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Saturday, April 07, 2007

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The Mystery of Faith

My Buddhist mother and heathen father have only themselves, Tim Rice, and Andrew Lloyd Webber to blame for my adult conversion to Christianity, and the bringing of shame down on the family. Moving to the Bible Belt might have been a contributing factor — it could be something in the water down here — but the seed was planted long before the conditions got ripe.

Oh, but it was buried deep, deep down.

I've written before that my folks weren't exactly Ward and June Cleaver. But I don't want to give the impression that I grew up down on the ashram. It is true that plants in our house were hung with macrame and that incense burned from time to time. My dad had a full beard and long hair, and my mother wore a lot of flimsy Indian cotton wraparounds. But if you had his chin and her amazing brown legs, you would too. If they weren't the "normal" people I sometimes wished they would be (Mom tried to serve quiche lorraine at one of my sister's birthday parties; on Saturday mornings, my friends would sometimes be treated to my Dad stumbling blearily past, stark naked, on the way to the bathroom), they weren't dope-smoking hippies either. Dad taught at the university. Mom was on the PTA. For the most part, they worked and lived and operated in their own unconventional manner within the bounds of convention.

All families drift along, or row against, currents whose headwaters begin far behind them. Few influences held sway in our home like the 1950s Irish-Roman-Catholicism — that uniquely deranged reading of Christianity — in which my parents were raised. My Dad's family was more orthodox than most. One year, he and his siblings were literally paraded down Main St. on a float whilst praying the Rosary in front of a cardboard fireplace— as the model family that prays together. A friend of mine here in Arkansas who came from a similarily oppressive religious upbringing once told me that the force of velocity it takes to escape fundamentalism is so great, most people who do so can never adjust their course to consider any other form of religion.

This perfectly describes my father. But he didn't really escape, because he spent the rest of his life reacting to religion. It was great for his writing. Not so great for the jams that faith can sometimes pull a body through. For my father, religion and dogma were the same thing, and neither one was for thinking people. My mother struggled for some years to reconcile Catholicism with her awakening feminism, but eventually threw in the towel (she didn't become a Buddhist until about ten years ago). At the same time, I had been baptized Roman Catholic and I went to Catholic school by virtue of Newfoundland's now-defunct denominationally segregated public education system. I went to Mass and said the prayers and could recite them right along with my parent's rebuttals. It would be fair to describe my religious upbringing as ambivalent. Schizoid also comes to mind.

I once mentioned that I had converted from "intellectual fundamentalism". What I mean by that is that I consider it another form of dogma to suppose that human intellect has all the answers. I mean that secular culture is often as uncomfortable and anxious about not having black and white answers as the religious fundamentalists are. They just look to different sources to provide the absolutes. I was listening to Julia Sweeney (also a recovering Catholic) on a radio interview on her recent book, "Letting Go of God," and I heard a poignant tone in the way she spoke of relying solely on scientific reasoning to take her to some sort of bedrock of belief. There was relief in it. As if, at last, she could know what was what.

I find this line of thinking to be ultra-religious in negative, and the people who cherish it don't seem to realize they sound every bit as evangelical as the religious people at the opposite extreme. They seem to have a zealous need to prosetylize, and literalist assumptions about what people like me are finding in traditional religion. When the religious right claims they speak for all Christians, secularists accept it unquestioningly. I can say this because I was like that for so long. Whenever I met educated, intelligent, like-minded people who were actively involved with religion, I really thought they were brainwashed somehow. Or maybe psychologically deficient. I mean, there had to be something wrong with them for them to believe that stuff.

Like I had my act all altogether. Around the time my first marriage was ending, I was having terrible anxiety attacks, so I signed up for a course in meditation to see if I couldn't figure out how to breathe again. It was taught by a Buddhist, and it was so helpful, I became curious about Buddhism, which is not Deistic. Then I heard two things that changed my life. One was a suggestion from the Dalai Lama, to Westerners, that they not be too quick to abandon their own spiritual heritage. Change the bathwater, not the baby. Huh.

Then I heard a tape by a comparative religion teacher here in Arkansas, Jay McDaniels, who pointed out that most of us tend to compare apples and oranges when we look at other religions. We judge the one we find attractive by its teachings, and the one we are critical of, by how it is manifested. Everybody screws it up in practice, he pointed out. We're humans. That doesn't mean we should quit trying. Double huh.

I realized then, that I had been as absolutist and narrow-minded as the most dogmatic and unquestioning holy roller when it came to looking at Christianity. I assumed if someone entered a church or read the bible they were signing on to a literal understanding of scripture and catechism, either willfully or ignorantly. I saw that I was willing to give a generous margin of error and interpretation for just about any other religious tradition than my own, and that I probably at least owed it a second look.

It was several more years before I would act on that realization, but one Sunday morning I got myself and my infant firstborn dressed and walked nervously into an Episcopal church. It had all the smells and bells I remembered from Catholic mass, but it seemed lighter and brighter. A woman priest served with her male counterpart at the altar. After the service, they greeted me without pressure. I came back the next week, and the next, and then signed up for the newcomer's class to see if I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on with these people. About five weeks into the class, I raised my hand and said I had a confession to make.

"You all are really nice people. And I love the service, and the Cathedral. I think this class is fascinating. But I just think I need to tell you, before I go any further, I don't know if I can buy into the Jesus thing."

Ed, who has since baptized my three children, grinned. "Welcome to the Episcopal Church," he said. "Next question?"

Those crafty Episcopalians have continued to suck me in in this tricksy, believe-what-you-want-to-believe fashion. I go through variable phases of participation. Some years I am all in, like the years I taught Sunday school class for adults (Topics: Gay civil rights, The Artist's Way, and a track-by-track exegesis of Jesus Christ Superstar, Original Studio Recording). Other times, like this year, I hang back on the fringe, needing to reclaim the outsider's perspective for a time.

I haven't been to church once during the whole season of Lent this year, and I have to tell you, it has me feeling out of step with Easter. It seems superficial to celebrate the rebirth of something if you haven't gotten consciously in touch with letting go of it. In years that I have participated in Lent, Easter feels so much more joyous when it comes. The champagne and chocolate and flowers make so much more sense after forty days of voluntary simplicity.

One year, I was led by my dreams (and a whole lot of Jungian psychology and social anthropology that would bore you to tears) to wear my long hair pinned up or tied back as a Lenten discipline. It sounds stupid, but it was a real sacrafice for me. My hair is a big prop in my persona, so going without was incredibly instructive. Oh, and did I ever glory in letting it tumble down my back on Easter. I was a hair-tossing and twirling menace.

The church calendar, like any human-made measure of time, is just an overlay. It is especially effective when it lines up with seasonal cycles, like how Advent moves us through the darkest time of year, and Easter coincides with spring, but you know, you can just jump in any old place and it still counts. So at the eleventh hour, I decided to jump aboard the Lenten caboose, and try and get in touch with the season.

My husband knows what that means. And he is making plans to evacuate. Because what it means is that our house will be the site of the Jesus Christ Superstar festival for the next 48 hours. Because that seed I mentioned at the beginning? That one that got planted so long ago, and so deep down, and took all those years to germinate?

It came in an leather-embossed double album set. The canonical, original, studio recording, released before the Broadway show. All others are cheap, possibly harmful, imitations. I have it on cd. I have it on the iPod. I have both versions of the film on dvd (the first is a seventies period piece, but still effective; the more recent one is excellent, except for Jesus, who has the pipes, but is otherwise lacklustre - see it for the french actor who plays Judas).

Now you know. Now you see.

