Tuesday, December 20, 2005


This is the season of the winter solstice, the birth of Jesus, the Jewish festival of lights, and the remembrance of Kawanzaa. Across many cultures, it is a time of coming together, of the celebration of community through acts of faith.

Sometimes I feel like I have been on the outside looking in, kind of like a kid with his nose pressed to the glass, peering into a toy store filled with mysterious and shiny and curious things. Let me explain.

My parents came from very different religious backgrounds. My father is Jewish, but Jewish more as a culture than as a religion. His parents emigrated from Russia while the tsar still sat on the throne, in part because their heritage made them targets of discrimination. My grandmother, for example, survived a pogrom against the Jews and recalled being pulled into a doorway to hide from Cossacks thundering by on horseback. In America, my grandparents settled comfortably into a Jewish neighborhood in New York City. Their desire was not really to practice faith as much as it was to simply live in peace and raise a family in a land where they had as much opportunity as anyone else. My father got a limited religious education, and is not especially religious himself.

My mother was farm-raised in Oregon, daughter of two devout Christians; each of her parents were so devoted to their own church that they went to separate churches, and she went with each on alternating Sundays. One week she was Episcopalian, another week Lutheran. By the time I knew her she was vaguely Christian in a mainstream way, and had somehow picked up a mistrust of Catholics, Mormons, and what she called “Holy Rollers,” meaning Baptists and television preachers of all stripes. She seldom attended church (perhaps out of confusion as to which one to go to) but felt it would be a good thing if I attended church.

I should point out here that my parents separated when I was four and divorced not long after. As part of the custody agreement, I was to spend summers in New York with my father and the school year in Arizona with my mother. It was a cross-cultural bonanza from which I am still recovering: In New York, I wandered the halls of the Museum of Natural History, ate matzah ball soup, and took in the rides at Coney Island. In Arizona, I lived on a remote Indian reservation where my mother taught elementary school. The school, and the teachers’ apartments, were built across the road from the ruins of an internment camp where Japanese-Americans were forcibly confined during World War II. Not far away were the railroad tracks, where real-life hobos made camp, and when I went out to play my mother was forever telling me to avoid both the hobos and the rattlesnakes. Scorpions were a given.

The wonder, and wonder, and wonder years

In the midst of this, when I was about five or six, my mother decided that we needed to attend church. And so we did, consistently every Sunday, so much so that I was awarded a picture of Jesus that glowed in the dark, which I thought was the coolest thing in my room. It was in church that, my mother imagined, I would receive the tools to become a decent human being, to avoid impulses that might turn me into a hobo, or a resident of Manhattan. Perhaps she also hoped to stick it to my father, for she once let me send him a card that said “Happy Easter.” Who knows.

At any rate, what she did not count on was my natural curiosity, put into overdrive by what is probably the greatest lesson she ever taught me, imparted when I was taking fairy tale stories a bit too literally: “Don’t believe everything you read!”

The result was that I simply could not wrap my mind around what I was hearing in church, and the Biblical stories of miracles did not meet my literal standards of evidence. I did not see how Moses could have parted the Red Sea, for example. I had tried to part water and it simply wouldn’t work. And if Rumplestiltskin’s maiden couldn’t really spin straw into gold, how could Jesus have turned water into wine?

Jesus was presented to us in Sunday school as something of a benevolent Big Brother, always watching you. When I was given a post card of Jesus, standing about thirty stories tall and looking into an office building, I was incredulous. Nobody was thirty stories tall, and if Jesus were that big, he would be crushing cars in the street, which would be very un-Jesuslike. I also did not see how Jesus could be looking everywhere at once, for I already had the sense that there were a lot of people and a lot of places on Earth.

My babysitter was an Indian lady named Barbara Claw. She was religious, and insisted that what the preacher said was true, that Jesus could see you everywhere. So I hid in her clothes closet and asked if Jesus could see me there, and when she said "yes" I found another hiding spot and repeated the question, and this process went on and on until Mrs. Claw had to be wondering if the good Lord was testing her patience.

