Let’s be straight: if anyone asks, I’m an atheist.
Partly it’s my contrary nature. Partly it’s fatigue from the religious right. And partly it’s from having to read sentences like this, from the chapter We Agnostics, in the AA Big Book.
If our testimony helps sweep away prejudice, enables you to think honestly, encourages you to search diligently within yourself, then, if you wish, you can join us on the Broad Highway.
Nothing offensive there, you think? Well, here’s another way to put what the authors are really saying:
If you (the atheist / agnostic) don’t agree with our testimony, you will be mired in prejudice, unable to think honestly, unwilling to search diligently within yourself, and then, since you’re so stubborn, you cannot join us on the Broad Highway.
See why I’m an atheist?
Of course, the truth is a little deeper. Even one of the most famous atheists of our times—Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion—has to admit that being an atheist is philosophically impossible. No one can prove, logically, that God does not exist. What Dawkins can say is that the existence of God cannot be proved logically. Nor can the nonexistence of God…though, according to him, the evidence for God is damn flimsy.
And so I call myself, and probably will always call myself, an atheist. And nothing I read in the chapter We Agnostics changed that. Refuting the text point by point would render nothing, since the one thing I took away from the chapter was that using logic to examine the question of God was like using a thermometer to measure atmospheric pressure.
If words can be used at all for such a business, it’s poetry—not expository prose—that will be of use.
And if not poetry, can I suggest its twin—music? And did you know (as I didn’t, until I looked it up) that the medieval philosopher Boethius believed that there were three types of music? There was the music of the spheres or musica mundana, about which Wikipedia says:
Pythagoras proposed that the Sun, Moon and planets all emit their own unique hum based on their orbital revolution, and that the quality of life on Earth reflects the tenor of celestial sounds which are physically imperceptible to the human ear. Subsequently, Plato described astronomy and music as "twinned" studies of sensual recognition: astronomy for the eyes, music for the ears, and both requiring knowledge of numerical proportions.
Sound crazy? Well, to me the idea that celestial bodies in motion create sound is no more difficult than believing that a cello string in motion creates sound. What I have a hard time believing is that a Jew living two thousand years ago becomes literally his own flesh and blood when I take communion of a Sunday morning.
So I’m willing to give the music of the spheres a pass. There is, after all, the rising and falling of seas and oceans twice daily. We call them tides, but what would Pythagoras or Plato call them?
The second kind of music is called musica humana, which Wikipedia calls “the internal music of the human body.” And indeed, it was this internal music that I contemplated, as I pondered my response to the chapter We Agnostics.
Let’s be charitable—though it goes deeply against my nature—and say that the We Agnostics is dated. The chapter talks a good deal about aviation, which in the late 1930's was still something to be wondered at (literally, wonderful), though today it is wonderless. But to me, no technological innovation or advance has much wonder about it, especially in the long run. True, not many people thought human aviation possible (though there was a guy called Leonardo da Vinci). But there were also people astonished that the human body could survive moving faster than the speed of the fastest horse, a century earlier. And then the train came along.
No, for me the logical counterpart for the music of the spheres was the world of the body. And so I began to contemplate what a writer of this time (2017) might say, if he were asked to write a word or two to agnostics.
Forget aviation—think genetics.
There has been, I discovered, life on earth for some 55 million years. According to Wikipedia, human life evolved one or two million years ago. Each human life has some 20,000 genes—and no one, as far as I know, except for identical twins shares the same genetic expression. There is no one in the world that is exactly identical to you or to me. We all accept that. But the idea that we should ever have existed at all is less appreciated. It is, in fact, as unlikely that you or I exists as it is that God exists. (Full disclosure—I am not a biologist, and Richard Dawkins very much is. And so please, anyone out there, do not send this to him….)
Put another way—I am the result of every genetic roll of the dice that has taken place for 55 million years. And while it takes humans an average of 20 years (perhaps) to roll that dice, less evolved organisms are much faster than we are. Remember those fruit flies we all experimented on in high school?
There is mystery when two people, besotted with love and lust, take to their chambers and draw the bedclothes. And there is equal mystery in the genetic interchange that gives new life.
And the mystery of the body does not stop there. The music of the body, in fact, sings out unstoppably from birth to death. I am sixty, and have given no particular care to my body, other than eating and drinking going to the doctor whenever I had to. But my body, in fact, goes on doing wonders of such a magnitude that we might call them miracles. There is, as I write, a process called micturition going on in my body. And that means that my kidneys have found a way to produce a golden substance—variously called urine or piss—to deposit in my bladder. I accept this miracle as a nuisance, especially at two in the morning, when one cat or other walks over my lower abdomen. A person suffering renal failure does not.
