Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The difference between insights and answers--or extreme agnosticism

Solstice commented on my post On (re)becoming a Christian: "I'm not sure I follow what you mean by the difference between an insight and an answer they seem synonymous to me." I was referring to how participating in the liturgy at church and pondering symbols in the stories of Jesus helps create a mental space where insights, but not answers, can emerge. I also say on my About page: "I don't claim to have any answers, but perhaps the things I write may help to spark some insights." So let me explain the difference.

I think "insight" implies something like, "Yes, that seems right," such as, "This thought that popped into my mind while kneeling at the communion rail appears to be a sensible course of action," or "I can see some connections between this narrative and such-and-such area of my life that I want to improve." I should mention that I interpret pretty much all religious stories, whether they have a basis in history or not, as mythology, by which I mean high praise. I take the definition of myth given by Joseph Campbell, Karen Armstrong, Jean Shinoda Bolen and others: A myth is something that never happened, but yet is always happening. It may have begun as "just" a story, but it endured because it tells us something profoundly true about the human condition. Myths from all sorts of traditions have been a huge source of insight for me about myself and my life. (More about how to read a myth another day.)

To me, "answer" implies certainty, an assumption that cannot be questioned, a course that must be stayed. I am extremely uncomfortable with the level of certainty that the word "answer"  implies. Whatever I think I may know about God or about the course of my life or how I should interact in my relationships is always subject to change. I make guesses that I perceive as well-founded through a combination of reasoning and intuition but I. Do. Not. Know.

When it comes to God, "Yes, I think so." Regarding Christianity, "It's yielding positive emotional and spiritual results for me." But answers and certainty are something that I will never claim, not for myself, and certainly not for anyone else. I do not know, and I do not trust anyone who says they do know. I think that's a self-deception, and a very dangerous one.

Though, of course, I could be wrong.  ;-)

Friday, January 25, 2013

My new church is less sexist than my old church, but...

I shared an essay I wrote for Main Street Plaza called "Is sweetness next to Goddessliness?" on my Facebook page, where it generated some interesting comments. The essay discusses some of the sexism in Mormon culture, and one of my friends commented that unfortunately things weren't all that different in the non-Mormon world. I disagree, and I replied:

Patriarchy is not unique to Mormonism. The non-Mormon world is not perfect. There are still inequalities and conscious and subconscious tactics employed to keep women in their place, but there's a hell of a lot more breathing room out here than I ever experienced in the Church. Having experienced both worlds, I have to say unequivocally that yes, it's different.

My primary "out here" is as a student and an employee at a U.S. university with an anti-discrimination code that protects my right to be treated with respect, and affords me recourse if that right is violated. I do still encounter sexist attitudes from individuals from time to time, but overall, I have it pretty good in my secular "out here."

What about in my new church? Well... it's definitely better than what I came from. Women can be ordained, preach and celebrate the Mass. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church is a woman. Women routinely wear pants to church, with nary a death threat in sight. Many parishes, mine among them, offer services where the liturgy uses gender-neutral language. There are other efforts at making the language inclusive. I remember the first Sunday I attended the parish I belong to now. During one section of the Eucharistic prayer, I heard the priest behind the altar say, "Lord God of our Fathers and Mothers." I jerked my head up from the back pew. What? Did I just hear that? He continued, "God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel." My jaw dropped, breath involuntarily left my lungs, my eyes moistened a bit, and I know I muttered a vocalized, "Thank you," though I couldn't articulate in that instance for what I was giving thanks. It was an instinctive reaction. A vital part of myself was responding to validation and inclusion that I had never before received in a church. And no, naming the patriarchs' wives does not instantly rectify every inequality (what of the other women with whom the patriarchs fathered children, wives and otherwise?), but it's an acknowledgement that an inequality exists, which was more than I'd ever gotten before.

These are all excellent steps in the right direction. But they are not enough.

Here's the real rub: Until our religious services include feminine representations of the Divine, women will never truly be equal in our culture.

