A Stranger in the Garden

We are pleased to feature this guest post from Mark David Dietz. Mark has been a company commander in the US Army’s 101st Airborne, a corporate training manager and management consultant, a teacher of ethics at the University of Texas at Austin, and he is now the Vice President of research and development at a small company. He is the author of An Awkward Echo: Matthew Arnold and John Dewey (IAP, 2010).

by Mark David Dietz

by Mark David Dietz

‘Twere well could you permit the world to live
As the world pleases: what’s the world to you?
Much. I was born of woman, and drew milk
As sweet as charity from human breasts.
I think, articulate, I laugh and weep,
And exercise all functions of a man.
How then should I and any man that lives
Be strangers to each other?
– William Cowper, The Task, Book III, The Garden (1785)

I am nominally an atheist. That alone should preclude me from religious apologetics, and yet religion is dear to my heart. It is a garden richly sown, flowered with the gifts of nature and artifice, arbored by stout-grown trees of tradition and reason, lawned with the turf of the daily domestic struggle, and watered with the tears of human desire. It is, though rather should not be, a walled garden of paternalism and security; the walls keep at bay the strife of anarchy, but they are old, mossy, crumbling, walls, and they exclude too much of life and nature. I would I were not a stranger in this garden. And yet and still – I am nominally an atheist.

I suppose I should begin with an explanation of what I mean by “nominally an atheist.” Nominal, of course, in this case, should mean “in name only,” but for me it means something more along the lines of within the bare limits of the etymology of the word. John Dewey put it better, “if atheism means simply not being a theist, then of course I’m an atheist. But the popular if not the etymological significance of the word is much wider.” I suspect that by much wider he meant the cultural dressings of atheism – in other words, the different ways that atheists appear to us in society – everything from angry anarchists to intellectual know-it-alls. The stereotypes are hardly pleasant, and celebrity atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, along with organizations like the American Humanist Association, hardly make atheism very appealing to those of us who are not crusading against religion.

I once wrote a rather gnomic comment on my Facebook page:

The more I doubt the material existence of God, the more religious I become.

As eccentric as that sounds, it really sums up nicely where I am just now in my journey through religion. The problem I face is that I know of no term to describe my beliefs. Christianity has a real pull for me – I grew up with it – I still see it woven into the fabric of the society in which I live. I have a strong distaste for fundamentalism and the more prepossessing forms of evangelism. But I love going to church from time to time, singing hymns, reading the Bible, and I do pray – not to someone or something – I am not a Deist – but simply because I have things I need to say.

I also do not count myself an agnostic. As far as material knowledge goes, I suspect strongly that there is no material or personal God. If I have a belief in God at all, it is more along the lines of what Matthew Arnold described as “that something not ourselves that makes for righteousness.” For me I see that something as a product of community, although I do not make a direct equation between community and God. The “something not ourselves” is not material, but at the same time it does not have the same turn toward the mystical and evanescent that our lust for divinity has often followed. It is not culture either, nor popular opinion – you cannot read this God in the polls or the voting box. It is something more along the line of this: God is culture when culture soberly, but not without good humor and strong fellow-feeling, appraises itself against a standard set midway between the ideals of dogma and social perfection, and the reality and humanity of life as it is lived. It is mercurial in many ways, and we can only ever know it imperfectly – a truth shared with almost all conceptions of God. (I want to be clear: I offer this only as my belief – I ask no one else to take it up. And by itself, it is not a religion. I only wish that it may have its place amongst an important body of beliefs.)

Of such a God as I have described above, the question “does God exist?” is meaningless, while the question of the nature of God is rich and powerful. And so I tend to ask, is this question – this question of the existence of God – really so important? From the atheist side it can only be important if you are still in doubt, or if you have had an epiphany of the No-God sort that you feel you must evangelize. From the belief side, if you feel no doubts, the question can only be important to the extent that you feel that God’s existence is under attack. You then run around the web trolling for statements of non-belief, just the way the rabid atheist trolls for statements of faith. And, let’s be honest, for most of us, theist and atheist alike, both types of trolls tend toward a foolish boorishness.

