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08 April 2011 @ 10:38 pm
On Religion  
walrusjester, you bring out my verbosity. And so here's my story. I've told it before several times, so those of you who have heard me babble... well, skim the first paragraph and you'll know if you need to read more.


On my first day at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Anne Waldman gave all of us a talk. And as she spoke, she made it clear that we were writers who had a point of view, a voice, and a message for the world.

"Oh dear," I thought, somewhat embarrassed. "I seem to have fallen into the wrong place. I'm not a writer... I'm an aspiring writer. My perspective, my voice, my message--these are things I hope to get while I'm here. She's not talking to me. She's thinks I'm already a writer. I probably shouldn't even be here."

I could have quietly gone to the registrar and withdrawn at that point, apologizing for the mistake, and gone off to find a school that was looking for aspiring writers, not actual writers. But that would have involved more pride-swallowing than I really wanted.

So I resolved, right then and there, to impersonate a writer and make it through the program. Point of view, message, and voice: these are things no one speaks about in detail, even in the midst of a writing program. Of course it will come up quite often in a general way... a writer should have those things, be generally aware of them, develop and cultivate them. But the program emphasized staying in the moment rather than being especially analytical about them. And I think that was wise--nothing spoils the things that make writing personal and unique like overthinking it.

But the school's approach made it incredibly easy to pretend I had all these qualifications. No one was going to demand my manifesto, nor expect it to be consistent. In the meanwhile, I was able to work through the classes. Sure, there were moments where some of my disguise would wear thin. I remember creating whimsical little experiments to practice certain forms and techniques--nothing I would want to publish or develop further, just an exercise in the skill being taught. I was learning technique and playing with ideas, but there was no particular part of me there.

So time went on and more was written, but then one day I realized I could self-identify as a writer without irony or self-deprecation. I had worked on giving the impression that I had a point of view for so long that it was no longer a lie. I knew that a good writer should have a voice, and so while trying to do the things I thought good writers should do I had found mine... not by looking for it, but by faking it so long and so well that it became real. Discussing the messages other people were trying to communicate, and contrasting them with each other, and trying on various messages I might communicate, I suddenly found that I had a message.

This process ultimately got me in trouble. Our thesis was meant to be a refinement of the work we had done during our time there, but my work was just a series of technical exercises and demonstrations. I didn't want to try to improve that. I wrote a whole new novella.

My thesis adviser told me I was insane, and gave me almost no support in my doomed project. No one writes a novella from scratch in a semester. I'm not going to say that it was the great American novella, but I did. I was pleased with it, at least at the time (though I admit to being scared of reading it today). My thesis committee accepted the work and let me graduate, but I'm not sure if that was a "well, it was pretty good for a fool's errand, and we can't fail him now" or a real endorsement of the work.

But the entire time I was writing it, I was absolutely sure I was a writer. So by that measure they were right to let me graduate.

Today, when I'm writing almost nothing, working a technical job, maintaining a house, enjoying my marriage, and raising two kids it seems kind of odd to call myself a writer. I hesitate to do so in conversation.

But if I were to decide to commit the time to re-engage in writing, I would start by doing the things I think writers should do. I would find time to be alone, preferably in nature, someplace quiet*. I would find places to develop ideas in notebooks, perhaps in the aforementioned quiet places, or maybe in diners or bars. I would get up early, or stay up late, to steal time. I would write, everywhere, at any opportunity, in various formats.

I wouldn't do these things out of some particular inner call to do them. I'd do those things to try to be a writer again, to do the things I did when I was a writer, before, and to do the things I think writers should be doing. Through the course of it the exact things I did would change and become more personal and less affected. But the affectation would be where I'd start.

So that's why I think the forms of religion are useful. Even if it's just going through the motions, pretending.

*Note that the impossibility of this first step in my life explains why I'm not doing it. The luxury of a long stretch of time with no responsibilities somewhere away from the house seems so selfish, it would have to come at the expense of any social life or I'd spend the time wracked with guilt.

 
 
 
lupasumo on April 11th, 2011 02:53 am (UTC)
This article was vey helpful to me. It helped me to be informed and more aware. The details were such a blessing, thanks.

walrusjester on April 11th, 2011 02:57 pm (UTC)
If I understand your analogy correctly, the forms of religion would be useful because they'd allow you to get back into the practice of that religion. But couldn't you have the religion without the forms in the first place? Then getting back into the practice wouldn't be so difficult for you. Or do I misunderstand?
ng_nighthawkng_nighthawk on April 11th, 2011 04:17 pm (UTC)
Well, I had the understanding that you needed the comprehension of the reasons behind the practice to make a practice meaningful. But what I discovered is that for really complex stuff, the opposite approach works better--you dive into the practice, and then the comprehension follows.

