J.T. is a cartoonist who lives in eastern Kentucky.
1. What are your spiritual beliefs?
In 2013, the only “gods” I believe in are concepts of endless mystery, endless questions, and guiding precepts of love, compassion and forgiveness along that trek of mystery and questioning.
2. How sure are you that those beliefs are true?
The capacity for some small bits of knowing encompassed with an infinite capacity for unknowing I am relatively certain. I find the unknowing to be somewhat (and somewhat/sometimes hugely) frustrating, but the human brain appears to me as such a minuscule cog in the mechanics of the universal structures, accepting some humility without consciously limiting one’s own potential: that makes sense to me.
3. How did you come to have these beliefs?
It seems appropriate to provide a brief bit of autobiographical background. I was born in 1976 and raised in rural eastern Kentucky. The religious, Protestant, agricultural Appalachian region settled by Scottish and Irish immigrants I was born into had as much in common with early 20th century rural American life as it did with post-World War II suburban/urban culture.
I attended Gray Hawk Baptist church with my parents. When my parents got divorced, it was essentially unknown for people of my class (my mother and father were both first generation college graduates who were both schoolteachers, a rural “middle class,” comparatively upper-middle class within the region), and the rancor of the church, directed especially at my mother, resulted in disaffection from the church (we never attended any church afterwards), and laid out the social hypocrisy of church for me at a relatively early age (approximately 10), in an area where the church was, and to an extent still is, the center of all social activity.
Even before that, I was “saved” at a revival approximately aged 8 (members of the congregation were expected to join the church by making the individual choice to be baptized/accept Jesus). But my own experience was that the guest preacher who was doing the evening revival service went more fire-and-brimstone and the reference to the crucial point of being “saved” in order to keep one’s self from the hell-fires sank in for the first time. I felt betrayed by the church, as if someone was just telling me I was missing out, one time offer, to do something I hadn’t done (which was the point of the service and approach to it, for adults). I was too nervous to go in front of the congregation and went to my regular preacher afterwards and, in tears, asked if it was “too late to be ‘saved’?” Which, he, of course, thought was cute. Mostly I was trying to “save” my own ass, to prevent that somehow if I were to get hit by a car when crossing the road, I wouldn’t doom myself for all eternity because I had failed to understand the deal. It all made sense once I realized that getting “saved” equated with baptism, and it wasn’t too much longer, even before the sermonizing on my mother, that there was ample opportunity to start to question the doctrine.
The other side of the autobiographical coin is my physical health. Now age 37, as of this writing, at age 20 I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, and I have been dealing with issues of pain and swelling and permanent damage to joints in my body, to some degree or another, over that expanse of time. That journey ultimately led to becoming officially disabled, in an American health-care/government infrastructure sense of the term. Prior to that, I recall a period in my 20s in which I wasn’t able to drink alcohol for a year and a half due to the harshness in regards to the liver of the medication I was prescribed, and I did quite a bit of reading, to replace the hobby of drinking (although I was always a reader), which led to Philip K. Dick‘s meditations on matters of belief and questioning “what is real?” which in turn led to much of the studies I’ve embarked upon as a hobby into history/religion/philosophy – not that much different than the typical addict/alcoholic’s tendency to turn to a concept of “god” – it’s just that my drinking habit turned spiritual habit was not so dramatic/drastic. Perhaps it is as simple as stating that when the mortal shell one inhabits is dysfunctional, especially from a young age, then it can be attractive to contemplate what exists (or doesn’t exist) beyond the temporal.
Getting to interview over the phone and then, later, spend time with author Hubert Selby, Jr. in person was also an influence. He lived a life beset upon by health woes as a result of tuberculosis as a young man, told repeatedly by doctors that he had only a short time to live the majority of his life (he lived to be 75). He had evolved into one of the most serene human beings one could hope to meet, a genuine American Buddha. If I can approach anything similar to his example, in regards to the artist and human being he became, it would be as a blessing from my perspective.
Or, to paraphrase native West Virginian musician Hasil Adkins, another hero of mine I was glad to meet and work with: it’s easy to be happy when times are good; the trick is to learn how to be happy when times are tough.
4. What do you wish you could believe (but don’t)?
If I could accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior and be confident that a Jewish heretic (in relation to the Romans and the Jewish power structure) of the first century died on the cross for the sins of all mankind, and that he is coming back at some point to wrap up God’s pet planet Earth/humanity project, in accepting this scenario, all would be simple and clear.
