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Newtown: A Crisis of Faith

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I have a spiritual problem.

Carl Jung believed that most people's psychological issues can only be truly relieved through a spiritual response. The situation we humans find ourselves in is growing more and more difficult if not impossible for us to bear. Post Newtown, I am in a full-on crisis of faith, and I know I am not alone.

Atheists would seem to be in really big trouble, and though I have a spiritual bent, I have a lot more in common with atheists than I do with those religious folks who have a strong and unwavering faith in an Always-Available, Benevolent Presence of God. But the latter does seem to be the only thing that could possibly resolve this perpetual conundrum of wanting to believe in the fundamental goodness of people and preciousness of life, yet at the same time, having to hear of unspeakable atrocities on a daily basis. Can the faithful among us really somehow feel a Benevolent Presence, even now, in the midst of a world gone mad and out of control, hurricanes drowning innocents and tearing apart homes and lives, and a scary man killing 20 kids in an elementary school?

Who wouldn't be doubting God's Presence right about now?

My father called to alert me to the news from Newtown, and added: "You're not safe anywhere." (This, after I spent a year with an EMDR therapist trying to uproot the innate lack of safety I inherited from my Mom's family just out of the Holocaust, and now with Dad's latest pronouncement--"You're not safe anywhere"--I'm thinking I may have received the message from both sides and as a result, grew up cautiously creeping about in Fair Lawn-Leave-it-to-Beaversville, New Jersey with my heart pounding as if the Nazis were lying in wait around every corner.)

But to the point, are we ever safe anywhere?

For atheists, there is clearly nothing to be found within the random, uncaused world of chaos to explain any of it or protect us from the bad guys: the men with missiles--on either side--the people in suicide vests, the Batman guy in Aurora, plus cataclysmic tsunamis and "acts of God," the reality of climate change and having to witness polar bears balancing on one leg on a small floating piece of ice, or trying to make sense of the microscopic tick on a leaf that brushed your leg as you jogged by and caused two years of undiagnosed Lyme's disease, while your Mom keeps putting her shoes in the freezer. Atheists have to simply accept that for some reason forever unknowable to them, they seem to reside on an insane planet. End of story.

But my question remains: is it ever even possible to feel and experience a sense of utter and absolute safety in this life in the very same breath that we inhale the daily news? Or is that why Ativan and Clonopin sales are going through the roof? The whole world is having a collective anxiety attack. Is it possible, without a God to turn to, for us to be of genuine good cheer in our present existential condition? Without some workable theology to explain the constant presence of apparent danger if not outright evil among us, is it really possible for us to even relax once in a while, let alone feel safe, or even joyful?

Must we count our blessings in Hell?

But we do not want to merely dress up a miserable Earthly reality with consoling belief systems; that's cheap religion, not true faith in a living, real God. If we're going to find genuine faith in the wake of Newtown, Connecticut, it's going to have to issue forth from an authentic encounter with "life-as-it-is," which is one of God's more difficult names, the one Zen people would use if they used one.

Harold Kushner points out in When Bad Things Happen To Good People that God can't simultaneously be All-Powerful and All-Loving (unless your idea of Love is expansive enough to include the most horrific tragedies and horrors you can possibly imagine.) Clearly an All-Loving God does not have the power to intervene in our lives and protect us from all the bad stuff, because if She did, She would!

Unless we can wait on line as a Jew, for example, about to enter the Nazi gas chamber and crematorium, and still feel held in God's all-loving embrace, then our God just isn't good enough, big enough, or real enough to help us tackle the challenge of being human. On the other hand, it would seem that for the September 11th World Trade Center bombers, Allah was indeed sufficient to escort them through a violent end, so this argument doesn't really hold water either. Jesus on the Cross had a similar challenge, to retain faith in the face of adversity, and impending death, but we're talking about some big-ass adversity in all these examples. That's a LOT to ask of ourselves. I think when things get as unutterably terrible as they did in Newtown, we'd be nuts not to question our faith.

I still cling to my idea of a love-based reality being a place where children--and us--are utterly and absolutely safe: from bad people, from bad accidents, from bad diseases, from bad anythings. But our experience of this world is exactly contrary to that. This human existence is increasingly fraught with peril. Someone once said, "You can be safe, or you can be alive." To go for safety when, as Helen Keller put it, "Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing," is to downsize your life experience more and more until you never leave the house.

My beloved teacher of many years ago, Stewart Emery, once said, "Nobody told us when we were born that we had arrived in the lunatic asylum of the universe." Meaning, among other things, that everyone is crazy here. The best it ever gets is when some of us crazies begin to recognize the sheer horror of being alive in this fragile, mortal human situation, and thus do our best to at least be a loving, accepting, and safe presence for others, knowing that virtually everyone we meet, on some level, is scared to death because we are all, each and every one of us, clearly in great danger every step of the way. We hear the message broadcasting within: "Beware! You are not safe anywhere. And neither are your children. Even in first grade in Newtown, Connecticut on an ordinary, brisk fall day, December 14th of 2012. Neither is your spouse, your parents, your best friends." (Now go out there and have a good time!)

