POEM: Ed, John, Kevin, Mike, Sid & Me

Ed, John, Kevin, Mike, Sid & Me

he stood beside me
(I was five)
dressed in black
white at the throat
when he spoke
others paused to listen
but it was a power
he didn’t abuse
I knew, in that moment
he was who I wanted to be

he stood in front of me
(I was 13)
cream-colored robe
trailing the floor
rubber chicken
in the basket of
his bicycle
which he’d ridden
down the centre aisle
of the church
I knew, in that moment
he was who I wanted to be

he stood across from me
(I was 15)
in the parking lot
at marching band camp
taught me a song by
Genesis (the band, not
the book)
told me he didn’t believe
in the invisible man
I hadn’t realized
that was an option
I knew, in that moment,
he was who I wanted to be

he stood in an alcove
(I was 22)
a statue of burnished wood
incense filling the room
with sandalwood
the temple was dim but
glowed nonetheless
I bowed my head
found my footing
took a deep breath
I knew, in that moment,
he was who I wanted to be

he stood before
the gathered workers
(I was 33)
spoke into a megaphone
salt and pepper beard
close cropped hair
a regular suit, but
that familiar white
at the throat
he led with a quiet fire
told them Jesus
stood on the side
of the worker, not the boss
I knew, in that moment,
he was who I wanted to be

he stands before me now
(I am 44)
a face reflected back
in the steamed mirror
of the upstairs bathroom
he looks older
still has the goatee, but
his cheeks are fuller
he’s taken a long road
to this place
to the comfort of
“I don’t know”
the strength of
“but I know what to do”
I know, in this moment,
who I am and who
I want to be

///

Jason Crane
2 October 2017
State College PA

Why I’m A “Science Guy”


Thomas Dolby-She Blinded Me With Science

Why I’m A “Science Guy”

Today a friend asked me (after learning that I’m an atheist), “So you’re a science guy?” I’ve been asked some form of this question often enough that it’s probably time to say something about it in a public forum.

I should begin by saying that I’m not even sure I understand the question. It seems to mean, “So you believe only in things for which there is evidence?” Or maybe, “So you don’t believe in things for which there is no evidence?” Or some combination of the two. And I’d have to unreservedly answer yes to both questions.

I’ve read many times that a “belief” in science is just another form of faith. And here I have to disagree. At least as I understand faith, it literally means a belief in something despite the absence of evidence. The very essence of faith in God, for example, is that one does not require proof of God’s existence. Science, at least as I understand the term, is the exact opposite. The scientific method is the process of hypothesizing something and then testing that hypothesis. If the data supports the idea, it’s accepted. If not, another explanation must be found. And as we amass more data, we may realize we were wrong about a previous idea (e.g. there’s nothing smaller than an atom). This doesn’t invalidate the method, just the previous results. In fact, it proves that the method works.

“OK, smart guy, so what existed before the Big Bang?” I don’t know. I think “I don’t know” is one of the most powerful phrases in the English language. When I was a union organizer, we were taught to always answer “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you” if a worker asked us a question to which we didn’t know the answer. This builds trust by demonstrating intellectual honesty. It’s important to realize that “I don’t know” is not at all the same as “nobody knows.” It’s also important to realize that “nobody knows” is not at all the same as “nobody can know or will ever know.” If you’d asked me in 1750 what makes the sun bright, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. And if my answer had been “magic” or “God,” I’d have been dead wrong, as we now know. My inability – or the inability of modern science – to explain something doesn’t mean it can’t be explained or that we need to turn to the supernatural for an explanation.

“OK, smart guy, how do you explain that [this thing happened to me that I can’t explain]?” I understand why this is so powerful. Maybe you thought of someone for the first time in years, only to have your phone ring and to hear their voice on the other end. Or you dreamed of a friend, only to learn that they died during the night. Or a disease went away when it seemed like there was no hope. I can completely understand why anyone, faced with one of these circumstances, would believe that more was at work than just the natural world. But is that really the case?

In the case of the first two examples (the phone call and the dream), these things seem special when viewed against the backdrop of one person’s life. But there are 7 billion people on Earth, and surely given those numbers, multiple people a day must have this experience. It just stands to reason that every once in a while someone is going to call a friend who was just thinking of them. Or someone is going to dream about someone who just died. When it happens to you, the individual case seems special, but that’s just because it’s rare in your experience, not rare in the experience of humanity, taken as a whole.

