Friday, March 27, 2015

Finding My Religion

Over on Facebook I often find myself verbally butting heads with a co-worker from long ago over the topic of religion.  Even though I self-identify these days as a materialist and consider the twenty years I spent as a Catholic convert to be memories of times past, my position in our debates is always in defense of religion Whenever I link to a story that shows religion in any kind of a favorable light, I trust that my friend will soon comment on the dangers of all metaphysical world views, the superiority of science to religion, and the religious education of the young as a form of child abuse (here I'm doing a gross disservice to his more nuanced arguments).

Religion in all of its many forms has been a major curiosity of mine since I was seven and attended summer vacation Bible school at the Baptist church in Greensboro, North Carolina.  These days I usually write "religion" with scare quotes because I think no one has a comprehensive definition of the phenomenon with which I can agree.  The old "if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck" argument no longer seems valid.  It's not that there aren't any definitions but that there are way too many and most seem inadequate for describing what people do and think that might be called "religious." Those with the most rigid definitions tend to be atheists, those critics Schleiermacher called religion's "cultured despisers." In my experience, they inevitably try to dictate what the faithful must believe and then condemn it. Whenever I see this happening, I go into lawyer mode for the defense.

Now that I'm in the last quarter of my century, I live in Thailand where the religion of 97% of the population is said to be Buddhism. Christianity has never gotten much of a foothold here, and those Muslims living in the south have been trying to break away for decades. While Buddhism isn't officially the state religion, it's included in the government's purview and the current military dictatorship is trying to wrest control for prosecuting misbehaving monks from the ruling Sangha Council.  Buddhist temples here in Bangkok are almost as common as 7-11s.  They're usually crowded with Thais "making merit" (tam bun in Thai) by bringing gifts (often an orange bucket full of trivial items for a 20 baht donation) and receiving a blessing from the monk on duty.  We keep an altar of icons atop our bookshelf (photo above) and refresh the flowers and liquid offerings every Wan Phra (monk day on the four phases of the moon). My wife says her prayers each night before going to sleep, and when I ask what she prays for, she says "that everyone be happy."

My objective in this post and perhaps a few more in the future is to ponder the word "religion" and what the term might point to that both pleases and upsets so many.  I've written much about my own experiences with religious beliefs and practices here during the last nine years.  After all, it's the first topic in the title of my blog!  Now, however, I'd like to think a bit deeper about the disparate reactions to the phenomena that people generally think of as religious.  A number of my friends get absolutely venomous about any form of religion, and slam all of it as backward, stupid and possibly lethal. These days, fundamentalism, Islamic as well as Christian, is the object of their ire, but many atheists, new and old, argue that tolerance towards any religious thinking or activity is ludicrous.  Just as anti-drug campaigns declared that smoking marijuana opened the door to cocaine and heroin, anti-religion activists believe that even liberal or progressive religion is a stepping stone to fundamentalist extremism.

Maybe I'm tolerant toward religion because I never went to Catholic school and got my butt slapped by a nun with a ruler.  My mother joined the most fashionable churches in the many places where we moved as I was growing up while my father claimed he found his god on the golf course.  I learned about the different world religions from a couple of books given to me by a friend in high school.  In college another friend's outwardly respectable mother communicated telepathically with flying saucers and wrote a book called Wisdom of the Universe.  For a time I took part in her study group and fell in love with all the kookiness of New Age Thought that predates by many years the hippies and other more modern New Agers. For years I thought there must me something more to life and pursued a plethora of spiritual disciplines, from chanting, meditation and genuflecting to alcohol and psychedelics.  But I never had that AHA! moment I thought and hoped was possible at the end of the journey.

Despite the disappointment of not achieving what was after all only a creation of my imagination, I have remained compassionate toward others who continue to seek what I did not discover. It's up to each of us to find our own way, so why be angry with anyone who choses a path you would not? Of course it's easier to be tolerant of the seekers than of the true believers who think they've found the truth and urge, nay demand, that you recognize theirs and validate it by joining them.  I suspect the anti-religion activists are more angry about the finders than the seekers.  There is something obnoxious about the missionary who solicits your conversion and won't take "no" for an answer.

