Disclaimer… This post is really long, more than a bit rambling, hopefully not offensive, and likely a bit disjointed and confused. Just the nature of the subject matter as far as I am concerned.
“The story so far. In the beginning the universe was created. This made a lot of people very unhappy and has widely been regarded as a bad move.” Oolon Colluphid
I have a problem with religion. When it comes down to it, I think I really always have. I have this memory of being in Sunday school in the Baptist church I went to when I was a kid. I might have been 8 or 10 years old or something like that. The instructor or whatever (more of a babysitter in my mind at the time than any sort of teacher) asked us all to answer a question, but we had to whisper the answer to him as it was supposed to be a personal thing. I do not remember the exact question, something along the lines of “What does it mean to believe in God”, or Jesus, or something like that. If we gave a satisfactory answer we would get a present. I had no idea what to say for an answer but of course being a kid, thought that getting a present was a rather keen idea. So in the stairwell heading down to the church from the classroom there was a tapestry-like thing hanging on the wall that said “Jesus is the light of the world.” My friend came up to me and asked me what we were supposed to say. I looked at the tapestry and said something like “I am going to say that.”
So both my friend and I followed through with this plan. The instructor saw through it all and told us that he had wanted us to find a personal answer and that he was disappointed… but gave us each a present anyway. I think we both got the same thing, at least I remember that I got a little metal pencil sharpener in the shape of a lantern. Light of the world indeed. Not long after that, I started ditching Sunday school to wander the halls and explore the building. I also started bringing comic books and eventually even my “Walkman” to church. I never listened or paid any attention anyway. This was frowned upon. Eventually my mom asked me if I wanted to keep going to church and of course I said no, having no interest in it whatsoever. So we stopped going.
You see I did not grow up with the idea that religion was necessary. It, much like school, seemed mostly an inconvenience to me. I saw them both primarily as systems of control rather than guiding or helping hands; sit down, stand up, sing this, write that, eat when you are told, go to the bathroom only when allowed and often not even then… it was all about obeying just because someone was on a power trip. At least that is how it seemed to me. I was not raised this way at home. My dad was mostly not around, my mom was both busy and not very strict, and much of my early childhood was spent with my sister and/or brother who looked after me as a sibling and guided me rather than ordering me about. Much of the time I was left to my own devices and I spent a lot of time reading and dreaming and I think that this was encouraged. I stayed out of trouble because it seemed like the best way to go about navigating the world. Or, as the old Gaffer said, “Keep your nose out of trouble and no trouble will come to you.” Church and school were so rigid, so structured, and I did not like most of the people involved with either institution…at least the versions that I was exposed to. The same friend I mentioned above went to a Lutheran church with his family and I went with them a number of times (they were largely a surrogate family for me then). When I stopped going to church his response was that I would go back eventually. “No”, I said, “I will not.” I said the same about school once I finally wrestled my way out of high school. “Never again”, I said.
That is not quite how it worked out. I did go back to school but it took three tries to get the hang of it and to convince myself to stick with it. I finally graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree 18 years after I got my high school diploma. And now here I am 30 some years after walking away from Morgan Park Baptist, staring down the aisle of St. Matthew’s Episcopal, confused about spirituality and faith and belief. I accept them unreservedly as part of the human condition, but much like society in general I have gone a loooooong time not really knowing where I fit into the structure. As a student of anthropology I whole-heartedly reject the idea that there is a “right way” that all people are supposed to follow; I felt this way before I knew what “anthropology” was. I find the idea offensive really as it suggests superiority of a few over all of the “others” and leaves no room for variation in culture, interpretation, belief, personality. Humans are not sheep. Yet those in power, those that rule the organizations – the governments, the economies, the religions – want just that and they fear those like Harold, the most dangerous of animals…a clever sheep.
“I love mankind, it is people I can’t stand.”
Humans have this incredible knack for self-aggrandizement. This, combined with an over-developed sense of self-promotion, has facilitated the idea that whatever “it” is, or may be, we have “it” all figured out, or have the means to do so. When these traits are encouraged and promoted within a group over those of mutual respect and empathy for others we start to get power structures that spin out of control; nationalism for example, or the unfortunate reality of politics getting mixed up in religion. The powerful few try to influence and coerce the sheep to support their harebrained ideas. Then we get war and oppression and society becomes too rigid and the structure too strict. Then things break.
