The Meaning of These Days

Excerpt

One. CONNAUGHT PLACE

It was plain I was good for only one thing, religion

She was a pretty Japanese woman looking at me with a faint smile. It was in a small café, and I was probably drinking chai, tea with cream and sugar, I do not remember. She was standing at an entrance to the back rooms, and from my angle of vision I could see only what may have looked like a booth for the café’s customers. She was about my age, twenty. There had been other waitresses just a while ago, but now in a glass darkly I see just her and me. Together they may have decided that she was the right one. No word was spoken.

It was at the port of Tokyo, and the year was 1957. The President Cleveland was waiting in the Harbor. I had flown Pan American from Calcutta to Hong Kong, and had boarded the ship there. Here we were given a few hours. I had time.

The temptation was real but I actually had no intention of yielding. There could be danger in the back rooms, or the maze of back rooms. A man could appear and hover over me with a knife. He would demand my money, or worse, my papers. He would see a hapless, innocent, boyish man sitting on the bed with the pretty woman, but that would not soften him.

There was yet another reason why I said no to the temptation, and I write this with my younger pilgrim readers especially in mind. The act would be an impossible burden for a young person in midvoyage to carry. The wages of sin is death, says Paul in Romans, and I heard Albrecht Durer’s horsemen Sin and Death, already prowling, come up from behind. Sin strikes first, injecting the victim with the venom. Then the purple twilight descends, frightening the victim. Here I was on the threshold of a new dispensation, an opportunity to go to America to find a foothold on life and flourish. This act would put me instead in the ring with Death.

I do not remember what happened next, except that I abstained. Through the mist of time hazily I see me climbing the white stairs up the side of the immense ship and showing my papers to the men in white uniforms. I was safe.

~

Pilgrim, you should know a bit about my background before you star trek with me to explore unknown worlds, discover new ways of being, and go where no one has ever gone before. Since I was seven I was sent away to English, American, and Anglo-Indian missionary boarding schools in the Himalayan first range, which by trains with their coolies and crowded platforms and compartments and by buses with their sherpas in their mountain terminals may as well have been thousands of miles away from my home in the Punjab, and where in time my behavior became rebellious and transgressive. The narrow-gauge train up to Simla and the buses to Mussoorie took sharp curves, went through tunnels and changes of vegetation and climate, and looked down steeply on worlds left behind. The landscape changed rapidly and grew awesome and frightening as we ascended, a foreshadowing of things to come. Every spring it was numbingly traumatic, both the long tearful ride up with my beloved aunt Ta, whose silent sadness seemed bottomless, and her dreaded departure when the boy clung to his aunt’s sari.

The structure in the schools and the friendships I formed in class and on the playground went a long way to sustain me. A conversion experience brought comfort, stability, and meaning to my life. The missionaries from all over the world would bring their Bibles to the services in Kellogg Church on top of Landour mountain. From there we could see both the eternal snows to the north and the sweltering plains to the south far below. On that sacred site at the age of eleven I knew what I too was good for.

But I failed my BA exams at St. Stephens College in Delhi. I was on my own in New Delhi on Parliament Street and illprepared for this new life and brand of education in the big city. My personal life had lost whatever grounding and skeleton it had had in the boarding schools with their dormitory life, their joint study and dining, their sports team and comradery with teachers and friends. My father lived with me, but he was himself a solitary figure, frequently gone. Pilgrim, I do not do well when I am alone.

One day my father and I were bicycling back from a meal at my Aunt Dorothy’s small apartment in Gol Market, where my mother and younger brother and some inlaws also lived. At the entrance to a bazaar he told me his side of the backstory with my mother. Amid the bustle of bicycle and motor rickshaws and taxis and pedestrians, a shameful family secret was told. It was the lightning flash that brought everything into focus. My father was giving me the key to the world. It was painful for him to share it, and it was impossible for me to hear it. By then I had learned to live with the order that had emerged without asking questions.

On all accounts New Delhi was the place to be at midcentury soon after independence. I experienced those Jawaharlal Nehru days, however, as a disjointed figure gawking from outside the gate. The new 1956 Thunderbird was showcased in a window at Connaught Place, part of the elegant British buildings designed by Edwin Lutgens and Herbert Baker in the early 20th century. The jazz combos from Portugese Goa, featured by some of the night spots, were as good at the standards as any I have ever heard since then. I listened standing at the door, my mind body become a finely tuned instrument vibrating to the romance and rhythm of “Someone to Watch Over Me”. Then and there I was an American GI, handsome and tall and unbeatable like Tab Hunter.

To advertise the movie, the bridge over the river Quai swung physically across the street to the Regal Cinema. No postmodern disillusion here, but a modernistic private sector optimism about the bridges that can be built, the waters that can be crossed.

The reading room at St. Stephens College was packed every morning, not a spare newspaper or magazine in sight. I watched with admiration and no small envy those wellborn young men with strong families and roots, sons of prominent politicians and successful merchants, who knew exactly what information they needed, where to look for it, and how it could be used to advance their life. The wide-eyed ebullient history professor lectured conversationally, without notes, often looking out the window at the Anglican architecture and grassy courtyard as the great Mughal thrones of Babur, Akbar, Jehangir, and Shah Jahan passed by. Nonetheless I had no background or inclination for the subjects I studied, nor did I know how to study them.

Emotionally I was quite close to Aunt Dorothy, who taught at a Christian school close to Gol Market. Sometimes I accompanied her when she went shopping for fabrics and saris in historic Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, not far from the equally historic Red Fort. Slums and tall dark-looking apartment buildings with brothels extended on both sides of the ancient bazaar. As a family we were socially marginal, though we were deeply religious. Next to the St.Stephens students, however, I felt culturally derelict and psychically uninhabited.

O, I tried to put on an upscale front, pleasing to the cultured eye, but it was plain I was good for only one thing, religion. I felt airy, rootless in this big city, and religion was the key to my consolation, the doorway to my survival. Life had been hard enough in the boarding schools. Here anxiety found no harbor, desire could not be patient for the right match, hope scrabbled in vain for a future. Love was unhinged and jealous from the start.

