It’s striking how similar world religions can be. Granted, the concept of “religion” as a separate sphere of life is a western one, but throughout the world thinkers have drawn similar conclusions. Until the World’s Congress of Religions of 1893 in Chicago, however, most Americans knew only of the monotheistic traditions. Jews and Muslims had been in this country almost as long as Christians. Nobody paid much mind to the indigenous religions of the original occupants. In any case, in 1893 other religions—those of eastern Asia—entered American consciousness. Buddhism and Hinduism were exotic, if pagan, belief systems. There wasn’t much of a conceptual foundation upon which to build, however, so early on people tended to focus on the differences between them rather than the commonalities.
For me, I first really learned about such traditions in a World Religions course in college. I’d never heard of Daoism (or Taoism) before. The Dao, or “way,” pervades ancient Chinese religious thought. There’s a sense of flow to it—one of the main ideas is not to resist the way, but to bring yourself in line with it. Doing so helps you to realize that you need not be rich to be happy. Sufficiency is, well, sufficient. Meanwhile in the west, Christianity mostly bought into greedy consumerism. Our happiness is measured by what we have. And having, we want more. I’ve been reading about Daoism recently, and it occurs to me perhaps there are some accidental Daoists here in the west. This reading made me think of my father.
I can’t speak much for who he was, since I barely knew him. I only saw him once as an adult, before he died. For a brief moment he took me into his apartment. He owned practically nothing. A television, a few things to sit on. A magazine or two. That was about it. Did he want to acquire more? I didn’t know him well enough to ask. He was raised as a Christian, and I do not know what his religious beliefs were, if any. Thinking back to that experience, however, was the result of reading about Daoism. Being content with little. Not all of us are cut out for monastic life, but my visits to such communities have always left me with the sense that having less is more than enough. I know I’m over-simplifying here. I’m not an expert on Daoism. I’m certainly not an expert on my father. I do believe, however, that things can weigh us down. And even Christianity, read in a certain light, agrees.
Posted in American Religion, Consciousness, Memoirs, Posts, Sects
Tagged Christianity, consumerism, Dao, Daoism, materialism, monasticism, World Religions, World’s Congress of Religions
Truth claims are integral to religions. No one would join a religion not declaring itself to be true. Some months ago, I posted about the store True Religion that had recently opened at our local mall. I’ve always found such branding odd—surely the store wasn’t proselytizing those who had religious commitments to buy its jeans. Or perhaps it was trying to lure in the increasing generation of nones. I have seldom felt any kinds of truth claims applied to my apparel. I buy clothes at reasonable prices and wear them until they are no longer fit to be seen in public. Even then I continue to wear them at home until they simply grow too holey to be of utility. I seldom have clothes left in good enough shape to donate, and I’m only fashion-conscious in terms of a decade or two between stints of buying what’s on the bargain rack. Religions, of course, sometimes do dictate what it is appropriate to wear. Leviticus famously declares that fabrics of mixed fibers are an infraction. Perhaps True Religion carries only single fiber-fabrics? I guess I’ll never know.
Since our local mall has mostly clothing stores (few whimsical shops appear any more), I seldom go. There is an Apple store, and since our family has used exclusively Apple products since the 1980s, we do have to stop in from time to time. On my most recent trip, I noticed that True Religion, right across the corridor from Apple, had gone. “There’s no more true religion,” my daughter quipped. I couldn’t help but think about the implications of all this. Surely this was not the first religion to die. Disused churches have been converted into businesses for years, and some religions die out entirely rather than just fade away like an old pair of jeans. What is the message, however, when a claim of truth is made, only to be closed down by the exigencies of finance alone? Something disingenuous is going on here.