My explanation for the third example (disappearing disease) is similar. Given the number of people alive right now, it must happen that sometimes diseases for which we have no treatment, or for which treatment has failed, just go away. The body figures out how to fight them or the disease itself loses some key component of its survival. Again, our lack of an explanation doesn’t mean no explanation is possible.

That leads me to an important idea, namely that in these situations, it’s useful to ask the question, “Which is more likely, that science and I can’t currently explain why this happened, or that the answer exists outside the laws of nature?” In other words, “Is it more likely that I happened to be one of the 7 billion people who received a coincidental phone call, or that God or some supernatural force caused my friend to call?” If the latter seems plausible to you, then we probably have a difference in perception of the world so great that it can’t be overcome. I understand that and I’m not trying to convert, just to explain.

I’d also like to mention the selective acceptance of science. For example, politicians will go on television, radio and the internet to gainsay evolution or global warming. In other words, they’ll use tools that exist only because of science to argue against the application of that very same scientific method to an issue with which they don’t agree. I understand that in this particular example, their disagreement is just as likely to be strategic as real. So let’s go back to one of the examples above. In the case of the disease, if you accept the existence of electricity in the hospital and all the medicine that was used up to the point where the disease disappeared and the gasoline engine in the ambulance that got your friend to the hospital, etc. etc., how do you determine where to draw the line? “Science works for this and this and this but not this” – why not? How do you know? Where’s your evidence?

Finally, I’d like to add a personal note about where we’re at as a culture. I’m speaking here as an American in the 21st century. It makes me very sad to live in a country where we even have to have the concept of being “a science guy.” The validity of the scientific method and what it’s produced has so much data to support it that if we can’t accept that, we really can’t accept anything. If we’re to have any hope of saving the human race from destruction (see: global warming), we have to get past this idea that we can choose which bits of science we accept. We’ve pushed our planet and our species to the brink. We don’t have time for magic.

Maybe I should become a priest, or, an unlikely turn of events

164897_10151398140838597_1765163042_n When I was kid, we had a family friend who was a Franciscan monk. His name was Father Edgar, and he was a big presence in our family, even though we didn’t see him all that often. He knew us because my Aunt Linda had been a religion teacher in a Catholic school and, if my memory is right, Father Edgar taught there, too. Or maybe served as an administrator.

In any case, every once in a while when I was very young, this guy in a priest’s collar would show up at some family event. He was very impressive. Smart and funny and good with kids. He called me “jaybird” (I went by Jay rather than Jason back then) and always made me feel like one of the adults. He was also the first person I ever met whose job I thought I might like to do. Of course I didn’t quite know what it meant, but I thought it would be fun to be a guy like Father Edgar.

Years later, for non-religious reasons, my parents and sister and I switched from the Catholic church to the Methodist church in our town. We instantly became very close to the church’s two pastors, David and John. They were good men — very different from one another but both committed to building a loving community in our church. John had been a steel industry executive until deciding to enter the ministry. David was a genius — he spoke several languages, read several more, and collected Swiss stamps. Once again, I thought their job would be a good fit for me. I even went so far as to attend seminary classes with John at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School so I could see what they were like.

Then in 1988 or ’89, at the age of 15, I realized I didn’t believe in God.

I realized this mostly because I’d finally made friends with people who were atheists. I’m honestly not sure that option had even occurred to me before I met these people, but once it was on the table, I knew quite quickly that I was one of them. It was a real problem for my family. Luckily I graduated from high school not long afterward and my lack of faith stopped being an issue because I no longer needed to go to church.

Here’s the thing, though — nothing in American society can replace church. It’s the one place people go where they’re at least ostensibly prepared to receive some sort of moral instruction. And it’s a place where you can talk about building a loving community — or just talk about love, period — without everyone running away screaming. Many churches, of course, don’t focus on that kind of thing at all. American churches are also focal points for intolerance. But when it’s done right, a church community can be a beautiful place, and I’ve never found anything quite like it.

In my 20s I discovered Buddhism and developed a meditation practice that continues today, albeit with many breaks over the years. I tried several times to become a regular member of a sangha (the Buddhist version of a congregation), but I’d usually run away because of the formality and ritual and, well, religiosity of it all.

But the idea of serving as some sort of community leader never left me. I ran for office, I ran political parties, I worked as a community activist and broadcaster and performer. I tried in many different ways to create the kind of communities I’d loved back in my religious days. I did a lot of fulfilling work over the years and, I’d like to think, left some of the places I lived better than I found them. But there was always something missing.

