Thursday, February 16, 2012

Religion and Roots: The Danger of a Monolithic Story Part I

I stumbled across a problem as I read through Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One. My worldview chart in front of me, I read chapters on Christianity, Confucianism, and atheism (as well as Kupperman’s excellent chapter on Marx), skimming Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, and Yoruba. And my pen, prepared to document three diverging worldviews, rarely scratched the surface because I knew that worldviewing differences do not simply occur between worldviews but within worldviews. Certainly, generalities can be made, which is why a book like Prothero’s is possible, but it is nearly impossible to determine what religious adherents think in the abstract. In fact, too much generalizing can be dangerous: we construct monolithic designations that are then forced down on people we have not even met, instead of letting definitions rise up out of the singularity of an encounter with the other.

Prothero does do an extraordinary job of allowing the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the joyous and the tragic to sit in tension with one another. Because, in the end, that is life, and religion is after all a response to life, observation and participation. “By their fruit you will know them,” and religious fruit has been some of the most sweet and the most bitter. Put another way, the church is a whore, but she has also given birth to some of the world’s most devoted servants. And yet, my concerns about monolithic generalizations still stand. A good friend, after reading Prothero’s chapter on Islam, admitted to an extreme prejudice toward that religion because of its views on women. This is certainly something that concerns me, but this concern is not relegated only to Islam. And to say that Islam has a view of women makes no sense in light of hermeneutics, the varied sects and traditions within Islam, and the fact that not all devout Muslims suppress women. The danger for my friend is that this chapter could blind her to actual Muslims who do not share those views, to other Koranic passages, and to alternative interpretations (Footnote: I should add here that this friend has since visited with a Muslim classmate who began to dispel preconceived generalizations, an encounter which only supports my claims). It would be irresponsible to gloss over texts of terror, but it would also be irresponsible to assume that our superficial readings are automatically accurate. One New Atheist-sounding friend decries the absolute evil of religion while claiming Gandhi and Martin Luther King as heroes; he explains that they were men ahead of their time who tapped in to universal scientific values by inadvertently eschewing their confining religious trappings. My only response to such violent reductionism was laughter.

So let us imagine that a conflict erupts, or festers. And let’s assume it’s in the Middle East. And a Christian, a Confucian, and an atheist rush to the scene in order to diagnose the cause of the Israel/Palestine struggle. A Christian might say that human sin is the underlying problem and salvation will, as the word implies, save; a Confucian could confess that order is called for, because this conflict smacks of the human dilemma of chaos; and an atheist might laugh at both and say reason will wash away the blood flowing because of religion itself. At this point, I can’t help but ask which Christian walked up: a Southern Baptist fundamentalist or a Latin American liberation theologian, or a more moderate third option? And what exactly is meant by sin and salvation, because such narrative concepts have meant extremely different things? Did the Confucian come from Beijing or from Boston, and from what time period in Chinese history? And was this a friendly or angry atheist: Terry Eagleton or Christopher Hitchens? I could probably relate what some friends might think who fall along these spectrums, but even they are so diverse, constituted by constellations of byzantine intricacy.

Religion does not have a pure Platonic essence separate from history and culture, time and place. Come to think of it, nothing does. There is no universal image of a tree: people tend to imagine leaves and bark familiar to where they grew up. In this way, universality is only achieved through particularity. Furthermore, religion is a Western term and it is not until the modern European Enlightenment that everything gets unthreaded and relegated to their own little islands. As I read Prothero, I could not keep things so unthreaded, and I certainly could not locate my “worldview” in one single chapter. I couldn’t help transgressing those boundaries. My heritage is Christian, but there was much in the chapter with which I no longer resonate (including classical theism; even though it’s overly simplistic, for the sake of shaking things up I like to joke with Christian and atheist friends that I’m religious, not spiritual). As I read about Confucianism, I nodded in full agreement concerning virtue ethics and community, but scribbled question marks in the margins next to defenses of patriarchy and rigidly hierarchical government. While I might pass for an atheist in some circles, the grating one-note diatribes of the New Atheists and other fundamentalists remind me of Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber: “Hey, wanna hear the most annoying sound in the world?!”

Perhaps my past reading in these areas, not to mention my relationships with flesh and blood, has ruined me to short distillations that sum up an entire historical tradition in a simple problem/solution equation. As good as Prothero’s book is (specifically his nuanced introduction and conclusion), the fact that a Western academic is briefly distilling ancient evolving traditions is important to keep in mind. Of all the religions discussed, I am the least unfamiliar with Christianity and I know it to be profoundly complex and interpretable, though I certainly think there are worse interpretations and better interpretations (usually ones aware of sociopolitical and literary context). Considering Prothero’s description of atonement and Christian history, his Episcopalian upbringing seemed to be an inevitably important player: streams within religions do not simply differ on externals, but also on the internal meaning as well. Having said that, I wonder what Hindus, Buddhists, and Yorubans would say to their respective treatments. Maintaining a conjoined sense of particularity and generality may be difficult, but it is necessary. As such, I don’t think the problem is inherently ignorance about other religions; it is the arrogance that assumes that even in our ignorance we know everything there is to know about the religious other. Humility and hospitality offered generously toward the unknown, toward the stranger and alien in the land, makes the most sense, because we would certainly not want someone to define our identity before having met us. “Do unto others . . .”

Our identities are shaped by streaming tributaries that converge in our lives, sometimes gently and sometimes turbulently. I have a mosaic of influences that continues to deconstruct and reconstruct me: literature and literary theory, communitarianism, Continental philosophy, bioregionalism and permaculture, natural and social sciences, Critical Theory, philosophy of religion, postcolonial histories, socioliterary and historical-contextual biblical interpretation, not to mention experiences, conversations, and all the things of which I’m not even aware. If there is predestination then it must be how we are somewhat determined by our own stories, our own historical, cultural, geographic, genetic contexts. We are only free in that determination.

My father is a family doctor who dedicated twenty years of his life to serving the uninsured in the impoverished Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee. We moved to rural Jellico when I was two years old in order to pay off medical school debt before relocating to Honduras. However, my parents’ roots supplanted their plans and they devoted themselves to revitalizing the struggling non-profit healthcare center, community hospital, and country clinics. Those hills and its people and their stories spoke too deeply to leave.

They spoke deeply, nourishing like Southern hospitality, porch conversations and folk music, four-part harmonies and leaves turned into chimes by the wind, dogwood flowers and honeysuckle in the spring and fiery colors in the Autumnal hills. They spoke deeply, haunting like twelve-year olds getting pregnant, a Xanax-addicted girl whose landlord collected the monthly rent from her bed, drug rates and chronic unemployment proportional to major urban centers, a woman with a labyrinth of scars across her stomach from when her mother doused her in gasoline and drew the scars with cigarette fire, a dying town and raped mountains sucked dry by coal mining. My dad often told me that any understanding of the world or of God, whatever that means, must first make sense in the generational poverty and strip-mined mountains in Appalachia, at the gates of Auschwitz, or the walled ghettos of the West Bank and Gaza. Most do not. Without such understandings, I will smugly declare that my reality is normality while ignoring that it is in many ways a façade constructed from the ruins of other lives and places. I will decide that I have no past and therefore no responsibility to the past, the present, the future, or to place. The stories I was told growing up, and in which I strive to reside, re-imagined religion, fundamentally and etymologically, as what binds us back to the wreckage and gift of the beautiful risk of life. From before I can remember, these stories—of history and literature, of people we knew, and parables and narratives from religious traditions—have informed me and shaped me, renewed me and subverted me.

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