Conversation with a student

Why do you teach religions if you don’t believe in one?

The ways in which we construct religions- myths, beliefs, rituals- is an incredible window into what it means to be human.  You could say that I believe in them all.  I just don’t believe in the superiority of one over the others.

But don’t you find it hard, not believing in a god?

I find great comfort in my belief in other people.

People often suck.

(I had to laugh.  Truth is truth.)  Yes, yes they do.  But they also demonstrate extremes of compassion and wisdom.  I try to stay focused on that.

But god is ALWAYS compassionate and wise.

I’m not sure to which god you are referring, but my studies would lead me to believe otherwise.  Gods are as ‘human’ in their nature as those who create and follow them.  The gods of Greece and Rome were as capricious and jealous and fallible as any human ruler.  Those of the Ancient Near East created humanity so that their burdens of work would be alleviated and so that humans might worship and provide for them- food, clothing, and burnt offerings… The Egyptian deities fought amongst themselves like children- or earthly rulers- seeking land and riches and the obedience of all who were below them.

But I’m talking about GOD.  You know, the one from the Bible?

And you think that the god of the Bible was not capricious and jealous and often petty and self-serving?  How else would you describe a deity who would charge a human with delivering his Chosen people from bondage, then deny that same person entry into the land promised to them for one act of disobedience?  One who toyed with the life and family and possessions of his most devoted follower and when asked, honestly and with feeling, why, basically told him ‘because I can and who are you to question me?’  Or one who destroyed an entire city in a blast of fire and brimstone because of the breach of hospitality protocol demonstrated by one group?  And then there’s the act of hubris that caused the most complete disintegration of communication in history.  Making the people of the world speak in different, unintelligible tongues, for the perceived hubris of reaching for the stars?  None of that strikes me as coming from a place of compassion or wisdom.

Okay, not THOSE stories.  The NEW Testament.

It’s either the same god or it isn’t.  And if it isn’t, that would make you a Gnostic- and a dualist ‘heretic.’  (I smiled to soften that blow.  He was a student in my Gnosticism class, so if he had been paying any attention he’d understand what I was getting at.)

I’m talking about Jesus.

Who is described as ‘of one Being with the Father.’  A father who, many generations before according the mythological continuity, had destroyed the entire world- save one nautical family- and then sent his son to be tortured and sacrificed by the ruling Roman authorities to ensure the salvation of humanity.  This son was a man pushing for social change who worked to reform his cultural and religious reality and protect those that most needed protection.  I have no argument with you there.  If even a small portion of what has been written about Jesus is historically true, he was a great activist and a man of extreme wisdom and compassion.  He is, to me, one of the representatives of the very best of humanity.  He needs no claim to godhead to be loved and respected, and to be considered a great role model for others.

He was the Son of God.

This is what some strands of tradition and history tell us.  Others hold him in great esteem as a prophet, but one that was fully human.  To me, believing that he was a paragon of humanity offers more comfort and optimism than believing that he was part of a three-pronged deity.  We can follow his example, and that of other, equally wise and compassionate people, without assigning superhuman qualities to his mission or the message.  As I see it, making him a god diminishes, rather than enhances and celebrates, his compassion and wisdom, and takes away from his overall goal: that we treat others as we wish to be treated, and take care of one another.  We are, after all, all that we’ve got.

(The student was quiet, so I continued.)

I am not seeking to change anyone’s belief in anything.  Beliefs are intensely personal and precious.  You asked how I cope without the belief in a god, and I’ve given you part of an answer.  A complete one would take more time than we have this afternoon- or this term, probably- but it’s a start.  The Scientific Study of Religion is about objective examination of beliefs and the constructed realities that we create around these beliefs.  It’s about world- and society-building.  What we’ve discussed today is just one piece of my worldview.  It is a living, developing thing.  One of the goals of education, and part of my role as your teacher, is to aid in the development of yours.  That does not mean I am here to shatter any of your beliefs or ‘make’ you believe what I believe.  The best I can do is offer you another lens thorough which to view the world and its history.  And, most specifically, its people.  What you take away and evaluate and accept or discard will depend on many factors, all of them personal.  All I ask is that you keep an open mind and view the examinations of these stories and systems as part of a journey to develop your own view of the world that is based in your comprehension and interpretation of the wealth of resources we have available.  Critical, thoughtful examination and an open mind are what I’m looking for.  Nothing can take you farther or enrich your life more than those keys.

