I was at another memorial service this past Saturday. It was lovely. It was for a man I barely knew, the patriarch of a wonderful family in our town. That family has, among other things, provided musical instruction and opportunities to perform to nearly two generations of kids, mine included. It was moving for me because I could take the Reverend's remarks about death being more of an horizon than an end or limit to life as something with more substance than mere comforting metaphor. The deceased, whom I was only getting to know from the eulogies, clearly imparted his character, particularly the vital collaboration of enthusiasm and loving discipline, to his son who in turn was a both amusing and inspiring as the conductor for the orchestra through which all of my children grew and learned both the art and the poise of playing their instruments before a crowd. It is in perfectly real although not exactly concrete ways that we each have the threads of our life bound into the fabric of our family and community well beyond our own span of days. We are hoped for by our parents and grandparents, we teach, exemplify and are remembered by our heirs and friends. This is not literal immortality. Transported somewhat in the grip and spirit of such occasions, it is easy for us, unavoidable for some of us, to go from thinking "(s)he would have wanted it this way" to feeling that the departed person is vaguely present in making their wants felt. The tug is there like weak gravity, inviting belief but without providing any specific clue that could not have come up from the unconscious. I have felt it.
Another interesting thing was the venue and what I will refer to as the culture of the service. It was held in a church. The title of the cleric presiding was "Reverend" and I don't know what denomination. The remarks he made, as noted, were touching and appropriate. The service began and concluded with hymns from hmynals found on the backs of the pews. But the only other mention of deity, and I consider it one of the greatest, was a recitation of the Kaddish, the one prayer Jews must say for their dead yet a prayer with no word about the departed and only exaltation and blessing for the holy one. I have attended other memorials in this church that were not so diverse of creed. I knew a few of the people in attendance, mostly via musical connections but the rest were an older generation of townsfolk whom I know of rather than know. What I know about most of them was echoed in the remembrances of the deceased: they give themselves to the good causes of education and conservation that had made our town a particularly rural and restful place to live. Some of them went to fight in Europe or Asia in WWII. Some of them were responsible for the little "peace park" in the center of our town where vigils against war are held once in a great while. We do not have conspicuous memorials to the fallen of 20th century wars and you will look hard to find commemoration of civil war dead. There is a stone commemorating the hardy few farmers, squires and shopkeepers who mustered and fought on April 19 1775. We still send sons off to war but it is nothing we celebrate here.
Those people in that church, like the people in my synagogue, are people of whom I know only good things and people who I will stand with at town meetings, at anti-torture vigils and, come election day [and judging from the prevalence of "vote for Daval Patrick" signs], at the polling booth too.
The great question that troubles me after these observations is the discord of influences in my own life that such events bring to the surface:
On the one hand, I see wonderful an constructive citizens facing their mortality within a religious setting. I see them using criteria from their creeds as grounds for acting for social justice. They can't all be atheists who just go through the motions of convention at these junctures where the life just ended must bring to each a very sharp focus on the purpose of their own lives. Though I do not get to hear their doubts or other inner thoughts, I see their works and there find encouragement about my species.
On the other hand, nothing whatsoever in my own experience persuades me that there is any supernatural consciousness, either embodied or somehow diffused in the universe. It all seems so much more likely to me that we project when we think we are having religious experiences. It would be a simple enough explanation for both the diversity of so-called beliefs and for the animal ferocity that overtakes many in defense of these imaginings. The outer certainties that some religion's profess and make into political agenda's for rather narrow benefits to imaginary beneficiaries have to be set beside the kind thoughts and good works.
That drives me nuts. I suspect that if I will see any resolution of this good-religion/bad-religion dilemma, it will be personal and come from some special vantage point or accommodation that could be difficult to find or sustain in anyone else's reality. I would like to find accommodation. I would like to start with the logic that many atheists accept: "The hope in an afterlife and the imagining of spirits and powers unseen which control those aspects of this world that we cannot control is ubiquitous and yet in its particulars it is full of disagreeing beliefs, usually breaking along tribal and cultural boundaries therefore these hopes and imaginings have no source but human nature, For if there were a god, we'd all know the same things about god". But I would like to pare it back to the mere observation: "hope in an afterlife and the imagining of spirits and powers unseen which control those aspects of this world that we cannot is ubiquitous" and add to it the simple observation that there are also atheists: "hope in an afterlife and the imaging of spirits and powers unseen which control those aspects of this world that we cannot is ubiquitous but not universal". Those are observations. That is a statement of what is. I will try not to descend into the codas each camp adds to the observation: The atheists may point out the self serving and identity enforcing nature of the beliefs and the believers may point out the blindness or claim the egotism of the non-believers in attacking or repudiating a great source of comfort to mortals. Do I need to go there? We do not disagree that we are in this physical world, all of us together. We do agree on at least some common notions of good such as freedom to think and speak, safety from war, subjugation and persecution and a life providing the animal basics of food, health, protection from the elements and perhaps good company of family and friends. Then if we only agree to have a neutral means to negotiate our differences when our particular definitions of the common good do not agree in details that affect how our common wealth and resources will be disposed, call this neutral means government, why would we not live well enough? I hear everywhere in the news only discord and mounting strife of factions that cannot share the commons of this planet and that strife is both between beliefs and between belief an non-belief. I saw in the rows of pews a quite diverse group of people who have, in their own town, done a very effective job of both sharing the commons and otherwise staying out of each other's affairs.
