Thursday, January 09, 2020

Surprised by God: an appreciation

If you’ve read the synopsis for Surprised by God, the story may seem familiar - especially at a distance: A young person declares herself an atheist, leads a bohemian (or hedonistic) life, then slowly discovers God. Danya Ruttenberg’s story fits into a genre I call “spiritual autobiography”; it shares that basic outline with C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy and Augustine’s Confessions. My own faith journey is strikingly similar as well.

The difference being that Ms. Ruttenberg is Jewish.

Danya was born into a family that was only moderately observant. Her mother observed a few holidays, but no one in her family regularly attended synagogue. By contrast, my family attended church every Sunday. I was baptized into the Methodist church in December 1956 - a year and one month after my birth. In my memory, the Methodist denomination did not require much of us - beyond children remaining quiet and still in church.

Like Danya, I came to reject the faith, and even question the existence of God. She declared herself an atheist in high school; I waited until my first year of college. Danya describes herself as bohemian: she partied til early in the morning; developed her own wild sense of style; had sex with women as well as men; and even drank absinthe.

Similarly, I drank to intoxication on a regular basis. My dress was unique, but not as outre as Ms Ruttenberg’s. I dropped LSD with alarming regularity. I was essentially celibate, but was attracted to a handful of men as well as most women.

Then, like Danya, I began to sense there was something more; that there was, to paraphrase William Blake, something beyond “the senses five.'' Danya was in college, and chose to major in Comparative Religion, with an emphasis on Christianity - as the dominant religion of our culture. In retrospect, I wish this part of my journey had been equally structured.

My journey began in 1988, when PBS aired “Power of Myth”, a series of interviews between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell. I had read The Hero With a Thousand Faces shortly after I graduated high school, so I was already aware of Campbell’s work. But this was more extensive. The ideas were exciting; the presentation comforting.

This formed a confluence with other media: Leo Buscalia’s PBS series on Love; Elaine Pagel’s research into the Gnostics, originally serialized in the New York Review of Books; J.M. Cohen’s The Common Experience; and the Penguin Edition of the Word Bible, with collected selections from most of the world’s religions.

In brief, it was a self-directed course in Comparative Religion. Like William Blake, I believed “All religions are One”, and I strove to find a synthesis of these varied expressions of the divine. On my own, with no mentor.

In brief, I had a nervous breakdown.

Ms. Ruttenberg journey gained momentum after her mother died. She felt obliged to offer Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of morning, a practice she knew would have had meaning to her late mother. This required her to find synagogues where ten men would join the prayer. In Hebrew, a language as foreign to her at that time as it is to me now. Still, the ritual worked on her, embedded itself in her.

She chose to return to the tradition of her youth, even though she found some aspects to admire in the Christian tradition - she quotes Christian authors like Merton or Nouwen at least as much as she quotes Jewish writers like Heschel. If you follow her twitter account (@TheRaDR), you know she considers Judaism a culture as well as a religion. From which, I infer she chose Judaism because to do otherwise would be to reject her culture and its traditions.

Rabbi Ruttenberg often pauses in her spiritual autobiography to reflect on moments in her life, on what they mean, through the prism of her current understanding. As she grows in her practice of Conservative Judaism, she mentions that following Torah - which is typically translated as The Law, but could also mean The Way - is like living in a portable monastery.

I understand this to mean that one agrees to follow Torah just as one agrees to adopt a Rule of Life. In the monastic tradition, a Rule of Life is intended to draw you closer to the community and to God. Most Protestants are not familiar with this ancient tradition. But it can help give your life more structure, more of a foundation in the Eternal, than a Sunday worship service alone.

For example, in the Benedictine tradition, the monks pray four times a day: Morning, Noon, Evening, and Night. They work to support the common good. They share their possessions in common. The monks take vows of poverty and chastity (though there are now some orders which accept married people)..

As it happens, I had read Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy shortly before reading Surprised by God. Rev. Taylor taught a class in Comparative Religion for several years, and she found something to envy in each of the world’s major religions. Like me, she envied the precision of Jewish tradition. By which I mean, having 613 laws to follow is less challenging, in its way, than Jesus’ Great Commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

A Jewish friend recently told me that the 613 (or 618) laws exist to protect the Ten Commandments. And the Ten Commandments exist to protect the One. In other words, the Torah makes explicit, in minute detail, what it means to love God with your whole heart, whole mind, and whole being.

I found myself wondering, as I read Rabbi Ruttenberg’s excellent book, how different my practice would be if I had a Rule of Life that was clearly enumerated and sustained by tradition. I give thanks for her witness; I consider it both a challenge and an encouragement.