Religions not only make truth claims. They also convey a sense of promise. If you believe, you receive something in return. But what does it mean to believe? Driving home we passed the Elks Lodge. Once, when my daughter received a certificate of merit from the Elks, we were invited to an award ceremony there. The president of the lodge, doing a bit of proselytizing, mentioned that very little was required to join the Elks. “You do have to believe in God,” she said. How do you measure such a belief? Did she mean to say “you have to say that you believe in God”? The Elks are, after all, not a religion, but a community organization. Although True Religion is gone, the Elks, with their minimal commitment to faith, are still around. My clothes are perhaps a bit too worn to join the Elks, but what else is there to do when there is no more true religion?
One of the universals of many childhood lives is Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. If I were the financial sort, I would consider investing in it. As my daughter was moving into college, I noticed other worried-looking parents sitting by their unpacked cars, some with corporate-size boxes of Mac and Cheese shrink-wrapped and ready to tide a son or daughter through difficult times. It is a comfort food, a warm and welcoming friend. Some would say heavenly. Eventually, as adults, we learn to view processed foods with some introspection, moving toward the harsher, but healthier fresh varieties. Secretly, most of us would welcome the opportunity to eat like we did as kids when the consequences were unclear and the guilt was still a plucked apple away.
So at a college organizational fair, my daughter sent me a picture of savvy marketing. Christ the King Lutheran Church giving away boxes of childhood. When that warm, gooey, comforting sensation of childhood hits those whom society is suddenly telling they’re adults, they might have their thoughts turn to the Lutherans. Or the many other faith-based organizations eager to recruit among the young and newly independent. This, of course, is nothing new. Religions have long displayed their benefits to convince those with more earthy things on their minds. The evolution of religion is a fascinating study from the days of enforced loyalty despite belief up to the buyer’s market that religion represents today. How do you convince those who legitimately have a choice? What brand of religion is better than the others? Which is the tastiest variety?
The irony of appealing to the body to gain the commitment of the soul is one religions have had to adopt. There was a time when the way to heaven came through self-denial and spiritual discipline. Earning salvation was hard work. Now if we can get you into the pews on Sunday morning, preferably with your wallet, all is good. It is well with your soul, it is well. I feel for the modern, institutional religions. They were once a powerful force in society and by default people believed that they had a special line to God. Up to the 1950’s, even, this perception was especially strong. People learned, as people will, what they could get away with. Turns out, religion is optional. But eating is not. Not if you’re going to survive in this harsh world. And even if you don’t believe in heaven, we will always believe that in the kitchens of paradise they will be serving Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
Time to get Lent
Each year as spring struggles to overcome winter’s terminal chill, colorful flowers begin to burst from the earth to announce the rebirth of hope. So it is that bright purple signs have begun to spring up all over town announcing the joy that is Lent. Wait a moment – Lent and joy in the same sentence? The radiant signs read, “Lent: a good time to come home.” That’s not the Lent I remember. Having spent the longest decade of my life at a seminary that was frequently touted as “all Lent, all the time,” I suffered my share of the season. While I think I comprehend the tactic behind this attendance boosting campaign, I wonder if it isn’t leading with the chin.
Back when flowers were the first colorful signs of spring, when I was young, churches did not advertise. Stolid bastions of the truth, each and every one, they awaited sinners to come to their senses and select the correct avenue to the truth. If you missed, well, Hell never turned anyone away. Nowadays, however, we need advertising to convince us. In a consumerist heaven, we are deluged with choices. When the faithful dither, it must be time to advertise.
The first to admit personal bias, my experience of Lent has usually been dreary and unrelenting. A naturally quiet and self-critical individual, I don’t need a whole denomination on my back to force me to think about the faults I already castigate. The thought of the season makes me shudder – people who spend all the rest of the year looking out for number one are to emulate Jesus’ reflective 40 days in the wilderness to be like their savior, only to snap back to their old self-serving ways on Easter. Could be a recipe for collective schizophrenia. Temporary Christianity. Do we really need more occasions to be glum? My favorite part of Lent was always Mardi Gras; at least then we were working on something new to contemplate during the next 40 long, chilly days.