Religion, like politics, is a means to organize people, and people like to have order. Humans are not sheep needing to be herded or penned up, but we are – in point of fact – trying to live in a society here, and really that means having some sort of structure that allows everyone to be on the same page, to have a common language and framework that facilitate communication and understanding between individuals. At least that is the ideal… as I understand it. I think it is supposed to be the same with religion. The idea – as I see it- is to give folks some structure, some guidance in the ways of how to treat your fellow people, how to understand the human condition. When it comes down to it, religion (in whatever form, be it mystical, philosophical, scientific, or whatever) and society are sort of inseparable; they are INHERENTLY entangled…or at least they tend to function as cogs in the same machine. Given this metaphor if you try to take a cog from one machine and stuff it into a different machine things are not going to work. Modifications will have to be made. Like machines both society and religion are systems; they have rules and laws and hierarchies…and useful purpose…potentially. As tools for guidance and structure I like the idea, but oftentimes both enlist language that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. You start talking about who or what I am “supposed” to “obey” and I instinctively bare my teeth, ball my fists, and get into a defensive stance… if you know what I mean. It is not so much that I have a problem with authority but rather that authoritative structure makes me bristle. If I can understand the structure and move about within it, mostly unnoticed, this then allows me to keep to my dreaming. See, I am not trying to convince anyone else to do one thing or another. I truly feel that each of us has free will and thus has the UNDENIABLE RIGHT to choose our own way.
Now I am not saying that I am like Harold, a clever sheep, and I am not wanting this to turn into some sort of manifesto, these are all just my own harebrained ideas. This is just an attempt for me to make sense of the world around me. It is half-baked and largely ill-informed and in no way do I mean any sort of offense. I am just baffled so much of the time and writing this way helps me to try to figure it out. Really I am writing this because I have to; I have to get it all out of my head. Like Morpheus said, these questions that I have are “like a splinter in [my] mind.” I experience this kind of angst about why this structure which works for so many and would in fact to seem be a perfectly acceptable, reasonable, sensible, and comfortable foundation for living (and in many ways for life itself) does not seem to work for me. It leaves me feeling cold and foreign… an outsider, as if I am doing something wrong. And that in itself bothers me.
“Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.” Douglas Adams
Once upon a time people all over the world lived in small, close-knit, communal “societies”. Populations were much smaller and the world was effectively MUCH larger. Human life and existence was much more closely governed by interaction with the environment around it. Humans were a part of the ecological reality within which they existed. They acquired what they needed to sustain life from the world around them. Some still do… more or less. Certainly, as anthropology has taught us, this lifestyle had structure; there were taboos, rules and regulations, there was society and religion and all was based on the necessities of sustaining life. In some places and situations people eventually began to congregate and learn to manage a more sedentary existence. Something in the environment allowed them to do so. Something provided and promoted a different sort of lifestyle, a different sort of equilibrium with the environment, some sort of stability. As such the structure changed, the rules and regulations changed, the society and religions changed. All of this was INHERENTLY grounded in the time and the place. In some instances the variables came together in such harmony as to further promote the growth, stability, structure, and in certain cases expansion of the population and thus the ever developing “culture” tied to it. You will note that I am shying away from details here. The reasons for this are many but suffice to say for this current, long-winded and admittedly somewhat self-aggrandizing (I am in fact human…) purpose, they are beside the point.
The point, I guess, is that I think that society and religion – these frameworks or structural systems that are major elements of “culture” – have certain grounding in the ecological realities around us…at least they used to (and in my opinion work better when they do). Some of those expanding “cultures” through time have gotten too big for their britches. Power mongers, so convinced that they had “it” all figured out, forced their will upon all of those within reach, either through war or some other form of physical coercion, some sort of economic influence, or perhaps proselytizing. Again, this has happened many times, in many ways, all over the world. It is still happening. What you end up with are these gargantuan, unwieldy, overarching power structures that seek to be all inclusive in all scenarios and environments; Roman Expansionism, British Catholic Industrial Imperialism, Chinese Communism, Western Christian Capitalism, Middle Eastern Fundamental Islam. Remarkably many have worked… well they all “worked” for a time, in some manner or other. But many of the big ones are still going strong, often having overpowered and in some situations incorporating those that went before. Yet they leave folks like me, the ones that somehow or other have not drank the cool-aid as it were, on the fringes. You take Roman ideals and understanding of their native Mediterranean environment and try to imprint it on Germanic or Celtic tribal realities and things just do not really work out. Chinese communism forced upon Tibetan Buddhism, not a good match… I realize I am treading on some really thin ice here.