There's a beautiful line from Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees where August tells Lily, "Everyone needs a God who looks like them." Absolutely true, and women have been deprived of seeing themselves in images of the divine for centuries, but restoring feminine imagery to our liturgies is just as important for men as it is for women.

There's a great post over at Feministing suggesting that one factor that leads to rape is that many men do not easily empathize with women. Some men see women as objects rather than people partly because our culture gives them few opportunities to identify with women. Maya writes:

[W]omen are socialized to [empathize with the opposite gender] simply because it’s kinda required to live in a male-dominated culture. As I’ve written before, if you don’t learn to identify with the men who populate the movies you watch, the books you read, the media you consume, well, this is a pretty alienating world, to say the least. Men, on the other hand, are taught the opposite. As Jackson Katz wrote recently, "We socialize empathy out of boys all the time." And identifying with a girl? Well, that’s, like, actually the worst thing you could ever do.

Where could it possibly be more important to ask a man to relate to a woman than in our understanding of Divinity? Sometimes when I’m reading the Psalms, I’ll change the masculine pronouns to feminine and “the Lord” to “the Lady,” because, sure, I can do that. And that’s an empowering feeling to be able to do that for myself. But what would it be like to be able to relate to a God who looks like me at my actual, sanctioned house of worship, with the rest of my religious community? Sarah Sentilles quotes Roxann MtJoy’s criticism of sexist book marketing:
Somehow, no matter in what genre a woman understands herself to be writing, her words will often be packaged "for women" because the assumption is that "[b]ooks about women are supposedly for women, but books about men are for everyone."
Similarly, there seems to be an assumption that relating to feminine images of God is for women, while relating to masculine images of God is for everyone. I’ve heard men who say that they agree with the ideal of equality, but they’re uncomfortable with the term “feminist” and they suggest we instead use a word like “equalist.” Well, maybe in a few generations, but first we have to correct the imbalance that we’ve inherited. First we need a concerted effort to give visibility to women holding authority and roles traditionally held by men (including God!), and to women being valued for doing what they have traditionally done. We need an “in your face” approach to this kind of visibility until the idea of equality becomes normalized and is taken for granted within the culture. I think the gender-neutral service is a nice thing, but it does not escape my attention that at my parish, the gender-neutral language is relegated to the lower profile Wednesday evening Mass, while the traditional male Father God language remains the standard at the main Sunday morning Mass. Unless there is also a service that uses affirmatively feminine language, the gender-neutral service does not really create equality.

I think the lack of female imagery is less about our conscious beliefs about God than about our subconscious assumptions about humanity. Most theologians acknowledge that God is formless and therefore genderless, yet God is represented by a male Father, a male Son, and a Spirit who is also named as a "he" in the Nicene Creed. We do need forms. There are reasons why I am not a Unitarian, though so much of what UUs stand for lines up exactly with my own convictions. I need the metaphors, because I find the Thing Itself incomprehensible, and the Thing Itself is just as validly represented in female forms as male forms. I have said before that I am Christian, but not exclusively so. Polytheism may be an effective way to guard against idolatry; maintaing multiple images of God lessens the likelihood of becoming too attached to any one of those images, which are, after all, all graven, all the work of our own hands and minds.

Ascribe to the Lady, you gods,
   ascribe to the Lady glory and strength.

Ascribe to the Lady the glory due her Name;
   worship the Lady in the beauty of holiness.

The voice of the Lady is upon the waters;
the Goddess of glory thunders;
   The Lady is upon the mighty waters.

The voice of the Lady is a powerful voice;
   the voice of the Lady is a voice of splendor.

The voice of the Lady breaks the cedar trees;
   The Lady breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

She makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
   and Mount Hermon like a wild ox.

The voice of the Lady splits the flames of fire;
The voice of the Lady shakes the wilderness;
   The lady shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the Lady makes the oak trees writhe
   and strips the forests bare.

And in the temple of the Lady
   all are crying, "Glory!"

