Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The One About Religion

The chapter of my social movement history project on which I recently started to work focuses on the story of a woman who played an important role in bringing feminist challenge to mainstream Protestant Christianity in Canada.

This means that I will be reading books and articles related to that theme, which means I will be thinking about it, which means I will most likely be writing things on this blog that are related to it. Now, I do not identify as Christian, nor does religion play any explicit role in how I think about the world. Yet I have deep respect for many people who ground their social change work in their faith, and I do not actively embrace the label "atheist" either. (Or "agnostic," for that matter.)

The purpose of this post is to situate myself with respect to a topic I don't usually think or write about. Partly, this is for my own benefit, as a way to explore some things as I gear up to write the chapter. Partly, it is to create something I can refer back to so that in any posts I might write on the topic over the next few months I don't have to keep repeating assurances that my view of the world is not evolving in new and unexpected directions for those who know me, and guidance about who I am and who I am not for those who don't.

So here goes.

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The first thing to note about religion's role in my life is my indifference to it.

You don't have to go too far back to find people in my family who took religion quite seriously. One of my grandfathers was an elder in his Presbyterian church in Scotland. The other was put through university by his Lutheran congregation in southern Ontario, on the understanding that he would become a minister, though before going into his final year he changed his mind and went into teaching instead. That grandfather's father-in-law was a lay preacher in the Methodist church, and a more distant ancestor of uncertain connection was the founding pastor of two or three Lutheran churches in the Perth County region of southern Ontario. (At the funeral of a great-aunt in 1995 or so I was in one of those churches...a picture of said Reverend was on display, and it looked strikingly like my father.)

I grew up attending mainstream Protestant churches, first a Lutheran one and later Presbyterian. We went semi-regularly -- not every week, but certainly not just at Christmas and Easter, either. This provided occasions for me to think about religion. And I did, a bit. I made two attempts to read the bible cover-to-cover as a kid, both of which stalled in long lists of "begats." When I was old enough to convince my mother that I would get more out of sitting in church than going to the Sunday School, which I couldn't stand, I actually did listen to and reflect on the words of the sermon, at least when I wasn't distracted by making up stories based on the images in the many stained glass windows of the church we were attending at that point. I even went to confirmation classes and was officially confirmed into the Presbyterian Church, though this was more out of a sense of obligation than any active desire or sense of real connection to (or even interest in) the teachings I was supposedly embracing. In the home in which I grew up, we said grace when certain older relatives were over for a meal, but not otherwise. Religion was not a topic for reflection or conversation; church was just some place we went on Sundays. Though the minister in the last church I attended was a good speaker and an intelligent man, I didn't feel like I was getting much in the way of personal meaning from being there. It wasn't meeting any need for community that I might've felt. I certainly never felt any particular need to buy into the metaphysics that were on offer, even if I absorbed other aspects of the teaching (see below). At some point in my earlyish teens I quietly stopped going, with little struggle or fanfare. The only member of my immediate family of origin who still actively participates in a faith community in any regular way is my mother, who now attends a Unitarian Universalist fellowship -- that's a peculiar denomination that has its roots in liberal Protestant Christianity but is now a creedless faith with modestly progressive (and occasionally activist) inclinations (though sometimes, in my opinion, a troubling and appropriative relationship to other traditions).

In my life today, I don't embrace, but my rejection is passive rather than vigorous. I never ask what Jesus might have done. It would never occur to me to relate my choices to scripture. I don't read books about religion for fun or enlightenment. I ask "what does it all mean" with, I think, unusual regularity, but it takes me places other than Christianity. I don't attend church and I don't in any sense miss attending church. I have not been afflicted by that strange-to-me need (experienced by many people at my age who are not particularly religious) to reconnect with some sort of church, ostensibly for "the sake of the children." I don't seek to explain my life or the world via religious ideas, nor do I use religious concepts when passing commentary on life and the world.

On the other hand, my perception of self and life and world is not primarily organized around embracing a vigorous rejection of religion, either. I don't call myself "atheist," though I suspect at least some who organize their lives around the identity "Christian" would see little difference. Some on the left seem to have a cultivated contempt for religion, even when found in people who also seek a just and liberatory world. I understand the kinds of harm done in the name of faith that can give rise to that attitude, but I have never understood the way that some people allow knowledge of another's religiosity get in the way of the usual process of making grounded personal and political judgments about how to relate to them.

Mostly, at least in the course of everyday life and at the level of explicit words and frameworks and ideas, I just ignore religion.

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Indifference As Privilege

Being able to be indifferent to the faith of one's forebearers, at least on the level of everyday life, is a privilege.