Beyond this search for literal truth, some other things also bothered me. If God was all-powerful and loved humankind, how could he allow there to be a Hell? Why would God favor one group of his children over another?

Eventually, when I got to be about seven or so, my mother discontinued church.

And so it was that I remained free of religious training, left on my own to figure out the mysteries of life. Ultimately I did absorb some lessons from the Bible, for despite all my questions, certain things made a great deal of sense: The Ten Commandments, for one, and also the Golden Rule, which sums up in one sentence how best to live one’s life: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

As a teenager I began to wonder about matters of faith rather seriously, and I was able to see that there is wisdom at the heart of many religions, however much the trappings may ring false. I also began to learn more about history, and became dismayed at religious intolerance, the monstrous crimes committed in the name of God. All this led me, briefly, to the Baha’i Faith, which preaches a message of tolerance and the unity of all religions. But as much as I appreciated some of the principles of the faith, I could never quite get myself to believe in the details, which is, as we know, where the devil resides.

Faith without religion

And so I have been going through life ever since, living in a society where many people are comfortable believing things that I cannot. This does not make them wrong and me right, and this does not mean that I am not a man of some faith.

On the contrary, I am.

CLL, which brings with it a powerful reminder of mortality, no doubt tests, or challenges, the faith of all who acquire it. You would think that I, without a church or temple to retreat to, might find this particularly hard. But over the years I have learned to believe in the beauty and goodness of life, of which uncertainty is a part, and this is good practice for the calamity of cancer. I have developed a faith through experience, brick by brick, that is, I have discovered, pretty much unshakeable. If the edifice is not ornate, it is nonetheless solid.

It is hard to define this faith, except to say that I hold as a central tenet that life is a gift, be it purposeful or accidental, and that the energy expended to live it is more profitably spent on doing good than on doing bad.

I believe we never left the Garden of Eden, that it is all around us, that man never fell but has yet to rise to his full potential. (I use "man" in the collective sense of traditional English, for I believe that women are every bit the equals of men.)

I feel that I would be a fool if I claimed to know how the universe began. I know what science says, but science is incomplete, and I still have the same question that I had when I began to take science classes as a kid and started asking difficult questions: What was there before the Big Bang?

Science cannot answer that question, and “nothing” has never made sense to me.

Closer to home, here on Earth, I can see that evolution works. I accept the DNA evidence that shows that we are, indeed, cousins of chimpanzees. I see consciousness and emotion in a variety of creatures, and believe these things are not reserved for humans alone. I believe this awareness, all we are, could simply be a result of the complexities of our brains, our neurons, our cells. I also believe that it could be something other than that, for as Hamlet said: “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Whatever the source of our consciousness, I believe that it may or may not end at death. I have read enough compelling accounts of near-death experiences and reincarnation that I cannot dismiss these possibilities. I watch as science tends increasingly toward esoterica such as string theory, and this all reminds me that if there is one thing we know it is this: We do not know.

And so my faith takes that as a central tenet, too. It accepts that there is much we cannot know, and focuses instead on what we can do: Right what is wrong, mend what is broken, take what is given, give more to take.

And so, in that sense, I am not left out in the cold this time of year, after all. I can share with my brothers and sisters of all faiths and no faith at all what we have in common that uplifts us. And so to you, whatever you believe or don’t believe: May the universal message of peace and tolerance, love and forgiveness, and joy and hope ring through the clouds, echo off the mountains, and find its way to the homes of you and yours.

Below is a photo of a rainbow taken from our home in Arizona. Rainbows we can all see and believe, even if we do not know what lies at their end. One day, perhaps, we will find out.


For a short but sweet overview of agnosticism, Wikipedia has a fine article at:


I guess I would be an "agnostic spiritualist," according to the article.


Jenny Lou said...

Actually, you are far more spiritual than alot of people I know that attend the church of their choice "regularly". All it takes is to have a kid in trouble, say with drugs, and you quickly find out about Love, Charity, Hope, Forgiveness and Friendship. I have always searched as you have, especially with an Episcopal Priest in the family. God is for all on earth, not just a denomination. It's that simple.

Steve Madden said...

