26 January 2006

Religious behavior

Being spiritual in public. I've just read two remarkable books. Because they arrived on my reading pile by different routes, their convergence was coincidental. Or at least I can't take credit.

The first one was on my public library branch's "new books" shelf: My Faith So Far: A Story of Conversion and Confusion, by Patton Dodd. An increasingly dissolute high school student in a relentlessly conventional Colorado Springs family (including an evangelical older sister) makes a decision for Christ and reinforces it by becoming involved with a charismatic megachurch. There his transformation continues: he tries to conform to the expectation that he will speak in tongues as evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and he sheds his worship-service inhibitions to the point that he can dance with greater and greater enthusiasm during the praise music. (He describes the evolution of his worship dance, and the variations of other worshippers, with delicious precision.) It dawns on him that there can be only one college for him: Oral Roberts University. With an amazing combination of affection and candid, increasingly skeptical scrutiny, the author took me through his year at Oral Roberts. At the risk of giving away the ending, I'll say that, in this process, he does not lose his faith, but he loses most of his certainty.

The next book, a novel recommended by one of my colleagues, seemed at first to be from another planet entirely: a convent in rural New York State in 1906. However, Mariette in Ecstasy, by Ron Hansen, also deals with extravagant religious behavior; also combines sympathy with scrutiny; also comes to a warmly uncertain conclusion. Both books reveal the intricate interplay among the factors that drive religious behavior: desire to please God; desire to please the community; desire to experience the promised blessings; preservation of one's own integrity; a yearning for passion and self-sacrifice; varying degrees of desire to know what's real.

John Punshon once divided Western religious people into two groups with two characteristic questions: the children of the Enlightenment ("How can I know what is true?") and the children of the Reformation ("Where will I spend eternity?"). Can members of either group really plumb the depths of spiritual experience without geninely, not dismissively, wrestling with the other group's central question?

Finally, what can we find in Quaker literature, either fictional or autobiographical, that corresponds in depth of self-reflection to these books? I'll start with a couple of suggestions: Quaker Strongholds by Caroline Stephen (Pendle Hill abridgement in pdf form here). What about the Quaker novels of Jan de Hartog? Which of the beloved Quaker journals have a sufficiently thin shield of piety or agenda to serve this purpose?

Why torture is always wrong. Christianity Today didn't publish my letter about Christian celebrities, Karl Rove, and torture (see "Plain language, part two") but they did far better: They made David Gushee's article, "Five Reasons Torture is Always Wrong," the cover story of their February issue. I recommend it highly, although I worry that those who need to read it will give it wide berth. The dramatic cover of the magazine gives them more than fair warning. As Charles Marsh says (as quoted by Ted Olsen), "The Hebrew prophets might call us to repentance, but repentance is a tough demand for a people utterly convinced of their righteousness."

Gushee's article is not (yet) on the Christianity Today Web site, but a somewhat longer version of the article is available in MS Word format from David Gushee's own site.

Why isn't Bush being 'tough on Russia'? Fred Hiatt's opinion piece, "Bush's Big Silence," is one of the latest in a pundit genre whose driving question is one or another variation on "why isn't the USA doing more to remake Russia into our image?"

Hiatt writes, "... [N]o other nation has regressed from openness to authoritarianism during Bush's time in office as dramatically and decisively as Russia -- and with less apparent objection from Bush." Hiatt's question is in the subtitle of his piece: "Will the President Object to Russia's Regression?"

Is Bush really in a position to "object"? Consider this:

1. The USA does not understand Russia's challenges, or Vladimir Putin's situation, well enough to influence Russia intelligently. For example, do we truly understand how little power or control Putin actually has outside of the long but thin shadow of the Kremlin? Yes, Putin's authoritarian tendencies are real, but as I've said before, all the levers he's grabbing were there before he arrived; and how can we blame him, considering the unbelievable complexity of Russia's problems, for grabbing every lever he can?

The way we Americans treat some countries—lots of attention, lots of pressure, then suddenly a vacuum, "benign neglect," and consequent policy-drift until the next self-serving occasion of urgency—does not build up an investment in serious relationships on either side. We don't have to know everything about Russia perfectly in order to be taken seriously in the relationship, but there must be a more serious effort to find common ground. When someone as well-informed as Fred Hiatt writes, "... [W]hile an authoritarian Russia may offer tactical cooperation from time to time according to its interests, it cannot be a strategic partner of the America that Bush described in his second inaugural address, because the two countries' values and goals will differ so sharply," I'm tempted to despair.

2. Neither do we understand the ingenuity and the irrepressible energy of Russians. (This isn't universal, of course; there's plenty of passivity, too, often explained and excused with cynicism. See Nancy Ries's classic study, Russian Talk.) Russians will largely say and do what they want, in whatever ways they can invent, regardless of whether the Kremlin officially approves. However, they might not do it in ways that will contribute to a foreign-financed NGO's list of successes. Speaking of NGOs, I wonder how many American critics of Russia are aware of the USA's legal restrictions on foreign funding of American organizations? And on the strict regulations on organizations eligible to receive tax-deductible gifts in the USA?

