Religion 3

Peace

Love

Brotherhood

Understanding

Charity

Faith

Humility

Respect

It’s really not very tough to figure out the commonalities of all the religions, at least as espoused. That’s because they are the province of humanity, not religion. This is my belief. I’m not unique in holding it, but like most who do, I’ve come to it in a unique way. My own way.

Amazing, really, the way the three “major” religions share so many precepts and laws. More amazing is that all cultures seem to adopt similar belief systems, when given the time it takes to codify them as a society. When you look at Native American religious traditions, which were bred in complete isolation from Western or Eastern established traditions, you see the same beliefs: Honor your family; respect your parents; love your brother or sister; and of course, pay tribute to the one who made you.

This last is where the divisions lie. Who is your maker? The Sioux tribes had a name for the Creator that was loosely translated by the white men as “The Great Spirit.” This is amusing to Western sensibilities because we can easily view it as a kind of “childish” appellation for a capital-g God. A roughly hewn, prairie-bred, hunter-gatherer monotheism. But recently the term has been clarified to a more distinct meaning: Great Mystery.

Bingo! It is the very act of personifying God, to people like me, that creates the distance between reality and spirituality. That is, to tell me there is an old white man, a “father” figure, with white hair sitting on a cloud up there ready to judge me – that is where you  lose me. My mind won’t let me accept the idea with no facts to substantiate it. Rather than the personification making it “easier” for me to have a “relationship” with God, it simply strikes me as made up.

This has a lot of ramifications, I know. They shoot out in all directions. Once a person concludes that the only way to wrap his mind around the concept of the creator is to acknowledge that there is no single, unassailable concept of a creator, the rest follows in a pretty straightforward manner. To wit, I don’t know that the power that created the universe(s) wants me to worship it; nor do I feel it will be appeased if I chant repetitive phrases at it once a week. Nor should I necessarily eat its flesh and drink its blood, even symbolically. No, I must figure out for myself the proper way to honor the creator, or the creative force, or the Great Mystery.

And I’m working on it.

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Religion 2

There’s an old story of the Jesuit missionaries coming to Greenland. They arrive on the island where old Kanuk the Inuit tribesman is doing OK for himself with good liquor from the French traders, a couple of wives, and plenty of girlfriends. The missionaries come and inform him of God and Jesus, further instructing him that neither party is fond of the polygamy, the adultery,  the drinking, and so on, and that such behavior has unpleasant consequences. Old Kanuk says, “You mean to tell me that if I don’t do what you say, this God will send me to Hell when I die?” Affirmative, they reply. “But what about my ancestors?” the sharp old man says. “They knew nothing of you or your God. Why would your God punish my ancestors for their behavior if they did not even know what he wants?”

Skilled at argument as well as coercion, the missionaries reply that God makes a special exception for those on Earth who have lived and died without hearing His word. “But now that I’ve heard it,” old Kanuk says, “I’m bound by it?” Yes, now you have it, reply the missionaries.

“Curse you for coming here,” he says, “and ruining my life.”

I would not say that I identify completely with old Kanuk, but there’s a kernel here that is worth a turn at the mortar and pestle to see if it bears good meal. The question of the innocents, all those American, Asian, and South Pacific natives who lived in blithe ignorance of the Bible for so many generations, is a thorny one for the Christian proselytizer. But it’s only the first question of hundreds that the active mind comes up with when it examines at any length the tenets of organized faith.

The pope recently published an encyclical that says, in a nutshell, that all of the non-Roman Catholic faiths are on the wrong track. It is a reiteration of the “one true church” doctrine, the idea of Peter as the first Archbishop of Rome and Jesus’ chosen leader for his earthly ministry. Sorry, all you protestants, but you have officially been declared as having missed the boat. And Jews? Time to get messianic, people.

Another papal “throw down” was the pronouncement that, despite the number of gay men in its ranks, the church cannot regard homosexuality as “normal” and retains its view that it is a type of mental illness. The church “loves” homosexuals but cannot condone their behavior. A gay priest is OK, as long as he never “acts” on his sexuality.

We can see how well that model of repressed sexuality is working. But despite the hundreds of lawsuits and thousands–millions?–of children and others abused at the hands of priests just over the last few decades, the church sticks to its guns, and the priesthood remains a bastion of perversity under a protective veil of religiosity and institutional secrecy.

