An incomplete blogging project begun and abandoned in 2012.
24 april 2012: my year of Christianity
Hi, potential readers! I’m starting a project. I probably won’t tell anyone about it for a little while, just in case. But I’ve gotta start from somewhere, with something, so I’m starting with this long, rambling post. Here’s the project: for a year, I’ll be following the Christian calendar. I mean, I’ll be using the liturgical calendar as an entry point to learning about Christian holidays and rituals and history and so on. I know I won’t really do it justice, of course, or get into any kind of real depth, but it will be a start. Then, in a year, I’ll start in on the Jewish calendar. After that, maybe Hinduism. You see where I’m going with this? But first, Christianity.
I’m pretty sure I grew up with some idea that I was a Christian, probably because all of my friends were either Christian and celebrated Christmas or were Jewish and celebrated Hanukkah — and my family celebrated Christmas. When I was a young kid my mom and I went to a Unitarian church together. I graduated from some kind of Sunday School program and received a lovely book with my name, the church’s name, and the date in 1992 handwritten in neat script in the inside cover. The book is called The Big Book for Peace. I flipped through it last night, and I found a few mentions of God and one mention of Jesus, in this context: “If he’d known how to pray properly he would have thanked someone. ‘Take care of her,’ he said to the angel or God or Jesus — whoever watched out for old bag ladies and crazy kids” (page 110). Not exactly staunch conviction.
Later I got really into critical thinking, I guess, and in fifth or sixth grade my friends and I started sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance every morning because the “under God” part didn’t allow for freedom of religion and I thought pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth was weird and we had already figured out that the part about “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” was bullshit. (The fact that we imagined our classroom disobedience made any kind of difference speaks to our still very much alive belief in the American myth of democracy, though.) Middle school made a quiet conformist out of me, though I remember feeling uncomfortable in eighth grade when the Columbine school shooting happened and a friend of mine told me with horror that one of the shooters had asked one of the victims if she believed in God, and upon hearing her affirmative answer, had shot her. I mean, I was pretty sure I would’ve said no.
The year after that, my non-religious parents enrolled me in an all-girls Episcopal boarding high school (yup). A couple of years after that was 9/11 and all of the “God bless America” stuff that was so prevalent right afterwards creeped me out and pissed me off and gave 16-year-old me something to be outspoken and opinionated about. As it so happened, the really cute girl on my soccer team was an atheist, too. We bonded in our lonely, persecuted state (ah, to be 16!), and by mid-November we were in love.
In the meantime, we went to chapel twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays. We stayed resolutely seated during the prayer, but I always stood and sang for the hymns. My favorite hymn was (and remains) “Morning Has Broken.” I also loved (love) the ones with the long drawn-out glorys and hallelujahs. I think probably if I’d been paying more attention I might’ve learned a bit about Christianity and Episcopalianism in particular, but mostly I think I zoned out and/or stared at my hot girlfriend. Things got interesting when our chaplain (a wonderful woman whose brilliance I did not appreciate at the time) started asking students of various faiths to do short presentations about their religious practices during chapel time. Some Muslim students presented on Islam, a Wiccan friend of mine spoke on Wicca, and so on.
Then our chaplain asked my girlfriend and I to present on atheism. For some reason our presentation was the first to be announced in advance, and the art teacher got upset about the idea of a presentation on atheism happening in a sacred space. In the end we gave our presentation — ten years ago, almost to the day! — in the school’s outdoor courtyard, and then we boycotted chapel, just the two of us, until hanging out alone on the school’s front lawn twice a week got more boring than sitting in the pews whispering with our friends.
Anyway, my girlfriend went out of town with her family for a couple of weeks before our presentation, and I put together most of it on my own. It was the first time in my life, really, that I’d been asked to examine my own beliefs (as opposed to, you know, judging the beliefs of others). I read a lot of stuff about morality without religion and atheistic thinkers in history and so on, and I wrote a nice little presentation. And in the midst of all my research, I stumbled across the idea of pantheism (specifically the World Pantheist Movement) and eventually adopted that identity, which I carried, casually, for the next few years. Atheism, examined, didn’t feel quite right.
I went to college at ultra-liberal Reed College, whose official-unofficial motto, emblazoned on t-shirts and water bottles in the bookstore, is “communism, atheism, and free love.” I didn’t think much about it (or religion) until my sophomore year, when I dated one of just a few out Christians on campus. I was a bad influence on him. Before we got together, he wanted to be a minister; while we were dating, he wanted to be a professor of comparative religion; after we broke up, he got back on track for ministry. That’s how hard it was to imagine me as a minister’s wife. It all worked out in the end; he’s an ordained Lutheran minister starting an awesome art-based ministry in Brooklyn now, is happily married to my dear friend, and will be performing my and my partner’s wedding ceremony this summer. Anyway, just as my high school’s chaplain had asked me to examine my atheism, he asked me to examine my pantheism. He prayed every night before bed. I started doing sun salutations and, I dunno, getting really into chanting om in my yoga classes.
We broke up for pretty good reasons mostly unrelated to religion, and I dated a few other folks before pairing up with a hardcore rationalist philosophy major with no patience for mysticism and a tendency to suffer from existential crises related to a lack of objective meaning in the universe. College was everything it was supposed to be — I was exposed to all kinds of new and old ideas, and I tried out many of them. My relationship with the philosopher ended right around the time we graduated, though we are still friends (and he has mostly recovered from the existential crises). At commencement I was seated next to my now-fiancé, but that’s a story for another time.
Growing up, for me, has meant shedding layers of identity that I put on over the years in self-defense, or to be part of a community, or to distinguish myself, or just to try it out. Often I’ve been surprised by what’s peeled away and discarded, and by what lies underneath. God was (is) one of those things I didn’t really know was somewhere in there underneath those layers, but little by little, there God was. At first, God came with a lot of conditions and qualifications, but in the past few years, those too have fallen away. Are falling away.
I’m skipping over a bunch of stuff here. Trying to limit this more or less to my background in Christianity, lest I go on and on and on…
I started going to the huge Unitarian Universalist church in Portland on an occasional and then regular basis. Mostly I snuck in right before the service, wept my way through it, and snuck out at the end. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but it felt like something I needed to do. I moved away from Portland a year and a half ago, and eventually I walked into a UU church that I love in my new city. I signed the membership book a couple of months ago. A few Sundays ago we sang “Morning Has Broken” and I wept maybe a little more than usual. (Also, until I googled it just a moment ago, I had no idea that Cat Stevens had recorded a version of the hymn. Enjoy.)
So here we are. There’s probably some reasons for this project hidden in there somewhere, but here’s a few more —
* I daydream about going back to school for a Masters in Religion & Art. A domain name and a WordPress installation is a lot cheaper.
* I saw the movie Blue Like Jazz recently. It’s set at Reed, which is why we went to see it, and it’s a pretty fair and fun representation of the school and of Reedies, all things considered. I liked it. The same day we planned to see the movie, my partner and I found a copy of the book it’s based on for sale for $3 at the coffee hour at my church, so we picked it up and I’ve been reading it. The book is nothing like the movie, really. Unlike the movie, the book does not have much of a plot (nor is it meant to), but the author, Donald Miller, did audit classes at Reed and does mention the college a bit in the book. The subtitle of the book is “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” which describes it pretty well. Miller has some interesting, thoughtful, and insightful things to say, but one aspect of his perspective has been annoying the crap out of me. He is so dismissive of other religions! Here’s him on Buddhism:
“There were times I wished I was a Buddhist, that is, I wished I could believe that stuff was true, even though I didn’t know exactly what a Buddhist believed. I wondered what it would be like to rub some fat guy’s belly and suddenly be overtaken with good thoughts and disciplined actions and a new car. I would go into real estate and marry a beautiful blond, and when the beautiful blond tilted her head to the side as I talked about socialized education, I could rub the Buddha, and she would have the intellect of Susan Faludi. Or Katie Couric” (page 88).
