I left Christianity for a multitude of reasons, and, while I don’t mind talking about those reasons, a comprehensive catalog would be a major distraction from the main business at hand ... before the business at hand even begins. Besides, the salient issue, the drop of water that caused the glass to overflow, was – if I may revert to Christian terminology – a “vocational crisis”. Shortly after my wife Diane and I were married, we came to believe, through an intense time of prayer and reflection – we did that kind of thing back then -- that I was being “called” – a word I heartily abhor now, but … hey! … again, we talked and thought in these terms – to get my doctorate and to teach and to write on matters pertaining to the intersection of faith, culture, literature, and politics.
So that’s what we did. We were living in Wichita, KS, at the time, where I was working as a software engineer for Boeing, and Diane was a librarian for the Wichita Public Library. But we pulled up stakes and moved to Boston, where I attended Tufts and Harvard, finishing up at Exeter College, Oxford University -- J. R. R. Tolkien's alma mater -- in 1988. But by the time I finished, we were both exhausted by the “paper chase”, by life in Boston, and by the stress. For me, it was a time of dangerously severe clinical depression, at times at pre-suicidal levels. Pretty much as a matter of sheer survival, we decided to bail out of our airplane before it crashed. So I accepted a job as a web developer with Boeing, where I had worked for about a dozen years prior to Boston, and moved from Boston to Seattle. But the writing-and-teaching bug wouldn’t leave me alone. So in 1998, I quit Boeing – again – and enrolled in the MDiv program at Seattle University, with the intent of free-lance teaching what I will generically call “Catholic stuff” – we were both Catholic at the time – as part of various Catholic parishes’ adult-education programs. Finishing the MDiv took a little over two years. My internship at St. Louise parish in Bellevue was spectacularly successful, and I looked forward to doing it “for real” on the far side of the degree. Unfortunately, just as I was finishing the degree, the Seattle Archdiocese took a hard lurch to the right, and teaching opportunities for non-ordained people dried up faster than a high-summer dewdrop in Death Valley.
So my wife and I were left wondering What the hell did we do all this for?
I realized that – for me and speaking for no one else – belief in God and actions in conformity to that belief were lethal. Literally lethal. If I was going to survive, I had to back away from the gravity well of the Great Divine Black Hole, and – irrespective of whether God actually exists or not – adopt an attitude and a “blessedly secular” life of functional / practical atheism in order to stay away from that Event Horizon beyond whose margin, in my experience, time, life, and hope all stop. I simply could not afford to go there. But the questions of Why? and All for what? kept scrabbling away like an infestation of rats inside the walls of my life. Those questions I could not even begin to answer … until …
… initially, and partly to control stress and blood pressure, partly to have more experientially in common with my predominantly Buddhist in-law family in Hawaii, and partly out of sheer curiosity, I began to practice vipassana ("mindfulness") meditation, at first in meditation classes and a little later on my own. I still practice, but now I practice, not only or even primarily for the initial physiologically therapeutic reasons, though those continue, but now because I have come to admire the deep wisdom of Buddhism as a non-theistic / non-God-centered -- in the sense that belief in God is optional -- stance toward the world. I began to attend weekend meditation retreats and “dharma talks” – discourses on Buddhist teaching – given by various senseis (teachers) in the local Seattle Buddhist sangha (Buddhist community).
At part of all that, I began to go to St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral to attend the weekly meetings of the sangha to listen to dharma talks by a very accomplished sensei, Rodney Smith. I wasn’t pursuing “enlightenment” or kensho or satori, nothing that lofty. (Besides, pursuing those as goals to be achieved is self-defeating and self-contradictory, anyway.) Aside from the physiological effects, I considered it research, more or less academic.
It turned out that Rodney gave a series of ten dharma talks – one two-hour talk a week for ten weeks at St. Mark’s – on the Ten Ox-Herding Paintings. That series of dharma talks turned out to be my personal equivalent of St. Paul on the Damascus Road. In a certain way, nothing made sense. And yet, in another way, at the end of the tenth session, everything made sense. Rodney was talking – the artist who created the Ox-Herding Paintings was talking – about me. I don’t mean “about me” in any narcissistic, idiosyncratic sense, quite the contrary. He was "talking about me" only in the same sense in which a cardiologist discussing the function of the human heart would also be "talking about me". The Paintings are about anyone, any human being, who is in the process of individuation, to adopt C. G. Jung's terminology.
