Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An Open Letter to a Dear Sicilian Friend

First of all—Carmelo! Good to hear from you. How the hell are you? I recall still, with great fondness, climbing Etna with you while on my honeymoon, and scrambling up rocks and ash to that volcanic cave you took us to, still hot from Etna’s last eruption but cool enough to enter. I remember, in the darkness, running my fingers along the rough surface and hearing the resonance of it like a thousand tiny bells.

For me, at least, that moment was religious. In the language of one of my favorite theologians, I sensed in that moment intimations of the Infinite in the finite.

And so I want to reflect for a bit on your unexpected comment on my last post. I was originally going to just add my own comment, but then I thought, why not a kind of “open letter” to my Sicilian friend so far away? Somehow, it seems more fitting.

Your portrait of religion is clearly true for much that goes by the name of “religion” in history and today. The Marxist critique of religion wouldn’t have attracted the following it did were there not a pervasive reality that is precisely as Marx describes it: an ideological tool shaped by the privileged classes to preserve their privilege, invoking gods of the imagination for the purpose of brainwashing the masses, redirecting their attention away from the injustices they endure.

I am hardly unaware of this reality. In fact, much of my career has been devoted to fighting it for all I’m worth. To that extent, I have something in common with Richard Dawkins and the other “new atheists.” The difference lies in the fact that my horror at the evils of religion is motivated in large measure by a deep affinity for this precious thing I find buried underneath all the garbage.

You call religion something “extremely dangerous” that “must be rejected,” with no room for “middle ground.” In an important sense, I agree. The thing you describe is extremely dangerous. It must be rejected. There can be no middle ground. This thing you describe must be unequivocally opposed, because this thing you describe is crushing the soul of religion. I love religion too much to give this evil thing any quarter at all.

My point, of course, is that there are fundamentally different phenomena that go by the name “religion.” In the real world, they are often bound up together. You have identified what you see as dangerous. It is like poisonous trash that must be thrown away. But let us not also throw in the trash the child who has been poisoned by it.

This is the point I want to really convey: it isn’t all poisonous trash. Much that goes by the name of religion fits the Marxist description. But not all of it. The portrait of religion that I’ve been trying to paint—which you call beautiful but anomalous—is not something I’m inventing. It’s an attempt to capture something that I’ve experienced—in private moments of spiritual reflection, in diverse religious communities I’ve participated in, and vicariously in religious movements I’ve studied.

It is something I see at work in Martin Luther King’s religiously-inspired civil rights movement, in which an oppressed people were moved to stand up against injustice, to say no to oppression, and to do so in a way that had a real prospect of building bridges and healing wounds. It’s something I find in the writings of liberation theologians, who invoke religious ideas not to perpetuate the institutional structures that oppress the masses, but to critique them and work for their dismantling.

It is something I have encountered in Quaker meetings, in which worship is the silent meditation of equals without a priest or religious leader. It is something I encountered during the Wednesday chapel services at Pacific Lutheran University when I was on the faculty there—services rich in beauty, shaped by the intellectually informed homilies of faculty members, and guided by a deep commitment to social justice. It is something I have experienced at a small, rural Mennonite Church in upstate New York during the foot-washing ritual in which everyone expressed their commitment to humble service towards humanity by washing each others’ feet.

It is something I saw in the eyes of PLU’s former chaplain, Dan Erlander, when he spoke of his gentle work guiding and inspiring students towards a deeper commitment to justice and peace. It is something I felt when I was descending Stromboli at dawn, skating down the ash in the way that you taught me to do, and seeing the sun break over the Mediterranean.

In many ways, the religion I am talking about is the antithesis of the religion you (rightly) abhor. And the religion you abhor is all the more horrific because of what it so often twists and corrupts and crushes underfoot, what I call the “germ of true religion.” At heart this germ is a feeling, the feeling that Schleiermacher called “the intuition of the Infinite in the finite,” a feeling swelling with hope, with transformative promise, and with the energy to make us better than we thought we could be. And it feels to me, as it did to Martin Luther King, Jr., as if it’s a connection with the deepest reality of all. That’s part of what gives the feeling its power.

I could treat that feeling as mere delusion. It might be nothing but a biochemical reaction in my brain, brought on by various environmental stimuli. It might be the effect of altitude or the power of suggestion. Maybe my attunement to aesthetic impressions is just a side-effect of evolutionary forces. Maybe this mere side-effect is triggering neurological excitement in certain parts of my brain when I’m standing in a hot dark cave and hearing the resonance of nature’s bells. And that’s all it is. No deeper meaning. No fleeting connection with something transcendent.

