Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on August 9, 2014

I want to talk about non-theism, which is not the same as being an atheist. Atheists declare there is no god, period, end of story. Non-theists, such as Buddhistrs, say there is no being separate, higher, or 'essentially' different from our own being. Whatever there is out there, it includes us as an equal member. That is a real difference.

As for a definition of non-theism, I love the statement by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in his recently published seminary transcripts:

"That is what is meant by non-theism; nobody is going to save you."

Amen! This is so much better a definition than feeling I have to argue with those of you who believe in god that there is no "god," or that I believe that there is no one up there pulling strings who did not start out like us. That's not the point. Non-theism is not atheistic; it is, as mentioned, non-theistic. Whatever is going on in the universe includes us as an equal part, not as a subordinate piece. Any subordination is something that can be remedied.

I am always glad to see spiritual practice of any kind (or none) if it is not invasive to others. And if that makes you happy, I'm happy for you. If you think about it, being a non-theist is not intended to discourage those of you who have found faith in god, who are atheists, or who are agnostic. Non-theism is perhaps most like agnosticism, with the exception that unlike agnostics (who say they just don't know), non–theists say that they do know they are an equal part of this world-system.

As for myself, I have never been (nor am I now) against Jesus or "God" (or any other spiritual figure), but rather my concern has always been an attempt on my part to find where do I belong in the overall picture of my spiritual life, plus an honest admission on my part that god (as described in my upbringing) has never showed up. I have yet to hear from him (or her) directly or by email, and no text messages yet either. Instead, it seems that I have always been on my own in this life, which, as it turns out, is just what the Buddhists say. Not that we don't get help from more enlightened beings, but that regardless of any help, finally, we each have to turn the wheel of enlightenment for ourselves.

The various religions ask us to call on God for help. Well, I called (as best I knew how) and got no definitive answer. So when the Buddha points out that we each have to save and enlighten ourselves or do whatever we can in our own behalf, that makes perfect sense. Otherwise I am just sitting here "Waiting for Godot" and growing old. So it is very simple: I have to do my own saving or enlightenment. Is that so hard to understand? Not for me.

Even when, early-on, I still "believed" or hoped in god, I had to save or do whatever for myself. There was no rustle from above, no one behind the curtain when I peeked, except myself. I am on my own. Some of my more religious friends who wandered off into an evangelical bent would say to me "Michael, are you saved?" To me, that was always a rhetorical question, to which I would sometimes answer "Saved for what?" And my little niece once said to me "Uncle Michael, I am sorry I won't be seeing you in Heaven." Well, I guess not. I wonder who told them that. My first dharma teacher used to tell me: "Michael, this can be hell; we each have to make our own little heaven right here where we are." Now that made sense.

It is wonderful how our children often reflect our own inner beliefs and clarify them for us. Here is a song my daughter May Erlewine Bernard wrote that expresses much of my spiritual outlook, how I actually feel. It is called "Down in the Valley." If you have time, enjoy this view:


Saving and enlightening myself is fine by me because at least I get to be part of the rescue operation. I always wanted to be part of something spiritual, not just a dependent article or dangling participle. I spent years trying to get the Catholics (the church I was raised in) to admit to me there was some similarity between Jesus and me, that we shared something in common, if only a bridge. But that never happened. Even when I went to the Jesuits, the priests the Catholics consider their most scholarly philosophers; I was repeatedly told that Jesus was unlike me in every way. He was divine, I was just human, and never the twain shall meet. What about the divine in me? I wanted so much to share in and be a part of whatever was going on, above, below, or just round about, but never a word of encouragement. Is it any wonder that I finally turned and walked away? There was no room in that inn.

Many years later (many years) I was talking with a Catholic priest who tried to walk that line back and suggest that in these days I could be part of whatever is going on, divinity, ordinariness, etc. But I told him that it was too little, too late, and why didn't they tell me that fifty years ago when I asked so fervently? It would not have made any difference anyway. My religious upbringing was not spiritual enough. I am more of the mystical persuasion; no middlemen. The church as a business was always distasteful to me. It just muddies the waters. I like my spirituality À la carte.

Buddhism is not a religion IMO, but merely a method for awareness. What I like in any faith are those ministers who actually care for others. I am impressed by that, no matter what denomination. They are, in my opinion, bodhisattvas, and the Buddhists teachings say so, that bodhisattvas can arise in any group or religion. All you have to do is care for your flock and not be aggressive to others.

While to some readers we non-theists might seem to have a big vacancy above, something missing up there, I experience just the opposite. Instead of emptiness, I finally feel an equal part of whatever is going on, above, below, and sideways. And I don't mind enlightening myself, however long that takes. To be honest, no one was helping me anyway. I was already on my own and doing it myself or trying to. Aren't we all? I just didn't know what to do or how to do it. So non-theism (at least for me) is just wanting to belong and be a full and equal part of what is, not an adjunct.

Whether god is (theism) or god isn't (atheism) is beside the point. Buddhists feel the same way about our very existence itself. It neither "is" nor "is-not;" it both is and is-not at the same time. How 'bout them apples?

[Photo of a lily taken early one morning.]