I still don't know if I can buy into the whole "Jesus thing." I don't think Jesus himself would buy it. But when I listen to this music, I feel things. I get goosebumps. I cry. My heart soars, crashes, soars again. I identify with every lyric. When Judas - whose story the opera really is - smolders with frustration, so does my inner reactionary. When Pontius Pilate sings, "What do you mean by that? That is not an answer!", the cool rationalist in me is frustrated also. When Jesus rails against God's infuriating inscrutability in the Garden of Gethsemane and when he cries for his "poor Jerusalem", I feel that despair and sense of being cut-off. When Mary Magdalene wails that she doesn't know how to love him...sing it, sister.

I get all of it in some way that my know-it-all brain doesn't.

There is an affirmation in the Episcopal liturgy called the Mystery of Faith:

Christ has died.
Christ has risen.
Christ will come again.

You can substitute "God" or "Faith" or "Love" or "Hope" for "Christ" if it will help you see what I mean. At any given moment, my truth dwells in one of those three statements. I am continually cycling through them. I never arrive at a full stop. I can never say, "this is where I get off. Nothing more to see."

This is the mystery of faith. The more answers I find, the more mystery there is. My truth is true for me. My mother's is true for her. And Julia Sweeney's is true for her. None of them cancel each other out. If I could be absolutely certain of anything, it would be that the real truth is much bigger than all of it put together.

Happy Easter, wherever you are in your mystery, whatever your truth.

This fabulous essay on Julene Snyder's similar obsession with JCS will illuminate everything. Quote: "'Oh. My God.' My whisper echoed through the theater, prompting shushes from disapproving adults around me. I didn't care. All I knew was that Jesus Christ Our Lord was a total fox."

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Blogger bluebird of paradise said...

while driving down to dark cove on good friday, i had "jesus christ superstar" on full volume. i sing along with it soulfully. it always makes me weep. it has to be "god " inspired.
happy easter, happy spring and happy hope for better times in our world!

1:44 PM  
Blogger kodak said...

Hi Kyran, just a quick comment. The Jesus Christ Superstar covers caught my attention. My older brother bought the records in the mid '70s. I was about 13 and absolutely loved the entire two records, would sing it to myself on the way to school. What fantastic melodies, and notes that affected your emotions because it perfected suited the most interesting story it told. Yvonne Ellimen had the most soothing, sort of haunting voice that brought out the emotion the character felt.

Too bad your experience with Catholicism was not so good. While I am not a frequent church goer, I do probably a half dozen times a year, like Good Friday. One thing I don't like is too much time spent by the choir singing, too much time on singing "prayers for whoever/whatever", and a few too many ritual parts. Then again, perhaps many religions have this. Otherwise my experience with it is fine. I found your post interesting in that it touched on something I have perceived. It seems to me that many people do subtly or more directly sometimes, equate participating in anything religious, with being uneducated, or unintellectual, old-fashioned, or close-minded, or other unflattering descriptors. To me it is really a reflection on others' close mindedness, and often prejudice. The way I look at different Christian religions, is that they have common denominators and similiar to other religions' basic messages. The thing is that there are many different ways to approach, the communicating of what "God" wanted us to be, or what Jesus taught. For me, it is important that people be honest, kind, unbiased, not insulting to people with different religions, or approaches to how to pray, or speak to God/Jesus. Speaking of Jesus, who was real, he did set the example of how to live. It's too bad that there is such a big gap in his life that we don't know much about. Ok, gotta go, take care.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Kyran said...

Thanks for the note, Kodak. Catholicism as it was practiced in that particular time and place was what I was suggesting was oppressive. No offense meant toward Catholics per se. I love ritual and symbolism, myself. It's what helped me feel at home in the Episcopal Church, and I miss all the feminine images of Mary. I have a little shrine to her in my home to make up for it. :)

8:08 PM  
Blogger kodak said...

Ok, forgot to say, Happy Easter to you and yours. By the way there's a lot of interesting programs on the National Geographic channel about early Christianity, Jesus, and historical stuff. Have a good one.

