I’m writing this to work a few things out. I’ve changed tremendously over the past few years. What’s amazing is that with all that change, my relationship with Maria has only gotten deeper, more wonderful, and showers me with gratitude our lives are linked on this journey.
For some reason, religion has been coming up a lot in conversation lately, so it’s prompted me to pull a few mental programs out and re-examine them. I’m comfortably settling in to my post-Catholic belief in some form of the divine even at the same time Maria attends church and our children are being raised in the faith we both grew up in. At the time I wrote this post, my position was still relatively new. If you’re a newer reader, most of what I wrote there is relevant to the beliefs I have two years later but I’m not going to rehash the same points. I’d read that and then come back here.
Humanity’s knowledge of the world has progressed very far since the founding of the major world religions. Dismissing religion as something needed only to explain what has not yet been explained is not something I see as correct. If anything, as science has progressed from early reductionism, we’ve discovered more mystery. Soil-food webs, ecology, the microbiome, epigenetics and more are fields that are revealing incredibly complex networks. The interconnectedness of all life is mind-boggling. I’m okay if they never get explained. Mysteries, to my mind, provoke more respect than positive knowledge.
I diverged from the Catholic tradition in a lot of small ways over time. Looking back with the perspective of a few years’ distance, the division was forced by two wedges.
Wedge #1. The sacred is absolutely a thing. The author of Meditations on the Tarot is absolutely correct when he refers to the sacraments of the Church as sacred magic. While I’ve experienced mystical peace in several settings, my two most powerful experiences were in churches. The sacred energy in the shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and, even more so, in the crypt churches of the National Basilica practically bowled me over. When I was a believer, the sacred energy in the Eucharist was incredibly powerful, nor do I look back on it all and see it as a figment of imagination.
The Church, and in truth probably all faiths that have not twisted themselves to the dominion of others (e.g. fundamentalist currents or other perverted currents like the prosperity gospel), possess conduits of immense power. This is going to sound relativistic, but if those religions work for their believers, all power to them. The divine is like pure white light, and each religion a prism that breaks the infinite oneness into slightly different discrete, but understandable, spectrums comprehendable by our finite minds. Humans tune in to the energy around them.
But despite my respect for the sacred magic in the possession of the Catholic Church, I had to leave. My experience of the sacred power in the Basilica’s crypts was 2 years after leaving the Church. I know the sacred energy is there, but I can’t tap into it in the form its active believers do. There are just too many differences between me and the stated teachings of the Church. The principle three are as follows.
I’m bi-sexual. I believe this is the first time I’ve “come out” to many of the readers here, so it may shock some. I realized my dual sexuality only somewhat recently and in fact I used to be an outspoken anti-gay person in my youth. Looking back with new clarity, in hindsight a variety of small experiences growing up make a lot more sense. I’m obviously happily married straight, so this really doesn’t change my life, but it is who I am. Moreover, I don’t see anything wrong with homosexuality. Embracing it creates a lot of good. Oppressing it through legal force, stigma or by ‘curing’ people creates a lot of tortured souls.
I think the Catholic position on reproduction is wrong, or at least is not universally workable. If science could develop a 100% effective birth control method that wasn’t permanent, I think it would be a major coup to human well-being. Sex is an incredibly important bonding experience. Having been through three surprise pregnancies, even though we did want to keep them, was a trying emotional experience for me – and I can only barely comprehend what they were like for Maria. Seeing the intense emotion of a partner is a shadow of experiencing it for yourself.
Life has a way of surprising us, it’s true, and I don’t think perfect control is necessarily the ultimate good but no one should have to go through that if they do not want to. Unwanted and unloved children live miserable lives. Yes, there’s adoption, but first the massive social stigma associated with carrying pregnancies to term and then giving them up needs to be fixed. The clusterfuck that is the family court system also needs to be fixed. Seriously, talk to any foster parent.
Abortion is not a good thing in my mind. Like many not-very-good things, however, it’s been with us for nearly all of human history. Wise women of many cultures found and secretly passed the knowledge of natural medicines to terminate pregnancies down. Until unwanted pregnancies can be prevented, abortion is going to be a thing, and taking away access to it before solving the rest of the issues is folly.
