[UPDATE, 10/12, 12:15PM: The footnotes, which I had neglected to include when I first published this post, are in now. I had already begun writing the second part of this essay, and when I copied and pasted Part I below, I forgot to skip down to the bottom of my draft copy to retrieve the footnotes. Thanks, Addofio, for making the catch, and apologies to everyone else who had been searching in vain for footnotes.]
So my buddy Mike calls me the other day, and we have a good talk about everything and nothing, as often happens between the best of friends. I've known Mike since the third grade. In this call, we talk about family (he's married and has three wonderful kids, one of whom is my goddaughter), about the possibility of getting together to just hang... and at some point in the conversation Mike mentions that, after reading my comical post about Obama and McCain getting married, the thought crossed his mind that just maybe that's the sort of post that should have gone on my other blog, the one I haven't been updating since I began this walk-- the edgier one I don't normally talk about here.
Mike already knew what I would say in response to this sentiment, and he agreed: a man can do whatever the hell he wants on his own blog. This is one reason why I don't leave comments on other people's blogs asking them to change things around.* I'm a very tolerant and generally accepting person-- go be yourself! I resent that other people aren't that way, and I consider it a violation of my personal space when someone performs the cyber-equivalent of coming into my apartment and claiming I need to rearrange the furniture.
None of which applies to Mike. As he told me, he had considered mentioning this earlier, then had thought better of it-- very likely because he had gone through the same thought process I had. So why did he bring it up at all? To make conversation, he laughed.
Twice before, however, a related question has come up on this blog in somewhat different form, so I thought it might be time to tackle the matter head-on here. While this blog is at least ostensibly devoted to matters religious, you may have picked up on the fact that, overall, I don't sound very religious. In fact, I sound more like someone who'd rather be cracking fart and dick jokes than engaging in God-talk. There are many reasons why that's so, and it's a big topic-- one I haven't really felt ready to discuss before now. I'm not sure I'll be covering all the bases in this post, but I'd like to try and address some of the underlying issues about what makes me tick and why the blog often seems to be about topics not relevant to religion.
Long-time readers may recall that a commenter once expressed disappointment that this blog wasn't showcasing enough explicitly religious (or interreligious) writing. My response to this was essentially what I noted above: only I dictate my blog's content. If I'm gonna be dictator of something, it might as well be something as generally harmless and inconsequential as a blog.** That response obviously didn't address the issue raised in the comment. A person could be forgiven for thinking my response was a petulant non-answer, but please note that, from my point of view, the comment struck me as a call to furniture-rearrangement-- i.e., it was rude. At least one other commenter expressed a more muted version of the same sentiment. While three comments out of thousands of possible comments aren't enough to make me engage in deep introspection followed by a show of repentance, they are enough to make me want to stop and lay out my point of view.
What Mike was saying, if I read him correctly, was that the political post, given its tone and content, didn't belong here at Kevin's Walk. The other commenters came at the problem from the opposite direction: More explicitly religious content, please. All three people were proceeding from an assumption about this blog's purity and focus. Despite my resentment of such personal-space violations, I've tried to address the problem by providing interview transcripts and, recently, YouTube videos that directly address religious issues of interest to me. I've also written about the difficulty of writing transcripts while on the road and without steady access to an actual computer; trying to write transcripts on the BlackBerry would leave me with crippled thumbs to keep company with my bad knee. In addition, I have written-- more than occasionally-- about certain religious issues, and people have been free to opine about them in the comments section.
But the fact remains that many of my posts can be seen, with some justification, as irrelevant to religious matters. I have, for example, written a great deal about what it's like to walk in various weather conditions; I've also written about blisters, shredded hip skin, bodily stink after not washing for more than a few days, topics other than religion that I've discussed with the people I've met, food I've cooked and/or eaten... and of course, I've gone on and on about my poor right knee. Add to the mix the occasional post on politics, and little "brain fart" ditties about nothing in particular, and you may be left wondering whether this blog has even a whiff of the religious about it.
