The Temple of the Infinite

Posted: January 7, 2013 in Uncategorized

This post is touchy, but it is something that I don’t want to gloss over because I would be doing a disservice to myself.

I just ask one thing, if you are going to read this post, please read it all the way through before passing final judgment. I am going to say some things that some people may not like, but they will seem much worse if they are taken out of context, so please… let me finish.

CONTEXT: December, 2011

It was about year between writing this and slamming it. I performed it once in between, at a feature set for LiPS in Carleton Place and that passed without incident (other than making fun of the name of the poem… which is deserved. It is very cheesy).

This poem – or more accurately, the concept of this poem – has rattled around in my head for years, but I never wrote it. I touched on it a little bit here and there, but I never wrote the whole thing.

Why? Because I didn’t want to offend anyone… and the version of the poem I would have written at one time would have been much more abrasive than the poem I eventually wrote, so I am glad I left it for so long.

Background:

I used to believe in God, more or less. We were not a very actively religious family. We didn’t go to church but neither was the concept taboo. My father went to Catholic school growing up and I knew that my maternal grandmother was active in her church (and my maternal grandmother was a pretty awesome woman, so who wouldn’t want to emulate her?)

As I got into my teenage years, the father of a family friend was a minister at a place called The Truth Center. This was a one-off church that was kind of an all-encompassing, non-denominational house of… worship? Kind of?

The motto of the place was Live Life Lovingly. Who could argue against that?

My sister and I started going to the ‘young people’s church’ that was part of the Truth Center. (As an illustration of the kind of place it was, they used bible parables as teaching tools, but left it completely up to the individual as to whether those parables were based in fact or just useful examples to inspire good behaviour.

I noticed that some of the other kinds in my class at the Young People’s Church ‘believed’ more than I did. It was no big deal, but it was noticeable. I was drifting away… I just didn’t realize it yet.
Turning point #1: We were asked to write a paragraph about a time we were facing an obstacle and used the teachings from the bible to help us get through it. I had a momentary quandary. They were asking for a REAL time we had done this and, quite frankly, I never had. Church stuff was left to Sundays and never really crossed-over into the rest of my life. I am not saying I never learned anything useful or important there – far from it – but I wasn’t a very… active believer.

Simple answer to a simple problem: I made something up. The creative process was something that interested me anyway so I invented a little story that fit the assignment. It was something to do with an exam at school and believing in yourself, I think. It was also a complete fabrication.

The next week I was informed by our teacher that he was so impressed by my assignment that they were going to take it and read it in ‘big people’s church’ – to the main congregation.

Uh, yeah. About that…

Did it bother me that my words were going to be presented to the whole church as if they were truth when it fact it was a straight up lie? Not really. I figured that if we could read bible parables and not care whether they were real, then why did it matter if what I said was true or not?

My attitude got me thinking about the ‘whole thing’. Why didn’t it bother me? Why didn’t I care more about lying in church?

Turning point #2: I asked my Sunday teacher one of those questions that I figured would have been asked a million times before. “If God is everywhere, why do we have to come to church?”
I was quickly reminded of the difference between myself and the ‘lifer’ kids in the class. They thought the question was funny, but didn’t get that I actually meant it. The teacher answered. I don’t remember what he said, just that I didn’t find the answer satisfactory.

Turning point #3: My soccer games changed from Saturday to Sunday. I stopped going to church.

That was it for me. The only service I have sat through since the age of around 14 was at other people’s weddings.

As I went through my teenage years, my belief system started evolving. I told people that if there was a god, it was probably just an advanced life form from elsewhere in the universe that was so far past us as to seem like a god.

Later I discovered the word agnostic and wore it like a badge, even though I didn’t REALLY understand it as well as I thought I did. (I told people I was a ‘practicing Agnostic’ just to see if they would get the joke. Only one person ever called me on it – take a bow Avery Gietz…)

Bit by bit, though, my attitude towards the church (as monolithic entity) changed for the worse. I came to believe that organized religion (as opposed to personal beliefs) was a form of mind control. Actually, behaviour control was a probably a better way to put it. The religious right were a destructive power that seemed to be about keeping power in the hands of those that held it, allowing no wavering.

