The first time I tried, and failed, to remove myself from God, I was 10 years old. I lay on the carpet, playing with the dust motes in a shaft of light which came in through a sneaky gap I had made between the heavy, dark pink drapes my mother kept closed all year around. i wondered if they were atoms; if I was seeing the smallest building blocks of matter. I dared myself. There is no God. You don’t believe in God! The world tipped sideways (I rolled on to my back and pushed myself up). It was the scariest thing I had ever thought, and I had not left the living room.
My next crisis of faith was when a documentary came out about the Dead Sea Scrolls. I was 11, just shy of my Confirmation, which is a Catholic event where you, as an adult, confirm the faith that was first confirmed on your behalf when you were a baby, your godparents speaking for you.
At your Confirmation, the bishop asks you, “Do you reject Satan?” And you say, “I do.” They really ask you that, in front of the parish. You stand up in your white dress with a red sash across your chest, representing the Holy Spirit, and you say that you reject Satan and turn faithfully to the gospel. You will have no gods but God. You believe in Jesus Christ our saviour. “I do.” “I do.” “I do.”
On the day of my Confirmation, I first encountered the dilemma of hedging your bets. I wasn’t sure about God, ever since that documentary (it had been on Channel Seven, which should have been enough to discredit it, as we only watched the Channel Nine News). My parents sent me to bed before I could see it, but I had seen the ads, I had heard the introductory statements. “Was the face of Christ really imprinted on the Shroud of Turin? (Yes, that is a real thing, not something from a Tolkien novel. Where do you think fantasy authors get their ideas?) “Jesus spoke Aramaic.” “These Scrolls reveal the shocking truth, buried for hundreds of years, about the man we know as Jesus.”
None of this should be especially confronting. Yes, Jesus was a Jew, and he spoke the local dialect. But – hidden scrolls! A secret language! What did they reveal?
I knew what they revealed. Jesus was not God. Jesus was just a man. I went to bed, scared.
On my Confirmation, I could feel the lie on my tongue, a physical presence. If there is no God, I reasoned with myself, then I am not going to go to hell for this. I did not want to disappoint my family (Allison), and I did not want to be embarrassed by refusing the bishop’s blessing. Things were a bit muddled – I saw myself, just like a Christian hero, refusing to proclaim my faith, prepared to be ashamed publicly for it. i wasn’t an idiot. I knew I had it the wrong way around – you can’t be a Christian hero if you don’t believe in Christ.
But this is what it is like, when you become post-religious. You still have all the trappings; the inner quest, the need, the longing for closeness to the divine love, the love which encompasses and frees.
Frankly, I had never felt that love. I was 12 years old. I had no idea what love like that would feel like. I tried to imagine it, there on my knees, eyes shut tight. I felt it as a warmth, a smile in my direction from a consciousness as all-enveloping as night time.
I lay in bed in the room I shared with Allison. I thought about eternity. It made no sense, unless it was actually about right here, right now in this very moment, that eternity was possible. And eternity would be like ecstatic fusion with Jesus. It could happen at any moment, that was the main thing. And hell? If God is love, I surmised, then hell would be spending eternity – a forever, timeless moment – feeling how you had isolated yourself from love.
You can work things out for yourself, even when you are 12 years old. I am pretty sure I figured out the meaning of life one night, as I lay in half sleep. But I was too comfortable to write it down and by morning, it was gone.
Later, in my teens, I returned to God with a vengeance which I wreaked upon myself as punishment for all of that disbelief. While other ninth graders wrote Led Zeppelin and Metallica in heavy black Nikko on their canvas backpacks, I wrote “Life is God” on the outside flap, where everyone could see it, and “Individuality” on the inside, so long I had to squish the “ity” together at the very end. I was a missionary, just like the boys smuggling bibles into communist China: Springwood High was my China.
One day, as I waited outside the library with my friends, three twelfth grade boys found my bag and saw the slogan. They pulled it down and kicked it around on the ground, laughing. I looked straight ahead. My friends, nervously grinning, looked at me. After the boys left, we did not talk about it. Even now, when I do not believe in God, when I have developed a certain fondness for my young, evangelical self, I have never forgiven myself this sin.
Art in a post-religious world. Art in my post-religious world. Art is all I have left. It is the last remaining passage into mystery; the only breath left uncounted. When I hear a piece of music which touches me, I go beyond my emotions and my personal pathos, and I head out into the love that god was meant to be; that all-encompassing pain of knowing you are everyone’s mother, that every single bogan and arsehole in the world is just like you.
As I have said before on this blog, the art I am most familiar with is creative writing. When I read a book that I feel grateful for, it is because the writer has connected me through themselves to the world, but without creating a physical presence in my life, a presence which would demand and require. Instead, the writer lets me be. It is always a surprise, which adds to the gratitude. If you expected it, you would be disappointed.
When else do we get a sense of connection so deep that it transcends our individual selves? Churches are peaceful places. But they only create a sense of un-belonging for me now; a quaint reminder of something I will never have again. In short, they hurt to be inside.
Art (not all art, but some art, the stuff which you recognise as a gift) on the other hand, is not there for me, it is there for everyone. It is where the individual and the group meet, the ultimate fusion of the human condition.
I think that God is the result of society’s need for cohesion in the face of bigger enemies. She has an actual place in our brains, which scientists sweetly call the God-spot, an evolutionary result of needing to balance the survival of the group with the survival of the self. Humans’ two greatest assets, the key to our dominance – our reasonably well-timed selfishness and selflessness. The group and the individual, always in tension with each other.
Now, as religions fade and politics is a sham of self-interested groups, as public spaces become advertising arenas, art unbounded is so very, very necessary. The things we need to pull the pendulum back to the group: community gardens, where we can play out our natural animosity and find our collaborative pecking order. Libraries, where we can feel glad we pay our taxes. Parks, where we can sit with strangers and not feel the need to kill each other. And the excess; the unnecessary; the stuff that makes us laugh and delight. Art. Places where we are safe from the self (our own or other people’s) are shrinking. We need to breathe air into our souls that we didn’t pay for. We need the gift of art to be preserved.