Nothing To Eat

Some stories are unsettling to the point of spirituality.  That’s my impression of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  My wife wanted my opinion of it and when she used the adjective “Kafkaesque” I knew I had to comply.  The comparison is eerie in that Franz Kafka essentially starved to death because no way could be found to feed him with his underlying medical condition.  The Vegetarian shifts focus in its three parts, but the protagonist, Yeong-hye, is a young woman who finds her life run by other people in her family after she decides to become a vegetarian (in actual fact, a vegan).  Basing her decision on disturbing dreams she has, those in her Korean culture cannot accept vegetarianism and attempt, by various forms of coercion, to change her decision.  Throughout the account, Yeong-hye becomes silent—we’re never given her point of view—but those around her can’t accept her decision.

This is a challenging book to read, given my own personal history, but after scratching my head a bit when I finished it I came to reflect on this spiritual side of it.  My own vegetarianism was an ethical decision.  I realize that I can’t and shouldn’t impose my ethics on others, but I’ve not had much resistance from others (apart from colleagues who occasionally make reservations at eateries with no hint of the concept).  Likewise, I became a vegan a few years back based on further reflection of an ethical kind.  This is actually a spiritual practice.  I don’t often express it in those terms, but clearly it is.  In the novel when Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law tries to direct her life, he takes her to a Buddhist restaurant because he knows nowhere else to find vegetarian offerings.

Yeong-hye believes herself to be becoming a plant, and that leads to the next logical step in this progression of thinking.  Eating is, or at least can be, a spiritual exercise.  Many religions advocate fasts of various durations to derive the benefits to the soul.  Daily life is a matter of routine for many, often based around our culturally driven mandate of three meals a day.  I’m not alone at working through lunch while trying to get more done at my job.  By the final meal of the day I find myself exhausted.  It’s about more than food.  This strange little book has put me into a reverie about the ethics of eating.  I don’t know if Han Kang is a vegetarian or not, but she does understand the soul of one.

Diverse Colors

After a warm snap, we’re not at peak color here in New Jersey. Some trees have changed, yes, and leaves have begun to fall, but green prevails. While on a walk with my wife—a luxury only available on weekends with my commuting schedule—I spotted a bit of red amid the leaves on a local stream. Litter, and not just the leaf kind, is a bit of a problem in Jersey, but this splotch of red seemed intentional. It was taller than it was wide. It was standing in the middle of a shallow brook. Its placement looked intentional. What couldn’t be discerned from the bank is just what this was. It might be a Buddha. It might be Ganesh. It does seem, no matter how it’s reasoned out, to be religious.

Archaeologists often find objects with no known utility. If an artifact has no practical function such an object is generally deemed religious. For much of human history, before the madness of capitalism, people owned only the necessities. Life was hard and lifespans were short. Accumulating stuff as an end in itself was a luxury only for kings and priests and the relatively few merchants in urban settings. An object found from that time, then, with no known function, must somehow be religious. An object of cultic devotion. Those of us trained in the history of religions would sometimes laugh at this predisposition. Religion is the basket for anything that can’t be otherwise explained. So it seemed with this red statue—it was clearly human-made—standing in the stream. We were walking by a ritual site, perhaps. Maybe it was just a joke.

Then I recalled Ganesh Chaturthi, the ritual submersion of Lord Ganesh that transpired in late August this year. It is a numinously charged season, this descent into autumn. My Jewish friends have just celebrated a new year. Pagans made proper observation of the equinox. Preparations, at least of the commercial kind, are well underway for Halloween. They are all colors. Although spring’s first buds are welcome after a monochromatic winter, soon we transition into the green of summer. We miss the benefits of many colors. At moments like this on the banks of a brook with yellow and brown highlighting the green that remains on the trees, I’m again reminded how wonderful diversity truly is. I am in the presence of a god. It may not be my deity, but I’m not threatened by the difference. Nature is a patient master for those willing to attend to the lessons.

