Friday, January 7, 2011

The Art of Language and Interpretation

Warning: This post is a bit long and rambling and has only a tenuous connection to my journey through The Artist's Way. You don't need to feel compelled to read it.
Yesterday I had an all-day long meeting at work.  I work for a religious institution that employs somewhat more than 200 people (I don't know how many, exactly, but that's about how many people were at the mandatory employee meeting, the first I've attended and apparent the first that's ever taken place mid-year). I love my job, but the idea of spending a day in a meeting when I could be doing other, more productive, things did not sound too appealing. However, since my magical snow dance did not produce the desires effect of a snow day, off to the meeting I went bright and early that morning.

Confession: I did not read the book that was required reading before the meeting.
Confession #2: Only part of me felt guilty for not reading the book.
Confession #2-b: The title of the book offended me and gave me the excuse I was looking for to just skim a bit and not really read it.
Confession #3: After hearing the keynote speaker (the author of the book) I wish that I had read the book.

The keynote address electrified the room and made me start thinking about the art of language. I am perhaps only referring to this as art because of my recent encounters with The Artist's Way, but I was struck by how people use language.  I work at a religious institution. A Christian religious institution. And it was a push to get a job there because this place only hires Christians and that is not the way I would identify myself.  I used to use that term years ago, but growing up I always felt like an outsider, no matter how much I looked and sounded like the perfect Christian.  When I became an adult, I rejected anything religious. Sure, I had a degree in "that stuff," and I could talk with the best, but I was an avowed agnostic and proud of it.  My transformation to a spiritual person came along the time of my first venture into The Artist's Way in 2008.  It was that book, and the good friend who introduced me to it, that paved the way for other books and lectures on CD, most notably those of Dr. Wayne Dyer. While I don't necessarily agree with everything that this man says (and I'm okay with that, I don't believe that it's possible to 100% agree with someone 100% of the time), I felt drawn to his views on spirituality and found myself agreeing with things like  
  • "My belief is that the truth is a truth until you organize it, and then becomes a lie. I don't think that Jesus was teaching Christianity, Jesus was teaching kindness, love, concern, and peace. What I tell people is don't be Christian, be Christ-like. Don't be Buddhist, be Buddha-like" 
  • "Religion is orthodoxy, rules and historical scriptures maintained by people over long periods of time. Generally people are raised to obey the customs and practices of that religion without question. These are customs and expectations from outside the person and do not fit my definition of spiritual." 

Then Anne Rice came out in 2010, saying "For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity." Okay. That's something I understand, too.

I also understand those who want to be part of a religion. I think that most people generally feel the need for a sense of belonging. Some people belong to a religion, some a book club, and some a bingo group that's met every Friday night for the past 40 years. All of these things, in my mind, offer a similar draw: like-minded people with rituals and language that give them a common history.  It makes sense.  It's appealing.

Of course we also want to be considered unique or at least a bit on the outside. This is where religious groups have the advantage: they can claim persecution in some form (real or perceived) and that gives the members a binding cause, something that keeps them together, something that draws on their protective natures. (Think about Mormons in the late 19th century: that interpretation of religion might've died with all the others that popped up around that time except for the fact that people started attacking them. Everyone loves an underdog. Now Mormons are one of the fastest-growing denominations in the world -- and it's not just because they tend to have large families!)  It was always amusing to me how Christians could still claim to be outsiders even when they are the largest religion in the world.  Then I came to the Persecution Realization and it all made sense.

Back to my job.  The me several years ago would have been very uncomfortable with the notion of prayer, the Jesus and God talk that happens all the time and is just a normal part of every day at Work. The new me, the one comfortable in my spirituality, the one who believes that all religions have the same basic premise and same desires, the one who is comfortable talking about the Universe and whatever binds all humanity together the same way that some people talk about God -- that me found a way to be real, be myself, and fit in at Work.  I looked for the commonalities and found them and feel that it means I can be honest with myself even as I work at Work.  Someone may discuss a "relationship with Jesus" (as in "I'm not a religious nutter, I just want a relationship with this non-physical being" as if merely tacking the word relationship on to something makes it better, more sophisticated).  I may have my own ideas about that that "relationship" entails, but the bottom line is that the person is doing something every day to connect with his/her spiritual self and is trying to grow and if he/she needs to call it a relationship and have certain rituals around that, so be it.  When someone asks me to pray, I no longer feel a panic or a hostility (two emotions quite common to my early adult self), and while my thoughts on prayer may be different than theirs, I think that the underlying point of it all is the same.  One person may be "talking to God" and the other may be meditating, and even though talking to someone who is not there sounds a bit more crazy than the quiet self-reflection that is meditation, I do believe the outcomes are actually pretty similar.

Which brings me back to the art of language. The author speaking yesterday was amazing. I found myself agreeing with him and thinking that if we had a personal conversation we would find a lot in common.  His premise was that religion (all religion, not just Christianity, but he focused on Christianity because of his audience) sustains the "life of the mind" because at its core it encourages empathy, it has an emphasis on relationships and understanding and that is useful when looking at various perspectives, its encouragement of creativity through a vision of a better world (peace, justice, etc.), and being open to mystery (because of its emphasis on faith). The explanations the author used to get us here made sense to me.  The problem, said the author, is that Christianity -- especially the American version and all its branches -- squashes the life of the mind. This is something that I've said for years, and so of course I perked up as the author started talking about this. He said that in the late 17th century some Age of Reason authors like John Locke (yes, the same one who inspired our Founding Fathers) were so tired of the religious crazies they saw that they wrote about how religion, specifically Christianity, was Reasonable.  Sounds good, right?  Wrong! The author yesterday traced how this belief in Reasonableness lead, eventually, to beliefs like:
  • The Bible is full of facts.
  • The Bible is unerringly true.
  • The Bible is the direct Word of God.
  • The Bible is scientific. (Creationists, this is you.)
When people claim these things and truly believe them, it bothers me. The Bible is a religious book that talks about spirituality.  It is not scientific. It is not reasonable. It was never meant to be.  It is, instead, filled with symbols and metaphors and paradox -- just like religion.  And that's okay. The paradoxes within spiritual beliefs should lead people to question and explore: that is how religion and the life of the mind are so well-suited. (No more of this mindless babble: "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it." garbage on bumper stickers. I get so mad when I read crap like that!) 

Of course the mind is stretched when there are differing perspectives that one must understand, wrestle with, etc., which is why having a Work that insists that everyone be Christian is a bit of a problem. If we are that insular, are we really nurturing the life of the mind?  Or are we self-limiting by imposing such boundaries?  I personally think that our hiring actions speak louder than words: we really care about your label more than we care about you and the underlying beliefs that drive you. Does it matter whether someone calls himself Christian, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or just spiritual if the underlying themes for life -- equality, social justice, world peace, love for all, mercy and grace -- are the same?  I don't think that it matters what language one uses to describe one's self. 

And perhaps that's where I differ from my colleagues and from some friends and family.  I don't wrestle with the question "What does it mean to ___________ from a Christian perspective?"  I just operate in my job using the same principles that are important to my life.  And I do think that if we drilled down to look at what we all value, regardless of what terminology we use, we'd find plenty of common ground.

Isn't it funny that language, something that gives us tools by which we can communicate, also is responsible for the barriers that divide us? And for all my Christian friends out there, perhaps that is the true message of the metaphor of Babel -- a (non-historical) story to illustrate not what happens when people try to reach God, but a story that shows what happens when we let our words divide us: all of humanity is scattered.

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