The young woman who waited for me on Parliament Street down below was radiant, vibrant. Love like a vulture reached deep into the core of me, pulling at my bowels. Torrential waves of wanting and jealousy tortured me. I was sinking into a quicksand in an emotional jungle that I did not know. What was happening to me? Was I uncommonly and incorrigibly shy? Was I hobbled by the Himalayan scale of my insecurity? Did I have no maturity or inner strength? Did I mistrust women that profoundly? Was I torn between heart and mind? Did I know intuitively and instinctively the slow simmering secret of love?

I dropped to my knees. It was the re-conversion that calmed the tumultuous sea, just like the first time up at Kellogg Church in Landour. It reconnected me on the inside. It made it easier to navigate the choppy waters of my personal life. I was now something of a fuller being with all my faculties in place. An important and innate part of me, whoever or whatever I was, had been missing.

And it was good that I attended the Christian ashram of E. Stanley Jones in the Himalayan foothills with my newfound college friends Gilchrist and Mohit in the summers. The seventy-year-old missionary, writer, and silver-tongued preacher and lecturer, dressed in white kameez and dhoti, emboldened me as to what I myself could do and be. His eloquence, conviction, and the transcendent force of his character and message opened up possibilities that I had not imagined.

Back in New Delhi I handed out the individual Gospels in the form of attractive little booklets. I prayed on the rooftop about the woman I was mad about. My emotions were yet raw. I was still a boy standing scared at the edge of the deep country well outside the Railway Hospital in my home town Ferozepore, and I could see the black water far down. I marked up my Bible just as Brother Stanley did with his.

In the meantime my father was writing letters, making connections, his eye on the raging sea.

Two. MOUNT TAMALPAIS

Listening to the night sounds of San Francisco in Montgomery Hall

In Tokyo the foreign student population of the ship got much larger, and on the ocean the diet of soup with noodles got tiresome. To my surprise, none other than Norman Vincent Peale addressed us on Sunday. I had heard of him and other New York City preachers like Harry Emerson Fosdick and George Buttrick in my mid-teens from my father. He had some of their books in his small library when we were living in Ambala, and I think I remember seeing The Power of Positive Thinking in that cabinet. I do not remember what Norman Vincent Peale said to the foreign students on the open seas, but it does not matter. I sat riveted. He was a red rubber ball of vitality and inspiration.

I also remember trying to read Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization and Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man, both of which I found in that cabinet. During World War Two my father had done graduate work at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary, where he had taken classes with Niebuhr. He would talk frequently about Niebuhr, how knowledgeable he was, and filled with ideas, how effervescent he was in his seminars. And also about New York City, how tall were the skyscrapers and colossal the department stores, where you could buy anything from a safety pin to a battleship. My father’s name was Daniel Khazan Singh then. During the partition of the country and the deadly religious riots, when he was called back quickly, he and the whole family after him changed our last name to Stephens to distinguish ourselves as Christians. Stephen was my grandfather’s first name. It was he that was converted by missionaries.

No, Pilgrim, the books by Mumford and Niebuhr were beyond me. I did read E. Stanley Jones’ daily devotional books, the most popular among them being Abundant Life. I also became engrossed in the Captain Marvel, Superman, and Batman comics which I bought from the English language bookstore. Since I was under age, I tipped the aloof, suspicious-looking one-eyed cleaning person to bring me the Scandinavian nudist magazine I had just seen in the shop and keep quiet about it. I gave him a brown paper bag.

Ambala had an air force base and an English language movie theater, where I fell in love with Doris day and waited patiently for movies with Gary Cooper, Montgomery Clift, and Elizabeth Taylor, glossy advertisement photographs and posters of whom were on display in the lobby. Here I saw “An American in Paris”, “A Place in the Sun”, the Tarzan movies, and westerns such as “The Streets of Laredo”, the original one with that title starring William Holden, Macdonald Carey, Mona Freeman, and William Bendix. After sixty years those names come easily to my tongue. The song from “Laredo” lives now only in my head and is heard only in my car. “I was just rambling through/ On the streets of Laredo./ I was just a stranger that day/ On the road to anywhere.” The verse I've made up goes something like this: She cried when we woke in manana. She knew that soon we'd be parting. She murmured You go Santa Ana, and I to Ol' Mexico.

It is impossible to explain the depth and expanse of the power that these movies had on me. I began to think differently and see myself differently. They made me cry, they made me laugh out loud, they made me sing. They made me a lone and brave warrior. I was a blank tablet for them. My imagination was ablaze. Would I ever grow up?

One day during my winter break my father and I were coming through the gate after a walk, and out of curiosity he reached into my back pocket and pulled out the paperback western The Valley of Dry Bones by Arthur Henry Gooden. As we talked he gave me the gut-wrenching news, which I had no choice but to accept: I would not be going back to the American boarding school where I had studied for five years. Instead I would be going to one of the Anglo-Indian schools across the valley, one of the schools against which we competed in sports. They do not want you back, he said, and I cannot afford to send you there anyway.

Strong bonds of friendships had formed at the American school with Richard, Ray, Romesh, Jeremy, and many others. I had spent a boyhood there collecting ferns and beetles and chasing butterflies, the exquisite colors of creation gleaming in their quixotic flight and in the opening of their wings when they alighted. There were so many species then, and the sightings never ceased to be new discoveries for me, manifestations of resilient yet passing earthly beauty. Furthermore, visions in my head about my being a winner for our sports teams in the interschool olympics had become part of the reason for my existence.

I also roamed the hillside forest and had secret places in it that were all my own. There was a gentle rhododendron slope with red clay that I loved. There was a shining slope with tall pines and an old abandoned cabin with broken doors in which I loitered. I loved the aroma of the pines and the ground beneath, a thick and soft carpet of pine needles. This second hillside dropped quickly and the trail led down to the stream from Dhobi Ghat, the washers' village, and up the next mountain with a lone tree in the middle of a clearing on the ridge. We could see it clearly every day from Ridgewood, the young boys' dorm. I called it Lone Tree Mountain and dreamed of hiking there some day.

