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Tell me all your thoughts on YHWH
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Sunday school on a Thursday? Why not. Strap in, we’re going deep.
I have a lot of complicated thoughts about religion, as I’m sure most people do. I grew up a mishmash of different faiths with an understanding that they are all equally silly or holy depending on how you look at them, each with their own inherited issues and epiphanies.
I was baptized first in a Unitarian Church, the Christians who saw Jesus as divinely inspired, but not a true son of God. Basically, Jesus of Nazareth was a good dude, told people to care about one another, and flipped some tables at the Temple in protest. Unitarians are an umbrella term (like Protestant) that in practice can encapsulate a wide variety of independent Christian belief, so like all things you wind up with some pretty kooky Unitarians who believe in restoring primitive Christianity to America, while others are super chill about things like “Original Sin” being a sham guilt device to make money.
My time as a Unitarian was short lived and I frankly don’t remember any of it, and was soon re-baptized in the Episcopal Church, the closest thing I have to a “home” religion. The Episcopalians are pretty chill as far as organized religion goes, Robin Williams once referred to them as “Catholic Lite.” Same Christian taste, none of the Pope. As a New England flavor of Anglicanism, Episcopalians are famously New England liberal…they’ve allowed priests to marry since the 17th century, they allowed female priests to preach in 1974, and they accepted LGBTQ+ priests in 1977. Despite seeing value in life from the moment of inception (curiously not conception), they’ve affirmed a woman’s right to choose an abortion since the 1990’s.
As far as Christianity goes, this feels about as close to right to me as any flawed religion can be, but that’s just me.
My time with the Episcopalians was also cut short however, when I took a spin with the Catholics from Kindergarten to 2nd Grade. The Catholic elementary school was considered “superior” to public education in my town, however the only supremacy I experienced in those years was how the baptized Catholic kids, teachers, priests, nuns, and parents looked down on those of us who found religious affiliation elsewhere. While my classmates got to go practice their communions and penances, I had to sit in the back of the church and do additional book reports with the other heathens. When recess came about, I found myself explaining the history of the Christian Reformation to wholly uninterested 7 year olds who were quick to label me “Jewish” at best, and “going to hell” at worst.
While this was momentarily alarming for a sensitive kid like myself, it taught me at a young age that all of these religious zealots who believe their version of baby dunking is the only proper way to douse a baby are absolutely idiotic, and religion was cemented in my mind as a patriarchal system designed to oppress and pity “the other” for no good reason at all. “Idiots made to feel superior” was my primary takeaway with the Catholics. I left for public school after 3 years, and my childhood forehead baths were never questioned by another teacher or student again.
My parents also had the good sense to give me some agency in my own religious upbringing, so when I deduced at 10 years old “if God is everywhere, then why do we need to go to church every week?” they were pretty chill with my teenage movement into agnosticism. Around the same time, my mother was first tapping into her mother’s forgotten Jewish roots, a lineage we heard little about during the Christmas Feast of Seven Fishes from my Jewish grandmother (who—gleefully eschewing her own strict kosher upbringing—specialized in both shrimp fra diavolo and kugel).
What began as an excuse to make latkes and read prayers we only knew from Bar Mitzvahs evolved into a kind of quiet Jewish reverence, a faith that I’m not practiced in but fully aware of. Judaism claims that spirituality passes through the matron’s line (score one for the matriarchy, bringing the score to 5782-1), so if your mother’s mother was Jewish like mine, then any Hasid on the street will recognize you as one of the Chosen People. Exclusionary and supremacist as it gets, but if you’ve spent as much time in media as I have, you too would find value in saying “my mother’s Jewish” in a room of advertising and entertainment executives.
This isn’t meant to come off as anti-semitic, the “Jews run the media” thing is tired and not even remotely true. But the Jewish faith revolves entirely around and persists entirely because of our topnotch ability to tell stories, so it’s no wonder we’re drawn to fields that value and monetize expert storytelling. In fact, stories are the backbone of any religion and society, they instruct our laws, they mold our morals, they shape our rituals and our rites. Stories are all that separate us from everything else and connect us to everyone else.
By burying esoteric symbolism and stories in religious ritual, we pull the past into the present in perhaps the most primitive form of experiential marketing. “Drink this, it’s His blood.” “Light these candles, remember when our people ran out of candles?” “Don’t eat bread this week, our ancestors had to eat this shit in the desert.” Unless you’re Catholic and actually believe in transubstantiation from bread to body (idiots, I told you), we mostly understand these symbols to be just that: symbolic gestures.
