March 22, 2012

Outside the Mud Hole

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I got into several lengthy conversations as a result of my post The Mud Hole of Religion( While not actually throwing mud, we were pitching terms and labels (non-evangelical, anti-intellectual, liberal) apparently assuming that we knew what we meant and everyone understood the words in the same way. After it all fizzled away, I gave myself an exercise of creating some definitions without consulting Merriam-Webster or Wikipedia.  Here’s what I came up with:

Thoughts are words, images and ideas that flit continually through our minds.

Beliefs are the thoughts that re-occur often enough that we choose to believe they have taken up residence and can’t flit.

Spirituality has to do with our private, personal, idiosyncratic thoughts and senses about who we are, how we got here, and what happens to us when we die; and what we believe, if anything, about forces that seem larger than our own minds.

Religions are structures that attempt to codify behavior and beliefs for a group of people, using the culture’s or sub-culture’s ideas about spirituality.

Fundamentalism is a belief that certain ideals are  inviolate truths which apply to all people, all times and all places.

Evangelicalism is an attitude that attempts to persuade others to believe something on the basis that it’s better than what they currently believe.

Government is a structure that addresses the immediate physical concerns of people currently alive.

If this was one of those exams where they ask “which does not belong?” we could safely dispense with government. Government does not belong with religion. Full stop.

The most problematic concepts left on the list are, for me, fundamentalism and evangelicalism. We all have some of both.  We all get excited about things and make statements like “You’ll love this book,” the subtext being “because I did.” That’s a rather benign evangelicalism.  We all have our own fundamentals, our non-negotiables, our deal-breakers, the logic of our own integrity.  For some of us, these can change over the course of a life-time as we change and as our circumstances change.  This is a different paradigm than one which ascribes all authority to someone or something outside herself: a scripture, a deity, a pope, a party platform, parents, a tradition, a man. So far, so good because we all do that some of the time, too.

Fundamental thinking gets ugly when the logic of someone else’s integrity is smeared all over the rest of us. There’s an organization called “Christians Tired of Being Misrepresented” which says: “What you believe is not the problem. What you believe I should believe is the problem.” .

In music, a note is sometimes called the fundamental.  You sing the pitch or strike the note on the piano and when the sound is alive, you hear overtones, little shoots of other fundamentals. You hear/feel the sound resonating in different places other than right there in the vocal cords or on the piano keyboard.  If the sound is dead, you hear the clunk of the note, but no ringing, no whistling, and you feel no vibrations, nothing to suggest music of the heavenly spheres.

Singers experience a fundamental as a range, not a discrete point of sound.  Singers can push a note to its edges and enter a quarter-tone. In the western scale, we don’t have a special name for a pitch that’s a quarter-tone sharp.  We still call it the fundamental.

To me, the most fascinating part of the tone is its core.  Once I enter what seems like the core, it moves.  I move with it.  I follow the core of the tone all around what we are still calling the fundamental.  If I decide the center is a discrete place to concentrate my breath, the tone goes dead.  It’s the movement that keeps the sound alive.  But when the note is entered with grace and when its acoustics are arranged with care, it can resonate with life.

Life is like this.  There is no center. The core moves.  No one owns it, no one gets it all to herself. When I enter it, that’s grace.  When I lose track of it but I know it’s still somewhere, that’s faith.






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