~

The President Cleveland sailed on to Honolulu, and then when we saw the gull we knew we were approaching the United States mainland. I was met at the port by Ted, a tall, businesslike young man, the treasurer of the student body of San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, fifteen miles north of San Francisco. It is set on a hill in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais and its forested slopes. My room was on the second floor of the single men’s dormitory, Montgomery Hall, a medieval castle-looking building with ivy on the walls, hardwood floors, and big windows. This would be good for me. I would not be alone here.

Among my classmate friends was a darkish, smartly dressed young man who carried himself with reserve, dignity, and poise. He became class president, to no one’s surprise. Pat and I spoke of how the seminary was split between liberals and conservatives, liberals being those who embraced the modern methods of interpretation and conservatives being those who resisted them. I quickly found myself caught in the murky middle with burning questions having to do with the doctrines I had been given to believe since I was a boy, and which I now began to test against the brightest of my fellow students and even my teachers. One tall former baseball player, Don, a senior, blew me away with an answer to a question I had on atonement. I could not beat him in ping-pong either.

Bill’s room was at the end of the hall. He was a stocky man, a weightlifter. He was a scholar too, who could read German, and a gentle soul. He told me about Karl Barth, the theologian who was all the rage here in seminary and all over the country, some of whose volumes he had, though I would have to wait to read them in upper level classes, he said. I liked and trusted Bill and visited with him often. Soon I was in awe of Barth and promised myself that I would master his work some day. Bill said that it was Barth who was responsible for the theological boom that was taking place in Europe and America. Surely Barth was saying something of pivotal importance, the guts of which I should know.

Dr. Arnold Come was the authority on Barthian theology. He had just returned from Germany, where he had studied with Barth himself. A serious man, he lectured with notes that were painstakingly precise. He was teaching a system, consistency and coherence were all-important, every word counted.

The other theologian was the young, playful new graduate from Princeton Theological Seminary, Dr. Benjamin Reist. Both his lectures and his preaching were articulate, funny, and theatrical, charged with an irrepressible theological swagger. We smiled when he spoke. Someone signed Barth’s name on the roll that was being passed around in class. Norm Roddick’s impersonation of him was perfect on a Friday entertainment night. His palm stuck to the table, resisting release. When Billy Graham came to speak at the seminary, the two professors sat in the balcony as a sign of rebuff. It was widely known that they disapproved of his visit.

Hard work prevailed in Montgomery Hall. The muffled sound of typewriters emanated from the rooms late into the night. I would listen to the radio at times to the sounds of San Francisco, the jazz, the hit songs like “You Send Me”. Songs have a way of stamping an era with their seal. They shape the soul too. The voices, the lyrics, the rhythm, the melody, and the musical accompaniment all can blend so well that they penetrate, they escalate you to new domains of being and nonbeing. In my room I swayed and drifted with them, hand in hand with the girl of my dreams, from ferris wheel and boardwalk out to the beach.

The songs I was hearing now had a different gestalt than the mild “Because of You” and “A Kiss to Build a Dream On”, which I had heard on the All India Radio hit parade broadcast from what was then Ceylon. These songs now conveyed a dark waterfront ephemerality. Something of a painful transition, perhaps a tipping point long in the making, a smoke gets in your eyes goodbye, was transpiring in the underground of the human soul. On the other hand, “Be Thou My Vision” and “Come Labor On”, two forceful older hymns I learned in my hymnody class, refurbished my reasons for being here in seminary. Pilgrim reader, you should have heard the vigorous sound of our class as we sang them in the stone monastery-style classroom building. I had never heard such powerful singing or such unsentimental and muscular religious music.

If I could only compose this book in music! My symphony is about the still of the night. It starts with the jazz in The Hungry Eye of my imagination. Overtones of the hit songs come and go throughout. The threatening undercurrents of the Bay are realized by the basses and cellos, and the foghorns are heard as deep rumbling undertones. The sadness of Alcatraz, the rocky refuge of Sin and Death, and the ballad of the lonely young man longing for love are conveyed by an extended piano solo using deep, rich chords.

The music is propelled forward by the tensions, each in turn, between the seminary and the city, the East and the West, and the young man and the city’s promise of love. A male chorus singing the great hymns in the distance provides a counterpoint both to the flutes and gongs and movie songs of India and the Far East and to the desperate, abstract sounds of the city's night secrets. “High King of heaven, my victory won” and the other lines of the hymns, not yet phrased in contemporary and gender-inclusive language, come out of the hills softly in the north wind and float mellifluously on the water like the lanterns of peace, swelling into a crescendo as they approach the city's harbor. The Golden Gate Bridge, the arc of opportunity, reconciliation, and welcome, is rendered by the soaring lyrics of a soprano with a lucid, lambent voice pouring down like the full moon upon the big city, the waters, and Marin county, Tamalpais looming, on the north side.

Down the other end of the hallway from where Bill’s room was I would hear someone playing Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” on his stereo, and I also remember hearing the old American folk song “Shenandoah” sung by Norman Luboff style singers. Both pieces made me stand at the door of my room. The melancholy folk song carried me deep into the American heartland and back and away vaguely into the civil war. A cast on my arm, I was bleeding for the smiling valley and the rolling river across the wide Missouri.

Three. SACRED GROUND

Buber’s simple thoughts stream from the page into the understanding

It was a monsoon of spiritual and intellectual ferment. My traditional faith, nurtured in a praying and pious Indian Christian home in which I was the son and grandson of pastors, would not do well in a seminary culture given to open dialogue and driven by the quest for learning. The pictures on the walls of our home in Ferozepore, the strong arms of the Good Shepherd reaching over the cliff’s edge to save the lamb, the tearful Christ with the crown of thorns knocking on the door, Christ in Gethsemane, were incongruous with the books and the music in my room. John Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit”, produced by the student theater group, further expanded my horizons and told me I was a self very much in the making.

In this creative atmosphere of crosscurrents the big question insinuated itself upon me like Leviathan accompanying the ship. I was reading it in books. It was written in the walls of modernity, carried on the winds of the times, even printed in the fire of the human chest and the fog of theology. It was the question of the magi, as I was to learn later, in W.B. Yeats' poem of 1914: Unconvinced by Calvary, the pale unsatisfied ones probe the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor. It was the quest of The Other Wise Man in Henry Van Dyke's classic story. Artaban misses his meeting in Borsippa with the magi of scripture because he stops in the dark grove of date palms in Babylon to heal a dying Hebrew. The story has the hero come up empty in his stated search for the One whose star he had seen in Persia, but there is yet the deeper hunger for the true meaning of his long journey. This hidden and obscure troubledness brings him over the years to wounded beings who stand in need of healing, protection, and freedom.