And when we boil down any religion, that’s what we’re left with. Stories, symbols that represent those stories, and the people who tried to tell those stories through symbolism. Crosses, sigils, hexagrams, pentagrams, saints, sinners, and every word of the Bible, Torah, Quran, and Vedas; they’re just confused people like us trying to communicate a state of enlightenment in the eyes of a higher power, through the imperfect lens of an unreliable narrator (ancient, scared humans) and warbled across millennia of pre-and-post-historic oral & written tradition. Without people trying to make sense of their own chaotic reality, we don’t get religion.
Consider, for a moment, a paraphrased story I’m taking from Reza Aslan’s God: A Human History. It’s 15,000 years ago. Humans have spoken language, but aren’t writing much yet. People are generally living in nomadic groups. EVERYTHING is terrifying. The sun goes down with no guarantee it’ll return the next day. A roar of thunder is the violent vocalization of the sky. Animals possess just as much cunning and viciousness as humans, if not moreso. Elements like fire and water and earth and air are unpredictable forces that are both life-giving and difficult to tame.
So imagine there's a young woman sent into the woods to find lunch. Nuts, berries, grasses…think Erewhon without the upcharge. There was a drought so the usual spots are running low on forageable food, and the woman hasn’t eaten much for days. She’s beginning to hallucinate from the hunger and gets lost, despite growing up in these woods she doesn’t know where she is and the sun is going down. She is experiencing a prehistoric panic attack, because even early humans knew you did not want to spend a night alone in the woods. Most people don’t come back.
It’s now absolutely dark, with a sliver of moon giving the forest the faintest tinged glow. Each howl and hoot could mean she becomes dinner for something else tonight, so she fumbles through the darkness and finds a large, hollow tree knot. She curls into a ball and eventually falls asleep in the darkness, feet off the ground and safely cocooned in the tree’s trunk.
The next day, the girl wakes up to the most astonishing sight. Stepping out of the tree, she looks down and sees an enormous field of wild strawberries creeping across the ground. She gathers as much as she can, and with the sun up she’s able to make sense of which direction to walk (towards the rising sun to exit the woods, she was often instructed). Before she leaves, she looks back at the tree and recognizes the knot she slept in looks incredibly like a gaping mouth. Furthermore, the branches look like arms, and the other knots even look like two sad, wilting eyes.
It’s probably just the hunger and the elation making her see things, but in that moment the young woman feels a personal, spiritual connection with the sad tree that gave her shelter and food when she feared the worst. When she sees a face shape—something that all animals are capable of recognizing to some degree—she immediately starts projecting her own experience on the tree as if it were another person (our capacity for empathy is a feature as much as it’s a bug). The story she tells when she returns to her tribe is that she was lost and feared death, but the “Sad Faced Tree” provided her protection.
And with that, our first higher power was born.
The tree that offered shelter and strawberries could have been any other tree in those woods, but a tree with a face made her unbelievable salvation human-like. The elders of the tribe may go make offerings of gratitude. A feast may develop out of those offerings which turns it into a holiday. The Tree is given a sacred name, and with a name comes a whole host of other human projections around worldly needs and wants.
We were mostly taught that God made us in His image, but the reality is that we almost certainly made Him out of our own.
The earliest Egyptians carried this tradition with half animal Gods like Thoth or Horus (but they were not alone in giving animalism a go). The Greeks eventually introduced narrative structure around polytheism, as did the early Hindus and Shintoists.
The Iroquois have a creator God, called Hahgwehdiyu, who is the bringer of light and creator of earth. We have Mother Earth established, so rightly we must have Father: Sun. Isis and Osiris. Eve and Adam…who—while we’re setting the record straight—got in trouble for eating from a KNOWLEDGE tree, that’s what got them kicked out of their dumb, ignorant paradise. Lucifer, translated from Latin (lux-fer) “light bringer.” Light = Knowledge. See also: Prometheus<>Fire<>Hell<>Satan.
And in a world where the sun rising from darkness every day is as wondrous a concept to grok as finding a tree with a face or watching a plot of early agriculture resprout in the Spring, our near eastern and western religious stories fixated on all powerful, generally male Gods that die and resurrect. It’s one of those collective unconscious things…everyone understands a version of it. Even Star Wars goes there.