"Truth is One, though the sages know it variously."

Karen Khal said...

I enjoyed reading your article, David. If I had had your upbringing with religion, I don't doubt I would have come to the same conclusions. I can see that you're a deep thinker who enjoys looking into things and finding the truth. Thought I'd recommend a book that I think is really good about the Christian faith. It happens to be written by a Lutheran, but it's really not intended to be denominational, just a defender of the faith in general. If you're still open-minded and searching, I thought you might enjoy it. It can only be ordered at nph.net (northwestern publishing house) and it's called "Prepared to Answer". Anyway, keep up the diary. I love it! And have a wonderful Christmas, however you choose to celebrate.

Bob Larkin said...

David, I've got to say it again...you write with such skill and apparent ease. What a gift to us all. This "Faith" reflection is compelling and a most enjoyable read.

Brian Levy said...

I didnt look up your definition of agnosticism but I have to say that your writing reflects what I personally consider myself to believe - pantheism - the universe as God. You speak of universal truth (something severely lacking in modern (especially political) America)and scientific fact. What could have existed before the Big Bang? How about Potential? What if we are only in a long cycle of expansions and contractions? It is not hard for me to imagine these rather simple concepts - afterall, simplicity begets complicity. Maybe it was God's intention that a consciousness evolve to discover his glory (look at the odds!). Maybe it was also his intention that we have to discover ourselves in the process.

I agree that literal interpretations of the Bible are somehow unsatisfying. Jesus, who I believe to be a great man and perhaps the first revered revolutionary, did not espouse a literal interpretation of the Bible. Fundamentalism of all stripes was something he preached against - this he physically demonstrated when he attacked the bankers in the temple, and symbolically, the corrupt temple leaders. Fundamentalism is a top down approach to belief with leaders and followers. Jesus never considered himself a leader and he chastised those who treated him as one. Currently relevant and historically poignant but apparently easily forgotton by those who espouse to the entitled Christian lifestyle so treasured in America today mainly by the Elites currently running this country.

Here are some variations on your theme I think you will appreciate:

Brahmanism: This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.: Mahabharata 5:1517

Christianity: All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.: Matthew 7:12

Islam: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother what which he desires for himself. Sunnah

Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.: Udana Varga 5:18

Judaism: What is hateful to you, do not to your fellowmen. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.: Talmud, Shabbat 31:a

Confucianism: Surely it is the maxim of loving-kindness: Do not unto others that you would not have them do unto you.: Analects 15:23

Taoism: Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.: T’ai Shag Kan Ying P’ien

Zoroastrianism: That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good: for itself. : Dadistan-i-dinik 94:5

Peace be upon your soul brother.

David Arenson said...

Thanks to all for your comments. Brian's post reminds us of the universality of what most of us Westernized folk know as the Golden Rule, which is a central tenet of many faiths. (Which is pretty much what Steve said!)

Brian, your post brings up some intriguing ideas. My mind runs in that direction also. I have found in life that things never work out as expected, so I would not be surprised to learn that the origins of the universe, or of life, might be somewhat different, perhaps quirkier, than we might expect.

My major in college was cultural anthropology and I have studied the role of religion in many cultures, including millenarian ("doomsday") movements. My senior thesis was on Jim Jones and the People's Temple cult, a hot topic back in 1979.

Religions serve a function in society that is entirely different from the honest search for our origins and what lies beyond, including the existence (or not) of a higher order or being.

This is why I think we see a conflict between those who are dogmatic and those who are open-minded, why some see honest inquiry as a threat and others see it as the only logical course of action.

I think that faith, whatever kind of faith, born of the latter is built on a firmer foundation. (And I fully understand, as Karen implies, that intelligent people seeking answers can decide that an existing faith is, indeed, correct.)

I suppose, when we die and if we survive after death, we might find out some of these answers. Of course, we could all be sitting around on The Other Side, having this same discussion!

Loren said...

David, It seems to matter not what the subject is, but how it is delivered. A+. I liked it way better than my own. I believe we share some of the same thoughts, but I feel humbled by the way you convey them.

Thanks for the heads up,