If we become addicted to the external, our interiority will haunt us. We will become hungry with a hunger no image, person, or deed can still.
– John O’Donohue
Something is missing
I am married to a good man. I have a beautiful eight-year old daughter. I have loyal and caring friends. In Bertrand Russell’s estimation I have won the conquest of happiness. I have something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.
Something is missing. A small but insistent ache pulses with the metronomic quality of a black hole, invisible and impossibly distant, yet vibrating deep inside the very core of my being.
This yearning. This eternal lack.
The story of the Jewish people is one of exile and return. For Muslims, a story of forgetting and remembrance. The Christian prodigal child comes home to the embrace of a loving father. Buddhists turn their faces towards the light of awareness.
Always, this sense of homecoming. Always, this sense of returning to God.
Each of these stories holds forth the possibility of escape from the unremitting cycle of longing. Jesus died but rose back to life. Siddhartha Gautama broke the chains of samsara. Mohammed returned to the bosom of a loving Allah. Jews await the promised Messiah. Taoists live in a benevolent universe which flows through them. Each of these grand narratives presents a chance to be free of the yoke of need. Each of these stories is a story of hope. They give meaning to the search, they are oases in the desert through which we wander, firesides by which we can warm our hands before we return to the bitterness of the long, dark night.
But the loneliness always returns until we can no longer stand it. That is when we come together in community and sit in circle, or in church, or in temple, or in mosque, and we express our bewilderment. We grasp at what hope we can coax out of these stories. We pray that our yearning will one day be satisfied. We plead for succour, for respite from unrelenting not-knowing. We can never know if there is meaning. The never-knowing is itself the yearning. We wish to let go of our doubts and simply know what we are here for, and what we are in for. But we know that we can never know.
This never-knowing can send a person mad with longing.
Yet there is one thing we know. We try to argue this knowledge away through mis-applied reason and mis-understood science. We doubt this knowledge because we doubt our capacity to know anything. Yet the knowledge remains, deep in our imaginative core. We know in our bones and our souls that we are here to create.
We cry rivers into being with our unassuageable grief, we shatter islands into existence with our unbounded joy.
The Yolnu women of north-east Australia sing milkarri to bring the world constantly into being. Jewish mystics, the Kabbalists, raise the sparks of consciousness in a constant act of co-creating the universe. Buddhists set an intention for every meditation session, praying for the enlightenment of all beings. Christians offer up their suffering for the glory of God. We weave these spells around ourselves, wreathing ourselves in power. We accept our role in the constant unfolding of the universe and our impact on the type of universe in which we live. We take responsibility as co-creator beings, and we delight in the divine dance.
When we lose our faith, we also, more fundamentally, lose our hope. We become angry at ourselves for being fools to have believed that life might have meaning. We slam shut our open hearts. If someone suggests that there might be more to life than what is visible and tangible, we jeer at them or we steer clear of them because they remind us of our own stupidity, which is what we now call our longing.
As a result, we lose our spiritual literacy. We can no longer distinguish between dogma and kindness. We treat all expressions of spirituality as undifferentiated, new age, namby-pamby, unscientific codswallop.
We do this out of fear and love: we do not want to be hurt again. But in doing so, we weaken our capacity to experience the sacred in everyday life. We forget. We misinterpret our longing as desire for things, people, status. We believe we can allay our yearning through the accumulation of material wealth. We are wrong.
This is a yearning that can never be filled. This yearning is part of us. It is the fertile ground of human creativity. The only thing that can satiate, at least temporarily, this yearning, is creation. After an act of creation we can rest, replete with life force. Eventually we feel the itch and we must create again.
This is the human cycle.
When we mistake our need to create for a desire to consume, we begin to devour the world.
Bereft of hope, we live as if there is no tomorrow. We do not care about the unborn, and we believe our ancestors to be no more than ash and bone. We cut down trees as if their sorrow is not ours. We burn the remains of creatures who lived hundreds of millions of years ago, not in a ritual act of reverence but to power electricity stations. We are reckless with nature because we believe there is no life but this life, and to behave ethically is to be a fool.
