The Gods Of The Unreligious

Most of us have them, little beliefs or talismans that may or may not be visible to the naked eye. Some people have objects: a crystal, a ring, a cross, a tattoo, a tree. Others have a god or gods, an astrologer, an angel, a psychic, a loved one (living or dead), or what the anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann calls, in a recent article in the New York Times, tulpas, “thought-forms, or imagined creatures,” something like a mantra, but much more alive and tactile. Dependable, familiar, like a mantra, but fully-formed, a being, not just a string of words. The tulpa, though we invented him or her (or it), takes things out of our hands, or so we believe. It is more powerful and more in control. We conjure it up, then let it do what it will with us.

Luhrmann, citing a recent Associated Press poll, reports that “8 in 10 Americans believe in angels.” This is a surprisingly high number, suggesting that many of us may walk around with, if not voices in our head, the willingness to listen to voices if they were to start speaking. I think it explains — or perhaps the trends go in tandem — why we as a population read fantasy fiction more voraciously than we used to.

Perhaps in difficult economic times (not to mention difficult climatic times), we rely more on the unexplainable to explain things. We as a species have turned to storytelling to shape our lives and entertain us for thousands of years, but it seems remarkable that we are increasingly interested in stories about creatures and phenomena that can’t (at least thus far) be found in the real world. Such stories are escapist, but they of course relate important things about our own world. They still remind us of us. But they don’t force us upon ourselves, the way great realist storytellers like Annie Proulx and Alice Munro do. Instead, authors like George R. R. Martin cloak their lessons in mysticism, in dragons, gods and specters and the finery his human characters enjoy — coastal castles, embroidered gowns, palanquins, bottomless goblets of wine.

My summer home in a beach community in Nova Scotia has something going on that cannot be explained by realism or organized religion. Having spent a considerable amount of time there in the past year, I have decided that its pull can best — but not totally — be explained by the literal pull of the moon. It is set on a body of water home to the highest tides in the world, which essentially means that the difference between low tide and high tide is vast — something like 40 or 50 feet in height and perhaps half a mile in length from the shore — and that when the moon is full, the tide is highest, creeping dangerously close to our front lawn. During storms, usually in winter, it sometimes spills across the lawn. I think we residents are all resigned to the fact that this row of cottages might not exist in 50 years, and if they don’t, it will because of a conspiracy between us carbon-loving humans and the moon.

So how does the moon affect what happens to us? I have no idea. No realistic idea, that is. I have this vision of us all swaying imperceptibly, as if some inner compass shifts in tandem with the moon and the water, and changes our behavior in ways we can’t necessarily detect. Or maybe this gravitational force just drags us down to this place and holds us there, transfixed, against it, the way two objects can stick together when you throw them through the air, clinging to each other’s force field. Maybe, like so many things, it can best be explained by an emotion: love, I suppose. The reasons why we like things can usually be explained rather easily. The reasons why we love things are harder to pinpoint. So it must be love. Like faith, love is a bit ineffable.

I increasingly rely on my own stories about the place, fictional and otherwise, to help me figure out what is going on there. I also rely on other people’s stories. So far, Ursula K. Le Guin has come closest to pinpointing for me the magic of place. Which is to say, reading certain stories of hers evokes the same feeling that being at the cottage does. We cottage people don’t have the same beliefs or rituals as the characters in her story “Solitude,” but that’s not to say we don’t have beliefs or rituals. Maybe in the future, anthropologists will consider smoking marijuana on the sly to be a ritual of our kind. They will explain that we used the plant’s hallucinogenic properties to enhance our perception of our surroundings (which to me are already hallucinogenic, awe-inspiring, in which case maybe they will call us greedy and hedonistic too). This passage from Le Guin’s “Solitude,” about a girl who grows up in a tribal community because her mother, a field ethnologist, is studying the community, has stuck with me for weeks:

Summer was long, clear, beautiful. I was learning to starwatch; that is when you lie down outside on the open hills in the dry season at night, and find a certain star in the eastern sky, and watch it cross the sky till it sets. You can look away, of course, to rest your eyes, and doze, but you try to keep looking back at the star and the stars around it, until you feel the earth turning, until you become aware of how the stars and the world and the soul move together. After the certain star sets you sleep until dawn wakes you. Then as always you greet the sunrise with aware silence.

