In 2011, a group of researchers from the Universities of Liège, Wisconsin and Milan published the results of a study that set out to determine whether coma patients were able to dream. They concluded that not only could patients in a state of minimal consciousness dream, but that they also had consciousness of the external world.
156 years. In the scheme of things, it’s not even the beginning of the start of the blink of an eye compared to the approximately four-and-a-half billion years the earth has been in existence, or the approximately two-and-a-half million years since Australopithecus africanus first learned to stand on its own two feet and set this whole crazy humanity thing in motion.
Yet that’s the brief amount of time our favorite Deity has been in this coma. Since the publication of On The Origin of Species, we have experienced Albert Einstein, existentialism, the loss of almost eighty million people in two world wars, postmodernism, television, the atom bomb, Stephen Hawking, chaos theory, the internet, Sigmund Freud, the Big Bang theory (the show and the actual theory itself), the Hubble telescope … well, you get the picture. Believe what you want, but the Supreme Being’s room in Intensive Care became one noisy, crowded, chaotic place in a hurry.
A lesser Lord would have flatlined a long time ago, and the decline in membership among mainline Protestant churches and Catholicism in the US during this time certainly points in that direction. But a funny thing happened as the Omnipotent One lay prostrate in that hospital bed: contrary to logic, just as agnostic fingers started to reach for the plug, religious fundamentalism began to rise.
Why? Well, I have the feeling that, in a world of increasing complexity and uncertainty, those who seek God through fundamentalist religions–or any kind of religion that claims it is the only one that can save you if you only believe in its exclusive truths–do so because they want ready-made answers to life’s questions, a one-size-fits-all philosophy that reduces the mystery of life, the universe and everything to the theological equivalent of an “Everything happens for a reason” bumper sticker; that offers a get-out-of-hell-free card to anyone who believes in some cherry-picked verses from scripture; that believes stone-age moral codes and cosmogonies still apply, without any kind of context, in a modern world.
Sorry, but it’s all too easy. And backwards. Because rather than providing absolute answers, religion is a guide, providing ways for us to understand life and all its ups and downs. In cliched terms, rather than being the destination, religion is the journey itself. Seen this way, our comatose Creator is not the grand chessmaster, fiddling and meddling in human affairs, but the Divine to which we all must aspire if we wish to live a meaningful, fulfilled life.
And this is what I want to consider in this last chapter of God’s biography. Throughout this series, I have, with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek, imagined God as an anthropomorphic deity,
and it is really the death of that way of thinking, not the death of religion itself, that I have been contemplating in these last two chapters.
But because society has pronounced God and religion all but dead, ritual has disappeared from our lives. And that, to me, is the spiritual baby that has been thrown out with the existential bathwater. We need ritual—it helps remind us that we all have to face the same issues as we go on our journeys, and it provides us with public declarations that unite us in our humanity. Religion is just another name for the path that we travel through this life, and ritual is the theater through which we tell that story. And the rituals that we celebrate are really the coma dreams that I imagine our delirious Deity to be dreaming as we fumble, stumble and fall through our lives.
So what should religion provide for us in this modern age? Pretty much the same stuff it has since our earliest times, I reckon.
1) Rituals marking the passage from childhood to adulthood
With the possible exception of the Jewish Bar and Bas Mitzvahs and the tradition of First Communion in the Catholic faith, rituals marking an adolescent’s entrance to the adult world have long been missing from modern society, even though they have been a feature of aboriginal societies for millennia. These rituals were often quite brutal—circumcisions, ritual scarification and terrifying encounters with animals real or simulated were all features of this rite of passage—but they served an incredibly important purpose. They impressed upon individuals that they would no longer be treated as children and would have to participate in society and abide by its rules. Once a member of the tribe entered into the ritual, there was no turning back. The individual would either succeed and be accepted by the community as a whole or would fail or, worse, avoid the ritual entirely and be permanently expelled from the group.
The ceremony also functioned the other way, The society was also pledging its support for the individual, affirming that the newly formed adult would be protected in times of war or ill luck. In that sense, these rituals are reflected in the Christian ritual of baptism—the Episcopal church, for example, has the congregation pledge that it will nurture the child and protect it from evil.
2) Guidance for living a meaningful, fulfilling life
“The mass of men,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” Many of us spend our lives working in jobs that we hate so that we can earn money to buy things that we don’t need. The truly happy people in this world are engaged in work that has meaning to them; they have also learned to understand the difference between material needs and wants and are living life in harmony with themselves and the people and world that surround them.