Jung was correct. All of this is a spiritual problem. If I base my personal reality solely on the evidence of what the news media bombards me with daily, and there is no God, faith, religion or even generic spirituality to lend a hand, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever that we shouldn't all be EXTREMELY UPSET AND TERRIFIED ALL THE TIME. So enter the first premise of spiritual thinking: Is there something more? Is there a bigger picture? Is there any way to lift the terror of being human and all that awaits us on every front, every moment? Is there any consolation for the shattered heart and souls of the Newtown parents and families? I'd guess the answer to that one, for even the most faithful among them, at least for the moment, is a flat-out "No." Even God is powerless to console the inconsolable.

When I worked as a hospital chaplain and faced people's horrific experiences with them head on, there were never any words, any prayers, that were the least bit effective or useful, or even welcome, even to the most religious people. The only thing I or anyone could possibly offer another in the midst of life-ruining, catastrophic tragedy was presence, love, and tears. God or no God, it always seemed to come down to the human heart, not religious belief. Perhaps that is the real benevolent presence of which I spoke earlier; us.

Thus the spiritual problem posed by events like Newtown is this: is there actually an experience-able reality, accessible to human consciousness, that remains steady and present no matter what is occurring, including the events in Newtown? Because the only useful theology is one in which everything that is possible to experience as a human can be included and accounted for. If God is Omnipresent, there can be no exceptions, nothing exists outside of that Reality.

The Buddhists leave God out of the equation, but the Dzogchen path, one of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, speaks of a Primordial Awareness that does not belong to any one personal mind, but is available for every mind to relax into and literally to be. It is Omnipresent, meaning Never-Absent. It is simply aware of what occurs, but has no vote, no preference, and is unmoved and unchanged by events. Buddhist teacher Christopher Titmuss once referred to this possibility as "abiding in the Unshakeable." Among some New Agers, there is a pronoun form that is used to refer to this One Mind or One Awareness: "I Am." Way before my identity descends into all the things I think I am--I am a Jew, I am a man, I am 60 years old, I am married--before all those labels and categories lock me into the solid identity I know as "me," there is simply "I Am," without further definition--just Spacious Presence, a Knowing without a personal Knower-- and that "I Am" is the very Source of consciousness, and equally accessible by all.

And it is an immoveable rock in the face of all possible experience, completely safe, untouched by events, good or bad.

People meditate, pray and do countless other rituals and practices to remind themselves of this inner place of refuge, for it appears to be the only way out of this mess, and yes, as Jung declared, it is a spiritual solution, and requires being hyper-vigilant, awake and aware in whatever moment you are currently living--this very breath, knowing that this is the first breath of the rest of your life, and/or, at some point, your last. The timing is a complete and utter crapshoot.

It requires a conviction that such Primordial Awareness--a non-theistic way of saying "the Presence of God"-- is not wishful thinking, or merely a consoling figment of one's imagination, but is in fact real, actual, and demonstrable to the individual in the form of direct personal experience, and thus requires no belief or faith or religion, per se, only wakefulness and attentiveness to Presence and Awareness every moment of every day. Except even full-time monks, priests and rabbis who devote their entire lives to achieving this usually don't even come close, so what are sluggards like us supposed to do?

Bear the unbearable.

Witness the worst.

Live love and give goodness.

Walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil.

But are we safe in this valley? Yes and no.

If we are wholly and exclusively identified as our physical body and thinking mind, then we are not even remotely safe in this world. We are all metaphorically running through a field of land mines each and every day, the killing fields of earthly existence, which extend even to a first grade classroom in Newtown, Connecticut.

And yes, we are safe, if we are quiet-minded enough to notice and tune into a core Awareness that remains steady and constant throughout the roller coaster ride of our lives; some call it God. The spiritual solution. And we strive to live from that place within us, where we are that Awareness, that connection to Source, that Union with God, such that no matter what happens in the human drama, whether wondrous or unspeakably, intolerably awful, Awareness is a constant. In other words, if we're going to bother having a God, She better be one that remains fully present in the very worst of human situations. Because we can pretty much handle the good times on our own.

Teilhard de Chardin said: "The day is not far distant when humanity will realize that biologically it is faced with a choice between suicide and adoration." When spirituality is awakened within us, we can find adoration, even here, even now, no matter what is happening. Without it, our prospects appear to be pretty bleak, and trust me, nobody gets out of here alive.

And just a reminder: 'tis the season to be jolly.