Looking In

There’s a real danger to the lifelong study of religion.  Learning to look at any tradition from the point of view of an observer will create a sense of being on the outside looking in.  I’m a member of a religious organization.  I occasionally consider pursuing ordination within it—this was my original sense of my calling in life—but I’m compelled to consider the phenomenon of being outside looking in.  When I was an Episcopalian (before the church showed its true colors in my particular case), I wrote a letter to my rector asking how I could get off of the church steps and be invited inside.  My rector wrote back with some insipid advice and was among those who voted, as a trustee, to oust me from my fourteen-year career at Nashotah House.  Outside again.

Studying the history of religions provides dangerous levels of insight.  Simple, mindless acceptance of teachings becomes impossible.  This isn’t arrogance, as any who know me can attest, but rather a form of hyper-awareness.  You can’t emerge from forty-plus years of reading about, and deeply pondering, religion unscathed.  Many, of course, dismiss any observations by those lacking the denominational seal of approval.  “If you knew what you were talking about,” so the reasoning goes, “you’d be a minister or a professor.”  So you speak from the sidelines at best.  Outside.  Even within my own group I have merely the role of “member,” lacking the official piece of paper from the seminary or other accrediting body that states I might know some things.

Of course, I have much yet to learn.  This religion thing is a tough nut to crack.  Were I younger and better paid I might consider undergoing college again to take a different path.  As it is, I’ve invested more than a half-century trying to get where I am, wherever that is.  I sit outside watching the birds.  They’re back pretty much in full force now.  They seem so certain about where they’re going.  How can you fly without a full level of commitment?  Earthbound, I muddle about with my head somewhere above the clouds I cannot reach.  I read about religious traditions unknown to me.  Often I find nuggets of great value in them.  Of course, I’m not clergy so you need not take my word for it.  I, after all, draw inspiration simply by sitting outside, always outside, and watching the birds. 


Time Saving

As we suffer through another pointless Daylight Saving Time, I’m thinking of rituals that have lost their meaning.  Life is full of them.  We do things because we’ve always done them this way and even when they become harmful because of the way lifestyles change (auto accidents, for example, increase after shorting people of an hour’s sleep) we can’t seem to let go.  DST alone should’ve been enough to convince those who claimed religion would simply go away when science kicked in that they are wrong.  This is one reason that I’ve always found the origins of ideas fascinating.  Why did people believe this?  Why did they do this?  What started this whole process?  (Just to be clear, I’m not asking this about DST; I’ve written about that before.)

We can’t know the ultimate origins of religion.  I’ve suggested in the past that what we would term religious behavior has clear origins in the behavior of animals.  A somewhat fully developed consciousness provides incentive to rationalize such behavior.  The earliest organized religion of which we know involved state functionaries (priests) supporting, probably for sincerely believed reasons, the “secular” government.  Kings and priests needed each other and people quickly conformed.  Even when those on the inside came to realize that they were merely pretending, they kept on doing so.  It was too late (or if DST, too early) to change anything, so the mascarade continued.  Tracing the history of religious ideas reveals perhaps more than we want to know.  And human beings are natural actors.

Once, while in a restaurant, I sat near the kitchen.  The smiling servers, as they neared that portal lost their smiles and harried looks came to their faces as they told frantic cooks what the couple at table eight wanted.  Yet they continued to pretend they were happy when at table-side.  Or think of work with its “public facing” information that is inevitably different from what is known by those on the inside of the company.  Actors.  We’re all actors.  Perhaps it’s the price to pay for living in a civilization.  If we stopped to think about why we’re doing something as inane as pretending five o’clock is now six o’clock, or even that all people are the same and should be at work between nine and five, society could not stand the scrutiny.  Anarchy would erupt in the streets.  We should be thankful that people don’t think about these things too deeply.  Or, then again, maybe I didn’t get enough sleep last night.