Where to find, where to miss, and how to kill the divine.
The coarse wool of my djellaba was scratchier than the sand blowing against my bare legs. Maybe the other way around. One does not customarily wear shorts in the desert, but I welcomed the contact, the tactile connection to this landscape where the life stayed hidden and the death stood obvious. The sun was still under, but the wind was up, slowly burying me in Sahara. The steady movement, as I stayed immobile, reminded me of Pacific beaches, where outgoing waves slowly sift you into the sand, a memory from this place’s opposite twin, the sensation’s antipodal kin.
Everyone else still slept while I climbed the tallest dune around our sheltering valley to watch the Saharan sunrise. Seated on the ridge, as the last of the stars dissolved in the growing blue and the curves of this sere place consented to my eyes, I felt an unexpected stirring.
I’ve long known myself as a disciple of the ocean and devotee of the redwood forests where my soul was born and my body grew up, places where I felt the presence of the divine far more than I ever had in any manmade coffin of stone or wood, but now, here, on the other side of our galactic rock, I had found another holy place, built of dry textured grains, saturated in burning and freezing, the dust of bones from the places where humans began, but had abused into infertility. And it was undeniably holy.
On a sand dune in Morocco, as in a surf swell in Monterey or a sylvan glade in Mendocino, it was clear to me, illuminated by more than the morning sun, that religion is an improper response to the divine.
The divine is fundamentally unknowable, and religion claims to write it down. The divine is essentially personal, and religion wants all to abide by a standard doctrine. The divine is eternally changing, and religion tries to spike it to a stationary cross. In the end, that’s what religion does to the divine: it crucifies it. Impaled on nails of dogma, bound to a fixed position, delineated in an X marks the spot. But the divine does not work that way. The divine is cosmic wind, ocean currents, spring growth and autumn shedding, and now, I added, the migration of Saharan dunes.
I looked down from my moment’s seat atop a slow-sliding deity at the camp below, where my fellow short-lived humans gathered, and thought That is a church. A mosque, a synagogue, a temple, a cathedral, a tent: these are where we upright monkeys find mutual support, shelter, and community. These things are important. Crucial. Beautiful. Even holy, in their human way. They are to be respected, enjoyed, and cherished.
We gather together in these places, seeking to know the divine, but over time we grow fatigued of looking at mystery, which never seems to change, never speaks, never seems to notice us, and eventually our vision shortens, and we find ourselves mistaking the setting for the goal.
When we have forgotten the point so completely as to think that our rituals and forms ARE the divine? When we take that confusion as a justification for violence, spiritual or physical, against other seekers (and we are all seekers, even and perhaps especially the Atheists and Agnostics) that is when we have taken a misconception and made it truly blasphemous.
It is not blasphemy to disagree, it’s when we inflict that disagreement on others.
This all seemed very clear, in the quiet howling wind of a Saharan morning, and it was easy to think I was the only one listening. But I was not. Talking heads encourage me to believe that Islam and Christianity are at war, but they are not. Some Muslims and some Christians are, minorities both, but those are the squabbles of the sleeping, the martyring of the misled. Religions are just windows, and fanatics can only break them.
We’re all just standing in the same tent, trying to understand the sensual slopes outside, the benevolent menace and looming placidity of an incomprehensible power outside. Some might push and shove, thinking they have the best views, telling others what to see, but in the end, we need to leave the confines of the tent and walk the slopes for ourselves.