I grew to think that anyone who willingly put themselves in the hands of such power was other glaringly naive or pathetically desperate to believe in anything, no matter how ridiculous.

(This is where my request for you to hear me out is tested. Please hang on and not judge me simply from this comment.)

The thing is, this belief would put my firmly in the arms of atheism, but that doesn’t really work for me either. Most atheists I encountered (most, not all), if they spoke about god were incredibly arrogant. The smug satisfaction of KNOWING you are right and everyone else is wrong never worked for me, whether it was a god proselytizer or a strict atheist.

I kept using the term agnostic, though I had grown to understand it better. What I really believed in was a lack of certainty. I have come to understand that the universe is a fascinating and intricate place that is so beyond our scope of knowledge that it beggars description. I believe in science… but I believe in the far borders of science. It would be wrong to say that I believe in everything, but I believe in the POSSIBILITY of everything. I believe in the possibility of ghosts and faeries and magic. I believe in the possibility of time travel and alien races. So why couldn’t I believe in the possibility of God?

The real answer is that I don’t believe in any god that comes from any book or scripture because I don’t trust why that book or scripture was written. I do not have faith, in god or man. While positive things can come out of belief, positive things don’t come out of ‘organized’ religion. When I hear or read someone use ‘the bible’ as an excuse to hate, I see red. (Hate and exclusion sure weren’t part of the ‘Live Life Lovingly’ I learned as a kid.)

Someone asked me if saying I was agnostic meant that I thought it equally likely that there is or is not a god. The answer was no. I do not think there is a god. I just refuse the certainty of saying that I understand how the universe works and everything in it, so I will not claim that I KNOW there is no god.

I was also asked by someone that if I will not say one way or the other, do I live as if there is a god or not. I live as if there is not. I will not speak for that person but I think that HE thinks that means living without morals or ethics, but I strongly disagree. I would argue that my morals are high and my ethics are VERY high, and I don’t see how believing in a god would change that… unless you define what is right and wrong on a book that was written by men with the express purpose of controlling people.

But let’s get back to where I said some very judgmental things about people who DO believe.

My opinion has changed. Why? Because I have spent some quality time with people who I respect very highly that DO believe. I was forced to challenge myself. I found myself saying things like, “If I think anyone who believes in God is naïve, do I think THIS person is naïve?” and “If believing means you are stupid or foolish, do I think THIS person is stupid and foolish?” and the answer was invariably no.

I have grown. Just as I reject certainty, I have to reject my own insistence that uncertainty is the right way to think. If ‘your’ insistence in a god is an affront to non-believers and ‘your’ insistence that there is no god is an affront to those are uncertain, why should I feel that holding on to uncertainty is the right way to be?

So, while I do follow my personal ‘church of uncertainty’ (I just made that up. It is not really a thing), I no longer have strong general beliefs about people who are ‘believers’. (I reserve the right to ‘judge’ individuals. There are plenty of religious wing-nuts, but I don’t assume that anyone who is religious is one of them.) That is not to say I don’t still have opinions about religion that some may STRONGLY disagree with. For example, I have a strong feeling that the Pope doesn’t believe in God… take that as you will.

Side note: I don’t like going in churches or other places of worship. The reason is that I feel like my very presence is an affront to whom that place is holy. I stay away out of respect.

That brings us to the poem…

Earlier version so the poem would have been more scathing, in a way that doesn’t really match the depth and complexity of my true feelings. I also didn’t write it because I knew that there was a segment… possibly a large segment… of our audience who would have a problem with what I would have said.
Time passed. I heard over and over poems that dealt with belief in god. I generally didn’t like them, not due to the quality of the poetry but because they didn’t ‘speak’ to me. I never complained. Everyone has a voice and a right to be heard. (I shouldn’t say never. I do have quite an issue with anti-abortion poems, but that might be a topic for another time…)

But, wait a minute. I said that everyone has a right to be heard and I would sit back and listen to topics I didn’t agree with. Yet I also said that I didn’t write MY poem because it would bother people whose beliefs were different than mine. Isn’t that being a little hypocritical? Was I assuming that the audience would not accept opinions that were different than my own? Wasn’t I selling the audience a little short?
I wrote the poem.

