Monday, December 29, 2008

Faith, Love and Blue Volkswagens


When you’re thinking of buying a Volkswagen, you can’t leave the house without seeing one at every stoplight. I can’t seem to watch television without being clobbered over the head with religion.

Friday night I watched an HBO documentary about a self-ordained Catholic youth minister who has no theological training other than having attended mass, but he’s started a ministry to reach out to teenagers. He’s in his twenties and as I watched, I couldn’t help wondering if he was sincere, disturbed or if he was full of shit and looking for fame and fortune. I worried about the possibility that his odd message and rambunctious delivery might damage some of the psychologically brittle teenagers he regularly encountered.

Saturday I watched a movie starring Kate Winslet as an Australian who traveled to India and joined an Ashram. Her concerned family believed she’d been manipulated into joining a cult and hired an American de-programmer, played by Harvey Keitel to bring her back to her senses.

In our culture, we tend to give a nod to religions deemed acceptable and to vilify cults and sects, but if I look at all of them as if I’d just arrived on earth from another planet, there doesn’t appear to be much difference.

Last week I exchanged emails with the Episcopal priest who ministered to my mother when she was dying and who officiated at her funeral. It’s been 35 years since the last time I saw him and at the time, he was a 32 year old Ivy League graduate with long hair and a stole appliquéd with “peace” and “love” and doves. Saint Paul’s was an old granite gothic looking church and from where I stood at twelve, the average parishioner was about 80 years old. He’s written a couple of books and after reading one of them in a single day, I contacted him. He’s retired and nearing seventy now and to my surprise, his beliefs about God and the probability of an afterlife don’t seem to be too different from mine.

I didn’t anticipate such joy at discovering yet another soul who finds as much wonder and beauty in the natural world, but it makes me wonder about the billions of people who have a belief system and a faith that revolves around supernatural components that to the objective eye, just don’t seem rational.

Then there is Annie Dillard. Her book, Living by Fiction was among those I received as Christmas gifts this year and for two days I’ve been reading, brow scrunched up and bright yellow highlighter scratching nervously across the pages. Like The Maytrees, Living by Fiction taps into the core questions I have as a reader, a writer and a human being and it shines a beacon on new areas of thought about fiction and its meaning and purpose.

I started cataloguing the major world religions and belief systems in my head and I counted the charismatic leaders who have captured the hearts and minds of thousands, maybe even millions. David Koresh, Jim Jones, The Reverend Moon, Heaven’s Gate, the Dalai Lama, the Pope, Jerry Falwell, Wiccans and Pagans all attract people who need to believe in something beyond what they can see and feel and hear and taste. The list doesn’t stop with religion. As human animals we are moved to something akin to faith when charismatic political leaders appeal to us.

I wonder about love, the emotion I associate so closely with faith. It makes evolutionary sense that love, or the affection and sensation of fullness that we associate with it would be a part of human nature. All but the most damaged human beings have felt love, first for parents and siblings and later for potential mates and children. Most people feel love from time to time for close friends, although it’s a more fickle and evasive bond. Romantic love develops suddenly, intensely and sometimes painfully, the way I imagine perhaps a spiritual transformation or an epiphany might occur. We attach magical significance to these experiences. Over time it either disappears as quickly as it came or it matures into something more comfortable and sustainable. It’s only love and faith that cause us to be self-sacrificing with no real guarantee or even a requirement that our investment will be rewarded in the end.

What is it about life as it is that isn’t enough? Whether it’s the fantasies we impose on the people we love, willing them to be people they’re not or whether it’s an abiding belief that something beyond our mortal lives – a paradise complete with the souls of dead loved ones – awaits us, human beings are overwhelmingly forward looking. Some people argue that without the carrot of eternity, there would be no basis for moral behavior and chaos would ensue. I haven’t directly observed any difference in quality of life between those who profess to believe in the supernatural and those who don’t. Neither camp seems any happier or unhappier to me than the other. Neither camp appears to be more compassionate or generous or moral.

All emotion and human action at its base level can be explained by hormones and evolutionary survival of the fittest, although it’s still difficult for me to fathom how, in a world with such access to data and fact there is still so much blind acceptance without comprehension.

It’s easy for me to dismiss religion and belief when I consider the nonsensical nature of ritual, superstition and simple acceptance of dogma as truth, without the benefit of scrutiny or investigation. It's probably unfair that I base my dismissal on what I see in other people.

Open issues remain that my current satisfaction with appreciating the natural world for what it is can’t address. Neither can religion. The beginning of it all escapes explanation by science and any religion or philosophy I’ve encountered. It all goes back to the beginning of the universe, but we can’t imagine what came before that.

And yet, I wonder and I keep turning pages.


Charles Gramlich said...

I've come to the conclusion as I age that any religion that demeans or diminishes the natural world can't be correct.

Denis said...

I started to write a very serious viewpoint. But instead, I'll just repeat that - I always liked Blaney Colmore.

Patti said...

my faith defines almost everything i do (still working on that cussing thang, oh and that loving sarcasm thang), yet i respect your position. we each have our own experiences that shape us and some of those experiences spin us towards a faith in something higher than us, while others spin us away from a faith in anything other than what is here and now.

in my faith i know one true thing, love is above all else.

Günter said...


CindyLV said...

Hi Lisa,

Great post, as usual. I am currently studying to become Catholic. As a part of the RCIA program, we are taught a lot of the doctrine and beliefs of the Catholic church that many cradle-Catholics either do not know, or decide not pay any attention to. The basis of the church is two commandments: Love God and Love each other. Yes, there are 10 commandments, but those two sum up the basic beliefs.

In class, I've had discussions with our teachers about the differences between Protestants and Catholics, and other Christian sects. Differences between Christianity and other religions and pseudo-religions. What I DIDN'T find (that I expected to) was an INTOLERANCE of other beliefs.

The priests and teachers come right out and say that the Catholic belief system is not the be all and end all to salvation. I was surprised to hear this, because I've always been told that Catholics believe this. There are many misconceptions about the Catholic beliefs. When I'm finished with classes, I'll have the time (and the inclination) to take a comparative religions class at the university.

In general, I believe there are major differences between cults and religions (as I understand them). I know that each cult is different, but many similarities can be found. Some warning signs of cultic behavior include:

Isolation from friends/family.
Segregation to a new location.
Overwhelming love and acceptance (love bombing).
A single, self-declared authority figure everyone seems to accept without question.
Highly structured activities that limit independent action or thought.
Hypnosis (covertly or disguised).
Ethical guidelines that all must follow (but the leader appears to be exempt).
Public shaming or public confessing of sins.
Behavioral control (and thought/emotion control).
Sharp distinctions between "US" and "them".
Leaders claiming divine authority (unsubstantiated).
Criminal activity or use of weapons.
Slave labor (use of members to raise funds that line the pockets of the leader).

On the other hand, a legitimate religion (such as Catholicism), teaches the importance of loving each other, helping each other (not just other Catholics), private confession, forgiveness, fundraising for supporting charities, etc. And I've never seen any weapons used during mass, or heard plots to take over the Methodists down the street.

Yes, there are reams of documentation on the atrocities committed in the name of organized religion, and even the Catholic religion. For that I have no defense except to say that I don't believe God had anything to do with that. Priests are human beings and commit sins, too, unfortunately.

Humans have free will and if some nut declares that he's acting in the name of God and we must kill X, Y and Z in order to please God, I'm pretty sure that's not God talking. The Catholic church allows me the freedom to believe that. The cult on the other hand, does not.

End of speech. I'm off to RCIA class for another dose of indoctrination....

CindyLV said...

I forgot to mention your jazzy new look here. It's um....jazzy, and a little distracting. But then, I'm easily distracted.