World Stories

worldofstoriesAlthough I’ve not formally studied it, Buddhism has long been part of my thought process. Like Thomas Merton—and this may be the only point of comparison between us—I find little difference between the contemplative worlds of Buddhism and Christianity. Mindfulness knows no denominations. I suspect David R. Loy’s book The World Is Made of Stories would cause anxiety for some. Those not comfortable, for example, with paradox. Or those who believe that only the literal is meaningful. Separated by the vast land mass of Asia, eastern and western ways of thinking about the world—telling their stories about the world—diverged widely in antiquity. There was a kind of “rediscovery” of south and east Asian thought in the late nineteenth century western hemisphere. Since then occasional famous explorers such as the Beatles, or professional practitioners such as the Dalai Lama, have brought Buddhism’s ideas to the mainstream, but because they coexist well with Christianity there has been no cultural reason to displace them.

I found Loy’s world compelling. All is narrative. That’s the way human brains work. If you’re reading this right now, you’re following my narrative. If you’re not really paying attention, another narrative has gripped you. Science is a narrative just as religion is. It is the way we think. The internal monologue. Consciousness itself. Stories. People will follow a story quite naturally, which is one of the reasons it’s such a shame so few people read for pleasure. We can watch our stories (what is a sporting event but a narrative playing out before a fan’s eyes?) and many people do. The written story often, however, takes us deeper.

Contemplation is an endangered species. Although I found the enforced quiet days at Nashotah House (such as Ash Wednesday) to be an onerous rule, I would arrive home with little to say in any case. The world of busyness that we’ve made our business can choke the meditative spirit. Although some workplaces offer yoga sessions (themselves based on Hindu spirituality) they hardly encourage meditating at your desk. It seems the natural enemy of productivity when, in reality, it increases it immensely. Who doesn’t work better after a vacation? The business world often presents the religious life as one of indulgent non-productivity. I remember being made to feel stupid asking for one Good Friday off while working my first full time job in retail. When cash transactions grew to be too much I’d find a church on my lunch hour and just sit. Now I only find time to read Buddhist books on the bus on the way to work. Look deep enough and there’s a story in that.

Growing Up

WakingUpI am in two minds about Sam Harris’s Waking Up. Literally. I haven’t read Harris since The End of Faith, and I have to admit that I found Waking Up to be a very engaging book. I can’t agree with everything Harris writes—that’s an occupational hazard of acquiring advanced degrees—but to have a scientist, an atheist no less, praise spirituality felt incredibly genuine. Spiritual experiences happen. I’ve had a few doozies over the years. I’ve also read a number of scientists who tell me they’re all an illusion. Harris admits that consciousness is a mystery. His use of “mind” instead of “brain” won me over from the beginning. I discovered that the atheist can also be a seeker. Dogmatism, of whatever stripe, is the enemy.

Harris has considerable experience meditating. This is no activity for posers or wimps. It is, despite minimal physical demands, hard work. Throughout the book we get the sense that Buddhism is among the least objectionable religions, when divested of its myths. I do wonder, however, if demythologized Christianity was ever given a fair chance. From my own experience, some of the selflessness advocated by Harris can be found in taking aspects of Christianity seriously. I understand, I think, Harris’s objections to religion. It can, and does, lead to horrors both obvious and subtle. Yet, every once in a perhaps great while, it does offer redemption. Meditation, for example, has its roots in religious practice. It is this that Harris calls spirituality. And it is good.

A Guide to Spirituality without Religion is an apt subtitle for this brutally honest and open book. Harris’s knowledge as a neuroscientist endows his ideas with great authority. He opines, and he is not alone, that meditation demonstrates that “I” is only an illusion. This loss of self will haunt me for some time. For decades I is all I seem to have. Still, I am pleased to find an open-minded scientist on this same path I tread. Raised to be both spiritual and religious set the trajectory of my otherwise logic-driven life. You can’t go back and change all that, but you can grow up. To read of Harris’s spiritual experiences in the geography of great spiritual masters as well as in the laboratory instill in this reader a profound hope. Whether or not this reader is merely an illusion. There may be morning after this long night, after all.

