God and words

Why notions of the truth are never enough

I grew up in a non-religious home. My mother and father weren’t believers, so my brother and sister and I weren’t either.

In the fifth grade, I attended a traditional Catholic school for half the year. My parents thought its instruction was better than the public school’s, and they were right. The nuns were excellent teachers, and kind to me. In most respects I flourished there.

For a 10-year-old boy with no familiarity with Catholicism, however, it was like being placed in a vivid world of fascinating but often frightening imagery, beginning with the Crucifixion. To this day, I can close my eyes and return to Our Lady of Mercy church and see the dying Christ hanging from the cross and the martyred saints in the stained-glass windows.

After several months, I started having a recurring nightmare. In it I was being called before God, who as I envisioned him was an old man with a long white beard. He was dressed in white robes and seated at a table, flanked by others dressed in white. Behind him was the darkness of space. He glared and pointed a long, skinny finger at me as if I were the most evil boy in the world. Then he flicked that finger, and I lifted up and tumbled head over heel through space, until I landed on a barren planet that I recognized as Purgatory. I was utterly alone. That’s when I would awaken.

Of course, Catholic school also introduced me to the kind, gentle Jesus of the New Testament and his message of love, charity and forgiveness. During the Christmas season I choose to remember that Jesus, the baby born in a manger who would go on to be a great and wise teacher, not the scary God of judgment.

But I’m not a believer. I’m not a nonbeliever, either. Nor am I an agnostic. To me those are just words, as is “God.” As much as I admire the courage of the folks who put up those “Don’t believe in God?” billboards around Chico, I think their insistence on logic as the path to understanding is limiting. There are some questions—“Who am I?” being one of them—logic can’t answer.

I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for more than 30 years. Buddhism teaches that, whatever the truth is—about God, about consciousness, about the self—we can know it only by looking deeply into our own minds. As the 14th-century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.”

The Buddha often said something to this effect: “If you meet me on the road, kill me!” That is, don’t let any notion of who I am or what I teach get in the way of your direct insight into the truth, wherever it leads you.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Catholic churches, especially old ones. They’re soothing, peaceful places. And I love Christmas. But I’ve had to find my own way toward understanding on a path beyond words and concepts. It’s an adventure.

Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.