In particular it was the simple little paperback I and Thou by the theologian Martin Buber that left me with a not yet recognized quarrel with the systematic theology I was studying. It had just been published in English and was already beginning to cause ripples in American thought. Buber had no grand system to promulgate or protect. His simple thoughts streamed from the page into the understanding and the cells of the body, no need to cast about for proof.

The book focuses on the relationship signified by the words I and Thou, which when spoken engage the whole being, not just the intellect or emotion. What is the I without the Thou? Just an isolated, desolate reed shaken by the wind. Its voice is never heard. It is unvisited, vacant, autistic. But the I and its Thou in their interaction experience integrity, fullness, and power as living beings. Their voices project irresistibly to the four corners of the café. They are the cynosure of all eyes and ears.

I and Thou is also contrasted by Buber with I and It. The I and It relationship is not spoken with the whole being. Buber gives the example of a tree. It is beautiful, you are lost in its warm autumn glow, and your response is sensuous and spontaneous and whole. Your I and Thou with the tree is direct and immediate. The tree is a subject, a living being speaking to you in its own language of colors and lines. But this very Thou, Buber warns, must become an object and lose its subjectness. Your relation to it will inevitably become an I-It relation.

You leave that place near the stone bridge, now enchanted, and walk down the trail beside the river, thinking back about the tree. The memory lingers with its yellow dust. You think, How the fallen leaves made such a perfect circle beneath the tree. You remember, Did not my heart burn within me as I stood beside that tree? Did not that place become a sacred ground, and the tree a burning bush that was not consumed? You muse, How every living being has a body, an age, a spring, an autumn. And as you walk between the river and the carpet of wildflowers you wonder, How life is even more beautiful and precious in its vulnerability and evanescence. But now you have drifted into your head in relation to that tree. Though your thoughts still glow in its luminous splendor, the tree is now a mere object in those thoughts. Furthermore, the world is expanding to be larger than that single tree. New entities appear that become for you a Thou. A wooden footbridge crossing the river comes into view and fills the mind.

Even at that young age I could tell that Buber's work constituted a momentous breakthrough in the area of religion. I and Thou contained a treasure chest of implications which I could at most intuit then. For one thing, I took from it what was still a crude understanding of Truth in the big, capitalized sense as a sort of guide. Our ideas are True in the big sense insofar as they are transparent of their I and Thou ground of being. To the extent that they lose contact with ground control, they lose their Truth. Our theology classes in seminary were so academic, straying so far down the street from their reason for being, that they often left us cold, unsatisfied, uncertain as to their Truth.

Buber was raised in a home in which the primary relationship, namely the I and Thou, between his mother and father was broken. In his autobiographical writings he says that his nanny's words about his mother, “No, she will never come back,” cleaved to his heart. He must have pondered the gendered nature of I and Thou, having read almost certainly the pioneering study of Ludwig Feuerbach on that subject.

It is possible that he even distanced himself unconsciously from I and Thou. He writes of the silence of the workers when he delivered lectures on religion in the folk-school. The silence became painfully clear by the third evening. One worker came and explained that they were now allowed to speak, and would Professor Buber be willing to meet with them the next evening at a different venue? He did go to the agreed place, and an older person challenged him about God. Suddenly the atmosphere was strained, and Buber's arguments backed the man into a corner. Again there was silence. In that second silence Buber came to know the horrible primal fact. He had presented in his lectures merely the I-It God of the philosophers, depriving the workers of the Eternal Thou. In particular, he had not been truly present as Thou for this man. His ego had gotten the better of him, and now it was late in the day.

Four. MARKET STREET

If you're young, take a chance if you love her

Buber regretted his comportment toward the workers, having left them not with the Eternal Thou, but with the philosophers' God of the intellect. In 1933 after he was dismissed from the university, he continued to be present in Germany for his people instead of leaving for Palestine. In the face of the boycott, the deprivation of civil service jobs, the Reich Citizenship Law, and the lengthening shadows of harassment and horror, he continued to counsel and console.

Though I could not connect the dots all around and beyond the sky, I intuited the singular truth of Buber's message. I possessed it, I grew into it as I had grown into my father's New York City suits as a teenager. It was not clear to me how exactly the Eternal Thou, God, fit into the I and Thou scheme of things. This nagged at me. The best I could do was to say that particular I and Thou relationships are in some sense perhaps sacred ground, and that particular Thous are related in some murky sense to the Eternal Thou. The God question was turning out to be the big and momentous question quite early in my life.

Did I see the face of the Eternal Thou in the face of Paul and Mary Bodine? A short and stocky freshman, soft-spoken but articulate, Paul was carrying a full academic load. He did not have a full scholarship as I did. He delivered newspapers on the narrow streets winding up and down the hills in the foggy mornings, and he came to class tired, not having read his assignments. His background was conservative too, and we talked when we could. Paul and Mary took the trouble to have me over for dinner in their small rented house on one of the hills.

My visit was an intimate look into their life. She was pale and very pretty, with a round face. Hugely pregnant too, and shy, blushing easily. We spoke of her Salvation Army background and their courtship, and we noted that she wore no lipstick. It is sad that we lost touch so soon as the academic years progressed, as often students do. I have treasured them like old photographs in my heart for a long, long time. Were they reflections in a metaphysical pond of the Eternal Thou? This question, in truth, was not yet fully formed in my mind, but waiting for its time, like a road that one has seen but not yet had a reason to travel.

I spoke of I and Thou with an Arab student I met at the International House in Berkeley. It was lonely at the seminary on holidays. Most of the single students went home. I had taken the bus to Berkeley to look for someone to be with, but it was just as empty on that campus. The coffee shop was open, and I ordered a milkshake. The Arab student and his young blue-eyed female companion prepared it for me, giggling and flirting.

