Which is it: Is man one of God’s blunders, or is God one of man’s blunders?
Ever since leaving New York, I’d been heading west. That’s the thing about traveling around the world: you keep going in one direction until you miraculously return to where you began. No big deal in the age of commercial air travel, but in my own mind a mythic crossing. And now the circle was almost complete.
The skies over Delhi were clear and blue. My plane banked north, then headed west — like all the other planes I’d been on these last months. Below me half a world passed by. Mountains and deserts appeared through breaks in the clouds, giving way after nightfall to the webbed lights of unnamed cities.
Heading for a connecting flight in Bahrain, I was currently pointed nearly due-Mecca. Running out of time and money, I wasn’t going to stop in Mecca, or in Jerusalem, as I’d dreamed of doing when I’d first planned this round-the-world trip. I wasn’t going to hear the prayer calls echoing off the ruins of the Holy Land. But I would do what I could: listen to the prayer calls while I flew over the Holy Land. I’d picked up a Discman knockoff in Delhi (this was 2005, after all) and slipped in a CD I’d bought at a mosque-museum in Kuala Lumpur. As my seatmate slept, my brain surrendered to the Quranic verses. I asked for an extra cup of coffee and cracked open Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. If this was as close as I was going to get to the Middle East and the birthing ground of monotheism, I was going to make the most of it.
There was a great glow of light to the north. Was that Baghdad? No, too far. But I imagined I could see it: the capital of the Islamic Golden Age ten centuries ago, now occupied by hapless GIs sent over by a witless fundamentalist on a misbegotten crusade. The city’s citizens, stirred up by this alien army, were butchering each other on and off, Sunni versus Shiite, blowing up each other’s mosques in the latest chapter of a 1,400-year-long dispute that started with an argument about whether Mohammed’s cousin was the fourth caliph or the first imam.
The call to prayer on my ill-fitting earbuds felt ancient, haunting, almost scarily spacious. How could one of the most beautiful sounds on earth become a call to such mayhem? Alongside the beauty and reverence, why must there also be this tribalism? Isn’t the ineffable mystery of existence enough? Doesn’t each life already have enough heartbreak and miracles? We are all going to die; the oblivion of eternity awaits us. I didn’t need to know more than that to appreciate these haunting chords, sailing along thirty thousand feet above the deserts that spawned them.
What was it about the desert? So many ancient revelations — too many to count — had happened there. Ecologist Paul Shepard suggests why: “The desert,” he writes, is “sensorially austere, aesthetically abstract, historically inimical. . . . The mind is beset by light and space. . . . The desert sky is encircling, majestic, terrible. . . . To the desert go prophets and hermits; through deserts go pilgrims and exiles . . . not to escape but to find reality.”
Had Mohammed and Jesus and the early Jewish prophets found reality? On the night of his first revelation, Mohammed had been torn from his sleep not by a pretty angel but, as Karen Armstrong describes it, by “an overwhelming ubiquitous presence from which escape was impossible.” He had the “overpowering apprehension of a numinous reality, what the Hebrew prophets had called kaddosh, holiness, the terrifying otherness of God.” This sounded strikingly similar to the terrifying mystical onslaughts I’d had at twenty-one. My visions had stopped coming, but Mohammed’s had continued for twenty-three years, and each time it had felt like his “soul was being torn away.” Thus did he receive the Quran. Was it the unerring word of God? The perfect syllables of Arabic being sung into my ears said, Oh, yes, but the English translation on the page — “Those that deny Our revelation We will burn in fire”; “God will humiliate the transgressors and mete out to them a grievous punishment for their scheming” — not so much. Why would a God worthy of our reverence say such things?
Centuries earlier, in a neighboring desert, Jesus had fasted for forty days and nights. Like Buddha under the bodhi tree, he’d done battle with temptation and conquered his ego, then come forth to preach the gospel. And long before either of these prophets, the Jewish people, tenaciously hanging on through many centuries of exile and desert wandering, had clawed their way to a momentously novel idea: monotheism. And now here I was flying over all of it in a single evening.
I was heading home. My budget had no more give, and I’d promised my mom I’d be back by mid-April, in time for her next hip-replacement operation. And so I’d reluctantly written the Holy Land out of my itinerary. But maybe there was a deeper reason I was bypassing the homeland of my ancestral faiths — a fear, perhaps, of directly confronting those legacies? The homelands of Buddhism and Hinduism I had traipsed through as a tourist, a dabbler. Judaism and Christianity, on the other hand, came with an uneasy feeling of accountability.
The Jews claimed to be the chosen people, and by blood or history or temperament I was one of them — though I didn’t remember ever having made the decision to join. When my classmates at the 80 percent–Jewish prep school I’d attended in my teens had learned of my “chosen” birth, they’d laid claim to me in a strange, almost desperate, way. I had no say in the matter, they told me: my mom was Jewish, so I was Jewish, mixed parentage and self-determination be damned. To me it felt arbitrary, tribal, and so wrong that I didn’t begin to come to terms with my Jewish roots until years later, and then only through selective and ironic reworkings of the traditions that allowed me to keep some distance. A friend and I co-led Passover seders with readings from Franz Kafka’s parables, testimonies of dispossessed Palestinian children, and a retelling of the Exodus myth by the famous peace and labor activist A.J. Muste, in which Moses is the organizer of “Brickmakers’ Union Number One.” Yom Kippur I approached more traditionally, wearing my grandfather’s prayer shawl and lighting candles for my brother and father. During the long, singsongy prayers, rather than try to follow along with the Hebrew words I didn’t know, I’d give myself over to the rhythmic, back-and-forth davening of the congregation. It felt ancient and grave and somehow a part of me. Maybe my dad had felt the same way when he’d cried during his childhood Presbyterian hymns.