I applied twice to Naropa University, a Buddhist university in Boulder, CO. I was accepted both times but couldn’t go for financial or family reasons. As recently as last fall, I was accepted as a staff member at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, where I hoped to work and eventually qualify for their chaplaincy program. (I don’t have a Bachelor’s degree, so the obvious route of some sort of divinity school isn’t open to me.) I ended up canceling my Upaya plans, though, when I decided to stay here in Auburn, Alabama, for a while.

The other day, though, I was walking to work when this happened:

/ / /

devotion

I can’t call it a struggle
not in the sense I would wish
I’m sure I don’t believe
in fact it’s hard for me to imagine
I ever did, except as obligation

and yet this morning again —
while walking the quiet sidewalks
of this Southern college town
listening to a priest read Herbert and Jarrell —
I imagined what it would be like
to say goodbye to all this day-to-day
to wrap my body in black
stand in the glow of stained glass
say the words I can still recite from memory
nearly thirty years after

I picture their faces, lost as I am
looking to me to make sense of
what cannot be made sense of
what a gift that must be
to sit at the center of so many lives
to reassure them that it all means something
that today is more than another spin
around an axis most of them
must also take on faith

I want to be the one the grieving family calls
the calm presence at the bedside
or the smiling face to those whose days
contain few smiles
I want to wear the uniform of compassion
to speak with the voice of righteousness
to say to the strikers, the protesters,
the homeless, the jailed:
you are not alone
and in that moment to see in their eyes
their silent response:
we need you

/ / /

And ever since, my insides have been jumping around like oil on a hot frying pan. I just can’t get that walk out of my head, or the sense that I desperately need to get back to the business of serving people.

Several of my friends have asked why I don’t just do that kind of work without any religious trappings. That would certainly be my preference, but as I said, I’ve tried that and found something lacking. I tried to describe it in an email to a friend who’s both a community organizer and an ordained minister:

That experience yesterday was one of the strongest emotional experiences I’ve had. These last months I feel like a need to serve has been building inside me. It’s always been there, but these days it’s like a physical manifestation in my chest, in my heart, in my thoughts. If I thought I could hack it in a Christian seminary, I’d go today.

I doubt I could, though, and I don’t have a BA, so I’m just not sure what to do. I think I belong in “the ministry,” whatever that term could mean for a guy like me. But I’d need to do it honestly and without telling people things I don’t believe.

I’ve been talking to two local friends in the past 24 hours and describing how when you show up at a strike, a protest, a meeting, a bedside in your collar, the entire atmosphere changes. People listen to you, accord you respect, assume your righteousness and compassion. (I know this isn’t universally true, but I’ve seen you work enough times to know it’s generally true.) It seems so right, so good … and so much who I want to be.

I look at people like you, or like the Berrigans, or like Thich Naht Hanh, and so many other examples, and think that’s where I want to be. Who I want to be.”

Again, I really am an atheist. I don’t think what’s happening now is God speaking to me or anything like that. I truly don’t believe in any of that stuff. But I do believe in the power of the trappings of religion to change people’s way of thinking. I know they’ve changed mine in various ways over the years. And I feel strongly that whatever is going to happen next for me needs to involve service and the building of an intentional, loving community. As John, the minister mentioned earlier, told me a couple years ago: “You need to get paid to love people.”

So that’s what I’m trying to figure out these days. How does a hardcore atheist who is suspicious of organized religion answer an internal calling to serve in a capacity that most closely resembles the ministry? If you’ve got thoughts — theoretical or philosophical or practical — I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

[Photo by Amanda Vita.]

Buddhism, atheism & me

From Buddha In The Modern World (Ongoing Photo Essay)

I’ve been an atheist since I was 15 years old.

Before that I was a very devout religious kid. So much so that the first and third things I wanted to be when I grew up were a Catholic monk (because I knew and liked one) and a Methodist minister (because I knew and liked two). The second thing was a paleontologist.

Then one day I realized that I didn’t believe in God. I tried for a while to make a go of the fellowship aspect of church without the God bit, but it didn’t really work and most folks who knew about my change in thinking weren’t all that happy about it. There were some major exceptions, including the person I credit with first opening my eyes to the idea of atheism as a viable alternative to belief — my friend Kevin Baird. To this day that remains one of the best gifts a friend has ever given me.

