Does the love of heaven make one heavenly?

Why do find myself so attracted to articles about religion? I am not an adherent -religion does not stick to me- nor am I tempted to take the famous wager of the 17th century philosopher, Pascal: dare to live life as if God exists, because you’ve got nothing to lose if He doesn’t, and everything to gain if He does.

Perhaps I’m intrigued by the etymological roots that underpin the word: Religare (Latin, meaning ‘to bind’) is likely the original tuber of the word. But is that it -does it bind me? Constrain me? I’d like to think not, and yet… and yet…

Even many diehard atheists concede that religion has a use, if only for social cohesion -Voltaire was probably thinking along those lines when he wrote: ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him’. Or Karl Marx: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people’.

And then, of course, there’s Sigmund Freud, an avowed Jewish atheist, who for most of his life, thought that God was a collective neurosis. But, in his later years when he was dying of cancer of the jaw, he suggested (amongst other, much more controversial things) in his last completed book, Moses and Monotheism that monotheistic religions (like Judaism) think of God as invisible. This necessitates incorporating Him into the mind to be able to process the concept, and hence likely improves our ability for abstract thinking. It’s a bit of a stretch perhaps, but an intriguing idea nonetheless.

But, no matter what its adherents may think about the value of the timeless truths revealed in their particular version, or its longevity as proof of concept, religions change over time. They evolve -or failing that, just disappear, dissolve like salt in a glass of water. Consider how many varieties and sects have arisen just from Christianity alone. Division is rife; nothing is eternal; Weltanschauungen are as complicated as the spelling.

So then, why do religions keep reappearing in different clothes, different colours? Alain de Botton, a contemporary British philosopher, argues in his book Religion for Atheists, that religions recognize that their members are children in need of guidance and solace. Although certainly an uncomfortable opinion, there is a ring of truth to his contention. Parents, as much as their children, enjoy ceremonies, games, and rituals and tend to imbue them with special significance that is missing in the secular world. And draping otherwise pragmatic needs in holy cloth, renders the impression that they were divinely inspired; ethics and morality thus clothed, rather than being perceived as arbitrary, wear a spiritual imprimatur. A disguise: the Emperor’s Clothes.

Perhaps, then, there’s more to religion than a set of Holy caveats whose source is impossible to verify. But is it really just something in loco parentis? A stand-in? I found an interesting treatment of this in a BBC Future article written by Sumit Paul-Choudhury, a freelance writer and former editor-in-chief of the New Scientist. He was addressing the possible future of religion. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190801-tomorrows-gods-what-is-the-future-of-religion

‘We take it for granted that religions are born, grow and die – but we are also oddly blind to that reality. When someone tries to start a new religion, it is often dismissed as a cult. When we recognise a faith, we treat its teachings and traditions as timeless and sacrosanct. And when a religion dies, it becomes a myth, and its claim to sacred truth expires… Even today’s dominant religions have continually evolved throughout history.’

And yet, what is it that allows some to continue, and others to disappear despite the Universal Truth that each is sure it possesses? ‘“Historically, what makes religions rise or fall is political support,”’ writes Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at the University of Lancaster in the UK ‘“and all religions are transient unless they get imperial support.”’ Even the much vaunted staying power of Christianity required the Roman emperor Constantine, and his Edict of Milan in 313 CE to grant it legal status, and again the emperor Theodosius and his Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

The first university I attended was originally founded by the Baptists and, at least for my freshman year, there was a mandatory religious studies course. Thankfully, I was able to take a comparative religion course, but in retrospect, I would have liked an even broader treatment of world religions. I realize now that I was quite naïve in those times; immigration had not yet exposed many of us to the foreign customs and ideas with which we are now, by and large, quite familiar. So the very notion of polytheism, for example, where there could be a god dedicated to health, say, and maybe another that spent its time dealing with the weather, was not only fascinating, but also compelling. I mean, why not? The Catholics have their saints picked out that intervene for certain causes, so apart from the intervener numbers, what makes Hinduism with its touted 33 million gods, such an outlier in the West (wherever that is)?

It seems to me that most of us have wondered about the meaning of Life at one time or other, and most of us have reflected on what happens after death. The answers we come up with are fairly well correlated with those of our parents, and the predominant Zeitgeist in which we swim. But as the current changes, each of us is swept up in one eddy or another, yet we usually manage to convince ourselves it’s all for the best. And perhaps it is.

Who’s to say that there needs to be a winner? Religions fragment over time and so do societies; their beliefs, however sacrosanct in the moment, evolve and are in turn sacralized. And yet our wonder of it all remains. Who are we really, and why are we here? What happens when we die? These questions never go away, and likely never will. So maybe, just maybe, we will always need a guide. Maybe we will always need a Charon to row us across the River Styx…

We Know Not What We May Be

There are times when we only seem to hear in sentences, and forget that their meaning and colour is dependent on the words –it’s like ignoring the rivers that feed a lake. It’s like assuming that the story of a wall is written in the bricks we notice, not the mortar we don’t. History can become like that, too: a sentence, a reality -until we parse the words that is. Each word.