8:15 PM  
Blogger Kyran said...

Thanks, and yours also!

I also wanted to add, that there are doctrines and practices and people that I deeply disagree with, in my own church and in the Catholic church and in probably any institution that I might wind up affiliated with. Including Boy Scouts and marriage.

But for me the wrestling is part of it, you know? Trying to bail out the bathwater.

8:26 PM  
Blogger kodak said...

Well we're all human and it's challenging to try and be perfect. But Christianity is based on the teachings of Jesus, who as far as we know was "perfect" in regards to how he lived, and that remains what the church stands for.

It is hard to live up to, most people in reality aren't really that concerned with what the official doctrines of the Catholic or other churches are anyway when it comes to certain issues, and will do whatever it is they choose to. But having said that, many still do believe in many of the churches' teachings. I think part of the bathwater is actually the fact that there are different denominations because that builds walls instead of bridges, and also harbours prejudices all the time. I have some friends, non-Catholic, non-religious who have felt that it was perfectly ok to jab me with a dig about being Catholic. Others who have no religious belief or affiliation, are living a decent life, one which Christ himself would have been proud of. So what really counts is how you live and how you treat others. After all, that's what was preached and expected. You don't have to be of a certain faith to live the way that a man called Jesus wanted.

By the way, I'm not sure what you meant by Boy Scouts and marriage.

9:42 PM  
Blogger shelleyinseoul said...

Wow,wow,wow. This post actually made me go get an account so that I could delurk and comment.

This resonates with me so much that my ears are ringing. A product of the circus that was Presentation/Regina, the endless stream of long-haired, kind-eyed boys in my twenties ( Yes, I had a Jesus fetish!) and absolutely, the whole-hearted rejection of anything Christian in recent years, with exactly the same kind of attitude that you are writing about here.
And Jesus Christ Superstar...over and over and over, singing along with Mary Magdalene and wishing I could sing like Judas. You're right - that album touches something beyond logic. Then I wonder, just how much can discovering that album at 8 years old, screw a person up? :-)

love, love, love the blog...

Shelley C.

11:56 PM  
Blogger patsyrose said...

Many of us are still searching, Kyran, and anyone who follows blindly is a fool. Never stop questioning and trying to make sense of it all.

8:07 AM  
Blogger Geoff Meeker said...

I fall into the agnostic camp, but am very quiet about it and never judge others based on their beliefs or faith.

I was a quiet, analytic kind of kid... spent hours sitting in the corner, wrestling with ideas and beliefs. I stopped believing in the traditional 'God' around the same time I stopped believing in Santa Claus; through a process of deductive reasoning. In Sunday school, I would engage the teachers in debate about inconsistencies in the Noah's Ark story (no way to fit the many different species and sub-species onto a vessel of that size, and then how do you feed and water them for 40 days?).

In my teens, my questioning moved from scientific to ideological. Human history has been stained with the blood of thousands, killed in the name of some deity, and parts of the world were still mired in faith-based hatred. I wrestled as well with the fact that, of the dozen-or-so "main" faiths, and the thousands of theological offshoots and independents, someone had to be wrong.

Was there one amorphous 'god' who filtered out the doctrine and heard everyone's prayer?

Or was it really an expression of humanity's need to ascribe the wonders that surrounded them to a greater power? Before Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna and other prophets, primitive mankind worshipped volcanoes, lightning, fire and numerous other objects and forces of nature. Perhaps people have always felt a need to worship, and our many gods have been borne of that need.

I do believe that there was a Jesus, and that he was truly a special person. Whether he was the Son of God, I don't know. Nor do I know to what extent the scriptures were influenced by hearsay and dramatic licence.

That said, I have met people along the way who are quite religious and I admire the fulfillment they derive from their faith. A friend once asked me if God had shone His light on my soul, and I replied that he hadn't... but mused inwardly that that might be a nice thing, were it to happen. My mind is not closed, my curiosity is undiminished and my heart is always open, in case a greater power comes knocking.

