Tuesday, September 30, 2008

religion & society

Thanks for all the comments on my last post. It's good to be able to share stuff like that with my Quaker family, who understand what it's like to listen and allow silence and speak the language of discernment.

I wanted to add, however, that I think my comments came across as a little harsh toward my professor and his reaction. I thought he did a pretty good job of allowing silence and creating that space. I think where the problem came in was that then he decided he needed to respond to what had been shared using "academic language," and that he at least in that moment felt like "academic language" couldn't communicate with whatever language she'd been speaking. I personally feel like if academic language can't communicate with language of the Spirit, then academic language is not useful. But I think that's not the case. I think when people in the academy try to learn about "the sacred" or whatever it is in this realm of theology and ethics and social sciences that they're studying, they just have to be able to engage the subject in a manner that is both academic--thinking well--as well as...soulful, I guess. Willing to open up their soul to what's going on around them, and then try to state this in a way that can help others learn and grow.
Last week in class a chaplain shared about some of his experiences trying to be a moral voice in the midst of the armed forces. I respect the fact that he's trying to do that, and in some ways I think it would be an effective place to help people think about their ethics and the way their actions affect others...but somehow I don't think they'd let me be an army chaplain if I was showing people the humanity of the enemy and counseling people to become conscientious objectors! So I don't agree with this guy's basic premise, that we can be Christians in the army, doing the will of God. (Disclaimer: I'm sure there are Christians in the army, intentionally trying to seek and do God's will, but I think as with all of us at times, they are not in the right place. That doesn't mean that God can't speak to them there, or that God can't use them there, and use a bad situation to bring about some good, but I don't think it's the best place for them to be in order to live out God's love in the world.)

But the class started talking about ideologies, and thinking about whether a religion can be just a religion without being an ideology. An ideology is something that helps us build a cognitive system of how we can view the world--puts everything into a category so that we can make sense of the world. Unfortunately, human ideologies usually end up explaining the way things are and legitimating them, rather than challenging the hierarchical and unequal structure of authority that has built up over time. So the question is, can a religion be just focused on its God/gods without straying into ideology? Can it just help people connect with the divine without enforcing the idea that there are certain authorities (besides the self) that have to act as mediators to that divinity? Is this even a good idea?

We're reading Durkheim, who is basically the father of sociology and wrote around the turn of the 20th century (he died during WWI). He thinks that all religions stem from the desire humans have for being part of something bigger than themselves, outside themselves but fully supporting them and making life possible. I'm with him up to this point. He thinks, however, that all religions are ideologies: they create systems of meaning that explain the world as it is and legitimate the power structures already in place. Religions are an attempt to make even bigger what is actually happening: we yearn for a divine world, a world that makes sense and where our short lives have meaning and purpose. For Durkheim, there is no such thing, but what is there is society. Our societies make it possible for us to be part of something bigger than ourselves, something that goes on after we die, something that grows and matures over time and that we have a part in making better. We are willing to fight and die for our social group because we see the "eternity" of our society and the transience of our own lives. To take part in continuing our way of life means that we take part in the eternal, and therefore in a way are immortal ourselves. Religion is basically a fear of death, of meaninglessness.

Here's what I think: I think that yearning that we have for something greater than ourselves is because there actually IS something greater than ourselves that we can sense and tune in to, that all people around the world have sought because it is there. It permeates everything in the universe but it is Other. All religions point toward this sense, this understanding that we as a collective humanity have. Some are more in tune with it than others, or are more practiced at tuning in. But why would we all want such a thing in the deepest part of ourselves if it didn't exist? (I suppose that's not a very logical argument, since we all want lots of things that don't exist, but the basic thing they have in common is a desire for good: for safety and love and joy, for having all our needs met and living lives of fulfillment and purpose. Where would we have gotten the notion of an ultimate "good" if it didn't exist? I guess this is Aristotle's point with his "forms," but that's another post...)

OK, so I think there's a God out there, and I think all religion points to the reality of God--some better than others. (I'm not saying here that all religions are true and right and good, but that they all point to this yearning humanity has for God.) I think we can have religion without ideology, but it's really hard. We have to make it anew each day through listening and allowing our traditions and preconceived notions to be broken down, not allowing "authorities" that aren't speaking from God to sway us into believing something that isn't true or necessary. But we're such creatures of habit that this is almost impossible to do, especially with a group!

Soon I'll write about what I think of Quakerism in all this. Basically, I think Jesus' message in its "pure" form is not an ideology, but as we live it out we make it an ideology by creating power structures and institutions, and by separating our world into "sacred" and "profane" moments or objects. Quakers and most renewal movements try to get rid of all this extra stuff, but then after a generation or two we also get stuck in our traditions and power structures (or lack thereof) and fall into the pattern of an ideology.