The point, at least a related point, is that “in the beginning” all of these religions and societies were just a means to understand and organize life and the world around us. They were all good – probably necessary and relevant – ideas in their own time and place. But at what point does the relevance start to fail? This is where we come back to my problem. The one at hand anyway.
Christianity is a couple thousand years old now. It cropped up out of necessity, or miracle, or happy chance, or whatever… in a certain place, at a certain time, and under certain particulars. This is a fact and one that the Christian church is very specific about (for example the details of time and place as documented by the Roman Imperials recording the birth and life of Jesus). That is history, verifiable in multiple places. No point arguing about it. So this Jesus cat grows up in this specific environment and has some different ideas about the world he sees around him. People listen, for whatever reason. They believed in something, something bigger than themselves. A whole series of events transpired which were documented and have been spread around ever since… some more easily acceptable than others. Still we are talking about faith and belief here. There are facts and there is truth. Different games, different rules. Belief does not require that one have only facts.
Anyways, somehow or other this business has caught on. It took a while to get up steam, but when it did look out. Now, as a religion, as a means of trying to understand and explain the human condition, this guy wanting to ease the suffering of the people he saw around him and trying to convince them to be nice to one another and not dwell too much on the fact that often times life sucks…and even suggesting that there are ways around that…is a pretty damn good idea. BUT, then somewhere along the line politics got involved and over the years various societies and organizations have royally screwed things up… in my opinion. At various points along the way organized churches were created (and I am talking about the systems not the buildings); Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, the various European and eventually worldwide variants, and on and on and on. I am in no way a religious scholar or theologian…FAR from either. What I am trying to express is that these were institutions created in certain places at certain times based on the ideals of a situation from a completely different place and time. And THIS is what I do not trust. These socio-political interpretations of an essentially foreign (both spatially and temporally) reality make me nervous.
Ugh, OK this is becoming arduous… SO, in my hesitant, but increasingly undeniable, search for some form of spiritual faith and community I have not found much that makes sense to me. BUT, neither have I truly explored any of the various options which have interested me that deeply. I have pondered and read and discussed many times numerous systems of belief. I almost always have walked away shaking my head in confusion. So, once again here I am staring down the aisle of a Christian church. I listen to the words of the priest and often I like what he has to say. The ceremony is fascinating and I understand the appeal of being a part of something that has such ancient roots…but then I read some of the words involved and I feel my fists clenching, my leg muscles tightening, and my lips pulling back. Maybe this really is not for me, but what I am trying to understand (and remember this is mostly me talking to myself here) is can I really know without truly exploring it? AND here is the rub… I believe that the system is valid. I believe that belief validates belief; believing in a chosen system makes that system the basis of truth and reality for that individual, for that community.
Of course Christianity is real and true and genuine, the people make is thus. I do not doubt this. What I cannot get my head around though is, is it acceptable for one such as myself to join said community having such a strong foundation of doubt and mistrust for the structure of the system (not the underlying beliefs remember) simply as a test? But then I guess that this is truly the only way one could test one’s faith. Yet, somehow the whole idea just makes me feel untrue, as if I would be embarking on some sort of insincere, hypocritical charade. I do not feel that this is something to be taken lightly, and to be honest I am in many ways afraid to find out what might happen. I worry about the reactions of the people that have known me to this point. I do not know why this bothers me, something to do with having to explain myself, having to explain my actions. I do not understand the desire that I am struggling with, this curiosity and fear, this fascination with what is in many ways our oldest quest… to seek the unknown and try to look into the eyes of God.
“Oh, I get it,” I said. “It’s a parable. Cute. Let’s go eat.”
― Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal