by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"L’art du combat avec son ombre" (photo: Frank Taillandier/Flickr)
Over at The Walrus Blog, David Rusack writes a smart and creative reflection on how his training in a specific martial art form of tai chi (Chen-style chuan) has provided a structure that allows him to see with better-informed eyes the parallels with religious traditions and that “the point of the practice is in its form, not its content.”
"…when I went off to school and began to mix there with people who studied other martial arts, I found myself dealing with just the same problem. Nobody else followed the rules of movement that had been drilled into me as the Right Way of doing things. A student of Crane-style kung fu stood with his feet angled bizarrely inward; a teacher of Wu-style tai chi took unnervingly short steps and struck small, constipated poses, barely making visible the graceful flowing motion that Chen style emphasizes. Plainly, many of the things that had been presented to me as the doctrines of effective martial practice were in fact only specific to my style, were maybe even just part of a graceful-flowy Chen aesthetic that had little to do with usefulness. I fretted over the question of how much of what I had been taught was mere stylistic fluff, and how much was of genuine substance. …As I realized this about my tai chi problem, I could not help but notice it extended to the case of religion as well: why reject all things arbitrary? One cannot really convene in an empty room on a randomly chosen day, declare “Be good to others,” and then depart until some day next week. The contingent pieces of a religion — its symbols, stories, places of significance, and special ceremonies — make up that structure that must be posited, even if arbitrarily, in order for it to be possible to have religious practice at all. This ritual structure allows religious practice to impart moral lessons and create feelings of community and spiritual fulfillment that ultimately stand apart from the factual claims of a particular creed. … Whatever end modern believers intend to reach by continuing religious practice even while perceiving a baselessness to it all, I can now say I see how they might hope to achieve it.”
(Thanks for the heads-up, Shiraz!)Comments
Krista Tippett, host
The crescent-topped dome of Masjid An-Nasr peeks through trees of a residential neighborhood in Oklahoma City. (photo: Andrew Shockley/Flickr)
My grandfather was the Reverend Calvin Titus Perkins, known by all as C.T. He was a Southern Baptist evangelist — a traveling preacher in Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory. He arrived, when he was a very young boy and it was a very young state, in a covered wagon. That famous dry Oklahoma dust seems embedded in the few black-and-white photos I’ve seen of him and his unkempt, unsmiling siblings. Several of them went on to drink and divorce. He was a man of passion but also a lover of order, a believer in rules. The bare bones Calvinism that flourished on the frontier offered him not only a faith but a way beyond the chaos and poverty he knew as a child.
When I left home at 18 for Brown University — in part because it was farther from Oklahoma than any other school that accepted me — my grandfather epitomized what I felt I had to escape from. His was a small, closed world defined by judgment. I was throwing myself toward possibility, toward life with a liberating small “l.” The Eternal Life that all his theology drove toward was really about the avoidance of death and damnation. As I grew older, this threat utterly lost its sense for me. How could every Catholic and Jew, every atheist in China and every northern Baptist in Chicago, for that matter — every non-Southern Baptist — be damned? Could God be so petty, and heaven so small?
The meanness of the God C.T. preached was contradicted, more poignantly, in his own person, though he would never have seen this in himself, nor did I have the words for many years to describe it. He was funny and smart and large-hearted. He had left school after second grade but could perform complex mathematical equations in his head. The copious notes he made in the margins of the Bibles he preached from bespoke a delight in the workings of his mind.
But I saw with my own brand of judgment that there were questions that he would not ask — contradictions too frightening to name. I would leave. I would ask. He reconciled himself to my move in the knowledge that Brown had a Baptist foundation in Roger Williams. Yet for a good decade, at Roger Williams’s erstwhile institution and beyond it, religion ceased to interest me altogether.
Religion, and my grandfather, began to catch up with me again in my thirties and forties, as life (that liberating small “l” heavier now with time) played its sweet circular tricks. I left a high journalistic and political road to study theology. I could scarcely believe that I was becoming religious again and vowed that I could do so only if I could reconcile it with the fullness of my mind. In this, I was still defining myself in opposition to my grandfather, again defying his example.
