thoughts on religion, and on being human

How well you are getting to know this window sill. Right now, it's the only place in the apartment bright enough to take a photo.

During the last, manic week of the Fall semester, I started reading Dakota by Kathleen Norris. It had taken me almost a year to start it; my Dad gave me my copy for Christmas last year (that is, 2011). He wrote,

Dear Lizzie,

While you may not be interested in the Benedictine influence and references, this book is still, in my opinion, essential reading for any aspiring poet!

I was quite affected by this note. My Dad, an Anglican priest interested in liturgical tradition, knows that I have been an atheist since I was 16. But as it turns out, I am interested in the Benedictine influence and references in this book about life and community on the Great Plains. In fact, though Norris is, all-around, insightful and enjoyable, the writing about monasticism and spirituality is what I've been copying into my notebook:

"I began to find that many of the things modern people assume are irrelevant--the liturgical year, the liturgy of the hours, the Incarnation as an everyday reality--are in fact essential to my identity and my survival. I'm not denying the past, or trying to bring it back, but am seeking in my inheritance what theologian Letty Russel terms "a usable past." Perhaps I am also redefining frontier not as a place you exploit and abandon but as a place where you build on the past for the future." (133)

"Both monasteries and the rural communities on the Plains are places where nothing much happens. Paradoxically, they are also places where being open to conversion is most necessary is community is to survive. The inner impulse toward conversion, a change of heart, may be muted in a city, where outward change is fast, noisy, ever-present. But in the small town, in the quiet arena, a refusal to grow (which is one way Gregory of Nyssa defined sin) makes any constructive change impossible. Both monasteries and small towns lose their ability to be truly hospitable to the stranger when people use them as a place to hide out, a place to escape from the demands of life." (146)

Reading Dakota, I've been struck by an idea, just now developing, that religion, as a human-made system for dealing with and describing life, for making meaning, can be--and very likely often is--relevant to me as an atheist. I do not need to believe in a god, or an afterlife, or an absolute standard against one can "sin", in order to recognize the importance of feast-days, or the reality of acedia in the 16 hours per day of darkness we experience here in the middle of Winter, or the absolute necessity of personal reflection, written or voiced, which for many people takes the form of prayer.

(I think this has been my intellectual view for a quite a while, but one is always hedgy about making these things personal. An atheist reading a book subtitled "A Spiritual Geography"? Oh dear.)


I've been thinking of religion (in particular, Christianity, the tradition of my family and--largely--of my country) as a historical inheritance. Less as set of irredeemably misguided beliefs and more as a collection of the ways in which humans much like myself have responded to and tried to understand themselves and their own lives. And it is not all bunk. 

In Norris's reaction to the faith of her grandmothers, I see a great deal of myself, reading my great-Oma's memoirs over the summer: 

"All of my grandparents lived out their faith on the Plains. My paternal grandparents, the Reverend John Luther Norris and his wife, Beatrice, served twelve Methodist churches in South Dakota, and several more in Iowa. Prairie people have long memories, and they still tell stories about my grandfather's kindness. One man recalls that after his wife died, leaving him with several small children, he began drinking heavily. My grandfather came to his house one day to do the family's laundry, and though the man was drinking the whole time, my grandfather never preached about it; he just kept talking to him about his plans for the future, and, as he put it, "helped me straighten up my life." In his youth, my grandfather had been a black sheep in the Methodist fold, and he often exhibited more tolerance and flexibility than his wife, who clung to a rigid and often fierce fundamentalism." (93)

As Norris says, "Religion in in my blood, and in my ghosts" (99). Religion was the primary way in which my grandparents and great-grandparents acted out their desire to do right by themselves and the people around them. It was their primary source of comfort as they hid from Russian soldiers and later struggled to establish themselves in Canada. My mother's whole extended family dynamic is based on a worldview that I no longer subscribe to, but maybe I can still subscribe to its traditions, its often (though not always) keen perception of human nature.

In all this, I worry about being presumptuous. Would I be pleased to learn of someone commandeering the lovely metaphorical value of evolution, while denying its reality? Am I doing something exactly analogous here? Even my way of relating to and admiring them may hurt and irritate people that I respect. How to couch my terms sufficiently?

But I do think that this idea is right. I do think I have things to learn from the Benedictines. I do think religion represents a fascinating picture of human nature in history. I do think that people are entirely material beings who must often behave as if they have a soul.