If it seems I’m picking on Catholics, it is only because I know the faith so well, having felt the sting of a few black metal rulers on my knuckles in my youth. Any religion will do. I don’t even want to get started on the mental gymnastics required for Muslims to believe they are doing God’s work by crashing airliners into the World Trade Center. But they manage, and that’s a problem for me.

So I suppose my point is this: religions are human institutions run by flawed humans for purposes that range widely but do not necessarily reflect the will of God. God may or may not exist–I prefer to think that there is such a creative force, but it’s complicated–but no particular religion I have studied has a valid claim on the moral high road that would provide them the spiritual authority to tell me what to do.

However, curiously, at least on their faces all the religions share some valuable precepts which seem universal to organized faith. Next time, we’ll look at those

Religion 1

Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.
–Patti Smith

I suppose I’ll always remember that night. I must have been about 14 or 15, sitting in the family room of my parents house, Virginia, 1976. It was Saturday night, so naturally I was alone, watching Saturday Night Live on TV. It was the show’s second year on the air, and I loved it. At that usual point in the show, the host – I don’t remember who – said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Patti Smith Group.”
A smattering of applause, and then the camera found her–scrawny, pale, visibly angry, with her bushy underarms and dirty white A-shirt, hanging on the microphone stand like a drunk on a lamp post. She sang the fist line, and I was floored.

That was probably the first time I witnessed a public refutation of what had always been a given to me. Of course I knew there were non-Christians, but I guess like any good Catholic I figured they were just ignorant, not openly opposed to the theology of the “one true church.” Patti opened a door for me, just cracked it open. People actually reject Christianity even after they know what it is! It’s a simple idea, but to someone young enough and ignorant enough, it’s a revolutionary one.

You can’t blame people for indoctrinating their innocent children into their faith. It’s just what people do. And I suppose most of the time it works. In fact, if I’m being honest, I’d have to say I’m one of the few lost souls among my Polish Catholic clan. I had sad occasion recently to attend a family funeral. Afterwards I said something complimentary about the priest’s homily to some aunts, and I got that unmistakable gaze that silently accused, “How would you know anything about it?”

But I would know something about it. It’s exceedingly strange, but my loss of faith in the Catholic way was a springboard to some pretty heavy theological study. If I cannot be Catholic, my reasoning was – is – then I will undertake to understand all of the religions at least somewhat. My ultimate aim was to find out what they have in common, and see if that might fit into my world view.

Like most of what I take on here, the subject is too big for a daily log. I will try then to assemble my thoughts in pieces, with today serving as introduction.

And by way of introduction, I note that I was in fact rather devout in my younger years. One effect of indoctrination into a faith is to believe, with the others, that no other faith is worth looking into. In fact I was generally convinced it was a sin to research other faiths. But once I realized that others’ beliefs were as fervently held as mine, a light went on. The immature version of this illumination is the simple idea that we cannot all be right. Christians attribute to Jesus the statement, “No one will enter the house of my father except through me,” or something to that effect. Muslims say, “There is no god but God, and Mohammed is his prophet,” sort of refuting the Jesus as God claim. Jews count Jesus as “a nice young man, sure, but a Savior? I don’t think so, my friend.”

Anyway, that’s how it began. We can’t all be right, and it would be rather cruel if one of our groups happened to be right and the others wrong. We must then imagine a crafty God in his heaven, damning all those practicing the wrong religion. “You think you’re among the saved,” he laughs, “but you’ve got it all wrong. You picked the wrong one! Ha ha ha! Suckers!”

Understanding the Space Between Us

I’ve been thinking lately of two quotations regarding understanding. I’m not sure why, but more and more, as I think about the problems of human beings, I’m convinced a lot of it comes down to understanding – or misunderstanding.

The danger here, reader, is that I’m going to go into some predictable, didactic sermon on “building bridges” and how we can all get along if we just work harder at understanding each other. But I’m not going to. Because the truth about it, and what fascinates me on this topic, is the divergence of opinions regarding our hopes of reaching any kind of complete understanding of one another, or even whether it’s worth the attempt.