Strange, then, that as I set out to create a public radio program about religion in the early 2000s, I began finally to be grateful for his place in my life. Our public imagination about religion was dominated by a few shrill preachers, and evangelical Christianity had reentered American politics in a whole new way. Missing from view was a universe of thinking faith and spiritual inquiry I had found thriving just beneath the surface of extremes and platitudes. Missing too was an awareness of the humanity of people like my grandfather and the hard-won integrity of his way of life, circumscribed as I might find it with my farther-traveled, better-educated eyes. The religious historian Martin Marty speaks in the plural about the categories we use to describe vast groups of religious people, salvaging the messy, diverse humanity that slips beneath the cultural radar: evangelicalisms, Protestantisms, fundamentalisms. I’d add: Judaisms and Buddhisms.
"Islam" doesn’t lend itself to pluralization in that way, either linguistically or theologically, but "Muslims" does. "The Muslim world" is as deceptively monolithic a phrase as any we use and as meaningless as "the Christian West." I’ve spent more time learning that, excavating it, than I could possibly have imagined when I proposed this radio experiment two years before 2001.
So what would my grandfather think of me spending my days illuminating the faith of Muhammad? His thorniest interfaith challenge was breaking my mother’s heart by forbidding her to see her high school boyfriend, who was Methodist and therein a peril to her mortal soul. Still, even the religious world of Oklahoma has changed, and the larger world’s changes have reached Oklahoma. We hear from an inordinate number of Muslim public radio listeners in places like Tulsa.
Last year I received a package that moved me to tears, from a Southern Baptist minister in the Deep South. He had been shaken by the hatred he experienced rising up in his congregation, in their community, in the years following 9/11. Hatred, he knew, was not Christian and could not be of God. He had written an illustrated book introducing the faith of Muslims to Christian children so that understanding and compassion might take root in the place of fear. He sent me an inscribed copy.
I love to think, as I wrote back to him, that my grandfather’s faith might have evolved in this way if he had lived into our century. This Southern Baptist minister embodied the “depth theology” which the great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel best described — those places deep in our traditions where orthodoxy becomes paradox. For whether or not Muslims will go to heaven remains a real question in Southern Baptist belief and many other forms of Christianity. But in a place just as doctrinaire, compassion for the stranger, the outcast, the other is a command. The one is a question to be held, in the knowledge that its meaning will not be unlocked in this lifetime. The other is a command to be lived, breathed, and embodied right now. The seeming contradiction between them is Mystery — a mystery which can form the basis of shared life between the righteous across boundaries even as they remain faithful to beliefs that set them apart.
These days I’m in conversation with scientists as much as religious thinkers. I know too much to take the clash of civilizations between science and religion seriously any more than I can accept it as a framework for the relationship be tween Muslims and the West. I’ve explored the social ethics of Charles Darwin and the “cosmic religious sensibility” of the quintessential scientist, Albert Einstein. Einstein fervently dismissed the notion of a personal God that my grandfather held so dear — the idea of a God who would set the laws of physics in motion and then turn around and meddle in them. Yet Einstein spent his days pursuing the order he perceived “deeply hidden behind everything” and describing it mathematically.
As I pursue my fascination with the spiritually and morally evocative nature of his scientific discovery and others, I am experiencing my grandfather for the first time as an intellectual companion. I feel his untapped mind, those questions he bottled up and could not ask, right beside me, delighting too. The cutting-edge insights of physics, biology, and neuroscience don’t defy or in any way address most of his orthodoxies directly. Instead they open a whole new world of imagination about what it means to be human, alive, and amazed. They open new and deeper questions about what it means to be religious. The Vatican has even brought Galileo back into its fold — Galileo, who wrote that mathematics is the language in which the universe is written. I love to imagine how different my grandfather’s faith would have been — how different his life might have been — if he had pondered the notion that the mathematics in which he was so mysteriously fluent might be the mother tongue of his God.Comments
Kate Moos, managing producer
"Everything I write is for spiritual reasons—to help people keep their spirits up, to help transform misery into laughter or healing, to help people remember the truth of their spiritual identities."
