Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Religion and Smallness

Checking in from dissertation land. As I get into the work, I tense up at how great the labor is, and how small I am before it. It's a multi-colored mountain of junk, trinkets, nuggets, knick-knacks, gems, and rotting fruit all piled higher than Babel. And I stand in front of it with slacked shoulders and bent knees, grabbing an item here to make a sort, walking around there to something else for a different sort. To say I'm daunted is way beneath understatement.

But continue on, I do. So Yoda has instructed.

My leisure thoughts turn to reflecting on 2011. My birthday approaches and I want to clarify one or two truths I've pulled from that other Babel pile, my life. More than anything else, the year was demanding. If last year I appealed to myself and to the blogosphere for peace, perhaps I sensed my desire to be--or at least feel--less put upon.

Didn't happen.

I was needed. My family needed my presence and engagement. My ambitions demanded my time and my mind. My work had its requirements, too.

Life is a wave passing by the center of the ocean, as far away from land as one can be. It has a force that I can't resist. I don't think anyone can. Some lucky folks keep their balance as the force moves them in the wave's direction. Some struggle in the sea for equilibrium. Others rotate around and around, unable to stop what the rushing wave caused for them.

In this image, I finally see what religion and religious experience really are. I don't mean the political religion of the popes and pastors and rabbis and mullahs and masters. I mean the private religion of people such as those I knew in my Chabad days and those I met at Alpha. I mean the faith of individual men and women trying to adjust to the wave.

Yes, religion involves community and stability. Yes, it feeds on family togetherness. Yes, it declares the believer's trust in what admired elders and righteous ancestors have openly, publicly shared. And yes, it helps one feel more certain that she is doing right.

These are all symptoms of a more basic awareness: that one is small and alone. When we get sick or scared, the awareness re-emerges. What drives religion more than anything else? What's the source of religion's symptoms and political fingerprints? It's not quite fear, as Bertrand Russell concluded, but both understanding the basic human situation and instinctively reacting to it.

It's a process. One slowly comes to grips with his smallness and solitude. One performs being small and alone, and one conjures a figure for the bigness and everythingness of the passing wave. One deals with oblivion by doing something, anything. It's something meaningless and pointless, but it orients one and directs his desire.

That's religion. Doing something for a release and for a wish. It might look like floating, or swimming, or surfing, or drowning. It might look like fun or fear or deference. But it's actually futility playing futility, an actor playing the part of herself. It's an undercover cop who actually is corrupt.

This is not a criticism of religion. How could it be?

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