June Bugs

On my way to work yesterday, I came upon an overturned June bug clawing at the air, trying to regain its feet.  I’m always in a hurry getting to or from work, but I decided to stop, offering the insect a leaf to grip, and turning it back over.  I knew, as I spied birds flying overhead, that its chances weren’t good.  In the course of nature, insects are radically overproduced because so many get eaten.  In my apartment they can even be a source of sudden terror when they find their way inside.  I knew the June bug was probably nearing the end of its short time on the earth, but as I held out that leaf to it, I knew that in the act of struggling we were one.  That sounds terribly Buddhist of me, I know.  Insects and humans share, on the most basic level, the desire to survive.  Who likes to feel vulnerable—soft, unprotected underbelly exposed to the air?  Defenseless and helpless?  Certainly not this poor beetle.

Photo credit: Patrick Coin, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Patrick Coin, Wikimedia Commons

Stepping off the bus in New York City, I began my daily power walk to work.  The bus had arrived a few minutes late, and my anxiety level about clocking in works as if it’s on steroids.  I have to buzz past the interesting things happening in the city, the people who merit a second look, the architecture that has an unexpected amount of detail, only to be lost in the overwhelming number of buildings.  Big buildings as numerous as bugs on a summer morning.  Then I saw a box pulled up on a low sill outside some swank bank.  I often need boxes at work, and I can’t help stopping to appreciate how this unbroken expanse of paperboard would be useful.  Then I noticed the feet sticking out the end.  There was life in this box, not so different from the beetle I’d stopped to help an hour and a half ago, in its exoskeleton, grasping for some kind of salvation.

I arrived at work agitated. I had been able to help the beetle, but what could I do for the sleeping human being in his box? I had no money in my pocket, and even a twenty would stay the exposed, raw human on the city street for no more than a few hours. To care for a person takes commitment, long-term willingness to make sure that those who fall on their backs are set again on their feet, given the resources, the opportunities they need to get along in a world where those circling above are far more dangerous than the birds in my neighborhood. I looked at my calendar. June is nearly over. The June bugs will soon disappear. And yet I couldn’t erase the image from my mind. How much relief seemed to show on that inexpressive June bug face when it could finally crawl away from the center of the sidewalk. Something was terribly wrong here. And a man was sleeping in a box just two blocks away. In the act of struggling we are one.

Fleeting Meaning

Just a year before I had been unceremoniously dismissed from a fourteen-year teaching job at Nashotah House, devastating everything I thought I knew. I’d found a temporary job at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh and the head of the department encouraged us to go see the mandala that some Buddhist monks were constructing in Oshkosh one weekend. My family came up and we breathlessly watched as the orange-draped, shaven monks meticulously tapped brightly colored sand into an intricate pattern of incredible beauty. My daughter, quite young at the time, wondered what they would do with it when they were done. We’d been told, in the department, that the sand would be safely flushed into a local waterway, as Buddhism teaches about the transitory nature of life. My daughter was upset at the thought of such a nice piece of art being destroyed. But that’s part of the point of a mandala. As the Buddhists say, too many people concentrate on the hand pointing at the moon rather than on the moon itself.

Photo credit: Kamal Ratna Tuladhar, WikiCommons

Photo credit: Kamal Ratna Tuladhar, WikiCommons

I’m no expert in Buddhism. It is a complex way of thinking, and, like many religious systems, it is not unified into one particular thought-structure. Nevertheless, one of the main teachings of Buddhism is that life is, pardon the crass translation, suffering. We experience desire and we will continue to experience desire until we die. Then we’re reborn to experience desire all over again. Those who are enlightened may break out of this system into Nirvana, or a kind of non-existence where desire can no longer afflict us. There is an appeal to this way of thinking in a universe that science tell us will eventually burn out so that we’re all just a bunch of cinders in infinite, but expanding space. Almost Buddhist in its conceptualization, actually.

So when this morning’s New Jersey Star-Ledger had a front-page, below-the-fold, story of a mandala incident in Jersey City, I had to read. This entire past week, three monks have worked on a mandala at City Hall in Jersey City, for up to ten hours a day. Having watched this work, I know it can be backbreaking, and it is incredibly meticulous. Yesterday, after four days of work, a three-year old, while his mother was distracted, jumped on and ruined the mandala. A mayor’s aide, horrified, had to show the monks what had happened. A mandala is all about the transitory nature of life. Its fleeting moments are, after all, suddenly swept away. Despite the drama, the monks repaired the mandala and one of them quipped that perhaps the child’s action had underscored the lesson the mandala was intended to teach. Indeed. Many religions recognize that children know something about life that most adults simply forget. It’s the moon that’s important, not the hand.