Yet, no matter how engaging the rituals, no matter how “reformed” or “reconstructed” the text, when I davened along with Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu, Melech ha’olam (“Blessed are you, God, ruler of the universe”), it was a lie. Others, who took those same words to be literally true, used them to justify heinous crimes in the pursuit of the biblical prophecy of a Greater Israel. Jewish fundamentalism, dangerously pressed up against its fatalistic Islamic twin, had made a minefield of a Middle East still shattered by colonialism. With nukes in the picture (and apocalypse-obsessed Christian fundamentalists egging on the conflict from the U.S.), this madness might yet start a new world war. Rather than delivering us to heaven, monotheism seemed far more likely to send us all to hell.
Below me the world turned slowly through the night, unaware of the multilayered geopolitics my coffee-jangled brain was imposing upon it. I could find reasons to forgive Judaism and Islam their present-day sins. Christianity was another matter. Fairly or unfairly, from early on it was Christianity that had inspired my distrust of organized religion. From kindergarten through second grade, my parents — their atheism trumped by pragmatism — had sent me to a parochial school, complete with blue-and-white uniforms and Episcopalian rigor. It was a good school, its classroom teachings secular for the most part. On Wednesdays, however, the whole lower school would head to the chapel and descend into what, even at that age, felt to me like mass psychosis. “Our Father, who art in Heaven,” we droned, “hallowed be Thy name . . . ,” the automatic “Amens” reverberating through the church like a soft Sieg heil. This bad impression was later compounded by televangelists’ 1980s “culture war” on reason, science, tolerance, sexual freedom, and general common sense. So toxic, venal, and clownlike were American Christianity’s most vocal purveyors that I couldn’t take any of it seriously, except as a threat. It took years — far past the point when I actually knew better — for me to realize that my reflexive rejection of everything Christian wasn’t just the Church’s loss but mine as well. Slowly, haltingly, I came to accept that somewhere in that vast ocean of toxic bathwater was a beautiful baby Jesus. Shame to throw it all out together.
It came almost as a shock to realize I didn’t have to declare myself an atheist just because 50 million Americans thought God literally made the world in six days. I could approach the Bible stories, to use Armstrong’s words, as “symbols of a more elusive truth.” I could rethink original sin as “the human propensity to fuck things up,” as English author Francis Spufford puts it. I could try to understand Jesus not as the literal son of God, but as a healer and preacher who stressed his own weak, mortal humanity. Looking through the lens of comparative religion, I could see Jesus as a Jewish bodhisattva — a spiritually gifted hero who was willing to put off his own enlightenment for the sake of others. And through the lens of Latin American liberation theology, I could make common cause with him as a revolutionary and champion of the downtrodden, enjoining us not just to care for the poor, but to ask why the poor are poor.
The plane made its connection in Bahrain in the dead of night — all efficiency and glass and fluorescent lights — and we were soon in the air again. Jacked on coffee, I’d knocked back several thousand years of Armstrong’s four-thousand-year history of monotheism and was still going strong. We sailed over the Saudi interior, then Jordan. We’d soon be to the Mediterranean. Jerusalem would be under that cloud cover, a slight glow to the southwest, and I thought: If I could imagine coming around on original sin, what else? The page open in my lap chimed in with surprising matter-of-factness: “By faith, of course, [Jesus] did not mean adopting the correct theology, but cultivating an inner attitude of surrender and openness to God.” The thirteenth-century mystic and Dominican monk Meister Eckhart believed that “the eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.” Another unusual Christian, the nineteenth-century Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, understood that “prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” If we were talking about that faith, and that God, and that prayer, then maybe, just maybe, I could almost-nearly-not-quite become some sort of Christian.
All religions, in the words of religion scholar Huston Smith, have an esoteric kernel wrapped in a doctrinal shell. The shell may be different for each religion, but the kernel is the same. Maybe I’d gravitated toward Buddhism in my youth because I’d read a book called Dharma Bums instead of Sharia Bums or Gospel Bums or Torah Bums. Or maybe I was just temperamentally attuned to Buddhism because of its empiricism, or simply because it was from someplace else and didn’t have a headlock on my fellow Americans’ ability to reason: it wasn’t muscling its way into the corridors of power to tell me what I could and couldn’t do. Each religion seems to have found a unique way to send its enemies into the howling fires of hell while ruining its own followers’ sex lives. But, ultimately, the living, breathing heart of every religion — including my own jerry-rigged outlook — is a humbling reverence before the ineffable mystery of existence. And the message of love that flows from that foundational experience is universal.