Thursday, March 01, 2012

Lent: the chicken or the egg

Another thing we talked about in that Jane Austen class is the impossibility in our era of being sincere.  If you're aware of being sincere, you automatically aren't; and if you are truly being what once would have been called "sincere," it has a tendency in our postmodern world to come across as naïveté, a lack of understanding of what reality is like.  It seems sweet and maybe a little bit stupid.
Which is how I feel about that last post.  I don't think sincerity works too well when talking about religious issues, at least not for me.  Because there are so many ways that sincere religious belief can be used to manipulate, coerce, manage, and otherwise accomplish Bad Things.  Once you're aware of that, it becomes almost impossible to talk about what you believe and have it mean anything.

So why the hell am I writing these posts, and isn't that a good question.  But I am.  So today's topic is how you know what you believe ('you' being not you, gentle reader, but some mysterious average person out there).  Judeo-Christians and Muslims are "people of the book," although the book they're people of varies-- Christians rely on their Bible, Jews on the Tanakh and the Talmud, Muslims on the Koran/Qur'an-- and I'm not Jewish or Muslim, so forgive me if I didn't get that precisely right.  In those belief systems, especially among the conservatives, in order to define what you believe, you refer back to The Book.

Which leads to vigorous debate over the precise nature of The Book-- who wrote the text(s) and how did they know what to write?  were they divinely inspired, or writing out of their own experience? were they eyewitnesses of the events they recorded?  have the texts been edited, and if so, should we try to sift through that editing back to some shadowy "original" that pre-existed the current text?  how should the text(s) be translated? and that's just getting started.  You could go on and on, and if that stuff interests you, years of study await you.  It's a huge field.

I find it fascinating in small doses, but almost completely unrelated to what happens when I sit down and read a sacred text.  The veracity of it, the actual "factual" fidelity to some historical event, is irrelevant.  I wrote a series of posts about this a few years ago (they are here, if you want them in order, start at the bottom and read "up"), so I'm not going to belabor the point at the moment.

I learned one way of reading sacred texts when I took a (secular) university course in "The Bible as Literature" a few years ago.  The professor encouraged us to read the stories in the Bible as if they were literally stories, with God and Moses, or David and Bathsheba, or Jesus and the Disciples, as characters who exist only in the text. It's an entirely different way of reading (compared to what I was raised with).  Take a story (or series of stories) like the Israelites wandering around in the wilderness for 40 years.  We always read God in those stories as being, you know, GOD.  A pre-existing Divine Being who was the same as the "God" we sang hymns to at church, pledged allegiance to, and sang about in "God Bless America."  But if God in those passages is just another character in the story, one that has temper tantrums and gets his feelings hurt, the stories read quite a bit differently.  They're a lot more entertaining to read that way, for one thing.

Ack.  I keep getting further and further away from the point I wanted to make when I sat down to type.  Which is that I think the way I was raised to think about my beliefs is the opposite of what makes sense.  I was taught to take some external standard (the Bible, a sermon, the instructions of my parents) and match my beliefs up to that standard.  What I've come to believe is that the opposite makes more sense:  you figure out what you believe, and then find a way to think about it that makes sense.  No, that's not exactly it.  how to say this???

OK.  Take that last post.  The end of it turned out to be something I learned about accepting love, feeling loved.  The text-- the story of the rich young ruler--was a vehicle that gave me a new insight into that.  But it wouldn't have to be a text from the Bible that led to the insight.  It could be Pema Chodron, or watching Finding Nemo, or observing a friend cradle her toddler.  Heck, sometimes I think that's why I enjoy romance novels-- I  tend to define myself as not lovable, and reading a romance novel allows me to vicariously experience the feeling of being loved, breaking down that resistance to feeling loved.

I bet this isn't making the slightest bit of sense, because I can't figure out exactly what I'm trying to say, either.  It's entirely possible that this whole dang post has been just another way of saying the same thing that I said in the one on cherry-picking.  Eclectic belief systems, part 2.  *feels somewhat dejected*  I don't think I made it to the place I was trying to go.  Let me know if you have any idea, and maybe I'll try again another day.


  1. First of all, I'm all distracted because my comment from yesterday disappeared. :(

    Okay, I also can't be objective because I think "cherry picking" is an ideal and lovely way to live our lives,

    and I completely get hung up with folks who believe in their "Book" as something that is factual. So, maybe not the most helpful person for you this time.

    With that in mind, I also have a problem with the "sincere" issue. Maybe we don't go by the same definition, because I believe one CAN be genuinely sincere, with love and honesty in thier heart, without being ignorant of the world.

    But, like you, this is just my take on crap that catches my eye. Our opinions are valuable, as are we.

    1. Well, I agree with you (about sincerity). Of course you can still be sincere. But I think it's hard to be ... authentic? when talking about religion, because it's such a complex topic and everyone has such a knot of ideas and opinions about it, it is such a fraught topic. But you're right, of course you can still be sincere, when sincere means that you're acting without an agenda. Is that what sincere means? Maybe not. Maybe I should have started this out trying define what sincere means. Except I'm already confused enough. ha.

  2. I read this with interest.

    I think that you're right, inspiration and acknowledgment and ideas about the Divine -- however you define that -- can be found anywhere. That's kind of what drives all those Chicken Soup for the Soul books, really, right? It can be from Finding Nemo or holding a baby or sitting at someone's deathbed.

    But I also think that you need some sort of foundation or *something* to hang all those things on. So that it isn't just random "things I like" all jumbled together -- like a Pinterest board.

    The tradition I belong to (Lutheran/Episcopalian, mainline Protestant) uses three bases: Scripture (but not as literal truth), tradition (what has the Church thought over time), and reason (ability to think for yourself). Together, those three help to define and delineate beliefs and form that foundation.

    I think the problem with some groups is that they focus so much on ONE of those that their foundation becomes a little skewed from outside perspectives.

    Your internal beliefs should match the outside, but I guess I feel like it isn't a one way thing. It's a two-way conversation. Your internal ideas shape your beliefs and, over time, that shapes tradition, which in turn shapes other experiences and other internal ideas.

    I don't know if that helps at all. But it's interesting to think about!

    1. Hi, Buffra-- that does make sense. I attended an Episcopal church for several years before we moved here, and I remember the rector referring to those three things as being similar to a 3-legged stool. If you leave one out, or over-emphasize one, the stool wobbles, or even falls apart. At the time, I was freshly out of my Evangelical past, and that was like a drink of water in the desert-- in Evangelicalism, you're only allowed to use the Bible, and not just the Bible in general but a particular interpretation of the Bible. So acknowledging that there is any other source of spiritual knowledge was a huge step forward.

      But I'm waffling on whether or not I agree about needing some sort of foundation to hang things on. Probably. But rather than needing a belief system defined by some group, I wonder if that foundation can be yourself. Hmmm. Thinking about this is getting at the heart of what I couldn't get this post to come out right. I will probably post again next week.

      Welcome. Come back and comment some more.

  3. Agree! Once again. Surprise surprise.

    I once had a moving "religious experience" watching an episode of Chasing Amy.

    If "God is love" then *he* isn't going to be found in any one religion, or in religion at all, or just in people who have spiritual beliefs.