The Sermon

 

Early in the book Moby Dick,  in Nantucket, Ishmael attends an ominous church service in a church built to resemble a ship. The set is stunning.  In the movie version of the story, the sermon is delivered by Orson Wells who plays the part of Father Mapple. It really is an astonishing performance.

The sermon of course is on the subject of Jonah and the whale. What else could it be? The preacher points out,

“all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobedience, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”

 

Ahab, like Job, is a rebel. He rebels against God. Jonah is wary but obeys.

Father Mapple, a bit of a cynic, eloquently says this line: “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at the frontier.” Amen to that. He does not preach the prosperity gospel to the seamen. His religion is much harsher.  “Terrors run through his soul. In all his cringing attitudes, the God-fugitive is now too plainly known.” These men know they must fear God.

Jonah sails right into the storm and sinks into the sea leaving smooth water behind. And he drops into “the opening maw of hell.” As the preacher says, “here shipmates, is true repentance, not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment.” Jonah “being an anointed pilot-prophet, or speaker of unwelcome truths.” After all, “God came upon him in the whale, and swallowed him down to living gulfs of doom.” Like Ahab later is swallowed by the whale and dragged to his doom. As the preacher preached,

 

“Yet even then beyond the reach of any plummet –out of the belly of hell—when the whale engulphed, repenting prophet when he cried. Then God spake unto the fish: and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breaching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air earth; and vomited out Jonah upon the dry land… Jonah did the Almighty’s bidding. And what was that shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood!”

 

And then in a line that echoes the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I will get to when I consider that classic, “Woe to him who would be true, even though to be false were salvation.” How is that possible? You will have to wait on this meandering journey. This is the woe of the rebel. As the preacher concludes,

“But oh shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe there is a sure-delight, and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep. …Delight is to him—a far, far upward, and inward delight—who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, and stands forth his own inexorable self…Delight, top—gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges, no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven…O Father!—chiefly known to me by Thy rod—mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world’s, or mine own. Yet this is nothing: I leave eternity to Thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?”

 

A powerful sermon indeed. And to follow God is hard. Too hard for some  on this voyage. Ishmael should have been warned.

The Grand Programme of Providence

In the book Moby Dick, Ishmael, the narrator,  seems convinced that “my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the programme of Providence, that was drawn up a long time ago.” Ishmael said, “when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor.”  That is true. Compared to Ahab he is a simple man on a simple voyage. Yet Ishmael has a choice. Like Ahab, Ishmael must go with fate or must challenge the fate. And that makes all the difference. And Ishmael is leading us on this quest. We see it through his eyes.

Ishmael may be tormented, but  not like Ahab, but as he says,

“I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail the forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it—would they let me…the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill.

 

That great white phantom if of course a reference to the great white sperm whale that Captain Ahab is obsessed with catching. In time he pulls the crew into his mad obsession. And it is clearly a mad obsession. Are they pursuing God or are they pursuing the devil? The quest leads to horror and wonder. How could it lead to both? Truly an epic religious quest is at hand.

 

Moby Dick: The Stage is set

 

The book Moby Dick starts off with a famous puzzling line. “Call me Ishmael.” Why does the narrator say that? Is that his real name? Or does he just ask us to call him that even though it is not his real name? It is a biblical name. It is a mysterious beginning. In the first sentence of the book, the truth of the tale is put in doubt. For good reason, in many ways it is fantastic.

Ishmael says, “I thought I would sail about a little and the see the watery part of the world.” “A little”, he said when he was starting a journey that would lead nearly around the world, and take 3 or 4 years, reaching the South Seas by way of The Atlantic Ocean, then Africa, then the Indian Ocean and finally the Pacific Ocean. The serene Pacific that was not always serene. As Ishmael said,

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul: whenever I find myself  involuntarily pausing, before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos  get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword: I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.’

 

Ishmael is saying, at some time in their lives, pretty well everyone will have a strong desire to go on a religious quest. I think the sea voyage is a metaphor for that. As I will show later, the quest need not be religious, but this one definitely was religious.

The religious quest began on a damp and drizzly November of his soul.  Ishmael says, “there is magic in it,” and if you are lucky and are supplied with “a metaphysical professor…mediation and water are wedded forever.” This journey was surely a mediation wedded to water. It was a religious quest. And you know it in the first pages.

Water has always been a religious symbol and it certainly is in this book. That is what is wrong, Ishmael says, with a journey in the prairies, even though there is a huge field of Tiger-lilies, there is no water. So it lacks spiritual sustenance Ishmael suggests.

Why else, Ishmael asks,

“Why is almost every robust boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some or other crazy to go to the sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the first Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove?

Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it, and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”

 

The stage is set for an epic spiritual journey. And as Ishmael says, grandly. “how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!” On third  page it is suggested this voyage is a misguided religious quest as it will end up in a very hot place. Not just the warm south seas either.

 

Moby Dick–a Classic?

 

Moby Dick is a true classic. What is a classic? The best definition of a classic I ever heard came from Italo Calvino who said, “A classic is a book that is never finished saying what it has to say.

Last year I said I would read at least one classic every year. The first classic I read was The Plague. This was a perfect start, particularly since we were in the midst of a plague.  It gave the book an existential edge. It was not merely academic. It was particular and immediate. I call that existential.

The second book I decided to read in this meandering series, almost a year later, was Moby Dick. That is a legendary book. I returned to it after about 40 years of experience. It was a sensational experience. In fact, I would say, it was the best reading experience of my life. I loved the book 40 years ago, but this year I found so much more in it. That is what a classic is all about.

I read with extreme care and attention. I have never paid such care and attention to a book before. Even when I studied Honours English and Philosophy and then law at the University of Manitoba from 1968 to 1974, I have never paid such careful intense attention to any book. It was the most amazing reading experience of my life.

Part of the pleasure in reading this classic story about 30 men on a boat that sails around the world in search of a White Whale is really about more than that. In my opinion, it is a book about a religious quest. Actually more than one quest. Carl Ridd, as far as I know, may not have taught this book as part of his course, “The Religious Quest in the Modern Age,” which I am trying to revive, but he should have.  I think the book is richly filled with thoughts about the religious quest in the modern world. Some of those thoughts are very uncomfortable. This is not religion for the faint of heart.

Of course, part of what makes the book so interesting is the fact that it is in many respects about the search for a false god. How could a white whale be god? Or how could the mad obsessive search for it be a religious quest at all? Was it a false quest? Can a religious quest be mad?

The book is not an easy read. I often had to go back thinking I had missed something. I often had missed something. That was why it was so difficult. The book is complicated with some old English that makes interpretation difficult, but the time spent was amply rewarded.  With this book, I had started my religious quest in the modern age and I had re-read an old classic. More than 40 years after I got the idea, I was doing it.

After 40 years of wandering in the desert I was on my quest. And this first book was an astounding experience. It dynamited a lot of my cherished certainties.  It kept telling me it had more to say.

In future posts I will try to show you what I mean.

A religious quest: Inspired by Ridd; Continued by Neufeld

 

Before I commenced my religious quest, I did a google search of Professor Ridd and to my surprise tracked down an archive at the Winnipeg headquarters of the United Church of Canada where Ridd had been a theologian and sure enough I found a list of his class notes and outlines. It was amazing luck that they were there. Sadly, during the time of Covid-19 as I write, the archive is closed, but when it reopens I intend to beg permission to see the materials. I would love to see his lecture notes on the various books I would like to read. I am convinced they would reveal insights into them. But I will have to wait for those notes and this quest cannot wait any longer.

 

I have decided to start the quest. I picked my first book, Moby Dick. I was sure it must be one of the books he taught. However, both of my friends who took the course with Professor Ridd  said they did not recall that this is one of the books in the course. I doesn’t matter, I concluded. I read the book about 40 years after I graduated from Law School and could read books I wanted to read just for pleasure.  I remembered the book as being magnificent. One of the best novels ever written, but, frankly, in 40 years I forgot a lot. After all, I am quite capable of forgetting what book I read last month! And I used to have a very good memory.

 

I also I remember a promise I made myself last year. I said, I would re-read an old classic every year. At least one classic every year. Maybe more. Last year as part of that project I read Albert Camus’ The Plague. Moby Dick could serve both purposes—it is a classic of English literature, and as I recall, contained a wealth of material for my religious quest. It was as they say a win/win situation.

 

I dived into Moby Dick. Then, to my further amazement, I learned that McNally Robinson Booksellers was opening up their Community Classroom series and guess what? Lara Rae was offering to discuss Moby Dick and the classes were offered online and at no cost, thanks to support from the Manitoba government cultural program this year. With so many cultural event centres close, the government wanted to encourage some venues to deliver online learning. It was a perfect storm of knowledge opening up.