The Plague

Plagues&Peoples Sitting on the bus next to some guy with a consumptive cough may not be the best place to read Plagues and Peoples. But William H. McNeill’s book is considered a kind of modern classic, and since the Middle Ages have been on my mind, I persisted anyway. I did wrap my scarf around my face, though. Plagues and Peoples isn’t just the story of the Black Death, however. It is a sweeping account of pandemic and endemic outbreaks and how they form recognizable patterns with human populations. Perhaps the most striking aspect of McNeill’s study is how determinative plagues have been for many decisive aspects of human history, including religious ones. Indeed, religion keeps cropping up in the book. One reason is because of the roles religions play in human suffering—to be more precise, I should say in trying to alleviate human suffering. (Yes, some religions definitely cause it as well, but that’s a story for another time.) McNeill even suggests that fear of disease might have led to the parting of the ways between Swiss and German Reformers, playing a role in the divergence of what would become the Presbyterian and Lutheran flavors of Protestantism. The spread of some religions was facilitated by the ravages of disease.

During the period of the spread of the Plague, however, McNeill notes that those cultures attended by Christian and Buddhist institutions managed to fare better than irreligious, or, perhaps more accurately, folk-religion ones. Once people figured out Plague was contagious, they sensibly kept away from the sick, but the moral teachings of Christianity and Buddhism compelled the religious to tend to the ill, with the result that more people in those religious traditions survived. That’s not a universal declaration on McNeill’s part, but it is a fact worth bearing in mind. The risk to self paid off when more individuals cared for each other rather than just heading for the hills when the Black Death came along. On the other hand, religions frequently insist on behavior that spreads disease as well. The great pilgrimages to Mecca or the Ganges often brought great crowds together where disease could quickly spread. The passing of the peace in some churches is more like the passing of the plague.

In ancient, pagan times, disease had its own deities. In ancient Ugarit, Resheph, the archer, was also the god of pestilence. Pestilence frequently accompanied the horrors of warfare, and even Apollo opens the Trojan War by firing his arrows at the Greek troops. Gods are the source of disease. One of the ancient truisms, which may not be taken as true today, is that the force that wounds is also the force that heals. Instead of ignoring Resheph, you pray to him, make offerings to him. He can slay, but he can also heal. In the monotheistic and even non-theistic traditions McNeill mentions, the focus shifted to the care of those suffering rather than the offering of sacrifice to unhearing gods. Even the Romans were impressed by Christian care for one another. Of course, that was well before Obamacare offered the hope of medical treatment for those cut off from lucrative employment. The Christian response now, it seems, is to complain about others taking advantage of my surplus cash made over to a program to prevent illness in one’s fellow citizens. Take the bus to work, you’ll see what I mean.

Atomic Girls

GirlsofAtomicCityRay Bradbury. Ray Harryhausen. Radioactive dinosaur loose in Manhattan. What’s not to like? I was inspired to watch The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms again for a single line, where Dr. Nesbitt informs the marksman his grenade has “the only isotope of its kind this side of Oak Ridge.” You see, I had just finished reading Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. Atomic City, in this context, is Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a city built almost overnight with one objective: to produce uranium for the atomic bomb, then under development. The employees, many of them women, were not told the nature of their work and were not allowed to speak about the little they knew, putting many strains on marriages and human relationships. It is a captivating story, especially since Kiernan doesn’t pull any punches—the facility was in a segregated south, women scientists were belittled to their faces, and the end result was thousands of people incinerated in Japan. It is like the end of Eden, the loss of humanity’s innocence.

Growing up in the 1960s, I had heard of Oak Ridge. I knew it had something to do with nuclear stuff, but my understanding only went as far as the planetary model of the nucleus of an atom. I feared nuclear war. The height of that fear in the 1950s may have passed, but I was born just a month before the Cuban Missile Crisis began and all through the Reagan era that veiled threat of total, mutual annihilation hung heavily in the air. The religious had claimed God had created all this, but human hubris threatened to erase it all. On the eve of a friend’s wedding I sat across the Susquehanna River, eyeing Three Mile Island for the first time. Just six years earlier even those of us hundreds of miles to the northwest wondered if we would succumb to its radioactive glow. The power of the atom, as Kiernan demonstrates, was considered to be the basic power of the universe. And it was not divine.

