem, this is divinity as real people experience it, not as priests or theologians or smart-ass poet-bloggers think it should be.
Nor does d’Arbeloff neglect the via negativa. My favorite section, Chapter 12, begins with a visit to a bookstore, which is having a “SUPER SPIRITUAL SALE — All the Answers For the Price of One!” It includes a paean to the power of the imagination reminiscent of William Blake — and given Blake’s understanding of how the prophets could claim to speak for God, that’s probably no accident.
Isaiah answer’d: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in everything, and as I was then perswaded, & remain confirm’d, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote.”
(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)
Natalie’s version of this is a little more self-reflexive, and of course a lot funnier. “What do you think of all these people who claim they talk to you?” Augustine asks as they leave the bookstore. “You’re talking to me, aren’t you?” says God. “But I don’t claim to be really real!” Augustine says in a tone of honest indignation.
In the panels that follow, the analogy between artist and divinity is, um, drawn out especially well. The last panel employs a visual quote of the two-faces-or-goblet figure from Gestalt psychology to great effect, with the words “What is really real about you?” inscribed on one of the two, nearly identical profiles, and in the black goblet-space between them: “That which cannot be imagined.”
This was the kind of stuff bouncing around in my head yesterday morning, preventing a full awareness of my surroundings, as usual. When I got to the powerline, I started to hear odd creaking noises from the woods ahead. A flock of blackbirds, I thought, and got my camera ready, figuring the flock would pass overhead at any moment. I stood there waiting for several minutes, but the sound didn’t get any closer, so I continued across the powerline and on up the trail. It got louder and louder as I made my way through the dead and dying mountain laurel, which is so painful to look at now. As I approached the ridgetop, I saw the tops of the oak trees shaking violently, though there was no wind. The sound was all around me, and small flocks of birds began rising from the ground at my approach. They weren’t red-winged blackbirds, as I’d figured, but common grackles — thousands of them, feasting on acorns. This is what a very, very small, outlier flock of passenger pigeons must’ve been like, I thought, and felt the hair rising on the back of my neck.
The awe was short-lived. A moment later I was back to thinking how cool it would be if I could get them all to take flight at once, as icterid flocks will do, with a rush of synchronized wings. I moved purposefully toward what I took to be the center of the flock, but the birds only flew short distances ahead of me, and when I stopped, they flew closer and peered down with their disconcertingly yellow eyes, as if trying to make up their minds to rush me all at once.
I had to get back; the bread needed to go in the oven if we were to have any for lunch. The flock regrouped quickly in my wake, and it occurred to me as I hurried back to the house that the main reason why people don’t have true epiphanies any more is that we’re too damned distracted to recognize them. If the image of walking has such strong sentimental appeal, it’s probably because few people actually make the time to walk any more, or even if they do, like me, they’re too preoccupied with their own thoughts to fully appreciate what’s around them. I probably shouldn’t give away the ending of The God Interviews, but let’s just say that it may well have supplied the inspiration for Teju Cole’s poem. We are all vagrants at heart: “strangers and sojourners,” as God put it in Leviticus 25:23, “going to and fro in the earth, and … walking up and down in it,” as Satan says about himself in his two interviews with God at the beginning of Job.
The bread had risen well. I popped it in the oven, and then spent the next hour moving all my fiction into the dining room, to keep company with my six shelves full of religion books. They were all very dusty. It might be time to give them a good airing out.
Be sure to read Dick Jones’ stunning new poem, God.