Sunday, September 23, 2007

Hanging Out with the Fish

Traditionally, Jews on Yom Kippur read the portion of the Bible about Jonah and the Whale, or rather (a better translation) Jonah and the Really Big Fish.

In this story, God commands Jonah to pass judgment against the people living in the capital of the Assyrian (ie, not Jewish) empire.

Jonah refuses, running off to sea to escape God.

The Bible that I picked up during services tells me that Jonah literally means dove, symbolizing his reluctance to put God's wrathful command to action.

When an enormous storm arises and will not abate, the crew throws Jonah overboard in an effort to appease God and make the winds die down. Once in the waters, a giant fish swallows Jonah whole. He stays in his belly for three days and three nights until Jonah repents to God.

* * *

Perhaps you guessed from my last post how frustrated I feel with Yom Kippur. So I did what Jonah did. I planned my escape.

So I packed my bag with my journal, an iPod with something specific in mind to listen to, a book, and other assorted entertainments.

After I left the synagogue, I walked to a local park to sit on a bench. But what I found there was not peace and quiet but a small peace rally. I held a banner which read "Peace is the way" and showed a dove with outstretched wings. I thought of Jonah, wondering if he could be here, too.

Then I sat on a bench, plugged in my earphone and turned on Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God. She is terribly witty and amazingly wise--and, well, not exactly your standard Yom Kippur fare.

I've been an atheist all my life, but the role of organized religion has changed and re-changed over time. Right now I feel like I am hypocritical and lying, even making fun of true believers, if I engage in words and rituals that not only have no literal meaning to me but also challenge my metaphorical notions of how the world works.

Thinking about this rupture, I heard Sweeney say these words:

"If I look over my life, every single step of maturing for me, every single one, has had the exact same common denominator--and that was accepting what was true over what I wished were true."

When she has that long difficult conversation with God sitting on his suitcases, already thrown out of her house, she says:

"It's because I take you so seriously that I can't bring myself to believe in you. I mean, if it is any consolation, it's sort of a sign of respect."

I stayed on the park bench listening to Sweeney and realizing that not only did the lies keep me from being a good person but kept me from growing in other ways. I listened to her, words in my ears and yarn in my fingers to help me learn:

* * *
Eventually I come back in to services. We read Martin Buber: "We can be redeemed only to the extent we see ourselves." It is only by being totally honest with ourselves, only by acknowledging our individual truths, that we can truly move forward. Pretending something because it is comforting or pleasurable--or simply less dangerous--means muffling that small, still voice so intensely that we'll stop being able to hear it.

Perhaps the Very Big Fish will spit me out near Nineveh with increased purpose and renewed faith in faith. For right now, I'll light my candle in its belly and illuminate where I am.


Kathleen said...

Hannah, thanks, as always, for your thought-provoking post. I was intrigued by Sweeney's comments when kicking God out of the house as I have similar, though more inchoate feelings about God and faith and organized religion.

Jennifer Jeffrey said...

Thanks so much for this thoughtful post.

I've traveled a similar journey over the past ten years, and Sweeney's comment about "...if it is any consolation, it's sort of a sign of respect" rings with authenticity for me.

I'm finishing up "god is not great" by Christopher Hitchens, and while he is far more aggressive than Sweeney in deconstructing religious systems, it has been a valuable read for me.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, the only way I've been able to reconcile the Jonah story is to believe that it is symbolic- sometimes you need to be lost in a place no one can find you or bother you, to have the space to find yourself and really hear God.
Otherwise God seems a little cranky and a bit oversensitive for me in that particular tale. -Recant or I'm sending large marine mammals to get you- not so nice.

Anonymous said...

opps that last one was me- Rebecca R.

Kate A. said...

The only places I've ever been able to find a sense of spirituality (I'm not into the personalization involved in the word "God" much) is always pretty far away from organized religion. Parks are good. Even some religious buildings - when they're *empty* - but just as much around any other kind of great art. And more than anywhere else, within good, supportive communities of all sizes and types. And sometimes in blogland....


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