The young man did come and sit with me at a booth, probably on my invitation. He was a graduate student in economics and spoke of how he would apply his studies to the situation in his country. He smiled dismissively when I explained my own interest in theology and the new book by the Jewish theologian Martin Buber. To introduce the Eternal Thou into the universe of discourse, however, felt more labored than logical. He looked over his shoulder to his companion. Serious purpose and resolve were carved in the dark ancient lines of his face, but he was distracted now, full of fire and mischief, his eyes giddy with delight and desire. His obsession with the young woman reigned supreme over our dialogue, which ended shortly. Was I in encounter with the Eternal Thou in some important sense? Both in the person of the man across the table and perhaps the woman behind the counter?

A small but quite memorable thing happened on my first Thanksgiving Day. Interesting how such seemingly insignificant moments become part of the architecture of our minds. I was grateful to be invited by the student body treasurer and his wife for dinner that day. I was directed to sit next to Alice's sister, who appeared in my sky like a dazzling comet with a trailing flare. That was when a spry, preppy, flamboyant woman sat next to a dimwit who was pulled to her by his roots. Which fork do I use anyway? Do I eat the salad first? Was I being invited to be her boyfriend? That couldn't be! If only I was capable of pursuit. I hated my oversized dull brown suit, which made me look only skinnier and browner against this celestial luminary.

Was this house of fire and fog in some sense sacred ground?

It turned out that I could drown the pain, if only temporarily, of the thorn of anxiety both of my discomfiture in intimate situations like this and of something like individualized existence itself. That the anomie was not a temporary condition but a permanent inhabitant of this clay vessel was sinking in as a foregone conclusion. I began taking the Greyhound bus into San Francisco. The Hungry Eye, known for its jazz, was too far away from the bus depot. It was on or just off Market Street that I saw “The Young Lions” and “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” and ate Mars Bars in grand cinemas and submerged myself in dark adult amusement arcades and burlesque shows of comedy acts and dance routines harking back to vaudeville. On the screen I saw women in bathing suits frolicking, shaking supposedly to the swing music of small combos and big bands. It was amusing, however, how the music of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and the Dorsey brothers was tacked on so unsynchronistically. While the music changed, the reel continued in dead silence.

Most shops were closed on holidays. My face went by in the windows up and down the lonely boulevard. The one place always open day and night was the bus depot cafe. There I sat and watched the “Anchors Away” navy men in uniform milling about waiting for their buses. I played Frank Sinatra on the juke box, “If you're young, take a chance if you love her. Tell her you love her, tell her you love her.” The song was an abyss of dread for young inept lovers who craved tenderness but were afraid to risk themselves enough to say, Could you put up with me forever? And their ship was waiting in the harbor.

For me there was no Thou but for the waitress. At the counter alone with its apple pie, coffee, and cigarettes, the I was vagrant and impotent. It was voiceless except to ask for the remaining piece of pie or a refill. In the asking, however, its voice was heard and for a fleeting moment the cup brimmed over. And the song continued, becoming urgent, “Tell her now before it's too late. And before she belongs to another....” By now the young wilted I was a prisoner in Alcatraz looking into the waters of futility. It was said that no one has escaped by swimming across from the prison island to the mainland, the undercurrents being so powerful.

In the middle of the night there were few passengers. The dark vinyl seats soaked up whatever light there was. The hit songs played in my head as the bus moved across Golden Gate Bridge and through the sleeping towns. The driver called out their names as we came to them, Sausalito, Mill Valley, Larkspur. The street lamps glowered down in the fog as a passenger got off the bus and walked away. The classy Foster and Kleiser and other billboards drew the eye on the freeway as we passed them. The freeways were brand new then. Everyone was talking about how one could drive forever without coming to a light. This luxury blinded us all. No one saw how these roadways would proliferate. No one understood their true meaning in terms of their political provenance or their human and nonhuman consequences.

When we came to San Anselmo the driver glanced at me in his mirror.

Five. YOSEMITE VALLEY

I sat down by the river and read

I was split into two Kierkegaardian halves, intellect and existence. On the intellectual level I was applying myself well, asking good questions in class, impressing my teachers and classmates with my love of learning, getting As in my theology classes though doing only fair in Hebrew and Greek, church history, and the psychology of religion. I was truly eager for this new knowledge and the new perspective and promise to which it would surely lead. It was the early dawn of my theological awakening, and I was impatient to see what the new day would bring. I even bought a new book by a Princeton theologian to read during the summer months when I would be working at Yosemite National Park.

Sin and Death were present too in the form of Pride and Wrath. I became arrogant in the imagination of my heart, quarrelsome even with some of my teachers.

On the existential level, the level on which we live, move, and have our being, I was carried away by the undercurrents of the Bay Area waters. I knew when the buses came and went, and I braved the fog, cold winds, and damp air to lose myself in the neon of Market Street. I would not be held prisoner to a traditional piety that was plagued by misgivings, and whose walls were disintegrating against the tsunamic force of life itself and the sheer size of the world. This secret manifesto was issued quite unconsciously by the way I was trying to forge my survival as my own bewildered self in this new situation whose dangers and mysteries I did not know.

What I craved was carnal knowledge. Why could not I breach the confines of this theological hill, find my way to The Hungry Eye, listen to “Bye Bye, Blackbird”, and quiver to the tapping of the cymbals, the hollow echoes of the base, and the weeping of the saxophone? Who sat at those tables? Was there a counter? Was there dancing, a crooner? Would I be shown to a seat, and would I cast a long shadow? How much would it cost? Let Sin and Death, now as Lust and its reverberations of Wrath, prowl. The mind was crazy with imagination and desire. I would taste of the salt winds of freedom. I would comb the waterfront for all the dark vacant corners where women and men came to watch the sea.

If there was a Golden Gate Bridge between the two levels, it was Martin Buber, who knew the power of the Bay Area undercurrents over an empty vessel. And I knew in turn that any theology presenting itself for my assent must first pass the muster of I and Thou. The Buddhist theologian Takeuchi Yoshinori calls the similar bridge between the hither shore and the yonder shore the bridge of transcendence. One can cross over in either direction both on the Takeuchi bridge and on the Golden Gate Bridge between intellect and existence.