It would make it easy for me at family gatherings, if this were my belief, and make it a done deal for my eternal soul. Beyond the nuclear family, I have a big sprawling rural Kentucky-rooted family in which I know all my first cousins, second cousins, and great-aunts and uncles, whom all at least started from a similar rural background as I (whether they’ve remained in the Protestant line or not, or in the region or not, and whom I all see on a semi-regular basis). It would mean I would fit in, comfortably.
However, I know that the earliest testament of Jesus, Mark, doesn’t mention either the virgin birth or the resurrection (the bit that does in Mark was added 200 years later). I am relatively certain Yeshua of Nazareth, he whom the Hellenes called Jesus the Christ, was a follower of John the Baptist who preached of the coming of the Kingdom of God within his own lifetime (as did many others in that specific time/place). As Tom Waits/Keith Richards once sang, “You can tell me that it’s gospel, but I know it’s only church.”
I’m not sure there is such a thing as soul. Consciousness in individuals turns on and it turns off, and what happens in between and after and before is up for discussion. Beyond that, belief in any religion would be great, of which Christianity is but one branch in the history as a whole of human spirituality from the poly/monotheistic tree of of religion. Belief in any of it would be something of an easy relief. I am interested in all religions, but to paraphrase my writer friend Nick Tosches, almost all religious faith is an umbilical cord connected to the region of one’s birth.
All religions, of which all I am interested, I regard as, essentially, metaphor for human experience. I am no linguist, but I realize that there’s something to do with metaphor that we can perceive the origins of human language/human thought/philosophy. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
5. What do you think it means to believe in something?
I enjoyed the comedian Bill Hicks making it country simple that in this life you have two choices to either develop a philosophy based on fear, on one hand, or love, on the other. As complicated as it can all get, these matters of belief, it does seem that fear leads in one direction and love leads in another.
Humans in matters of spirituality often cultivate belief in what they don’t know, what is perhaps just a few steps beyond our knowing, and to have faith in what one doesn’t know, the pretense of labeling and the pretense of understanding without actual understanding to me is – or can be – a troublesome vanity.
I struggle and I don’t struggle with what Carl Jung once said when asked if he believed in God: “I don’t believe. I know.”
The arrogance of the atheist can smell afoul to me just as the arrogance of the religious believer when it comes to assurance of knowing. Perhaps even my own arrogance when it comes to my own belief is another thing I must endlessly question of myself.
I think of Fragment 18 from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus: “If one does not expect it, one will not find out the unexpected; it is not to be tracked down and no path leads us to it.”
And, then, I come back to the words of poet Charles Olson (by way of Chuang Tzu’s ‘Imaginary Conversation Between Lao Tzu and Confucius’): “‘You rectify what can be rectified,’ and when a man’s heart/ cannot see this, the door of his divine intelligence is shut.”
6. Does this stuff matter to you? Do you think about it much?
To come full circle, the manner by which I arrived at accepting love, compassion, forgiveness as guiding principles was in my own personal attempt to distill what I could say to believers, specifically my family, of what I could say about Christianity to the faithful without sounding critical: “I utterly believe in the love, compassion and forgiveness that Jesus offers believers.” I derived this in part from scholar Bart Ehrman proffering that, beyond all the debate on what sayings of Jesus were most historical, at all points, in depiction of discussion between Jesus and his followers, it seems to be consistent that he emphasized love, compassion, and forgiveness when confronted with interpreting the Law.
Life is short. Death is a fact. Suffering is a fact. To not consider, no matter any individual’s conclusions or lack of conclusions, what it all means appears to me as something of a failure, if not a denial, of what it means to experience being human (which leads to concepts beyond humanity).
My current work as a comics artist is a three volume series titled DESPAIR, and it is something of an exegesis, perhaps what Jung termed a “night sea journey” on the topic, which connects to everything discussed previously. The third volume will conclude with a beginning of an excerpt from a single book that will be my own personal take of the life of Jesus (and as a consequence focusing on John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, and, in turn, focusing on myself in relation to reconciling this history/these historical figures). The working title, “As Passers-By,” is from the shortest line (saying numbered 42) attributed to the Coptic Gospel of Thomas: “Be as passers-by.” A line I perceive as comforting in all matters of life/death/suffering.