Finding God Amongst the Living
I look out at the world with questioning eyes and wonder how could all of this be? The beauty of a running river that is hypnotic as it is mysterious, the tallest of trees that stand foreboding, hiding history within its bark or to be human and to experience the push and pull of lovers while in the throes of passion or, grimly, the tales of war and the lifeless bodies of people and the calmness of figures who dance with death as they pull on triggers. Just how could all of this be?
I see it all and I wonder about God. I wonder who God must be and where they must roam in secrecy while the world just carries on, cyclical and sombre. I wonder if God hears the cries of the impoverished, sees the earth melt before its time, or does God really look at the world with a judgmental glare as women make love before they have wed.
My obsession with the existence of God must have started as a child for at that time I knew more of Them than I knew of myself. Sundays were laborious days for my Catholic family, all of us had to wake up early, dress up nice and pretty before taking the journey down to the local church. It was a distinctive place to me, pungent with incense and the feel of something archaic and dormant. I often spent that hour, half of me listening to the priest and the other half just staring up at the stained-glass windows, watching the sunlight take on purple, blue, and green hues. This was the place that I began to know of the world, its peril, and darkness, and the nightmarish tale of hell.
I was told that hell was a fiery place filled with people writhing in an eternal inferno because they had chosen to spend their lives living in sin. I quickly became scared of fire, every birthday flame reminded me of eternal suffering, every campfire a symbolism of Satan. I began, slowly but surely, to associate faith with fear and to find myself entangled in the notion that to fear God was intrinsic to pleasing them.
Yet, as a child, I would have flickers of doubt about the truth of God. This was mainly caused by the realities I encountered in my formative years. Suffering, fear, and uncertainty were inescapable parts of the immigrant experience for my parents and many of the African immigrants who were also living in our area and so when I looked at the face of suffering, I could not see the kindness of God. When I saw the fatigue of late night shifts, I could not see the benevolence of God. When we experienced the humiliation of racism, I did not hear the wrath of God. It seemed as if I was struggling to apply Bible verses to my life in a way that would improve it and not just make it easier to swallow. I talked to God bitterly about this, asked them to change a few situations, to tell me just why most people lived their lives in different ways. Yet, I always found myself frowning at the silence each prayer received. I could not pray away the stress of retaining citizenship and the glory of Heaven was not imminent enough for me to anticipate an end to all my woes. Oh no, I would think, God can hear my doubts and I will be damned to hell for it. I felt ashamed that I was questioning such a complex concept, that my soul wasn’t as armed with faith as I had been taught it should be. There I was as a child, pent up with fear for the eternal damnation that would surely come if I did not shake these questions. If only I knew then that these questions would never leave me.
I believe that shame and religion are dependent on one another. Shame in desire, in lust, in greed, in questioning, in self-exploration, in love, in empowerment, in jealousy, and so on. We are taught incessantly about all the things that constitute sins and then go home to realise that to be human is to be in sin and then what can one do if you cannot unzip the flesh and walk freely as the spirit? You begin to hide from yourself. I remember wishing away so many parts of me as I grew up. It started from the littlest of things such as the desire for tattoos and piercings to the biggest of things like the desire to love whoever I want. I was always intrigued by mysticism and spirituality but always felt the fearful child within me who was taught many times about heathens and their hellfire. This shame that trails along the coattails of many religious people has also, due to history, found itself embedded into society at large. We live in a society that sees everything in black and white, the sinner and the righteous, the good and the bad. Humans seldom know their full capacity as beings because we are told that so much of who we are is bad and shameful. Moreover, it is encouraged that we should run from the things we do not understand rather than grow accustomed to them in order to understand our natural carnality. For example, if we were to have more discussions about the reality of jealousy and envy then maybe we would be able to understand the unfulfillment and lack that these feelings are often rooted in. In the same way, if we were to talk openly about what we perceive as violence and its forms then maybe we would see clearly the institutions around us that operate with violence daily. Yet, that is the thing with shame, it keeps many things in the dark.
All in all, the shame that seemed to be embedded into my faith took a toll on me and my belief in God became a misery.