All this to say: Nietzsche was right, sorta. God is now long dead. Our understanding of the universe has grown considerably since we worshipped the rising of the sungod, and the western version of religion fixated far too much on the patriarchal order of a world where the bringer of light, thunder, war, and death is modeled after man’s most primal, destructive flaws. With the amount of blood that’s been spilled in their names, Jesus, Allah, and the whole pantheon of patriarchal Gods certainly brought the fire to earth.
I say sorta only because that boomy man God voice is not dead for everyone, in fact it’s quite active among a large swath of the modern world and its God fearing leaders. And because the word of God is theirs alone to decode, the less fanatical often find ourselves living under someone else’s batty idea of scripture-turned-law of God.
Not I, though. Blame Westworld if you must, but the bicameral mind theory (is the voice inside your head you, or is it communication from a higher power) really made me question the “who” of who I pray to. So I guess God is dead, for me. At least the previous form of God I learned about in Sunday School.
In his place, I’m left with nothing…and everything.
The Unitarians got one thing right…a higher power is everywhere if you choose to see it. It’s nothing we understand and everything we don’t. It’s the serendipitous song playing on the radio, the text from the friend you were just thinking about but never speak to, the elevator opening before you hit the button, or perhaps even the perfect storm of freak traffic that prevents you from making it to a party you didn’t really want to go to. Leaves falling off trees, that’s god. Fresh cup of coffee with the perfect mix of milk and sugar? God. The sting of rejection? God. The elation of acceptance? God.
The fault is not in our stars, the stars are in us. Even Carl Sagan got it, sorta:
And so we reach my point: God belongs to you. Or me. Seldom us, never we. How you choose to acknowledge, resent, praise, or ignore your individual concept of a higher power in your own liveable universe is entirely up to you now. God is dead, long live God. You do yours, let me do mine.
Except..a word of wisdom before I go, take it or leave it as you will. In the absence of spiritual connection with something, there are a whole bunch of anythings that can fit in that gaping hole, tempting but damning as they may be. I’ve fallen victim to most of them at one point or another, as have a huge portion of the similarly Godless young Americans who continue seeking a connection to some (any) sense of (dis)order in this grand chaos.
Money works really well until it doesn’t, and our worship of it in America has led us to ruin (as it always has and always will). False idols like celebrities or influencers are also always going to be a disappointment to our pre-baked hero archetypes, Trumpism and Qanon are just the latest to fall into this camp.
The “New Age" capitalism machine is rife with snake oil and self improvement systems that promise enlightenment but only offer entrapment in another person’s profitable scheme. Dangerous mind altering devices like drugs and alcohol can paradoxically and simultaneously bring you closer and farther from a personal understanding of the infinite universe and your individual place within it, avoid and partake at your own peril. The same is true of the ecstasy of sex; you can find yourself illuminated or dissociated depending on the who and the how.
Finding God in Love & Unity is more on the right track, but we often confuse our disdain for ourselves with love for another, inadvertently placing the weight of the universe in our partners’ eyes. Love is not a thing that is given to or taken from another person, like God it either exists in you or it does not. Love is not sex, but sex can be love. You can share love with another person (or people, go crazy with it if you want..successful musicians, actors, writers and creatives often express their love through craft to countless millions) or you can keep it all to yourself and the select few you choose to share yourself with. But you can never take or have another's love as a replacement for your own; it fills the spiritual need about as well as money.
Instead: Meditate. Get to learn and love and know yourself. Develop your own understanding of this spin through reality. Turn hobbies into careers, tell stories that inspire you to people that inspire you, and build relationships you truly love in this world. There are no wrong answers here, any voice in your head or on your TikTok telling you otherwise is—in fact—someone else’s narrative blurring out your own understood, everloving truth.
Whether that’s a pastor or a parent or a partner or a pal, allowing another person’s internal monologue to live rent free in your head is just accepting someone else’s ignorant, probably patriarchal concept of paradise lost.
Reject it. Tell it to shut up. Do activities that bring you joy instead. Your love is always enough, anyone who tells you otherwise does not love themselves the way they think they might.
Eat the apple, peel the pear. Just get the hell out of there. Or you could not, I don’t care. Just find your own version of “aware.” Veritas est lux
Until next time!