Happy New Year!!


debra said...

Wow, Lisa. We were just talking about this stuff. Really----just. I'll write more after I've had a chance to digest it all

Lisa said...

Charles, That makes sense to me.

Denis, I only had the sense that I liked him (since I was a kid). Now that I'm old(er), I know I like him.

Patti, I wouldn't say that there is nothing higher than us. I think the natural world is pretty miraculous. And I can't disagree with you about love. It's probably the most powerful force I know.

G, Thanks for saying (o) :)

Cindy, Excellent! Converts are the most informed of all from what I've seen. I'm curious to know what led you to Catholicism, not only out of all Christian faiths, but of all faiths in the world. As an Episcopalian raised around a majority of Catholics (including my grandfather and my father's family), I'm relatively familiar with Catholicism -- more than I am with the other Protestant religions.

Great comprehensive list, although I think it's often hard to determine what's a cult and what's not. I've seen a number of denominations of Christian churches who look a lot like this to me, particularly the more evangelical and fundamentalist varieties.

Trust me, I don't blame the sins of individual Catholics on Catholicism. In the end, we're all responsible for our own actions.

I'll take a look for a less distracting background :)

Debra, Volkswagens are everywhere!

Usman said...

Just yesterday, I was trying to think of analogies between religion and war. Then again the communists under Lenin or Mao did the same.
It comes down to ideologies.

This is where Cindy's list and the distinction between religion and cult makes all the difference. The Islamic radical groups or the members I have had opportunity to meet with, show all the tendencies that Cindy has listed.

Elizabeth said...

This is a beautifully written piece and I will be thinking about all of your points for days. What came up first for me was Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God," a memoir that she wrote and performed several years ago. I think the tapes are available and she might even have a book version of it. Anyway, it was moving and poignant and very, very funny. I spoke a little bit about my "faith" in an essay that was published in the magazine "Spirituality and Health" in May/June. Anyway, thanks for the provocative post.

Lisa said...

Usman, The analogies between religion and war -- it's fascinating. And for wars going back for all recorded history, I doubt any of us could find many where one or both sides didn't claim righteousness in the name of a deity. I suppose there are some enormous similarities between true believers in religions and true believers in political ideologies. I don't know that charismatic communists, fascists or nationalists have any less sway over their devotees than either living or dead prophets do. A big part of my fascination with this subject is the human need to submit to something larger, whether divine or secular...

Elizabeth, I've seen that Julia Sweeney show! Now I'm watching her on TedTalk, since you reminded me of it. I would love to read the piece you wrote. Googling now...and thank you!

Melissa Marsh said...

Thought-provoking post, Lisa. I am a Christian and I see a lot wrong with the Christian church in this day and age that have led more people away from it than toward it.

For me, my simple belief is that I cannot look at a snowflake, nor look at how incredibly amazing the human body is, nor look at the wondrous beauty of nature and believe that it all happened by chance. No way, no how, not to me.
Just looking at nature makes God absolutely real to me.

LarramieG said...

So that's what you've been up to, Lisa! :) And the one thing I know is that I believe in your infinite curiosity and remarkable insight into everything you discover.

Sustenance Scout said...

I'm with Larramie, Lisa...another fascinating post and discussion that reveals what compells you to read, write, and reach out to others. Love the story about the priest and the fact you were able to locate and speak with him. What a gift.

I'm a cradle Catholic who's mom was a convert from the Episcopalian church. And yes she could argue the finer points of Catholic doctrine with just about anybody. But our family itself includes members of other faiths.

I was relieved to read Cindy's note about her priests' and instructors' open approach. If only all people could accept the existence of others' belief systems without feeling threatened, superior, or compelled to correct.

I'm not sure if I've told you my maternal granmother died when my mom was twelve. Hugs, K.

Lisa said...

