The Secular God

Thursday, July 12th, 2007

Even as we throw a wall of barbed wire and tin across our southern border, we’re allowing the only national wall that actually serves a legitimate purpose to fall into serious disrepair, with signs of active government collusion in its collapse.

The wall, of course, is the one that separates church and state — and establishes what may be, arguably, the single most important agreement we have as a nation and free society: the agreement that secularity is sacred.

This agreement has to be more than a genteel abstraction if it’s going to survive Alberto Gonzales’ Justice Department and the Evangelical takeover of the Air Force Academy and the simmering witches’ brew of money and Old Testament intolerance that is George Bush’s political base. For that reason, gloves off, my friends — about faith, values, spirituality and even that loaded term, God.

Bear with me as I attempt to release “God” from the captivity of religion — release not the authoritarianism or psychotic vindictiveness invested in the word, but the awe-brimming radiance and creative spirit so destructively partnered with those other qualities, so that we secularists can dance and celebrate what we have wrought. I speak of the God at the edge of language, the God that blesses all loving human endeavor — the God within, the life force, humanity’s collective conscience, the diverse, flawed, manmade Gods of all religions, the God that ignited Walt Whitman when he cried, “I and this mystery here we stand.”

Shoo, then, inane pollsters. “Do you believe in a Supreme Being?” they ask, as though such a question equaled “Barack or Hillary?” They purport to probe and quantify human spirituality with questions that reduce the great mystery to a presidential primary, then come up with a winner. In Newsweek’s poll last spring, God kicked butt, racking up Saddam-like numbers: 90 percent of Americans believe in God, the newsmagazine trumpeted in March. But so what? As with Saddam’s last election, there were no other candidates — just None of the Above, the empty, airless room of card-carrying atheism.

For myself, I am neither a believer nor an unbeliever. If I were forced to invent a label, it would be trans-believer: I am frustrated and furious with most dogma (especially Christian, because I grew up with it, and learned that all Jews, etc., were going to hell), but I am also indelibly shaped by it, permeated with it — in particular, by what I would call the Inconvenient Jesus, the one who has patiently been whispering for 2,000 years: forgive, be humble, turn the other cheek.

A while ago I read words of unwitting wisdom from a fundamentalist minister who, complaining about the imposed restraints of secular tolerance, angrily observed, “But that’s a religion too” — meaning the whole concept of scaling back one’s own absolutism in order to get along with and share public space with other belief systems and maybe even, good Lord, learn from them. Exactly!

The secular realm is a dynamic realm. And to be a trans-believer is, I believe, the essence of secularism: that is to say, to be not merely “tolerant” of diversity but to relish it, to partake of the extraordinary variety of ideas that occurs when all ideas are welcome, and to participate actively in the synergy they generate.

I think to be a trans-believer is also to be directed toward humanity’s future, not its past, in the conviction that our salvation lies not in the laws of the gods or saints of simpler times, but in what we haven’t discovered yet, what we’re currently in the act of reaching for. Our salvation lies beyond the suspicions and fears of those older times; it lies in making peace with the enemies of old, the ones who worshipped gods with different names and saw life from a different angle. It lies in striving for the sort of world that in the past was not even imagined, except by the laughed-at few: united, connected, unarmed and motivated by a spirit of cooperation rather than fear.

For this we need a world where church is separate from state. Any other world is a world hatched in private arrogance, symbolized by the neon sign of a church I go past all the time when I visit friends in Wisconsin, just off I-94 at the Baraboo exit: “Only Jesus Saves,” the sign says. The word “only” is unnerving, transforming the meaning that lights up the night from “we believe” to something far less, on the order of a childish taunt: “My dad makes more money than yours does!”

The lie I would like to sweep from the bin of media stereotypes is the one that supposes that family values and all other values, including those embodied in the word “God,” lie only on the church or private side of America’s historic dividing wall. Values cannot be contained by such a wall, and that is not its intent. The public side of the wall not only protects the values of the private sector, which would be devastated by its collapse, but is very much a source of value in its own right.

The highest value of all may simply be to embrace the evolving ecumenism of public life in a free society. In so doing, we open ourselves to the best of everything we are.