The sexism doesn’t really win me over, either. I guess I understand what he’s saying. He wants there to be an easy answer to the mysteries of life, a quick solution. He’s sharing the part of himself that doesn’t want to know that things are complex and irrational and unknowable for everyone, even Buddhists. But in doing so, he’s propagating religious misunderstanding (not to mention being kind of a dick). I guess where he is content to return to his own unknowing about Jesus, I want to know more about the other guys’ unknowing. I even want to know more about Miller’s unknowing, and about Jesus.
* Ursula K. Le Guin, one of my very favorite authors, writes in one of her books (Four Ways to Forgiveness, a collection of four beautiful novellas) that “no truth can make another truth untrue.” I feel that, very much, and in fact I think that truths, when true, make other truths truer. If you follow me.
I’ve chosen to use calendars because I’m interested in cycles and seasons and in returning, changed, to where we were. At the end of my project, I imagine I’ll return for my last “year of” to Unitarian Universalism, which has, after all, been the launching-off point and the returning-home point already in my life. I’ll have to make my own UU calendar, with the help of my church community. In my head that’ll be the perfect final chapter, where everything sort of comes together and is reconciled and fulfilled. In life, of course, I have no doubt it will be much more complex.
30 april 2012: blessed are the cheesemakers
Easter has passed. Ascension Day (May 17th) has not yet arrived. Right now in the church calendar, Jesus is spending 40 days (and, presumably, 40 nights) on earth, post-resurrection, before ascending bodily to heaven… or Heaven? See, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. So, I googled “what was jesus doing between easter and ascension?” and found this useful pdf which gave me a more useful starting point than, like, reading the entire New Testament. Since it’s three weeks after Easter at the moment, I started with the Jesus sighting (forgive me, I am imagining binoculars) that occurred then — “4th [appearance] to group, to ‘The Eleven’ on appointed Mount in Galilee” according to the pdf. Matthew 28:16-20 and 1Corinthians 15:7b. Here’s those passages from my partner’s copy of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, College Edition (I sold mine back to the bookstore at the end of our required humanities course) —
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountains to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
…then to all the apostles.
Well, all right. I wasn’t totally sure where to go from there (and to give you an idea of where I’m starting from, it took me a minute to figure out that there were eleven disciples instead of twelve because, oh yeah, Judas probably wasn’t hangin’ out with them anymore), so I backed up and started at the beginning of Matthew. Which, judging by my partner’s heavy annotations, I was probably supposed to read in college. So I suppose I’m deviating already from the script I thought I’d established for this project, but I suppose that’s sort of the point.
Here’s the thing. Us Unitarian folks, we like to think of ourselves as drawing from diverse religious traditions and the works of many spiritual teachers throughout history, including Jesus. The general consensus among UUs seems to be that Jesus was a great teacher or a radical rabbi, walkin’ in sandals in the desert preaching brotherly love and peace and forgiveness and so on. When I think of Jesus, I picture the actor from Monty Python’s Life of Brian who gives the Sermon on the Mount while Brian and co. make tongue-in-cheek comments. (“I think he said ‘blessed are the cheesemakers!'” “What’s so special about the cheesemakers?” “Well obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.” “What Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate is it’s the meek who are the problem!”)
But the Sermon on the Mount also includes some less-than-meek bits, it turns out. “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away,” et cetera. Yikes? I mean, who hasn’t committed adultery in his/her heart? This is one of the things that has rubbed me wrong about religion my whole life — the idea of sin, the idea that we are broken and in need of fixing or saving. I have preferred to believe that humans are good, generous, kind, et cetera — not that there are not problems in the world (there are many), but that those problems exist because our society and culture has made it increasingly difficult for us to live the way we are “supposed” to be living. I mean, I have been sort of a primitivist.
A friend of mine linked to this interview with Karen Armstrong (whose excellent book The Case for God I read last year), from which I quote below:
What religions emerged during the Axial Age?
From about 900 to 200 BCE, the traditions that have continued to nourish humanity either came into being or had their roots in four distinct regions of the world. So you had Confucianism and Taoism in China; Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece.
You’re saying all these different religions developed independently of each other. But there was a common message that emerged roughly around the same time.
Yes. Without any collusion, they all came up with a remarkably similar solution to the spiritual ills of humanity. Before the Axial Age, religions had been very different. They had been based largely on external rituals which gave people intimations of greatness. But there was no disciplined introspection before the Axial Age. The Axial sages discovered the inner world. And religions became much more spiritualized because humanity had taken a leap forward. People were creating much larger empires and kingdoms than ever before. A market economy was in its very early stages. That meant the old, rather parochial visions were no longer adequate. And these regions were torn apart by an unprecedented crescendo of violence. In every single case, the catalyst for religious change had been a revulsion against violence.
So what was the spiritual message that rejected violence?
First of all, they all insisted that you must give up and abandon your ego. The sages said the root cause of suffering lay in our desperate concern with self, which often needs to destroy others in order to preserve itself. And so they insisted that if we stepped outside the ego, then we would encounter what we call Brahman or God, nirvana or the Tao.
(Underline emphasis mine.)
My belief that it’s not me who’s broken, but my culture, is a pretty egotistical one. Which belief is true doesn’t necessarily matter, I think… the question is really: which belief will better serve me and my culture / my world? Don Miller touches on this in Blue Like Jazz —
I told her how frustrating it is to be a Christian in America, and how frustrated I am with not only the church’s failures concerning human rights, but also my personal failure to contribute to the solution. I wondered out loud, though, if there was a bigger issue, and I mistakenly made the callous comment that racism might be a minor problem compared to bigger trouble we have to deal with.
“Racism, not an issue?!” she questioned very sternly. […]
I was doing a lot of backpedaling at first, but then I began to explain what I meant. “Yeah, I understand it is a terrible and painful problem, but in light of the larger picture, racism is a signal of something greater. There is a larger problem here than tension between ethnic groups. […] I’m talking about self-absorption. If you think about it, the human race is pretty self-absorbed. Racism might be the symptom of a greater disease. What I mean is, as a human, I am flawed in that it is difficult for me to consider others before myself. It feels like I have to fight against this force, this current within me that, more often than not, wants to avoid serious issues and please myself, buy things for myself, feed myself, entertain myself, and all of that. All I’m saying is that if we, as a species, could fix our self-absorption, we could end a lot of pain in the world.” (pages 40-41)
Earlier in the book he writes a little bit more about what he’s talking about: sin nature.
“I have always agreed with the idea that we have a sin nature. I don’t think it looks exactly like the fundamentalists say it does, ’cause I know so many people who do great things, but I do buy the idea we are flawed, that there is something in us that is broken. I think it is easier to do bad things than good things. And there is something in that basic fact, some little clue to the meaning of the universe. […] Sometimes, I think, you know, if there were not cops, I would be fine, and I probably would. I was taught right from wrong when I was a kid. But the truth is, I drive completely different when there is a cop behind me than when there isn’t.” (pages 17-18)
But I do think this explanation is missing something: empathy. I think that children’s capacity for empathy can be encouraged, but I am not convinced that empathy itself is something taught. I think it is something fundamental to our humanity, that has helped our species survive and propagate on even the most basic evolutionary level. We don’t do bad things because we will be punished if we do, sure — but also because, on a deep and fundamental level, we feel the hurt of others. (The problem is, as I hinted at above, that our culture rewards sociopathic behavior and places sociopaths in positions of power and leadership.) The interview with Karen Armstrong, to which I linked above, continues this way —
You say one of the common messages in all these religions was what we now call the Golden Rule. And Confucius was probably the first person who came up with this idea.
