Mine was a patchwork God, sewn together from bits of rag and ribbon, Eastern and Western, pagan and Hebrew, everything but the kitchen sink and Jesus.
– Anne Lamott
GIF by Laurène Boglio
Where does religion sit with you? I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a belief system serviced by a corruptible army of soldiers- priests and godmen who evangelize with the advantage of power asymmetry and the language of fear, like a schoolyard bully who has kindergarteners flock to him with their lunch money, unbidden. There’s an old story that illustrates my point. A group of monks was passing through a forest when they heard a whimper. The sound led them to a stream where a woman was tending to her bloodied leg, battered by a branch that had fallen on her. She was naked (she was there to bathe) and in agony. The chief monk helped cover her up, hoisted her into his arms and off they went. When they reached her stop he dropped her off and resumed their journey. He’d been hearing rumblings of disapproval throughout- his fellow monks were a seriously pious lot and didn’t like him touching the woman, carrying her as lovers do each other. ‘What you did wasn’t right ‘, said one accusingly, ‘She barely had clothes on, and it isn’t in our faith to touch or hold a woman, much less a naked one.’ ‘How can you live with yourself?’ spat another. ‘You have defiled your faith and cast a shadow on your greatness.’ ‘It was obscene,’ said yet another, shaking his head. ‘She was obscene. Did you see how little she had on? We would have done well to leave her alone and beseech a common passerby on her behalf.’ The chief monk listened with both sadness and amusement, and when they had finished airing their spite and their disappointment, said, ‘Fellow monks and brothers, I set her down hours ago. What is clear to me however, is that you haven’t.’
And so it is that these men- and they are almost always men- sermonizing from their pulpits and their gaddis in the gilded echoing halls of temples and churches inspire in me the opposite of reassuring calm. I feel a queasiness, a trappedness I can’t explain, the urge to flee the second the mic screeches to warn you of the start of a sermon meant expressly to inspire hot shame and guilt and feelings of inadequacy. Like a cook slapping the crumbly bits of dough that get away and the errant lumps that refuse to meld into something both compact and infinite, so do these henchmen of religion corral crowds into obedient uniformity. The crowd responds to the force of the preacher’s manufactured rage much like dough responds to pummeling fists- by huddling and folding in on themselves, then dispersing, then gathering again, over and over and over till they are set in their beliefs and still perfectly pliable, both hard and soft, the best dough. This is my problem with religion- it calls for a complete transfer of power from devotee to figurehead, the sort of yielding I have and will never be ready for. Why must I subject myself to the organized belittling that passes for religious instruction?
Instead I like to think of my faith as a part scientific, part philosophical, all hedonistic pursuit of self awareness. A Kung Fu Panda approach to ‘inner peace’- lots of delicious food, equal and fulfilling relationships with those I love, and a living that combines compassion with discipline, levity with logic, joy with humility. In my faith there are no gods, just a cosmic masterplan governed by inevitability, affirming the natural conclusion that we must make our time here count, and do it with kindness and good humour. There is also- weirdly- a love of every hymn and bhajan ever written and happy childhood memories of caroling to a harmonium. My faith is a glorious messy thing, and I’m okay with that.