To have the space in which indifference is even an option, it helps to not be facing oppressions that push towards identification with ancestral religion as a tool of mutual aid, struggle, self-defense, or solidarity. It helps that there is absolutely nothing to make me feel that by failing to embrace this part of my ancestry I am somehow agreeing with a dominant culture that hates that part of my ancestry and my self, precisely because that ancestry is the dominant culture. It helps that there is nothing to make me feel that, through my indifference, I am betraying in very real ways people that I care about and whose good opinion matters to me and who depend on my solidarity.

To have the space in which indifference is an option, it also helps not to have experienced the kind of deep, personal wounding that some people experience -- a wounding that means they cannot just be indifferent, they must either embrace or vocally resent and refuse. Or, sometimes, both embrace and resent/refuse, since it is all so complicated. Not that I am unbroken in ways related to my religious heritage (see below) but it has never had the direct, visceral quality to it that I have seen in many others wounded by their faith of origin. (Though it does occur to me that perhaps feeling that visceral rejection would help in overcoming the negative ways in which it has shaped me...hmmmm...)

One outcome of the privilege of indifference: Three or four times in the last year I have put my foot in my mouth because of it. Not that I have said things that are outright contemptuous or dismissive of particular faiths or religion in general, since that just isn't how I feel. It is more that I have momentarily forgotten that lots of people take religion a lot more seriously than I do, and for reasons that usually should not be disrespected even if sometimes they ought to be challenged, and I have said things rather more flippant than I should have. I regretted saying (or, in one instance, writing) those things the next minute. Most times, about most things, I avoid that kind of mistake. Which makes me think it is a privilege I need to process a bit more.

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Another aspect of my relationship to religion is that I do have a certain interest in it.

It isn't really an interest that has to do with a search for personal spiritual fulfillment, though there were probably flashes of that when I was a kid and a teenager. No, it is more related to my interest in politics and history. Christianity has been central to the political life of Europe and European-derived settler societies. It has been central to colonization. Religious institutions are politically fascinating in their own right. Liberation theology is intriguing, as is the social gospel. The complexity and messiness and contradictory nature of it all is fascinating too. And the social power it all has, at least sometimes.

Some of that could probably be defended as a practical interest because it is relevant to social change today. But some of it is a more abstract kind of curiosity too, or a sort of social and historical nosiness.

I also tend to be fascinated by people and what makes them tick, and for some people religion is pretty central to that ticking. There are people I have known personally who have done things that I consider to be pretty awful and defend it in the name of Christianity. I also know people who do pretty cool things and their motivation is, if not entirely attributable to, at least tied up with being Quaker, Mennonite, Catholic, or some other flavour of Christian; Buddhist; traditional indigenous; Muslim; Unitarian; Wiccan. Other people I know have been seriously hurt by one religion or another, sometimes in a very direct and personal way and sometimes in a more indirect, collective, but no less painful way. Or both. So to understand all of these people, I need to understand religion.

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Notwithstanding what I said about indifference above, I do have moments of anger when it comes to religion. Because my ancestral faith, at least since the ancestors that painted themselves blue before going naked into battle against Roman legions, is Christianity and because it is deeply embedded in the cultures which have directly shaped me, most of those moments of anger are related to Christianity, though not all.

I don't get angry easily or often about anything, so these moments are rare too. Looking back, it strikes in a couple of different situations. One is when I'm faced at an interpersonal level with a certain brand of hypocrisy, in which moral righteousness is claimed on the basis of Christian faith while that person is in the process of doing something horrible. The more frequent sort of instance, which I suppose could be seen as a subset of the first, is when Christianity is used to justify oppressive restrictions on or regulation of or condemnation of behaviours related to relationships, gender, and sexuality.

That just makes me mad.

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My relationship to religion is not just indifference, interest, and moments of anger; it is much more contradictory than that. However absent religion is from my everyday life and as an explicit ingredient for how I interpret and interact with the world, I have been profoundly shaped by it.

Here is a quote that I came across in another context. The speaker is not a theologian or an activist, but an actor, Hugh Laurie. He is best known for playing "Dr. Gregory House" on the show House, M.D., but I first became familiar with him as the thick-witted "Prince George" in the third Blackadder series from the BBC. This is from an interview that Laurie did...not sure the date. He said,

Belief in God didn't play a large role in my home. But a certain attitude to life and the living of it did. My parents were -- they attended a Scottish Presbyterian church in Oxford. And my mother, I suppose, she was Presbyterian by...by character. By mood. Pleasure was something that was treated with great suspicion. Pleasure was something -- I was going to say that pleasure was something that had to be earned, but even the earning of it didn't really work. To this day, I carry that with me. I find pleasure a difficult thing. I really do. I don't know what to do with it. I don't know where you put it.

Apart from the mention of Oxford, I could've said this. This "certain attitude to life and the living of it" has also played an important role in shaping my relationships to work and to ethics/morality. Not all of that is awful, but there are significant parts of it I wish I could just summarily eject from myself.