All these sages, with the exception of the Greeks, posited a counter-ideology to the violence of their time. The safest way to get rid of egotism was by means of compassion. The first person to promulgate the Golden Rule, which was the bedrock of this empathic spirituality, was Confucius 500 years before Christ. His disciples asked him, “What is the single thread that runs through all your teaching and pulls it all together?” And Confucius said, “Look into your own heart. Discover what it is that gives you pain. And then refuse to inflict that pain on anybody else.” His disciples also asked, “Master, which one of your teachings can we put into practice every day?” And Confucius said, “Do not do to others as you would not have them do to you.” The Buddha had his version of the Golden Rule. Jesus taught it much later. And Rabbi Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus, said the Golden Rule was the essence of Judaism.
But what if these teachers were the first to articulate the Golden Rule because, before that, it didn’t need to be articulated? I don’t know enough about the Axial Age to say what other major cultural changes might have been going on. And clearly, my ego continues to resist the idea of sin nature. But my life would be more full, more fun, and more useful to the people, the earth, and the ecologies I care about if I procrastinated less, if I took better care of my health, if I kept in better touch with my friends. So why don’t I do all of these things? Am I broken? If I were, what would it mean to be fixed or saved?
9 may 2012: the great commission
But, to get back to the calendar — what was that appearance to the disciples three weeks after Easter all about? I found this way-more-useful-than-that-pdf source, a gospel harmony on Wikipedia, which calls that particular appearance “the Great Commission” and places it in all four canon gospels. The chart includes only a few short verses from each gospel, but I’m gonna include the whole appearance, though I am pretty sure these are not all exactly the same three-weeks-after-Easter appearance. In one of them, Thomas and maybe some other disciples are missing. But anyway. These are from the New International Version, from an app I installed on my phone that makes it way easier to carry around the collected Word, if you will.
Matthew 28:16-20 —
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Mark 16:14-18 —
Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.
He said to them, “Go into the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes it and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
Luke 24:36-49 (Wikipedia says 44-49) —
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
John 20:18-23 (Wikipedia says 21-23) —
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they say the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Whew! My favorite of these is John, probably because it is easily and beautifully interpreted metaphorically. Here’s the interpretation I want to make: Jesus wasn’t sent by God only to show humanity that God shares their suffering and joy (i.e. is human as well as divine) but to show humanity that they are divine as well as human. As Jesus was sent by and is a part of God, so humanity is a part of divinity. We as humans create our own salvation, create the kingdom of God on earth, by forgiving one another of our sins. This rings true for me, because I know that relationships without forgiveness do not thrive (hell is other people) and that the best relationships give life its meaning and are, dare I say, heavenly.
We all make terrible mistakes. Maybe we all sin? I am beginning to see how a belief in sin and sin nature, rather than a heavy guilty yoke, can be an ego-killing blessing with the right perspective on it. First step is admitting you have a problem, right?
I’ve been listening to a podcast called Revealing World Religions, specifically the 2-hour-long segment on Christianity (though I look forward to listening to the others, too). It’s a remarkably thorough and balanced presentation of the religion’s history and practices. Anyway, I learned that three of the four canon gospels were written from essentially the same source material and are called the “synoptic gospels” — Mark, Matthew, and Luke. John stands apart and was written last.
I’ve also just barely started reading Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions, which my partner very sweetly bought for me when I told him about this project. One thing that struck me in what I’ve read so far of the Christianity chapter is this statement about a fading era of skepticism with regard to the historical Jesus: “We [knew] almost nothing about him; and of the little we know, what is most certain is that he was wrong — this last referred to his putative belief that the world would quickly come to an end” (page 318). Of course, as far as geological time is concerned, the 2000 years that have passed since Jesus’s life are but a blip — “the end is near” is relative. And I gather that whether Jesus meant when he spoke about the coming kingdom of God that judgment was coming or that we would work to create heaven on earth is somewhat up for debate — I am not the only one who’s interpreted his words the way I did above.
But, well, I guess that either way he was wrong — raise your hand if you’re feeling like you’re living in the kingdom of God! There is a lot wrong with the world. But I suppose that on my best days, I do feel that I am living in the kingdom of God. And to practice forgiveness, love, trust, and respect — all things I find there, on those best days — that is a commission I can get behind.
15 may 2012: aporia
My partner introduced me to the concept of aporia; I was with him a few years ago when he got the Greek word tattooed on his arm. It’s a word Socrates reputedly used to describe the state you reach when you realize exactly how little you know — it’s at this point that true knowledge can begin to be obtained.
A few days ago I emailed the Reverend Ben McKelahan, a.k.a. my friend and wedding officiant and college ex-boyfriend, and asked for some guidance with regard to this project. He was the second person I’ve told about it (after my partner) — I’m not sure why I’m feeling so shy about it. I’m sure it’s more about me than about anyone else — after all, I have become, with this project (and the experiences and reflections that led me to take it on), exactly the sort of person at whom I would have looked down my nose as a 16-year-old. You know, opiate of the masses, crutch for the weak, etc? My self-consciousness about it illustrates my lingering disbelief at my own drive to know God, and the judgment I evidently still feel, at least a little bit, towards religiosity and religious people (and by extension, myself).
The other part of it is a more generalized fear of criticism, maybe. I was struck, recently, by the contrast between my Twitter homepage (i.e. the Twitter feeds I subscribe to and read regularly) and my own Twitter feed. My Twitter homepage is political, outspoken, engaged in dialogue with itself constantly. My own Twitter feed consists of inoffensive witticisms (on a good day) and links to photos I’ve taken. No — to revise what I stated above — I don’t think the fear is of criticism, exactly. I am reluctant to open myself up to political dialogue because of the unspoken rules of that dialogue: it will be logical, argumentative, and somewhat confrontational. I admire those who excel at that kind of dialogue (and I love reading and hearing it, when it is respectful), but I am not one of those people. When I’m put in a situation where I am expected to engage in that kind of dialogue, I stumble and am easily distracted by tangents and exceptions. I know that argumentation is a skill (like any other) that I could develop and improve with practice and attention, but the truth is that I don’t particularly want to. I think I am afraid that if I don’t engage in that kind of dialogue, I will be perceived as, well, dumb (here the word that means both silent and stupid seems appropriate) — unable to back up my ideas and experiences with evidence, et cetera. Probably that means that the skills I ought to be cultivating are graciousness, acceptance, and self-confidence. And that I ought to be engaging in other kinds of dialogue that make my heart sing and at which I am skilled. So, I guess this is a disclaimer of sorts to any eventual readers: let’s pretend on this blog that we’re sitting around a fireplace, or a wood stove, or a campfire, or maybe we’re on a warm beach or a sunny lawn somewhere, and we’ve all got nice glasses of wine or ginger ale or beer or whatever makes your head a bit fizzy and bubbly and wandering. You know?
I guess my last fear is that no one will care.
Anyway, Ben wrote me back with a great list of articles and a bunch of PDFs, and I haven’t read any of them yet, but I am thankful all the same. Instead, I’ve been listening to religion-related podcasts and reading The World’s Religions and thusly, I guess, getting some perspective from two ends at once: a broad historical and theological overview on one hand and contemporary issues on the other. Regarding the latter, I subscribed to NPR’s “topics” podcast in religion, and one of the segments I listened to the other day was this one, an interview with author Michael Sean Winters, who recently published a biography of Jerry Falwell. One of the things that Winters pointed out is that the idea we have these days of religion — specifically Christianity — as a phenomenon on the far-right end of the political spectrum is a recent construction:
WINTERS: […] When you think back to the ’60s and the ’70s, the face of Christianity were people like Dr. King, Father Drinan, the liberal member of Congress from Massachusetts, William Sloane Coffin, the, you know, celebrated liberal chaplain at Yale.
