For Joel Welty

I heard in church Sunday that

If you asked [both theists and non-theists] about their belief in god, they would be far apart in their definitions or lack thereof. But if you ask,

How do your beliefs make a difference in your life?

– they would both point to a transcending of self.

This leaves one with a number of questions, writes the sermon’s author, Rev. Kaaren Anderson.

Is belief in god the key to spiritual experience, or a description of it? Might theists and atheists be talking about much the same thing? And which is the more important religious question: What do you believe about a supreme being? OR what state of being do you seek to embody?

Anderson points to two examples from either side of the aisle; the one of Abraham, who, in offering a band of strangers the comforts of hearth and home, has an unexpected encounter with God. The other example is of a friend, who while at a restaurant has her food become the target of a homeless woman, desperate, near-raving, and hungry. After the woman bolts out of the restaurant with her food, Anderson’s friend receives the restaurant’s courtesy/apology replacement food to go.

Upon finding the homeless woman again out on the street, despite the potential danger posed by this woman (described as “simultaneously” crying, convulsing, and shouting), the friend offers the carry out food, with no outward judgment of what she may have been going through, and is awashed in a feeling that could only be called

divine

in its transcendence of egotism and selfishness.

If you can accept the story of Abraham as parable, then it is also his act of abandoning selfishness towards strangers (in a tribal setting no less, where strangers quite usually meant danger) that

ushers in the holy.

Basically, in stating that he meets God in this situation, we may assume that it means that feeling of doing something so beyond ourselves that we reel from the magnanimity of it all.

A member of my church, Joel Welty, passed away last night. He was an atheist, and came very strongly from the Mark Twain school of theological cynicism (indeed, he both wrote and published

as

Mark Twain, as well as played him in one man shows.

My experience in knowing him only a little gave me a bit of that unknowable spark, simply because he was so kind and intelligent, and despite his cynicism about institutions in general, he very obviously cared deeply about the world and the people in it. He would tell stories about how, in World War II, there was the knowledge and acceptance of homosexuality in the military; no one cared who you slept with, so long as you had their back when things went south.

I’ll never forget his perspective and insight. It changed how I looked at historical events, and I will never forget, and always endeavor to provide it and his name when I can. I think he may have preferred it that way, rather than having us offering prayers to an unconfirmed deity that probably neither of whom would have appreciated.

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