It’s a mess no matter how you look at it but the more I compared my inclinations versus the teachings of the Church, it drove me away.
The third issue is my distaste for the intensely hierarchical nature but a lot of this feeds into the second full wedge.
Wedge #2. Jesus said “Wherever two or more are gathering in my name, I am with them.” The central ritual – and most potent sacred magic – co-opted the Jewish blessing before every meal, the breaking of the bread. The central prayer asks God to “give us our daily bread”. The sacred magic is in the gathering, in the food, in the home.
The sacred magic was quickly co-opted by an elite priesthood. The ritual was taken out of the home and put back into temples where believers face the invisible God instead of facing each other and finding God in the connections between us all.
Think of how much wealth and life energy has been tied up in religious structures over time! Monuments to the sacred have their role, something my own experiences can’t deny, but still I wonder what the human landscape would look like if the major religions devoted their energy and money to neighborliness instead of capital-intensive structures. Plain communities, for all their human flaws, give us a glimpse at what might have been and could be.
Joel Salatin and I would disagree over the social issues I highlighted above, but a thing in his Christian faith I absolutely respect is his commitment to ‘home church’. They worship in the house, as I think it was always intended by Jesus himself. They have an intensely personal relationship with God, and the families who share the journey with them. This faith energy is bound up in the home, in the meal, in each other – not an impersonal structure separated from the home. It’s powerful stuff.
In his most recent book, he talks about Jesus’ parable of the wheat, that only if the seed dies can it give life. All life requires death. Every meal, every breath we take is the result of a sacrifice. Our fundamental relationship with creation is drawn to a head around our table. Do we worship with our food? Do we worship with those we share a meal? Do we worship in the home? Food, life energy, is so important. Disconnecting the central ritual of Christianity from this basic truth is a mistake.
I’m not sure how to go about finding partners on this journey. I’m not arrogant enough to say I have truth. I’m no prophet or priest. My beliefs are so different from the norm. They’re also nebulous, wisps of wordless thought I can barely grab onto long enough to force into words. I’m frankly surprised this piece has come out as coherent as it has.
If you have one, what is your faith journey like?
Do you search for the divine outside of a conventional religion? What is your ‘worship’ like? Have you found others to share it with?
What’s a mob to a king?
What’s a king to a god?
What’s a god to a non-believer?
I am not a fan of Kanye West, except for a brief love affair with the album that the song “No Church in the Wild” is on, but those particular lyrics have always stuck with me. They’re catchy, provocative, and get to a very central element of the human experience: what are we without articles of faith?
I’ve been thinking about faith on and off in this space. My family, and many of my friends, are people of very strong faith. I myself was a very strong believer, and a core inspiration for me has always been Joan of Arc, a woman literally clothed in faith. She was a peasant girl who somehow had the ability to out-fence contemporaries with far greater strength and reach. This is truly remarkable. In addition, a famously lecherous military companion of hers described her as stunningly beautiful, with “perfect breasts” (nudity in a military camp is unavoidable), yet he felt no trace of sexual desire towards her.* I used the word clothed by faith very intentionally in the sentence above.
She is a fascinating figure and at one time I believed I had her as a near-constant spiritual companion. Perhaps I did. I am very accepting of clouds of unknowing. I’ve been thinking a lot about her since the Alchemist shared the image I’ve put in this article. It’s been my background image, and while I almost never minimize windows to desktop, I’ve found myself compelled to meditate on this picture. It also makes me recall that, over Christmas, in a sacred place of almost incredible power**, I spotted this beautiful statue in the otherwise horrifying gift shop:
I’m happy to have moved beyond my faith then, but finding myself attracted to her once more, I wonder – what part of my faith am I trying to recover?