They are following the path to the Divine.
Do we need religion for this? Not necessarily. But if we read the words of Jesus, or follow the Tao, we can perhaps move toward this kind of enlightenment and understanding more easily than we could though trial and error alone.
Interestingly, I know of no specific ritual that accompanies this aspect of our lives, perhaps because it is a task that we should be working on minute by minute. There should be no one point in the week, or the year, or even our lives, when we stop and think about our life’s task. Instead, as Zen Buddhism teaches, we must be it.
3) Guidance and rituals for respecting our fellow human beings and the world
The majority of us choose to live in some kind of a community; at some point in our lives, many of us also choose to commit to a life with another human being in some kind of family unit. The coming-of-age ritual is the first public declaration that a reciprocal arrangement exists between an individual and the community, but throughout life, both have to be reminded of the trust, respect and responsibility needed for a harmoniously functioning society. The teachings of great religious figures, and many of the laws of those religions, try to move us all in that direction. It is the recognition that, as William Blake put it, “Everything that Lives is Holy.” It is in the Great Commandments of Jesus to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ [which I take to mean following the path to the Divine]. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12: 28-31; Luke 10: 25-28).
Then there is the question of how we live with another individual. All religions and societies, I think, have some kind of wedding ritual, a public declaration that two individuals love each other so deeply as to make a lifelong, public commitment to each other. All religions, too, provide guidelines for such a relationship. Again, whether we need religion for this is arguable, but I question whether all human beings are capable of enough self-awareness to meditate upon, then cultivate, the qualities necessary to survive with one or more of our fellow homo sapiens.
Religion, of course, has not kept up with our scientific understanding of the environment, and has little guidance and, at least in the religions of the modern west, few rituals connecting us to the earth. Our ancestors, who were more connected to the natural world, understood this connection better than we do.
4) Guidance and rituals for thanksgiving and for dealing with hardship
In medieval times, the Wheel of Fortune was a visual metaphor that reminded people how fickle life could be. One day, you were at the top, with everything you could possibly want and need, the next at the bottom with nothing.
Just as religion should give us the guidelines to deal with each other, so should it give us the means by which we can cope with life’s problems and give us a chance to celebrate life’s victories. Thanksgiving festivals, which probably have their roots in the kind of festivals I mentioned in an earlier chapter, are common in religion and society; most religions, too, have fasting rituals that serve to remind us of life’s difficulties and that are intended to give us tools, mental and physical, to cope with them. Sadly, in western Christianity, the fasting periods of Advent and Lent are either ignored or totally misunderstood in the modern age.
If we lose the ability to truly appreciate and celebrate our talents, and if we lose the ability to ride out the difficult times without resorting to anger, resentment, blame or medication, we are truly creatures out of balance with ourselves and our world. We have strayed from the path to the Divine.
5) Guidance and rituals for death
As Jim Morrison so succinctly put it, “No one gets out of here alive.” The only certainty in our existence is that, one day, we will no longer exist. Yet many in today’s society fear death and so go to extraordinary lengths to prolong life. Cosmetic surgery and elaborate medical procedures all attempt to put off the inevitable. But if we have lived a meaningful life, if we have followed the path to the Divine, death should not come as a thief in the night but as a fitting end to one part of our existence and an apt beginning to another. This is what should be celebrated through funeral rituals. Again, religion may not be necessary to help us contemplate mortality, but it provides a guide that enables us to understand it, prepare for it and celebrate it fully and appropriately.
What the next 156 years will hold, I have no idea. But I find it impossible to believe that religion or ritual will disappear completely from human lives. The incapacitated Immortal’s plug will never be pulled because the path to the Divine always awaits anyone who cares to walk it, and the dreams of our collective unconscious will always be dreamed, whether we perceive them or not.
But I do believe that it is time to change our understanding of organized religion. We have to acknowledge the truths of science and scholarship and bring modern understanding to the spiritual realm rather than have religion decide for us what is, or is not, true. We have to move away from the magical thinking that says God or fate or destiny controls human events. And we have to continue to reject religions that tell us to obey their tenets because God or, worse, fanatical followers will punish us if we don’t.
God’s biography, despite Nietzsche’s claims to the contrary, will continue to be written. But God only knows what we will read in the next chapter.