Atheism is not really an adequate term for despisers of religion.  It denies the existence of gods and other metaphysical entities but doesn't really get at the whole "spiritual but not religious" movement of seekers today.  What happens when you pull the rug of religion out from under their feet? Buddhism, at least the modern form of it in the west, gets a pass since many of its proponents argue that Buddha didn't propose a god.  There is ample evidence that Buddhism was re-tooled in Thailand, Tibet and Sri Lanka for western consumption, made to seem more scientific and anti-metaphysical than the early scriptures would indicate. There are passages in the Pali scripture where Buddha speaks of devas and the different realms of heaven and hell, embarrassingly close to the monotheistic cosmologies.  Visitors to Thailand are surprised to see so many icons of Hindu deities in shrines, to learn of the popular belief in spirits, both good and bad, and to hear of the many methods of protection against spirits enjoyed by Thais, from tattoos to amulets.

Despisers of religion prefer science based on evidence and reason as the best description and guide for reality.  The scientific method yields truth, or at least the best hypothesis until a better one comes along to explain the origin or the mechanics of how life works.  Any other method comes up with superstition and idolatry.  Religion is ignorance writ large.  To deny the facts of science is stupid, and dangerous.  After explicating the mechanics of evolution, Richard Dawkins has devoted his life to stamping out the disgusting vermin of religion.  Others have joined him: the late iconoclast Christopher Hitchings, philosopher Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris (who says he's a Buddhist) and the comic commentator Bill Maher who lampooned religious belief in his documentary "Religulous."  At times their activities have the air of a crusade.  The social media has allowed atheism to become more vocal and more prominent, although it remains the kiss of death of politicians.

Some pretty scary people can be found at both ends of the spectrum.  In America numerous elected officials are making pronouncements supposedly based on Christian teaching that encourage hatred and discrimination of others.  In the Middle East, fanatics claiming to be Muslims are slaughtering their opponents and anyone who gets in their way with Medieval efficiency.  Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka declare that Islam is a threat to their nationalist religion.  On the other end of the spectrum, official atheism in the Soviet Union under Stalin and Mao in China was responsible for hardship and death.  The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Viet Cong in Vietnam destroyed churches and monasteries and tried unsuccessful to stamp out religion.  Eliminating religion is about as successful as forced conversions.  After the breakup of the USSR, orthodox Christianity came back with a vengeance and now is a conservative force in Russia.

Religion is the elephant and we are the blind describing it from different perspectives with only the other senses to go by.  My current point of view is to avoid the word "religion" as much as possible. It has become reified beyond all meaning.  Atheists frequently mean by it the religious institutions, authorities and sacred texts.  It's easy to ridicule the monotheisms by pulling texts out of context from the Bible or Quran.  Religion they believe refers to dogma, to the propositions that followers must affirm according to their leaders.  If you argue that Catholics get abortions and use birth control just like everyone else, they'll argue these are not really Catholics and remove them from the equation.

In place of "religion," there are many alternate ways to describe those participating in religious activities.  Here in Thailand, Buddhism (mixed with Hinduism and animism) is an intricate part of the culture; there is no division between the sacred and the secular which occurred after the French revolution and Enlightenment era in Europe.  One's religion becomes an essential part of one's identity, not unlike the team football fans root for.  The language used by co-religionists solidifies their community and allows members to be recognized.  While fundamentalists treat religious stories as literal truth, many traditions base their meanings on universal myths and pedagogical metaphors. Anthropomorphism, rather than being error, can also be a useful technique for negotiating the dangers of reality. Struggles between religions are quite often a conflict over something else, like land and resources, and religious identity can be used to compel participation.  To see religion as only institutions, authorities and texts is to miss the way that humans have used their imagination to make sense of their reality, and to find truth and beauty in the process.

