My dad taught math for years at the local university. He was a religious man, but in a quiet way. He went to church every Sunday, taught Sunday School, helped out any way he could, but he didn’t beat people over the head with his religion. In fact, through several conversations about spirituality and mathematics with him later in his life, I realized he took many of his Christian beliefs symbolically, which didn’t surprise me given his vocation; it just wasn’t something we’d ever really talked about, and I wish we had. He told me he thought my pantheism “sounded okay.” My dad also had a big beautiful vegetable garden that was his passion during the retirement years, the benefits of which he generously shared with neighbors and family; he loved being outside in his garden.
One of my dad’s fellow professors was an atheist, yet the two of them were close. I first met this gentleman when I was in 9th grade, and I was shocked to learn of his beliefs, or lack thereof. I had always gone to the Methodist Church in my small town (and admittedly was a pretty sheltered kid), and while I may have met other “non-believers” before, I wasn’t particularly aware of it until I knew this man, who was more vocal about his unbelief (although I don’t know that he actually used the word ‘atheist’ to describe himself, more just something that came up in conversations with my dad). The closest I’d come was a new boy in my 3rd grade class who stated matter-of-factly at lunch one day that there was no God, but we chalked that up to showing out, and that was the end of it. I wasn’t ready to think too deeply about such things at that age.
Since identifying as a pantheist over 15 years ago, I’ve had occasion to think back on this other math professor. The last time I talked to him was when my dad died, and now he has died, too, but I wish I could speak with him again. When I first moved into my house years ago, he brought me a truckload of shrubs and trees to liven up the otherwise dreary, dirt-filled landscape, helping me fulfill my dream of living in the woods, surrounded by green. He also loved being outdoors, and his own property was filled with plants, both in the ground and in pots sitting around everywhere. So, he certainly believed in something, but it wasn’t the traditional God, and I don’t know that he would have been pleased with the pantheist label either, definitely not with the religious language I’m comfortable with like sacred or divine. Some people know what they believe and are satisfied with no particular label or group membership or attachment, just appreciating the natural unfolding of life, sharing their viewpoints in private conversations if and when appropriate. Others want or need to identify as “something,” to belong, and for me, that something is ‘pantheist.’ It gives me a focus, a reference point, and I enjoy my participation in the pantheist community that without such a label wouldn’t exist in its present form.
Every day I look around at all the beautiful trees and bushes growing in my yard, and I’m reminded of my dad, who helped me set out a lot of them, and of his friend and colleague, who generously shared them with me. Through those memories, I’ve learned some things. First, Nature has a way of bringing people of varying beliefs together in wonderful ways. Secondly, we can know a lot about people by what they do, not just by what they “believe,” and we may be surprised. Even within the pantheist community, there are varying specific expressions and practices of pantheism. Sometimes we discover that we actually have a lot more in common with people than we initially thought, and I’ve come to realize that the labels we use to describe ourselves and our path don’t really matter as much as the way we live our day-to-day lives, how we treat others, decisions we make, what we stand up for. Words aren’t always necessary. Lastly, a person’s beliefs can change and evolve over time.
This gruff and rather outspoken man who had surprised me years earlier with his atheistic viewpoint was my dad’s close friend, and he was a generous friend to me, too, and now we would likely have more in common to talk about. Though in some ways he and my dad were quite different in their beliefs, they not only shared an occupation and a love of Nature, but they could see the goodness in each other, their vulnerable places, the beauty of a generous heart; they cared about each other. I can only imagine a conversation between the three of us because the time for that has long passed, but it’s a lesson I can take with me as life goes on. Even though we may have different ideas about some things, the possibility is still there for caring, working together, and sharing, and the world vitally needs that. The plants keep growing and blooming year after year, the seasons change, and we’re left with memories of special people we wish we’d known a little better.
(Originally published in Pantheist Vision)