Whatever that belief system is, I like it.

When a character in Game of Thrones says something like “Gods help us,” or “I pray to both the old gods and the new,” it’s funny at first, until we think of the modern gods that some of us — apparently many of us — believe in. Arguably, the well-known astrologer Susan Miller falls under the category of god. Millions of us gravitate to her primitive-looking website every month to read epic tales of things that have not yet happened and which may never happen. They are opaque tales based, apparently, on ancient interpretations of the relative positions of the stars and the planets. What could be more heretical, really? Yet when she tells me, a “classic” Pisces, I might add, in the opening paragraph of my October horoscope, “Everyone, of every sign, will have some difficulties with October,” I believe her.

I tend to believe Susan Miller most when the news she bears is bad, and the reason for that is, naturally, that it’s nice to be prepared for adversity, whether it actually ever arrives or not. I almost wish she would tell me that every month is going to be terrible so that I will emerge victorious at the end of the month when things turn out to have been not so terrible. A glass-half-empty counterbalance to my glass-half-full outlook on life. Susan Miller, god, is just a lens through which to view the world. Nobody knows anything, but I enjoy listening to the “advice,” if it can be called that, of someone who seems to know slightly more. It doesn’t matter that what she’s “advising” is probably a crock of shit. I have faith, apparently, in the meaning behind the relative position of the stars and planets. I must, if I read her website every month.

Whatever “gods” or gods draw me back to the cottage provide another lens through which to view the world. Beloved features of the natural world can be a collection of gods, as history and fiction has shown. This desire to explain, to categorize, to organize, is why religions big and small came to be in the first place. It’s not enough, apparently, to say, “I love this place. The end.” It’s not enough for me, at least. The act of storytelling may, so far, only be self-serving. To record, invent, analyze within the realm of an actual place, a beloved place, does feel religious, as if the stories are psalms to these vague gods, which are perhaps: the moon, the sea, and the stars moving across the sky from dusk till dawn.

Last time I prayed to God with a capital ‘G,’ it was after a family death, the third in a year. I asked Him (I am Anglican, at least technically) “for guidance,” which I think is a common request. We are all looking for a path, for some clouds to part. When death comes, we are left feeling ill-equipped to go on, to run or co-run the show ourselves. Suddenly the paths don’t seem so clear. Guidance is the same thing we Susan Miller fans look for. It is also what I look for in books. (Is an author a god with a small ‘g’? I think so.) For questions to be answered. For questions I didn’t even know I had to be answered. We vaguely religious types, less at home at church than we are on Susan Miller’s website, in a yoga class, and in the pages of self-help books, tend to only turn to the G-man when we’re really lost.

Most of the time I look for guidance in these myriad other sources — anything but Christianity, if I’m going to be honest. When I was describing to a friend why I write songs, something that I have done half-assedly and mostly privately since high school, I realized that it’s yet another means of clarification, of attempting to guide myself through a particular issue. Songwriters often say that they feel they best communicate through song; that they don’t make any sense — or feel that they don’t make any sense — in conversation with others.

But there is another function of music: to honor the subject of the piece, traditionally God or other religious figures but also, later on, the object of one’s affection. To beautify the subject. I’d argue that those in love make a tulpa out of the person they love. Requited or not, the love stirs into being within them, comes alive, and keeps them going. Writing and performing a song is often a kind of spiritual communion with another person. At least, it’s a communion with one’s subconscious. There is something mystical about a song because it is not exactly “the truth” of something, just as other kinds of stories are not exactly “the truth” of something. The ideas that inspire stories, musical or otherwise, are often moving targets, shape-shifting, or else ever-expanding like the universe. It’s exhausting chasing after them, but how boring life would be if they were standing still. TC mark

image – I_Believe_

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