Sunday, October 10, 2021

The Taste of Life

I've been doing battle with a malfunctioning body for many years, and lately the malfunctions have been winning. In years past, I would have been pacing the floors at night, fretting about things I can't control, wondering why me, and simultaneously hoping for a miracle and trying to figure out why the God of love I was raised to believe in would let people suffer so much.

Now... well, now I feel something that's not quite what I'd call a weary resignation, because the feeling is more one of acceptance than of defeat. It's a foreign feeling for someone like me, but if the past year and a half has taught me anything, it's that I have absolutely no control over anything in this world. And that includes the grinding march of time and the toll it takes on one's aging body.

I recently wrote a 12,000-word essay in exchange for receiving a somewhat honorary Doctor of Theology degree. No one needs to lecture me on online scams and diploma mills: The degrees are conferred by an actual practicing seminary, one that offers holy orders through the laying on of hands, making the recipient an official priest through the Old Catholic line of apostolic succession. I received my minister ordination through this same seminary four years ago; now I want to take the next step and receive my holy orders one of these days. The online program takes about two years to complete, so I guess I'll have to see how my creaky old body holds out.    

The point is that I think of the Th.D. as a reward to myself, for all the years I've spent exploring the world's religious and spiritual paths, in search of something I can call my own. I love reading and researching, and since I'll never have the time or money to attend an accredited seminary school, this is the next best thing for me. Besides, mainstream seminaries will expect you to line up with their theological worldview, and I don't line up so well with what other people want. Fifty years of life experience has taught me that, if nothing else. I take what works, regardless of the source, and weave it into a way of life that makes sense to me. It doesn't have to make sense to anyone else.

That thought stuck with me as I was doing some research for a homeschool project on the pagan Wheel of the Year. I'm the theology teacher in our house, and while I fit in whatever else I can toward our daughter's education, my tireless and dedicated wife handles the bulk of the work. 

Paganism isn't new to me, but I'd never jumped in quite so deep as when I was gathering information for this latest project. I gained a greater appreciation for how our primitive ancestors lived closer to the earth, in rhythm with the seasons -- and it occurred to me that it wasn't because they were nobly enlightened tree-huggers that would put our conservation efforts to shame, but because they had to pay attention to the climate and the change of seasons if they wanted to survive the long, harsh, cold winters. They needed to prepare everything they consumed by hand. All the food supplies had to be safely stored away before the snow started to fly. And there had to be enough to last until the next harvest season rolled around. You couldn't just drive over to the supermarket to buy some bread if your grain stores were depleted. Either you planned ahead or your family starved. So of course they'd try to appease their gods through prayer and sacrifice, in hopes that their crops wouldn't be destroyed by storm, pestilence, or drought. We romanticize their lives, but their lives were hard, and often short. They were only doing what they felt was necessary to push through for one more cycle of the seasons.

In some ways, we haven't changed. It occurs to me, for example, that a lot of humans, even in our modern world, haven't stopped trying to appease their chosen deities in hopes of extracting some kind of favor. I ought to know. I did it for most of my life. With the preacher on TV telling me that all we had to do was ask and we'd receive our prayer request, I can vividly remember being on my hands and knees, tears streaming down my face, begging God to please fix me and make me feel better. And the healing never came. 

The problem is that we're always looking for a miraculous way out of our predicament, when maybe there just isn't one. We treat the Judeo-Christian God like a wish-granting genie, but that's not how the theology works. You can't change God's mind, so they say, and he already knows how your life story is going to play out. So you might as well stop groveling and come to grips with the hand life has dealt you. Prayer isn't going to do a thing. 

So why did Jesus go around performing miracles, then? Well, I think it's important to remember that he never healed people to make them better; he did it to point people toward God so that they would see the miracles the Son wrought and in turn glorify the Father. Because apparently the perfect creator of the universe needs his ego stroked like that. 

Recall that when Jesus found out that Lazarus was sick, he deliberately waited a few days before going to Bethany. Why? So that Lazarus would die first and Jesus would have to resurrect him -- which he says he did so that his disciples would believe in him. Seems pretty sadistic and self-serving to let Lazarus' family watch the poor man die just to prove a personal point, but that's how the Father and the Son roll. They don't do things for our sake. They do them so that we'll fall down on our knees before them and tell them how great and wonderful they are. Seems like a God of love would just heal people because he loved them and didn't want them to suffer. But with this God, there are always strings attached.

If it sounds like I'm angry with God, I'm not, because I don't believe in that God anymore. I find the entire belief system far too absurd, objectionable, and illogical. If a God does exist, it's not the God of the Bible. I still admire Jesus' ethical teachings and the spiritual lessons the Gospels try to teach us, and Mary is still the face of the loving, nurturing Sacred Feminine to me -- but I just can't pretend to hold a literal belief anymore in any of the Bible's supernatural claims.

And then let's compare the story of Jesus and Lazarus with the story of the Buddha and the grieving mother, as the contrast between the two stories illustrates my exasperation with the way Christianity does things with regard to people in need. 