In modern times, we’re well trained to be skeptical of religious callings. I have no church, nor ever wish to have one. The divine and the sacred can’t be contained in a human institution, especially not any that claim to have a monopoly on perfect truth. I have faith, but it’s a faith that’s more mystery than any positive experience. I have my lovely wife and kids. And I have Joan of Arc, the long-deceased woman who I once called my spiritual wife, seemingly finding a way to re-enter my life.
How am I called to be clothed in faith? I don’t think I will ever have a carved-in-stone-tablets answer. If I have a mission, it seems to me it’s to be a good father and husband. To create a place where the human being in my circle of influence can flourish. To work on my own flourishing. To leave the world a better place than I found it. This is no less than the calling of all humans, to my mind. It is the central article of faith so many of us are missing, and to which so much of the anti-consumerism of the ER community, but even more so the long-term vision of those in the permaculture movement really speaks.
What the words ‘flourishing’ and ‘better’ mean, of course, is part of the delicious mystery. Join me, fellow travelers.
*Regine Pernoud, Joan of Arc in Her Own Words, which is an edited and annotated version of her trial for heresy, and contains fascinating testimony from her and her contemporaries. Note: see also comment from Mindful Riot and my response below.
**The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Specifically the side chapels and lower church in the crypt level. I was almost bowled over with the power in this place and can’t wait to visit it again. A quiet, thrumming, sacred power.
Because I like to break the rules, today we’re going to talk about religion. The Alchemist and I have had some marital friction lately. All of us do. I won’t say more than that here, but the hard talks and sparking connections we’ve been putting back to rights have gotten me using parts of my brain I haven’t used in ages.
I was raised Catholic but slowly fell away, until, all of a sudden I realized I needed to make a clean break. That clean break put me in a nebulous theological position. I have a lot of formal training in the area, and none of the other Christian traditions could hold water (for me). I knew all of the arguments backwards and forwards. This led to a questioning of Christianity and, by extension, religion as a whole.
I’ve even gone so far as to toy with the label of atheist. Those who know me, know I hate labels. I used it more for provocation than anything else.
When pressed to think about it, both in getting to reconnect with the love of my life, my diadh-anam, and those helping me along my journey by sharing their own highly personal stories (if you’re reading this, you know who you are) I can’t say that I don’t believe anymore. I do believe. Catholicism doesn’t work, but reductionist materialism doesn’t work either.
I believe in God.
I also believe that God, at its* core, is fundamentally unknowable. As an accurate translation of Pseudo-Dionysius reads, it is beyond-being, beyond-essence, beyond-knowing.
The revelation traditions which have risen throughout human history, in my opinion, teach us far more about the human psychology of those receiving and proselytizing that revelation than any positive truth about the divine. At the same time, it’s difficult to critique traditions (excepting hard ethical boundaries like discrimination, physical mutilation, etc) because I’d take a very pragmatic or teleocentric approach: if your religion makes you a better person, so be it. That’s wonderful.
Tying back into the beyond-beingness of God is the fact that, what makes humanity special among all of the (known) universe, is that each one of us shares this core of beyond-knowingness. When approaching one another, we have to remember that – no matter how much we know about a person, their history, their motivations, their desires – they are an agent. Agency is an incredibly powerful concept. At the other’s core is otherness. A locus of choice, a wellspring of activity, the foundation of consciousness – something we can never, ever understand.
We have to embrace the wonder and mystery of unknowability. We have to meditate on this.
Someone I’ll refer to as M shared with me an incredible story. The key to it was learning to love her husband unconditionally. Replacing what she called a Spirit of Disrespectful Judgment with a Spirit of Curiosity. I haven’t dug into the sources she recommended, but the Spirit of Curiosity really resonated with me. It’s a method of looking at your beloved (and, really, anyone you encounter) asking to be surprised. Not answering their question in your head before they’ve even asked it. Not criticizing them constantly according to your judgments. Instead, seeking to understand them. To fall into the core of their personality – even though you know you can never, ever fully understand it.
Whatever your religion or lack thereof, I hope you’ll consider joining me on this journey into the unknown.
*English desperately needs a non-gendered pronoun which conveys positive being more than the impersonal and inanimate ‘it’.