My first summer in America was spent working for the Curry Company in Yosemite Valley and helping out with the National Parks Ministry. The seminary had arranged for this, and I had the chance to work with young adults from all over the country. One young woman from Mississippi had a relationship with a Lebanese cook. I looked at that heavyweight man with the chef's white uniform and hat with a wave of jealousy. I was well aware of being drawn to her myself. Aside from her classical face, there was something withdrawn and unreachable about her. This was something inherent in her, I suspected, not a front she put on to keep others at arm's length.

I assisted with Sunday morning worship services held outdoors next to Yosemite Falls close to the Lodge. The Reverend Glass was park chaplain and pastor of the small wooden church where evening services were held. The real inspiration for all who came to Yosemite, however, were the monumental vertical cliffs and the waterfalls that made us lift up our eyes, Half Dome and El Capitan too, the Merced River winding through the valley, the flowers in the meadow, the fresh smell of the pines, the deer and the bear, the singing of “Apple Blossom Time” at the campfires and singalongs, the back country hiking, the serendipity of meeting people from all over the world, the pitch blackness of the night.

The new theology book I had bought was George S. Hendry's The Gospel of the Incarnation. Between the afternoon and the evening shifts I would go to the river and sit among the tall grasses to read. Page by page I devoured the wisdom of this theologian, trusting him more and more as I read. All year long I had studied and written papers on the history of Christian dogma and how the theologians are at pains to make it come alive today. But except perhaps for Oscar Cullman's thesis that cyclical time was a Greek concept and linear time was what was avowed by the early Christian texts, their pages were arduous and dull, still freighted with medieval metaphysics. They had not disabused me of the fundamentalist doctrines and the pictures on the wall of my formative years in India. I was a passionate but normless young man at one of the most important crossroads of my spiritual life, and I was floundering on exactly what to be passionate about. Here came Hendry with guidance as fresh as this river from the high country snows.

Hendry's approach was similar to Buber's. Having disentangled itself from traditional doctrines and systems, it appealed now to relational existence as the final arbiter of Truth in the big theological sense. Do not think of the atonement as transfixed in one moment of time. Do not view the traditional Christian doctrines through windows stained with manufactured philosophies and theologies you cannot understand. Imagine them, rather, in the contours and colors of the natural world unfolding in the table fellowship and the healing and reconciling ministry of Jesus, which for Hendry was the true meaning of the incarnation and the key to the meaning of Christian faith itself.

Sitting by the Merced River that summer I was thus encouraged to rethink my religion in an organic, relational language. I began to understand Jesus in terms of his I and Thou encounter with other persons, his being fully present for them in a way that Buber himself had not been for the German factory workers, and in terms of his solidarity with the blind, the deaf, the lame, the mentally ill, the unloved. A person for other persons, said Hendry, is what the scripture means when it says that Jesus took upon himself the sin and sickness of others. The suffering servant passage was quoted by Matthew in Chapter 8 not in connection with a single moment in time, Jesus' death, but to apply to his healing ministry. It was this latter that was said to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, namely that the suffering servant took our infirmities and bore our diseases.

Hendry's explanations came like a flash of lightning. They illuminated the spiritual landscape and showed me the foothold I needed in my early rummagings for meaning and truth. The different theories I had studied of the atonement had only clouded my mind and left me with questions. His incarnational theology not only anticipated what has only recently come into fairly wide acceptance, but it made eminent human sense when I sorely needed my religion to make sense. That sense now became as luminous as the color of wild flowers blowing in the summer wind, and as immediate as looking up to see tourists float down the river on their rafts.

Six. TIOGA PASS

My Barth volumes went missing on the way to Tuolumne Meadows

All my belongings fit into two cardboard boxes, which I checked on to the bus as I headed for Yosemite the next summer. The Agape Fellowship was a two-year scholarship for Asian students, and the seminary directed me to go and finish my BA degree before going on to my senior year. I had applied to various colleges but they would not accept my credits from India. What was I to do? I had nowhere to go that fall. I trusted that a door would open somehow, but the seriousness of my quandary would sink deeper and deeper as the summer progressed.

Furthermore, it was probably in Merced, where I think I changed buses, that my heavier box containing my theology books, including several volumes of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, went missing. I had spent my precious little scholarship money to buy them. I filled out the paperwork when I got to Yosemite, but nothing came of it.

At Yosemite the Curry Company assigned me to work not down in the valley this time but in the back country, up at Tuolumne Meadows at around 8000 feet. I hitchhiked up to Tioga Pass from the valley in the back of a pick-up truck. My boss was Mike Adams, who I learned later was the son of the famous Yosemite photographer Ansel Adams. He was a breezy, fun kind of person to work for. A jet pilot in the Air Force Reserve he promised he would buzz our camp while on a practice mission. I was in the kitchen washing dishes when he flew right over. I had missed it.

Again young women and men from all over were my colleagues at Tuolumne Lodge, the blond, blue-eyed beaming Sweetheart of Sigma Chi at the University of California at Berkeley, two young women from Vassar, a dark-haired brother and sister pair from La Jolla, and many others. Many of these names and terms were new to me then. We did kitchen work, cleaned tents, changed bedsheets, served meals. An uncouth, swashbuckling young man with glasses and cigarettes had a pick-up truck, and he and I took the garbage to the dump early every morning. The bears would be waiting, some up in the trees, and we were both anxious to be done.

The care of the horses and the dusty stables was left to the cowboys and cowgirls, seasoned permanent employees. I stole looks at one of them, a tall attractive taciturn woman with boots and hat and sculpted features, as if she was out of a Zane Grey novel or a Gary Cooper movie. She may well have been already attached with another man, I never came to know. She looked stately on a horse, staunch against the mountain sky.

To help with the Sunday morning services and the campfire singalongs I went from tent to tent distributing fliers in the public campgrounds close to the Lodge. The Reverend Woodruff, who had replaced the Reverend Glass as park chaplain, supervised my volunteer work. Who had I to turn to but to him about my quandary regarding what I should or could do in the fall? Out of concern for me he wrote and inquired about the possibility of my admission into Chapman College, his own alma mater, a Disciples of Christ college in southern California. To my great relief Chapman admitted me with two years worth of credit for the academic work I had done in India.