This seems pretty straightforward when talking about, say, learning a foreign language. But in regardless to big lifestyle choices, it didn't seem obvious to me at all. Surely you must understand your choices and really feel what you're doing?

But when you're trying to change who you are or how you live, the most important thing is to start doing it. Waiting for comprehension could take forever. And having forms and communities to follow as part of that is more important than books and lectures.

You could have the religion without the forms, but I think it would have two problems: the first is that it might turn into an academic exercise without a lot of actual impact on day-to-day life, which is a problem from where I sit, but wouldn't be a problem for everyone.

The other problem is that it's only approachable by folks who are willing to approach religion in this more academic, thoughtful way. A common complaint about religion, especially religions with forms and practices that you can follow without understanding the reasons behind them, is that you have a large number of people doing what they're told but there's no substance behind it. But my experience is that it's better to offer this path to people and trust that a deeper understanding would come, rather than exclude anyone until they come to that deeper understanding.

I think the idea of a religion without form or practice is theoretically possible, but I am skeptical that it could be as powerful for any individual or as widespread generally.
walrusjester on April 11th, 2011 07:14 pm (UTC)
But once you're into the religion, why would you *keep* following the forms? Aside from those forms which we could call "sacramental" because they're intrinsically necessary to the religion, why bother? It seems to me that the logical goal, even for an adherent of a specific tradition, would be to strip away all the non-sacramental practices over time in order to have as few barriers as possible between oneself and God.

Interestingly, I came at this subject from the perspective that a religion *with* forms turns into an exercise without impact on daily life. I'm tempted to chalk it up to the differences in our upbringing, but I might worry at that bone for a while anyway.

Your second problem raises a good point. I'm prone to intellectualizing religion. I think it's important, even required, to do exactly that - the unexamined dogma is not worth believing, if you will. That approach can exclude people, and I'll consider the ramifications of that.

Then again, deism doesn't exactly have a lot to exclude people from.
ng_nighthawkng_nighthawk on April 11th, 2011 08:19 pm (UTC)
Wait, a sudden thought.

What is the reason for religion? Why should it exist, however, you're defining it, in any way?

That's not to say that your ideas seem purposeless. Rather, I think establishing the purpose is important, as it's possibly different between our two ideas.

I'd put the purpose as a support for people to develop a relationship with the divine.

Another question: refraining from eating meat on Fridays absolutely impacts daily life, at least on Fridays. Also, crossing yourself when passing a church impacted my daily life while riding a certain bus to work every day. (Sticking to Catholic traditions here to avoid speaking for other faiths.)

These are physical, immediate things. So how can they not impact daily life? Even if you're doing it mostly thoughtlessly, if you're keeping it then you know the reason you keep it is due to religion, and you know religion has to do with God, therefore every time you keep the practice at some level you're acknowledging the presence of God in your everyday life.

My last thought is that intellectual religion that endlessly pursues abstract theological points without developing any real relationship with the divine seems exactly as a hollow as a rote religion that perfectly performs gestures and symbols without connecting it to a real relationship. I'm not sure either of our worst case scenarios is actually less bad than the other, and the best cases seem pretty good. The first is a well-reasoned faith handily capable of counseling, discussing, and evolving. The second is a deeply felt devotional faith that endures through doubt or worry. Of course, ideally you can combine them through either path.

But perhaps in the end, it's just different ways of scaling the same mountain. I say that as someone who is deeply suspicious of the casual "Oh, all religions are basically saying the same thing" kinds of analysis.
walrusjester on April 12th, 2011 02:11 pm (UTC)
As I get older, I think and I pray and I read about religion - I don't have a good answer for why religion should exist. As the years pass and I learn more, I see less and less purpose for it. In particular, I see less purpose for the kind of structured ritual-heavy religion that I know you practice. So I'm not in a position to really answer the question you're asking. I can't say why religion should exist, since I'm not convinced it should exist at all.

But I appreciate your thoughts on the subject! I don't know that we're scaling the same mountain at all, but your postcards have been interesting.
lupasumo on April 12th, 2011 03:49 pm (UTC)
Great work keep it coming, best blog on earth