 

It took me a long time to read the first book. Moby Dick is 500 pages long and I read it intensively. I read only a few pages every day. I made notes. I went back and forth through the text. I meandered through the text. It was great fun. It took me about a month of intense reading to complete the book. I would say it was my greatest reading experience of my life.  I will tell you some of the things I learned as I commenced my quest.

I hope you will accompany me on this voyage of discovery. That is what Moby Dick was for me. A voyage of discovery.

Hijacking Religion

 

A friend of mine has poked some gentle fun at me and my idea of a religious quest suggesting when I write about  religion that  “is studying Religion from the outside” which he says  is “like studying sex by watching or reading Porn or Academic writing. I’m sure you would agree that studying sex and doing sex are quite different.” I certainly agree that doing sex and studying sex or watching sex from the outside are very different things.

However, I don’t agree that I am looking at religion from the outside. I am more sympathetic to some forms of religion than others, but that really applies to everyone. Evangelical Christians for example look at all religions from the outside except one! So too with Muslims, at least the fundamentalist Muslims and Christians. The only religion that counts is their true religion.

I look at more religions from the inside than they do! One of the things I don’t like about the fundamentalists is that they have tried to hijack all religion leaving nothing for the rest of us. That is one of the things I liked about Life of Pi and why I recommended it so highly as a start on this journey. Why should we confine ourselves to one religion?

 

An Ark in the Pacific

The odd group of occupants on the boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the book Life of Pi were like a small world.  In fact, Pi thinks of it as an ark. I don’t want to tell you everything that happens. You should read this excellent book. The story-telling is wondrous and perhaps, as one of the characters said, “it can make you believe in God.”

Pi was a student who studied Religious Studies (perhaps with Carl Ridd?) and zoology.  Could be he lived part of the time in Canada. Pi was particularly enamoured of the three-toed sloth, “because its demeanour—calm, quiet, introspective—did something to soothe my shattered self.” The sloth does little other than sleep. Pi said it survived by keeping out of harm’s way, where no predator would notice it. It lives a peaceful, vegetarian life, “in perfect harmony with its environment, with ‘A good-natured smile forever on its lips.’  ”

Pi admitted that sometimes he got his majors mixed up:

“A number of my fellow religious-studies students—muddled agnostics who didn’t know which way was up, who were in the thrall of reason, that fool’s gold for the bright—reminded me of the three-toed sloth; and the three-toed sloth, such a beautiful example of the miracle of life, reminded me of God.”

The sloth spent most of its life hanging from a tree, but knew better than the students which way was up.

Life on the little lifeboat is not idyllic. In a way the book describes a religious journey or pilgrimage, but it was a rough voyage and there was much misery among the human and animal passengers. The religious quest is never smooth nor easy. A perfect place for religion to flourish in other words. As Pi said,

“High calls low and low calls high. I tell you, if you were in such dire straits as I was, you too would elevate your thoughts. The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar. It was natural that, bereft, and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God.”

 

But the world on the boat is not always a wonder. In fact, at times, it seems like God has abandoned the travellers on the boat. Sometimes, it looks more like a journey to hell than heaven.  Nature, so often identified with the divine, is also brutal and ugly.  In one scene, the hyena was eating the zebra while it was still alive, but the hyena kept sliding inside the big gaping wound.  “The zebra was being eaten from the inside. It protested with diminishing vigour. Blood started coming out its nostrils. Once or twice, it raised its head straight up, as if appealing to heaven—the abomination of the moment was perfectly expressed.” But there was no successful appeal to heaven. It was an abomination instead.

Yet Pi still believes in God. In fact, he believes in more than one. He says, “disbelief is a poorly armed foot soldier.”

Later, during a lightning storm in which the small boat is surrounded by  booming thunder,  Pi tells Richard Parker, the 450-pound Royal Bengal Tiger, “Stop your trembling. This is a miracle. This is an outbreak of divinity.”

Isn’t that what we are looking for on our quest? Is it all around us?

Next, I want to talk about another sea voyage that is clearly a quest for God. It is a very different voyage. It ends up in a very different place.  That book, of course, is Moby Dick.

