Sunday, June 13, 2010

Truth Against the World, including the Unitarians

Last weekend I went to "worship" at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin, in a building dedicated to making money off the reputation and the memory of Frank Lloyd Wright. I cannot say the building paid homage to his spirit; to my mind, it evoked very little of him, despite being designed by one of his avowed followers.

This Sunday, I went to a concert of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society in the Hillside Theater of FLW's Taliesin campus, and I feel invigorated by the spirit of all the great artists thereby represented, and far closer to God than I did at the FUS service last weekend. So, although it was not in so many words a religious outing, I enter this thought here:

"God is the great mysterious motivator of what we call nature and it has been said often by philosophers, that nature is the will of God. And, I prefer to say that nature is the only body of God that we shall ever see. If we wish to know the truth concerning anything, we'll find it in the nature of that thing."

Frank Lloyd Wright, as quoted in Truth Against the World : Frank Lloyd Wright speaks for an organic architecture (1987) edited by Patrick J. Meehan

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sanctuary is Wherever You Are

I don't exactly know why, but I went to a Sunday service this morning. I don't think I can rightfully say "I went to church," but I did go to the meeting house of the Madison Unitarian Universalist Society, which is about as far from the modest meeting house of the local Quakers as you can possibly get. Indeed, they offer tours of the buildings after each and every service, all year round. Has something to do with the fact that the original building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and something to do with the fact that this is a congregation that has a lot of remnant evangelical issues still flapping about on their to-do lists.

What I mean by this is that they have an awful lot of debt to pay-down. The addition to the original FLW construction cost a lot and then, as we all know by now, there was the "Economic Downturn." People, I have to say this: We got what we deserved. We thought we could have it all, even though our entire national economy is based on over-consumption of a finite resource which we buy at great cost from distant nations that don't like us. But we kept on buying, building, increasing our indebtedness, and now we finally have a scapegoat: the "Economic Downturn." It makes it seem like it wasn't our fault at all, like it was some machination of fate to which we cruelly fell victim.

But it was not. We created this. And the parking lot at the First Unitarian Society of very liberal Madison, Wisconsin was full of cars even on a day when the city had shut down most of its downtown streets to all but non-motorized means of transportation. Yes, there were Priuses among the cars; this is, after all, a congregation of liberals, most of whom have money, even if they no longer dress up for Sunday services or even iron their shirt collars.

A friend of mine belongs to the FUS here, and one day last summer she told me she'd spent the weekend sitting at a table at a community festival in our Eastside neighborhood talking to people about the FUS. "Why would  you do that?" I asked, thinking it sounded suspiciously like missionary work. "Well, we need to pay our staff," she explained. "So of course we need to enlarge our membership."

When those who belong to a spiritual organization start recruiting new members to pay their bills, it is time to stop building. The new UU building is lovely, and sets a high standard for sustainable building practices and materials, living up to the enormous cultural weight of its predecessor building, which is a national historic monument. The sound in the sanctuary is amazing. The sense of spaciousness and harmony are unmistakeable. And they didn't need it. Congregations do not need to grow. People do not need to drive across a city to enjoy an hour of intelligence and peace and the pure voice of a strong, pure soprano. Good restaurants do not need to become chains. Local is okay. Small is fine.

We don't need to make the world all like us. We just need to let the people of the world breathe and eat and snuggle with their children on an evening when the moon is full.  And we can do a lot more toward this simple goal if we stop driving cars rather than building designer sanctuaries of holiness built on assumptions of constant growth.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Be Fruitful and Multiply: Gods for Everyone

