May 22, 2012 - World Religions    13 Comments

Living the Questions

One of the hats I wear upon my surprisingly pink head is that of a religious studies scholar. Believe me, I’m as shocked as anyone that I ended up that way, but there you have it. It’s mostly the fault of medieval studies–it’s pretty much impossible to become educated about the Middle Ages (not just in Europe, but in many cultures) without learning about the religions and the institutions they create.

But I started my inquiries about religion much earlier than grad school. When I went through an abusive relationship in high school that ended in sexual assault, I knew from my mother’s and grandmother’s examples that that was when faith was supposed to kick in and help guide me through dark times. But it didn’t, and I didn’t have a good reason why it didn’t, except that I hadn’t accepted my Methodist upbringing as deeply as I’d thought. Sure, I was Bible Trivia CHAMPION, and sang in choirs and ensembles from the time I was five, but when it came to unswerving belief in the tenets of Christianity? I just didn’t have it.

A lot of young people go through a crisis of faith like this at some point, and it’s pretty common for them to swing way out to the most diametrically opposed idea of religion that they can imagine, then gradually work their way back in to something pretty close to where they started. A kid raised Lutheran may flirt with Quakerism or (gasp!) atheism in their teens and 20s, but usually drifts back as they establish a career and family, ending up with, say, United Church of Christ.

Griffin says, "The Doctors are going to church." I guess Time Lords and Silurians are Unitarian Universalists too (note the flaming chalice, our religious symbol, in the center).

Did I do that? Oh, no. That would’ve been too easy. In my weird Asperger’s brain, I decided that I must have missed something in Christianity, so I set about re-reading the Bible, and a bunch of the Church fathers and modern theologians. When that didn’t yield an answer, I thought maybe Protestantism was the problem, so I looked into Catholicism. Nope, not there either. Maybe Jesus was the hitch? Judaism was fascinating, and I loved the ancientness of its traditions, but no, no faith there. I expanded my search gradually outward, into Asian religions and secular philosophy, in an ever-widening circle of texts and ideas. I loved so much of what I found–the beauty, the ritual, the breathtaking elegance and complexity of both physical and spiritual architectures–and I saw the pathways light up with common themes and practices. I found my own truth in a completely unexpected place, and years later, shocked myself right down to my boots by discovering an actual church home in Unitarian Universalism.

That bright skyline of connections stayed with me, though, and when I began my grad work in medieval Celtic history, I was drawn to the messy intersections where politics and faith collided, maneuvered, and eventually negotiated a common space in medieval culture. The space between what the Church was officially teaching and what the Irish people appear to have believed practically leapt off the page, and I started to pick at the stitches of Irish syncretism, or the meeting and merging of the island’s pre-Christian faith with the new Mediterranean import. Without the official government structure of Ancient Rome for support, and eventually to be co-opted by the Church, Ireland was a weird, awesome case study. I eventually found another, similar collision, on the other side of the world in medieval Japan, where Buddhism slid into Shinto like so many tectonic plates.

In my teaching, I returned again and again to the common threads among religions, which seemed so much more important and interesting than the differences. Even when I was teaching Early and Medieval Christianity, I found I couldn’t, in good conscience, teach about events like the Crusades without giving my students the basic grounding in Islam that they weren’t receiving anywhere else, even at a major university like Penn State. I made this a feature of my classes, and the students seemed grateful to be getting that information, especially post-9/11. A few students took exception to my treatment of their scriptures as, first and foremost, historical artifacts, rather than the direct word from on high; others might have been jolted by the way I talked about saints and wise men as both mortals and archetypes, instead of the uncritical figureheads populating their stories of faith. But, year after year, kids and adults alike told me how they’d gone to church their whole lives and never heard voices like the ones I brought into the classroom, or understood what sacred texts meant to be saying, and I’m proud and hopeful that the historical perspective prompted their own inquiries.

In a time when so much of our society and politics are influenced by the often-radical views of loud religious minorities, I think it’s worth shining a little light on the ideas and practices that bind us together. I want to share some of the sources and stories I’ve taught over the years, and I’ll probably end up doing it in roughly the format I designed for the last general religion class I taught: around the common themes of sacredness in terms of space, time, people, deeds, texts, and events. Let me make this clear: I’m not looking to change anybody’s mind, or convert anybody from one thing to another, or even challenge anybody’s faith. I have no agenda beyond asking the questions, and hopefully giving others a glimpse of that intricate web that connects us all. I’ll primarily talk about religion, which is the structure of beliefs and practices, as opposed to faith, which is the intellectual and emotional resonance of the truth humans seek. I’m always open to questions or counterpoints, but I want the dialogue to be open and respectful. Hopefully, we’ll all be able to see the value in each others’ values.


  • Waiting for the next installment. In the meantime, any book suggestions that I could start reading?????

    • A great book to start with is Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero. He makes the case that it’s impossible to have an informed opinion about current events without basic knowledge of the world’s religions, a view I wholeheartedly endorse. I’ll have a more nuanced reading list up on Friday.

  • Great post. Like I said on twitter I wrote a sort of parallel piece on my own origin story which is here. I’ll also be thinking about books to recommend, especially once i’m moved into my own place, and can see my own books.

  • Thanks for writing this I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. I wandered away from my Methodist upbringing mostly because I became too involved in my youth. I saw behind the curtain and became very disillusioned with all the petty politics that actually goes into running any organization.

    I went through a similar process of looking at different alternatives. Despite settling on a framework that works for me reasonably quickly I still spend a fair bit of time studying and learning about other faiths as well as my own. It really helps to see that there are so many different paths to spiritual fulfillment.