Why is an ideology more comfortable than a true faith? I don't know exactly, and that's a question I'll have to explore this semester, here and in my paper for the class. But right now I have to go read more Durkheim!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

what is the sacred?

Yesterday I went to the first session of my Religion & Society class. It meets only once a week for 3 hours. It seems like it will be pretty good. We're reading Durkheim, Freud and Weber, plus a more contemporary guy named Maurice Bloch. I haven't read much of this kind of stuff since my psychology major in college, so it's kind of fun to jump back into that part of my interests and combine it with the theology part.

The professor started off the class by asking us, "What is the sacred?" He told us a story about an experience he had where he knew he was in contact with "the sacred," and he created a space where I felt like we were all pretty centered and aware of the presence of "the sacred" there with us. I almost started crying, to be honest, because I haven't really had that experience in a seminary class yet. There have been times when I've felt God's presence in class, or fleeting moments where I felt like the class had some sort of corporate experience of the Divine, but for a professor to intentionally start out a class creating that space was exciting and brought me joy.

Then he had us write for 5 minutes or so our answer to the question, "What is the sacred?" He asked us, "On a Saturday morning, how do you find the sacred?" Then we took turns introducing ourselves, a little about us, and sharing our answers to the questions in whatever ways we felt like doing. So that was interesting and good--it was cool hearing different people's responses to that set of questions, and the creativity that those questions opened up in us boring academics.

I'll share my response below, but one other thing struck me about the class, and that wasn't so positive. About a third of the way through the class, one woman shared her answer. She read what she'd written, and it was basically an experiential piece, putting herself in the place of Isaiah when he found himself before God, with the cherubim and seraphim singing, "Holy, holy, holy," and God said, "Who shall we send?" and Isaiah said, "Send me!" But then in her piece, she said something like, "And then the phone rings and the baby cries, but the WHOLE EARTH is filled with God's glory!" and repeated stuff like that, and it was a fairly powerful little essay. When she was done everyone was just quiet, and I appreciated that--I felt it needed the silence, that it brought us to a space where we were all aware of God's presence in the whole Earth, and in that moment and that place.

But then the professor said something like, "Well, I'm not really sure how to respond to that. I felt like the silence was important, but sometimes it's hard to respond to something that's not in academic language with academic questions." I'm not sure if this should be taken as, "I don't want to ruin the moment by making it academic," or if it was more like, "Well, that's all very nice, but what do you have to say about the sacred that we can talk about here in this academic context?" It seemed like the latter, unfortunately.

Another woman kind of called him on it, but he didn't understand the question. Basically what she was trying to say (I talked to her later), and what I was thinking, was that that felt like he was shutting down the conversation, not allowing her voice to be part of the academic conversation because she wasn't speaking the right language. So do we only get to have a say if we can speak that language? What if the sacred can't be spoken of in academic language? What if we speak best of the sacred in our native tongue, in our most intimate address, and academic language, with its intentional objectivity--or distance from the object of discussion--can never really speak of the sacred? We can talk about God, we can talk about theology, we can talk about issues of history, human nature, texts--but can we truly speak of the sacred in the language of the academy? If we must speak that language, will our understanding of the sacred shrink to fit that which we can objectify and grasp? I could already see those to women who spoke up shrinking, feeling their language was somehow inadequate, was not a welcome part of the conversation.

I don't understand how this happened, since the professor opened up such an amazing sacred space, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, slammed a door, shutting out those whom he does not deem dialogue partners. Hopefully they/we will not allow this door-shutting, and we will continue speaking our native tongue, speaking of the sacred in terms that bridge barriers, helping the whole Earth to be aware of the fact that it is filled with the glory of God, so everything has the potential to be sacred.

Here's what I wrote:

The sacred is life, intimacy, the good. Perhaps the search for the sacred is the meaning of life, or perhaps searching for the sacred obscures what is right in front of us--life, everyday moments, beauty, joy--and when we search for the sacred we forget to stop and experience it.

Is there such a thing, then, as "the profane"? Is destruction of life profane, if life is sacred? If so we all participate in the profane every day as we walk, breathe, digest...but these, too, are part of life.

Perhaps the sacred is that which gives all that we know of as life--the Ground of All Being. It isn't life itself that is sacred but that which makes life possible, in all its messiness and destruction and love and sensory-ness.

But the sacred is intimacy, too--it isn't just some ethereal "Ground of All Being" about which we can philosophize and hold at arms length. It's also that which moves us, that which connects us to one another, that which knows us and wishes to be known--that mystery and otherness that we find within ourselves, that is totally foreign to us, but we are completely at home.

Monday, September 15, 2008

the semester begins

Today was the first day of classes at the seminary, although I didn't have any classes there today, just my German class at the university. (See my last post regarding what classes I'm taking.)