A door of opportunity had suddenly swung wide open. Though those were kinder days, I moved through dense clouds of anxiety at Tioga Pass. I was young, alone, in a foreign land, and on the road to anywhere. I shudder to think what might have happened had the Reverend Woodruff not been there for me. To this day I remain grateful to that caring man, a pastor who helped open for me the door to America, the land of the Shenandoah and its smiling valley and rolling river. I learned early that a pastor's job is to find a way across the wide Missouri. The way to yonder shore is just what Takeuchi calls the bridge of transcendence.

In my spiritual life the religion of the past continued to glance apprehensively at the theological ideas that would guide my future. I was equipped now with words like existential and historicity and such primal and radical information that it was as if I possessed a secret neo-orthodox crypt granted only to initiates at the San Anselmo seminary to decode. But this knowledge still coexisted in my soul with the pictures on the wall and the mantlepiece in my aunt's home in Ferozepore.

No, Pilgrim, my new learning did not overrule Jesus in Gethsemane, Jesus reaching over the cliff for the lamb caught in the bramblebush, the tearful Jesus with crown of thorns knocking on the massive door of the human heart, the auratic face of Jesus at twelve in a shining robe, the Bible verses and the Gospel songs, the preaching and singing voices of the Bible-carrying missionaries up in Landour, the koinonia and charisma in the ashram of E. Stanley Jones, my grandfather's unending prayers at Christmas with the large family sitting on beds and chairs and wicker stools and arrived on famous trains from Lahore and the northwest frontier, the land of the Pathans, and from the ancient cities of Amritsar and Delhi. At those prayers I confess to peeping at times.

That family exists no more. It grew apart, like families do, as the older generation died and the new generation adapted to the circumstances and pressures of the twentieth century. Those sounds and images, however, continued to anchor, guard, and confine my thinking. The women at Tuolumne saw me as different. They went to other men or to no men at all. That they did this left me, I admit, slowly burning inside, a condition I would have to learn to live with. But they had their own lives to live, why should they bother with my tug of war interiority? It was not that I was brown and spoke with an accent. I was myself detached and insecure and afraid. I used my angular kind of religiousness to serve my instincts and keep me apart. I covered up my hungers well.

The days at Tuolumne Meadows grew short. Dragonflies, tiny helicopters, flew up and down the stream cascading down the gently sloping but muscular mountainside. Come, Pilgrim, we will go and sit among the boulders and shrubs, above the Lodge where the ranger presents at the campfire weekly and they sing “Amazing Grace” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”. Let us sit and watch the inexhaustible energy of the water, listen to the scolding of the blue-jays, and brood upon the sermons of the season.

And I can take you, Pilgrim, further upstream to more pools of unruly waters with swirling twigs and petals and bark and wings and mottled leaves and vestiges of the same, transient beings making their way to the sea. They move and are free and we are glad for them. They have had their high mountain summer in the sun, in the rain, in the cold wind. They became bold in the presence of their enemies, steadfast against the gates of hell, intelligent in temptation. They were delicate in love, and they shone brightly in their day, staying the assault of the darkness. Where then is your sting, O death? Where your victory, O grave? Let them seek out their sea, or their new soil, in a softer place where the sun sets, far below Tioga Pass.

We can go to the quiet waters too, the still waters, the softly flowing dreamy and bright waters further downstream, near where the meadows begin, across the winding blue highway.

Seven. THE SCREAM

Niebuhr cast his net far and wide over human experience

I first saw Ruth, as I recall, in the cafeteria line. She stood tall and was classically pretty. Her face was fair and soft and uncluttered, pale at times. She smiled, laughed, and giggled easily with her friends. I saw a man paying attention to her. They talked often, and I grew jealous. Much later there was another man. I do not remember actually talking to her in the first few weeks, but my infatuation already knew no bounds.

The old town atmosphere of Orange, Chapman College, and the orange groves next to the new dorms with no fence between them felt like I wouldn't mind being here forever. It felt summery and settled compared to the jagged emotions of New Delhi and St. Stephens, the cool foggy green of Mt. Tamalpais, the blue winds and scary currents of the Bay Area waters, the saturated clouds of unknowing at Tioga Pass. The only problem was Ruth.

A relaxed downhome comraderie and friendship prevailed among the students and professors. Carrol Cotton, the men's dorm supervisor, beat me easily in ping-pong, but he let me watch “The Streets of Laredo” again in his suite. Mike, a classmate, liked to talk about politics, and he became a good friend. My vociferous suite mate kept me posted on what he knew about Ruth. He darted around in his green MG, on which I myself was an occasional passenger. What an uncaged sort of guy, I thought, nothing bothers him. He always has something to say and is never at a loss for words. He goes where he pleases, and the MG was made just for him. He is friends with everyone and mad about no one.

A congenial space seemed to open up in which I could wander and muse. There was less pressure in Orange than there had been at St. Stephens. I lived in the dorms, I did not have to be part of an elite, and I went to the movies with other foreign students. I started working as a part-time youth assistant under the Reverend Green, who was the associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church close by.

Dr. Bert C. Williams was my venerable philosophy teacher at the college, a kind and gray Boston personalist with thick glasses and a mustache. He did not hesitate to admit that he embraced the personalist philosophy of Edgar Sheffield Brightman, whose coherence-based argument for the existence of God we had to read. A lean figure with pointed features, Dr. Williams would huddle over the text on the table to explicate the material quite literalistically, exactly the way he wanted us to reproduce it on a test.

Edward Munch's “The Scream” was one of the works of art pictured in black and white on the frontispiece of our history of philosophy text by W. T. Jones. I looked at it and heard the scream every time I opened the big book. The existentialistic readings in San Anselmo and my exposure to “No Exit” had prepared me well for a philosophy major, though sitting in class I could sense that a marriage between theology and philosophy might quickly become problematic.

I grew to recognize “The Scream” as an iconic image of modernity. The dark secrets of existence, heretofore told only in whispers, could now be shouted on bridges, told in bazaars, wept out loudly in railway junctions. Clandestine shames will find ears, suppressed stories will find a voice. Such was the promise of the times. Existence before essence, asseverated Sartre as existentialism's manifesto. For better or worse we are thrown into an alienated, ambiguous, and deracinated world to make our own way, secure our own life, create our own meaning, learn from our own mistakes, find our own love. There is no metaphysical template against which to measure, no a priori norm to be a lamp to our feet and a light for our path, no plan laid before the foundation of the world for the fullness of our days.