The Lady sites enthroned above the flood;
   the Lady sits enthroned as Queen for evermore.

The Lady shall give strength to her people;
   the Lady shall give her people the blessing of peace. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

What I mean when I say "God" January 2013

God, that's complicated!

This is partially adapted, though different from, something I wrote a couple of years ago. I included a date in the post title, because I expect my concept of God to change over time, and then another attempt at explanation will be in order. Multiple definitions of God are floating around out there, many of them absurd or worse. A friend had this Facebook status a while ago: "The God that many atheists think doesn't exist, doesn't exist." In retrospect, I think part of why I adopted the label "atheist" for a while was because I didn't want anyone thinking I believed in that kind of God. I've thrown out any notions of some sort of super powerful being, but I don't throw out the word "God," despite its anthropomorphic connotations, in part because I think it's too powerful of a word to let fundamentalists have a monopoly on it.

I think that what I call God is synonymous with names found in other traditions (Tao, Brahman, the Ultimate, Life Force, to name a few). The only honest thing I can say about what God is, is that I don't know. A metaphor I can think of is bread, like the manna that fell to the Israelites during their wandering in the wilderness following the exodus. Bread from heaven also makes me think of the encounter with God's presence in the Eucharist. "What is it?" the Israelistes ask when they find it. It's hard to describe what God is, but I know that it's sweet, that it sustains and nourishes me, but it doesn't keep. I have to trust that there will be more as needed. I have to continually make the effort to gather it, but as long as I make that effort, there is always enough. With repeated encounters, I more easily recognize it when I find it.

I think there is Something greater than ourselves, and that the mythologies and rituals that have evolved in the world's religions are gateways to understanding that Something. A friend of mine put it this way: Religion is a bridge, not a destination. People get caught up in the bridges, including anthropomorphic versions of God, and think that's It; they stay on the bridge instead of crossing it to where it's intended to get you. I think the anthropomorphic images are something we've attached to something much bigger and more complex, something we can't fully define. Joseph Campbell said, "God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought, even the categories of being and non-being." Metaphor is perhaps the only effective way to talk about God, which is part of why I love poetry so much.

And that is my concept of God, not summed up in three paragraphs. This concept guaranteed to not keep, at which time I will remake my God in an image that once again feels true.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Music: What is it good for?

Today in one of my classes we were discussing what music is for. Why do we have it? How did it develop? Which came first: speech or song?

I was reminded of the first episode of Michael Wood's The Story of India, which shows the ceremonial chants of Brahmins, which follow definite patterns, but don't resemble any existing  human language or music. What it most closely resembles is bird song, and anthropologists speculate that these chants have been passed down unchanged since before the time of human speech. (This series is on Netflix instant view, and is well worth the time.)

Perhaps in its beginning, music served some sort of rudimentary communicative purpose, like the mating calls of birds or other animals, but once we developed language, rather than jettisoning music, we developed music of increasing complexity and diversity. Why? What is it good for? It doesn't shelter or feed the body. Music no longer serves any adaptive survival purpose, yet it's an integral part of every human culture. For me, it's a vital part of who I am.

Other arts may have begun solely as survival mechanisms. Take language. Being able to communicate, "The mammoth is two hundred yards east of us. Let's separate and close in on it from either side," made us more efficient hunters. Why did language develop beyond what was necessary for survival, to poetry, plays and novels?

The need to create and partake in beauty seems to be universal, whether it's the beauty of various art forms, the beauty of the natural world, the beauty of loving relationships, though beauty doesn't aid in the mechanical processes of the body. Perhaps this continual pull toward beauty is evidence that we were meant to do more than survive.

Friday, January 11, 2013

On (re)becoming a Christian

I think every religion has its strengths and weaknesses. I don't think Jesus is the only "way." ("Way" to what exactly is a whole other discussion.) I don't think Christianity is a superior religion and I see plainly that it has its flaws. So why did I decide to become a Christian? Again?