When the war was over, a symbol of peace was erected at Oak Ridge. The International Friendship Bell was challenged as recently as 1998 by a local claiming that ringing the bell endorsed Buddhism, and it was therefore a religious symbol that had no business in a public place. For those who believe, ringing the bell is a form of Buddhist prayer. For others, it is a sign of goodwill between nations that have put their differences to rest. It is easy, sixty years after the release of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, to laugh smugly at Harryhausen’s famed stop-motion animation and the incessant worry about atomic fallout. But near the beginning of the movie, George Ritchie says of the atomic blast they’ve been monitoring, “You know, every time one of those things goes off, I feel as if I was helping to write the first chapter of a new Genesis.” Indeed, at least as far as chapter three. With the dawn of the atomic age, we had outgrown our need for the final chapters of Revelation as well.

Dirty Laundry

Wirathu may not be a household name, although Time magazine devoted an article to his teachings last week. The media has become fascinated with religiously motivated violence of late, although such violence is nothing new. Capitalizing on the fact that many of us in the western hemisphere see Buddhism as a religion of peace, Hannah Beech’s article, “The Face of Buddhist Terror,” reveals the growing conflict between some Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar. The article took me back to my seminary days where, in a class in systematic theology, our professor was extolling the virtues of Buddhism as a religion of peace as opposed to Christianity with its history of warfare. Not denying that history, I raised my hand and asked how Christians then had come to know Jesus as the Prince of Peace. And Muslims, as any student of religion learns, also value peace. The ideals of most religions promote peace. The problem is that the practitioners of religions are humans.


Like our chimpanzee cousins, we humans distrust those of other tribes. In one of the more disturbing aspects of chimpanzee research, encounters between especially a male isolated from his troop and another family group often end badly. Biology has programmed us to keep valued resources for ourselves. It’s as if nature knows there are limits to her bounty, and in order to survive and thrive, some will need to starve. Or be killed. Critics of religion—and there are many who are quite vocal—often overlook the aspect of religions that call for the reversal of our natural tendencies. Yes, I’m selfish. As a biological creature, I’m concerned that I get enough to eat, and have sufficient space. I want to stockpile money so that I may retire (unlikely to happen in reality), and spend my final years in peace and relative comfort. Yet, my religious upbringing has left the door open for others. What about those with even less than me? My empathy reaches out for them. Don’t they deserve what I deserve?

The problem is always at the friction point where belief systems rub passed each other like immense tectonic plates. The Buddhists of Myanmar say they just want to be left alone. The Muslims of Myanmar say they just want to survive. Their religions are pressure points building along fault lines. Still, I suspect that there are other sources of tension and violence in Myanmar, besides religion. I know there are in American society. In fact, most everyday violence, I suspect, has nothing to do with religion. Violence is part of human nature. Religion, at its best, urges us to fight this compelling biological message of self-preservation at any cost. Religious violence is a very real cause for concern, but to get to the root of the problem we must look past religion to biology. And sometimes—just sometimes—religion turns off the flame beneath the simmering pot.

Continental Religion

In the course of my duties as an editor of religious studies, I was pondering the origins of the world’s major religions. Now, agreeing on what the major religions are is an exercise fraught with political incorrectness. What does “major” mean, after all? In any case, when we count in terms of numbers, there are more Christians, at the moment, than any other single religion. They are followed by Muslims and Hindus. So far there is little upon which to disagree, at least according to self-professed affiliations. Buddhists are usually counted as the next largest group, followed by Sikhs. When religionists mention “the big five,” however, they usually mean Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. There are likely far more followers of traditional Chinese folk religion, perhaps mixed with Confucianism and Taoism, than most accountings record—such beliefs aren’t neatly categorized. Jains make up a sizable population, and Shinto is often classed in with all those religions of the far east. Many of the more modern religions, such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, sprang from Christianity, and so can safely be classed as a form of that faith.