 

 

 

The Many religions of Pi

 

The book I chose as the first one to look at on my spiritual quest  was a wonderful book, Life with Pi. Pi is what I would call a syncretist. That is a person who tries to combine different beliefs from different sources often by blending them, or merging them, into one. This word is often used in religion. Some people don’t see religions as opposing each other, but rather as different views of the same truth. Fundamentalists usually have great difficulty with this. They see their own religion as superior, and the rest as inferior others. Many cannot see anything worth noting in the religion of others. This was a very common assumption by representatives of western religions when they encountered indigenous religions around the world. They were blind to what was before them. Syncretism, on the other hand is inclusive, or what I have called expansive.

In the book, Pi said, “I am a practicing Hindu, Christian and Muslim.” He had no reason to believe that only 1 religion could show the way. Why would he?  Why couldn’t he believe and practice all three? Pi was only 16 years old and he thought he had a lot to learn from all of them. Pi even said “Atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith.

On the other hand, Pi’s father saw himself as “part of the New India–rich, modern, and as secular as ice cream.”  He did not have a religious bone in his body. He was strictly business. “Spiritual worry was alien to him; it was financial worry that rocked his being.”

Pi’s mother on the other hand was neutral on the subject of religion. She had a Hindu upbringing and a Baptist education, and according to Pi this cancelled both out leaving her “serenely impious.” That is the impiety I prefer! Or perhaps that is the piety I prefer.

Pi is puzzled by those who think they have to defend God. “As if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless.” These are often the fanatics of fundamentalism. These people forget the Golden Rule. Their empathy has been shredded by false religion.

According to Pi,

 

“These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy begging for a few paise, walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, ‘Business as usual.’  But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.

These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out.  The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart. “Meanwhile, the lot of widows and homeless children is very hard, and it is to their defence, not God’s, that the self-righteous should rush.”

 

Does this not sound a lot like the Old Testament prophets?   I posted a blog about them.

Pi also saw the same source for his ideas: “an alignment of the universe along moral lines, not intellectual ones; a realization that the founding principle of existence is what we call love, which works itself out sometimes not clearly, not cleanly, not immediately, nonetheless ineluctably.”

I actually think the word “love” is a bit strong here. I prefer something easier–fellow feeling or empathy. Loving others can be very hard. Seeing oneself in the other should be easier.  It is harder to love the other, but it is enough to see oneself in the other. And that makes all the difference.

That is what religion is all about.

 

 

Life of Pi

 

Moby Dick was the first book I chose and read in my new spiritual journey, but I have decided to talk first about a book I read just a few years ago, long after Professor Ridd was gone. I think it sets the stage well for what I want to do. I will get to Moby Dick soon. I promise.

 

The first book I want to talk about on this religious quest was written after Ridd died. The book is Life of Pi by Yann Martel and it won the Man Booker Prize. This was a book like no other. It is a marvellous book and a pretty good movie was made of it.

The books starts off in Canada where we meet a young writer Pi Patel. It is an odd name.  His real name was Piscine Molitor Patel. He was named after a swimming pool in France. In Canada he got in trouble with his name. As so often, kids tend to twist names to tease their peers. For example, when I was young my name, in German, was Hans Erich.  My mother had a rule. When she called me I had to come home. If I said I did not hear her, she refused to accept that excuse. If I did not hear her, I was too far away. If I heard her and did not come home, I was disobedient. Also bad. This was a lose/lose situation. Either way I was in trouble. But my mother had a very loud voice. I could hear her from a great distance away. Unfortunately, so could my friends.  They twisted my second name into Earache. I was called that for a few years and no doubt suffered extreme psychological damage. I hated that name. Mainly because my friends  teased me unmercifully.

 

It was the same with Piscine Molitor Patel. His friends twisted that into ‘Pissing Patel.’  That was not cool. So, one day, he told everyone to call him Pi for short. It was a name based on the symbol Pi. He adopted the symbol (the Greek letter, π) That was more like it. It was a very cool name.

 

In a way that was his start on a religious journey. A religious quest I would call it. The family lived in India the home where many important religions were born. India is probably the most religious country in the world. It is saturated with religion. No doubt more religious quests have begun or ended in India than any other country in the world.

Pi was raised as Hindu in his family. That was because his family was Hindu. Parents tend to do that. Just like I was raised a Christian. Inevitably, most children enter into a religion because they have been inculcated to do so by their parents. That happens in all religions

Yet at age 12, Pi was introduced to Christianity. Sort of like Christ as a young boy became a Christian (so to speak) at the age of 12.