Interestingly, I think the space for indifference to religion also comes in part from this heritage. This is not a terribly well-informed opinion, but I have a sense that there is a longstanding strand within Scottish Presbyterianism in which one's behaviour and works are much more important to how one is judged than one's professions or visceral experiences of faith. It is certainly hyperbole to say that faith has historically been irrelevant to being a good Scottish Presbyterian, but it was regarded very differently by many Presbyterians than is common among, say, right-wing Protestants in North America today.

But my experience is also similar to the quote in that this relationship to the past was not instilled through the thumping of bibles or any particular emphasis on religion in the home -- it was more a result of everyday ways of being and doing that were connected to the "three hundred years of dour puritanism" (as a cousin of mine recently described it) that are intimately tied up with certain important parts of Scottish national culture. That is why I can speak of being shaped by religion in important ways, even though those ways were by and large devoid of explicitly religious content.

(I also don't want to come across as too down on my Scottish heritage -- in general, I don't feel that way at all, this just happens to be an aspect of it that I find more than a bit tiresome at this stage of my life.)

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I Believe...

Nothing profound here, I'm afraid.

Nothing about the metaphysical framework of Christianity holds much interest for me, however much the deep structuring of my world view may still be gripped by certain aspects of a particular Christian-derived ethical framework repurposed in the service of a politics of justice and liberation. However, I also have a problem with the simplistic 19th century, clockwork-inspired, positivist epistemology that many liberals and self-proclaimed "atheists" use to counter Christian metaphysics. There are things about the universe that we as a species don't understand, and probably will never understand. There are far more things that I personally don't understand, or at least that I must relate to in ways that respond to how my knowledge about them came to be.

One framework that I have used, usually after too much beer, is the distinction between transcendent and imminent divinity. I have used this in the context of people who are much more familiar with theology than I am, and one of those was of the opinion that I was not using them at all correctly, but the others seemed to think it was fine. In any case, though I see no reason to hypothesize the existence of a transcendent divinity, on certain occasions -- they usually have to do with nature or with groups of human beings working together for a radical political purpose -- I do feel something that one could (but would by no means need to) categorize as imminent divinity. Traditionally that phrase is used to get across the idea that God is in the earth, in our bodies, in our selves, and is seen as complimentary to transcendent divinty...it is less clear what this might mean in a view of the world that feels no need for a transcendent God along side, but it perhaps is one useful way to get across the idea that what matters, whatever deep meaning exists in this universe, is produced by our relationships with each other and the earth. And that this is not a rejection of wonder or a claim to human mastery, but a recognition of wonder and a humility before the amazingness and complexity of human beings and the world all around us.

1 comment:

the KITSILANO Band said...

Yo Scott: I tracked you down to this early essay on your religious position.

I am curious to know why you have not noticed the monism that is inherent in all ideas and in all the materials of which reality is composed. Your "one about" is all about you and little about the phenomenon of Religion. Did you ever ask yourself why Religion evokes emotion the way it does? It cannot be a mere figment to have such an impact around the world.

I will try to explain the process of natural conscious evolution so you might then appreciate the role of the Institution of Religion in the abstract development of Believing and Being. Belief is the foundation of our identity. Belief is engendered by order but Culture is required for us to function according to our belief system. Culture adopts the form of Religion without imposing any subjective belief system on anyone. Law, or Order, then identifies the rewards and the penalties for following the right religious model among those offered by any culture.

We aspire to esteem ourselves and to be esteemed by others within a world that allows us to develop our own personal power as individuals. What forms the criteria on which we rely for our value system? Against modern standards of monetary or athletic power and or other form of prowess, there is an internal gauge which measures how calm we remain while under stress or when drawn toward some tempting action. this inner peace is what we live on and for, as Humans.

While we have managed to confirm the reality of our 3-dimensional existence we do not know what exists beyond the three dimensions of time, space and thought. Since Religion grew up out of the experiences of those whose lives were applied to answering this puzzle, we have forgotten that all early Religion was equivalent to Science at those times. If you are not able to identify with the experience of Jesus Christ as He went about talking to His Father in Heaven then you cannot comprehend Religion. Even if you deem that He did not have a real relationship with an existing Higher Realm of Being, the truth is He believed He did and would not abandon that belief, even facing death. What eludes many when they visit the Gospel is that the whole Bible bears on each of the lives of the Patriarchs and prophets, and all before Jesus would have had meaning for Him. If you take Christ to only mean the Birth, Mission and Death of one man, then you cannot reach any level of understanding of His thoughts, nor will you expect Him to return to your life. To know Christ requires knowing what He knew and looking forward to what He promises.

Any Human concept of God will conform to the full story of Humankind, so to be informed about Religion demands that you engage in projecting Christ's story into your future, otherwise that story will seem inappropriate to you. You must also read history with Christ in mind in order to discern the impact of His ideas on the acts of Men over the ages since tghe Cross. You now live in the perigee of belief in Jesus, the time when it is least likely that He will appear.