What occurred to me that day was that all the major religions of the present world began in Asia. Judaism and Christianity, with all their numerous progeny, started in Israel or Palestine. Islam, as we all know, began in Arabia. Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism all have their origins in India, the big winner for the seed-bed of religions. Traditional Chinese religions and Shinto trace themselves to the far east. Yes, there are indigenous religions throughout the world. Native American and African religions are not to be discounted, yet they never quite attain the level of public awareness to be qualified as “major” religions. In this spiritual accounting, “major” has nothing to do with importance. For the religions with the largest followings we must turn our eyes to the one-stop continent, Asia.

Where major religions begin

Where major religions begin

Considering this, the obvious question is why. Why Asia? Civilization itself began in Asia, and one of the marks of a civilized society, at least until the day of the New Atheists, has been religion. Religion may be abused, as might any human innovation, but it has also been a harbinger of a more civil world. Not only fear of the divine, but also a sense of gratitude toward whatever forces might be greater than humanity, allowing us to survive for another season, or through another storm. Even in the world of science, religion has been a motivator. Gregor Mendel, the scientist who gave us genetics, was a monk experimenting in a monastery. Sir Isaac Newton was an occultist. Francis Collins is an evangelical Christian. Religion is at least as old as civilization. Its forms may be morphing, but, I suspect something our Asian forebears knew: religion will never truly go away.

Fracking Insane

Do yourself a favor. Watch this video:

I have spent most of my lifetime living the fantasy of the helpless victim. Raised in a faith that insisted I really deserve Hell, and that if I manage to escape it will literally be a miracle, I guess I just internalized it. That kind of “Christian” thinking gets reflected and refracted through the lens of experience, and soon I was reading everything in its light. My parents’ divorce? Deserved. That move at the vulnerable early teen years? Inevitable. The verbal abuse of an overly stressed step-father? It should’ve been worse. Add to that the numerous rejections after professions of true love, and being fired from two jobs for no discernible cause—you start to get the picture. So when I learn that fracking is going on all around me, it seems like this is the fate of the perpetually sinful. Destroy the planet. Do you think you deserve better?

Life-denying religions walk a very thin line. When, like Siddhartha Gautama or Rishabha, the denial is a decision made after serious, personal reflection, this may be called enlightenment. When it is cast at you by a non-negotiable, self-despising cleric freely dispensing divine damnation to those incapable of much reflection, it is quite another beast. Children, although possessing freer minds, are easily impressed by authoritative adults. If that adult talks to God, you’d better sit up at the table and listen. So it is that generations are taught that “God” gave humans—let’s be literal here—man dominion over the earth. Pillage and plunder are part of the fracking package. If it’s down here below heaven, God wants you to use it up. After all, the sign on the door says “Back in Five Minutes.” (Dated 33 C.E.)

In a moment of weakness, I must confess (and I am told by religious experts that it is good for the soul), a few weekends ago I found Jesse Ventura’s Conspiracy Theory on YouTube. It was like eating Lays; you can’t stop at one. By the end of the afternoon, besides a nasty headache, I had a noggin full of improbable scenarios, courtesy of Jesse, “the Body,” Politic. Although a good night’s sleep at the rationality of another unapocalyptic dawn washed away his most outlandish claims, fracking is more frightening than a conspiracy. It is legal, it effects everyone who lives on earth where it is being done, and its record speaks for itself. I’m not proud of having wasted a few hours on humanzees and Bilderbergers reducing the world population to 500 million. But I am afraid that, if left to its own devices, however, “dominion over the earth” may be more than even the literalists bargained for.

Yes, that looks like a good idea...

Yes, that looks like a good idea…

Bridge over Troubled

ReligionThe fundamental question of what counts as religion remains elusive. I read Robert Crawford’s What is Religion? hoping to find out. Crawford begins with the admirable assertion that in a pluralistic world all religions must learn to get along. Unfortunately, learning hasn’t always been one of religion’s strong suits. And we still don’t even know what religion is. As becomes clear within minutes of starting the book, consensus will be a stranger in this room. Nevertheless Crawford plows on, hoping against hope that comparison will reveal conformity. Religions aren’t really team players in that way.

