My Brother Calls me an Agnostic

Brother: Tell me Howard, does God exist?

HG: Why ask me? Why would I know better than you?

Brother: But I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

HG: It is.

Brother: No No No. Not for you it’s not.

HG: Why not?

Brother: Hang on, Howard. I’m asking the questions here. You’re the religious one. Do you believe in God?

HG: A classmate in grade six wrote an essay that offended me. He said there’s no such thing as believe. Either you know or you don’t. I wasn’t ready for his rigour. But I can’t fault his position. Either you know something or you don’t.

Brother: Exactly. I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you: Do you know?

HG: Sometimes.

Brother: Answer me. Do you know or don’t you?

HG: Both.

Brother: Don’t dodge the question.

HG: I’m not. Sometimes I do know.

Brother: And the rest of the time?

HG: Look, I am the victim of a scientific education. Nothing in science is proven. My education in science taught me Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Heisenberg was interested in knowability of the position of an electron, I seem to recall. I learned the difficulty in knowability of everything. You could say my position is uncertainty.

Brother: So you’re an agnostic.

HG: I don’t know.

Brother: I know why you’re dodging the question. As an observant Jew you’re embarrassed. I’ll ask you a different question, why do you pray?

HG: That’s easy. I need to.

Brother: Who do you pray to? When you don’t know if God exists?

HG: You mean whom.

Brother: Don’t dodge. Whom do you pray to?

HG: God.

Brother: That’s absurd, isn’t it? Talking to someone when you don’t know He’s there?

HG: I can tell you what I do believe in, all the time…

Brother: What?

HG: I believe in prayer.

Brother: That would be even more absurd, wouldn’t it? To pray to a being when you can’t say he exists; and to believe in prayer when you know prayers aren’t answered.

HG: What prayers aren’t answered?

Brother: When Dad was dying you prayed for him to be cured!

HG: Not exactly. I prayed for him to be healed. But I can explain what it is about prayer I believe in.

Brother: I don’t think I’m interested until you answer the big question.

HG: Humour me. I believe in prayer like I believe in breathing. I need to do it. I need to say thank You. I need to cry halleluya! I need to cry out in pain. I need to keep faith.

Brother: Keeping faith with a God whom – whom, notice – you don’t know exists!

HG: I do know sometimes.

Brother: That’s crazy. What happens to your other faith – I mean Science?

HG: Science actually means knowing. But it’s only one way of knowing.

Brother: Let me remind you, either you know or you don’t know. If you know, that must mean scientific knowing.

HG: Wrong! I know lots of things through my senses: I know hunger, thirst, pain. You certainly do too. You know when you’re randy.

Brother: That’s true.  But it’s not religious truth. That’s not absolute truth. God is absolute or He’s nothing.

HG: I do know an absolute. I know love.

Brother: What’s that got to do with it?

HG: Possibly everything. When I worked at a Catholic hospital a nun said to me, God is love. I didn’t get it. I asked her to explain. She repeated, God is love, and she left me to puzzle over it. I thought it sounded profound, but mysterious. That was nearly fifty years ago. It’s still a mystery to me. But I can tell you what you believe in.

Brother: What?

HG: Love. You love your children.

Brother: You’re twisting words. You and your nun. If you believed in love as God, you’d worship love. You’d pray to it. You’d personify it. But you’re actually an agnostic. Probably a Godfearing agnostic.

 

HG: Fair enough. There is another angle on love and God. It’s in Les Mis: To love another person is to see the face of God.  Too banal for you? Let me tell you how I do know God is real.

Brother: How?

HG: I visited The Breakaway at Coober Pedy.

Brother: So?

HG: I stood there in that desert immensity. Silence. Vast emptiness. And the still soft voice that spoke without sound.

Brother: And God?

HG: I stood in creation and I knew the Creator.

Brother: Very nice. But unconvincing.

HG: I’m not trying to convince you. I’m searching on my own behalf. But I know you’ve stood in immensity and been overwhelmed.

Brother: When? Where?

HG: In Yosemite. At the foot of El Capitan. We stood there together, with Dad. The universe spoke to us all, no words, no sound, but a state of inspiration.

Brother: I didn’t see God there. Feeling overwhelmed, feeling uplifted like that, that’s not knowing. That’s something distinct from knowing.

HG: It is knowing, you just don’t recognise it. Let me tell you of your knowing that you don’t know to be knowing. Deep knowing, incontrovertible knowing, beyond argument, beyond doubt.

Brother: I’m all ears.

HG: When you listen to music, when you know its beauty is truth, when that knowing clinches in your being. Sometimes I know God like that.

Brother: You’re twisting again. You don’t now whether God exists. You’re an agnostic.

HG: You think you know that. Hold on to it as an article of faith if it helps you. But would you like to know why I pray when I’m in a non-knowing state?

Brother: Tell me.     

HG: When faith eludes me, I pray to keep faith. I keep faith with Dad. I keep faith with his father, with all the fathers – and with the mothers – who’ve prayed.

