Many people are honest seekers looking for what is true. Jack Dann is a writer who has spent his life looking for God and here is what he found.
Oh, I’ve looked for you…
As a child I intoned my prayers before bedtime with invocatory repetition (“Hear-ho-Israel-the-Lord-our-God-the-Lord-is-one”). I sat in moist, old-man-smelling synagogues on holy days beside my father (and still, even now, the phrase “May he rest in peace” echoes through my tunnels and labyrinths of memory). I dutifully searched for the elusive spirit, the divine presence, what kabbalists call the shekhinah. I searched other religions, meditated, and squatted in Native American sweat-lodges so hot that it cracked open skin. I’ve screamed for a vision, felt and heard eagles breathing me in and breathing me out in the edgy darkness that was so hot it felt cold. I’ve eaten raw heart, seen medicine men put hot coals in their mouths, learned ancient Hebrew, studied the Torah, practiced lucid dreaming, found my way into monochromatic hallucinations of height, and almost fell off those vertiginous psychedelic cliffs.
I knew then in the hot, hormonal summer of youth, just as I know now in the cooler and more comfortable winter of senior citizenship, that there was no eagle in that sweat-lodge, even though other men felt its presence as I did. I had rationalized the experience as consensual hallucination, but even while I felt the flapping and brushing of wings - even as the sweat-lodge itself became a huge bellows - I knew that the medicine man was shaking and waving an eagle’s feather, beating it against my skin. I knew that the bellows was my own breathing. I knew that the extreme heat, the complete darkness – the sensory deprivation – the searing hot/cold pain had put me into an altered state in which I imagined – and, yes, experienced – epiphanies. In those knife-edged instants I imagined that I grasped essential meanings (forgotten seconds after), felt the nominal presence of the shekhinah, and experienced the “word made flesh.”
Once, during a break from writing a novel, I paced through my house in upstate New York. The house had been built before the Civil War and the windows caught the light, which pooled in various rooms throughout the day. As I walked from room to room, window to window, I suddenly experienced a heightened focus, an existential moment. I felt that I was looking at the familiar with new eyes, and I realized at the time that this sense of euphoria, this realization of the enchantment of the mundane, was a gift that would last but a few minutes. Which it did, yet for those few moments “the house-roofs seemed to heave and sway, the church-spires flamed, such flags they had,” to borrow from Robert Browning.
Yet, I looked for you.
I looked for you in the shadows of grief and in the molten early-morning Sabbath light as I sat with friends in the synagogue. I looked for you as youth gave way to middle age and I called myself an agnostic. I was willing to follow the mystics’ “way of the fool”; and so the years passed. And only now that my hair has faded from gray to white, now that I see a stranger with a high-boned wrinkling face in the mirror, now that I am no longer a “warrior” lit by adrenaline and testosterone – and now that the ever-increasing weight of mortality is constant – I call myself an atheist. After all the sweat-lodges, synagogues, and churches, after all the study and meditation, after most of a life surrounded by books, by philosophy, theology, history, science, and that miraculous means of transport: fiction; I find myself alone with my thoughts. The “you” I desperately searched for was – me. How I yearned for moments of consuming bliss. I yearned for peace and security, and an intercessory God who could be propitiated with prayer and sacrifice. But as we witnessed in the Nazi concentration camps and the killing fields of Cambodia, all the prayers, spells, and supplications in the world can’t save us from the terrible deeds of our fellow men. Perhaps we might hope in education, technology, and science. Perhaps a rigorous rational exploration of our psyches and the universe might help us conquer the beast and evolve into more rational beings. But I suppose that, too is a prayer, a supplication. An irrational hope.
I’ve found some modicum of peace and security, but I just couldn’t push myself into belief. I’ve tried to expand my consciousness into altered states; I’ve tried to believe that those precious moments of heightened consciousness came from without rather than from within; and I’ve tried to find some evidence of a personal god. I can appreciate the complexity, beauty, dignity, and artful harmonies of the world’s great belief systems, just as I can enjoy the breathtaking architectural elegance of philosophical ideas such as Leibniz’s Monadology. Some of these systems are often almost mathematically consistent internally, but they all require leaps of faith I am not willing to make. And as I approach my own mortality, Pascal’s Wager and all the other anti-rational, anti-scientific rationalizing have come to ring more and more hollow.
I’ve had luminous moments when I can see more deeply – and hope to have more. I’ve seen the magic in the everyday – and hope to see more.
So herewith, tongue cleaving to cheek, is an atheist’s prayer:
I hope to explore all the demons, ghosts, angels, and hobgoblins of my psyche; I hope to explore the limits of thought and possibility; I hope to embrace humankind’s daily discoveries in art, science, and technology; and I will only blame myself and ourselves for the errors, petty cruelties, holocausts, wars, and killing fields of the past, present, and future. I will reject the safety of teleology. I will not pray for redemption. I will not rail at the gods. I will not beseech. I will not embrace superstition and irrationality to overcome my fears of death and uncertainty. And I will continue to peer into the deep well of mortality and try not to run because I am frightened.
About the Author
Jack Dann is an award-winning American author and editor, now based in Australia (his awards include the Nebula Award and World Fantasy Award). He has written or edited more than 70 books. His novels include The Man Who Melted, The Memory Cathedral, and The Rebel: An Imagined Life of James Dean.