Last Sunday we attended a dharma teaching at Green Gulch Farm, on the western flanks of Mount Tamalpais, above Muir Beach. It was the kind of morning for which this part of California is famous: foggy and cool with sudden glittering glimpses of ocean or mountain that as quickly disappear back into the magician’s hand. After scurrying down the eucalyptus-buttressed driveway, we arrived at the temple late and at the wrong door. The temple was packed and listening to the robed priest read a children’s story to perhaps twenty well-behaved but wiggly children. Once the children were sent off to their own separate programing, the priest began his teaching in earnest, an hour-long disquisition on the relationship between labor (it was Labor Day weekend, after all) and Zen practice. He read two poems by W. B. Yeats, one by Patrick Kavanagh, and referenced Shakespeare and Northrop Frye. I would bet that his radio is usually set on the local NPR station, and that he was looking forward, as I was, to reading the Sunday New York Times that afternoon.
When Martin and I got to the Times-reading phase of our own Sunday liturgy, I read a beautiful essay in the book review entitled “Articles of Faith” by Dara Horn, in which she muses on the easy confluence of contemporary Jewish fiction, even if it’s overtly non-religious, with ancient questions of faith. She contrasts this Jewish feast with the slim pickings on the post-Christian literary table: “Whither the Flannery O’Connors of yesteryear? Marilynne Robinson can’t do this all by herself!” Because Judaism is a faith based on the concept of preserving memory, she asserts a peculiar affinity between Judaism and fiction-writing, “a mystical and irrational belief in a type of memory no neurologist would recognize, a phenomenon both uncanny and eternal,” a conviction that “time can be stopped, that somewhere, whether on our notebooks… or our spirits, everything is perfectly preserved and recorded, ready to return to life.” The essay ends with a call to listen to and create the stories that give a deep anchorage in history and a shapely hope to our personal and communal lives, even as the anchorage has made clear the murderous powers in which we swim.
All right, I thought, I guess I’m Buddhist and Jewish today. Does that mean I’m not a Christian? Oh, dear. And on a Sunday.
Being in California, particularly in Point Reyes Station, leaves me a little disoriented, especially since I come from a state that has ignored virtually every vote I’ve cast in the past twenty years. Martin and I are in like-minded company here: virtually every voice loudly proclaims with gusto the gospel of sustainable and local. We’ve driven north to Bodega Bay and south to Mill Valley and in fifty miles passed not one fast-food joint. Cattle are vital to the local economy and yet are grazed and raised humanely on federal lands. Signs supporting the Marin Agricultural Land Trust—which protects about half of Marin County’s agricultural land from development—appear in almost every eatery with monotonous, almost sinister, regularity: could you end up in Tomales Bay wearing sustainably produced, free-trade cement shoes if you try to run a restaurant without supporting MALT?
Could I as easily be a Buddhist or a Jew as a Christian? A northern Californian as a Texan? The answer is probably yes, but I’m not. At some point in asserting an identity, in describing your part in the created order—something most Americans and maybe most post-Enlightenment people feel compelled to do—some sifting is necessary: this and not that. So I’m wondering why or how I’m a Christian. (Figuring out why or how I’m a Texan is probably too complicated an issue to tackle here.) The Nicene Creed seems as good a place to start as any. It’s quite possible that the mere mention of those words—Nicene Creed—will start the sifting process in some readers: here’s my stop! It certainly would have stopped me twenty years ago.
I used to hate the creed, and I hated it even before I started going to church. How could you not hate something that required you to believe a dozen impossible things before breakfast? And not just impossible but downright unethical and sometimes just plain silly? The bit about the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son always makes me think about opening a collapsible telescope. When we first started going to church, not so many years ago, saying the creed could ruin the whole service for me by starting an avalanche of arguments in my head that must have been audible at least to the people sitting next to me.
After years of saying and hating it, I began to say it with a few grudging assents. I was eventually surprised that immediately after the agitating “Father Almighty,” God’s next attribute was surprisingly democratic: maker. I’ve known lots of makers: hat-makers, bread-makers, policy-makers, cheese-makers (this is the home of Cowgirl Creamery, after all), and homemakers. Okay, I could say “maker.” I came to appreciate that creation included things both seen and unseen. Whether I believed it or not, I loved the effect of the introduction to Jesus: “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father.” I didn’t know what it meant (still don’t), but it was like entering a dense fog with a deep gong sounding, and it was followed by the bright iambic rhythm of “through him all things were made.” Okay. I could say that.