Melissa, It's funny but I don't really make a direct connection between specific religions and churches and the idea of God. Churches and religion seem too many steps removed from the idea to me, so I don't equate them. Now I am in awe of all that is around me and how and why all of us and the world are here is a mystery to me and I do attribute it all to something bigger than I can imagine. It's just the definition and interpretation of what "it" is that leaves me dissatisfied with any explanations I've run across.

Larramie, Yep -- just pondering the mysteries of the universe :)

Karen, Reconnecting with Blayney has been quite a gift, indeed.

One of the things that disturbs me most about religion is that generally people are born into it and therefore, whatever is taught is what is real to each person -- even those who fall away from it. It all seems pretty random to me. If I was born in Boston and brought up as a Catholic, I might have one set of certainties, but if I was born in Islamabad and brought up a Muslim, I'll have another and if I'm an orthodox Jew, it's another, and a Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, 7th Day Adventist, Baptist, Scientologist, Atheist...

When I think of the enormity of the universe and then the tininess of the parts of an atom, or I think of the millions of species of plants and animals that exist now or existed once and don't anymore and I think of all the people around the world who have lived and died -- I have to believe that if there is a God, he can't possibly be concerned about the things that religions and people are so wound up about. What people wear, eat, who they marry, what rituals we perform or prayers we seems awfully solipsistic to me to imagine that a force great enough to cause the entire universe is concerned with the mundane details we worry ourselves about. On the other hand, I think some religions and sects intentionally dumb the whole thing down to that level because it's far too complicated for us to understand much else.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I believe there cannot be a God, there is only us. Yet I pray to us. And for us.

Lisa said...

Patti, I think it's highly unlikely that there is a God and that there's us and there's everything else in the universe. We don't really treat each other particularly well and we definitely don't treat the planet very well either. In the end, nature is much bigger than mankind is and eventually, there will be another ice age and things will start all over again. I think a belief that the time we have on earth is all we get is a pretty good thing. It certainly makes me think about what I'm doing with that short season I've got and in a way, it lessens the struggle to continually try to change things. I can't say that I pray, but I can say that I have enormous love and compassion for my fellow living creatures -- human and animal.

steve said...

Lisa--My first car was a blue Volkswagen--a 1972 Fastback I bought in 1979.

This is what Peter Stephens would call a slow read. Very well written, but something that makes one think.

I have to believe that there's something beyond physical and chemical reactions--there is obviously a connection between the physical and metaphysical, but that there is something beyond the physical world. I sometimes think that what the psychologists call "oppositional defiance" has something to do with my spiritual life. Raised as an agnostic in the university community of fashionable unbelief, I rebelled by marrying a believer and eventually converting to a church in the Catholic tradition.

I've come to have a respect for ritual, as any Anglo-Catholic must. It's rarely nonsensical. Every part of say, the Eucharist, has symbolic meaning. Mixing wine and water, for instance, recalls the water of baptism and of the story that when Jesus was pierced with a spear, blood and water flowed from the wound. Even though it probably started with the practice of diluting the strong wine, it came to have significance beyond the practical.

P.S. Another one of my pet peeves--the use of "enormity" to mean something very large. It's correct, and has been used that way since the 18th century, but the original meaning of enormity as a moral outrage has been lost. there are lots of words that mean "something very big," but no good synonym for the primary meaning of enormity.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Beautiful piece, Lisa.

I think the difference between spirituality and religion is enormous. One is an inwardly-generated impulse that's probably different for everyone, and the other is a bureaucracy organized around an intangible. I always remember Mencken saying all great ideas begin as inspirations, decline into organizations, and end up as rackets.

I could junk the idea of God completely if it weren't for two things. First is beauty. There's just so much absolutely useless beauty at all levels of the physical and biological worlds. The Argument from Design is as old as Aristotle (at least) but it's still the only one of two I can't reject out of hand. The other is the enormous change that comes over something at the moment of death. It's what's missing when the animating spirit is gone that gives me pause.

Thanks for making me think.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf