Given that we are moving into the Christian Holidays that cluster around Advent and Christmas, I wanted to do a blog post on what it means for a skeptic to wait. Advent is basically a Season of waiting – Israel waiting for the birth of the Messiah, Mary waiting for the birth of Jesus, the Church singing “O Come Emmanuel!” as it celebrates the First Advent and waits for the Second, etc., etc. – and celebrating it raises some unique, arguably insuperable, questions and issues for people like me: skeptics, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, anti-theists, etc., etc., etc. Waiting is such an “archetypal” activity that I am loath to say that folks like us do not wait, period. Saying that we do not wait would be like saying we do not breathe or love or age or question or die … or visit our local Department of Motor Vehicles. Waiting is no less universal, no less archetypal, no less constitutive of what it means to be human. So what I have been reflecting on are the questions: How do skeptics – I’ll use that umbrella term, if you don’t mind – wait? What do skeptics wait on? What do skeptics wait for? Please understand that, in the following, I am drawing on my own experience in order to prevent this post from degenerating into a sterile academic exercise. I do not speak for all skeptics, quite the contrary. In fact, I do not speak for any skeptics except myself. Consequently, I claim only that it is my experience – nothing more, but also nothing less – and as such is not universal and least of all normative for others. The sheer experience of waiting is the universal archetype. What we are waiting on or for is not.
First, what am I not waiting on? Well – and, again, speaking only for myself -- I am not waiting on God. I have never had much luck with gods. Any gods. They don’t care for me. I don’t care for them. Gods and I just don’t get along, not least because their pronouncements, while perhaps possessed of positively lapidary clarity for others, as far as I can discern, tend to be verbal / textual Rohrshach ink-blots to me that can mean virtually anything to anyone. Attaining enough self-insight to write the preceding 5 sentences … OK … granted ... “Any gods” is a sentence fragment … attaining the requisite insight took me, optimistically, 50+ years of gut-busting and clinical-depression-inducing effort, out of my so-far-65-and-counting, i.e., roughly 75 percent of my life thus far ... all in a vain effort to try to make a go of having a relationship with (the Christian) God. I gave up. It was a matter of survival – a story I have told elsewhere. This pretty much disconnects me from the tradition of waiting that is contained in any of the motifs of waiting described in the three great monotheisms: waiting for Liberation from Egypt, waiting for the Messiah in Judaism; waiting for the revelation of the Twelfth Imam in Shi’a Islam; waiting for the Birth of Christ, waiting for the Second Coming, waiting for the establishment of the Kingdom of God, etc., in Christianity. For me, waiting on God and waiting on Godot were pretty much indistinguishable. In fact, my experience of waiting on God and trying to decode / decrypt "God's will" can be summed up in that manic speech Samuel Beckett places in the mouth of the un-lucky slave Lucky in his (Beckett’s) absurd play:.
Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time and without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues and who can doubt it will …
And so on. For several pages. Without any intervening punctuation. You get the idea … I think. At least I did. For me. Anyway, Lucky’s speech is a pretty good summary of what waiting for God meant back in my days as a confessing monotheist. I finally gave up waiting for it all to make sense, just as I skim over Lucky’s speech today when, for the multiple-dozen-th time, I read the script of Waiting for Godot.
But Lucky’s speech is not the sum-total of all dramaturgy, and Waiting for Godot is not the sum-total of all waiting. So, in a positive sense, what can waiting mean for a skeptic? (Again, I mean “skeptic” in the “umbrella” sense of atheist, agnostic, rationalist, secular humanist, anti-theist – in general, a non- / anti-supernaturalist.) Well, all I can say is what it means – what it has come to mean – for me, by way of perhaps suggesting some paths for my sibling skeptics to explore.