Anne Lamott appeared on SOF years ago, in 2003, in a show we titled "The Meaning of Faith." I had been fan of hers for some time prior, but I was especially captivated at that time with her personal story of redemption and recovery, and her life as a thoroughly 21st-century writer.
So, when her new fiction, Imperfect Birds, showed up in the mail, the volume floated to the top of the stack of books on my desk — and I took it home and read it. And then I read the two novels that preceded this one and decided to put some questions to her about this very moving story of recovery and human frailty.
What follows are her replies that took place via email:
I appreciate you taking the time to discuss your new book, Imperfect Birds, with me. In this story you bring us back into the lives of the Fergusons—a story begun in your book Rosie (1983) and continued in Crooked Little Heart (1997). So, the first thing I want to ask is, what is it about this story that makes it necessary to write it in intervals of 13 years or so? Is that because it’s a hard story? A sad one?
Novels take a lot more stamina and time—at least two and half years—I much prefer self-contained stories and essays that I can begin and finish in a week. Novels are years worth of needing to keep the plates spinning in the air; hardly ever really knowing what you are doing, and lurching forward slowly, backtracking, flailing, falling, losing hope and confidence, getting back up, lurching onward.
The Fergusons, especially in this last book, really embody the idea that alcoholism is a family disease. (I am a recovering alcoholic and the daughter of a recovering alcoholic, so I am grateful for this portrayal.) Elizabeth, the mother of the teenager Rosie, is a middle-aged recovering alcoholic whom I found sympathetic at the same time her helplessness made me want to wring her neck. Of the primary characters in the novel, she seemed most incomplete, in a way, most damaged, even though it’s her daughter who is in trouble. Will she stop living her incomplete life through Rosie?
I don’t see her the same way you do. She has really been a late bloomer, not even getting to the full expression of grief following her beloved husband’s death, until Rosie is 13—8 years or so later.
I see her small actions towards truth and tough decisions as heroic, because emotional expression does not come easily to her, as it does to James and Rae. Truth does not come easily to most people in this culture—a good appearance is the dominating value. Rae and James’s adoration of her is one of the things that most helps me experience what a profound, if introverted, person she is—how brilliant and rare, to be able to have a husband and best friend of this quality.
Your portrayal of Rosie’s drug use seems to me to describe a sort of 21st century story about addiction. In an older sort of story about teenage drug use, the kid would hook up with a bad crowd, her grades would crash, and she would start stealing cars or running away from home. In this case, the teenage junkie is extremely high functioning—a model student who volunteers at church. But she’s morally bankrupt, a schemer and liar and manipulator. I think this change in the nature of story reflects a change out there in the world. Do you agree? What has changed?
The pressure on these modern kids is infinitely most intense than it was on me—I’ve heard it said by high school teachers whose kids are almost cracking up under the strain to get into the great colleges, that exceptionalism is the new normal.
At the same time, there’s a kind of terrible feeling of inevitability and doom that begins to unfold. Rosie clearly has fallen into this vortex and there is only one outcome possible. For me, that really hits when it becomes clear that she and her boyfriend Finn are taking a horse tranquilizer with complete whimsy, as if they were tasting chocolates. Her tone is one of complete innocence. Is this the function of denial? Sin? Is she even a moral agent at this point?
She’s a late bloomer too. She didn’t develop until fourteen and fifteen, whereas her best friend in junior high is a luscious voluptuous vanilla blondie who gets pregnant at fourteen. So partly I think she has a lot of catching up to do—she spent the bulk of her youth on the tennis court, which injured her in many ways, and now she wants to experience being desired and larger than life, wild, intense, young, loved, and normal, part of a whole.