Atheists tend to reduce the term “belief” to a single meaning – belief is belief that God exists in some form subject to empirical verification. For this reason, some atheists have even gone so far as to say that they themselves do not possess any beliefs, that atheism is not a statement of belief, because what is stated as a negative cannot be stated as a belief, that science does not contain any beliefs, that, in sum, the word belief is so wholly attached to the idea of God, that outside of religion it has no existence at all. I would find such naïveté almost charming, were it not so obviously the product of a sadly incomplete education. If such atheists were to allow any truck with beliefs, I suppose we would find them in their doubts and skepticism, but we ought to remember that they did not invent dubiety: even the Bible has its share of questionings and doubts. But the doubts that more often surface in the Bible concerned God’s intentions toward humanity, and toward the individual sinner, and these doubts seldom take the more ontological turn of questioning a fundamental belief in God’s existence. When the whirlwind declared to Job, “Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? he that reproveth God, let him answer it” (Job 40:2), Job does not stop to ask, “But do you exist?” When Isaiah asks why God has hidden his face away, he is not doubting God’s existence, but reporting the iniquities of his fellow sinners and begging for forgiveness.

But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities. (Isaiah 64: 6-7)

The willingness of the ancient Hebrews not merely to express their concerns about God, but to see them as worthy of debate and commentary is, to my mind, what has made this tradition so powerful. Religions excite me when they are this richly verbal. The Greek love of debate was important, rational, and beautiful – and it originates in their religion (significantly so in Homer) and is continued in their philosophy, which never imagines rationality as a replacement for religious belief; India’s Bhagavad Gita is as fine a dialogue as anything in any religion and worthy to be put up against Plato’s dialogues; Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was a precursor to Socrates, wandering the plains of India trying to find someone who could tell him how to reach nirvana, but finding only one-trick ponies; Confucius was a wise-cracking old man who in between orchestrating rituals for the rulers of the state, would sit with his student-followers and engage them in the intimacy of good dialogue.

But debate, and dialogue – these are not enough; alone they do not make for much in the way of religion. For me, religion is not religion if it is not communal. I can understand, although I am not always impressed by, philosophies concocted, written, and believed through the agency of a single, sole, hermetic individual. But a religion of one person is not a religion. We can try all we want, but without a community we have no religion. This is the primary reason I cannot call myself an atheist. Atheism today has often attached itself to a kind of anti-communalism, a sense that being a member of a community deprives one of one’s individuality. And to give up community seems to me to be giving up humanity. Humanism, as I see it, should have no traffic with atheism – it may have atheist followers, but a true humanism is devoted to what it means to be human and that means coming to terms with the necessary balance of community and individuality – and disbelief in God tells us nothing about how one sees this balance and to too great a degree suggests a dismissal of the community of God, the community which is God, the unity for which God is our most precious symbol. When Nietzsche declared God dead, he killed the community.

To me the core neurosis of the American psyche today is its oddly-turned notions of individualism. We hold individualism as sacred. Indeed, the one sacred object in our atheism is the individual and the individual’s rights. When I was growing up in the 70s, one could tell the difference between a conservative and a liberal, because the liberal would tell you how your rights were being taken away from you by “the man” – the government – while the conservative would tell you that rights are a fine thing, but that there are no rights without responsibilities. Religion is where our rights and responsibilities converge. Religion is how we balance the rights of the individual with the needs of the community. That is what religion has always done. And that is why the dialogue in religion is so important. The dialogue of religion brings forward the individual voice, but raises the questions of righteousness, authority, practices, relationships, history, genealogy, and the whole wealth of morality and ethicality. Indeed, traditionally we learn how to be human from our religions, in a way modern humanists seem at pains not to understand.