Just as I turn to Beckett and Waiting for Godot to illustrate what turns me away from monotheistic gods, I turn to T. S. Eliot’s great religious poems Four Quartets to illustrate the alternative. Eliot was a Christian, in fact, a high-Church Anglican / “Anglo-Catholic” (Eliot's self-description), convert, and his Quartets are an extended, and inexhaustibly deep, meditation on (the Christian) God, sin, suffering, redemption, and history – and Eliot’s suffering in particular. (In fact, if you start with Eliot-the-unbeliever of "The Wasteland", "The Hollow Men," and "Gerontion," and trace the process of Eliot's conversion through the "Ariel Poems" and "Ash Wednesday" to its culmination in Four Quartets, you will be reading a spiritual autobiography at least the equal of St. Augustine's Confessions.) But that is not to say that the Quartets are, or can be, confined to Christian categories of faith, though Eliot himself came to be a devout Christian. They are too profound, too universal – even too archetypal -- for that. Rather, they impinge upon all religious traditions of an apophatic nature, that is, those traditions that emphasize the ineffability of religious experience, both theistic and otherwise. Of the Four Quartets, the second, “East Coker”, most explicitly confronts the issue of waiting (boldface added):
As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
I’ve been dealing with “East Coker” and the other 3 Quartets, both professionally as teacher and critic, and as just an ordinary reader, for about 40 years. But my eyes still get teary, and sometimes I even outright weep, every time I read this part of the poem, and similar passages from the other Quartets, because Eliot’s words, by virtue of their very impersonality – his aesthetic was rigorously neo-classicist – are like a strong astringent balm on a still-tender wound: it hurts as it heals. When I stopped waiting for god(s), I began to just wait, like the people riding the London Underground the above passage speaks of. In that eloquent void of wordless and primeval waiting -- perhaps the wu (“void”) of Taoism, perhaps the dhyana (roughly “empty-minded-ness”) of Zen meditation -- I found that my consciousness itself encompassed vast depths that no purely discursive theology could hope to comprehend. Without knowing it, and years before I formally adopted the practice or even knew what it was, I was engaging in vipassana – “mindfulness” – meditation. I mention that, not in any sense in order to “evangelize” for one school of meditation rather than another, but to emphasize that, as Sam Harris says in his recent book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion , the depth of human consciousness is itself inexhaustible, however we explore it. But virtually all traditions – even Christian and Jewish and Islamic mysticism – all emphasize waiting, defined as a willingness to confront, and simply to "sit with," raw consciousness-per-se as “the mental emptiness [l]eaving only the terror of nothing to think about”: “Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought”.
I realize all this sounds very esoteric, and so it is, in one sense. It is highly esoteric as long as one only talks about it. But experientially, it is anything but. In his 1954 book The Doors of Perception, his journal of experimentation with the drug mescaline, Aldous Huxley says
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.
I have grave reservations about the use of drugs to achieve this kind of insight. Except for a brief recreational dalliance with marijuana when I was in graduate school, and which always left me underwhelmed and with a mild headache, I have never used drugs, least of all as Huxley used them. But I have achieved the same end with meditation ... and without the headache. However achieved, the insight itself is both profound and valid. For many, waiting on God effects a perceptual and existential transformation. Peace and blessings upon them! For others -- for skeptics in particular -- the transformation may be achieved without explicitly religious categories. In retrospect, I realize -- to cite just a single example -- my experience at my father-in-law's memorial service in 2008 was, not caused, but facilitated by my meditation practice. (One of the side-effects of any meditation discipline, theistic or otherwise, is that categories like causality become ... well ... "squishy". In the early 1970s, Arthur Koestler wrote a brief but revolutionary little book about this: The Roots of Coincidence.) And my experience at Dad Iwashita's memorial was anything but esoteric. It only seems esoteric because we are so committed -- so irrationally committed -- to the Cartesian division between the inner world (res cogitans) and outer world (res extensa). Long ago in one of his sermons, Meister Eckhart said "The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me". I will demur from the theological language, but I affirm the essential identity of world and spirit -- which skeptics need not conceive as a dichotomy. Waiting is a universal experience, and a universal element of spiritual discipline whereby "the darkness shall be the light and the stillness the dancing".
James R. Cowles