In the meantime, I do enjoy discussing matters of faith and religion with anyone, as long as we are mutually respectful of each other's beliefs and value systems. I am married to a Catholic who was schooled by Nuns, so I am definitely able to relate to people of faith!

Oh, and I also loved JC Superstar! I owned the original vinyl LP, memorized every word and played it until you could see daylight through the grooves. It is an amazing piece of work.

Happy Easter everyone!

9:02 AM  
Blogger Shelley said...

Okay, now I really need to find the movie - I remember watching it once, way back when.

The Far South (not so far as I am now) was where this Canuck found her particular brand of faith too...I'm frequently thankful I didn't become a bible thumping Baptist though.

I'm enjoying my spriritual journey and those of my family members. John was raised Catholic so our Methodist journey makes him feel guilty. :-) Jake is the most simplistic, he just believes it all as gospel...literally. Nicole is still processing, Lisette is now following a completely different path with our blessing for her beautiful heart and mind.

I believe that Jesus lived...and arose. I don't believe that he is the only path to God, nor is it through a Catholic priest. I believe the individual is the connection...find His word in your heart, follow His guidance and you're good to go.

I love to go to church (later service is more likely to see us - we like to sleep in!) because I find a sense of purpose there. It's a time for serving someone and something bigger than yourself. A time to reflect on something other than our day to day insanity. A time to sing. A time for peace.

Now it's time to hit eBay for a JCS DVD!

Happy Happy Easter!
Cousin Shelley

4:06 PM  
Blogger Kyran said...

Note to both Shelleys:

Love both your comments (and happy birthday, sweet cous). Any of the Jens going to weigh in?

7:30 AM  
Blogger Kyran said...

Note to Geoff:

You are right about the bloodshed. If I thought eliminating religion would eliminate warfare, I'd be the first in line to burn all the sacred texts.

I fear we'd just find new excuses.

There was a cute South Park episode this year along those lines, where the world becomes athiest and they all just find new factions to divide along.

Note to Kodak:

Neither the institution of marriage (in the U.S) or Boy Scouts of America allows full participation by homosexual people. I find that exclusion to be immoral; but I still participate in both because I think they will eventually get there and because in the meantime, I think the good outweighs the bad.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Jen K-C said...

This has to be one of the most infuriating issues, roadblocks, challenges that haunts my mind and soul. I have spent a life time exploring other religions, sects, and spiritual ways! I am never fully satiated spirtually or religiously. I keep going back to the catholic church like an abused spouse, too afraid to leave and too afraid to stay and never truly happy.

I would have to agree with your friend that it is hard to change course when brought up in such an oppressive way. I can feel nastalgic for the tradition but not all the beliefs. I have been a member of a 12 step program for over 16 years and in this time I have experienced a level of spirituality that brings a lot of peace to my life but several years ago I threw out the baby, the water and the tub! Someone told me once that the difference between religion and spirituality is that religion is for people who sit in church on Sunday and think about fishing and spirituality is for people that go fishing on Sunday and think about God. I relied on this thought for quite a while to absolve me of the sin of not attending church anymore but as I grew I realized I am not omnipotent and need guidance. I know I believe in something I just can't seem to find my place in the puzzle. As long as I am breathing I know I will figure this out, I have that much faith.

I am so pleased you have found a path that works for you. I love JCS I belonged to a choral group in Northern Ontario that did a tribute to the musical. It is as close as I will ever get to getting my "Jesus On".

11:19 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Your thoughtful, honest, ambivalent, soulful, funny, poignant expression of your experience and insight keeps me reading.

That, and you give me courage to stay on the rollercoaster, to continue "cycling through" when I'd rather scream for a full stop.

My heartfelt thanks to you.

7:04 PM  

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