And now, in our own day, when you hear of religious involvement in politics, you almost instinctively assume it’s conservative and Republican. And so Falwell’s Moral Majority, which was only in existence for 10 years – from ’79 to ’89 – really changed the face of Christian political involvement.
I had never heard of Father Drinan or William Sloane Coffin, which I suppose proves his point a little bit. Winters goes on to talk about his opinion that Falwell’s agenda was ultimately bad for both politics and religion. I’ll quote his comments about religion in particular:
MARTIN: You say that the fastest growing religion in the U.S. is the religion of none. And you argue that the public image that he created and promoted has contributed a great deal to the growing numbers of people in this country who don’t want anything to do with organized religion. Again, that’s a very damning assessment. Why do you arrive there?
WINTERS: Well, I think – you know, when you conflate religion which has, you know, deals with the ultimate life questions into this kind of, you know, handy political card of how you should vote. When people that have questions about the politics and decide they don’t like your politics, they’re going to throw the political baby out with the baptismal water. You know, you need to have some mediating philosophies and mediating institutions between religion and politics, to make sure that they’re kept separate.
The whole purpose of the Moral Majority was to conflate those in ways, and again, because of this fundamentalist mindset, often in very simplistic ways. And so when people said, you know, well, I just don’t want to have anything to do with his politics, they almost felt they then had to abandon Christianity, because this is what Christianity had become in their mind. And I think he’s very much responsible for that.
Yes — certainly something like this had a lot to do with my teenage anti-theism. Winters goes on to say:
The other part that I argue is that he reduced religion to ethics. And so when people found themselves making different ethical choices, they lost the kind of other salvific message of the Gospel. Because if you have to leave your religion at the door and just go in and talk about ethics, you’ve still left your religion at the door.
Huston Smith says something similar in his chapter on Christianity in The World’s Religions — which, by the way, is an incredible, thoughtful, engaging, and enlightening book, at least judging by what I’ve read of it so far (not enough). I expected when I picked it up that its content would be similar to that of the Revealing World Religions podcast — a straightforward, balanced history. But Smith, as he explains in the “Point of Departure” at the beginning of the book, is not interested in balance:
This book is not a balanced account of its subject. The warning is important. […] The full story of religion is not rose-colored; often it is crude. Wisdom and charity are intermittent, and the net result is profoundly ambiguous. A balanced view of religion would include human sacrifice and scapegoating, the Christian Crusades and the holy wars of Islam. It would include witch hunts in Massachusetts, monkey trials in Tennessee, and snake worship in the Ozarks. The list would have no end.
Why then are these things not included in the pages that follow? My answer is so simple that it may sound ingenuous. This is a book about values. Probably as much bad music as good has been composed in the course of human history, but we do not expect courses in music appreciation to give it equal attention. Time being at a premium, we assume that they will attend to the best. I have adopted a similar strategy with respect to religion. […] Others will be interested in trying to determine if religion in its entirety has been a blessing or a curse. That has not been my concern.
Having said what my concern is — the world’s religions at their best — let me say what I take that best to be, beginning with what it is not. Lincoln Steffens has a fable of a man who climbed to the top of a mountain and, standing on tiptoe, seized hold of the Truth. Satan, expecting mischief from this upstart, had directed one of his underlings to tail him; but when the demon reported with alarm the man’s success — that he had seized hold of the Truth — Satan was unperturbed. “Don’t worry,” he yawned. “I’ll tempt him to institutionalize it.”
He goes on to write eloquently about the humanity of religion and the inevitability of institutionalization and contextualization and so on. The point is that the book is not about those things. Instead he takes what is to me a completely novel approach and, well, divorces religion from politics and (largely) history and explains the basic tenets of Christian theology in a relatable and lovely way.
My partner, when I talk to him about this project (and when I try to convince him we should include “Morning Has Broken” in our wedding ceremony), jokingly asks, “you’re not gonna become a Christian, are you?” That would, of course, be pretty uncool because of the political associations Winter’s talking about above. But the theology about which I am reading in Smith’s book is so disarmingly beautiful that I find myself thinking, “how could I not be a Christian?” Are these things that, as Smith asserts, most Christians practice and believe? How come I’ve never heard them put this way before? —
God and earth are not spatially separate. Jesus differed from the Jews of his time in emphasizing Yahweh’s compassion rather than His law. “Jesus located the authority for his teachings not in himself or in God-as-removed but in his hearers’ hearts” (page 325). “The two most important facts about life [are as follows]: God’s overwhelming love of humanity, and the need for people to accept that love and let it flow through them to others” (page 327). Early Christians felt Jesus’s love and it melted away their fear, guilt, and ego and replaced them with love: “Ontogenetically speaking, love is an answering phenomenon. It is literally a response” (page 334). The Church is the body of Christ still on earth; Christians are its cells: “The cells of an organism are not isolates; they draw their life from the enveloping vitality of their hosts, while at the same time contributing to that vitality” (page 337). (I like this metaphor because there’s room for all kinds of variance, a whole ecology: symbiotic bacteria that’s not a “part” of the body — i.e. Christian — and yet contributes vitally to it and vice versa; the fuzzy border at the skin where body meets not-body and the more you zoom in the harder it is to see the line…) The Doctrine of Incarnation: Christ was wholly man and wholly God; he was evidence of God’s compassion — God was “concerned enough [about humanity] to suffer in its behalf” (page 342); Jesus’s example was both perfect (Godly) and relevant (human). The Doctrine of Atonement: “its root meaning is reconciliation, the recovery of wholeness or at-one-ment” (page 343). And here I would like to break away from this litany for a minute to devote more attention to Smith’s account of sin —
[Sin is] a disconnectedness or estrangement from God. It is the heart’s misplacement; a disalignment of our affections. Augustine, making this point in a positive vein, said, “Love [God] and do what you will.” When there is wholehearted love for the All, for the universal good we might say, then the will wants that good and needs no rules. For the most part matters are otherwise; concern for ourselves sabotages our love for others. And yet we do not truly like ourselves very much. Our hearts are drawn to something larger, beyond the narrow confines of the ego.
Thus the bondage that imprisons us is attachment to ourselves, with the fear and guilt that trail in its wake. Put the other way around, our bondage results from our estrangement, our sin or sunderment, from full participation in divine life. Being excluded from such participation doesn’t feel good. Paul had the openness and honesty first to see this and then to admit it: I feel wretched, he said. Prisoners always do. A good part of their wretchedness springs from their helplessness: by definition they can’t free themselves. So Paul continues: “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 14:15). He is admitting that he is trapped, which realization leads to his desperate cry […], “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 14:23). In whatever words it is the cry that every alcoholic has repeated. If there is to be a liberation, it will have to come from without, or better, from above: a higher power. It was the Christian witness that the Power that works the liberation, and restores the self to the ground of being, is Christ. One could equally say that it is God, but Christians add that in this instance God’s purpose was accomplished by Christ.
In the context already established — that God occupies the same space as earth and creation and humanity; that Jesus is God’s compassion made human flesh; that the Church, like Christ, is God and is human, made up as it is of Christians — it seems to me that this “higher power” is not so much higher as bigger — as in, bigger than the sum of its human and divine parts.