Some say that as a Mormon, I wasn't a Christian, but I am of the opinion that self-given descriptions are the only ones that ultimately matter. I considered myself a Christian then. For several years, I did not consider myself Christian. Now once again, I do, though a very different kind of Christian. Though I'm active in a mainline Christian sect, many would still say that I'm not a "real" Christian, based on some of my beliefs, and lack thereof. I've seen this sort of superimposition of labels among skeptics too. "I'm an atheist." "Well, I think you're really an agnostic." And vice versa. I really dislike the tendency to tell other people what they are or aren't.

And I really dislike the tendency make belief the most important aspect of religion. Under my Religious Views on Facebook, I wrote: "I am a Christian, though not exclusively or uncritically so, and I'm much more about religious 'do's than religious views." In my last post I mentioned my epiphany in realizing that you're not supposed to take religion literally. Another important realization for me was that religion is so much more about practice than about belief. By that, I don't mean that how you live is more important than what you believe, though that's true too. I mean that taking part in the ritual aspects of religion offers more potential for transcendence and transformation than coaxing one's mind into intellectual assent.

I remember the first time I went to Catholic Mass. I was 19 years old and a Spanish major at ASU. I wanted to learn more about Catholicism, since it's such a big part of Hispanic culture, so I went to Mass with a classmate. And my reaction to all the sitting and standing and one-knee kneeling and crossing and reciting was, "What the heck is all this? And people say Mormons are weird. We might wear funny underwear, but at least we take our church services sitting down, thank you very much!" So much activity in a religious service was foreign to me. Though I later came to see the beauty in it, my initial opinion of it was simply "weird."

The religion that I'd known was so much about words and thoughts, reading the scriptures, going to religious classes, listening to talks, discussing scriptures and talks and doctrines, becoming competent in apologetics. All these cognitive exercises were about getting you to have the right beliefs. Having the correct views was an essential part of being a Mormon. The bishop even begins his interview in which he determines your worthiness to go to the temple with belief questions.

Nowadays, religion is so much more about practice to me than about belief. I think most any religion will do, really, but in order to get to the good stuff, you can't remain an observer simply learning about a religion. You have to get in there and do the religion. An imperfect analogy from the music world: a lot of opera music is truly beautiful, but you won't really get what opera is about unless you go and watch operas. Opera is meant to be seen, not just listened to. And religion is meant to be done, not believed. Part of my "why" for picking Christianity is because the communal ritual aspects of it are available. If there were a place where I could go take part in the rites of, say, the ancient Greek religion, I may well have picked that.

I love Firenze's divination lesson in chapter 27 of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It appears that the real value of divination for a centaur isn't in any of the "answers" or results, but in the practices themselves, burning leaves, looking to the stars for meaning, etc. And yet Firenze admonishes not to put too much stock in any answers gained by these methods. So why do it if it doesn't yield reliable answers? Because the point isn't to get answers; the value is in the doing. Similarly, liturgy isn't about funneling dogma into brains. It's about engaging in a rhythm that creates space for a different mode of consciousness where insights (not answers) can emerge.

While believing the narratives of a particular faith isn't critical, knowing those narratives is, which is another reason why I stayed within Christianity. The Episcopal Church is different enough from what I came from that I'm not constantly running into associations that remind me of the emotionally repressive place that I came from, but it's similar enough that I don't have to start from scratch to learn and become fluent in the faith. A linguistic analogy: I studied Spanish extensively, and so it took a lot less effort when I wanted to pick up French and Italian because of the similarities. If I wanted to learn Chinese or Korean, my prior studies in Spanish aren't going to help me much. If I wanted to really go into Buddhism or Hinduism, I could do it, and I think they're both valid and valuable paths, but it would take a lot more initial effort on my part, and not much of what I learned by being a practicing Mormon is going to transfer.