I can now say almost all of the creed, even the Father Almighty part. I’ve had a father. I’m married to a father. I’m the mother of someone I hope will be a father some day. I know a lot of fathers and with all my heart I believe—credo—in the power and tenderness and explosive energy that seems to be bundled with fatherhood and that is, at least in a post-Jungian world, no longer the exclusive domain of men. I can also say what kind of fatherhood I don’t believe in, to which I emphatically do not give my heart. Nor do I imagine that calling God “Father” can possibly limit what I understand God to be, what the prophets and saints imagined and imagine and will imagine God to be. If in a moment of Christmas amazement I address the infant Jesus as “Sweet Potato,” as I have addressed each of my children, I don’t really expect a creedal formula to arise, but I glimpse the power that binds God and creation. I can say that with all my heart.
It’s taken some time to sift through these things, to say this and not that. I remember a discussion at the Seton Cove in Austin when Patty Speier, the director, listened to a bunch of us talk about which tenets of the creed we thought we could toss out while still calling ourselves Christian. (One older woman in the group, Roman Catholic from long before her birth, listened to our passionate discussion with quiet amusement.) God the Father, of course, was thrown out immediately. Only son—on the trash heap. (No one had any objection to sitting in the reverberant fog of God from God, Light from Light, etc.) Virgin birth—are you kidding? Finally Patty asked us what we couldn’t throw out and stunned us into silence. I eventually answered that question by writing my own creed, which I have to change nearly every time I go back to it. I don’t actually say it, but it helps guide my steps when I pick my way across the capital-C Creed, showing me where to balance—here and not there—on the rocks that are tippy. It goes something like this:
I believe in one living God,
author, judge, faithful lover,
unseen, usually unheard.
I believe in Jesus Christ, the flowering vine,
who was born in danger of Mary
and unexpectedly loved by Joseph;
who walked in beauty through a world
rent by greed and grief;
who healed and mourned, who taught and raged;
who sang the old songs and spoke nonsense, sometimes;
who called hidden truths to the surface;
who forced a crisis in those who met him.
He died in agony—deserted, betrayed, true.
He rose and bloomed somehow, beckoning
everyone in time and space to join him.
And most of all I believe in the Spirit, who binds
with luminous swaddling the Creator, the Beckoner,
and all that is, has been, will be.
I believe they are the source of all just anger, all quiet courage,
all patient love, all improbable forgiveness.
I believe this mostly at night, in poems and music,
and when I don’t think too hard.
I believe this whenever friends and strangers gather for a meal.
I believe this as I can, which is sometimes not at all,
but I know I must believe or wither.
My identity as a Christian (and perhaps as a Texan) has taken—and continues to take—a series of unexpected turns. Many of the paths on which I have found myself peter out, but some of them allow me to move ahead. Since Martin and I are in this beautiful place to hike, I can’t help but imagine this process as walking in a wild place with a map that is useful in a general sort of way—you know what direction you’re headed in, where significant landmarks are in relation to each other—but less helpful when it comes to the specifics of navigation. The trail becomes fainter the farther you go, more like a deer trail, and suddenly you find yourself walking in high shrubs or reeds or thick understory. Several paths, equally well trodden, present themselves to you. You take one, puffing through the scratchy gorse, wishing you’d worn long pants, and swatting at mosquitoes. The trail becomes available only to those walkers with four feet. You swear and head back, hoping you’re actually on the main trail. You are, but it divides again, and all of a sudden the trail is nothing but thick impassable mud. You hear running water and know from the map that the trail is supposed to be near a creek. So you take off through the chaparral or whatever this damn stuff is and tear your shorts on a branch in an annoyingly conspicuous place. You feel sure that a trail will appear somewhere if you just get a little higher up. And all of a sudden, your partner now muttering unattractive observations about your sense of direction, you glimpse the quiet shining lake. You’re still not sure where the trail is, but the lake is right there.