Crawford keeps his focus on the “big six”: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Although these faiths contain the lion’s share of numbers, they in no way corner the market on religion. I wonder if Crawford’s net is really large enough. When trying to define religion, cutting corners gets you into trouble every time. No matter how we count it, religion is more than a matter of belief and broader than prescribed rituals. It must take seriously the attempts of even small knots of seekers in its preternatural accounting. Crawford sometimes gets bogged down in the details. Science plays a key role in his discussion but then the scope shifts to Christianity, a religion with more than its share of scientific troubles. Islam, for a while anyway, led the world in scientific thinking. What of Sikhs and science?

The more I read of What is Religion?, the more I got the feeling that all of these pieces don’t go to the same puzzle. Religions develop out of historical circumstances and needs. They, with a few exceptions, are not consciously devised by a bunch of eggheads shut up in ivory towers. Religions develop from people in difficult situations, whether physical or psychological. Think about it. If the Bible is to be believed Judaism grew out of slavery in Egypt (either that or Abraham’s childlessness). Christianity out of Roman oppression. Islam from Muhammad’s conviction that polytheism didn’t add up. Hinduism’s old enough to have lost its origins in deep antiquity, but Buddhism is clearly a reaction to pervasive suffering. Sikhism tried to steer between the clashes of Hinduism and Islam. We could go on, but I don’t wish to try your patience. I’m not suggesting I’ve finally done the impossible and defined religion. In fact, I may be suggesting the opposite. Religion encompasses many ways of being in the world. Crawford maybe got a start on the discussion, but it will go on as long as people have troubles.

Buy Their Fruits

A lot of things get thrust at you in Midtown Manhattan. Many of them are religious. As I was out on my lunch break, a Buddhist monk walked up to me on Second Avenue. He thrust out a pretty token that looked like those skinny cards that used to come in with Sugar Daddies. I get a lot of things held out at me, and since I can imagine how dispiriting it must be to have people ignore you all day long, I have taught myself to take their chit as a matter of reflex. The monk looked pleased. We were outside 815, the headquarters of the Episcopal Church in the United States. I reached out my hand and he said “Buddha peace.” That was nicer than most of what I’d heard from the people who worked inside the church to which I’d dedicated years of my life. Without a beat my Buddhist friend continued, “temple donation.” I had to wave him off with a smile. Religions, no matter how placid, are out to earn a buck.

In the neighborhood of my office lurks a psychic named Sharon. I wouldn’t know Sharon if I ran into her, but I suppose the reverse wouldn’t be true. Actually, I have no way of knowing if she’s really psychic or not. She has guys. These guys hang out on the four corners of my block and hand out fliers for Sharon’s psychic readings. The guys with the leaflets aren’t psychic, I take it, because a walk around the block, on which I recognize each and every one of them, always lands me back in the office with a pocket full of psi. I see that Sharon is a third generation psychic and that she is adept at foreseeing negative energy. I would advise her not to walk past 815. If I bring in my slips of paper I get five dollars off a reading. I don’t know how much Sharon charges, but I do know that I don’t need anyone to foresee negativity in my life. I’ve got a hard enough time dealing with it when I don’t see it. And I save five bucks each time.

I sometimes wonder, as I walk past 815 Second Avenue, if anyone in there knows how badly one of their faithful was hurt by priests and bishops who had the blessing of the church. No one from the central office ever consoled or tried to comfort a person whose career had just been lifted off the rails and flung off the cliff by the machinations of some of their own. Even now those who go in and out the doors as I stand there have no idea what was done to a lonely guy on the street. In the name of the church. I think of the hollow sound of coin ringing in the coffers. I think of Judas trying to return his thirty pieces of silver. I think of money lenders’ tables being overturned. I think of Buddha peace. One hand holds out a medallion for me. The other is palm up, waiting for a return on the sacred investment.

you shall know them

you shall know them

Spirituality Sampler

ManSeeksGodSometimes you read a book and wonder if somehow the author got into your head and fished around for material. Although I’m not Jewish, at least not that I know of, I found Eric Weiner’s Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine to be uncannily familiar at points. Not that I’ve ever been a journalist, nor have I had more than a few hundred people read anything I’ve written, but somehow I just couldn’t shake the underlying connectivity. For those of you unfortunate enough not to have read it, Man Seeks God is Weiner’s spiritual journey through various religions, seeking his God. Born culturally Jewish, Weiner never really resonated with the religious aspect until the last chapter of the book. In between, however, he shows a true pioneer spirit and tries diverse faiths, some of which are not for the fainthearted. As fits the postmodern period, he’s an authentic, intentional spiritual shopper. And he provides many laughs along the way.