I'm enjoying languages this semester--at least so far! It's fun to actually take a conversational language, y'know, one that I can actually talk to people in. The languages I've taken so far are only for reading, and we don't really learn the words important for having conversations. So that's been good. I feel like I've learned a lot already in 3 class days. The professor (about my age) conducts the class entirely in German, which means we learn more than we would just studying grammar, but it's also confusing. I'm never sure if what I think he's saying is actually correct when he's teaching us something new, and it's hard to ask because I have to figure out how to form the sentence in German in order to ask it. It's fun, though, and I'm glad our class (of 9 students or so) has a few flights of stairs to walk down after class because then we all get to hear how everyone else feels like they're the stupidest person in the class, so it's not just me who doesn't understand everything.

The other language I'm enjoying this semester is (gasp) Hebrew. I know my blog intro thing talks about me learning Hebrew, but that's been a few years now, and Hebrew really wasn't my favorite subject (with apologies to my wonderful professor). But I think part of my dislike of Hebrew is feeling like it isn't useful. This is partially because the Hebrew Scriptures aren't my favorite literature in the world, and partially because I don't understand the language well enough to help me understand the text better after reading it in the (semi-)original language. In other words, I'm more confused after trying to translate a passage than if I had just read it in English. I took a class 2 years ago that focused on poetry in the Hebrew Scriptures, and although I knew the poetry was one of the more difficult parts, I also knew that to really get poetry one has to read it in the language in which it's written. So I thought maybe that would help. It did, a bit, but I still felt rather lost trying to translate in Hebrew.

But I have a research assistant position this year working for a renowned professor on the Dead Sea Scrolls. He and other scholars are working on putting together a comprehensive series that documents everything in the DSS collection, so he has research assistants to do the nitty-gritty work. My first day was last Friday, and after familiarizing myself with the software created specifically for this project, I started in on actually working on editing and typing in stuff that will be included in the volumes. Today I worked on typing in footnotes into the English translation of the Hebrew text of portions of Deuteronomy. This was mostly typing in what I saw on the paper, but it also required figuring out where to put the footnote in the English text. See, the footnotes were already in the Hebrew text, so we just had to put them also into the English text. So I had to figure out what the Hebrew was saying so I could put the footnote in the proper place in the English line. And I could actually figure it out most of the time, and didn't use a dictionary at all.

So today I feel vindicated, because my year of studying Hebrew and semester of taking an exegesis course in Hebrew have finally paid off. I now have a job (that earns me money, no less) that uses that skill. It's very exciting. And it's a fun challenge.

It's also amazing to know that I get to be one small piece in the process of making the Dead Sea Scrolls texts more available to the general population! What an honor, and I'm so glad to be able to do this work.

On the other hand, I don't get to work at the fun coffee shop this year (besides picking up some shifts here and there), so that's sad. I was thinking this afternoon after I left the DSS office that working at the coffee shop exercises the cool and outgoing side of my personality (and really, that side needs the exercise), while the DSS work encourages my nerdy, introverted side...which is exactly what most of the rest of my day is like. So...here's to mousy bookworms everywhere! I am quickly joining your number.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

back in the east

It's been a busy month, with my and my husband's birthdays, our 7th anniversary, saying goodbye and packing up, driving all the way across the country, and a few fun things thrown in like a couple days at a beach cabin with some friends, and also speaking engagements and/or fund raisers for Christian Peacemaker Teams at 4 Friends meetings in Oregon.

So here I am back on the east coast! Today I started my semester, although the seminary courses don't start until Monday. I'm taking German at the university (because it's not offered at the seminary), so I had to wander around the university looking like a way-too-old freshman, sneaking into the building where my classroom is by getting someone to hold the door for me, and blundering around until I found the place where they sell the $140 German book. (This included a trip to the U-Store, where they do not sell books, going into the elevator to try to get to the upstairs floors where there used to be books, and closing and opening the doors several times while the elevator would not go to any other floor. This was right next to the check-out line so I assume I amused some people waiting to purchase their university logo T-shirts and notebooks!)

Other than German, I'm taking a class called Religion & Society (to see if I want to take a PhD in that subject here), and I'm writing a thesis on Romans 12:17-13:7. These two passages are quite intriguing to me, because Romans 12:17-21 seems to me like about the most pacifistic passage in the Bible, while Romans 13:1-7 is the passage Christians point to in order to justify their belief in following their government's commandments no matter what. But these passages are back to back! How is that possible, and what was Paul trying to do here? These are the questions that will form the basis for my thesis project.

I'm also trying to figure out (with my family) what we're going to do after I graduate in May. Do I go on for a PhD and live away from the rest of our family and friends for another 4 years (+), or do I call it good with a master's degree and find a job in a congregation or doing some sort of social justice work? I don't know. I'm applying to PhD programs this fall probably, and paying attention to job opportunities that I hear about to see what I/we feel drawn to.

Well, for now I'll say, "Auf Wiedersehen!" because that's about all the German I know so far.