Binaries

Inside, outside, upside-down.  The more life moves toward binary code—what isn’t computerized these days?—the more scholars are moving away from simple binaries.  Just when I thought I was getting used to this sacred/profane divide, academics are scrapping it for more nuanced paradigms not based on any assumptions of presumed deities and their projected wishes.  Nothing as simple as “either/or” could justify all these salaries for stuff you can just look up on the internet, after all.  Still, binaries are a very human way of looking at the world.  Light and dark doesn’t mean there aren’t all the shades in between.  And the very basic difference between inside and outside may be far more helpful than it might appear.

Being inside a religious tradition—really being inside—creates a pattern of thinking that frames all of one’s experience of life.  While reading about the Book of Mormon recently this became clear to me.  Looking at it from the outside is something those on the inside have great trouble doing.  The same is true of various Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions, or Evangelicalism.  Those living on the inside of tightly constrained ways of thinking—believing—can’t see what it looks like from the outside.  I suspect that not all religions traditions fall into such ways of thinking; there are shades here.  “Mainstream” Christianities, for example, tend to blend at the edges and those inside might have an idea of how those on the outside view them.  Lutherans know the jokes about their outlooks and can even tell them.  Methodists and Presbyterians too.  They tend to conform a bit to expectations and  tend not to be extremist about things.  Being mainstream will do that to you.

It is unusual for a person to change religious traditions.  Those who do can see their former tradition from the outside—whether mainstream of not—with a kind of objectivity that frightens true believers.  Most religions have some tenets that look a bit unbelievable when viewed from outside.  Once seen from that perspective, however, there’s no unseeing it.  I grew up Fundamentalist.  After some time in the mainstream Methodist tradition I could see Fundamentalism from the outside.  When I eventually joined the Episcopal Church I had been viewing it from the outside my entire life up to that point.  Looking at faith traditions inside out offers perspectives otherwise not to be had.  Nobody wants to believe the wrong religion.  Perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to look at your own from the outside.  You have to be willing to accept shades of gray, even if looking at it in a binary way.

Divine Monsters

Monstrosity and religiosity are sacred siblings. Both are focused on that which is outside—the Other. Now, I have to confess being a bit rusty in my philosophy reading, and I sometimes wonder how I made it through three degrees without ever really encountering post-modernism in all its complexity. Reading Richard Kearney’s Strangers, Gods and Monsters (Routledge, 2003) was therefore a challenge. Like many of those raised in an uncompromising religion, I am innately attracted to monsters. Maybe it was the vivid images of Hell and its denizens; one of the earliest nightmares that I remember was of being dragged to Hell. Some authors suggest Revelation gave Christianity its monsters, but, as Kearney suggests, the connection goes back much, much further.

We fear what we embrace. It is the old division of sacred and profane—a line that has blurred considerably over time—that gives us our monsters on a separate plate from our deities. Otherness contains within itself both bane and blessing. People fear that which differs from them, a fact demonstrated every day by racism, sexism, and homophobia. At the same time, many look to the ultimate alterity for salvation from the mundane. God is just as “other,” more so even, than any human or monster is. Any creature/creator beyond the reach of our feeble grasp should be considered dangerous in our view of the world. And yet the further we get from the middle, the more the ends seem to come together in an ouroboros of divine monstrosity. Those who read Kearney need to be prepared.

While not taking on monsters as I expected he would, Kearney does address them with a sensitivity appropriate to the recognition of the closeness to deity. Nowhere is this clearer than in his superb chapter on melancholy. Being caught between the monstrous and the sublime, the melancholic learns to cope with a disinterested sadness that at times borders on insanity, yet produces flashes of light often more brilliant than those who think their way through problems. This is the affliction of Hamlet who stands on the cusp of being or non-being. For all who believe in a divine power, a strong divide must separate that realm from ours. That same realm, however, also contains our beloved monsters and strangers of every description.

Blessing Nature

Today is the traditional Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Yesterday the local Episcopal Church celebrated this feast with the somewhat Anglophile practice of the blessing of the animals. This is not generally an event to which my family pays particular attention – although we are animal lovers the only pets we have are hermit crabs and the spiders and bugs that naturally make their home along with us. Yesterday also happened to be a beautiful day for the local street fair and my brother and his family joined mine for the event. His family includes a dog and we noticed a sign advertising the local blessing of the animals. As my brother noted that his dog might better do with an exorcism, we decided to pick up a free blessing while the offer was good.

Normally animal services are held outdoors. This in itself is a commentary on the true equality of species. Many people feel it sacrilegious to bring animals into churches. Biologically speaking, however, that would exclude us all. Perhaps for allergies or the price of carpet cleaning it may be more expedient to bless the critters outside. After all, animals do fend for themselves out-of-doors, right? As we sat in an informal circle, the priest emerged from his office with his own dog at his side. A makeshift card-table altar had a simple wooden cross atop it to sanctify the area. As soon as they reached the center of our circle, the priest’s dog squatted to defecate on the lawn. It was a lighthearted moment, but it also spawned some reflection.

When it comes to religious settings and ceremonies, many normal behaviors and actions are considered inappropriate. This invisible divide reflects the time-honored division between the sacred and the profane. There is no tangible way to distinguish between the two; sacredness is a matter of cultural taste. Absolutes for sacred and profane simply do not exist. A priest’s dog following the dictates of nature is about as sacred an example of life as experienced by all creatures on this earth as any other. Expelling of waste is one of the characteristics of life as we know it. While some may find dog droppings offensive in sacred settings, I have a feeling St. Francis would simply have laughed.

Your dog did what?

The Gospel According to Caulfield

When one is asked to cite her or his favorite theologian, J. D. Salinger isn’t likely to be in the running. He might not even make the top ten. My personal introduction to Salinger, however, took place in a theological context. While in a Cambridge (Massachusetts) bookshop with a grad school buddy, I pointed out Mircea Eliade’s classic The Sacred and the Profane, insisting that my friend read it. Never to be outdone, Dave pointed at Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and said if I bought and read it he would do the same with Eliade. The Catcher in the Rye had not been part of my high school curriculum, so I was curious what all the fuss was about. I took him up on his dare. I’m not sure Dave ever read Eliade, but I read Salinger. My first impression was, “I don’t get it.”

Now my daughter’s school does require The Catcher in the Rye, and I’ve always tried (not always successfully) to keep up with her required reading. It gives us something to talk about – I’ve read several great books I’d otherwise have missed by this exercise. So I picked up the Catcher and plowed through. Salinger, I’m sure, requires no introduction. What is noteworthy, however, is that Holden Caulfield, while avowing himself an atheist, does make subtle but pointed comments about religion. (One of the occupational hazards of being a religionist is a constantly humming radar looking for any god-talk that might otherwise blend into the haze.) Holden, in chapter 14, points out the idiotic behavior of the disciples while Jesus was alive. He admits to thinking Jesus is okay, but his favorite character is the demon-possessed man who lives among the tombs. “I like him ten times as much as the Disciples, that poor bastard,” he says.

Who is as honest as Holden?

There is true religion in this statement. The “lunatic” running about in the tombs, rejected by society and even as far from God as you can get (demon possessed), is an image of humanity. Living a life of desperate alienation, the man in the tombs appeals to angst-ridden teenagers and displaced adults alike. He is likeable because he is like us. Holden scores bonus points on that observation!

With Salinger’s recent death, a renewed interest has sprung up about his novels – books that have changed the literary landscape. I read Catcher with more inherent appreciation than I did Franny and Zooey, but I’ve grown up a little since then. As an adult I can better appreciate the honest appraisals of Holden Caulfield.