15 May 2012, 5:24pm
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[holy daze] 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 relavent (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

[this entry was originally published on may 15th, 2012, at holy daze.]



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