In How to Believe in God, Clark Strand, an accomplished master of both Eastern and Western mystical practices, takes on the most troublesome and provocative passages from Judeo-Christian scripture, transforming the Bible into a manual of spiritual liberation for the twenty-first-century seeker. Offering a revolutionary new model of approaching the Bible, he frees those sacred scriptures from superstition, dogma, and tribalism, and in the process recovers their universal teaching on salvation and belief. Drawing on his personal experiences, including his Bible Belt upbringing, his years as a Buddhist monk, and his life as a father and husband in a small rural community, Strand makes even the most subtle spiritual teaching heartfelt and accessible. How to Believe in God illuminates a clear path to reclaiming a God that leaves nothing out and leaves no one behind. His open, gentle, pioneering approach to faith allows everyone--from churchgoing Christians to those with no religious affiliation at all--to experience the Bible in new and exciting ways.
This former Zen Buddhist monk intriguingly offers a Zen slant on Bible stories that Strand sees as revealing our own dreams and illusions: "When our ideas about God are shattered, that is the moment God himself appears." Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
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March 29, 2009
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Excerpt from How to Believe in God by Clark Strand
In the Beginning
And the earth was without form, and void;
and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
Imagine a single bubble suddenly coming into consciousness of itself floating on the limitless vastness of a midnight sea. Surrounded by darkness on every side, it hangs atop the water in a weightless, directionless universe where it is not possible to say anything for sure. Whatever knowledge it can grasp hold of is only that of a sand grain, or of an atom--the kind of awareness that comes of recognizing oneself as impossibly insignificant and small.
The Bible opens with an image of roiling waters as far as the eye can see. There is no pole star, no reference point, no way of knowing where we are. At the beginning of the Bible we are lost. We are "in the dark" and "at sea."
If we look deep within ourselves, down to the core of our being, we can find that same awareness where it has lain undisturbed since the very first moment of Creation, untouched by the various certainties we use to console ourselves at any given moment--that we are safe and secure, or blameless, or correct in our religious or philosophical beliefs. The Bible begins with that awareness laid bare, inviting us to gaze into the deep, unfathomable waters that lie right below the surface of life.
What are those waters, and why does the Bible begin with them? This goes well beyond what we ordinarily think of as the big questions about life: Who am I? Who is God? Why am I here? To address these questions is itself to know the answer to the other three, because once we can understand the beginning of a thing, we can also know its middle and its end.
There is an episode from the Gospels that must always have been intended as a kind of commentary on that first primordial question.
Once when Jesus' disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee, a great wind came up and tossed their ship upon the waves. Soon after, Jesus came walking to them across the sea. Thinking he might be some spirit come to destroy them, the disciples were afraid. "Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water," said Peter (Matthew 14:28), whereupon Jesus beckoned him out of the boat.
And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?
Some symbols are so primal, so close to the things they describe, we do better not to think of them as symbols at all, but simply take them as they are. What are the first waters of creation? Why, they are the very same waters that Jesus walks on in the Gospel of Matthew. The creation of dry land by God on the third day does nothing to assuage them. Those waters are always, always there. We each know this instinctively, with a knowledge that goes deeper than deep. It's not that those waters form the basic ground of our being; they are below the ground. They are what the ground is lying on. Were the ground we stand on ever to give way, that is where we would fall.
Beneath the seemingly solid foundations we establish for our lives--and these can be anything from a career to a relationship to an entire belief system, even a scientific or a religious one--there lies the spiritual void of a world without light or meaning. It is a place we all wish to avoid in this life, and we will go to any lengths to do so. We will distract ourselves with every imaginable form of entertainment, study theology, write dissertations, fight wars, and believe in almost anything, even if it is wrong. In extreme cases, we will even die to protect ourselves from this eventuality. In fact, we will do anything except what Jesus does--stand directly atop the chaos, with nothing between ourselves and the water but the belief that the universe will bear us up.
What does Jesus believe in? Or Moses? Or Adam or Abraham? They would say God. But what does that mean, really? Is belief in God like any other belief we use as a stopgap against existential anxiety? Is it merely something we put between ourselves and the water--like a dike or a boat? Realistically, this may be the case for many people, but it is not what the Bible means by belief. Belief is never a protection against life.
The Bible never really tells us where we are in the cosmos. It speaks in generic terms, as if orienting us within a room. But where is that room? We don't know. We have only its four walls, its ceiling and floor, and the various things, ourselves included, to be found within it. Here is the land, here the sky. The sun to mark the days, the moon for months, and stars for eternity. There are plants, animals, and others of our kind, and above it all stretches blue sky in all directions like the open hand of God. That hand matches the earth like the lid of a box. But what that box lies on is unknowable and unknown. Apart from belief there is no basis for life in this or any other world.
For thousands of years, the Bible's story of creation served as spiritual midwife for Western people. True, it asked us to believe in propositions for which there was no proof. But it was not asking us to believe for any ideological purpose. A particular church or religious institution might have a stake in whether or not its members believe in the literal truth of Creation, but the Bible has no such vested interest. It only wants us to realize that woven into the fabric of the universe itself is a spiritual buoyancy that allows us to tolerate the uncertainty of life in this world. What is being "created" in Genesis is not so much the physical universe as our belief in the rightness of that universe as a place to live and to be. All other interpretations, including those of the folklorist, the literalist, and the scientist, are finally beside the point.