I’m now 37, so that means I’ve been an atheist for 22 years, longer than I wasn’t one. In the intervening years, the only times I’ve tried on the trappings of religion have been during a couple flirtations with Buddhism. My first interest in Buddhism came during my second stint in Japan from ’96-’98, then during my first time in Brooklyn in 2000. Then I became more intensely interested later while living in Rochester, home to a large and active Zen center founded by famed Zen popularizer Philip Kapleau.

[Funny aside: As I’m typing this, I’m listening to Talking Heads sing “Once In A Lifetime,” which seems almost comically appropriate to what is fueling this essay.]

While living in Rochester, I regularly attended the Zen center for a while and practiced meditation at home in a room where I’d set up a small Buddhist altar. I found the practice of meditation extremely beneficial, but it seemed so wrapped up in religious trappings, such as monastic hierarchy and ritual, that my dislike of religion eventually outweighed my appreciation for meditation. I stepped away again and didn’t return for nearly a decade.

Now I’m back in Brooklyn. As you may have read in earlier posts (1) (2), my life has changed a lot in recent years. As have I, thanks to a combination of maturity and therapy. And once again I find myself very attracted to Buddhism. This time, though, it’s Buddhism with a very different context.

I was browsing in a bookstore a while back and stumbled across the work of Stephen Batchelor, particularly his books Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confession Of A Buddhist Atheist. You can imagine the appeal of a philosophy that incorporates the best parts of Buddhism and simultaneously strips away the need for a belief in reincarnation or anything else not supported by testing and experience.

Batchelor’s argument — and I hope he’ll forgive me for this gross simplification — is that the Buddha’s point was about dealing with the cessation of suffering in this world, irrespective of whatever might come after and independent of any need for a belief in an eternal “self.” That’s right up my alley, because the core ideas of Buddhism were extremely helpful to me when I last tried to employ them in my life, but the idea of special or mystical knowledge held only by a priestly caste always seemed exclusionary. And to the inevitable criticism that I’m choosing just the bits of Buddhism I like and ignoring the bits I don’t, I’ll rely on Batchelor’s answer to this same critique: “It has always been thus.”

So in recent months I’ve gone back to my meditation practice and back to a fairly intense reading of Buddhist literature. A friend commented recently, “Are you becoming a Buddhist? I thought you were an atheist.” I don’t know the answer to the first question, but the answer to the second part hasn’t changed since I was 15. I have no belief in the supernatural, be that God or eternal life or reincarnation or magic or whatever. Buddhism as I am choosing to understand it these days doesn’t require that. And it provides a set of tools — or, more appropriately, a path — that helps me navigate my world in a healthier, more present, more compassionate way.

I’m certainly at the beginning of this phase of my life, and you may come back here in a few months or a few years and I’ll be posting my “What was I thinking?” essay. But at the moment I feel like I’ve hit on the right combination for where I am and what I need right now. And I’m okay with that.

POEM: Oh Lord

Listen to this poem using the player above.

Oh Lord

Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me
When Charles wrote that,
the (magic) mushroom
seemed like a very real possibility.
Like there could be a day
when there were no more days,
when spring would jump
straight to winter
and the switch would get stuck.

Now his words sound quaint and old-timey,
like interring the Japanese
or smallpox blankets
or the city of gold that was exchanged
for dark flesh. Like bomber blackouts
on the West Coast and ships
in Davey Jones’ locker,
sent there by folks flapping their gums.

We don’t worry ’bout that no more.
We have seen the enemy and they are winning.
With friends like we’ve got, it’s just as well
Dastardly Dan leaves that girl tied to the tracks.
She’d better pray the train kills her,
because her insurance won’t cover just
losing a limb or two. That’s an act of God,
they’ll say. The Big Guy doesn’t like it
when you don’t pay your rent.

POEM: Transubstantiation Is A Crock(pot)

Listen to this poem using the player above.

Transubstantiation Is A Crock(pot)

Thomas didn’t want to touch Jesus
because he doubted His existence;
he wanted to see if He was tender.
“Nothing ruins a sacrament like tough Christ,”
Tom said, casting a knowing glance
at the others. He spoke loudly
so that Jesus wouldn’t hear the fire crackling
in the next room, and to distract the Savior
from the stealthy approach of Simon/Peter,
who brandished a rock above his head.
He called the other night the last supper?
mused Thomas. He ain’t seen nothin’ yet.