In the Buddhist tale, a woman came to the Buddha, beside herself with sorrow, asking him to please perform a miracle for her that would bring her son back to life. The Buddha said he would do this for her, and that all she needed to do first was to bring him a single mustard seed from a house that death had not visited. The woman traveled from home to home, but everywhere she went, all she heard were stories of sorrow just like hers. Every home she entered had tasted death. Eventually, she realized what the Buddha had been trying to impress on her, that death is a part of everyone's life, and she returned to him with gratitude for the lesson learned.  

Now, which person's solution was superior? Jesus' or the Buddha's? Well, Lazarus is just going to die again someday, and Jesus' motives for resurrecting the man were self-serving; while the Buddha's comparatively selfless and more compassionate lesson was that we all die and that it's nobler to accept that reality than to want to bend the natural laws of the universe just to bring a grieving mother some temporary comfort. After all, her son will die again one day, and it could happen before her time is up, leaving her to grieve all over again.

That's how the Buddha did things. He knew that we all suffer in this life, and he wasn't going to try to give you false hope, or sell you a fairy tale, or glorify himself with some cheap parlor tricks to get you to worship him. All he gave us was an Eightfold Path to follow that he said would minimize our suffering and lead us to peace, if we could only walk the Path with sincerity and purpose. The Buddha was neither a pessimist nor an optimist, but a hard-headed rationalist, pointing us toward what is and what works, rather than what we want the world to be. The world doesn't care about our will. The most we can do is face whatever the world throws at us with equanimity.

You can see the Buddha's approach symbolized in an old Chinese painting called The Vinegar Tasters. In this allegorical scene, we find the leading figures of China's three predominant religious traditions gathered around a vat of vinegar. All three have dipped their fingers in to take a taste. 

Confucius wears a sour expression. To the Confucian mind, if something in life is sour -- and for the Confucian, it almost always is -- that means it needs to be fixed, usually by external force. So when the Confucian sees a world full of messed-up people, he assumes they have no hope of navigating life without being subject to a long and rigorous list of hierarchichal rules and procedures, with the belief that compelling order and obedience will bring about a virtuous society. Notably, this is more or less how the Chinese Communist Party exerts control over the people even today. The Confucians are the central planners, the power-hungry bureaucrats, the micromanagers and control freaks who don't trust the people to make their own decisions. They were the wear-a-mask-and-show-your-papers people of their time.

The Buddha, meanwhile, has a pensive look, as if he's acknowledging the bitterness of life but thinking about how he can apply his own hard-won logic and reason to make life more tolerable for those who are suffering. 

Then there's Lao-tzu, the mythical writer of the Tao Te Ching. He's wearing a broad smile, as he acknowledges that some things in life are bitter and some are sweet, and that the vinegar is doing nothing more than just being vinegar. The nature of vinegar is to be sour, and it would be absurd to expect it to be something other than what it is. You'd only scowl like Confucius if you expected vinegar to not be vinegar.

I think all three characters have some valuable lessons to teach us. You can control life to try to force it to work the way you want it, like Confucius; or you can accept things as they are and try to make the best of them, like the Buddha; or you can grin from ear to ear like Lao-tzu and say, "There is no 'best of it.' There's just it." Who knows what's good or bad? Life happens, and you just ride the waves as they come, and then one day you die and return to nature. The end. 

Lao-tzu's reaction makes me think of Doc Holliday's death scene in Tombstone, when his friend Wyatt Earp comes to visit him in the sanitorium. Wyatt's having trouble letting go and moving on, when Doc, channeling the ancient Taoist sage, asks Wyatt, "What do you want?"

"To live a normal life," Wyatt says.

"There is no normal life," Doc tells him. "There's just life."

In other words, you have to let go of the need to control things you have no power over. Things are what they are, not what we want them to be. So change what you can, and find peace with what you can't. 

This relates to me in the sense that I want to see my daughter grow up, and I'll certainly do what's in my power to make that happen. But at the same time, the autumn season we're experiencing now is a vivid reminder that all things pass in their time, and that the leaf doesn't cling to the tree when its time has ended. It's futile for us to hang on to that limb, yellowed and in decline, having played our part in the pageantry of life, all while praying to be made green and vital again. It doesn't work that way. Old life declines to make way for new life. The pagans know that. The Taoists know that. But our ego fights against it. It wants the nature-defying miracle. Fearing the potential for nonexistence, it wants to live on after our meatsuits give out. 

Had Jesus been a fourth vinegar taster at the well, he would have turned the vinegar into wine, to glorify God through himself, and would have promised everyone eternal life as he handed out the drinking cups. That's who we want to show up. We want someone who will make the bad stuff go away and give us hope of something better. But wishing something to be so doesn't make it so.

Maybe some essence of us does persist after death. Maybe it doesn't. But if that's our focus, we're missing the point. Some people are so obsessed with heaven that they forget their life here on Earth, with all its highs and lows, its rewards and its challenges, its beauty and its ugliness. 

There's just life. So go live it while you still have it.