Funny. I don't remember the temple looking this grand, and this despite the fact that I distinctly remember gawking when I first glimpsed its ornately crowned white walls rising over the inordinately ordinary Midwestern suburb of Aurora, Illinois. There, in the middle of a verdant field of green, behind the gravel driveways and plastic tricycles and gas grills of another perfect Sunday in Middle America, the Hindu Temple rose like Atlantis out of the manicured and preternaturally green lawns: Another culture preserved and honored, given shelter.
I have to admit I kind of love the USA for this. We not only tolerate other religions than our own; we tolerate religious extremists. Not even our closest pals in democracy come close to us here. France is presently obsessed with finding a respectable rationale for banning Muslim women from wearing the birka or the niqab in public. While the French debate, Belgium passed a ban. Both countries seem to be relying on feminist support to make clothing criminal. Nuns throughout the Western world have been, not surprisingly, quite silent. I sort of think that if we're going to talk about how clothing manifests the oppression of females, we might want to also take a look at how Western culture sexualizes our female children. This, to me, is a lot more disturbing than a grown woman deciding to hide herself from the eyes of strangers on the street: the overly hormonal American adolescent girl wearing a shirt three sizes too small and breasts four sizes too large.
I think it's the meat we eat, frankly. All those damned hormones, the BGH, we ingest with our beef. How could it not have an impact on us? We are neighbors on the food chain, after all, what the cattle eat, we get. We know this deep inside, and for those of us who don't, there's Michael Pollan. But good Hindus don't eat beef, and given the scrawniness of the cows nonchalantly roaming the streets of the subcontinent Hindu cows don't eat anything remotely tainted with growth hormones! It was not altogether surprising, given this, that the children--amazingly well-behaved children--who followed their families around the stations of the temple on the day we visited were to a person pleasantly proportioned and singularly non-obese.
One cannot say the same for the Hindu deities however, many of whom were decidedly on the plump side of statuary physique. I suspect this is more a consequence of the inordinate amount of time these fellows sit than their diet. Deitic diet seems to consist of two food groups: Flowers and fruits. This makes for one of the more visually palatable arrays of food, and the worshippers at the temple devote a lot of time to enhancing this, arranging and rearranging mounds of fruit and flowers on large platters seemingly without end.
When we visited, these platters of fruit and flowers were being presented to enshrined golden deities in a variety of sizes and forms, some human, none of them breathing and, to the best of my knowledge and observances, none of them eating. None of the worshippers seemed in the least bit bothered by either deficiency and since no one, understandably, wanted to pause in their worship to tell the two obvious (pale skinned, light haired, blue eyed) Westerners what the presentation of these comely comestibles might mean to statues of stone or plaster, we just tiptoed around the shrines timidly before heading for the souvenir shop downstairs, aka the "Buy a Home Deity or Sari" Shoppe. Some weeks later, though, still sorting through the rituals and sights of that day in Aurora, Illinois, I found myself seated next to a lovely and very conversant Indian woman on a long plane trip. She was reading Danielle Steele; I was reading Midnight's Children. I asked her if she'd ever been to this temple once I knew she was a practicing Hindu who lived in the Midwest. She had. For the next two hours I plied her with questions.
"We want to show our devotion to the deity when we come to worship at the temple," she explained, with none of the hubris she might have claimed as a member of a culture approximately 5,000 years older than my own. "So we bring the best fruit and the prettiest flowers. It's called 'puja.'" I refrained from pointing out the obvious: that these deities were made of stone or clay or plaster and shellacked with some kind of probably toxic gold veneer. "So what is done with all the offering at the end of the day?" I asked instead.
"Oh, probably someone takes it home. Or it's given away," she shrugged. I wondered to myself if poorer worshippers stayed later in order to gain the leftover puja. There really ought to be some sort of pay-off for piety. It has always struck me as incredible that African Americans as a group are so religious; doesn't poverty ever seem evidence that God or the gods are pretty nasty as far as life constructs and concepts go? "It's good to take it home after the gods have received it," my patient seatmate was continuing my education. "It's 'prasada,'" she finished. "I'll have a Coke," she told the attendant. "Yes, Pepsi's fine."
All this emphasis on fruit and flowers is apparently not doing much good in the real world, though, where Indian men have the highest rate of cardiovascular disease of any identifiable population today. By the end of this year, it's expected that India will have fully sixty percent of all the world's heart disease cases. Perhaps someone should be talking to the deities about this, along with nuclear disarmament and the unsurprising fact that India's former untouchables are now converting to Islam in overwhelming numbers, finally finding a home that welcomes them as Hindus could never quite bring themselves to do.
But maybe the deities aren't doing too well. The temple, grand as it looked when we first spotted it astride the mowed green prairie, was worn and frayed up close. The white walls were in need of paint and replastering. The Rubbermaid garbage cans were full of uncollected offerings and sending up redolent reminders to the heavens right outside the temple's grand portal. Everything inside seemed sort of like it came from WalMart. But perhaps, if the worshippers are able to believe that the gold-lacquered gods can eat coconuts when no one's looking, perhaps a card table chair can be a throne.
The illusions of Hinduism at least seem pleasant and non-violent enough, so how could I really object?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

What She/Someone Wrote A While Back...

I think I finally understand something about religion. I think trying to find a religion that fits you is like trying to find a pair of pants that fit you right and you like.