One of the points Smith makes is that the ideas of Christian theology came out of very real experiences that early Christians were trying to make sense of and explain. I thought of that point today when I listened to an episode of American Public Media’s On Being podcast, called Remembering God, in which the host, Krista Tippett, interviews poet Christian Wiman about his experience with faith. Here:
Mr. Wiman: Oh, the notion that love could open up the world for you in that way. We just published a poem in the magazine by a poet named Spencer Reese who’s become an Anglican priest as it happens. He’s talking about the whole poem is an elegy for someone he knew and is trying to get at the truth of his life. He says, “All I know is that the more he loved me, the more I loved the world.” I think in any genuine love, and it’s not simply romantic love …
Ms. Tippett: Right. It’s other loves, yes. It’s our love for our children, yeah, it’s friendships, yeah.
Mr. Wiman: Right. I think there’s some kind of excess energy. We tend to think of love as closing out the world and we can only see the face of the beloved. Everything else goes quiet or goes numb, but actually what I experienced was that — and I’ve experienced it again with my children — is that the love demanded to be something else. It demanded to be expressed beyond the expression of the participants. You know, it kept demanding more. That excess energy, I think, is God and I think it’s God in us trying to return to its source. I think it’s — I don’t know how else to understand it, but if I think of myself as having returned to faith, and I do think of that, although I feel like I’m a desperately confused person and when people look to me for advice or direction on faith, I just feel sometimes like it’s hilarious.
But, um, you know, I think we have these experiences, and there are people reacting against the word spiritual these days. But, uh, I don’t know what other word to use at this point. They are spiritual experiences. And then religion comes after that. Religion is everything that we do with these moments of intense spirituality in our lives, whether it’s whatever practice we have, whether it’s going to church, it’s how we integrate sacred text into our lives. Being religious or taking on some sort of religious elements in your life, you’re not necessarily saying I agree with everything that this religion says. What you are saying is that I have had these incredible experiences in my life of suffering or joy or both and they have demanded some action of me and demanded some continuity of me, and the only way that I know to do this is to try to find some form in it and try to share it with other people.
Ms. Tippett: I actually wanted to ask you about the words faith and belief. You know, you’ve written “faith is not a state of mind but an action in the world, a movement toward the world.”
Mr. Wiman: The way I’ve defined it to myself is I think of belief as having objects. Faith doesn’t have objects. Faith is an orientation of your life or it’s an energy of your life or however you want to define it. But I think it is objectless.
Ms. Tippett: Doesn’t have to be faith in.
Mr. Wiman: Right. That has helped me to at least understand those terms somewhat and to explain to myself why I do need some sort of structures in my life. I do need to go to church. I need specifically religious elements in my life. I find that if I just turn all of my spiritual impulses, if I let them be solitary as I am comfortable in being, I’m comfortable sitting reading books and trying to pray and meditating, inevitably if that energy is not focused outward, it becomes despairing. It turns in on itself and I will look up in a couple of months and I find that I’m in despair. So I think that one of the ways that we know that our spiritual inclinations are valid is that they lead us out of ourselves.
Which brings us back to politics, doesn’t it? That which leads us, for better or worse, out of ourselves? I see where Winters is coming from, in wanting to separate politics and religion, but it seems awfully difficult. My own church is very political, in its way: it welcomes all congregants, regardless or color or creed or orientation, and it is active in social and environmental justice movements. Jesus too was engaged in these kinds of politics, according to Smith (himself a bit of a 60’s radical; my first exposure to him was as a character in a history book called The Harvard Psychedelic Club): “Having concluded that Yahweh’s central attribute was compassion, Jesus saw social barriers as an affront to that compassion. So he parleyed with tax collectors, dined with outcasts and sinners, socialized with prostitutes, and healed on the sabbath when compassion prompted doing so. This made him a social prophet, challenging the boundaries of the existing order and advocating an alternative vision of the human community” (page 322).
I don’t think I’m trying to make any particular point here — after all, that would contradict my statement at the beginning of this post that I’m no good at making particular points, wouldn’t it? Just a few days before Ascension and though I’ve no clear idea what it means that Christ rose bodily to heaven or even how churches mark the day, I know I’ve got something here in this mess of block quotes and parentheses. I’m looking forward to finding out what it is, and then realizing I have no idea what it is, over and over and over again.
God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why
God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into a stillness where
God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see
God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,
God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.
— Christian Wiman
17 may 2012: dazed & confused
Well, it’s Ascension Day, the first major holy day of this project about holy days. And to tell you the truth, I’m not really prepared to say anything about it. I’m not sure I’m really prepared to say much about anything. I work at an elementary school after-school program, and today during recess some of the fifth graders called me over to settle an argument. “Who invented humans,” they asked, “God or, like, particles in the air?” I told them it was a matter of opinion, but stuck around to eavesdrop a little while they duked it out. The question got me thinking a bit, about science in that context as a kind of theism (“particles in the air”? I admit, I laughed a little), and about what I really believe about creation. If I sort of believe that humans created God (like Voltaire suggested we would need to if He didn’t exist), am I really a theist?
More eventually, but tonight I promised my partner I’d go watch him rock out with his brass band, so I’ll have to do my reckoning another time.
25 may 2012: a violent wind & tongues of fire
Sunday is Pentecost. Before I started this project, I didn’t know anything about Pentecost. I think I may have known it was a holiday, but I think I associated it first and foremost with Pentecostal Christianity, which I also didn’t (don’t) know much about except that it maybe had something to do with speaking “in tongues” and the laying-on of hands and possibly falling down and witnessing… whatever that might mean. Maybe I saw it in a movie once?
Turns out Pentecost is actually an ancient Jewish feast day (Shavuot) celebrating the first harvest (“first fruits”) and commemorating the day Moses received the Law (the Torah) from God on Mount Sinai. Wikipedia says, “On Passover, the nation of Israel were freed from their enslavement to Pharaoh; on Shavuot they were given the Torah and became a nation committed to serving God.” I am feeling parallels between this and the corresponding Christian story: during Holy Week we were saved from sin by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and Pentecost is considered by many Christians to be the birthday of the Church, when the Holy Spirit made the apostles speak in the languages of all nations, and Peter stood up and called for all those nations to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.
Here’s the whole thing, Acts of the Apostles 2:1-41 (New International Version) —
The Holy Spirit Comes at Pentecost
1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Peter Addresses the Crowd
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20 The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21 And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. 25 David said about him:
“‘I saw the Lord always before me.
Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.
26 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest in hope,
27 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
you will not let your holy one see decay.
28 You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence.’
29 “Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30 But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
35 until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”’
36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
I’ve been listening (via iTunes U) this week to recorded lectures from a course on “the Historical Jesus” from Stanford University. I’m about three meetings in. The lecturer, Thomas Sheehan, spent one of the course meetings talking about apocalyptic — i.e. revelatory (the words mean the same thing) — literature, with regard specifically to the Book of David in the Old Testament and then the Book of Mark in the New Testament. His basic premise is that such literature is not written about the past so much as it is written about the present and future. According to my possibly-faulty recollection of his lecture, the Book of David, for example, was purportedly written circa the 600’s BCE and unearthed — revealed! — at a divinely-determined time — the 200’s BCE. In other words, it was written in the 200’s and contained lots of “prophecies” about what had happened in the years between which, oh look!, had come true. Then it went on to say: The beast (empire) that is now oppressing you, it too will be defeated. The point was to inspire hope and to suggest certain ways of approaching the problems of the present that the writers of the text believed to be the best ways. Politics!
There’s a lot of information in the lectures that I might have absorbed a bit better if I bothered to take notes, but a few of the other bits I remember seem relevant. One, Acts was written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke. Two, Luke was the second gospel to be written, at least fifty years after the death of Jesus. I’m a little unclear on the whole end-times / imminent-arrival-of-the-Kingdom-of-God thing and its presence in early Christianity (I think there’s a lecture on that coming up), but Sheehan did mention at one point that that emphasis had considerably faded by the time the Gospel of John, the last of the gospels, was written — such that in John a lot of things become (relatively) explicitly figurative that were previously literal. I guess that doesn’t have much to do with Pentecost, but I did get a little thrill from hearing it after writing this about John’s version of the Great Commission.