So what do I personally believe as a Christian? I believe Jesus of Nazareth was an actual person. As far as his status as the Son of God, I believe that bits of the light and love of God shine out through all of us, and that Jesus was a particularly luminous vessel for that light. I believe that the stories that we have about his life, many of which are probably based on actual events, offer insights (not answers) on how to live in harmony with God. "Christ" to me is synonymous with God, the Divine, Tao, Brahman, etc. As a carrier of that essence of the Divine, Jesus acquired that associated title of Christ. Making a commitment to follow Christ was more about committing myself to an ideal of love and grace than about being committed to any sort of personal deity. When I cross myself, the place where the cross intersects, at the upper part of my sternum, is the place in my body where I physically feel connected to God within me. It is where I carry my wisdom, my intuition, my deep place of knowing. Crossing myself is a kinesthetic activity that reminds me to always be loyal to that inner guidance, to my Self, and not to be swayed by what anyone else may wish to superimpose on me.

I don't believe in virgin birth or water into wine or a physical resurrection. I don't believe that Jesus is the only name under heaven by which we can be "saved." For some, this unbelief disqualifies me from being a Christian. But I am a Christian because I consider myself one. I'm aware that when people see me wearing a cross, many of them are making assumptions about what that does or doesn't mean. But I know what it means to me, and that is ultimately all that matters.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Time again to speak

A little over a year ago, I announced on my old blog that I was going to start a new blog, the main problem with my old blog being a title which I felt I'd outgrown. From time to time, the thought returned, I need to start blogging again, or, I wish I had a place to blog about this. But I’ve been a single parent to two young children and a graduate student, so extra time has been at a premium, and I wanted to come up with a good title for a new blog before I started it. The break has been good in many ways. Several issues that I've been pondering have been fermenting in my mind over the last year. It was probably best for a lot of that to take place out of the limelight, but it feels like time to start speaking aloud again.

Lack of time legitimately was part of why I stayed off the internet for so long, but there was another thought that kept me from returning: If I start blogging again, I'm going to have to go back to dealing with people telling me I don't know what I'm talking about. I'm as susceptible to error as anyone. But what I have always written about on my blog has been my own experience, a topic about which I am the only person qualified to write, and yet I still heard from total strangers who tried to insist that I was mistaken in what I wrote.

For example, a couple years ago I gave a talk at a seminar on campus about my experience growing up Mormon and then leaving the faith in my mid-twenties. A couple of priesthood leaders from the local ward showed up (for "damage control," as another attendee put it), and spent the post-talk discussion time trying to tell me that I had misrepresented my own past, that things had not happened the way I said they did. Nevermind that I was there and they weren't. I don't belong to the group that holds power in their culture, so my experience can be dismissed as invalid.

Or one time I posted this image:

and a reader said I was being "unfair," that such discrimination doesn't happen anymore. Well, it happened to me and I still deal with the fallout of messages I heard as a young girl, yet it is "unfair" of me to assert that patriarchy does in fact still exist.

I'd say about half of the comments I get are very thoughtful by which I mean "showing evidence of thinking," not (necessarily) "considerate of other people's feelings." These comments may or may not agree with what I've written. Either way is fine with me, as long as it's thoughtful. The other half of comments come from people who fall into one of the following categories: (1) People who think I've been deceived, as evidenced by the fact that I don't ascribe to their particular religion, (2) people who think I'm weak/stupid/immature/delusional because I still care about religion at all, (3) (male) people who call me ugly, dumb, slut, bitch, etc. because I have an opinion and I voice it in public, and the internet gives them the anonymity to make such comments without consequence. Almost invariably, the commenters in the third category also fall into one of the first two categories.

Let me address the first two categories, since it is partly from them I got the idea for the new blog title. I grew up in a fundamentalist religion. I'm not saying that all Mormons are fundamentalists, but the way Mormonism was practiced and taught to me by my parents and almost everyone I knew was very literal and black and white. We were the One True Church, and it was all or nothing with no room for questions or disagreement. I got to a point where I couldn't do that anymore and I left.