    • Kids are exceptionally perceptive of artificiality and pointlessness–it’s both awesome and infuriating for adults to be confronted by a kid who sees through everything. And what I enjoy most about examining religion still comes through the filters of anthropology and history, harking back to that time when I was looking at them all as equal possibilities without a dog of my own in the fight.

      I’m not going to talk a lot about my own faith (which you know more about than most, James), though I’ll mention my church home from time to time as I did in this post. I studiously avoided disclosing my own beliefs in all the years I taught religious studies, and I took strange pride in overhearing students discussing their predictions, based on the detail and appreciation I devoted to each one. There’ll probably be a post at some point where I talk about what’s worked for me, but it’ll come later.

      • I definitely knew I was looking for something even before I left the church. I was the inquisitive kid who asked all the difficult questions at the wrong times. Oh, the Sunday school lesson plans I ruined. I was always curious what other faiths were doing, what their experience was.

        I still question faith all the time. I suppose that is just part of who I am. However, I care about my community (even the ones that drive me crazy) and still have a great love for the beauty of the rituals. So even when I’m in a doubting mood I still find comfort there.

        I agree, there is so much in anthropology and history to be learned. I regularly find more use in those disciplines, even where they challenge faith, than a lot of actual religious oriented writing.

        It is awesome that you were able to keep your beliefs to yourself throughout the time you were teaching and present things that way. I’ll definitely keep anything I might know on the subject to myself throughout these conversations.

  • It’s certainly worth thinking about the changes within religions and the strange agglomerations that result from them, if only to realize that a single lifetime yields a spectacularly small piece of a faith’s history. The christians of today practice their faith very differently from the christians of the late 18th century when the U.S. was founded.
    For my part, I can’t say as I’ve ever had a crisis of faith because I don’t know if I ever had faith. From a very, very young age I remember church just being that thing my mom made me do every Sunday. It was a “good Catholic househould” where mom took the three kids to church every Sunday. Dad went fishing most Sundays but dutifully showed up for Christmas, Palm Sunday, and Easter. Around the age of 8 I decided that church and religion just weren’t my thing. I never read the Bible at home, much preferring the more coherent narrative of the novels we had at home. To this day I haven’t told my mother about my agnosticism.

    • That’s a totally valid path–truth can be found in so many different paths, and humans try to answer their questions through art just as much as they do through religion. And coming out religiously is just as much a “coming out” experience as it is about sexuality, or abuse, or a disability. It’s terrifying, and sometimes traumatizing, and nothing is ever the same afterward; sometimes, honestly, the pros and cons show it just isn’t worth it with some people. But living your truth openly is empowering and freeing, and opens up pathways and companions you never imagined were out there.

  • Thank you for another very thought ful piece Professor. I will look forward to your futher thoughts on this subject. As a parent I wonder at hos I have done as far as guiding my kids (12 and 14 now). I was raised EspiscaMethoPresbytirian and ended up a respectful non-churchgoer. My wife grew up Catholic, but basically ended up where I was more or less as well. My son, the older child, is with very religious people all the time (his Science Olympiad team is conservatively Christian, lead by Mennonites; his Boy Scout troop is run by a local Mormon Church; homeschooling in general brings him into contact with a lot of religious seperatists). Our reasons for home schooling were always secular, and he has decided that he is a completely secular positivist agnostic (sometimes a little eye rolling there too). My daughter, the younger child, is much more interested in religion, and has been especially influenced by friends who are pretty conservative evangelicals. She sometimes gets invited to go to church with them and likese to go. Yet, she does not put any pressure on going to church as a family, and, I think she would probably see regular church going as competition for the other things she likes to schedule (like sports) on the weekend.

    So, on the one hand, I am letting them find their own way, and I am providing guidance and advice as I can. But, I guess for me, if you are not uncertain about some of these things as a parent, maybe you are doing it wrong.

    I think reading about your thoughts and seeing your course notes and reading suggestions will probably help as I continue to develop as a parent.

    That is really valuable, and I thank you for sharing your valuable time and thoughts.

    • Thanks for the praise, Evan. And it’s awesome that you’re letting your kids take their own lead on the engagement with religion. The best thing you can do for them at those ages is just expose them to as much as possible–I highly recommend the DK books about various world religions; Usborne also has a fantastic Encyclopedia of World Religions with web-based support.

      For myself, I went through brief periods of wild curiosity as a kid, whenever I was exposed to a new lifestyle, usually after seeing it in a movie or reading about it in a book. I remember the hours I spent playing in the little Jewish village part of a children’s museum near Chicago, the perfect place to act out everything I’d seen in Fiddler on the Roof. 🙂 And, after my eldest read the Percy Jackson books in second grade, he announced that he was probably a Greek polytheist because, in his words, “the universe is just way too much work for one god.” I nodded acceptingly and we talked about a whole bunch of different religions that thought that too, even Catholicism to some extent with its “pantheon” of saints.

      It’s pretty hard to get it wrong with kids if you approach everything with an open mind. 🙂

  • I still think it’s amusing that at least 2 of us from that Methodist youth group in high school ended up on pagan paths 🙂

  • What I have found to be at the core of every religion that has stood the test of time is this: Be good to yourself; be good to other people.

    Everything else is commentary and example. Unfortunately, most people get caught up in the commentary and forget the core. It’s too bad more people don’t understand that one underlying fact of their own religion.

  • […] Religion is a tricky thing. I should know–on a variety of levels, I’ve been studying the features and interactions of religion since I was a little girl. In fact, I made a profession of it, quite by accident, as I’ve recounted before. […]

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