The first quote I was thinking of (in no particular order) is one often attributed to Spinoza, though others pin it on Evelyn Waugh and others refer to it as an old French proverb. It goes: “To understand all is to forgive all.” Now this is an attractive idea. I remember in my youth I came across it, and it seemed to explain so much of my experience. That is, I had had my share, as a boy traveling the world, of run-ins with some pretty surly characters. And I never really understood why they wanted to mix it up with me. I mean, why me and not someone else? What the hell did I ever do to you? Then there were all the external conflicts – the wars, racial problems, the generation gap with its cool mantra of “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Right down to family arguments. What is the source of this conflict, I would wonder, this mistrust and outright animosity toward others – really, I would wonder that. Because I dislike conflict and prefer cooperation, and I always have.

So, the quote told me, if I could work to understand what generates these conflicts, what the underlying pathologies might be, it would be possible to recast them in the light of that understanding. By way of that understanding, it might even be possible to discard, once and for all, the ill feelings that we almost invariably harbor against our transgressors, both real and perceived. To forgive – based on understanding the root motivations of the behavior of others. That would be something.

But the problem word is “forgive.” The idea is that we will benefit through forgiveness, where in fact if we were able to question these combatants directly (I know now), many would have no use for our forgiveness. The forgiveness would be akin to an insult – that anyone for whom they have contempt should be “forgiving” them would be an alien concept. It’s like the old joke:

“Hey, stupid.”

“You should apologize for that unfeeling remark.”

“OK – I’m sorry you’re stupid.”

In effect, people who are callous enough, or ignorant enough, to be callous and ignorant, probably aren’t going to be interested in your grandiose forgiveness of their ignorant callousness.

So – perhaps we can simply “understand,” setting aside the forgiveness for now, and be satisfied that we can improve our outlook and world view through this understanding. “To understand all is to understand all,” the saying might go. And at least that’s something. It’s closer, anyway, to how I’ve adopted that philosophy.

But it’s a monumental something, to take up that mantle of understanding, and possibly a Quixotic dream. Which brings me to my other quote, from favorite author Carol Shields, a novelist “concerned about the unknowability of other people.” When I read this line, for some reason, it was like being thrust into a room full of light after a lifetime of darkness. OK, maybe not that dramatic, but you get the idea. What she wrote (and reading her books would be the best way to get a real good handle on what she means) is this:

“It is inevitable that each of us will be misunderstood; this, it seems, is part of twentieth-century wisdom.”

So here is another kind of understanding, one at once a paradox and a truth that sears the brain – the idea that our most profound understanding of ourselves may be the knowledge that we are each of us entirely boxed into our internal versions of ourselves, a self we can never fully reveal, and that because of this we will never fully understand anyone else. Instead, we will “receive” the public versions of others, the persona they feel is suitable to present to the world. And they, the people we “know,” will all hold a part of themselves back, no matter how intimate the relationship, because there are dark corners of ourselves we simply cannot – or choose not to – reveal. It’s a concept she, and some other authors I have touched on recently, explores in depth in her novels, which might seem to have a comedic lightness on the surface but which inevitably return to this question again and again: can anyone truly know anyone else? And if we cannot, what does that say about the relationships we number our most intimate – about our friendships and families and our marriages?

I’ve known a lot of people. Some of them are treasure troves of secrets; others seem to be open books, willing for anyone to know the most private details of their lives. But that is no real comparison, because by definition the person we are seeing is the “public” version. It may be that the most untethered free spirit you know harbors a secret, other self for whom the free spirit is merely a protective guise. The most practical, sensible person you know may harbor secret dreams of moving to Tahiti and becoming a painter of nudes (I believe Gauguin was a banker or something before he up and split).

You just don’t know. Like that guy who believes he’s happily married, comes home to a note on the kitchen table. “I’ve taken my stuff and I’ve left. I’m never coming back.” You only know someone as far as they let you know them.

Logical Conclusions

On the news is the story of the new self-checkout lanes at the supermarket.

This is another of those examples of self-service that is supposed to make consumers’ lives more convenient. Instead of waiting in line for a checker, you just step up to the scanner and sell yourself some groceries. Scan ’em all in, then bag ’em, then scan your own credit card, then carry your stuff out to the car.

In this way you can complete the entire shopping trip without ever receiving even the smallest amount of service from another human being.

Stories like this bring to mind those quaint old days when you would pull into the gas station, and someone had popped your hood (from the outside–wide open to the public the engine was in those days) and was checking your oil before you could lean out the window and say, “Fill her up.” Then, after making sure your entire car was ready to go, they would bring you the little plastic tray, with your credit card standing at attention in its little slot, so you could conveniently sign the slip and hand it back.

