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Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto, Riverhead Books, N.Y., 2016, by Lesley Hazleton

When Lesley started working on this book I wasn’t sure what I thought or felt about the word AGNOSTIC. Now it is published and selling briskly. I read this book with great pleasure—the questions it raises and the wild ride in ideas and words. I’ve marked and turned down the corner on countless pages. I’m happy to share my interest and enjoyment.

Lesley and I had met years ago over our various writings on Muhammad and what needed to be said about him and the women around him. She read the Qur’an cover to cover in several English translations! Who can say they’ve done that? She gave TED talks. I am in awe of her accomplishments. Pilot. Journalist. Funny friend. My all time favorite book she wrote is Mary, A Flesh and Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother. Lesley Hazleton is my SHE-ro, that’s hero with a she, the most skillful driver of the vehicle of the written phrase. Her sentences move you right along.

I wondered how agnostic thoughts might fit into my world of Sufis, my research on Muhammad and Fatima. There is a very wide scope to this book.

Begin with the title. …A Spirited not Spiritual Manifesto. Yes! I like that. I live in a world where sentimentality lurks very close by, since Sufism is about LOVE. Like GOD it is almost impossible to discuss. Lesley writes:

God is such a little word for such a huge concept. A mere three letters in English, it’s so short, so concise, so …familiar. Far more user friendly than the amorphous idea of the divine or the transcendent or the infinite, its really kind of a nickname, a shorthand claim to intimacy…. 1

See what I mean? As with LOVE, everyone assumes the meaning is shared. Like LOVE, GOD gets held hostage by personal beliefs and experiences. Then the AHA! we share is lost. Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto brings up and stirs around what we assume we know, yet don’t question.

The agnostic stance defies artificial straight lines such as that drawn between belief and unbelief, and shakes off the insistence that it come down on one side or the other. It is free-spirited, thoughtful, and independent-minded—not at all the wishy-washy I-don’t–know-ness that atheists accuse it of being. 2

I want to explore unanswerable questions with an open mind instead of approaching them with dismissive derision or with solemn piety… to get beyond old, worn-out categories and establish an agnostic stance of intellectual and emotional integrity, fully engaged with this strange yet absorbing business of existence in the world. 3

The following lines make me want to be Banksy, Graffiti Master of UK, painting phrases and paradoxes on buildings at night— everywhere.

Banksy 4

The meaning of life is that it stops. 4

…to be lost is to be fully present. 5

(The agnostic )…takes a spirited delight in not knowing. 6

Names pin things down…create the illusion of understanding. Which is why naming God might be the trickiest business of all. 7

As with your keys or your wallet, you “find” God or “lose” your faith. 8

This is the agnostic’s faith: not in answers, but in possibilities. 9

Banksy1

She speaks a truth that is rarely spoken:

By refusing to accept death—by seeing it as failure—both physicians and their patients (assume)…death is the enemy… “you can do this, you can beat it,” as though we declare war on death, As though, absurdly, we could kill it… 10

Perfectibility seems so hollow to me. The definiteness, the absolutism, the dead-endness of it— all these leave no room for life. The perfect tomato in the store turns out to be tasteless, genetically engineered for shelf appeal, not for the palette…. Complete agreement with whatever I might say leaves me gasping for intellectual air, longing for something more than a mirror of my own thoughts. 11

I can’t follow her into the mathematics of the universe, big numbers and infinity, so these pages with words like ouroboros and googolplex have me scanning and page-turning.

The book ends with a discussion of “soul.” She does that thing like the child’s game of repeating a word until it’s like Dr. Seuss, or like cracking an egg—

…soulful, a good soul, soul music, soul food, soul mates Soul… we seem to end up in a haze of well-meaning sentiment…

 Then she brings in a deeper layer:

…soul not as a thing, but as a dimension of being that defies the narrow lens of dogma…12

Hazrat Inayat Khan, the great Sufi who came to the West in 1910 calls the soul “…consciousness, which is all-pervading. That same consciousness is caught in a limitation … All the holy beings of the world have become so by freeing the soul, its freedom being the only object there is in life.”13

I like this, since I am in the lineage that reaches back through Inayat Khan for over 1000 years of direct guidance and experiential understanding. It is not a religion. I like to call Sufism, “the fragrance over the flower of religion,” I am open to what these Sufis have shared, but also look for and cherish a healthy “spirited” view including humor and paradox that insists on real experience, not just accepting what I’ve been told. Out of the deep sincerity of that attitude, devotion to the path I walk can be born in my heart.

This book …to quote Lesley’s final page about the soul, “makes my heart swell… makes me glad to be alive.” 14

Reference Notes

1     Lesley Hazleton, Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto p. 25.
2     p. 4, 5.
3     p. 6
4     p. 135
5     p. 117
6     p. 6.
7     p. 51.
8     p. 47
9     p. 79
10   p. 145,146
11   p. 190
12   p. 193.
13   Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Sufi Message of HIK “Spiritual Liberty.” vol. 5, Chapter 1.
14   Lesley Hazleton, Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto p. 204

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