It sat in my book for a little while and then I read it out in Carleton Place. If anyone was offended by the content, they sure didn’t let me know about it. I am not saying they raved over the piece either.
The poem sat in my book a little longer, as they tend to do.

Eventually I decided to memorize it and perform it at CapSlam. I went on stage and did my thing. By the time I got up there, I was firm in my belief that I had been silly to think the worst. Any nerves I had going up to do it were my usual show nerves. The topic wasn’t going to be a problem at all. I told some people that it likely wouldn’t score well, but that was simply because it isn’t a very strong ‘slam’ poem.

I looked at the audience as I spoke. What I saw was… not good. I saw anger. I mean real anger. Some of it was on faces of people who I consider friends. The poem didn’t score well, but that didn’t bother me. I knew that would happen (though I think the scores were pushed even lower by the content). It was the faces that bothered me. I was shaken.

I came away from the show thinking that maybe I wasn’t doing what I should be doing. Here I was doing my part to encourage people to get on stage and share their deepest feelings in their art, even when those feelings didn’t always work for me. Why? Because the show isn’t about me. There is room for… most… thoughts and ideas. (I draw the line in places, but those places are fairly extreme. I have real problems with overt racism, sexism, homophobia, violence…)

Yet that same allowance didn’t seem to be given back. I saw looks that said to me, “How DARE you say that you don’t believe in the things I believe in!” I once stood on a stage where a fellow poet commandeered the microphone to make a statement not about his own belief, but about how those who didn’t believe were wrong. That made me very angry. But I was doing nothing of the sort, here. All I was saying is, this is what I believe.

I left for Victoria the very next day. It was probably good that I was removed from the scene immediately following the show so that I could vent to my friends without it festering as I prepared for the next show. I had lots of opportunity to calm down. Since then we have had another slam and I found I was able to put it behind me and move on. I have to remember the times I have needed support from the people around me in our community and have received it. I have to remember the times I needed support from the community WITHOUT EVEN REALIZING IT and have received it. This incident does not tip the balance from all that. I love this community, even when it doesn’t always love me back.

This will remain a sore spot for me. That is just the way it is.

    The Temple of the Infinite

My body is a temple
But I have never been very religious.
Besides, a little desecration
Is good for the soul
And my attempts to turn
This temple into a cathedral
Have been completely secular,
I can assure you.
There is no worship,
Or lighting of candles.
The only midnight mass
Comes after an eleven o’clock
Attack of the munchies.

I remember when I realized
That I didn’t believe in god.
There was no arc of lightning
Or halogen floodlight blinking
Into existence above my head.
There was a bigger sense of loss over
Santa Claus than the Holy Ghost
Though neither changed
My view of self.

We were the modern protestants,
Proselytization-free.
Sunday was just the weekend
And the biggest sermon I ever heard
Came at the end of
A Charlie Brown Christmas.
I read the bible as an
Intellectual exercise
But never thought of it as
More than classic literature.

I couldn’t convince myself
That there was some divine
Hand guiding and providing.
When I see a rainbow
Or sunlight slipping through a
Canopy of leaves
It isn’t the glory of god
That leaves me gasping
But the universal amazement
That can deliver such moments
Out of the vastness of infinity.

I respect beliefs
As the need to understand
And I hope for miracles every day –
Discoveries that
There is even one more thing
Left to remind us that we
Have not reached even the
Center point on the continuum
Of knowledge.
There was a time when
The sun was a divine chariot
And lightning meant more than
Meteorological activity.
I know that many things
Unimagined will be the
Next generation’s
Science-aided apple
But just like comparing
Gravity to oranges
We quest for the meaning
Of existence.
Or even just A meaning
To justify the path of
Humankind.
A reason to rise and
Strive.
A reason to create or
Thrive.
But I have found my reason.
It is you. It is me.
It is a note of music,
Slightly off-key,
Played in a suburban garage.
It is spring sunshine
And a single piece of
Nova-blasted moon rock
Spinning through the
Farthest reaches of space.
Call it faith.
Call it destiny.
I call it random chance.
Because every second of every day
Since the first atom said,
“This place is boring.
Time to split.”
Has unconsciously conspired
To bring us right here.
Fractioning off into billions
Of worlds that saw me become
A plumber, prime minister,
Or a never-missed, never-was.
For I believe in chaos
And freedom of choice.
And a temple, crumbling around
The edges as my failures are
Left on display.
And a universe of people
Trying to find answers
Day after day,
White knuckling the
Ride of change and
‘Come-what-may’.
And to tell you the truth,
I wouldn’t want it
Any other way.