But there are times when ... well ... suffice to say times when I think maybe -- just maybe ... perhaps -- Shakespeare's Hamlet was onto something when he mused "There's a Divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will". I've already told you of one such: my father-in-law's funeral in 2008. Now I'll tell you of another. Like the story of my father-in-law's funeral, you may make of it what you will. I claim only that it applies to me, not that it is descriptive -- least of all normative -- for anyone else. I mention it only on the off-chance that it may have some "archetypal" relevance for others.
The Ox-Herding Paintings tell the story, one painting at a time (together with the poem written on each painting), of a farmer who discovers that his ox has wandered away from the farm and gone missing. Since so much of the farmer's wealth is tied up in the ox, the farmer begins searching frantically for his ox. After much panic-stricken running about, he finally finds the ox, and, partly out of relief and partly out of anger, begins to whack the ox with a small stick to drive the ox back to the farm. Somewhere along the way, the farmer stops "spanking" the ox, because he has exhausted himself. His arm is sore and tired from swinging the stick, anyway, and, besides, he has discovered that the ox knows the way back to the farm and is returning of its own volition. So the farmer hops up onto the ox's back and begins riding the ox, eventually relaxing, kicking back, lying down, and even playing a flute while the ox heads for home autonomously, without having to be guided, least of all driven, by the farmer or by anyone else. The last few paintings in the series show the farmer arriving back home with the ox. The very last painting shows the farmer contentedly looking out his window and smiling at passers-by. In the last picture ... the ox is nowhere to be seen.
I was that farmer.
The farmer could have ridden the ox all along, But he didn't know that until he had exhausted himself trying to force the ox to go where the ox would naturally have gone, anyway. The farmer had to exhaust himself before he could learn to relax, go with the flow, live in the moment, and ... well ... just quit trying so damn hard! So did I. I had exhausted myself, Diane and I had both exhausted ourselves, trying with "bust-a-gut" intensity to "do God's will", "to be pleasing to God", "to pursue our vocation", "to conform to God's marvelous plan for our lives", to "develop our talents", etc., etc., etc. Eventually, we came to realize that the entire Boston / Seattle University experience, like the farmer's experience with his ostensibly lost ox, was one vast koan: a puzzle whose very impossibility, whose very futility, as Keats said of the nightingale's song, "dost tease us out of thought / As doth Eternity". In both cases, the answer was that there is no answer. But more than that: there wasn't even any question. (It was like the smart-alec's response to the "Christ is the Answer" bumper sticker: What was the question? There is some very deep wisdom in that reaction.) We were in the same position as the young Buddhist novice monk in a well-known story who exhausts himself trying to please his teacher -- until one day, instead of trying fumblingly to answer his teacher's weekly question, he simply ignores the question, says nothing, makes tea, pours his teacher and himself a cup, sits down, and drinks tea with his teacher ... whereupon the teacher smiles radiantly and says "Excellent! Excellent!" I suppose that, if I were predisposed to transpose this into a "Christian key", I would say that my wife and I discovered (what a Christian might well call) "grace" ... which has no necessary connection to God.
In the wake of the ox-hunting insight, I used to periodically become embittered by the thought that Diane and I had wasted -- for so I thought of it for a time -- all that time hunting, searching for our "ox" when, in reality, our "ox" was never lost. But now, I realize that the very hunting was part and parcel of, and necessary to, the "finding" of the "ox", i.e., to the realization that we were exhausting ourselves trying to find that which was never lost, to be someplace other than where we were. Without the searching, there would have been no finding, and the finding presupposes the searching. In fact, on a very deep level, the searching and the finding are one and the same. At one point in that magnificent collection of fragments, the Pensees, Blaise Pascal quotes God: Be of good cheer, thou wouldst not seek Me if thou hadst not found Me. Or, as Heraclitus said much less theologically in the 6th century BCE The way up and the way down are one and the same. And before you leap from your chair and shout indignantly Where is Jim our Skeptic-In-Residence and what have you done with him? let me assure you that the reason I say all this is precisely because I am a skeptic who credits, because he has learned to credit, his own experience.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well,
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
-- T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"
James R. Cowles