Urine may not be a subject that interests you. Well, what about dendrites? I looked them up, to make sure I wasn’t inventing all of this, and here’s what I found:
A bit further down, the Google search lists an article that starts with the information: the human brain contains one hundred billion neurons. Some of these neurons—thanks, guys!—are telling my kidney to produce urine, and perhaps how dilute or concentrated to make it. But a substantial number of neurons have devoted themselves to getting me to the point where I can write these words. My parents read to me, as a toddler, and that fostered a love of books. My teachers told me that the body was made up of systems: the renal system, the neurological system. Later teachers told me about the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems (or perhaps subsystems) of the nervous system. And somewhere I read that the term “dendrite” was a (pay attention, here) “branching, treelike structure.” Oh, along the way, someone taught me to type sixty words a minute on a typewriter. That, in itself, is a physiological miracle—it wasn’t too long ago that opposable thumbs were a big deal. And then someone invented the laptop, and the program Word, which truly comes in handy, since my fingers do fly at the keyboard! Unfortunately, half of the words have typos, and does anybody remember tearing the paper out of the typewriter, and starting the page afresh?
All that is a miracle, of course, but remember those “treelike” structures with their “branching?” I know a bit about trees, since my mother lived in a forest. I know, I know—it sounds fanciful, something out of a fairy tale, but it was true. And very often I would peer out of the window in the back bedroom, and see the tops of trees swaying in the wind.
Is there any mother that does not cradle and rock her infant? And is that why, among all sights in the world, swaying tree tops—black against a darkening November sky, with the blessing of snow promised—is the most comforting? At any rate, I amused myself, looking out my mother's window, by thinking that much the same thing was happening in my brain. I too had a forest within my cranium. True, infinitely smaller, but who is to say that it isn’t just as complex? One hundred billion dendrites? How large would the forest have to be, to have one hundred billion tree branches?
We used to think, of course, that trees did not communicate with each other. Now, it appears, we believe that trees do, and one of the ways is through those tree branches. But what if they didn’t? I glance at a man sitting twenty feet away from me and peering at his cell phone. His lower arm and his long, tapering fingers remind me of El Greco—how many dendrites, or inner trees were involved in forming that simple thought?
Well, I believe in the music of the internal body as much as I believe in the music of celestial bodies. I can see the trees swaying, and I can feel the joy of thinking, and the two joys seem to me to be…well, one.
The axman comes, of course, and fells some trees. Or perhaps it’s the tornado, the hurricane, the Caterpillar land leveling tractors. In my case, it was a fall that came, and that bared a large portion of the forest of my lower back. There, the dendrites were making the music of getting my feet to walk, and even to dance.
I had fallen in the middle of the night; I had landed with all of my weight on a stone floor (marble, yes, but still stone). I had spent an unknown time lying stunned on the floor, not knowing what had happened to me.
Wrong, I still remember crying out loud, “Oh, I’ve fallen!” Even now, I weep as I write these words. I knew minimally that I would spend months in pain. What I feared, before the pain and the shock swept me into what we call stunned…well, I feared I would never walk again.
It was then that I fell into the arms of “stunned.”
(Where, by the way, is “stunned?” I know how to get to—and mostly how to navigate—“awake.” “Asleep” is a land I occasionally visit. But what is it to be stunned? Is it that one set of neurons is firing so fast that it brings down the system? Or is it another state—like sleep or wakefulness? Will we ever know? And how would we study it, since to stun people is utterly unethical? Though, of course, there is shock therapy….)
And so there I lay, on the floor, and whether I was lying in God’s arms, or in a state of bardo, or somewhere else…well, I cannot tell you. But at some point the pain called me back to the world of the living, a part of which was the world of sickness. For all of a sudden, I had a body! All my life I had been very much like the little M&M creatures, and would have traded place with them in a second. There is no reason, surely, for me to have so much leg and arm! My body, after all, was not devoted to running races or dancing ballet. It was just there to carry my brain to places—jellyfish, it seemed to me, were much better designed. Anyway, that wasn’t the point. I was in pain.
No, I was in agony.
I am a restless sleeper: no position is right for me for long. And for three or six months, it seemed that every time I shifted in bed, the devil would spear my lower back with his pitchfork, which had been heated in the hottest furnaces in hell.
