Unschooling in the Art of Religion

It is my continuing effort to promote the concept of “unschooling”, the process of learning from real life, outside any formal learning environment, and without a teacher. It is a mostly unsung method of human development that often gets short shrift compared to more formal modes and venues for education. We conventionally think of education and learning as an activity focused on our younger years, but at our bests we humans continue to be natural and voracious learners throughout our lives. We are beginning to acknowledge that human propensity with the concept of “lifelong learning”.

As I have said before, becoming familiar with the concept of unschooling reading works by John Holt, Pat Farenga, Matt Hern and John Taylor Gatto, I have been taking a long look back at the road I’ve traveled and the key developmental experiences that have contributed the most to who I am today. Though I went to school (K-12 & college, some 20 years worth!), my school experience contributes relatively little to who I really am today, and the wisdom and skill set that I bring to my life’s activities. What is more significant, in retrospect, are the major themes of my own self-directed learning done outside of school.

Case in point is my interest in religion, and my informal pursuit of understanding about the topic, its history, its contemporary practice, and the underlying reasons it is an important part of so many people’s lives. I’ve always been an atheist but I’ve also become fascinated by religion. Go figure! But having the opportunity for over twenty years to participate in Unitarian-Universalism, which is generally framed as a religion (albeit a non-dogmatic one), I became very interested in learning about the nature of the religious process and the role it has played in human society. Add to that my fascination with history, where religion seems to have played a much larger role than the more conventional study of history, particularly in schools, would lead you to see.

Wikipedia says…

Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature.

Unlike many people I’ve met, I’ve had little or no religious instruction in my life, and never really set foot in a “house of worship” until I was 13 (other than attending a couple weddings). Neither of my parents were ever involved in any sort of religious practice, though we had family friends who were. My mom always said she believed in god (not sure whether the capital “G” would be appropriate here), but she also firmly believed that religion was the scourge of the Earth!

My dad was a university English professor, who actually wrote his dissertation on John Henry Newman, an influential Anglican theologian in the early 19th century. But beyond that, I don’t recall him ever talking about god, believing in god, or religion. My dad might well have been an atheist, but both my parents could definitely be described as humanists, based on the definition from Wikipedia…

Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, world view or practice that focuses on human values and concerns, attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.

Some people, especially some folks on the religious right, would describe humanism, or particularly “secular humanism”, as a religion (I recall Jerry Falwell making that argument more than once!) I generally would not, but I see their point, since for example, many people who hold essentially humanist values and view the world from a secular framework participate in Unitarian-Universalism based on those values.

So what follows is a long narrative (over 7000 words) of my own exploration of religion – its ideas, practice, and the reaching for a deeper metaphysical meaning of life. In putting together this piece, I struggled to try and break it up into smaller free-standing segments. But I think it speaks more to that natural human drive to learn and develop, when it is not diminished by a focus on formal schooling. So in my case I have spent thousands of hours participating in activities that have broadened my understanding of religion and its practice, but never gone to divinity school or even taken a formal “class” on religion.

Duck & Cover, Heaven & Hell

I was in fourth grade in 1963 during the Cuban Missile Crisis and those moments when there was apparently a real possibility of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Somewhere in that time frame I became aware of this possibility, probably as a result of TV news coverage and a couple “Duck & Cover” drills led by my teacher in my elementary school classroom. For those of you too young to remember these exercises, you were spared a fearful experience of powerlessness and contemplation of the apocalypse. For me, it was my first confrontation with my own mortality, and with it, contemplation about an afterlife and the existence of god.

During the 1950s and into the 1960s, in classrooms throughout the country, teachers instructed their young students something to the effect that, if there was the brilliant flash of a nuclear bomb explosion, students should immediately duck under their desks and cover their faces with their hands. This would supposedly give you some small modicum of protection from the immediate effects of the blast. Whether or not this technique would provide any real help if there ever was an actual nuclear apocalypse, who knows, but it sure scared the crap out of me and my classmates and gave us (thank you very much!) a new fear to live with every day.

So I can recall thinking about it while I walked home from school after one of these drills. It was pretty easy for me to let my imagination run wild envisioning the blue sky rent by a flash brighter than the sun. Would I be killed instantly or have enough time to realize that this was the end of everything before I died. And then my imagination would invariably refocus on what might happen next.

So was there a god? Would I go to heaven? And if I was not believing in that god, was there a hell and was I in danger of going to instead?

Honestly, I had no evidence at that point that gods or the “God” actually existed at some transcendent level. I had never sensed the presence of or been spoken to by he/she/it. I had never had the yearning for this ubiquitous deity to be present and a guide in my life. I had the love of my parents, teachers, my friends’ parents and other adults in my life. But I knew at this point in my life that I lived in a world where most people believed in a deity in some form or another.

But it did raise anxiety in me that I needed to confront this whole god concept, because if I died (in a nuclear explosion or otherwise) I might actually be confronted by God’s representative (Saint Peter in conventional Christian theology) and my belief or lack there of could send me to a very less hospitable permanent residence. Was I willing to risk going to hell on the chance that my intuition that I had not sensed the existence of a god was misguided? I pondered this many times as I walked the tree-arched streets of my hometown between school and home, and not being able to completely and comfortably resolve it, hoped that the Cuban Missile Crisis or some such other event would not lead soon to a holocaust.