Or the clothing store, where instead of wandering aimlessly amid oceans of hangers, you merely strolled in and affected an air of impatience, whereupon a well-dressed man with a tape measure hanging around his neck would approach and ask how he could help you.

“How may I help you?” That’s what he would say.

And at the hardware store, where the rule now is that no employee may be over age 16 or possess any knowledge of hardware, the old guy who worked there–who had always worked there–actually knew what a ball-peen hammer was. He even knew what “ball-peen” meant. And he was surly, not distracted. There’s a difference.

They had hat stores back then. Stores that actually sold nothing but women’s hats. It was called “the Milliner.” Women had half the day to sit in the Milliner trying on hats. Even men wore hats. Not caps, hats.

Remember milk men? They brought fresh milk right to your door.

I’ve been told–I have no way of independently verifying this–that it used to be you could call a business, and someone would actually answer the phone. Moreover, they would be anxious to assist you.

Anyway, it’s not that I’m some old-timer pining away for the good old days before plastic cars and telemarketing. I’m thinking of logical conclusions. Everything we do now, we do for ourselves. No longer is there such a thing as “customer service.” I think of all the merchant jobs that used to have respectability: grocery clerk, service station attendant, haberdasher, hardware curmudgeon. They’ve all been replaced by either a teenager  in an orange vest covered in buttons proclaiming vapid phrases or, worse, a squat,  off-white credit card reader that doesn’t even say “Have a nice day” after it takes your money.

It’s all part of the larger trend – that of the mega-store grabbing every consumer dollar and shutting down the small shops and local service providers that used to cater to us, advise us on our purchases and help us make wise choices. And as these “big block” national chain stores are top-heavy corporations with executive salaries to cover, costs must be tightly controlled. That means, among other homogenizing factors, eliminating the need for experienced, knowledgeable employees who demand a living wage.

So you can get your contact lenses at Wal-Mart now, just down the aisle from the ill-fitting clothes, the gallon jugs of milk and the ball-peen hammers.

But it’s cash and carry, and you’re on your own.

Stern Nature

I’ve let half of July expire. Well, good riddance.

The real storm came amidst the storm inside me. Holiday weekend, the fifth of July, we raced home from Niobrara after only about 24 hours in that lovely country. We had been visiting the family homestead, perched atop a promontory above the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri rivers. It was a peaceful visit. About three and a half hours driving home (love that Lewis and Clarke rest stop near Sioux City), then quick get ready to join more friends and family at one of our signature Italian steakhouses.

It was not an unpleasant evening. But somehow my insides were rebelling from all the activity, the stress and strain of fast travel and holiday fun mingled with workplace chaos. I had been feeling sick, for weeks, from some unknown cause, and I was tired of it. My sister was among our party, visiting from Atlanta with her husband, and her presence also puts me on edge these days.

After the restaurant we gathered at our home for some congenial conversation, but my stomach and head would have none of it. It’s really too bad, to have a holiday weekend–and the first time off from the job in months–spoiled by a queasiness and uneasiness that won’t dissipate.

About midnight I drove a friend visiting from California back to his hotel downtown. It was just another calm, humid summer evening on the Plains. But on my way back the wind came up. That’s not so strange, but then I noticed the small trees blowing across the streets and the traffic lights swinging to horizontal. Lightning, torrential rain followed.

I made it home, and the button on my garage remote told me the power was out. I parked and ran up to the front door. My wife was relieved to see me. Then I looked out the back window to see the reason the power was out–our mature Bartlett Pear had been split by lightning, and half of its venerable body lay across the power lines. The main line carrying power had snapped. All was darkness and fury.

We were without power only for a couple of days. We kept staring out the window at our yard, now exposed to the neighborhood. My wife’s brother brought over the chain saw and we proceeded to autopsy our fallen friend. Half of him still stands, but not for long. This winter, when he’s bare of leaves, we’ll take the rest of him down.

We kept coming up with “bright sides” during this time. “Well, at least we won’t have to pay to have the whole tree taken down,” or “Well, at least it didn’t fall on the house.”

I still felt sick, now sick at heart. It was like the death of a family member. We mourned that tree.

We’ve planted others; in fact a small young pear tree stands beside the dead trunk, waiting to grow into the new sunlight exposed by its absence. We planted it knowing the old one would not last forever. It had been struck before, probably by the early snowstorm of 1997, and was ailing already.

I’m feeling better now. Let re-growth begin.