This was the first of many discussions we had after class and in office hours. Large class sizes often don’t allow for the use of the Socratic method, but our conversations allowed me, as an educator, to truly mark his developing compassion and wisdom, as he retained his core beliefs while expanding his worldview.  He got an A in the class.

Everybody has one…

Once upon a time there were commentators- people who were paid to explain and offer opinions on newsworthy topics of concern.  They were clearly identified as opinions– and they provided credentials for analysis and acceptance (or rejection) by those reading or watching the editorial.  Last week there was a flood of (justified) criticism of many of the ‘news’ groups covering the trial of accused rapists in an Ohio town.  These commentaries on the commentaries (as opposed to news reporting) are still floating around the interworld, as well as the television, radio and print media.

Since we are losing connections to our myths- and myth making- the dramas of tragic events are being further dramatized- with commentary- and it frightens me a great deal.  People in power- be they politicians, business leaders, religious leaders- have always used the media of the time as a means of control over the population. This control can be seen in the construction of myths, and the ways in which cultural stories become institutionalized and ritualized.  It has always been with us- and the reactions for or against these state- or church-sanctioned ideas have been critiqued by the ‘thinkers’ of different time periods.

After reading an interesting blog post on the reactions to the rape trial and its outcome, I continued reading the comments on the commentary (which was about the commentary offered on the original story), something I generally avoid doing.  The proliferation of trolls and my inherent suspicion of anyone who thinks that an issue of any kind can be adequately assessed and responded to in 140 characters does not lead me to want to engage in such exercises in frustration.  But this notice of the practice of commenting on commentaries on commentaries piqued an, admittedly masochistic, impulse in me to have a look at some reader comments as posted on stories that can be found on the various interworld feeds- in social media and newsgroups.

A couple of hours later I was so dispirited I had to turn off the machine and take a walk.  Wow.  I have always wanted my writings to reflect the positive aspects of humanity and the wonders of the connections we can make through the stories that we tell, but catching a glimpse of the comments kinda sorta completely broke my heart a little in two.  Setting aside the obvious trolls (who are, admittedly, a bizarre and pathetic phenomenon, but there have always been those that seek negative attention for fear of not garnering any attention at all), I was dismayed at both the lack of insight and reflection and the overwhelming preponderance of people who think that they are far wittier than they have any right to claim (and I’m not even going to begin to discuss the lack of grammatical and spelling ability.  Sigh).

As we lose our interest in finely crafted stories that tell us something about ourselves, and we are increasingly drawn to the sensationalized banality of celebrity and sound bites, it seems as though we are becoming more and more consumed by the wilderness of the interworld and losing sight of the wonders of the real world.  The loneliness and desperation of those who have the time and the inclination to leave inane comments on an infotainment posting about the latest celebrity break-up is so palpable as to be foundationally distressing.  And those choosing to comment are only slightly more of a concern to the state of humanity than those who thought that a survey- asking about which side of the most recent celebrity break-up a concerned reader might be taking- was a necessary use of time and interworld space.

That we are encouraged in these pursuits- interworld trolling, uniformed commentary, debates entered into on a stranger’s facebook timeline- is inescapable.  But we really have better things to do.  I’m not referring to watching the latest ‘reality’ or ‘talent’ show.  The powers that be- whether of church or of state- don’t want an informed populace.  They never have done.  Social control is possible when the people are kept tired from over-work and encouraged in ‘relaxation’ that doesn’t involve taxing or expanding the mind in any real way.  People in power maintain that power, unchecked, if no one is articulate and insightful enough to shed light on the problems being perpetuated- or created- by our leaders.

