Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Thursday, January 24, 2008

What's The Matter With God?


I was reading a fine blog I've added to my list--it's called the Hyperborean--in which the author was discussing agnosticism, more specifically agnostic materialism, which might be defined as a state of accepting what science tells us about reality (a.k.a. matter) and of not believing much else, except that we have to keep on keeping on (breakfast, job, sleep, blogging, philosophy, golf, video poker, scratching itches, etc.) The blog included a nice paraphrase of an observation by Lyotard (French writers get all the great names, those bastards--emphasis on the second syllable):

"As Lyotard wrote in The Postmodern Condition, even the story we tell ourselves about the progress of science to deliver mankind from veils of ignorance has failed to foster the confidence that we really know what we're talking about when we try to explain what matter is made out of."

Put another way, it's amusing to observe Science coming up with new explanations that not only replace old explanations but also sometimes replace the premises of old explanations. "Did I say the visual model of the atom was 'planetary'? I'm sorry. I meant to say that it wasn't planetary; also, trying to draw a model of an atom is folly. There. Now we can proceed!"

Since I'm self-centered and a poet (was that a redundancy I just heard go off?), the Lyotard/Hyperborean idea made me think of a short poem I've posted here before:

Units: An Introduction

Everything is made
of little units, which
are made of even smaller
units. The smallest units,
undetectable by us, are
reality. All units larger
than these are rearrangement,
illusion, phony structure.
They constitute a kind
of molecular cinema
watched by us and
understood by God,
who is exempt from
the unit-arrangement.

--Hans Ostrom

And then I thought of the "agnostic" context of Hyperborean's blog, so I recalled a self-interview poem (I refer the reader to the comment concerning "self-centered" above):

Self-Interview on the Subject of God

Have I seen evidence of God?
I think so. Have I seen
God? I don’t know. Will
I see God? I think so. How
will I know? Oh, I’ll know.
What does God have to do
with anything? Well, God
has to do with everything, so
anything must be no trouble
for God. Do I have doubts?
Yes. Are my doubts a threat
to God? Be serious. On what
basis do I believe in God? Yes.

--Hans Ostrom


When asked, I describe myself as a Catholic because I became one in 2000, but because I arrived late to the Judeo/Greco/Roman/Jesuit party, and also for temperamental reasons, I'm a Catholic of the Keep It Simple, Stupid variety (my name for it, not the Pope's, in case you hadn't guessed): Apostle's Creed, Mass, the Lord's Prayer and what else Jesus had to say (he wasn't meek; remember: he was a threat to all established power in sight), social justice, and keep a close, unamused eye on your self-importance (especially, but not exclusively, if you're a self-centered poet). That's it. Nothing fancy. If the Vatican writes my parish and orders that something in the Mass should be done this way and not that way, my parish and I make the adjustment and move on.

My parish is a Jesuit one, therefore suspect, socially minded, and quirky. A person who moved to another parish in Tacoma was once quoted as saying, "I'm sick of St. Leo Parish--all they do is talk about helping poor people!" The Parish did not take the remark personally but had a good collective belly-laugh at the ironic truth. A colleague told me that some 25 years ago, he went to Mass at St. Leo, and a person from the Puyallup Nation "processed" (walked) into the Mass with the priest, in full head-dress, etc. The colleague found this outlandish, distasteful, risible, and wrong and apparently hasn't been back to St. Leo since. I don't quibble with his choice, and I'd only observe that the parish no doubt simply had invited the man to be a guest that day. I doubt if anyone in attendance except my colleague saw anything remarkable, disruptive, or radical about the guest's presence; that is, it would not have been seen as a protest an act of heresy or a quasi-political performance. Mass would have proceeded apace.

I spend almost no energy on the disputes that often seem to fracture and distract the Church, and I leave the serious Judging up to God (including who is in God's favor and who isn't; for instance, I would never assume that anyone who is not a Christian or a Catholic wouldn't be in God's favor; to do so would be mightily presumptuous, obviously, as would assuming that Christians/Catholics are in God's favor). I have to confess--no, not that kind of confession, which Catholics don't do much any more, by the way; they reconcile--that I'm also influenced by the writings of Baruch Spinoza (who amused neither the official Catholics or the traditional Jews of his era, and maybe not of this day, either), Dorothy Day (the Catholic Worker Movement; she was decidedly un-meek [wink], too); Henry J. M. Nouwen; The Cloud of Unkowing; and Jack Miles, who wrote God: A Biography, one thesis of which is that the arrival, appearance, work, life, and death of Jesus represented "a crisis in the life of God." I'll let Jack explain that one.

Keep It Simple, Stupid. Today I'll need to get help to construct the Latin for that. It will make a nice pairing with Rene's (I told you they got all the great names) Cogito, ergo sum.

God works in mysterious ways, for at least two reasons. First, why on Earth (so to speak) wouldn't God's ways be mysterious to us? Second, look what God has to work with. Just ask Lyotard.

By the way, to any poets, self-centered and otherwise, out there who derive pleasure from writing poems based on prompts or "challenges" given to them: a self-interview poem, on almost any topic and certainly in any form, comes highly recommended.

(poems from The Coast Starlight: Collected Poems 1976-2006).

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