But, okay, Pentecost. The bit in Acts sounds pretty apocalyptic to me, and I mean that in both the usual sense with which people use the word, and the way Sheehan uses it, which is why I brought in the Sheehan thing to begin with. I do enjoy the fact that the apostles are actually drunk on the Holy Spirit. But the whole thing reeks of “repent or else!”
Fortunately, I’m not even really a Christian, much less a Biblical literalist, and I can interpret the scriptures as I see fit. Or, as the case may be, borrow the interpretations of others. Today I like that of Nadia Bolz-Weber (thanks Ben for the link), a Lutheran pastor in Denver who writes a pretty awesome blog. Today she posted this Pentecost sermon, in which she emphasizes that the apostles were all hanging out together rather than mixing with Jerusalem’s other denizens. The Holy Spirit, she says — and she gives the Holy Spirit a feminine pronoun, which definitely helps win me over — came in to rustle ’em up and make ’em diversify. To make sure that the Church — the Body of Christ — would be inclusive of every nation. Not a bad beginning.
Here’s how Pentecost is generally celebrated in Western churches (Catholic and Protestant), according to Wikipedia (gotta love it): The color red is displayed everywhere, for the fire of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes there are red balloons (happy birthday, Church!). Priests and even laypeople wear red to celebrate (I might get in on that). Symbols of or words associated with the Holy Spirit are displayed, such as the “Fruit of the Spirit” (which I had not heard of but which is another thread to follow in my journey here, and which reminds me of the first fruits presented at the Temple for Shavuot… right? Anyway, “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” cf. Galatians 5:22-23). Red flowers and flowering plants are also on display, symbolizing “the renewal of life, the coming of the warmth of summer, and the growth of the church at and from the first Pentecost.” Brass instruments often feature to recall the “mighty wind.” Sermons may be repeated in foreign languages. Some cathedrals from the Middle Ages feature “Holy Ghost holes” through which dove figures were lowered during Pentecost services; other churches strew rose petals over their congregants to recall the tongues of fire. These days sometimes origami cranes are used! Pentecost is also often chosen for the ordination of clergy and the Confirmation of young people. Ironically, Pentecostal congregations often ignore the holiday of Pentecost.
The time between Ascension and Pentecost is traditionally a time of fasting and/or prayer vigils, in recognition of the time the apostles drew together and awaited the Holy Spirit (though I’m not sure there’s much indication that they knew that they were waiting for something). I suppose I’ve used the time between Ascension and Pentecost to do some reflection, too, about this project. Turns out Christianity is a big, big subject that I know a lot less about than I thought I did. Maybe I should be a little more systematic in my explorations? One major denomination per month? Or some time spent on the Creeds (Nicean, Apostles’ — or are they the same?), or the Sacraments? Ordinary Time starts on Monday (or Tuesday? I’m not sure what Pentecost Monday is all about), so I’ll have some time between holidays to consider all of these things. Unless I want to mark every saint’s day, or some. I guess we’ll find out!
13 june 2012: meaning & belief
I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit with this project these last few weeks. Lots of other things on my plate — I’m getting married at the end of the month; I spent a weekend recently in Portland celebrating my five-year college reunion; there’s just a few days left in the school year at the school I work at and I’m working extra hours and all the kids are abuzz with summer; and I’ve had a nasty head cold this past week. But I want to at least get some thoughts down, even though I completely missed Trinity Sunday (I didn’t even know it was a thing) and the best I can do as far as that goes is point you towards the blog entries of a couple folks who do have their acts together, and move on to something else. Here: Some thoughts on the Holy Trinity & Can We Understand the Holy Trinity by Contemplating Our Own Humanity?
A week or so ago, I was listening to a public radio podcast — I can’t remember which one, now — in which a theoretical physicist was being interviewed who had recently published a book for popular consumption about something-or-other. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I really cannot remember the particular topic. What I do remember is that the physicist and his work were connected and/or connected themselves with the New Atheist movement, e.g. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and so on. The interviewer asked him about that, and the physicist talked a bit about how there’s no intrinsic meaning in the world and how we have to make our own meaning if we want our lives to be meaningful.
Existentialism. I can dig it. I mean, that answer to the question of the meaning of life (blah, blah, blah) is the only one that’s ever made complete sense to me. But it’s a partial answer. The next part of the question is: “what meaning will you make or choose?” I am baffled by the insistence of these folks that existentialism and religious faith are mutually exclusive. I choose to work towards being a part of a multi-generational church community eager to hear my story and share my joys and pains; I choose to celebrate the beauty and utter incomprehensibility of being alive by joining my voice with others in song on Sunday morning; I choose to explore my humanity and connect with my fellow humans by studying the world’s religions in this way. These things all add meaning to my life.
I have no idea if my relationship with (that-for-which-I-use-the-shorthand-)God is the same as anyone else’s. Whatever words I could use to describe it wouldn’t paint an accurate picture, not really — and not because it’s so sweeping or epic as to be “indescribable” like things are “indescribably beautiful.” I want to draw a comparison between my relationship with God and another important relationship in my life: that with my partner. I’m not completely sure that the comparison is appropriate, because my partner’s and my relationship is unknowable to others because of the intimacy we share, and my relationship with God is not so much intimate as personal. But I want to extend the metaphor anyway — something like this:
When I was a kid, I had this idea that someday I would meet someone who was totally perfect for me, and we’d get married and live happily ever after. When I met my first love, I devoted myself to her completely and lost my own identity in our relationship, which of course collapsed. I tried that again a few more times before figuring out how to maintain my own identity, resolve conflicts, take responsibility for my own emotions and the effects that my actions have on those with whom I am in relationship, et cetera. Not that I’m perfect at any of it, of course. The corollary to the soulmate thing, I guess, is the idea of God as a Perfect Person, the way the kids at my school sometimes speak of him. (I’m always sort of surprised when they do. God is a taboo subject among adults in a professional environment, and most other environments too.) They believe in him the way even younger kids believe in Santa Claus — and that too I think is a corollary worth examining. Kids stop “believing” in Santa Claus when it becomes clear that Santa Claus is their parents, but I know when I was a kid my family still did the Santa Claus rituals, so to speak, for many years after I knew my parents were the ones really filling my and my brother’s stockings on Christmas Eve. Santa Claus existed for a long time as my parents. Why is God different? I guess, to me, He isn’t. I grew up in a nonreligious household, and so I stopped “believing” in God at a very young age (if I ever did). But all around me, people and non-human life forms make God for me, the way my parents made Santa Claus long after I knew him to be “not real.”
I create my relationship with my partner not strictly by being “in love” with him as my soulmate, but by acting love and care and partnership towards him. I would like to create my relationship with God not by “believing” in Him, but by my actions.
Working on figuring out what that means.
7 october 2012: etymology / explanation
Three really cool etymological truths I learned from the first chapter of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch:
… in the beginning was the Word. The Evangelist John’s Gospel narrative of Jesus the Christ has no Christmas stable; it opens with a chant or hymn in which ‘Word’ is a Greek word, logos. The Word, says John, was God, and became human flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
This logos means far more than simply ‘word’: logos is the story itself. Logos echoes with significances which give voice to the restlessness and tension embodied in the Christian message. It means not so much a single particle of speech, but the whole act of speech, or the thought behind the speech, and from there its meanings spill outwards into conversation, narrative, musing, meaning, reason, report, rumour, even pretence. […] So the words ‘logos‘ and ‘Christos‘ tell us what a tangle of Greek and Jewish ideas and memories underlies the construction of Christianity. (page 19)
When Christians first described their own collective identity, with its customs, structures, and office-bearers, they used the Greek word ekklesia, which has passed hardly modified into Latin and its successor languages. Greek-speaking Jews before the Christians had used the same word to speak of Israel. Ekklesia is already common in the Greek New Testament; it means ‘Church’, but it is borrowed from Greek political vocabulary, where it signified the assembly of citizens of the polis who met to make decisions.