I was thinking of R.E.M.'s song, "Losing My Religion," when I titled this post, and thinking of it ironically.  But of course I haven't "found" (or "lost") anything.  I was "in the corner" and now I'm out of it.  "Religion" is only a site of contestation, a term of dispute with no pure content.  And yet people fight and die for their religious concepts.  Academics declared for a few centuries that religion was increasingly unimportant and irrelevant.  Advanced civilization and modernity had no need of such illusory thinking.  But of course they were mistaken.  Current events show this.  And yet, no one can agree on what religion is.  How strange!

If these ideas seem scattered, it's because I have been thinking about them for a lifetime and their slipperiness and changeability make it difficult to put them into an organzied form.  If anyone finds these questions and proposals intriguing, and they speak to your condition, please let me know.  If not, no matter.  It's time for me to chew over these matters, organized or not, to find out how and what I think.  I will conclude with a couple of videos on the question of religion which I found interesting. Karen Armstrong is particularly astute at arguing persuasively that the meaning of "religion" today has changed considerably.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Dreaming of California

[This post is written for graduate students in a writing class for monks I'm teaching in Bangkok. Their final assignment for the semester is to contribute a post about their home for the class blog, MCU Travel Blog, and my intention here is to give them an example.]

In a 1965 record, the Mamas and the Papas sang about dreaming of California on a cold winter's day somewhere else where the weather is not so nice.

All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray.
I've been for a walk on a winter's day.
I'd be safe and warm if I was in L.A.;
California dreamin' on such a winter's day.

Downtown Santa Cruz
These words of mine are written in a tropical climate where the leaves are never brown and if the sky is gray it's because of farmers burning off their rice fields before summer planting. While I was born elsewhere, I lived for most of 60 years in California, both south and north, and the second half of that time was spent in Santa Cruz on the Bay of Monterey, as close a place to Paradise as I've ever found. California, where I lived in Surf City, is surely my home forever.

Santa Cruz Farmers Market
Growing up in Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia, I was 12 when my father came home one day to tell my mother, brother, grandfather and I that we were moving to Los Angeles where he'd found a job selling plywood in the lumber industry. California!  Where movies are made, and oranges grow on trees! I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.  My goal at this point in life was to become an actor and now I'd have my chance!

My cabin in 2010
After a memorable cross-country trip in our new 1953 Ford sedan, we found a "ranch" house in the northeast suburb of La CaƱada with an orange tree in the front yard and four in the back, all full of ripe and delicious naval oranges. Later the back yard trees were uprooted for a swimming pool.  The good life was great!  I attended junior high school, found girlfriends aplenty, dressed like a juvenile delinquent, climbed the rope in gymnastics, played clarinet in the orchestra and was chosen assemblies commissioner to MC at school functions.  Quickly I became a Californian, and every day on the way to school I picked an orange to eat.

Santa Cruz Town Clock
The native population of California was displaced in the 16th and 17th centuries by Spanish conquerers, and then the land became part of Mexico when they broke away from Spain in 1821. Twenty-seven years later gold was discovered in the Sierra mountains and the whole world rushed in to find some.  California was quickly stolen from Mexico and became the 31st state. Queen Calafia was the queen of Amazons in a 16th century Spanish novel.  Today, the state has the 3rd largest U.S. population behind Texas and Alaska, provides most of the fruit and vegetables eaten by Americans, and if it was a country would have the 8th or 9th largest economy in the world.  Non-whites (Mexicans, Asians and blacks) are now 60% of the population.

Santa Cruz Pier and Boardwalk
There are really two Californias, north and south, with different climates and even political leanings. The country's 2nd and 5th largest cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, preside over each territory. Most of the water is in the north which means and empire dams and pipes to carry this valuable resource have been constructed to quench the thirst of the south.  The state's landscape is 1240 km in length between Mexico and Oregon, and 400 km in width between Nevada/Arizona and the Pacific Ocean. I lived for 20 years in the south, in and around Pasadena where I began my work life as a newspaper reporter. During my time in the rock and roll business I lived in Venice a stone's throw from the sand and surf.

