I’ve wondered why I ended up in a “religious” faith, and someone else, much like me, hasn’t. It seems amusing that I’ve found one of the best and surprisingly simple explanations in an apologetic for Humanist ethics, Greg Epstein’s book entitled Good Without God, which contains a poem the author quotes as his equivalent of liturgy or prayer and his own rationale for being a Humanist, for not needing a God in his life. The poem (as quoted) is by Yehuda Amichai:
Roshi, Roshi—when I banged my head on the door
When I banged my head on the door, I screamed,
“My head, my head,” and I screamed, “Door, door,”
and I didn’t scream “Mama” and I didn’t scream “God.”
And I didn’t prophesy a world at the End of Days
where there will be no more heads and doors.
When you stroked my head, I whispered,
“My head, my head,” and I whispered, “Your hand, your hand,”
and I didn’t whisper “Mama” or “God.”
And I didn’t have miraculous visions
of hands stroking heads in the heavens
as they split wide open.
Whatever I scream or say or whisper is only
to console myself: My head, my head.
Door, door. Your hand, your hand.
I read the poem and understood it so well… The immediacy of our reality. The poignant concreteness of human experience, in pain or in compassion. It was beautiful. Its message was so abundantly clear, so very human, and so very-very wrong for me… So NOT ABOUT ME!
How well I remember the long, seemingly never-ending caravan of days when I banged my head against the door, time and time again, day in and day out, almost feeling the pain dulling with habit and yet never, never getting used to it, every now and then feeling it getting worse, every now and then feeling it couldn’t get any worse… How acutely aware I was of the constant, deafening banging of billions of heads on billions of doors, all around me, never ceasing, moans and cries, screams and last breaths seeping to me through the banging—and I could almost feel my hands soaked in the rivers of blood!
I read the poem and, in the margins, against all the lines that said, I didn’t, I wrote out, I did. I did exactly what Yehuda Amichai didn’t do. Banging my head against the same accursed door, I needed always to understand, why—for me and for all those others whose blood I could feel on my hands, whose screams I could hear reverberating. I couldn’t limit my view to my head and the door, and I tried to move away to see it better and couldn’t make sense of it. And I tried to open it, but it was locked. And I banged against the door with my head harder and harder, bleeding and lightheaded and desperate, for it seemed that through the locked door was the only way forward. And I screamed, “Mama!” for the source of love that I knew. And I screamed, “God!” for the source of love universal and hypothetical—for an explanation of doors and heads for us all, banging and bleeding things. And I prophesied a world without doors, for without that hope I could not go on, though my utopian world contained at that time no God, and I was a Humanist and an atheist, and my world without doors was a just and perfect human society.
When a hand stroked my hurting head, I whispered, “Your hand, your hand,” just like Yehuda Amichai did, just like you do, just like every human being does and every animal. But I whispered more than that. Consoled by a warm hand, I needed to understand, why. To whom was the hand connected? Why now and not before, not after? Why me and not some suffering other? What was the nature of suffering? And in trying to look at the hand, I tried to move away from it and banged my head on a door.
I am no longer there. One day the door groaned and broke, and, almost blind and stupid from decades of banging, I fell through it into a new world—a vantage point flooded with light and warmth, from which I could see doors and paths around the doors, from which I could see warm hands and the Source of every hand, from which I could see the breathtaking landscape and the end-goal of every path. This poem is not my liturgy because even when “God” was not part of my spiritual vocabulary, that vocabulary was not limited to “head,” “door,” and “hand.” It included also “why.” The analysis of the relationships among heads, doors, and hands. The unwillingness to stop at acceptance. The refusal to go on banging on doors, hoping only for a stroking hand, without a grander reason, a structure, a purpose, an ordered universe. And so I screamed and prophesied and broke the door and only then knew, why.
Greg Epstein will rightfully argue, as many others would, including, of course, me, that a Humanist doesn’t live his life without meaning or reason larger than him. Some of the noblest pursuits, most beautiful art, and greatest sacrifices have come from humanist heroes in their efforts to uplift or to defend the humankind, to bring about free and happy future for all, to exemplify human dignity. Yet Epstein’s choice of “liturgy” is peculiarly telling of our difference. All those to me are completely worthy—crucial, necessary, and wonderful, in fact—but intermediary goals still. I come from his camp, and this camp I left—not ethically or in any other way except my vision of the world as concerns its Source and Purpose. As concerns God.
Of course, I also believe that nearly any way of relating to the universe—any formulation of cosmology or moral codes—is equally (though partially) true and amusing to God as long it is based on, steeped in, and fully congruous with Love, which is the fabric of reality. So I don’t consider Yehuda Amichai or Greg Epstein wrong. What I have discovered is a difference in our attitude toward ourselves, our approach to our world and to our lives—our immediate and largely shared experience of banging our heads on doors—that has led us ultimately to such disparate faiths. When Yehuda Amichai was whispering, “My head, my head!” I was whispering, “Why?” The consolation that he finds in the immediacy of human love I find in its universal meaning. To me, it’s about scale.
The Qur’an says that God made us into different “tribes” so we could know each other. I wonder if He didn’t make us into different faiths, too, according to our natures and types and not just by random cultural affiliation. So we could understand our differences, our similarities, and, above all, perhaps, ourselves.