Today we are inclined to see a tension between religious authority and the needs of the individual members of a religion. But that tension is necessary – it is that tension that necessitated religion in the first place. I engaged in a small debate over Galileo Galilei on this site a few weeks ago. One individual in this debate was concerned about those who would challenge religious authority. And I think he was right to be concerned. But there are two sides to that concern. If the challenge to authority is as intemperate as modern atheism makes it, there is no debate, only name-calling. But if there is no challenge, no tension, then there is no reason for religion to exist. And even those who believe do not really turn their faces to God. And, as Isaiah told us, it is as if God has hidden his face away.

Religion is our first institution; it is the model upon which all other institutions were formed: government, the family, the community, schools, work places, even our newly sacred places like internet social media. When Paleolithic humans first began to speak and create for themselves a culture, that culture was religion. Nothing in a Paleolithic human tribe (with the capability of symbolic language) existed outside of religion; all that was done, all the was said, all joking and gossiping, all play and work – all of these things were religion. As times went by, and large urban societies came into existence, populations were no longer as homogenous – religion transformed the state, and was, in turn, transformed into the state. And it left the individual voices behind. This is why Christianity fared so well. It provided a voice for all, and a place to reinvent the necessary balance between the individual and the community. But it began in a world that was already complex and that has only grown more complex since.

Religion today, to employ another metaphor, is like a ship floating on the sea of culture. Once religion was the very sea itself. Now it must share the world with many other institutions. The sea has grown monstrously turbulent with little promise of surcease. And some within religion would dream of tossing the dialogues overboard in favor of dogma, thinking dogma more secure and less likely to cause religion to sink. But dogma is an anchor, and we are not on a sea where an anchor will do us any good. I may not believe in God quite the way you do, or an afterlife, but like you I want to see this ship brought safely into harbor. I want to walk off of it smiling, reassured of its seaworthiness. I want to walk through the markets where they trade in what is good, hear the citizens declaiming their beliefs in the town square and equitably settling their differences. I want to see to the horizon. I want to feel and smell all that we as humans can feel and smell. I want to hear all that is sublime and beautiful in our humanity – in all its messy cacophony.

And I want to walk out to the small beautiful houses on the hillside. And I want to find there that garden that our parents were thrown out of. And when I get there – I do not intend to be a stranger in the garden.

Comments

  1. melodynew says:

    This is remarkable and beautiful. I found several favorite parts as I read, one being this: “But dogma is an anchor, and we are not on a sea where an anchor will do us any good. I may not believe in God quite the way you do, or an afterlife, but like you I want to see this ship brought safely into harbor. I want to walk off of it smiling, reassured of its seaworthiness.”

    Thank you for sharing here. Thank you for being part of this community.

  2. Terrific writing. Beautiful but with purpose.

  3. So glad to have you in our garden, Mark!

  4. Atheism such as yours is a wonderful counterpoint to religious fundamentalism, Mark.

  5. Love this statement: “Religion is where our rights and responsibilities converge. Religion is how we balance the rights of the individual with the needs of the community. That is what religion has always done. And that is why the dialogue in religion is so important. The dialogue of religion brings forward the individual voice, but raises the questions of righteousness, authority, practices, relationships, history, genealogy, and the whole wealth of morality and ethicality. Indeed, traditionally we learn how to be human from our religions, in a way modern humanists seem at pains not to understand.”

    And really appreciated what you had to say about religion, humanism, and the importance of community to our common humanity.

  6. Mark David Dietz says:

    Thanks to everyone for the kind thoughts. I seem to have not captured any contentious spirits, which is a bit of a surprise, but a pleasant surprise. Thank you all for being so welcoming to a stranger.

  7. Mark, contentious spirits come in all shapes and sizes and they espouse all sorts of belief (and unbelief) systems. Likewise, the gentle and contemplative are not found only in the Buddhist monasteries, the Benedictine chapels, the small-town LDS chapels, or the great Anglican cathedrals. Those things are conditions of the heart, and it is that quality in you which makes you a good shipmate, to extend your analogy. Welcome aboard.