Comments
  1. Pearl says:

    Wow, we come from such different paths Rusty. Thanks for sharing your story.

    I could see how it could radicalize an audience. Saying yes can shut people off. Saying no more so. Still, you have to tell your ow truth as you see it.

    I have several family members who are ministers. I tend to sidestep talk of faith lest I get told I’m being prayed for. I come from the lifer section with a fervent literal belief in the Bible from nearly birth into my 20s. At a few points I realized the people who didn’t believe treated me kindly, nourished me, and those who did believe were nasty to me, themselves and others. Atheists in therapy seemed to live the most considered lives and considerate lives.

    The pattern of that set of people in my life at that time was hard to admit. Judging by the fruits caused some faltering. I took a university class in Islam, one in Christianity, read about Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. I was 28 before I first admitted aloud I was agnostic. (Heh, practiciing agnostic.) I thought I’d be killed by god on the spot.

    Everyone who believes has a reason for why that tool helps them. For me, belief kept me alive for years since the minister preached suicide was an unforgivable sin that would shut you out of heaven permanently. It created a bind but it kept me here. I’m still here, and atheist, or as I sometimes call it recovering-Christian.

    Be well,

    • rpriske says:

      Thank you for sharing your story. If what comes of this is people are willing to share what got them to wehre they are, it will have been worth it.

  2. Bruce Narbaitz says:

    I disagree with your worldview, but I don’t find the poem offensive. You are very careful in the poem to frequently re-iterate “I believe” or “I think”, so it is pretty clear that you aren’t condemning those who disagree with you. I can imagine people being surprised by this poem, but I don’t think it is disrespectful or hurtful in anyway.

  3. waynebeaton says:

    FWIW, your “practising agnostic” joke was one of my turning points.

  4. D-LightFull says:

    I’m sorry about the response you received from the crowd, and I’ll apologize if I was a part of that response.

    In my opinion, we’re all allowed to our beliefs, whatever they may be. But since we’re all human beings, we’re never all going to be accepting of other people’s beliefs. Someone will be angered by my choice to believe in God or in Jesus, and a Jesus believer will be offended by another one’s choice to not believe, or to believe in Mohammed. That’s the reality of life, I’ve learned to accept it. Brush off the people who get mad at it, and keep on loving and keep it moving. When people get passionate about stuff and believe that it’s the truth, sometimes they don’t use the right approach in speaking that “truth” and don’t care who they hurt along the way…

    And in the end, we’re human beings, believers or not, we’re flawed. So speak your mind, but it’s certain that some venues will be better recipients of certain contents than others, and just be conscious of that. Because it doesn’t matter how much we give, we can never really expect (maybe just hope) to receive anything out of it.

  5. Thank you so much for posting this, Rusty. Throughout my life I’ve had on again/off again relationships with everything from evangelical Christianity to full-on atheism. At this point in my life, my spiritual beliefs (if you can call them spiritual) are very similar to yours. I don’t *think* there’s a God…but I could be wrong.

    I rarely talk or write about religion. Trying to articulate my feelings feels overwhelming and I’m always fearful of angering someone. That’s why I’m so grateful to you for saying what I haven’t been able to with your poem and with this post.

    *hugs*

  6. cmurtagh says:

    I can say “I know that Santa Claus” doesn’t exist, just like I can say “I know that god doesn’t exist” without either being a claim of absolute knowledge. The idea that one of those claims is more arrogant than the other is specious at best, yet this is how many people view this – the nasty atheist is arrogant, the a-Clausist is simply a thinking adult – why is that? Anyone who can claim to know either of those *absolutely* is both arrogant and ignorant, however, talking about things in absolute terms is absurd and has no place in an intelligent discourse anyway. So, when someone says either of those statements to me, I assume that they mean within a reasonable margin of uncertainty. Santa and god both fail the test of evidence to any thinking rational person, and for that reason their existence can safely be discounted.