So the ekklesia represents the polis, a local identity within the greater whole of Christianity or Christendom, just as the Greek polis represented the local identity of the greater whole Hellas, ‘Greekdom’. Yet the Christian ekklesia has become more complicated, because the word can also describe the universal Church, the equivalent of Hellas, as well as the local – not to mention the fragments of universal Christianity with particular identities which call themselves ‘Church’, and even the buildings which house all these different entities. There is a further interesting dimension of the word. If the ekklesia is the embodiment of the city or polis of God, lurking in the word ekklesia is the idea that the faithful have a collective responsibility for the decisions about the future of the polis, just as the people of a polis did in ancient Greece. This creates a tension with another borrowing from Greek which has passed into several northern European languages, and which appears in English as the word ‘church’ or in Scots English as ‘kirk.’ This started life as an adjective which emerged in late Greek, kuriake, ‘belonging to the Lord’, and because of that, it emphasizes the authority of the master, rather than the decision of those assembled. The tension between these perspectives has run through the history of ecclesia/kirk, and is with Christians still. (pages 26-7)
[Aristotle] discussed abstract matters such as logic, meaning and causation in a series of texts which, being placed in his collective works after his treatise on physics, were given the functional label meta physica, ‘After The Physics‘. And so the name of metaphysics, the study of the nature of reality, was born in an accident. (page 33)
My absence from this blog explained but not excused – I have:
- three jobs,
- two new kittens,
- and one husband in his third year of grad school.
9 october 2012: origins, stories
Well, I guess there’s been some holy days I’ve missed; I mean, depending on what calendar you’re looking at, there’s been a lot of them. At the very least, the Feast of Corpus Christi, which has something to do with the Eucharist, and the Assumption of Mary, which marks the day Mary was bodily taken up into Heaven. But the first can’t be that big of a deal or I’d’ve heard of it (right?), and the second sounds mostly Catholic. Are non-Catholic denominations that into Mary?
I guess, to be honest, I’m more into figuring out my own relationship to holidays I have known about and, to a greater or lesser extent, celebrated my whole life. Christmas, Easter, Lent, and so on. They feel applicable, if only due to familiarity. I haven’t been under the illusion that this project wasn’t self-indulgent, but I may as well admit that it’s way less about religion than it is about me. It’s a lens. But, of course — to make a sort of meaningless, obvious statement — religion is also about its practitioners. I dunno; I think I am trying to segue into talking about this huge thousand-page book I bought a few months ago and of which I’ve only made it through the first few chapters, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch.
So far there’s little mention of Jesus, but lots of fascinating discussion about Greece and Rome and Israel and Judea. The first chapter — Greece and Rome — was a nice review of content covered in Humanities 110, my alma mater’s required freshman course covering, well, ancient Greece and Rome. Actually, some of the Israel and Judea stuff was probably covered, too (I remember reading some stuff by rabbis), but hey, the class was almost a decade ago and I was eighteen and had way more interesting things to be worrying about, like how hungover I was or was not and what I was should major in and how much my boyfriend really loved me. I think a lot of kids should take some time off before they go to college, or at least I should have.
But anyway. MacCulloch includes these chapters to underline and explain early Christianity’s roots in both Judaism (of course) and Hellenistic culture (hmm!). Some quotations about Greece that are relevant to the point I’m gonna try to make later in this blog post:
Greek curiosity created the literary notion of allegory: a story in literature must be read as conveying a deeper meaning or meanings than is at first apparent, with the task of a commentator to tease out such meanings. Much later, first Jews and then Christians treated their sacred writings in the same way. (page 25)
In the realm of ideas, philosophy and religious practice, Hellenistic civilization created a meeting place for Greek and oriental culture, which made it easy for Jewish and then non-Jewish followers of Jesus Christ to take what they wanted from the ragbag of Greek thought which any moderately educated inhabitant of the Middle East would encounter in everyday conversation. (page 40)
And some notable things about Israel / Judea:
The coast [of the area now known as Israel or Palestine] has few decent harbors, and other peoples than the Children of Israel tended to dominate the ones that did exist, so the Jews never became seafarers (and generally made rather negative references to the sea and its creatures in their sacred writings). (page 48)
That parenthetical gave me pause, as someone who grew up simultaneously enthralled by and terrified of the ocean (sharks! Dark unknowable depths! Tidal waves!). How much could that have to do with my having grown up in Judeo-Christian culture? What do these biases mean about the potential universality of sacred texts? A fear of the ocean is at least excusable if not understandable in a land-locked people, but in coastal-living world travelers like myself, three thousand years later, it’s almost pathological. At the very least, it’s irrelevant.
MacCulloch says that the Jewish people were formed out of “a social rather than an ethnic grouping [of] people who were uprooted and on the edges of other societies” (page 53). These people “constructed a new identity, sealed by a God who was not necessarily to be associated with older establishments or older shrines. It would be natural for the worshippers of this God to begin a long process of refashioning a patchwork of ancient stories from their varied previous homes into a plausible single story of common ancestors” (page 53)… MacCulloch goes on to elaborate on the origin of Jewish monotheism; it’s pretty interesting but I’d like to get on with it and I think I’ve made my point that (according to MacCulloch) Judaism started out as a kind of pluralism or eclecticism. In the process of putting together their sacred texts, Jews even left contradictory or embarrassing parts in out of respect for their antiquity… a sort of dance of compromise in an effort to both strengthen their new convictions and find their place in history.
From there he talks about the creation of the Tanakh (Old Testament), which involved choosing 24 books as canon and rejecting something like seventy others as non-canon. And of course new writing and thinking was still happening all the time; MacColluch even says that “powerful currents of opinion within Judaism … continued to suggest modifications of aspects of Jewish belief if there seemed to be valuable material in the religions of others” (page 69). And around there is where I wrote in the margin: Religion is constantly adapted to suit the present — names are kept or changed to suit the needs of practitioners, to fit themselves into history or set themselves apart from it — but even Richard Dawkins comes from Christianity.
I know I got that last idea from Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, in which she argues that Dawkins’ New Atheism requires a Christian fundamentalism to which it sets itself up in opposition; without that, its suppositions are meaningless. There is no God? What is God? What is Christianity? It’s a set of traditions, of which I’m guessing exactly zero are entirely universal among folks who call themselves Christian.
MacCulloch on Christian tradition, from his introduction:
[The Bible] is full of criticism of Church tradition, in the class of writings known as prophecy, which spend much of their energy in denouncing the clergy and the clerical teaching of their day. This should provide a healthy warning to all those who aspire to tell other people what do to on the basis of the Bible. (page 6)
Self-styled ‘Traditionalists’ often forget that the nature of tradition is not that of a humanly manufactured mechanical or architectural structure with a constant outline and form, but rather that of a plant, pulsing with life and continually changing shape while keeping the same ultimate identity. (pages 7-8)
All the world faiths which have known long-term success have shown a remarkable capacity to mutate, and Christianity is no exception. (page 9)
In the early centuries of Judaism and Christianity (and probably other religions, too), there was all kinds of adaptation and creation and re-creation and discussion and reaction going on to and from and between and among all these sacred texts. Now there is this idea of the Bible as the only and infallible Word of God, right? But there are also folks who spend a lot of time and effort understanding the Bible in allegorical ways or in other ways that they find more relevant to their own lives or their modern values. I see value (lots of value, clearly) in pluralism and eclecticism, in finding and/or creating one’s own sacred texts. But I also see value in context — the long history of the word Christian, of some of its texts, of the communities that have grown up around those words and texts. Imagine if each of us had to re-invent the wheel anytime we wanted to get anywhere! It would be lonely, and progress would be slow.