My response: You just don't understand. And here's why.
I've heard the word "holy" defined by our church's previous pastor as "set apart." This is a perfectly acceptable way of looking at the sacred; most scholars and clergy and laypeople share this view on some level. That amazing Romanian historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, quite literally wrote the book on the division of the world into the sacred and the profane (where "profane" means ordinary, not the vulgar or obscene) in a work titled, aptly enough, The Sacred and the Profane. In his work, Eliade talks about how objects like natural stone formations acquire their sacrality; consistent with what my former pastor said, Eliade notes that something about these objects sets them apart from their natural surroundings. Something makes them special, or even unique, and it is from or through this specialness that an experience of the holy is possible. The sacred object is a conduit for a hierophany, that is to say, a manifestation or eruption of the sacred into the world of the profane. Ordinary time is sundered; something awful or numinous or inspiring has come among us.
Eliade is pointing to a pancultural phenomenon, one that can be seen in religious traditions great and small. Time and the world are divided into different sectors, some of which are radically more important than others. Look, for example, at how this plays out in religious Buddhism: a temple is a sacred space, set apart from the everyday. The Buddhist liturgical calendar is littered with special days, and non-monastics will flock to the temples on those days to perform rituals-- i.e., special gestures-- they wouldn't normally perform. You might not be Buddhist, but all this probably sounds familiar, because this division of time and space is as natural to human beings as the progression of the stars and the seasons.
Even people who engage in rituals every day will divide their 24 hours into special and not-special moments. We simply can't spend our lives goggling in awe at everything around us, buffeted by the miraculous; we'd go crazy if we tried. Instead, we're built to appreciate the cosmos in an emotionally sinusoidal manner: now it's holy-time, now it's not-so-holy time. If every moment were a "wow" moment, "wow" would cease to be meaningful. Seeing the universe in terms of the sacred and the profane is therefore perfectly legitimate. We're wired to make such divisions.
It's been a long time since I looked at my copy of The Sacred and the Profane, so I can't remember whether or to what extent Eliade might have dealt with another, equally powerful religious undercurrent: the one that sees the sacred and the profane as not-two, that identifies the Absolute with the Ordinary. Without digging around for my copy of Eliade's book, I surmise he would have been comfortable with this nondualistic view because it, too, permeates religious sensibility.
In this other, nondualistic way of looking at things, it's impossible to separate the holy from the ordinary, the sacred from the profane. Muslims understand this sentiment in an intensely theistic way-- a way I don't share, and that in fact makes me somewhat nervous at times. Many Western Christians are this way as well, whatever they may profess about the separation of Church and State-- that supposedly agreed-upon division of life into secular and sacred domains. My own version of this religious undercurrent is closer to the Zen or philosophical Taoist way of looking at things, but there's also a strong dose of scriptural Christianity in it. Both streams of tradition, South/East Asian and Western/Middle Eastern, inform my outlook.***
Zen sees itself as "nothing special." That's one of the reasons why I'm very suspicious of a book like Philip Kapleau's The Three Pillars of Zen, which contains testimonies of "enlightenment" experiences that sound, at least to me, no different from ecstatic visions-- Westerners once again misappropriating Zen, ex-Christians fleeing their own tradition and undergoing charismatic experiences in another religion.**** I have an instinctive mistrust of people who so willingly let themselves go over the edge. While there's something to be said for trusting the cosmos and stepping into the abyss, there's more to be said for remaining grounded in the moment, because this moment is all there is.
I call myself a Christian, but I also call myself a nontheist and a scientific skeptic; I'd like to consider myself grounded in the Now, not oriented toward a Hereafter or a divine Other. I don't see reality in terms of a personal God; in fact, I seriously doubt such a God exists. As a scientific skeptic, I realize that I can never avow with absolute conviction that there is no such God; neither science nor pure logic will ever be able to prove God's existence or nonexistence conclusively. At the same time, my empirical orientation gives me reason to believe in the probability that the God of classical theism doesn't exist. So: am I even religious?