There also comes that pivotal moment in Black people’s lives where we learn just how our ancestors were indoctrinated into Christianity. As an Igbo person, this realisation is particularly bitter because its introduction was as much political as it was violent, now I would know because I dedicated my masters to this. In my early teens, filled with shame and animosity, learning about the origins of Christianity was liberating because I began to see things in a more truthful light. This was a religion that had been served to Black people through the means of colonialism and power, it was as much man made as it was a reflection of God and this was why I had struggled with its presence in my life. Many of the religions today contain verses and teachings which have morphed into agendas that give power to some but hinder spiritual progression for all. Religion is one and the same as society and culture itself, it is hard to see it in its natural state when it has historically been maimed and manipulated by men till it loses its natural essence. I would not find the entirety of God in the Church nor in these texts alone. I would not find myself either.
I abandoned it. I slowly rid myself of that tightened cord around my heart and the oppressive unkindness of texts I could not agree with. I decided to try to see life from my own perspective. What is it that I believe to be wrong or right? What makes sense to me as a Black woman? I was on a personal voyage of knowing others and the world by knowing more of myself. I decided to love whoever you pleased is crucial and tattoos weren’t too bad and sex before marriage felt right and jealousy was ugly but normal and lust made me feel human and astrology was beautiful and that rage was just as important as breathing. I began to like being alive in the sense that not everything I did remind me of the great pits of hell. I could unclench my jaw and laugh in a way I had not felt I deserved to before.
The thing with this life is that the nucleus of it all is spiritual. Everywhere around you, there is energy and in stillness, you can feel that pulse even though there is so much that the human eyes cannot see. I felt like I could not escape God because the Universe is as much God as it is its own being but I did not want to see God through the lens of what I had been taught in that old Catholic church. So, I searched for God in other places. In my life, I have searched for God in Christianity, in Islam, in Buddhism, and more. Throughout this voyage, I had continued to not possess the magnitude of faith needed for them to reach me. I posed many questions that fought with hope, had seen too much to not resent the absence of a saviour in a world that so desperately needs it. Therefore, I decided that it was not in these familiar Abrahamic faiths that I would find God but in someplace different, someplace that may ask of me some redefining.
As I was looking into the eyes of a lover and there was this rush within me, a feeling that was sickly and desperate, that made me feel so full that I felt that God was right beside me. I find that loving people do that to you, it makes you see God.
Or a long, long, long walk in the forest, shrouded by the trees. Place your hand on the bark of a great aged tree and feel the ridges that have defied time. Look upon the ground where roots taller than the tallest man are sprawled beneath the soles of your feet. In that moment you are looking upon God.
Sit by a stream and listen as the water runs, waves toppling over one another, rolling and rising to never be the same again. In its mystery and all its glory, it is speaking the language of God.
Look up at the moon and watch as it glows, protected by the grey clouds who gingerly move across it. To think it is even further than it appears but its magic and allure is not caught up in distance nor time but merely overpowers it. Take in the overpowering nature of God.
As a singer, I feel God when I am on stage. As silence sweeps the crowd, there is an exchange of energy between the crowd and me as we both are in a space that celebrates our passion. At this moment there is contentment and there in that contentment, is God.
It is important to ask ourselves why the younger generation is looking for God on their own terms. Many are abandoning the ideas that they grew up with. I have seen so many young Africans in the diaspora begin to reconnect to the beliefs that shaped their ancestor’s lives hundreds of years ago. Retracing the roots of Odinani (Igbo spirituality) was a part of decolonisation for me but it was also this need to feel more connected to the natural world and understand how Chukwu was ever-present around me.
In Odinani there is the belief that all beings possess their own Chi which is a God within us and no one’s Chi is ever the same. If we are attentive to our Chi’s then we will know where to go in life and what paths to take. I find solace in this knowing, in the idea that wherever I roam, as long as I am breathing in this body, a piece of God is within me.
The younger generation wants to fall in love with whoever they please without being told that hell is the price for it, the younger generation wants to honor the universe without having to remember that the tools with which they know God wiped out their ancestor’s own tools, the younger generation go looking for God because there are questions that have met no answer.
For me, finding God amongst the living was realizing that I did not have to search at all, that I had to merely exist, as present as I could be. I’ll end this essay with a few lines from Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler:
God is Power-
And yet, God is Pliable-
God exists to be shaped.
God is change.
Photo credit: Olivia Ema