Here’s one more quotation from the first section of MacCulloch’s book. You know the story of Jacob, who wrestled with an angel and was renamed Israel by that angel? Israel means “he who strives with God” —
Out of that fight in the darkness, with one who revealed the power of God and was God, began the generations of the Children of Israel. Few peoples united by a religion have proclaimed in their very name that they struggle with the one they worship. The relationship of God with Israel is intense, personal, conflicted. Those who follow Israel and the religions which spring from his wrestling match that night are being told that even through their harshest and most wretched experiences of fighting with those they love most deeply, they are being given some glimpse of how they relate to God. (page 50)
All of this is a part of my striving with God. All of this is a part of my worship.
3 november 2012: building altars & digging wells
It’s Dia de los Muertos here in San Francisco — and everywhere else, too, I suppose. I don’t live too far away, so tonight I walked down to the crowds and made my way to Garfield Park, where altars of all shapes and sizes were set up to honor and remember the dead. Around the park, the atmosphere was surprisingly reverent considering the thickness of the crowd, though further away it was more of a party for party’s sake. Got me thinking about cultural adaptation — this holiday has its origins in the Catholic All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, but according to Wikipedia, “scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl.” Here in the Mission, it’s been adapted many times over, then, to meet the needs of participants. First, Mexicans converted by Spanish Catholics adapted All Souls’ Day; then, the holiday was adapted by Chicanos living here in San Francisco; and now (and always) it’s adapting again to suit the city and the neighborhood’s increasingly diverse population.
I think there is no religion without cultural context. That doesn’t mean that no truth is true — I think it would be closer to the truth to say that every truth is true.
I am still working my way (ex-treme-ly slowly) through the big book (see what I did there?) that is Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. One of the points that the author’s been really hammering home is this:
One always has to remember that throughout the New Testament we are hearing one side of an argument. When the writer to Timothy insists with irritating fussiness that ‘I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent’, we can be sure that there were women doing precisely the opposite, who were probably not slow in asserting their own point of view.
The surviving text exists not because it was always the only possibility, but precisely because it was one of many possibilities. If women weren’t teaching and holding authority over men, no one would have to tell them that they weren’t supposed to.
So, it would seem, in the absence of universality and certainty, our cultural adaptations and baggage and environments are all we’ve got.
But the plight of the middle-class kid with areligious parents who moved around a lot, of course, is cultural alienation. Also capitalism? Can I blame capitalism? It feels ridiculous to write about. We all have culture. We are all creating culture. If we don’t have culture that meets our needs, do we have anyone to blame but ourselves? I’m actually not sure.
The problem with all this mess and confusion and stuff is that I have a really hard time figuring out decent conclusions for these entries. Yup.
The past month or so has been pretty rough for me for reasons that I can’t really write about here. I know that’s basically the most annoying sentence to read on a blog, ever, but the relevant point is that I’ve been crying a lot at just about everything in the whole world (except my kittens, who are completely amazing). The other day I cried about the idea of praying to God. If I were telling this story out loud, I would raise the pitch of my voice at the end of that sentence, like a question. The idea of praying to God?
Questions of religion have been on my mind with more than the usual urgency and emotional weight, is I guess what I mean. A few weeks ago when I was talking with him about this blog or about the big book, my husband asked me how exactly Jesus dying saved us, again? And I couldn’t answer his question because I’m fuzzy on the details myself, so I emailed my friend Ben (of Parables NYC). I’m still a bit confused about the point of Jesus’s death, but Ben did include a pretty amazing Lutheran explanation of sin in his email back to me. He says Martin Luther described sin as “the heart curved in on itself,” preventing us from loving God and our neighbor because we’re too focused on ourselves. Sin is a state, not an action, and it’s a state in which everyone exists, though why is unclear — though everyone is also a saint, “loved by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do good” (I’m quoting Ben here). Fear and its permutations (anger, greed, depression, etc) cause the heart to curve more in on itself — and Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection allow us to be unafraid. That’s the last little leap I don’t get; Ben says that since Christ was resurrected, we don’t need to fear death, but wasn’t Christ resurrected because he was, you know, the son of God? And fully divine? Which we are clearly not? (Unless we are?) The rest of what Ben wrote on this point, though, I can get behind:
We don’t have to be afraid for our self-worth because while he was alive Jesus went around telling the marginalized and fucked-up that they are part of God’s kingdom and in his death Jesus proclaimed God’s love even for those who killed him. And if somewhere along the way we got hung up on some shitty theology that says God needs to punish people, well, Jesus took enough punishment for all of us, so let’s move on already.
He then goes on to talk about how less fear means more love, and how experiencing love can help us feel God’s love, and how the church helps build on these experiences of love so that we can turn around and love others better. Then he sums it up as “believing [that we are loved and need not fear] is hard, but baths + bread + wine + friends = help.” In my experience, baths and bread and wine and friends help just about anything, so no argument here.
He also included this awesome tidbit:
In some liberation theologies “sin” is nailing Jesus to the cross and leaving him there to die, which we do every time we oppress people. In these theologies, the cross does not free us from sin, it merely reveals it and calls us to take the oppressed down from the cross… so maybe it will eventually free us.
… which is definitely another path to follow here. I’ve got a bit of a maze going.
More from Ben coming sometime in the not-terribly-distant future, I hope. I want to interview him and ask a bazillion annoying questions and talk to him about his own experience with Christianity.
Anyway, the stuff at the beginning of all that about sin being a state of the heart being curved in on itself due to self-involvement reminded me of the Buddhist concept of samsara. Religion at its best is a method for killing ego, freeing us up for love. A few weeks ago I stopped by the used bookstore on my way home from work and picked up a stack of interesting-looking books,* including Huston Smith’s Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m sure I’d find something about that in there.
I’m sort of hoping I can wrap this all back up into the stuff about cultural adaptation. If every religion has that same ultimate goal, does it matter what you pick? In 2009, I attended a ten-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat and course. On the drive back home, the man we’d carpooled with used an analogy that has stuck with me ever since, though I don’t seem to have followed his advice. He talked about digging wells. If you dig a dozen holes, you’ll never hit water. All the wells potentially have water, but you have to dig in one long enough to reach it. But I think it does matter where you dig. If you pick the right hole, you might have friends who can help you dig. The ground might be better or worse suited to the tools at your disposal. Culture does matter. We can’t do it by ourselves. The baths, the bread, the wine, the friends — all important supplies for hole-diggin’.
I think there are three holes I’ve climbed in and out of, sometimes taking big chunks out, sometimes scratching around in the dirt: Christianity, Buddhism, and Paganism. Those are three really different (or maybe not?) holes. I guess I feel — and I guess the point of this project is — that until I hit water (and I don’t know, and can’t know, when or if I will), maybe seeing the inside of a bunch of different holes will help me uncurl my heart in the meantime. Maybe in one of the holes I’ll find a map to the X where I should dig my own.
* I also picked up two C.S. Lewis books: The collected Chronicles of Narnia, which I had a great time reading for the first time since I was a kid, and his allegory The Pilgrim’s Regress, apparently the first book he wrote after converting to Christianity. There is weird treatment of women and even weirder race stuff in both of these books (but they are pretty old so that is, if not excusable, at least sort of explicable), but what really threw me about both books was that the happy ending of both is, for real, “everyone dies.” Judging from these books, Lewis sees death as the ultimate fulfillment of religion, which to me is creepy.