Starting your own religion, I’m told, just takes patience. You may have to die before it gets off the ground, but if it’s a religion you’re starting you get to make the rules. Well, until somebody else starts interpreting what you wrote. I grew up thinking a religion had to be ancient to be real. There’s a certain comfort in untestablity—you can’t verify the facts, so you accept them. It took many years before it dawned on me that new religions rely on the same premises as old: someone has received the truth (at last!) and is willing to share it with the world. Followers emerge—true believers. And then they begin to change things. “The founder meant this,” they argue, and really they’re starting their own sub-branch of the religion.
Not everyone is convinced by this ancient religion paradigm. Zarathustra, for example, set out to create his own religion, according to tradition. Jesus, it seems, was trying to reform Judaism. The process never stops. A couple of weeks ago in New York City I saw an adherent of a New Religious Movement. This one had started in the 1930s. The man appeared a little older than me, so his life may well have overlapped with that of the founder, or they might’ve missed each other by a decade or two. Already, however, the religion had grown into its own entity, and it doesn’t seem to worry adherents that the truth was being revealed, for the first time, maybe in their lifetime. You have to start somewhere.
So, if I were to start a new religion, what would it be? For a variety of reasons I think I’d call it Moby. The connection with Melville is palpable, but that wouldn’t be the reason for the name. (Religions must have a sense of mystery, otherwise they can be analyzed until they look illogical.) Like Unitarian Universalists, I think the religion would be more about what you value than what you believe. Belief can be shifting sands. New information can lead to new results—this is one of the weaknesses of religions developed when the earth was still the center of the universe. Heaven is now outer space and Hell is earth’s iron core. Moby would avoid such a doctrinal morass by not having doctrine. It would need rituals and ceremonies, of course—no matter what Mr. Spock wannabes say, we need emotional engagement and ritual has the goods. All of this requires patience, because who has the time to develop a new religion when there are only two days in a weekend?
It was like that dream—you know, the one where you find a penny on the sidewalk, stoop down to pick it up, and discover that there are hundreds more of them. Maybe that’s the kind of thing those born in humble circumstances dream of, but we all recognize the draw of a windfall. People are pretty tight with their money in Manhattan, but it was early in the morning, still dark, and rainy when I saw it. A hundred dollar bill on the ground. Then I noticed more—a while bunch of them. When I reached down to pick one up, it came apart in my hand. Of course, it was a novelty replica of an actual piece of currency. When I walk through the garment district I often find great swatches of scrap cloth that have spilled out of designers’ trash bags. I’m tempted, I’ll confess, to pick them up and save them for future use. Nevertheless, this hundred dollar bill wasn’t what it appeared to be. Many things aren’t.
Religions around the world are predicated on the fact that what seems to be real isn’t. Even long before The Matrix came along. The idea that what occurs in our heads—or to use more conventional religious language, our hearts or souls—is truly real automatically takes us a step away from material reality. It’s not to say that this soggy, pulpy piece of paper in my hand has no existence, but it simply isn’t what it pretends to be. On mornings when the fates are all synched just so, I’ll look out the window of the bus from the helix and see Manhattan laid out in front of me like a picture postcard. “It’s not real,” I whisper to myself. Unlike the tourist in awe during a first visit to the city, I actually mean it. This concrete, glass, and steel world is not real. I’d feel a bit exposed suggesting such a thing on this blog had I not the biggest names in world religions behind me. One thing that they all seem to agree upon is that reality isn’t just what we experience in this corporeal vehicle that we currently call home.
Religion has been called the opium of the people. Marx wasn’t the first to suggest that the more needy among us were the driving force behind belief. Nevertheless, belief is present in all forms of thinking from extreme rationalism to naive acceptance of what your parents told you. The thing about religion is that it conscientiously advocates belief. It admits up front that it holds certain things to be true. One of those beliefs happens to be that things are not what they appear to be. Here in Manhattan we’re all so busy rushing around that who has the time to stop and think like that? I frequently walk past Holy Innocents church on my way to work. I may function, in this world, as an editor of biblical studies, but as I pass that edifice to a faith to which I don’t even belong, I feel the draw. Inside those doors—and I know this is true because I can sometimes hear the bells—a different reality awaits. Out here there may be hundreds of dollars scattered on the ground. When you look closer, however, you discover that they’re not what they appear to be.
They say ten city blocks are a mile. They also say the internet is fast. Putting these two theorems to the text, I’ve logged several foot-miles in Manhattan to find things that aren’t there. I don’t mind the exercise, but apparently the web can’t keep up with Midtown. I’ve been working in Manhattan for going on seven years now. I very seldom leave the office during the day, eating at my desk and trying to give the man his due. Once in a great while there’s something I’m either compelled to see, or that I must find for various reasons. Almost without fail, such lunchtime expeditions lead to frustration. I recently had to visit a business that shall remain nameless (conflict of interests, you see). According to Google Maps it was a mere ten blocks—a mile—from my office. At a brisk pace I could make it there, transact my business, and return to my cube all well within an hour. As I grew close, I got that sinking feeling I recognize now as internet ghosting. Nothing remotely like my goal was at this location.
I walked in and smiled at the man at the security desk. He was even older than me. “Ah, they used to be here,” he said, “but they left a long time ago. Long time ago.” Apologizing in advance, I asked if he had any idea where they might’ve gone. “I heard they moved across from Bryant Park, on 6th Avenue. But I heard they moved from there, too. You might try it, though.” Since this was roughly in the direction of my office from where I was, I decided to swing by. When I worked for Routledge I went by here every day, and I didn’t recall ever seeing this particular business there. Their security guard was equally as friendly. “I’m afraid there’s nothing like that here.” I had to return to work. When I got back to my office and googled their store locator, the website froze. This was truly unobtainable via the internet.
Some times you’ve just got to let your feet do the walking. Things aren’t always where the internet says they will be. I’ve come to realize that New York City is constantly changing. Buildings now stand where mere holes in the ground used to be when I began working here. Commuting in daily all these years is like time-lapse photography of a plant growing. Buildings emerge behind the green plywood walls, and next thing you know what used to be a synagogue is a new retail opportunity. It may not, however, be the business you’re looking for. Before spending your lunch hour walking a mile to get there, you might try calling first.