Brother: Perhaps your prayers are a request to God to please be.

HG: If God exists, that is The Great Fact. I can’t think of anything more prudent than praying to cover that possibility. But that’s not why I do it. I do it because I love it. It’s the marriage of words to existence.

Brother: What?  

I Blame Seinfeld

I blame Seinfeld.

Someone has to be blamed.

My kids watched as they grew up. My wife watched. I tried not to. There was the hapless George: no shabbier soul ever sullied a screen. Every so seldom Kramer might pop up. He’d break me up. A wondrous comic creation. But between cackles I could feel something niggling at my austere soul. It was only later, with the advent of ‘Friends’ – not as funny, the characters even more ordinary – that I could define what offended me.

Nowadays, what was subtext in Seinfeld and in Friends is the explicit in the great world. What those characters (Seinfeld) and those nonentities (Friends) did constantly was normative and, in time, became normal. The banks do it, the captains of cricket, the captains of industry do it. The incumbent in the White House does it, the churches, the military, politicians (of course) – they all do it.

They all lie.

In those TV shows the ethos was subterranean. You could feel the tremors but you didn’t always sense the accumulating weight of untruth; nor how truth as a value kept receding into distance. In response to any difficulty, every character lied. They lied by reflex. Awkward situation? Tell a fib. Everyone does it…

I’ll tell you a story from the Olden Days. It goes like this: A child goes into a bank with his piggy bank.  The banker, a man in his fifties, helps the child to open a savings account. The banker congratulates the child on her thrift. The banker does not sell further products to the child.

 

 

Today that’s a fairy story. That banker will never drive a Ferrari.

Here’s a contemporary story: A customer goes into a bank and asks the banker a question. The banker replies, “I’m a banker. I tell only lies.” Should the customer believe the banker?

The makers of Seinfeld knew what they were doing. They were blowing a whistle on untruthtelling.

The makers of Seinfeld made us laugh. We laughed and we laughed. And we paid no attention to the whistle. And now the Liar in Chief sits in the White House tweeting. And the laugh is on us all.

 

 

A Message of Love Smuggled into a Suitcase

We live in a world in pain. In that world dark deeds, harsh words, inhumane policies are normal. God is conscripted and deformed in every form of violence. Truth is lost, our planet poisoned.
Seeing all this, hearing it, feeling it,a person might surrender and despair.
Then life sends a message.
This is the message that came to me today.

  
Miles spent two weeks pocket money on this gift for his mother.

‘Joyful’ by Robert Hillman – A Review

There’s a CD I listen to when I want to write about something serious or something true or sad. It is Disc Two of ‘Dirt Music’, the album compiled by Tim Winton and Lucky Oceans to accompany Winton’s great and sad book of that name. Two tracks on the disc speak from the darkest room in the house of sorrow. (I refer to Sculthorpe’s ‘Dijille’ and to ‘Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten’ by Arvo Part). The grief is absolute. It neither cries nor shouts nor tears its hair out. It simply quivers and ultimately exhausts itself and lapses into barely audible human breaths. And thus into harmony with life. The experience leaves me quiet, reconciled – I suppose – by sheer truth. And beauty.

What has that to do with Robert Hillman’s new book, “Joyful”?  I read a passage in the later part of the novel where a character who has lost his only two children weeps silently in the utter darkness of a room in the mansion that gives the book its name. His quivering presence is sensed by his host, Leon Joyce, owner of “Joyful”. Joyce, who has been observing his own prolonged season of bottomless grief, stands, wordless and motionless. The weeping one comes to realise he is not alone. Each sorrows in silence, both men understand. No sign, no word. But something beyond words is known: the two men and the grateful reader make their way from that room in “Joyful” somehow reconciled to loss. And that is what Hillman’s book is about – its chief theme – how we humans risk all and lose all when we (inevitably) invest in passion.

Robert Hillman is not famous for misery, any more than Winton. The misery is there in the book as it is in life. But “Joyful” is also a story of the greatest vitality, the most audacious imagination, the most original characters, (from the carnal priest who absolves himself habitually, to Dally the Wordsworth-loving Iraqi Kurd, to the sexually hyperactive Tess, to the hapless Emily who cannot love any man who loves her, to the world-weary, gusset-guzzling, false-poet Daniel.) And the book is full of gems from the bowels of Hillman’s imagination that made me roar with unexpected belly laughing.

I defy the reader to get through “Joyful” without shedding tears of mirth and tears of joy. In short, I like it. I admire it. I respect it, I envy it, I treasure it. I’ll remember it.

joyful“Joyful’s” characters are destined to live in memory alongside Winton’s Fish and Lamb families that emerged from “Cloudstreet” and took up lodging in a nation’s treasury.

Text published “joyful.” Howard Goldenberg will launch it at Readings in Carlton at 6.30 pm on Wednesday 7 May. Please come along.