We have unprecedented access to information in this communications-driven era- yet many of us are more concerned with what is happening with an entrepreneurial duck-call-making family from the bayou than with world events or the origins and realities of social problems that are ongoing closer to home.  The past century has seen the invention of wonders that were unimaginable to previous generations, as well as the leisure time in which to enjoy the fruits of these wonders.     And access to these wonders is available, in some form, to most of us, which disputes any charges of perceived elitism associated with knowledge-gathering in this day and age.  Knowledge is out there, we can look at it for ourselves and form our own opinions. Yet, if my ‘research’ into the comments sections of today is any indication, so many of us are choosing to remain uneducated and uninvolved in things of import and value, instead favouring mindless entertainment- and the even-more frightening ‘infotainment’- with which we are bombarded daily.

Everyone is entitled to have their own, individually constructed, opinions, and discussion and debate are the foundations of functional and responsible societies.  It is frightening that we seem to be willingly abandoning the widely available, legitimate tools we have to form educated and thoughtful opinions.  It is easier to simply post a two-sentence quote on social media than to read the entire speech from which it came.  In removing the context from which a story is drawn we lose the impact behind the sound bite.  This is a truism in the study of religion and mythology, and it should be upheld as truth in the examination of current social, political and spiritual matters as well.  We are the sum of our personal and cultural stories, and I shudder to think that the final addition will contain little more than awareness of who won the last television singing contest and which desperate housewife has scored a contract to create a fashion line.  We are better than that.

Dreaming of You

Today I had occasion to stop and think about the way people move in and out of one’s life.  It came up over coffee with a friend.  She was remembering the loss of one her childhood companions, gone 20 years today, killed in a random skiing accident.  Her first thought when I pressed her to talk about him was that he died doing what he loved best and that fact used to give her some measure of comfort, since it defined the person he was.  She went on to talk about how, not unlike the death of pivotal politicians or celebrities, she remembered exactly what she was doing when the call came, and precisely how she sprang into action to ensure that she could get home to say goodbye to him, despite the fact that she now realizes she was in shock.  At 22 she had felt loss before, but this was the first time that a true contemporary, someone she thought would always be in the world- however distanced by circumstance- was gone.  Just gone.

I have witnessed loss, and experienced too much of my own, yet I am always interested in hearing about how people cope with the passing of those they love.  The death of loved ones is, arguably, the foundation of religious thought and speculation.  With human self-awareness and reflection upon relationships came the questioning about what happens to us when we die- not the obvious, witnessed, biological process- but about what happens to the essence of those we love.  ‘Joe’ was my brother, he helped me hunt, and we ate together around the fire and shared a tent on long winter nights.  While his body remains visible and gradually decays and returns to the earth, whatever it was that animated him, that made him who he was- his ‘Joe-ness’, if you will- is gone.  This awareness, and concern for each special, mortal, personality is something that has led to questions, and posited answers, for millennia.

Huge mythological elements of all world religions have been devoted to suggestions regarding what happens after death.  The Egyptian Underworld ruled by dismembered and resurrected Osiris, the Greek river that must be crossed with the aid of a ferryman requiring payment, the Christian ideal of heaven and despairing vision of hell, as described by myriad myth-makers, from Paul of Tarsus to Dante to Anne Rice, and countless others in between and since.   In the Ancient Near East, the dead were afforded no glorious afterlife, yet were thought to become troublesome spirits if their progeny did not observe the proper rites of burial and remembrance.  Eastern traditions honour the ancestors and preserve the memories of their forbearers with elaborate rituals.  Hinduism and Buddhism hold to the cyclical progression of life and death believing in continual return on the wheel until perfection is attained.

Most are beautiful and hopeful ways to remember those that have left us that acknowledge the importance of our connection to one another.  Death is the ultimate truth of the human condition and our stories have always sought to deal with this reality and to somehow soften the blow.  The myths suggest the possibility of reunion with those lost, and many offer the potential of return to the ultimate source and final and complete answers to all the questions we ask while alive.  Those who suffer in this life will be rewarded in the next; the evil will receive their just desserts- whether in hellfire or rebirth as a cockroach.  Myths of the afterlife are often about retribution and recompense, but the real beauty, to me, lies in the concept that those we love may be met again.

