I have always considered myself something of a weird holy man.
I do not believe in an omniscient deity or a creator as most adherents to organized religion seem to. Nor do I believe in an afterlife. To borrow the words of a great human poet, I imagine that there is no heaven (it isn’t hard to do), and by doing so, I find a much greater obligation to make this reality work for the greater good of all of us here assembled.
To that end, I have fashioned a kind of theology based in the principles of communication theory. After all, some of our holiest works begin with the recognition of “the word.” It is by sharing definitions and agreeing upon terms that we establish common ground and, ultimately, discover what lurks in the hearts and minds of our fellow humans. Absent systems of communication, could we be anything more than monkeys throwing poo and beating one another to death for want of a meal or mate?
Absent an intelligent God, faith must find a different master in message, truth and the wholeness of communication. It is common theory that a message cannot be conveyed perfectly, that a speaker and a listener are burdened with infinite differences in experience that render even the simplest of messages (“Pass the salt,” for instance, or “10 minus six is four”) hopelessly vague. Where is the salt? What are we counting?
However, it is by pursuing perfectly conveyed and received messages that we can recognize and identify the divine. It isn’t possible, but it is a pursuit that can be embraced by this quintessential configuration of dust.
As it happens, most of the messages we share are simple enough that perfection is not necessary and achieving a desired outcome is likely without great thought. But where the goal of a communication is more complicated, we must take great pains to be clear as speakers and very generous as listeners. When we approach clarity with our communication partners, as our messages become more delicate and profound, we can see glimpses of the divine.
I have recently been traveling in dark territories. I suffered a blow based on what I believe was a misunderstanding, but which resulted in the loss of a close soul. There is nothing so painful or jarring as the loss of a friend, and I know that the experience put me in a spin. I was beset by demons and bad dreams. I ventured out to see some other friends and hear some music.
I heard Bob Dylan sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” with my own blue-eyed son sitting by my side. I heard Paul K sing a compassionate new song about a female television news personality delivering a weather report. I heard Catherine Irwin sing a line of Brett Ralph’s poetry about how I could always climb out of the valleys, but I could never take the highs (please forgive my paraphrasing), and I said amen to that.
I went to see the Deloreans at Seidenfadens, and they sang a song about getting attacked by a panther. And I stood in a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at Headliners to hear the Old 97s, a band I find less than exciting, because a friend didn’t want to go alone. I took her to see the Teeth at the Swan Dive a couple nights later; we stood in a room with a ceiling I could scrape the top of my head on, among a crowd of no more than 20 people, and we agreed that this was the band of the weekend: sophisticated punk energy, wrangled into complicated rhythms and incomprehensible messages. I will be looking to see them again … maybe I’ll be able to make out some of their lyrics.
At one of the shows I saw, somebody walked up to me and said, “I’m mad at you,” and walked away. That made me feel bad, and my inclination was to deride their expression as simple negativity. But later, I was able to investigate the reason behind the complaint, and it seems to have been based on a bit of perceived insensitivity on my part, expressed in a recent column. Isn’t that funny? I guess I have to be more careful with my words.
At another show, a former student came to me and said he appreciated some of the ideas and artists that I had introduced him to in class. That felt good right away.
For further consideration: I have always thought that the Beatles’ song “Come Together” has been misunderstood. Discuss.