The Intricate Polemics of Our Times…

Seems like we — anyway, I — get to learn the same lessons over and over. My post yesterday (here it is) — which was really about keeping religion out of politics — garnered all kinds of reactions, some here, more on Facebook. Probably I could have written better, and religion is a hot topic (never mind I was not telling anyone what to believe and would not presume to) but I think we’re also living in a time of knee-jerk reactions and high emotions, voter intimidation and evil people using (not for the first time in the history of humanity) a religion for (IMO) evil purposes. Maybe people are not in a place right now (elections, ad nauseam) for what I wrote. I don’t know.

BUT — people (this is a news flash) are not all the same and an individual’s experiences are not universal and even two people experiencing the same thing are not going to take away the same understanding of it. We don’t all have the same background, education, drives, nothing about us is the same as anyone else. At best we have things in common or the willingness to adjust. Some people have a strong drive to conform and belong; others don’t (I don’t). We all want friends.

I believe we all want something to believe in — and I think that’s as varied as humanity. Some people like religious fellowship; others don’t. Some people feel secure with labels, others don’t get that. It’s crazy how we are. Two kids raised in the same house by the same parents don’t come away with the same understanding of their childhoods. We are — I believe — all but inscrutable to each other. One of the few tools we have to penetrate this is language and THAT can be a force for good or evil. Book groups exist because two people who read the same book don’t read the same book. I learned a LOT about that pursuing literature degrees. Outright arguments broke out in seminars over the meaning of a line in a Yeats poem. Seriously. Sides were taken. Alliances formed. And who cared??? In the grand scheme? Whatever that is…

We are a disputative, polemical, downright nasty species terrified of being wrong, frightened of saying, “No one knows.” So frightened of that that when someone does say it, as with Covid, we don’t hear it. I sure didn’t hear it. It’s amazing to me that we do as well as we do.

One positive aspect of most religions is they offer an ethical system — surprisingly universal across the world. In our country right NOW that’s the battle. The abortion question is an ethical question. I, personally, am pissed off that it’s in my life again. It was crappy enough arguing it in the 70s, but here we are. We’re outraged at Russia because what Putin did was wrong. We’re outraged at Christian Nationalists because what Hitler did was wrong and they are (apparently) taking a similar road and brandishing a book that is easily misquoted and manipulated — I think all religious texts are. Any major Taliban dude will tell you.

Does that mean the Bible and the Koran are “bad” or that religious education is “bad”? the Bible and the Koran are two related books sitting on my book shelf. They’re inert. Not doing much, just sitting there. On some other shelves are some other books. There’s the Tao Te Ching. Beside it, a profound, clever and pretty book of Zhuangzi’s teachings, there are several books of Hindu scripture. Ganesh sits on my table here beside a Zuni carving of an alabaster Heart Bear with turquoise eyes and a turquoise arrow head on her back for protection. Oddly, no Buddhist texts in this house, I have no idea why, but a Thangka of Palden Lamo hangs in my studio near a photo of the Dalai Lama I was given in Milan by a woman who had worked for the Dalai Lama in Brazil. Long story. None of these things are “bad.” In my opinion they’re all good, very very very good. The people who are TEACHING might be bad, might be stupid, brainwashed, have a dark agenda. That was the case in my church.

Besides that? I was a student and a teacher. I know about the questionable power of the lectern.

I was thrown out of my church youth group. I was the president and did something the deacons didn’t approve. They had an emergency meeting, and came down to the room where we were meeting and told me I had to leave. It was harsh and unfair and unenlightened and the pastor of my church wasn’t behind that 100%, but there I was. Did I leave God? Did I toss the Bible? No. Why? They had had nothing to do what those narrow-minded old men (in their 40s! Gasp!) had done. That was on the men.

Do I think the Bible is 100% factual history of the world? No. Who could? Those stories are so incredibly old. Some people will argue with me, but I see them — the Old Testament in particular — as myths to define a culture (a tribal culture) and hold it together. We humans are responsive to stories. This is one lovely thing about us — but also a little dangerous. I wouldn’t change it, but it carries some risks. It is why there are varied religious holidays and people fight for the right to celebrate them when they are surrounded by a culture with overall different beliefs. Religious holidays are tribal. That said, during my year in China, when Christianity — religion in general — was still strongly frowned upon, I came home from school on the 23rd of December to find a potted pine tree in my living room. A month or so earlier I shared supper in the “Religious Student’s Dining Room” with the two Muslim students and three Buddhist students to celebrate a Muslim holiday. Five students out of all the students at my university claimed to have religious beliefs, and because of this, they had their own place to eat where their dietary restrictions could be catered to, and cooks who shared their faiths. I would never call China enlightened in this area, but that was enlightened.

One of my Muslim students said, as we ate our lamb and the Buddhist girls ate their vegetables in a dark, smoke-stained, old little building (most cooking at that time was over charcoal) said, “Teacher, what do you think, don’t you think people who believe in religion are kind?”

I sure as hell couldn’t speak for all the people in the world who believe in religion, and I thought for a minute of all the people throughout history who’d died in religious wars, but all of the people in that room were definitely kind. They weren’t engaged in dialectics about their beliefs and gods. They were celebrating a harvest festival together.

My personal religious belief is that everyone’s personal religious belief — or non-belief — is just that, personal. As Goethe said of himself, “I’m not Christian. I’m not un-Christian, or anti-Christian, just not Christian.” I say the same of me.

Anyway, most of the reaction to what I wrote yesterday seemed to come from people who didn’t get the point, and I feel that, as a writer, that’s on me. I wasn’t writing about the Bible. I was writing about politicians using a snippet from a longer (and very different) religious story to influence people’s thoughts and create enmity. There’s no ethics there.

8 thoughts on “The Intricate Polemics of Our Times…

  1. I relate to Goethe…and you…and the universe. All that means to some people is I’m going to hell and will burn for eternity, which kind of makes my point.

    • No kidding… And I wasn’t even talking about religion. As for sex? Wow. I dunno if I’ve ever tried to write about that so I really appreciate the warning. 😀

  2. I just think we need to care about people. I remember hearing ‘imagine’ for the first time and thinking that fit with my ideas. I have no idea about the reality of any religion so I just try and do my best…

  3. Re: learning the same lesson over and over – I sometimes hope that movement is helical, not merely circular, so we’re going somewhere when we learn it again. Re: belief – people seem to have trouble grasping what you put so simply; that not believing something is not the antithesis of believing it. Non-belief is not belief in the opposite. Ursula K. LeGuin put it as “They say here ‘all roads lead to Mishnory.’ To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the Mishnory road. To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road.” Ursula K. LeGuin The Left Hand of Darkness. (1929-2018)

    • Something I decided not to write is that just because a thing isn’t factually true (like Noah living to be 800 years but Methuselah lived longer, you gotta’ give him that) doesn’t mean it lacks metaphorical truth. I had a H’Mong wall hanging, embroidered by H’mong refugees that depicted their creation story. At one point the world was destroyed by flood. The remaining two people (brother and sister) had to repopulate the world themselves. They did it through a kind of magic. An old H’Mong woman told me the story when I bought it the hanging. There were other great stories on that thing, too, including one of a woman being raped by a tiger dressed up as her husband. She defeated him by throwing red chili sauce in his eyes. Well? That’s fine with me. The flood is probably factually true. How various populations regenerated from it? I’m sure there’s not just ONE story there.

    • I see more similarities than differences in religions, too. As for the friend? I imagine we’re still friends, but I know something about her now I wish I didn’t. I hate when that happens.

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