To understand where a thing begins is to know where it is going and where it will end. Creation begins with chaos--with the uncertainty and unknowability that underlie all created things. From this God calls forth the perceptible order of a known universe, what today we would call reality. But where does the story end? "And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made" (Genesis 2:3).
We may sometimes ask a person who is telling a roundabout story, "Where are you going with this?" If we ask the same question of the Bible--if we ask, "Where are you going with this creation story?"--the answer can only be the Sabbath, the seventh day of creation, on which God makes nothing but rest.
To be at rest in this world--and not to be in too great a hurry to get out of it, or to deny it, or control it, but to trust in it even as we trust in God--that is the point of the story of creation. Nothing more, nothing less. And rest has everything to do with belief. But not with the multiplicity of particular beliefs that make up a creed or dogma, a theology, a philosophy, or a religion. True rest lies in the single belief we call God, the belief that bears up the world we stand on, that allows us to live and act as conscious beings in the knowledge that, come what may, life in the world is essentially right and good. "And God saw that it was good," says the opening chapter of Genesis (1:10). Then, in case there should be any doubt on this matter, it says it again--seven times in all.
Before Josephine Slater came to live with my family in 1937, she had worked on my grandfather's farm in rural Arkansas. My mother had just been born and my grandmother needed someone to help out around the house, so my grandfather asked if Josephine would like to come work for him in town.
In preparation for her arrival, my grandfather built a small two-room house at the back of the property, connected to the main household by a narrow concrete walkway that bordered an enormous walnut tree. By the time I was born the roots had buckled the concrete so badly that as I was learning to walk I frequently had to be helped up over the hump. Eventually, however, I was able to negotiate the distance to Josephine's house on my own and, on days when my mother or grandmother lost track of my whereabouts in the house, I would invariably be found sitting on Josephine's lap on her front porch or curled up beside her on her bed.
It is always difficult to describe true believers. The problem is that the very things that distinguish them from others are easy to overlook: humility, quietness, a sense of inner calm. Many years later, describing the turmoil of his early childhood, my uncle would claim that it was really Josephine who kept the family from flying to pieces following my grandfather's premature death. "It was her patience more than anything, her stillness in the midst of everything that was wrong."
Josephine would do everything at exactly the same pace, regardless of what it was. It was as if she had made a pact with life to value all things in it as equal, giving the same attention to the postman and the pots and pans. I never learned the trick of it, if there was one, but I have finally come up with an image to describe what it felt like to observe her moving through the day. It was like watching the waves come in, one after another, to the shore.
In the afternoons I would often sit playing on the floor with a Duncan top or some other trinket from the drawer in the kitchen where she kept my toys. She would sit on the kitchen stool, watching me calmly without saying anything, and without picking up the newspaper or amusing herself in some other way. Whenever I looked up she would simply be looking back at me, as if to sit there looking were enough.
In the evenings we would relax together on one of the big white porch swings that faced one another across the expanse of my grandmother's deep covered porch. I remember sitting there beside her in my pajamas, listening to the chains of the swing squeak softly back and forth, just watching the darkness come.
One summer when I was three or four years old, I was sitting on Josephine's lap in her house in the late afternoon. She had not yet lit the kerosene reading lamp that sat on the table beside her bed. The sun shone through the back window and across the bedspread, casting a pattern of oblong leaf shadows across the wooden floor. It was hot. As we sat there together without saying anything, to cool our faces Josephine turned the handle of a cardboard fan very slowly back and forth across her wrist.
Oddly enough, the fan is what I remember. It was of a variety they handed out at hardware stores at Christmas every year--white fans with a color portrait of Jesus on one side, and on the other a calendar of the year. It has been a long time since I saw one like it, but I'm sure that somewhere down south they probably still exist.
In any case, it wasn't the fan that was important, but the slowness with which she turned it from side to side, without words or explanation, possibly without intention. Slipping back and forth across the space before us, it revealed first one face, and then the other--the temporal and the divine.
Finally, we can believe in God, even if we don't know who or what that is. Life is mysterious, uncertain, and occasionally terrifying, but there is no need to be dismayed. Walk or float. Swim or tread water as we like, we only need to know this: the very thing that frightens us is the thing that holds us up.
The Knowledge of Good and Evil
But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,
thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou
eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
Try, if you can, to get through one day without calling anything "bad." Try to remain open to the possibility that everything you see is acceptable (even optimal) as it is. If that is too hard, try for one day not to reject outright any person, place, or thing. This doesn't mean you become blind to reality. If you witness a crime, call the police. But leave judgment to God. God alone knows how all of creation fits together as a whole.
We live in a world defined by preferences--a world that sets one thing over and against another. If we are happy it is because we are not sad; if sad, because we are not happy. We experience success or failure, love or hate, attraction or revulsion. Rarely does it occur to us that there is another way, a way that accepts all created things, ourselves included, simply as they are. And yet, that other way exists. It begins at the moment we acknowledge that we are blinded by preference. We love our children and fear our enemies. Sometimes we hate them and seek their harm. To admit that is the first step toward recognizing a truth that lies at the heart of the truly religious life: that which we cannot call good is the subject of all our spiritual work.
We don't have to look far to find that kind of work. It presents itself in nearly every moment of our lives. "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). To grasp even the smallest portion of that truth may be the work of a lifetime.
Begin by looking in a mirror. What do you see? Few of us would say, "God." And yet the Bible boldly makes that claim: we are made in the image of the divine. But then why can't we see it? Why, when we look in the mirror, is it impossible to see God?