In Crooked Little Heart, it seems like Rosie’s moral education really begins, or anyway gets interesting, when she is becoming a competitive tennis player, and she starts cheating, and then she keeps that secret, and we begin to actually feel the spiritual corrosion that secret causes. She starts lying to herself first, about whether she is even cheating. As I read it I actually started thinking about my own reflexive dishonesty and the perils of that. Is there a connection between this cheating and keeping it a secret and where Rosie ends up at the end of Imperfect Birds?
I don’t think so. Almost all of us are pretty secretive, and maybe especially those who had a genetic predisposition to substance abuse, as Rosie does. Then you hear that we are only as sick as our secrets, and it takes a little while to truly get that, and to make the decision to try living a different way.
In the last year or so, I was aware of five people in my orbit who died of alcoholism. I wasn’t close to any of them—they were family members of co-workers or uncles of friends. The people who died were in their 50s (roughly my age) and they just finally wore out. One of them died with full-blown cirrhosis but others were just-you know, their heart gave out, or they fell off a roof, or just came to the end active drunks inevitably come to. It’s such a staggering thing to see people come to that end. Why do you think some of us manage to get better and some of us don’t?
I literally have no idea. Grace?
Elizabeth’s good friend Rae at one point counsels her that she needs to accept the truth, and that even if it is bitter and frightening and difficult, it is beautiful and she should find a way to be grateful for it. That seems like hard advice. Does Elizabeth come to terms with her hard truth? Doesn’t it take her a long time?
It does take her a long time. It has always taken me a long time, too—as a parent, as a daughter, as a sister. You just keep trying not to see what is going on in front of you—especially if you were raised among alcoholics, it’s one of the first things you learn: that what seems to be going on between your parents can actually be explained so that they do not seem crazy or out of control. So you develop a habit of not seeing what you’re seeing—of colluding with the lie machine. And this is a very hard thing to turn around, which is why I said earlier that Elizabeth’s growth, while slow, is so heroic.
I hope this isn’t too personal. You’ve spoken in interviews and in your other, nonfiction writing, about your own experience of addiction, and how your religious awakening happened. I remember, in the interview you did with Speaking of Faith several years ago, you told a story about coming down from drugs on a houseboat, and that—I believe the story was—Jesus was there with you. And I seem to remember that for a while, you said, Jesus was nipping at your heels like a little kitten. Not like Deus Omnipotens, but like a playful lovely kitten. That image is so unexpected and has always sort of stayed with me. Do you still have the experience of Jesus, or of grace, like that? Do you see these novels as religious or spiritual stories?
I have a very unsophisticated relationship with Jesus. I do not have one interesting theological thought in my head. I just feel him, and did from the beginning: I feel the intense love he has for us, especially when we are suffering, and I feel his delight in me, which is something most of us are starved for most of our lives, and I feel his unwavering companionship. I feel his purity and goodness, and I see it wherever people are suffering, and others show up to help. I see Christ Crucified in the world’s abject poverty and despair and unfairness, how horrible horrible horrible it is for most people, and when I see this, I desperately want to be there beside him, helping in any way I can. Maybe just bringing a glass of water, or sitting there breathing with him, like you sit with someone in child birth.
Everything I write is for spiritual reasons—to help people keep their spirits up, to help transform misery into laughter or healing, to help people remember the truth of their spiritual identities. I try to shine a little light in the world, to be the light for whomever is there, whether at the market, or in a bookstore. It is my spiritual calling. I do a very meager job most of time, but this is my intention.
(photo: James Hall)Comments
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Watch the live video stream in this post or chat with others while you watch on our SOF Live page.
Monday, April 5th, 2010 (7pm Eastern)
The Shakespeare Theatre Company
610 F Street Northwest
Beginning at 6:30pm Eastern tonight, we’ll be opening up the live video stream of a sold-out public event with Krista and Michel Martin, host of NPR’s Tell Me More. These two journalists will be discussing the role of faith in their lives and the interplay between science and religions, using Einstein’s “cosmic religious sense” as a starting point.
We’d love to hear your thoughts about this conversation. Please add your comments here.