Friday, February 17, 2012

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

Contexts such as this are key, and for me so is etymology. I am drawn to the fact that in Greek, Hebrew, and, to a certain extent, Latin, spirit and wind and breath (nouma, ruach, spiritus) are the same. When people said one, they said all three. This wordplay retains awe for flux and a reverence for mystery, holding both the fragility and resilience of life. In Latin, religion can mean either “to gather around again” (re-legere) or to “bind back to” (re-ligare). In this sense, many things become extremely religious (see Footnote) and the dividing walls of hostility constructed between groups begin to look foundationally weak. Because of this I try to entertain different definitions: I don’t want all my eggs in one basket.

Another definition is that religions are embodied cultural-linguistic traditions. As such, there is nothing I can do about the influence various forms of Christianities have had on me. They have informed me and shaped my language and my being, and ultimately my becoming. During a particularly antagonistic existential sojourn, the words of Wendell Berry unsettled, and continually unsettle, me:

“[T]here are an enormous number of people—and I am one of them—whose native religion, for better or worse, is Christianity. We were born to it; we began to learn about it before we became conscious; it is, whatever we think of it, an intimate belonging of our being; it informs our consciousness, our language, and our dreams. We can turn away from it or against it, but that will only bind us tightly to a reduced version of it. A better possibility is that this, our native religion, should survive and renew itself so that it may become as largely and truly instructive as we need it to be” (Berry, 1993, pp. 95-96).

In response, I must admit that the the Torah, the prophets, the gospels, and the epistles (not to mention the long winding history and tradition afterward) are my home in more ways than one. Whatever else they are, these stories are a reservoir of human folly and wisdom, empire and creation wrestling in concert throughout the ages. This has nothing to do with the rabbit-holes of Absolute Truth and Direct Revelation. In my mind, declaring that there is one true religion is akin to claiming that there is one true and absolute place, language, poem, painting, or musical composition. Some are certainly better composed than others, and gardens are better than garbage dumps, but nothing is that exclusively absolute.

Let me tell an inadequate story in the manner of Jesus’ agroecological parables in the gospel of Mark: Christian history and tradition is like a great farm, which grew out of the influences of even more ancient agroecosystems. At times, the farm has exponentially expanded as the most dominant farmers fought and stole arable land and workers from neighboring farms; they would indeed incorporate techniques and knowledge from the conquered farm into their own, but often at the cost of the death of the conquered. Much of the land has been abused and scarred with destructive methods that took little notice of contours, watersheds, and past practices, all in the name of Maximizing Profits. But over in the many marginal spaces, the minority reports have been busy all along cultivating the fertility and fecundity of the topsoil, embracing biodiversity, conversing with neighboring farmers, and producing good fruit. Many of these marginal gardeners left throughout the years, believing the soil to be poisoned beyond remediation and the abuses of the farm calling for indefinite trials of separation. However, many stay, not because they agree with the dominant farmers or because they think their farming is the only way in which to care for the land. They stay because they feel health and memory in the soil, because they taste some good fruit, and because they learned their marginal practices on that land in the first place. If all the marginal gardeners left, the farm would decay into absolute ruin and they would simply have to squat on another farm just as conflicted as the one they left.

I still wrestle with which kind of farmer I am in this tale. I do know that I am committed to radical hermeneutics (to borrow from John Caputo) and radical discipleship (to borrow from Ched Myers). The former deconstructs our stories by exposing their utter contingency: “God” is a cultural and historical construct shaped over time. The latter is caught up in the poetics of story, digging to the roots of our socioeconomic crises by dwelling within the roots of our stories: “God” is the wild ruach that in the naming refuses to be named. Because in the end stories are all we have, all that gives us shelter and all that drives us out into the cold. We are sustained and subverted by our stories in their contingent reality. Radical hermeneutics recognizes that God and love are endlessly translatable: “Is love a way of exemplifying God or is God a way of exemplifying love?” (Caputo, 2001, p. 25) However, radical hermeneutics agrees with radical discipleship that perhaps this is the wrong place to look for any sort of translation. The only translation that matters is our translation into the language of action and the movements of love. Religions are also related through this translatability: something is always lost in translation, but something is always gained.

Which brings me back to the particularity and universality of trees. In a forest ecosystem, the roots of trees will often graft together, or will at least be connected as fungi share nutrients from root to root. Maybe this is a way religious traditions and worldviewing are connected: root grafting, not twig grafting. The multiplicity of human cultures grows from natural biodiversity, which is vital for the health of the world. Similarities and differences revel together in the mutuality of cooperation and competition. Maintaining such a dynamic equilibrium will only happen if human societies and cultures learn from the structures and functions of their local ecosystems that exhibit self-renewal and resilience, stability and mutability, rootedness and longevity.

The superficial tolerance of interfaith dialogue is exposed by this perspective. Prothero is right to critique an insipid uniformity that declares all religions as the same, for good or ill. Both sides fear difference because in their minds difference must entail violence. But conflict is necessary: we learn from challenging stimulation, and ecosystems require disturbance to thrive. An associated, and deeper, problem is that interfaith dialogues, or bashing the faithful, often have no shared place. They have no context and therefore vaporize in abstraction without life lived together. Conversation needs someplace to give it context, some embodied reality that can grow and breathe. Uniformity ironically subsidizes hyper-individualism even amidst talk of community: we are all connected, just so long as connectedness doesn’t require anything. Maybe community can be understood as the interdependent relationship and mutual belonging between a place, its inhabitants, and their stories. Relatedness to our neighbor, both human and nonhuman creatures, determines how we act in the world. We won’t save places we don’t love, and we can’t love places we don’t know, and we can’t know places with which we aren’t intimately familiar. The same goes for people. Perhaps some exceptions are conceivable, but proximity matters: where I live, who I live there with, and how I live define my relationship to the world.

Maybe these are the roots of religious nature and practice. Or at least, a way to reinterpret them.

Footnote: In fact, I think Prothero excluded the three greatest religions of the modern world: capitalism, nationalism, and technological progress. Many people, no matter what their traditional religious heritage, adhere to some permutation of these modern myths. Belief is ultimately not what you say, but what you do.


Berry, W. (1993). Sex, economy, freedom, and community: Eight essays. New York City: Pantheon Books.

Caputo, J. D. (2001). On religion. New York: Routledge.

Kupperman, J.J. (2010). Theories of human nature. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Prothero, S. (2010). God is not one: The eight rival religions that run the world—and why their differences matter. New York: HarperOne.

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