Sunday, April 11, 2010

Further Negotiations: There’s Something Stupid in Every Religion –or- That Guy and Other Dumb Stuff

When my husband and I were arguing about whether or not our daughter and I would be attending The Shambala Center in Berkeley, California, my Buddhist friend Amelia wanted to know how I could possibly believe in all the stupid stuff associated with Christianity: The stories are predated by remarkably similar stories in other cultures and faith traditions. The idea of a red devil with pitch fork and horns. The elaborate accounting and jailhouse that is the Catholic afterlife of Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell, in which numbers of prayer hours net years off one’s sentence.

[Editor’s Note: Amelia respects Christianity and the beliefs of Christians. She believes the purpose of religion is to help varieties of people reach an understanding of God.  As a Buddhist, she believes Jesus is a guru among the many gurus—a great teacher who has lead countless billions to a deeper understanding of God. She does not believe Christianity is stupid. Our conversation related here was not a serious one, but another moment of irreverent levity in many we have shared in the overall context of a great respect for one another’s beliefs. Obviously my memory is subject to the vagaries and unreliability of memory; Amelia tells me that dumb guy is a she, not a he.]

At that time in the bookstore of the Shambala Center, there was a print or painting of a demon with a mouth full of huge fangs hung near the ceiling above the bookshelves. To me, it looked kabuki—curling graphic stripes of primary yellow and red, with that odd jade green and gilding particular to some Asian art.  I had asked Amelia about it. Who or what is that?!

She had answered that it was the demon who in the afterlife rips the jugular from the perverters of the dharma with his long, frightening fangs.

In response to her questions about how I could believe that dumb stuff, I asked, Oh really?! What about that guy?!

This response seemed to satisfy both of us.  There’s something stupid about every religion.  

There is an element of superstition and the bizarre to every faith practice—the compulsion to cross oneself when an ambulance passes, my mother-in-law’s panic around our slowness in getting our children Christened (as if any God we believed in would condemn the souls of babies to anything less than Heaven), fish on Friday (as if fish weren't meat), vampiric demons, dietary restrictions, those weird Ayurvedic practices involving cleansing internal cavities of one sort or another (with all due respect to the netti pot, which must certainly be a Divine gift to those with sinus issues). Any one practice, any one idea, any one story taken out of context can be held up to ridicule.

Then and now, my feelings are these:

1.     It isn’t important what I think; it’s what I do.

(That’s a challenging precept for me. I’m all about language. The best gift I have to offer is my ability to write. Sure, I can bake cookies, I can show up for the St. Vincent de Paul warehouse weekend, I can write checks, I can volunteer for all manner of civic and church events, but the first fruits are right here. Writing is an intellectual exercise. Sure, I try to work from trance, to leave myself a vessel, and otherwise attempt to be a conduit, but my brain is all over this. And the brain is a dangerous organ because it can be convinced of anything. It’s the heart that tells the truth. Is writing doing or being? At the least, I try to make writing be about being. For much of my life, it has been while writing that I am closest to purely being, which is one way to know I am following my bliss—or living an inspired life— or following a greater plan.)

2.     It is important for me to have a faith practice, more important than having faith.

Faith is good, but without practice what is it? I say religion that is merely belief is superstition.  The Church Lady has no faith practice beyond attending church and praying. She certainly doesn’t treat other people with Christian charity. I’d be willing to bet she doesn’t vote with the common good in mind either, but with a preference for punishment and judgment. Practice, though, practice creates a change in my self and the world that is demonstrable. It is the thing I can point to when people ask, what’s the point of religion?

The point of religion is the practice of compassion, forgiveness and love in one’s interactions with the world. Feeding the hungry. Comforting the sick. Loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.

It is through the discipline of faith practice that I most easily experience the divine.

The Catechism and the Nicene Creed (which Catholics repeat during most masses) feature a belief in the afterlife—“we look forward to the life to come”—and when most religious talk about their belief, they eventually wend around to “eternal life in communion with the Father and the Saints.”  I wouldn’t mind that; it sounds great. The afterlife does not motivate me. What kind of person would I be if that were my sole motivation?

I like to think most people chose to be good because it’s the right thing to do whether there’s a reward involved or not. Sure it’s a good thing to return the lost wallet for the reward; it’s an even better thing to just return it because you can imagine how you’d feel if you lost your wallet. I don’t need a reward. I just want everyone to be happy and kind.  It would be fine with me if I died and nothing happened. Especially if I knew I’d lived a good life.

3.     The practice of choosing to believe in those things that blow open my heart to an experience of myself as part of a mystery bigger than myself is a good thing. If a belief of one sort or another guides me to a better, healthier, more authentic version of myself, it’s a good thing in which to believe. So, while I have yet to memorize the Nicene Creed, I say it along with the parish in the hopes that— in choosing to believe— my rational mind will eventually catch up with my heart.

4.     Prayer works. Every specific request I’ve made has been granted—to my surprise and embarrassment.

I’m surprised every time a prayer is granted, even though I know beforehand that, so far, God willing and knock wood (yes, I'm aware of the irony), I’ll get that for which I’ve asked; all my previous petitions have been answered in the affirmative.

I’m embarrassed because belief in supernatural phenomena (prayers being answered) and interaction with supernatural entities (talking with dead relatives or asking God for stuff) are activities most often shared by paranoid schizophrenics and manic-depressives. (To the best of my knowledge, I am merely depressive.)

Five years ago we were living in a dorm room with our two-year-old daughter in the San Francisco Bay Area. Beloved had taken a tenure-track job at a school just east of the Caldecott Tunnel. We drove through The Canyon and dreamed of a cabin in its dense wood. I pored over real estate listings and found a property we could afford if I went back to work. It was an hour further outside the Bay Area proper. A cute little early twentieth century house with a huge lot by California standards. It was 600 sf and had no closet. Not even a broom closet. It cost $250,000. There was no lawn. The house next door had two threadbare sofas on the front porch and a car on blocks at the curb. On that weekday afternoon, several men who didn’t look like college professors or industry types sat on the couches watching us warily as the realtor showed us the house.

(Like many Americans at that time, we were deep in debt and had no net worth; in fact, our net worth was over fifty grand in the red. We wanted to own a house because we had a child. We were tired of paying out thousands a month on rent and not accumulating net worth. One of the reasons we were so strapped was a stubborn refusal to live in neighborhoods in Los Angeles that we could afford. If one only lives in accommodations costing less than thirty percent of one’s income in Los Angeles, one will be living in a neighborhood in the Valley, which is not Los Angeles, or in South Central, which is not very safe. )

In January, my husband swore we’d have a house by the end of the year. To create good karmic cause for a house, he organized a school-sponsored Habitat for Humanity build. He said there was no way the Universe would give us a house, if we didn't help other people get houses. For my part, I prayed for a house every Sunday during mass.  We closed on our house in September of that year.

Sure, it isn’t definitive proof, but what is? I like to think the Universe moved to answer our desire in the affirmative because we humbly asked for what we wanted and took steps to get it—all on terms the Universe probably is more likely to understand and value.


  1. It's beautifully written, Sybil.

    You make a great point about internal v. external religiosity (or ethics, for the non-religious). Having confronted and accepted that some prayers, perhaps those we would yearn for most, are simply unanswerable, good works remain as solace and salve for the self and others.

  2. Anonymous,

    Thank you.

    The next one is even better.


All comments are welcome.