My friend is not remotely religious.  Like me, she is a student of humanity and has studied world cultures and traditions, finding value and beauty in most expressions of belief and practice that she has discovered in her studies and travels.  While she talked about the loss of her friend, and how it is incomprehensible to her that 20 years have passed, she made some cryptic comments about conversations that sounded like they took place after his death.  She didn’t even seem to be aware of this anomaly as she expressed fond remembrances.

When I gently pointed it out, she smiled somewhat sheepishly.

“You caught that, did you?  Should have known it wouldn’t get past you.  Here’s the thing…”

She then went on to explain that shortly after her friend’s death she began having remarkably vivid dreams in which he featured as the main character.  In these dreams they were both aware that he had died, but his resurrection was treated matter-of-factly.  In the beginning of them all his body lay on a bier in the middle of the intersection at the corner of the street where she grew up.  The dream would then shift to an outdoor party with a long table of friends (at times the backyard of her childhood home at others in the small public park down the street), celebrating an event of great happiness- sometimes a graduation, others a wedding or the birth of a child.  All the celebrants were always in full party get-up- dressed to the nines and all having a great time.  There was a sense of expectation, of waiting for a missing participant, but the mood was always positive.

Then the scene would shift again, and all the partygoers were transported to a nightclub, but one that looked suspiciously like the back room of the ice cream place across from the high school where she spent so much time as a teenager.  When the party was at its height, the guest of honour would finally arrive, moving a little slowly, as if still recovering from the injuries that caused his death, but with the same smile and spirit of fun that everyone remembered with so much love.

The last part of the dream always consisted of my friend and her lost one, walking alone together back to the bier in the corner intersection.  During the walk they would always discuss things of great import- concerns that were weighing on her heavily at the time or decisions that needed making.   Her friend always listened carefully and offered answers or advice, gently and without judgement.  When they reached the intersection there would be a last hug and smile and then her friend would say goodbye and carefully resume his place on the bier.

Interpreters of dreams would have a field day analyzing these recurring offerings, and my friend has studied enough psychology and religion to be aware of the many archetypal symbols and themes that are being drawn from her subconscious mind (or the Jungian collective unconscious- take your pick).

“I know, I know.  The bier placed in the liminal intersection, the celebrants awaiting the deceased… it’s a psychoanalytic cornucopia.  But the dreams, and the memory of the dreams always give me such a sense of peace and connection.  So many myth systems offer variants of ideas of reincarnation.  For some reason these dreams have always resonated with my own interpretation of some of the Celtic stories of Tir na Nog.  Somehow I always awaken from the dreams with the image in my mind of him standing on the beach of an island, looking out to sea.  He is young, completely happy and he is waiting.  He is patiently waiting until the opportunity arises for us all to be born again together.

I realize that the Celtic myths themselves don’t speak directly to that interpretation of the afterlife and reincarnation, but isn’t that part of the power of the stories we create to provide comfort through inexplicable loss?  We take what we need to be able to move on with happiness.

It’s strange though.  I have experienced other great losses; this is the only one I view in light of my version of the Celtic afterworld.  It suits him, I guess.  Eternal youth for an exceptional friend who embraced life with vigour, and the eager anticipation of reunion when the universe says it is time.  It’s naïve and romantic, but it’s how I can smile when I think about him.  Especially now, 20 years later.”

How could I not smile, in response?  Here was a perfect example of how myths impact our lives and how shared stories, and their interpretations, connect us to one another and keep alive the memories of those we have lost.  Our myths help us to deal with the unanswerable and therein lies their value.  Our human stories allow us to cope in the way that most resonates with us as individuals and as cultures.  Telling these stories connects us to one another in ways that shouldn’t be underestimated or discounted.  Myths are not ‘untruths’, as common parlance would have it.  They are invaluable representations of the deepest wells of the best (and often the worst- can’t have the positive without its flipside- balance is ever-present) of what it means to be human.