Take, for example, women in the workforce. Until relatively recently, their collective contribution was both underestimated, and definitely undervalued. In fact, if there was anything for which they were eminently suited other than family matters or, perhaps, a subordinate role in cleaning and food preparation, it was seldom apparent in the prevailing ethos. But, like the image on a developing photograph, it was there, but blurred. Hard to see… and yet there, however indistinct.

The invisible is all around us –like the nuns. And, as an abstract from a 2005 issue of Women’s History Review informs us, ‘Despite their exclusion from historical texts, these women featured prominently in negotiating the boundaries of religious life […]Prescriptive literature gave one model of womanhood, married life, with a second model, single life, clearly an inauspicious alternative. Women religious provided a different model and created a religious, occupational and professional identity that varied from the prescriptive literature of the day.’ –the workplace, in other words. We see the world but through a glass darkly, indeed; maybe change is the only constant. There are none so blind as those who will not see. A BBC article forced me to look again: http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170908-the-extraordinary-undervalued-work-of-nuns

‘Becoming a nun [was] not often associated with women’s emancipation. But it did offer an interesting career option for women. […]But Catholicism in the 20th Century saw the world of work as fraught with dangers for women, and could only reconcile female professionals with the notion of them entering professions in a wider spirit of religious charity and sacrifice.’

It would be too much to expect that their rewards would be commensurate with their worth, but rewards come in different forms. ‘Revelations of women being paid less than men for doing the same job make it clear that society has a serious issue when it comes to valuing women’s work. Nuns offer a unique insight into how work is divided between the sexes and rewarded accordingly.’

In fact, in spite of the widely held belief in the subordinate and often inadequate abilities of women at the time, ‘The testimonies I [the author: Flora Derounian] collected shared many commonalities, the most striking of which is the contrast to the existences of most other women living in the epoch between 1947 and 1965, otherwise known as “the era of the housewife”.’ So, for example, ‘[…] interviewees had founded communities in rural Burundi, housed victims of civil war, and set up pharmacies in the Pakistani desert. Many others had taught in schools, cared for the elderly, worked with drug addicts, or given communion and comfort to the dying.’

The article reminded me of  the time I found  myself sitting beside a nun on the bus a few weeks ago. I didn’t know they even took buses, but maybe that’s because many of them nowadays are like unmarked police cars –you don’t know until they catch you unawares. Anyway, I don’t know that I was so much caught as observed, staring at the Bible she was reading. Well, more likely the spreadsheet under it on her lap. The combination seemed jarring.

I could see her smiling as she noticed my interest. “Is it the Bible, or the spreadsheet that caught your eye?” she said with a mischievous grin. A short woman with even shorter auburn hair, she was wrapped in a dark grey raincoat, and except for the oversized briefcase at her feet, looked like any other person on the bus.

I have to admit I was embarrassed at the question and I think I shrugged. “Oh…” I tried to think of a quick answer. “… Is that a Bible?” Stupid thing to say, and my face immediately reddened.

I could swear she winked at me before I hastily withdrew my eyes, though.

“I prefer the King James, but my Order decided to go modern over traditional…”

“So… what…?”

“New Jerusalem Bible…” She watched me for a second. “Less literary, I’m afraid, but more literal… Maybe they chose it because it’s also more gender neutral. Anyway, I use it for work now and then.”

I allowed my eyes to hover around her face for a moment and then called them home.

“We like to believe we were the first feminists, but…” she studied my reaction with a steady, almost practiced gaze, and then relented. “… It depends on the motherhouse, of course. I was fortunate, as it turns out.”

“Oh? And why is that?” I said, hypnotized by her eyes. And her voice was so soft and reassuring, I couldn’t help smiling. She could have sold me tundra in the far north and I would have felt honoured.

“We’re allowed to work in the world at large, as long as we donate our salaries to the Order.” I could see her watching my eyes hover above the spreadsheet. “I find it’s easier to work with this,” she said, touching the paper, “rather than booting up my computer on the bus.”

“I see,” I said, pretending I actually did. “So… Are you an accountant, or…?”

Her eyes twinkled and she giggled softly. “Why don’t you try to guess?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. An office manager? A bookie…?”

We both laughed. “Nobody gets it right,” she said and shrugged as if it wasn’t all that mysterious nowadays. “I started a company with a group of my sister nuns…” She glanced out of the window to see if the bus was approaching her stop. “We’re a compassionate order serving single moms and homeless or troubled girls in the city and we -okay I– thought maybe we could be more proactive about it. Should be, in fact…”

I sat up straighter in my seat as she pulled the cord for the next stop. “How, can you be proactive about that?”

A mischievous smile gradually surfaced and she winked again –this time for sure- as she stood up to squeeze past me. “I’m the CEO of an online dating service,” she said and squeezed my left hand naughtily as she reached the aisle. “No ring, eh?” she whispered, and handed me her card.

I glanced at it as the bus pulled away again. There was just one word, Inundate, superimposed over a picture of a large crowd. Clever.

I’m tempted to send in a profile…