But if I believed that, then the feeling would lose its resonance. It would lose the sense that it’s about something fundamental in the universe. And so it would gradually fade away within me.

I could make that choice, but I would be emptier for it. For me, religion is about living in the hope that, despite the possibility of error, this religious feeling (what Schleiermacher named “piety”) is not just a by-product of neural misfirings in the brain, but an encounter with something beautiful and true.

In the complex mess of phenomena that go by the name of “religion” in this world, this religious feeling I’m talking about remains an element, even if it is an element so often twisted by inflexible dogmas, so often suppressed by religious authorities who see it as a threat to their privilege—in brief, so often buried under heaps of garbage.

But what I want to shout from the rooftops (or from the pages of a book, or from a blog site) is this: The fact that “true religion” is only a germ, and that it is so often buried under heaps of garbage, shouldn’t lead us to condemn it along with the garbage. We do more good for ourselves and the world when we strive to dig the germ out from under the garbage, when we identify those conditions that interfere with the germ’s sprouting and those conditions which nurture it, when we celebrate it where it is found by clearing away the things that stifle its growth.

This message probably has more resonance with those who have experienced the germ that I’m talking about than it does among those who haven’t. For me, one of the greatest tragedies of the proliferation of religion as you’ve described it is exactly this: it so obscures the germ of true religion that many people never experience it at all. And this is true even among those who faithfully attend religious services all the days of their life.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Eric,
    let me tell you how deeply I appreciate your decision to initiate this public letter to a friend. This was probably the uncoffessed reason for my comment at your post. Of course the moment I spent with you on Etna is very dear to me too. I was really happy to have taken you and Tanya inside that cave during your trip to Sicily. I still remember the moment and the joyful experience that was for both of you. Needless to say, I am ready to take you, Tanya, the children and...the dog for any future volcanic experience you will decide to try.

    I totally agree with your religious point. It is very similar to my own “weltanschauung”. I surely understand that it is not just a private experience. It cannot be. I understand in particular your words "But if I believed that, then the feeling would lose its resonance. It would lose the sense that it’s about something fundamental in the universe. And so it would gradually fade away within me." I might also tell you the sense of religious belonging has been familiar to me. I can recall it in Tripoli, when I saw Muslim children, sitting in a circle, praying inside a Christian church transformed in a mosque. Or, in a remote village above the Andean cordillera, where, at dawn, Luigi (going to become father Luigi), took me in the cold of a small mountain cemetery to celebrate the ritual blessing for a woman who died a week before. I see the religiosity of the oppressed against the oppressors and the faith of Martin Luther king is certainly not the faith in a far God but the faith in the sense of justice and freedom of a closer people. However, my experience, in a country totally dominated by the Catholic Church, is that the religion is merely a political tool.

    Now, the very nature of this tool is the systematic use of lies. And, as Churchill said, a good lie is that one that has a bit of truth in it. The Roman Catholic message is full of good proposals, mystic beliefs, miracles of saints, and so on. Once an interviewed bishop said that the catholic religion is like an artichoke. Leaf after leaf you get to the heart of it and realize that is just made of …leaves. With this respect it is really hard to let fly a beautiful and sound religious sense as yours. It would be immediately used by the official church and bent for their political purposes. Historically, the first Christians were just a movement and fostered the best qualities of religious being. But as soon as they took up the political power they fostered bigotry and became the worst persecutors of other religious beliefs.

    This is to tell that it does not exist one religion that is absolutely good. It is just matter of proportions. When a simple idea is expressed and accepted by a collective number of people it becomes ideology and the realization of this idea is political. This has got to do with any of the fruits of human brain: religion, science, and economy. Only in last example we ready are to accept the political way to purporting the ideas. In the other two examples we see a sort of blasphemy, a misuse of the ideas. I do not thing that the error be in the way we use the idea. I instead believe that the idea can be wrong. Example: you quoted Marx. Well, when I was an adolescent the Soviet Union was still there, and leftist people used to say. The ideas of Marx and Lenin were right, but their use in Russia and other countries in the world is wrong. That, to me, was a miserable point. If you cannot realize an idea, the idea is wrong. So we can all see a deep sense of beauty in the world and this is the very best of the entire business of life. But sharing this sense as it was the Truth. I am not that sure.

    Going back to the bus story, I think that the expression God probably does not exist does not persuade me. I am an atheist NOT because God probably does not exist, but because the idea of God (no matter if he/she/it exists or not), is politically wrong. This idea is a justification for most of the immoral deeds throughout human history.

    Well my dear Eric I think I have abused of your patience by now.
    Hope to talk you soon