In this atmosphere of hedonic despair, to care for the planet is an act of defiance. To care for our souls is a declaration of hope.
The first time I lost hope I was seven years old. My sister Allison began complaining of headaches and a sore left arm. Allison was admitted to the local Catholic hospital which was run by the Sisters of Mercy. She was given a year to live. We prayed with the nuns, and my sister survived.
I was jubilant. I thought everything would go back to the way things were.
But Allison would never be the same. She could no longer use her left arm or leg; her short term memory had evaporated; she could not complete her schooling because she was unable to concentrate for long periods. She began talking to herself. She sometimes wet herself, her bladder control compromised by the shunts draining fluid from her brain.
Throughout our adolescence Allison clung to the belief that God had a plan for her. I tried to match her faith, but sometimes, as I lay in bed in our shared room and listened to her cry herself to sleep, I wondered. If God were capable of healing, why only partially heal my sister? If God were capable of meaning, why let my sister survive, only to deteriorate excruciatingly slowly but inexorably into early onset dementia, epilepsy, psychosis, dysphagia? If God were capable of love, why do this to us?
In my twenties I travelled to Nepal and India. Losing hope had made me existentially lonely. I read Sartre, which did not help. I explored Tibetan Buddhism, which did. I began to view longing as the root of my suffering. I practised meditation to loosen longing’s embrace of my soul.
For the next twenty years I protected myself from hope using a combination of Buddhism, science, Stoic philosophy and reason. I began to think that human life was no more than a statistically improbable anomaly in a cold, unfeeling universe. I read Montaigne. I dog-eared Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. The most I now hoped for was to escape my own illusions.
And then Allison died.
Which you might think would push me further into atheism, cynicism, nihilism (all the isms). But something in me eased with my sister’s death. Her funeral was attended by hundreds of people whom I had not seen since childhood. Her funeral was an act of communal poetry. My sister had loved and been loved.
I wanted that for others. I began offering funeral services for people from low-income backgrounds. I applied and was accepted into a Masters of Theology at The New Seminary in New York, USA. The Masters was also an ordination program: I would be an interfaith minister. “Interfaith” essentially means “spiritual but not religious”. There is no interfaith church or religion. The Seminary enrols about ten to fifteen people per year from all over the world, who gather around a shared question, a concentrated longing: how to be of spiritual service in a secular world.
I still did not feel that life was fundamentally hopeful. I simply wanted to it to be less painful for people like me, who ached for meaning but could not find it in religion.
Perhaps insight was a result of extended periods of contemplation, reading and reflection required by the Masters. Perhaps it was simply the passage of time after Allison’s funeral, allowing me to heal from years of unresolved grief.
In 2017 I was curled up in an armchair with my notebook and the Tao Te Ching, the sacred text of Taoism written by the legendary Chinese mystic Lao Tzu. I was preparing a class assignment which involved reflecting on passages from the text. I read:
There is the globe,
The foundation of my bodily existence.
It wears me out with work and duties,
It gives me rest in old age,
It gives me peace in death.
For the one who supplied me with what I needed in life
Will also give me what I need in death.
For twenty years I had judged it unreasonable to believe that the universe had any moral orientation. But now, in this moment, reading this passage, it struck me that my logic was incomplete. If we have everything we need to live despite the statistical improbability of life, I now supposed, then perhaps it is a reasonable assumption that the universe is benevolent.
Benevolent comes from the Latin: bene (well) and velle (to wish). I did not suddenly believe that the universe is intrinsically “good”. But I began to allow for the possibility that the universe may be predisposed to wish me, and all of us, well. I admitted the possibility that kindness may underpin life rather than a cosmic act of trickery. African American mystic Howard Thurman wrote of the possibility that benevolence underpins the universe:
There is something present in the spirit of man that knows that the dualism, however apparently binding, runs out, exhausts itself, and leaves a core of assurance that the ultimate destiny of man is good. This becomes the raw material of all hope.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel described the choice of hope this way:
We have entered not only the dark night of the soul, but also the dark night of society. We must seek out ways of preserving the strong and deep truth of a living God theology in the midst of the blackout. For the darkness is neither final nor complete. Our power is first in waiting for the end of the darkness, for the defeat of evil; and our power is also in coming upon single sparks and occasional rays, upon moments full of God’s grace and radiance. We are called to…defy absurdity and despair, and to wait for God to say again: Let there be light. And there will be light.
I put it like this:
Take comfort. Know that you are beloved.
Surrendering to hope
Relief is the fundamental sensation which accompanies the first acceptance of hope. To surrender; to lay down your burdens and rest, giving up control, the need for certainty. The masks we wear in everyday life are props for convincing ourselves and others that we know what we are doing. When we rest in hope, we give up our masks; we exhale the strain of holding it all together; we allow ourselves to spread out. We let our bellies take up all the space they need. Something remarkable happens when we soften our bellies. It becomes easier to stand up straight and thus look each other in the eye. Corners of mouths turn naturally upwards when bellies are soft.
Softening the belly is a revolutionary act in our era of masking our true bodies and, ergo, our true selves. When you let your belly expand to its natural proportions, you take up your space in the world. You step into your fullness, literally and spiritually. You feel yourself breathe and being breathed. It is a magical, liberating moment when you feel your rightness as you are.
If we allow ourselves to hope that life can be meaningful without God, then we step into the possibility of mystery. Faith is not a stance; it is an attitude of hopefulness in the face of unmediated reality. Faith is a way of approaching life with wonder, respect and openness to mystery. If I approach life with an attitude of faith, I trust that there is meaning to my existence; that there is purpose and value to my existence.
I have always been a black and white thinker: I studied law at university for three years and was so alarmingly good at it, with its rules and formulae, that I quit. I did not want to spend my life seeing people as pieces in a legalistic puzzle, rather than as humans to be encountered and seen. I admit that I have a fondness for spreadsheets and statistics, but nowadays I seek to open my mind to mystery: the possibility of different ways of ‘knowing’; and even that there may be ways of being which have nothing to do with knowing.
Psychologists Jospeh Luft and Harrington Ingham developed the four quadrants of knowability: the known known, the unknown known, the known unknown and the unknown unknown. Mystery resides in the unknown unknown – our Newtonian logic tells us that if we can know some things, then there must also be some things we cannot know. Perhaps the universe is an ever-multiplying question, rather than an answer waiting to be found. Perhaps trying to understand how the world works is not the best use of our energies. Simply living, being and doing might be more useful. There might be questions we are asking with our bodies and our souls and which we are getting answers to all of the time, but it is not always about the answer. Sometimes it is about being awake. When students asked him about what happens to souls after death, Gautama Buddha is reported to have answered,
… it is not on the view that the world is eternal, that it is finite, that body and soul are distinct, or that the Buddha exists after death, that a religious life depends. Whether these views or their opposites are held, there is still rebirth, there is old age, there is death, and grief, lamentation, suffering, sorrow, and despair…I have not spoken to these views because they do not conduce to absence of passion, or to tranquility and nirvana. And what have I explained? Suffering have I explained, the cause of suffering, the destruction of suffering, and the path that leads to the destruction of suffering have I explained. For this is useful.
Sociologist Robert Bellah wrote that “one of the first things to be noticed about the world of daily life is that nobody can stand to live in it all the time.” Humans stay sane by flowing in and out of mystery. We operate dually in what psychologist Abraham Maslow described as “D-cognition” and “B-cognition”. D-cognition is a deficit cognition: a mode of being in the world which is about survival and scarcity, in which we don our social masks and get to work with the serious business of life. B-cognition is being cognition: a state of being which is outside of clock time, in which all is connected and the awareness of this is central, without being possessive or insistent. This mode of being is what Jesuit priest and philosopher Richard Rohr would call deep time, and which First Nations Australians might recognise as The Dreaming, or which Kabbalists might describe as humans raising the sparks of consciousness as we co-create the unfolding universe. It is the playful, generative space in which people give-and-receive without debt or loss; in which gratitude is expressed not through repayment but through celebration and co-creation.
To be beloved is to have a home
I have moved 17 times in the last 20 years. Each time I felt unmoored, as if I might capsize in an overwhelming tide of un-belonging. A similarly nomadic friend showed me a tiny pencil drawing she had made of a house. She kept the scrap of paper inside her wallet so that she always carried her home with her wherever she went. At a farewell for a housemate planning to move overseas for a big promotion, my housemate confessed in a quiet moment that he would like, more than anything else, for all of his friends to simply move back home.
A feeling of homelessness is the remembrance that we are ultimately separate from each other and the earth we walk on. Our longing for deep and abiding connection can only ever be fleetingly and partially satisfied. We can never be fully absorbed into our surrounds until we die and our bodies rot into the hubris.
We can follow this knowledge into despair or awareness. We can understand that the earth is scorched, that the heavens have been breached, that the heart is always broken. But we can also acknowledge mystery and the possibility that the universe is benevolent. We do not pretend that life is anything other than what it is: uncertain, unfair, unsafe. At the same time we see what life may be: possible, real, meaningful.
If we live as though we are beloved, then we live arms wide open, ready to embrace the world. Being beloved cannot be an individual experience because love, by its nature, must be infinite. Even if we are jealous with our love, love itself is not constrained by anything we can put in its way. Being beloved involves an openness to others. Love is the logical consequence of hope.
To love is to be kind
Love is kindness. Without kindness, love is just an expression of ego, a bird fluttering inside the cage of your breast. To love is to be kind. If you are not kind to someone you profess to love, then you do not love them. You are using them as a prop in your own desperation to be seen.
Love is something we do, not something we feel. What we feel is affection, fondness, attachment. When we get up in the night to tend to a crying baby, we feel grumpy, tired, irritated; we do not feel loving; yet this is when love is alive and crackling with the energy of enactment.
Love is first and foremost a verb. I become frustrated when I hear the word love used to describe how someone feels about another. Love is not the sensation of attachment; attachment is the sensation of attachment. Love is a commitment to behave well towards someone, no matter what. About two months after I gave birth to my daughter Ellie, I wrote this:
I do not love my baby. I feel a deep, physical anxiety if she is not in physical contact with me, reflected in my blood pressure which only returns to normal when she is pressed to my skin.
Love hasn’t gushed through me like a flood of positive emotion. Maybe, because I had an emergency C-section, I didn’t get the love hormones, so I feel the actual full horror of giving birth to a human being and having the responsibility for her life on a minute-to-minute basis. Maybe I have to recover from the shock of having a baby before I can feel anything other than desperate.
Maybe this is just how it works for some women. Maybe love is a journey. Maybe love is the fact that when she cries, I will answer.
Love is not a sensation but a promise and then delivering on that promise every day. If a man hits his wife and later apologises, saying that he loves her, he is lying. Love is enacted kindness.
Love is a decision to care. When you love, you take on the responsibility of caring about what happens to other people. We expend so much energy avoiding that responsibility. I avert my eyes from beggars at the train station; I do not watch the nightly news. I flee from the sensation of existential helplessness, because I do not know the answer to the question, What can I do about all the world’s misery?
We do not always do our best for other people, but when we love, we commit to trying. We acknowledge our limitations. We enter a space of productive discomfort, in which we open ourselves to the accusation of the Other: the refugees, the global south, people impoverished by the systems which allow us to lead lives of relative wealth and safety.
In this space of openness we listen. We do not seek to defend ourselves. We do not make our case. We simply attend. And then we act.
To love is to attend
According to anthropologists, it is not our opposable thumbs or our ability to walk upright which are the critical differentiators of our species from other primates. Humans are the only creatures on earth who can keep in time with each other. If I started clapping, you could pick up the beat and clap in time with me. This simple ability singles out homo sapiens from all other species.
The ability to keep in time is a revolution of shared intention and attention. Humans can work together with a single focus. That focus might be a dance, a song, a drumming. That’s where it begins. When you are at a live music concert, the rhythm section cascades through your bloodstream, shaking you loose of your self and into the primal stream of call and response. You feel a surge of something necessary. You begin to move. Involuntary, automatic toe tapping is something only humans do.
Paying attention involves drawing one’s breath and stopping still. We connect with what Jungian James Hillman called the ensouled world. Attention does not pass from me to the thing I am paying attention to; attention opens a space in which, as mystic phenomenologist Martin Buber wrote, “I and It” become “I and Thou”. Mystic Simone Weil wrote that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love”.
To love is to act
The ability to keep in time has allowed humans to build the gardens of Babylon, to wage nuclear war, to rid the world of smallpox. We are capable of so much horror, and so much delight. I am often overwhelmed by the magnitude of human suffering. What can I do about the mass extinction of species caused by our destruction of nature? What can I do?
Choosing hope is opening ourselves up to responsibility. Upanishads scholar Eknath Easwaran observes, “When we encounter this daring vision of reality, we want to know what to do.”
We have choices. We are not helpless. We make donations, ethical investments, change our buying habits. We protest. We do not give in. We live as if there is hope.
At the same time, we do not live lives of impoverished earnestness. We do not allow our horror at what we have been complicit in push us into a state of self-righteous judgment or dogmatic austerity. To accept responsibility is not to deny ourselves the opportunity for joy. We can be ethical without being stingy with delight. But it is not delight born from consumption; it is the joy of transgression and reclamation. We engage in what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls “acts of resistance” to the consumerist, materialist, soul-destroying substitutes for longing. We paste poetry on bus shelters; we plant community gardens in abandoned lots. We read books for joy rather than edification; we dance to the muzak of the shopping mall. We engage in unproductive delight. We acknowledge our helplessness and we continue with our acts of revolt regardless.
We do not avoid the creative tension between what who we are and who we want to be, the lives we live and the lives we want to live, the love we feel and the love we enact. According to Celtic poet John O’Donohue, a profoundly human creativity emerges in the clash between longing and belonging. We step into the arena; we allow ourselves to be smashed to pieces between our homelessness and our yearning for home. Sparks fly. A new energy emerges. The joyous excess and the grieving depths – we are carved out, wrung dry, taken home and spat back out like Odysseus, compelled to wander even when the Trojan war is over.
The eternal return is the state of being human. It is vital and miraculous and necessary to the essential nature of creation and creativity. The authors of the sacred Vedantic text, the Chandogya Upanishad, put it like this:
Speech and breath, Sama and Rig, are couples, and in the imperishable O M they come together to fulfil each other’s desire. For those who, knowing this, meditate on the imperishable O M, all desires are fulfilled. With the word O M we say, “I agree,” and fulfil desires.
Our creativity informs the fabric of the universe we live in. This is the root of our ethical responsibility to create kindly. Which is what it means to love.
To love is to live ethically and hopefully. Love is enacted kindness.
When we love, attention is not a scarce resource to be vied for, but a shared, respectful attitude towards reality and each other. We come into being only ever in relation to each other. French philosopher Jean Luc-Marion describes love as a “constant enactment” which is never complete, through which we are “made and remade”.
Love is characterised by generosity.
[T]he lovers would then experience themselves both as self and as other: neither would give up transcendence, neither would be mutilated; together they would manifest values and aims in the world. For the one and the other, love would be revelation of self by the gift of self and enrichment of the world.
There are lesser forms of attachment: romantic “love”, which is an infantile sense of devotion and demand, in which you exist for the other, or assume that they exist for you. There is narcissistic “love,” in which you care for a child for show, or as an extension of yourself, but there is not much fuel in that. You’ll wear yourself out in no time. That kind of love is exhausting.
