3 Nov 2012, 5:32pm
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[holy daze] 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.

[this entry was originally published on november 3rd, 2012, at holy daze.]