I have said "you can't ignore religion if it won't ignore you" which I admit, is a defensive posture and implies the believers won't leave the non-believers alone to act according to their own consciences. I won't take it back. As a decent human being, it is simply not an option to preemptorily say one party has a conscience that can dictate to others in matters that are strictly personal. And yet I am uneasy with the broad language, the unqualified term "religion".
I am aware of outreach and ecumenical efforts among faith groups who do not stand for the repressive and ugly narrowness presented as "faith" by the righteous-wing allies of the Bush administration. I invite them to reach out a little farther to the faithless like myself. I go on record here as regretting some of the rocks I have thrown at religion's way of interfacing one's mind to the world. Where it begets helpful attitudes and positive results, who am I to criticize?
The political climate brought me to blogging as a activity and an outlet. The sick use of religion on the part of Republicans that has given national emphasis to the least healthy and least helpful forms of religion in this country has brought religious criticism into my blogging. The blurry connection between terms like "family values" and the ideals of Christian values have come about because the habit of the fundamentalists is to code the less salable "Christian" with the more marketable "family" in their well oiled hunt for influence. Personally, I find the Dodsons and Fallwells have traded in their love-the-good-in-each-person in for a fear-the-evil-in-everyone, a superficial and weak but more easily carried faith. These are NOT the Christians I would care to make peace with but they bear the label "Christian" as fairly as Jude or Rev. Timothy Simpson. I want better categories so at least I can toss my rocks through the right windows.
There are of course many sects of Christianity. And for that matter Judaism too has flavors that I might not like. How are Jack Abramoff's prayer's received on high? How would I daven next to such a person? The distinction I am hoping to enable is between helpful religious observance and faith and selfish and uncivil religious observance and faith. Won't be easy, of course. But there certainly are strings that tie together a collection of religious groups that I would put in the uncivil category. The most amazing collection of little known connections about "conservative" Christian politics can be found in the biographies of the "council for national Policy"...a huge number of embarrassing connections such as having Tom DeLay and all his relationships to various churches spelled out and how rich [DuPont] their supporters are... These are too many connections for people of positive and humane faith to have to explicitly repudiate. The progressive religious person shouldn't need to distance themselves from that kind of "Christianity" . The voice and the conscience of the civil and constructive Christians are plainly heard if one is listening. But..I'd like a tag that lets me speak of such folks without readers thinking I also meant the leadership of the Southern Baptists. I'd like a tag that would let me speak of Jerry Fallwell that would not let my readers assume I also meant progressives in faith.
To this HuffPo post about the betrayal of a zealous believer at the hands of the Whitehouse, I commented with a similar question:
It is a shame we can't reframe this religion+republicanism topic a little. What might do it is to get two or three words recognized as distinct connotations of the sloppily used label "Christian". Iddybud is a Christian too. Why hurt friends or shame innocent bystanders? The "Christians" being seduced are certain fundies, brains fueled by unadmittable fears and shallow understanding, who, for all their proclamations of the ultimate power of the kingdom of heaven, are desperate to wield some of the power of our new king George. The lusting of evangelicals after political power should be seen as an admission that they don't expect god to act for them, not physically nor in the hearts of men, and that they must have laws to say what their reading of the bible has not made audible to the wider world. What can I call that lusting?I admit to having tossed a few rocks myself so I am a fine one to be asking. But we progressives all need each other just as much as the neocons needed the fundamentalists and I think we, if anyone, should be able to talk with each other in more harmonious ways that will outlast the expediencies of getting Bush and buddies out of office. A lot of us with common political goals might not have the same spiritual goals but we can still do better than to bruise one another over those differences.
The hardest part of this essay has not been written yet. The most important part has though, so there it is. I will return to this topic when better words come to me.
I open the floor to any suggestions about good tags for the two faces of religion.