Religion, He Wrote

A friend recently sent me the New York Times obituary for Carol Serling, the wife of one of my heroes, Rod Serling.  Perhaps it’s a personal weakness, but I often wonder about the religion of my favorite writers.  More often than not I discover that they’re affiliated with tolerant faiths, sometimes unattached to any specific tradition.  Rod Serling grew up Jewish but became a Unitarian-Universalist by marriage, and—it doesn’t stretch the imagination—remained one by conviction.  I’ve read a bit about the UU tradition, and it is based primarily on values rather than beliefs.  In fact, the idea that religion is a matter of what you believe is only one way of defining it.  Historically one’s religion was a matter of what one did, not necessarily what she or he believed.

Authors that I read often deal with religious issues.  It’s important to confess that I don’t select fiction based on its having religious themes.  Anyone who’s read more than one or two of my posts will know my reading is eclectic and many of the books represented here have shown up because of wildly different circumstances.  Reading challenges, friends’ recommendations, and preparations for educational presentations are often driving forces.  In the fictional realm I’m drawn to the speculative, but also often to the catch-all category called “literary.”  Stories that feel authentic in either category have an element of religion in them.  Life portrayed without it doesn’t seem believable.  I’ve been re-reading some Ray Bradbury.  There’s often suggestive material there.

Raised a Baptist, Bradbury is often also claimed as a Unitarian-Universalist.  Apparently he didn’t like the label, but his behavior was more a selection of tenets that he found compelling from various religions.  All of this may sound strange in a context where “religion” is increasingly a dirty word.  (To be honest, it has been doing much to earn such a reputation.)  Still, it is a very deep part of being human.  Rod Serling’s stories advocated fair treatment of all people and often his sense of justice landed him in trouble with advertisers for The Twilight Zone.  Religions comfortable with maintaining prejudice, or turning a blind eye to lawbreaking in the name of false virtue would certainly not understand refusing to take money from questionable sources.  I suppose there’s a reason I enjoy the stories from the days when America still had a conscience.  The legacies of such writers, it is to be hoped, will outlast what passes for religion these days. 

Any other gods before me…

Quaker States

Religions have always fascinated me.  Having grown up in one that was self-assured that it alone was right, I didn’t have much opportunity, as a child, to look closely at others.  I had to assume that other religions took their beliefs just as seriously as we did, but that they were dead wrong.  Majoring in religion requires a bit more broadmindedness.  We looked, as objectively as possible, at other traditions.  Still, Grove City College is unapologetically evangelical, so some professors weren’t shy about stating this or that belief was just plain wrong.  Things improved from then on, academically speaking.  By the time of my doctorate, and as an Episcopalian, I learned to distance myself a bit; dispassionate was the only way to be in the face of sometimes conflicting accounts.

The other day, following my natural curiosity, I was researching Unitarian Universalists.  Having a strong biblical background, I was curious about this denomination that represents Scriptures quite differently.  The Google metrics brought up a page with logos of various traditions: the Unitarian one I recognized, as I did the Episcopal and United Methodist Churches, having been a member of both.  Then I noticed the symbol used for the Quakers: the Quaker oats man.  I was inclined to laugh and be horrified simultaneously.  The “Quaker” Oats symbol is a commercial mock-up, and had Google read Wikipedia it would’ve known that the company has nothing to do with the faith.  Capitalizing (literally) on the reputation of Quakers for purity, the company used William Penn as a model for a guy who wouldn’t cheat you.

Now that I live in the Quaker State (again), I’ve grown curious about the Society of Friends.  This is particularly so since they are one of the few Christian groups to have been expropriated by the commercial world.  Who’s ever heard of Presbyterian laundry detergent?  Well, with the exception of hospitals and caregiving institutions, which are happy to take the name of a denomination, religion is hardly a trusted commodity these days in these parts.  The Quakers do have a symbol—two superimposed, four-pointed stars.  Metrics, however, are based on search frequencies, I suspect.  As far as religious denominations go, the Society of Friends isn’t massive.  Far more people search for Quaker Oats than the actual religion whose name the company borrowed.  Such is life in these United States—the ultimate corporate venture.  Now a wholly owned subsidiary of The Trump Organization.

Starting Something

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?

Unity in Diversity

UnitariansUniversalistsIn the Simpsons episode “Bart’s Girlfriend,” Jessica Lovejoy steals all the church’s money from the collection plate, leading Mrs. Lovejoy to call out, “Everyone turn around and look at this!” Grampa Simpson whips around saying, “What is it? A Unitarian?” And so the jokes go, back even to my seminary years. The Unitarians, however, are among the most intellectually honest of religions. I recently read David Robinson’s The Unitarians and the Universalists. Although the traditions approached their 1961 union from different angles, they had a common origin: concern over the Calvinism of colonial and early post-colonial New England. The majority religion of the northeast, various forms of Calvinism taught of utter depravity, human helplessness, and, that absolute affront to human intellect now being posited by some materialists: predestination (determinism, in secular terms). The Universalists couldn’t accept that a loving God would make anyone suffer forever. The Unitarians had trouble with several aspects of the theology, not the least of which was the Trinity (as a non-biblical concept). Early Unitarians based their beliefs on the Bible, which, as it turns out, does not support several Calvinistic concepts.

Like all religions, Unitarianism evolved over time. Eventually the unity of God became only one among many possibilities of what one might believe. In fact, doctrine was less important than ethics. It was a true Enlightenment religion. It allowed for the Transcendentalist movement that we all learned about in school, with Emerson wandering in the woods, and Thoreau never wanting to move out of them. They also had room for those who studied the Bible but expressed concerned that Jesus doesn’t really say that he’s God, although obviously some people interpreted it as if he had. Regardless of belief, meeting together was necessary, and eventually the Unitarian Universalist Association came to represent a widely liberal form of religion with Christian roots but rational sensibilities.

Among the marks of distinction of these groups is that, among Protestant denominations, they were among the first, if not the first, to ordain women. When you are less beholden to wooden tradition, all kinds of possibilities emerge. This book was kind of an epiphany for me. I’d been channeled into thinking that “orthodox” necessarily equalled “the good guys,” despite the treatment that I’ve repeatedly received at their hands. It sometimes takes a Gestalt phenomenon to see orthodoxy as not necessarily good. Perhaps the effort to preserve a tradition outdated by a couple of millennia costs far more than it saves. Perhaps we need to become more human, not less. I may not walk the forest with Emerson—he preferred to be alone anyway, from what I understand—but I’ll not be so quick to assume that tunnel vision is true vision either. Not in a world where the Simpsons can teach us as much as The Institutes.