In that time, I could not hear the third and last form of music—remember music?—which is called musica quae in quibusdam constituta est instrumentis, which is just as clumsily rendered into English as “sounds made by singers and instrumentalists.” Though this is the music you and I both know, it was curious that I couldn’t listen to it in all of those months of lying in bed. Nor was it that I didn’t value it, or wish to listen to it. I didn’t, in fact, have the strength for it. If turning in bed exhausted me, what would a Bach fugue do?
If I didn’t turn to music, perhaps music turned to me. Late at night, after the day’s bottle of whisky had been drunk, I used to imagine a sight I had seen only very briefly in my life.
In the months after my mother’s death, I had thought of the idea of retreating to a monastery, where the eight offices of the liturgical day are observed and celebrated. And so I sat with five or six other people in a church that could have seated a thousand, and watched five or six people—called monks—enter, kneel, and sing chant. We call it Gregorian chant, and it’s been sung for centuries, and is the wellspring for all of the music that came since. Somewhere in the world, a group of men or women is singing every one of those eight hours. And those chants have been sung for close to a millennium, and will be sung for even longer.
There was no strength for me to come to the chants, and so they came to me. At night, caught between sleep and awake, sober and drunk, pain and release…I imagined those monks. I saw them in that Chicago church, and they were singing, and my body was arrayed on a low table in front of the altar. Or perhaps my body was the altar—at any rate, my head was facing the crucifix, and the monks were encircled around me, clasping hands, and glancing for direction at the abbot, who stood at my head. I report, for any Vatican II holdouts, that he was facing the crucifix, as did the priests during the mass before the reforms of the 1960’s.
This is the part of the story when I should tell you that I felt a slight warmth—nor more than the heat of a candle lit half a world away—in the base of my spine, and that warmth….
No, it didn’t happen that way.
The miracle was only that the pain ebbed and waxed…but most ebbed. The tide had run out, and the sea had returned to its level. I returned to such everyday miracles as waking up without pain, and walking without wincing.
And drinking a bottle of whisky a day….
And did I tell you about the wine?
Which brought me to AA, and which brought me to a chapter which smugly urged me to give up my prejudices, think honestly, search diligently, and then join the other drunks-but-still-believers on the Broad Highway. And if I am so snobby as not to prefer to take my God straight off the rack, well, I can have a designer-made God! Even, according to something I read about AA, if that’s the radiator on the fourth floor meeting room. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a Higher Power!
That, of course, is completely ridiculous.
Bill W., of course, got the full Monty—the blinding white light and presumably blaring trumpets. (If not 80 virgins….) And so I have tried, at times, to trick my God into a little self-immolation. Or at least torching a bush or two. He or She responds by mooning me—not literally—but is otherwise breathtakingly generous and loving.
The Goddess—and have you noticed that there is no “Goddess,” as there is “God?”—doesn’t speak to me with words, you see. Rather, she speaks to me through the music of the spheres, the music of the body, and then, the musica quae in quibusdam constituta est instrumentis. My phone, happily, knows how to play this music, which is another little miracle.
And so when I had to cook up a Higher Power—and if you know Spanish, you know that HP means hijo de…..—I sat in a funk. A radiator wasn’t going to do it. And the Jewish guy, those 2000 years ago? Definitely a better choice, though one could argue that people who believe in radiators have caused less trouble…. Anyway, I’ve been worrying about God much as my cat worries the smelly underwear it retrieves from the laundry hamper. I pondered and pondered.
It was too much. And that’s when my phone began to speak to me, or perhaps it was God, or maybe this morning it was just Cristobal de Morales, since if God and telephones can speak or play / sing music, well, why shouldn’t a man born 517 years ago, and presumably dead, do the same? So I turned away from relief at having to worship Jesus or radiators. I listened to the Officium Defunctorum, or the Office for the Dead, though today it just felt like Office for the Defunct. Defunct being sort of what I am. True, I wasn’t terribly funct when I was hitting the sauce, but an alcoholic without his bottle is definitely defunct.
Well, I less listened to the music than I raptured, and then I began to see my way—which is my way only, and which you can completely ignore without being called prejudiced, intellectually dishonest, incapable of diligent self examination, and curiously defiant to cruise down that Broad Highway.
In fact, you may not like de Morales at all….
God does not speak to me.
Rather, She set out the music of the spheres and then the music of the body, and then She opened heaven, and out poured the musica quae in quibusdam constituta est instrumentis. You know, the music my phone knows how to play.
And that I—greying, drunk, and broken-backed—am just learning to listen to….