This attitude of mind, however, was already setting me on a collision course with the mainstream of Western philosophy. I admit I was impressed by existentialism's unyielding gaze into the cavernous depths of absurdity, angst, authenticity, nothingness, and freedom. Furthermore, had not theology found in existentialism a new language fertile for its own explorations of the subterranean recesses of the human soul? Had it not found a perch from which to critique the spiritually bankrupt culture of Babylon? I still note with interest the frequency with which the word existential is used nowadays with a somewhat different, more literal and political meaning, even in broadcast journalism.

Day by day, week by week in Dr. Williams' class, however, I was being drenched in philosophies of reason, from Plato to Wittgenstein, with their interest not in the I and Thou of critical presence or in the alienations and anxieties of human subjectivity at all, but in logic, clarity of thought, and the foundations of knowledge. The big question percolating now in my soul had to do with the dissonance between these two alien frames of reference. It was as if two different languages with two different universes, each with its own firmament of suns and moons and stars, were in combat. I am not describing again the tension between intellect and existence, alluded to in a previous chapter, but rather the potentially rocky intellectual relationship between philosophy and theology. But Pilgrim, we will voyage together in this book to both universes and learn both languages.

We start by going back to a point in time one hundred years or so before I arrived in Orange. We flash back for a quick moment to the old stand-off between Kierkegaard and Bishop Mynster in Denmark. Even though theirs was not a clash between philosophy as such and theology, it is a good example of how a theologian can question longstanding tradition and erudition, and how she or he may detect the will to power, self-contentment, and self-deception operative in them.

Kierkegaard was the father of existentialism and Bishop Mynster the cultivated, shrewd, refined establishment brahmin of Christendom who believed that the church should be kept secure and content by the state. Kierkegaard denounced Bishop Mynster publicly in the press, saying, You are mad with all the worldly pleasures and advantages of your position. You accept not one iota of Christianity's teachings about renunciation and dying to oneself and being unhappy in this life. You deem the king and the priests and the wellborn infinitely more important than the beggar and the commoner.

My sympathies were very much with Kierkegaard. I still find reading his writings to be like being baptized at 8000 feet in Tenaya Lake, joltingly alarming and refreshing. His vehement attack on Christian hypocrisy, his expressions of solidarity with the beggar and the commoner, and his bald and piercing portrayal of the sickness of human interiority represent to me the best of the existentialist theology I had learned in San Anselmo. But how was I when I was young to weigh Kierkegaard and his theology of existence against the bishops and archbishops of the rationalistic philosophical establishment of the West? Furthermore, was not Kierkegaard on the verge of madness? Was it not just the unbearability of his manic-depressive condition that catapulted him into his faith?

The vague sense of fragmentation growing within me was validated by a paperback I bought that first year in Orange. Morton White's Social Thought in America was about important intellectuals in the early part of the twentieth century in America. Chief among them was John Dewey, who helped develop pragmatism, the philosophy of the use of intelligence in human affairs. I bought that book mainly because the brand new edition contained an epilogue which included a critique of Reinhold Niebuhr, and I held my breath as White's considerable philosophical firepower let loose on the theologian. It was a personal thing with me because of my own investment in theology and because my father had often spoken admiringly of Niebuhr as a stimulating and erudite teacher with whom he had had seminars.

What was shaping up for me was a major heavyweight battle between a gifted and courageous existentialist theologian and an important Western philosopher, John Dewey, represented now by White. It was Niebuhr who had launched his critique of Dewey's alleged naive optimism about the application of intelligence to human affairs. Niebuhr had flung his net far and wide over human experience to come up with gems about how and why it was inevitable that Dewey's admittedly humane project would stall. Sin is the serpent spoiler in the garden of reason, warned Niebuhr, in the tradition of Paul, Augustine, and Kierkegaard, and he expounded at length about the depth of greed, vested interests, hubris, lust, the will to power, and all manner of corporate egoism sabotaging the liberal hopes of thinkers like Dewey. Neibuhr insisted that the plans we form, the policies we put in place, must take these surd, untidy, unsettling facts into account.

White, however, defended Dewey and launched his own polemic against Niebuhr. Among other things, Niebuhr appeals to authority. It is the Pauline doctrine of original sin that lies behind his talk about the inevitability of sin. His talk at once about the inevitability of sin and human responsibility for sin is inconsistent. He offers no alternative to the use of our intelligence to make our way forward in the world. White's diatribe went on and on.

Even at my young age I could see the two different languages and their two distinct universes at work. White was squirmy about the whole idea of sin, let alone the inevitability of sin, as if it was a harking back to some voodoo age of platitudinous gibberish. Even though he said that he agreed with Niebuhr politically, he inveighed against admitting Niebuhr into the halls of philosophical respectability. Brute, primal, and often obscure complexity was a reality belonging to a murky alien universe whose language he could not countenance in modern civilized discourse. Resolved to reduce public dialogue to its lowest, most logical and linear denominator, he was a good example of what the great nineteenth century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher called a cultured despiser of religion.

For my part, I was instinctively on the side of Niebuhr, just as I had been on the side of Kierkegaard in his clash with Bishop Mynster. Not only could I understand the existential language of religion but it seemed to fit me like an old shoe. Sin and Death were still at my heels, and I knew them well. They darkened the counsel of my mind and foiled my best and brightest intentions. I knew that Niebuhr was hardly appealing to authority in his talk about sin, but rather to the tragic in human history. Yet I was unable to sift through the logical wheat and chaff to defend Niebuhr adequately. I let the unrest in my mind and soul lie for the time being. I was clearly not yet ready to resolve it, and I knew that I would return to it when the time was right.

Furthermore I had to attend to my own existence on the ground. Willful as it was, this was such an expansive time to be alive. The orange groves cast their old world glow and fragrance upon the new inventions. The horizon was receding on a daily basis. Los Angeles and Hollywood were just to the north, and they were calling. The beaches were just to the west, and they too were calling. Friday was a good movie impatient to be reached. Saturday was a beach, a surfboard, and the waves of the sea.