Different people need different pants, but they're all still right about which pants are right for them. So even if someone thinks that someone else's pants are ugly, they can both be right about the pants.

When you're little you just wear whatever pants your parents put on you because you don't know or care. But when you grow up you have to figure out which pair of pants fits and looks best on you. And that's the most confusing time. Then once you figure it out you can wear the pants that you like all the time.

This is, unless you change (loose weight etc.), and then you might have to buy different pants but you can still get them in the same style. It kind of sucks to have to go and buy new pants because then you have to shopping, and you know how I feel about that.

I guess the important thing is that it doesn't matter what kind of pants you wear as long as you don't make other people wear the same kind of pants since the pants only perfectly fit them self. And we can't all wear the same pants cause they won't fit and it would be really boring if everyone looked the same. And I guess people just have to remember that even if some pants are really ugly in their eyes, what do they care? because their own pants look good on themselves, and who cares about someone else's pants.

I don't know what you'll think of this. but I always make big problems small things, 'cause otherwise I don't understand them, but I do understand pants. Maybe you could ask your Bible teacher or whoever might have a good opinion about this idea for me.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Faith married Hope and they were both so disillusioned they named their daughter Disregard

How does faith persist? Really mom? That is what you want to ask after all this?

How could faith not persist? I mean how can a person, who is not omnipotent not have some form in faith. I mean, if you start with the most basic, you have to at first when you wake up believe that you are indeed awake and a person. When your pillow feels like you remember it to feel, and your toes wiggle upon command, there is a logic to give credence to the idea that you are, in fact, alive. In a way it is then our reason which gives legitimacy to our faith (and strangely enough doubt that undoes it). A faith in the patterns that we live by.

Yesterday I saw a sign on a church with a picture of Mary holding Jesus. Across it was written: "Pregnant?....... Don't Worry!"

What I want to know is how people come to believe in/ have faith in such strange/sad things. And was this church insinuating that your child could have been immaculately conceived, or that: It's okay, Jesus was a bastard too!?

Friday, January 25, 2008

What I'd Like to Know With a LIttle Help From My Friends

I don't want to ask the same old questions: Why do religious people profess goodness, practice hate? Why do people of varying religions not see their communality instead of their differences? Why do people believing in God take so much of life and death into their own hands?

I guess what I would like to know is what makes some people capable of belief, others not. How do so many people believe such ludicrous stories; what makes the legends of the Bible, the accounts of the Koran, more respectable than the stories of Achilles and Zeus, Cupid and Athena? How, in this age of reason, does faith persist? I don't mean "Why does faith persist?" but "How?"

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Residual Questions Lingering

So what now? What to do with all these experiences of religion? What to do with the knowledge that most of the world's people practice some form of religion, profess belief in some form of God, pray to some metaphysical notion of power?

When I was a teenager I used to assault the night's darkness with my questions: How can I believe in God? Why can everyone else, and not me? If there is a God, why would I be refused belief? Aren't the prayers of the innocent somehow special? Isn't it said, "Seek, and ye shall find? Knock, and the door will be opened to you?" The door in front of me remained unrelentingly solid and impenetrable. So many years later, I do not knock anymore. Will I be taken by surprise maybe? Now especially, that my own mom, a woman of great, unshakeable faith in the selfsame God who spurned me, is dying, actively dying, a protracted and horrible and certain death? Will her vision of eternity illuminate the night for me, maybe, finally?

I don't think so. I don't expect or seek light from this quarter any more, not even a thin line of that famous white light from around the edges of the resolutely chained door. But if I did see such a light, wouldn't I try that old door again, wouldn't I tug at its heavy tarnished locks one more time? Oh, you betcha I would; I am far too nosey not to do so.

I see religion as one of the world's greatest problems. The more I know about religion, the more I feel abhorrence. It makes people resigned. It builds contentment. It builds self-righteousness, from which eventually comes its steady partner, intolerance. It is said that both the greatest goodnesses and the greatest evils in our world have always had their strongest roots in various religions. Well, I don't think that's true. Stalin? Hitler? What extreme goodnesses? I don't see the truth of either side of this statement, which is used, in general, as a sort of universal shrug-off whenever religion is seen to be intolerant or wicked or at the basis of the wars and crusades and campaigns of intolerance, the places where hatred flies its sorry standard and flies it without shame.

What is my follow-up question? I don't really know. What is your follow-up answer?