3. I can't help wondering whether Bush doesn't criticize Putin in ways that Fred Hiatt would appreciate, not because Bush has other democratic-Middle-East fish to fry or because of strategic war-on-terror calculations, but because Bush admires Putin's authoritarianism? After all, Bush did not intend for us to find out that he asked the National Security Agency to fish around in our telephone calling patterns. (I thought about that during the most recent USA/Canada/Russia conference call concerning the Friends International Library's Chechen language project.) Nor were we supposed to find out about extraordinary renditions. Admittedly, we are all certainly supposed to know that the USA never practices torture—but we are to leave the definition of torture to those who know best.

Or perhaps Bush is properly worried about Putin's ability to point out American hypocrisy. Putin has, after all, pointed out that America's attack on Iraq, without U.N. mandate, was a variation on the law of the jungle. In any case, this is not the time for our country to become internationally sanctimonious.

Before someone accuses me of cutting Putin slack in ways that I'd never do for Bush: I understand that both of these men are power politicians. Both have demonstrated that they (or their associates) will do whatever it takes to get their short-term job done. Both apparently know who their enemies are, and neither gives any quarter. Both seem to me to be tone-deaf concerning the need to project wisdom and long-term perspectives to their constituencies. But, still, I find Putin's utter lack of pious pretensions comparatively refreshing.

Terrorism as religious behavior. Back to my opening theme, but in a more ominous variation: When is terrorism actually a form of publicly enacted religious self-abandonment? I hadn't thought about this extreme in connection with the books I mention at the top, but the thought came to me with this sentence I read this morning: "A man who believes himself to be the chosen instrument of God is capable of infinite mischief and infinite destructiveness." It's part of David Bromwich's review of Terry Eagleton's new book Holy Terror. Another book to add to my "religious behavior" pile.


Nancy A said...

Re: Religious ecstasy

I was reading recently about the phenomenon of mass hysteria, which usually starts as a small idea and then spreads and burgeons into a mass phenomenon largely of people's imagination. The article traced the history of mass hysteria and explained how the quality of the hysteria had changed over the ages.

Today it's most likely to be a mass illness with people checking into hospitals with psychosomatic symptoms.

But in more culturally repressed times, mass hysteria involved shaking and wild vocalizations. Everybody would be out in the street doing it. By the Victorian period, it was just the women who did this because the men had gained a reasonable amount of freedom.

The writer's point is that the wild, trembling, insane kind of hysteria, whether spiritual or mass-induced, is the product of a culture of repression. Today, the only groups that get this kind of hysteria are nuns and muslim women.

So I guess what I'm saying is that nun ecstasy has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Johan Maurer said...

Ron Hansen's novel--and many other sources, fictional, and nonfictional--document how much built-in skepticism toward extravagant behavior there is in monastic communities.

The dangers include auto-suggestion, hysteria, and religion addiction. At a more mundane level, people sometimes just want to create an impression of holiness to enhance their own reputations. (That happens even in vocal ministry among Friends.)

Every good thing has its shadow dimension. Excitement can be wonderful--and addictive. Spiritual goosebumps can be genuine the first time, and then sought after to an unhealthy degree, especially under the influence of writers and celebrities who imply that their own experiences (real or exaggerated) should be normative. Clearly, part of Patton Dodd's struggle in his book is trying to understand where the line is.

However, Friends have not erred on the side of extravagance, in my experience! In fact, we have repressed ourselves so long that, when someone does pry the cap off, I would not be surprised if the fizz didn't get into some of our faces more than we might prefer.

I love this extract from George Fox:

"All Friends every where, in the living spirit, and living power, and in the heavenly light dwell, and quench not the motions of it in yourselves, nor the movings of it in others; though many have run out, and gone beyond their measures, yet many more have quenched the measure of the spirit of God, and after became dead and dull, and questioned through a false fear: and so there hath been hurt both ways. And therefore be obedient to the power of the Lord, and his spirit, and his spiritual weapons; war with that Philistine that would stop up your wells and springs. Jacob's well was in the mountain, (read that within,) he was the second birth. And the belief in the power keeps the spring open. And none to despise prophecy, neither to quench the spirit; so that all may be kept open to the spring, that every one's cup may run over.

"For you may all prophesy one by one, and the spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophets. ‘Would all the Lord's people were prophets,’ said Moses in his time, when some found fault; but the last time is the christian's time, who enjoys the substance, Christ Jesus; and his church is called a royal priesthood, offering up spiritual sacrifices; and his church are his believers in his light. And so in the light every one should have something to offer; and to offer an offering in righteousness to the living God, else they are not priests; and such as quench the spirit cannot offer, but become dull. ‘I will pour out of my spirit upon all flesh, in the last time,’ saith the Lord, which is the true christian's time, God's sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and old men shall dream dreams; ‘and on my servants and handmaids I will pour out of my spirit in those days, and they shall prophesy.’ Now friends, if this be fulfilled, servants, handmaids, sons, daughters, old men, young men, every one to feel the spirit of God, by which you may see the things of God, and declare them to his praise; for with the heart man doth believe, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation; first, he has it in his heart, before it comes out of his mouth: and this is beyond that brain-beaten-heady stuff, which man has long studied, about the saints' words, which the holy men of God spake forth as they were moved by the holy ghost: so the holy ghost moved them, before they came forth and spake them. And therefore, as I said before, do not resist the holy ghost..."

from epistle CCLXXV, 1669