    I’m also not a big fan of how you use the word ‘agnostic’. Unless you say you’re agnostic about fairies, Santa Claus and gobblins, it’s a cop-out. While some 90% of the National Academy of Science claim to be atheists, I doubt you would find any of them who would claim that they ‘know how the universe works’. The term atheist and agnostic are often used as substitutions for one and other, when in fact they’re not at all. You can be both an agnostic and an atheist, or even an agnostic theist. If we’re talking absolute terms, any sane person would call themselves agnostic (theist or not). Agnostic is a reference to knowledge with the ‘a’ prefix simply meaning ‘not’ or ‘without’. Gnosticism is about knowledge, while theism is about belief. The word ‘atheism’ is simply not having a belief, it does not mean having a positive disbelief. That’s why there’s a difference between ‘immoral’ and ‘amoral’. So, by this (proper IMO) definition of atheist, anyone who has never heard of a god or gods is an atheist and all babies are born atheists. There is no shame in admitting this, nor should it be painted as such.

  7. Nice blog post! A lot of this is like reading my own story about belief told back to me (save the protestant no-name brand church youth experience, I was an Anglican,- and I DID feel a loss when i left-, otherwise, same-same). I have a poem about it as well. I am really weirded out that THAT poem affected an audience so grievously. It’s SO TAME (well, comparatively)! I assume specific people felt it was an “inside jab” intended to hurt them and/or I would like to know more about the climate of cap slam in relation to poems about belief in god (or the god or gods). Otherwise it makes no sense to me that people would be so hurt or shocked. To quote Fred Eaglesmith “when did the left lose it’s sense of humour?”

    FYI. I judged you at the reading of your fake story in the church. haha! Although, that in and of itself IS the poem. Write it again!

    (On a funny side note: I was just editing MY poem for a booklet for schools. I perform it in schools all the time in schools (it is even a video link on my site under schools stuff)! now I feel the fear! eeps!)

  8. scattergirl says:

    This poem and this post both make me miss Capital Slam even more than I already did. To be honest, I think in some ways, I was missing the family rather more than the poetry because it seemed for a brief stint I was hearing the same people say the same things, over and over again. This poem shares I perspective not often voiced – one I happen to share – and I wish I’d been there because your performance would have resonated with me. I think it is a brave, well considered, and respectful piece … a hella difficult balance to strike, given the subject matter. Too many atheists are belligerent in their beliefs and it is well past the time for more of us to stand and be counted in a less militant fashion.

    I have raised my own children to think critically and form their own opinions, and they both lean heavily to a non-theistic view of the world. I remember them feeling alienated in grade school, by the cultural and religious kaleidoscope of representation, which made strenuous efforts to ensure all faiths were embraced but neglected to consider the possibility of a fundamentally secular world view. I’m grateful they have someone like you, representing a church/bible/deity free existence with honesty and integrity.

  9. rpriske says:

    I was hoping that if there were to be comments that they would cover the gamut. I see ‘believers’, ‘non-believers’ and those who fall in between. Thank you all for your words, whether you agree with me or not.

    • cmurtagh says:

      Due to my rather vocal dislike for religion, many people think that I also have a strong disdain for proselytizers, when in fact my feelings are the exact opposite. Although, I’m not a fan of people coming to my door, it’s not because I don’t like their message but because I don’t like having my private space invaded this way (I’m a bit of a shut-in/agrophobe sometimes). However, I do believe that proselytizing is a good thing, especially when their views are different and even disagreeable. Different ideas and input allow us to get a new perspective, even if only to help us better understand and make us more able to defend our own point of view. Proselytizers are engaging in dialogue, and dialogue is the only way we can resolve differences and mitigate the risk of violence. When dialogue is impossible or blocked, that’s when things are dangerous. Where there’s true dialogue, there’s an exchange that (hopefully) leads to the best point of view winning, and that’s how we progress in the marketplace of ideas.

      Writing about unpopular views, and/or replying to a blog post with an unpopular view is one thing, it’s engaging and good, but safe and relatively risk free. Standing up in front of a group of your peers however, and presenting a view that you know is unpopular and sticking to it is brave and commendable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s