Wednesday, April 11, 2012


The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio
When I called myself a Catholic, I was encouraged by the story of Saint Thomas the doubter.  While all around me were speaking confidently about God, the resurrected Jesus Christ, and the certainty of heaven, I took comfort in the validation of doubting by the writers of the Gospel.  "Lord I believe, help my unbelief," was a constant prayer.  This past Easter weekend, as Christians around the world were celebrating their risen Lord, I thought of Thomas, the archetypal skeptic, and recalled my struggle to use the language of my friends in the Church while remaining intellectually honest.  To do this, I employed the philosophical technique of bracketing by setting aside unresolved issues, like the virgin birth, a multitude of miracles, and a Jesus whose body died on the cross but who presented himself, wounds and all, to those he encountered a few days later.  Like Thomas, I needed something tangible to make what Kierkegaard called "a leap of faith."  Never happened.

I have been a doubter and a skeptic all of my adult life; it must be in my DNA.  Lord knows, I've tried to accept the testimony of others about matters unseen without questioning them.  I went to a Christian summer camp in the Southern California mountains and accepted Jesus while a girl I liked looked on admiringly.  But a week later the thrill was gone.  In my teens, I joined a community who believed in the presence and intervention of flying saucers.  But no matter how intently I scanned the sky, I never saw anything out of the ordinary.   I dabbled in Theosophy, was initiated into Transcendental Meditation and threw the I Ching, but it was all an act.  Eventually I was converted to Roman Catholicism by Thomas Merton whose writings set me spiritually on fire.  If he could accept the whole enchilada, so could I.

But doubts remained.  I used my intellect to smooth them over.  Religious "facts" were metaphors, and the dogmas and stories could be interpreted allegorically.  Doubt was a "gift of God," a sign that the "spirit" was working internally.  Faith was just around the corner.  But when I moved away from the Catholic community and my many supportive friends, the bracketed items resurfaced like long-suppressed fears erupting from the psyche.  The Christian "truths," looked at in the clear light of day, resembled little more than fairy tales.

So far so good.  But a world denuded of enchantment is unappealing.  The Buddhism I continued to practice in California was not a religion but a scientifically-endorsed psychology, a form of stress-reduction,   Some thought quantum mechanics to be a kind of mysticism and I tried to figure it out, but the arcane formulas passed my understanding.  I turned to the literary theorists and linguists to see "religion" as a language which socially constructs "reality" for a designated subgroup.  I read the new atheists -- Dawkins, Hitchens, et. al. -- and agreed with much of their critique of institutional religions, but found their arguments strident and self-serving.  The "truths" of materialism. while logical and intellectually obvious, require acceptance by commoners who are dependent on experts, the scientistic elite. How is this different from religious belief?

Now I live in Thailand among people for whom the metaphysical mysteries are commonplace.  Spirits, good and bad, abound, and Thais employ an arsenal of devices to provide protection and ward off disaster.  These include amulets worn around the neck, sacred tattoos, string that has been blessed by monks or shamans, written symbols (often seen inside cars), altars and shrines inside and outside houses and buildings, and deeds that bring good luck, like becoming or feeding a monk.  I've learned that Buddhism here, and probably elsewhere in other Asian localities, is an inextricable mix of passed-along teachings of the Buddha, Brahmin rituals involving many gods and goddesses from India, and indigenous animist beliefs and practices.  Despite attempts to disentangle the different strands by Western historians and Theravada apologists, it probably has always been thus.

The immediate reaction of most Westerners to such perverse cultural verities is to denounce it all as magic or superstition, to ridicule the believers as ignorant, and to claim that Buddhism or Hinduism (only the anthropologists concern themselves in animism) is something other than what is seen everywhere in Thailand (or in India as well, for that matter).  As a dyed-in-the-wool doubter, I could do no less.  But... As someone who loves Thailand and Thai people, who is married to a Thai woman for whom the spirit world is reality, I must bracket my skepticism and cynicism for now (ever cautious of the return of the repressed).

At the beginning of June, I'm giving a paper at a conference here in a panel on "Unifying Buddhism."  My strategy will be, first, to deny the currently accepted view of Buddhism as a unified religion, and, second, to propose several ways to group various "buddhisms" under a "big tent."  "Religion," like "game," is a linguistic umbrella that can collect many divserse items.  But the larger goal of my paper is to defend magic and superstition and to ask if Western Buddhists are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater when they reconfigure traditional cultural practices and jettison those problematic for modern sensibilities. Some Buddhists have offered strong objections when I use this figure of speech and it certainly goes against the grain of my spiritual journey.  But while a Catholic, I experienced the affective power of the mass and the emotional punch of even pretending that the host and wine contained the body and blood of Christ.  No, it cannot be materially true (just as a virgin birth, or resurrection from the dead, is impossible), but going through the motions effects the participant emotionally.  And who can say that emotions are not real?  Gregory Bateson distinguished "sacrament" from "symbol" and said this was a difference that made a difference.

So this doubter is trying to change his spots by proving that what he is unable to believe has both meaning and consequences for the Thai Buddhist who has been taught since birth that it is possible to negotiate with the surrounding spirits.  I doubt that I will ever be able to experience them as my wife does.  Now I am an neophyte believer, buying flowers for our altar every Wan Phra and going to the temple on important holy days to make merit by praying for good luck and happiness, for ourselves and for all sentient beings. And if I give alms to the poor who I encounter begging on the streets, I might just be able to pick a winning lottery ticket!

But there are just a few nagging doubts...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting post to many I bet !

Like you I have been through many phases of religion, belief, wonderment
I was born Catholic went to Catholic schools as a kid growing up in the US.

Never thought much about it all till I was 19-20 sitting on a beach wondering about the "stories"
Later went for years on a quest through being a member of the Theosophical Society.

While no longer a member I think it was time well spent as at the time you could borrow any books from the large library they have by mail & read.

I found most religions had basic similar underlying messages.

Now in my 50's I have come to the realization that God...any God or avatar for that matter never took pen to paper. So all that we read, all that we learn,all that we believe is based on another searchers experiences. Their interpretation too of those experiences.

So is it any wonder that we doubt/reason away many things we read?
They after all just someones experiences as told to us. Probably rewritten & interpreted many times over.

I think for the most part all written religions can be looked at as a basic introduction or explanation of another's experiences. In the end we must formulate our own.
If not then we or folks like us will always find fault. Of course there are those who do not question & that is fine for them & useful too I am sure.

Thank You