…and we discussed a problem with a word. He didn’t think it meant what I thought it meant, and I think he thought rightly.
That word is “worship.” We also discussed “faith.” “Belief.” And “religion.” These are all concepts with which I toy, and use like foundations for elaborate thoughts… except, what I’m building is way over there, and he thought those words lay in this field here. Problematic.
See, I’m an atheist. A mystiskeptic. A funny little Pagan chick (cheep, cheep). And I “worship” “gods” who don’t exist. They’re ideas. Metaphors. Pure poetry. The things that guide my morality aren’t set down in any books, except maybe the Bokononist texts, and those never stopped being written (I am writing them myself, you are writing them yourself, we are weaving together at the loom, pulling out each others’ stitches, bowing the warp, following different designs, but we’re doing it together).
Of gods, Le Guin said it: “I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.”
Of morality, Vonnegut said it: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
Worship, the noun, as defined by the American Heritage College Dictionary, means “1.a. The reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object. b. The ceremonies, prayers, or other religious forms by which this love is expressed. 2. Ardent devotion; adoration.” The verb? Transitively, it’s this: “1. To honor and love as a deity. 2. To To regard with ardent or adoring esteem or devotion.” Or intransitively: “1.To participate in religious rites of worship. 2. To perform an act of worship.”
Worship, then, is not exactly what I do. But I play loose and fast with words, the rope spinning out of my hands, out of control. I am not devoted to a deity. Deity is a figmental mystery, deity is this universe, whole, including me, including you, deity is a metaphor and a damned good one, a completely inadequate one, a cliché, a sham, a reflection of everything we hope to be, a well of ideas… I make them up as I go. The only firm thing about deities that I can profess with any accuracy is that I can find nothing literal about them.
So how do you worship a thing like that? I esteem lies, adore artifice, and I don’t pray. Not to inventions. Worship is a rite, yes, and it is religious– but am I a religious being? Faith is blind. I like my eyes open, my ears perked, my nose full of air, my tongue tangled over syllables, my fingers holding earth. Faith… is a leap. Though I am a gazelle, I want to rough out where I will land. Belief? I believe in a universe. I don’t trust my senses. They are an artist’s senses. Philosophy tells me that even empiricism has its limits. Descartes does not tell us that we are; does thinking require an agent? I don’t believe anything. I believe everything. “I believe, regardless, I believe in everyone.” Oh, Joanna.
Tangled skeins aside, when I say worship, I mean something very specific. I mean to take part in wonderment. The universe is, and it’s vast, and this is a wonder and a mess. Worship is an act of reverence not for a thing in particular, or a single idea, but for all that is. It’s not about unquestioning devotion, but adoration of the fact that, hells, we’re here. My sacred object is everything, all I have learned, all that science unfolds, all that philosophy ponders. Worship is the stuff of ritual, of rite. Everything I do is ritual, a symbols game. Every act is worship. Every inaction is worship.
And faith? Most take faith to mean the stuff of blind leaps, to accept axiomatically things which bear argument, to inhabit dogma, to follow without question. The given definition is “to accept without proof.” But what is to accept? All things are in doubt. We are in a state of never knowing. Faith might be letting the possibility that the sun will rise tomorrow guide your plans to drive to work and maybe take a stop for a glass of orange juice along the way. Faith for me is in the hesitation. That heron wasn’t there yesterday. Because I do not know if the sun will rise, because I do not know if Huitzilopochtli has received a sacrifice these 52 years, I think I will stop to worship with the heron instead of taking that glass of orange juice.