February 7, 2015

A Game of Worship and Denial

“Oh, my God!” we often exclaim.

But is God ours? Yours? Does God belong to anyone? Does God need to be claimed? Does God even exist? Intriguing though these questions may be, the answers I’m looking for do not necessarily revolve around the ownership or existence of God (or gods). For years, I have not let the God of my childhood—the one who is a proper noun—dictate my actions and decisions. And yet, and yet...I cannot forget, I cannot ignore.

Perhaps god wanted us to
believe that there are
many versions of

So I decided to confront god through poetry. “Supposition” (which began with the four lines above) was not my first attempt to understand god in literary terms, but it was my first serious one—one that made me want to think of more ways to see where and how god fits in secular cultures, or what the Polish thinker Leszek Kołakowski preferred to call “an ostensibly Godless age” (though he was specifically referring to the secularity of the 1980s). I will return to Kołakowski later, but first I think it is important to note why poetry is an interesting and potentially effective platform to use for topics that are essentially abstract.

While poetic structures may be rigid, it is still possible to deconstruct and reconstruct them. But the meaning injected—or rather, woven—into those structures are not always so easily graspable. I believe that the worst advice a person could give to a reader of poetry is “Read between the lines.” It is necessary to read into metaphors and decode symbols, but it is dangerous to assume that the core of poem is always buried under layers of linguistic manipulation. The message is hiding in plain sight, but we are too busy staring into the empty spaces that separate them. I suppose that God, too, resides in framed abstractions (i.e. the structure being the frame, the essence being the thing that is there but not recognizable).   

For those who have no doubts about their religious beliefs, god is not abstract—even if it does not have a form. God’s power and the roles that come with that supposed power simply make sense. But not everyone is willing to live his or her life based on such a “solid” premise. And these doubts are what Jorge Luis Borges describes as “the doubts that we call, not without some vanity, metaphysics.”

Yes, vanity may be partially responsible for our attitude towards uncertainty. Perhaps we are merely tired of our ignorance. Perhaps all we really want to do is to give our doubts a name, or better yet, a form. Wouldn’t it be much more interesting to spend years working on a grand theory about existence rather than saying “I don’t know” followed by a nonchalant shrug? For some, it would be more appealing. For others, ignorance is bliss. For me, neither seems to be the solution to my uncertainty—or rather, curiosity—about god. In The Handmaid’s Tale, “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.” I am sick of my own ignorance, and I am tired of ignoring god. But despite my attempts—all the poetry, essays and silent prayers—I still ask myself: How do I begin?

We’re bound
to have gods
regardless of celestial
scriptures and holy men
suggesting their existence;
we are destined to
be it Jeff Buckley, Dalí, or
our own asses.

The easiest way to begin is to make a supposition. Again, I quoted my own words. It’s interesting to return to your own writing after a while because time gaps always reveal something new. Kołakowski’s essays “Anxiety About God in an Ostensibly Godless Age” and “Why a Calf? Idolatry and the Death of God” were the additional sources of my revelation. Without them, I wouldn’t be sewing patches onto my own verses. Without them, I wouldn’t be writing this.

“We’re bound/to have gods” and “we are destined to/glorify—/be it Jeff Buckley, Dalí, or/our own asses,” I wrote. What made me so sure of the inescapable human desire to put a certain figure or object on a pedestal? Several months after I wrote the poem, I found some enlightening explanations in Kołakowski’s work. In “Why a Calf?” he explained the differences between worship, idolatry and sacrilege (though for the purposes of this essay, I will only focus on the first two). 

Worship is reserved for God (notice the big “G”) whereas idolatry is “by definition the worship of something other than God as if it were divine.” However, in reality, there are many different types of worship. Kołakowski likened divine worship to the worship of a political leader or a lover. We are devoted to them because they are who they are. He emphasized on the sense of gratitude that we have towards our objects of worship. “Thank you, thank you for existing,” we say. But I also think that it comes with fear. We fear the wrath of the gods in the same way we fear the anger of our leaders or the disappointment of our lovers. In the end, it is love that strengthens the bond between the worshipper and the worshipped. But then Kołakowski wrote:
Other kinds of idolatry—the worship of money, nature, reason, science, the State and other abstract things—generally do not attain this level of intensity; in such cases we tend to speak of obsession rather than worship.
Two keywords stood out for me: abstract and obsession. The former caught my eye because the term, according to my personal understanding of god, is slightly problematic. First of all, we must underline that the god of monotheistic religions is not an abstraction. This god might not have a form, but the idea of it is not, as I mentioned earlier in this essay, an abstraction. Kołakowski’s writings on god are usually writings on God—that is, the foundation of his essays is monotheism. On this particular matter, Kołakowski and I diverge (although the arguments he uses for his categorizations are conveniently elaborate and convincing to a certain extent). But his use of the word “obsession”—which, by the way, we have come to use so lightly—is effective in pinning down some of modern civilization’s biggest preoccupations. “The ‘Me’ Generation” is only one aspect of modernity’s collective obsession. Another aspect of it is one that I already illustrated in my own verse: the glorification of musicians and artists (and even body parts). Kołakowski ponders on this “mass phenomenon” of worshipping celebrities:

What kind of deep, innate human need explains the phenomenon of modern idolatry? If God is dead, if we expelled Him from our world and forced Him to hid in His impenetrable solitude, why do we go on manufacturing imitations, or rather caricatures, of past forms of religious worship?
The perfect answer to this question can be found at the end of “Anxiety About God in an Ostensibly Godless Age”:

But the Absolute could be replaced by something finite and non-absolute only if it were really forgotten. And if this were possible, there would no longer be any need to replace it. So the object could be attained only once there was no need for it. But the Absolute can never be forgotten. And the fact that He is present even in our rejection of Him.
“He is present even in our rejection of Him.” Here, too, Kołakowski referred to the God of Abrahamic belief systems. But in this case, it is only a small matter of terminology. “We begged God to leave the world,” he wrote, “and He has, at our request. A gaping hole remains. We keep praying to that hole—to nothingness.” The point is clear: whatever will reign over our collective consciousness and collective identity in the days to come has big shoes to fill.

But I wonder if it really is a hole that we keep praying to. What if it turns out to be a mysterious mass that we cannot see, but somehow know—or feel—is there? Will we ever know for sure?

Perhaps it was god’s plan
all along—this madness,
this game of worship
and denial.