Yes, I would say I am.
I consider myself religious because I experience those numinous moments, those "aha"s and "wow"s that offer a glimpse of how deeply, ocean-deep, this life reaches. And it's not miraculous; it just is, and that's enough. This, this now, just this, is the Way of Things. It's amazing, yet amazingly mundane. Every glance, every jostle, every pivot, every twinkle of a baby's eye, every grandmother's delighted cackle, every twitch of a prowling kitten's tail, is infused with infinite significance. And by the same token: every bellowed swear word, every dollop of poop, every punch thrown in anger, every murder, every natural disaster-- these things, too, are pregnant with meaning. All these phenomena together make up the Holy and the Ordinary, twins who aren't twins at all, but one and the same.
For me, seeing the sacred and the profane as not-two is what brings me down to earth in the middle of a baptism. It's also what makes me delight in the weight of a happy dog, far too big for my lap but still sprawled there, chest up, begging for a scratch. These events happening around me and in me and through me-- this is the world's dance, life interacting with itself, energy at play! And that energy includes the painful knees, the culinary successes and failures, the shenanigans of our politicians, the moments of boredom when all one can do is blow fart noises through one's lips. Holy and ordinary: not-two. Korean Seon Buddhists talk about man-haeng, the ten thousand practices, where every single thing we do is, in some way, religious practice. Prayer is practice, but so is scratching your ass. It's not so much that scratching your ass is infused with the over-dramatic glow of the holy; it's more that prayer isn't so far removed from ass-scratching.
So you might think I've been blogging about topics not relevant to religion, but if you take a peek at the world from this Zen or philosophical Taoist perspective, you'll see that I've been doing nothing but blogging about religion. I don't expect that sentiment to satisfy most of you, but there we are.
[To be continued. We still have to talk about the Christian aspect of this issue.]
*Or did I once leave a comment at the Marmot's Hole asking Robert to stop screwing with his damn template? I don't recall. I may have to amend my statement to, "I don't normally leave comments..." Side note: given how close a friend Mike is, I'd consider him one of the few people who would have the right to muscle in and give me an earful about whatever was on his mind, blog-related or not.
**I concede things might be different if I had thousands of readers and was getting several tens of thousands of hits per day. A blogging powerhouse may have to watch his step. As Ben Parker told Peter Parker, "With great power comes great responsibility. Oh, and chicks. Chicks dig power." Then again, I'd like to think that, were this blog suddenly to go stratospheric, however unlikely that might be, I'd try to remain as true to myself as possible.
***I say "South/East Asian" because Zen Buddhists will insist that the roots of their tradition go back to the Buddha himself (cf. the "flower sermon" with Mahakasyapa's beatific smile as the punchline), but the general tenor of Zen is so thoroughly philosophical Taoist that it would be wrong to exclude East Asia in talking about this tradition. I say "Western/Middle Eastern" because Christianity is, as many people like to point out, not originally a Western religion. However, Christianity's fusion with Greek thought-- that turbulent merging of Athens and Jerusalem averred to by Raimondo Panikkar and others-- has made much of Christendom thoroughly Western, whether we look at it metaphysically or culturally or historically. As the product of a Protestant tradition, I can't deny the Westernness of my own Christianity.
****There's a real, knock-down, drag-out debate to be had over whether I should be putting the blame so firmly on Western shoulders. Asian practitioners of Zen have written about their enlightenment experiences, and some of those writings also possess an ecstatic tone. Suffice it to say that I'm suspicious of those Asian writers as well.
*****The "goodness/pizza" image is one I've used before, in my book Water from a Skull. It comes from a lecture on Buddhism by Dr. Charles B. Jones at Catholic University. Relationality is an important concept in Asian thinking. What a thing is is absolutely a function of its relationship to other things. Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, even went so far as to say that the relationship comes first; the objects are secondary. This is the reverse of how we tend to think in the West: we'll normally posit two discrete objects, then construct or perceive a relationship between them.