We enact love, we take loving action, we love.
The problem with religion is grammar
The fundamental problem with almost all religions is that they treat spirituality as a noun. That’s right, you heard it hear first: the problem with religion is grammar. Love, faith and hope are treated as states which we can either spontaneously enter into via affect, or we can “achieve”. But love and hope are actually doing words. You don’t “feel” love. What you feel is attachment, fondness, affection. You enact love: you go to the shops alone for the first time since you gave birth, and you don’t listen to the voice which whispers, Just keep walking. You return: you always choose to return. Hope is when you live as if you can make a difference; as if change is possible. Hope and love are practices. According to the Kabbalists, a group of Jewish mystics, even the word “God” is a verb, an eternal unfolding: “god-ing” is the constant creation process which humans participate in. Kabbalists believe that we co-create the universe.
Jesuit priest Richard Rohr writes that “true religion is always a deep intuition that we are already participatingin something very good.” Faith is not a stance; it is an attitude of hopefulness in the face of unmediated reality. Faith is a decision to approach life with wonder and openness to mystery. Faith, like hope, is living as though life might be meaningful. Faith is a practice: it is no good to believe that mystery is possible, and that life might be meaningful, if we do not live as though it is.
My brothers [and sisters], what good is it for someone to say that she has faith if her actions do not prove it?…as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without actions is dead.’
Hope: Living As Though Life Matters
A Guide to Living a Spiritual and Meaningful Life Without Religion or God
I am writing a book for anyone who, like me, feels like something is missing. It will be a practical guide on how to live with this sensation; on how to choose and enact a life of hope without God.
In the book, I will set out how we can develop a spiritual way of being in the world which is co-created rather than imposed; which is a generative, liberating and creative experience rather than one of stagnation and constraint. I will explore practices which can help us live hopefully, co-creating meaningfulness and joyousness in an intimate relation with ourselves and our world. These include practices of personal prayer, reflection and meditation, as well as communal acts of poetry which support us in our never-ending quest to come home to our own longing.
My hope is that this book will encourage you to experiment with reclaiming spirituality, and help you to find a way, in your own life and community, to live a life of hope without God.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
– Raymond Carver
 J. O’Donohue (1997) Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, New York: HarperCollins, xvi.
 Gay’wu Group of Women (2019) Songspirals: Sharing Women’s Wisdom of Country Through Songlines, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
 D. Cooper (1997) God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism, New York: Riverhead Books.
 H. Thurman (1975) Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death, Richmond, In.: Friends United Press, 60.
 J. Merkle (1985) The Genesis of Faith: The Depth Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel, New York: Macmillan, 217.
 I. Emiliano (2015). Heuristic Reasoning: Studies in Applied Philosophy, Epistemology and Rational Ethics. Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 1-2.
 R. Bellah (2011) Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, Cambridge, Mass.” Belknap Press, 3.
 Bellah (2011), Religion in Human Evolution, 5.
 R. Rohr (2012) Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, SPCK: London.
 Gay’wu Group of Women (2019) Songspirals: Sharing Women’s Wisdom of Country Through Songlines, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
 S. Brown & L. Parsons (2008) “The neuroscience of dance,” Scientific American 299(1).
 J. Hillman (1983) Interviews, New York: Harper and Row, 55.
 M. Buber (2010) I and Thou, trans. by R. Smith, Mansfield Centre: Martino Publishing.
 S. Weil (1987) Gravity and Grace, London: ARK Paperbacks, 105.
 E. Easwaran (2007) The Upanishads, trans. by E. Easwaran, New York: The Blue Mountain Centre for Meditation, 97.
 S. de Beauvoir (1984): 679.
 R. Rohr (2012) Falling Upwards, x.
 The Gospel According to James 2:14-26 as cited in H. Taussig (ed) (2013) A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing.
 R. Carver (1989) “Late Fragment,” A New Path to the Waterfall, Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press.