Such a book must be difficult to write. There’s a lot of baring of the soul, and even a little baring of the body, at times. Weiner begins with Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Yes, it’s based on love. He then travels to Nepal to pursue Buddhist meditation, followed by a stint with the Franciscans in the Bronx. The only one of the “big five” he doesn’t sample is Hinduism. That might have thrown a speed-bump into his ending, though, to be fair. He makes no claims of comprehensiveness. At this point the story takes a turn toward decidedly exotic selections in the cafe of spirituality. I couldn’t read his account of the Raëlians without snorting aloud once or twice on the bus. Taoism takes Weiner to China and into a distinctly more philosophical frame of mind. He explores Wicca and Shamanism, which may be more closely related than he supposes, before coming home to Kabbalah, the mystical branch of Judaism.

Spiritual seeking is as mandatory as breathing for some people. Eric Weiner is one of those teetering on the edge of active exploration and the ability to shut out the questions, if only temporarily. Reading his confessions, it’s clear that he’s a rational, intelligent man. He made it through decades without really feeling the need for religion. When the ineffable pressed itself onto him, however, he turned to the mystical traditions. I was warned, in conservative Grove City College’s religion department, to be very careful of mysticism. The professor was dry-eyed serious as he said that seeking direct experience of God would generally lead to heresy. So there it was, in plain sight. Doctrine has precedence over the truth. Long ago someone smarter than us figured it all out. Our job? Just follow their path. I have a feeling that Weiner, having had some unexplained experiences of his own, might disagree. Sometimes you have to take out a personal ad in the spiritual scandal-sheets to get an idea what the divine really is.

Five Century Hypothesis

More than likely it is simply an oddity of history, but roughly every five hundred years a new major religion appears.  The newcomers sometimes grow into a serious concern for conservatives in the older traditions, but at other times they are simply ignored until the two (or more) come into inevitable contact.  Peering far back into history, the roots of the earliest religions of lasting durability are sometimes lost.  For a very rough starting point, we can consider Hinduism.  With roots going back to about 1500 BCE in the “Pre-Classical” era of the religion, Hinduism developed independently of the monotheistic traditions that would appear in the western half of Asia.  Although some would credit Judaism with equal (or even greater) antiquity, we get an idea that some of the basic thought that would coalesce into Judaism seems to have, very roughly, begun around 1000 BCE.  About five centuries later, Buddhism appeared.  At the turn of the era, Christianity had emerged from Judaism.  About five centuries later, Islam appeared.  Countless other religions, of course, existed concurrently with these early exemplars, but each of these has grown into a major world religion. 

Around about 1000 of the Common Era, Christianity began to fragment.  The first major, official split was between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Christianity’s penchant for fragmentation would eventually lead to Protestantism—a religious form quite distinct in many ways from traditional Christianity—and that happened roughly five centuries later.  The most obvious split took place around 1500 with the Reformation, but it was also around that time that Sikhism appeared.  The new religions of the common era often involve irreconcilable differences within an established religion. In the western world we tend to overlook Sikhism, but in sheer numbers it is one of the largest religious traditions. And of course, there are many, many others.

As with any over-simplified scheme that tries to make sense of history, I am certain that no historian will be convinced. To me it seems obvious. Once every five centuries or so, some new religion will be born and will flourish. Perhaps it is already among us. We are about due. Like the evolution of new species, some new religions are poorly adapted to survival: one thinks of Branch Davidians or Heaven’s Gate, or Jonestown. Others, however, quietly thrive until someone looks around and says, “Where did Mormonism come from anyway?” Some will argue that it is just another sect of Christianity. Those who study its theology will realize that its conceptual world is vastly different. But anyone with a long enough calendar can see that it began about five centuries after Sikhism and the Protestant Reformation occurred. And anyone with two cents can sense its enormous bankroll—no surer sign of a religion’s viability can be offered.