Later Pi was also introduced to Islam. Now he knew 3 religions. What was he to do? He did something very interesting. He decided all he wanted to do was “love God.” That was when his real religious quest began in earnest. How could he do that with 3 different religions? Well, Pi found a way.

Pi’s  mother did not have strong religious views. She thought that was all right. His father was more interested in money than he was interested in religion. He tried to persuade Pi to become a secular humanist. A rationalist one might call it.

 

Pi’s family owned a private zoo. What an exotic family. The zoo had a Bengal tiger that was called Richard Parker. He became a major character in the book. When Pi was 16 years old his father decided to move his family to Canada together with his animals. They were a major asset. They booked passage on a Japanese freighter, but during a storm the ship foundered and sank. As the ship sank, Pi was tossed into a lifeboat. His family drowned. But he was joined by others. A zebra soon joined Pi in the boat and later an orangutan. A spotted hyena also was discovered on board and it killed the zebra.  Later it killed the orangutan. joined them.  Richard Parker the Bengal tiger emerges from under a tarpaulin and then things got really interesting. As you might imagine.

How could such a strange menagerie of critters together with 3 different religions manage of this strange quest to love God?

I hope your curiosity is piqued. I will tell you more on the next post.

The Religious Quest in the Modern Age

 

In 1972 or 1973 as a young man, going to University, I watched a very interesting television show. It was called “The Religious Quest in the Modern Age”.  It consisted of some lectures delivered by Dr. Carl Ridd a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Winnipeg. I was never a student of his. It was about a  a series of lectures on modern philosophy and literature all relating in some way, to religion. It did not have a lot to say about sacred texts—directly at least. It was not that kind of a religious quest. But Ridd was brilliant and riveting.

I was transfixed by the lectures and found them deeply interesting. The lectures I thought were sort of a summary of a course he taught for a number of years at the University of Winnipeg. He had fascinating things to say about the books. I was completely hooked.

Astonishingly, the shows were shown on Saturday mornings. I only saw a small number of them. Maybe 2. I heard about the series by accident. I think we only had 3 TV stations at the time on our small black and white television set I had “borrowed” from my sister Diane. But the ideas were exciting. I was mesmerized I wanted more. I was dumbfounded when the series ended. I was immeasurably jealous of the students from the U of W who got to participate in the entire series. I have been haunted by the memory of that course ever since.

Then during the time of Covid, in the winter of 2021, with little to do, for some reason the idea came into my head that I should teach myself the course. Carl Ridd was long since gone. I knew a couple of old friends who had attended the U of W during those years and had an interest in such topics, so I reached out to them to see if any of them had ever taken that course. Sure enough, 2 of them had. And they shared with me that they had loved the course and gave me their recollection of what books he taught. I had a vague idea from my recollection of the few shows I had seen on TV. Together with their recollections I decided to embark on this spiritual journey. I ventured out on my own personal religious quest in the modern age. Frankly, I was wildly excited by the project.

They used to say there are 9 million stories in the naked city (New York City). They could just as well say there are 8 million spiritual journeys in the naked city. I know we used to think there was just one. The holy book we were taught by our parents. Nothing else mattered, so we were taught.  I was brought up in such a home. But that really is a narrow point of view. There are as many quests as there are people, and some are very interesting. I want to share some of the more interesting quests.

Ridd taught some of the great books of the 19th and 20th centuries. He talked about books by Camus, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and many other great writers. To my surprise he left out some books that ought to have been included. I will include them. So, I have made my list of books inspired by Ridd but not chained to him.

To my surprise I found I had read a good number of the books Ridd taught. That is fine. Good books are worth re-reading. In fact, I have already started that project of re-reading classics and it will fit in just fine with this one.

I will also add books to the list that have been written since he taught the course. There have been some amazing religious quests since then.

I invite you to join me on this spiritual journey. I think it will be very interesting. I will, I promise, it will be a meandering journey.  There will be many stops to permit pondering and mulling things over. I also can’t entirely stop other topics I want to post about such as  politics and religion, social democracy, books, and films, and the like. There will be interruptions.

On this journey we will consider religion from many different points of view. Maybe even yours! Some will be sceptical. Some will be strange. All, I think, will be interesting. All will show a desire to explore the quest for religion in the modern age. Please join me on this quest. I think it will be worth the trip.