Over the years on frequent trips to the north, where relatives lived in Tiburon and Berkeley, I fell in love with the cooler temperatures and greener hillsides.  San Francisco is a sophisticated city compared to the shabbiness of LA.  My first foray into big-time academia was at UC Berkeley but I dropped out twice, and I worked one summer as a vacation replacement reporter on the San Francisco Chronicle.  The north felt like more my style but I never managed to find a foothold in the city in those early years.

Seals gather beside pier
After getting myself fired as a music biz PR guy, I finally escaped to the north in 1976 and began a long tenure in the coastal city of Santa Cruz, between the redwood-covered hills and the rocky shoreline along the Pacific.  North of Monterey and south of San Francisco, it was a sleepy fishing town until the university and the hippies arrived in the mid 1960s. I lived in both cabins and houses in the mountains where hippies and rock bands (my friend Peter managed one of them) dwelt in communes, as well as down in the flats of the town where the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake disturbed the tranquility of the Victorian neighborhoods.  To make ends meet, I wrote and edited a local newspaper, handled art direction and circulation for a music magazine by commuting over the hill to Cupertino, and managed a database of alumni for the University of California's Santa Cruz campus. At UCSC my dormant curiosity about, well, everything, was aroused and I returned to study, lifting my head from books only after I'd received BA, MA, and finally a Ph.D. degree in the new century.

Ancient redwood trees
Santa Cruz is smallish, with a population now of about 60,000, three-quarters of whom are white.  It began in 1791 as one of the string of Spanish missions to spread religion by the book and the sword (a horribly large number of native Americans died from their ill treatment by the Europeans).   The city was incorporated in 1866 with an economy based on agriculture, lumber, gunpowder and lime (necessary for construction).  The first state park, established by middle class anti-logging activists in the early 1900s (my Ph.D. thesis), was at Big Basin.   Most of the Mexican immigrants, legal and not, currently live in Watsonville in the south county.  It earned the name "Surf City" (contested by Huntington Beach in the south) for the big waves at Steamer Lane next to the lighthouse.

Everyday Dharma
My wife and I raised two kids in the notoriously liberal and free-thinking place and time (Santa Cruz had a Marxist mayor for many years who also taught at the university).  I researched the redwoods and park history for my doctoral thesis, became a Catholic at Holy Cross, and meditated with the Everyday Dharma Sangha down the street. After I began traveling for community college Spanish classes (Mexico, Argentina) and to build houses with Habitat for Humanity in Guatemala, I also helped start an ecumenical spiritual group based on the teachings of Fr. Bede Griffiths who established an ashram for Christians and Hindus in Tamil Nadu, India.  I grew wings in northern California that hadn't yet sprouted during my years in the south.

Sunset along West Cliff
This has become more about my journey than about the landscape that supported and inspired it.  The central coast is incredibly beautiful and many times I drove along the ocean south to Big Sur (where I stayed at the Catholic monastery) or north up to San Francisco.  I sunned, burned and tanned in summers (when the ever-present fog had lifted) on the many gorgeous beaches where the sand is hot but the water too cold usually to swim.  In the hills around the city I hiked alone or with friends through the redwood and fir forests.  Most of the San Lorenzo Valley was clear-cut to rebuild San Francisco after the 1916 earthquake but by the 21st century much had grown back.  During my last and perhaps final visit (the high airfares) in 2010 I tried to hit most of the hot spots I remembered. The downtown area has evolved from the sleepy main street that I saw in 1966 to a cosmopolitan pedestrian mall with trendy shops and restaurants, perhaps too fashionable now for my tastes.

Where I used to teach
And yet...30 years is a long time to spend in a place and I sunk deep roots.  My memories of friends and familiar environments, in the town and up in the mountains, remain strong.  I left to become an expat in Thailand for reasons too numerous to list here, but it was never a rejection of the place that sustained me for so long.  I commune with friends on Facebook and follow news stories like the recent student strike over rising tuition fees that closed down the university for several days.  I left a good chunk of my heart back in California.