I explored various other traditions, but didn't know how to let go of that all-or-nothing approach. They all had good things to offer, but sooner or later, too, they all ran into their own brands of crazy, as I saw it. They all required a leap of faith across something illogical or improbable or esoteric, and I just couldn't do it.

It was around this time that I came across the writing of Richard Dawkins. I found myself nodding along as he delineated so many conclusions I had already come to on my own. I was starving for reason, and atheism made so much sense. There was so much relief in not trying to believe in anything anymore.

And yet... there was something missing. There had been good things about being a practicing religious person. It was great to be free of the emotional fettering, the legalistic minutiae, but I did indeed have significant spiritual experiences, even in the context of a religion that I now saw as deeply flawed, and despite atheist friends' insistence that I just needed to look at the stars or hang out with friends or get a hobby to fill that sense of "wonder" (which seemed such a trivializing way of describing what I was yearning for), I couldn't find a way to fill that void in the secular world.

I wanted a middle way, with both faith and reason. The real turning point in my journey was the realization a couple of years ago that you are not supposed to take anything literally! That might seem obvious to folks who grew up in more moderate faiths, but for me this was revolutionary. I started my former blog as an atheist. When I began writing that I was giving religion another look, people really wanted to know, "So what do you believe?" I tried my best to answer, though I wasn’t entirely sure myself, and I doubt my answers satisfied the questioners. My answer now would be, "What does it matter?" I don't say that to be obstinate or evasive, but really, what does it matter what or whether I believe? I don't go to church in search of "answers." I go for the way the rituals, symbols and narratives work on my psyche and teach me to live in a more fully human way. When I read scripture, I don't for one moment ask myself, "Do I think this actually happened?" because it’s completely irrelevant to me whether it did or not. What I care about is whether the text speaks to me in a way that has meaning for who I want to be and how I want to live.

Via media refers to Anglicanism being the best of both worlds between Protestantism and Catholicism. I have recently joined the Episcopal Church. More about how and why in the weeks ahead, but in summary, in the Episcopal Church I've found not only a middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism, but also a middle way between religious fundamentalism and hardline atheism.

I have a couple of reasons for wanting to start blogging again. First, just as it was once important to me to be “out” as an atheist to help break the stereotype of atheists being hedonistic, scary people, it’s now important to me to be “out” as a rational religious person, to give visibility to a kind of faith that doesn’t require the abdication of reason.

The second reason has to do with an essay a friend posted on Facebook a couple of months ago: “The Pen Is Mightier: Sexist responses to women writing about religion” by Sarah Sentilles. Her essay calls out sexism in the literary world, and she says, "I expect to be called whiny and strident and annoying and grating and hysterical and uninformed. I expect to be told I don't know what I'm talking about." Sentilles' naming of her experience helped me to recognize and name mine. I experienced sexism as a blogger. I expect to experience it again, and I expect to be told that I'm too sensitive and that I'm imagining it. That can wear on a person, but I’ve decided that the more terrifying alternative is to remain silent.

The last few weeks, I’ve been rereading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, which I first read five years ago, and which I still refer to as the book that changed my life. Kidd explains her reasons for writing her memoir in the introduction: “If women don’t tell our stories and utter our truths…who will?” Sentilles describes “memoir-writing as a powerful, intellectual, creative form of agency—a way to tell our own stories instead of accepting the story society might like to tell for and about us.” It’s important to me personally to tell my story, and I believe it’s important for other women (and men) to hear it. I do have plans for a book-length memoir someday. A blog is what I can do for now.

As far as my concern that returning to blogging would mean that I would have to go back to dealing with people telling me I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ve decided that no, I don’t. I’m going to be pickier about the comments I let through. If you don’t like my ideas, tell me why. Tell me your own. If you don’t like me, or if you don’t like the fact that I’m writing at all, I don’t care, and I don’t have time for you. I don’t claim to have authority to speak truths for anyone other than myself, but this blog is about my own experience, and I claim the sole right to name and write about that.