I don’t recall ever asking my parents about god and whether they believed. Maybe I was embarrassed to even admit that I was possibly a non-believer and flirting with being damned to hell forever. Later in my teenage, when my mom was going through the traumatic period after she and my dad divorced, she confided in me that she believed in god, even talked to god (though I don’t recall her relating god responded in any way) but was totally opposed to organized religion, which in her mind, was the source of most of the war and hate on Earth. I think my dad in some vague way believed in some sort of god, but he was pretty inscrutable on these sort of topics. If I only had him alive and in front of me one more time I would ask him directly. My mom shared with me much later that my dad had shared with her on a couple of occasions that he sometimes felt so out of place in the world that he wondered if he in fact was (seriously) some sort of alien from outer space.

Dandelion Wine

Reading Ray Bradbury’s book in 9th grade English class paved the way for my own encounter with, and embrace of, a more metaphysical and even magical side of life, while still not believing in god. Few books I’ve read have had as much impact on me. It’s one of those cases where you encounter an idea that does not seem to impact you immediately, but seeds a thought in your mind that maybe comes to fruition at some later time, when perhaps that idea addresses a new need to view the world more broadly.

I think as a child I lived in a world of constant magic, creativity and imagination, so acknowledging a magical side of life was not an issue in my conscious awareness. There was just life and it was what it was… and for me that included being magical.

As a youth I began to be exposed more to the “muggle” (that great word from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books which conveys a more precise meaning here than the word “real”) world when my parents’ relationship began to fracture, leading to their divorce when I was ten. Add to that, my own precocious sexuality being put down two years earlier by a third grade teacher when my supposed friend blurted out to the whole class that I had told him I would “pull down my pants for Amy” (another classmate of ours), something I had told him in confidence. Four years later it was the ugly aspects of my junior high school experience including being jammed in with way too many other kids my same age and feeling constantly and utterly inadequate.

Reading Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine was one of those occasional oases during my three year participation in that discomforting educational institution. I was already into science fiction and fantasy, having read Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Mysterious Island, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, plus various other more pulpier stuff. So in Dandelion Wine, here was Bradbury writing about a kid’s summer experience, where no aliens came from the sky or zombies from the ground but real life events were still framed in a magical fantasy context. I appreciated the reframing (which our English teacher did his best to point out to me and all my classmates). Of course then I looked around me and saw nothing magical about my junior high experience, and was too busy just trying to keep some small shred of my self-esteem intact, I filed Bradbury’s summer odyssey away in my mind.

During my preteen and early teen years I only managed to inhabit magical realms compartmentalized from “muggle” life in books, comics, TV and movies. Even today, the smell of paperback books brings back memories of wild imaginary tales plus one of my favorite local haunts, now an Ann Arbor landmark called the “Blue Front”. It was a hole-in-the-wall newsstand, that also sold comic books, pulp sci-fi paperbacks, Mad Magazine, and even some soft-core porn magazines (which as a kid you might be able to sneak a look at when the guy behind the counter was looking away).

Marvel & DC comic books with their super heroes and villains, expanding exponentially on the capabilities of normal humans, plus movies about archetypal witches, wizards, vampires, and giant reptiles emerging from the sea, led a kid with an active imagination to at least imagine that the muggle world could be incanted with these sorts of meta-real possibilities. My friends and I would fantasize about having super powers ourselves, being more than “just kids” somehow, so better to challenge what felt at times like a tyranny of adults and their “adult world” and the lack of their acknowledgment of us (youth) as equal partners in it.

Experiencing Many Religious Paths

In 1969, when I was fourteen, my mom joined the Unitarian church in my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Note that the denomination would later merge with the Universalist church to form the present day Unitarian-Universalism or “UU” for short) Given my mom’s antipathy with religion, Unitarianism was still a good fit. Though categorized as a “religion”, it was not about god and doctrinal dogma at all, but instead about humanist values and progressive social action. To top it off, the congregation’s minister, Reverend Erwin Gaede, was an avowed atheist. (How’s that for an oxymoron, an “atheist minister”?) But mostly my mom joined because she was becoming a political and feminist activist, and this church and its congregants were the nexus of liberal political activism and influence in this very progressive politicized college town.

While my mom attended the Sunday service, she dragged me along for their youth program (what in more conventional churches would be referred to as “Sunday School”). Consistent with what I would learn later about typical UU practice, rather than learning so much about the principles of Unitarianism, our class studied a range of the world’s other religions. We learned about the origins of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We had guest speakers from a range of other churches and synagogues in Ann Arbor, which would be followed by our class attending that denomination’s weekly worship service on a subsequent Sunday (or Saturday). I probably attend at least a dozen different services, including Catholic, Reform Jewish, Mormon, Quaker, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Congregational, Lutheran, Baptists (both majority white and majority black congregations) and Christian Scientist. (If Scientology had been around we would have probably tried to check them out too!)

Certain memories stick with me from all those visitations. All the getting up on your feet to sing or down on your knees to pray. Taking the various communions (wafer and grape juice or even wine) and wrestling with the metaphor of ingesting the body and blood of Christ. The mostly incomprehensible sermons. The sing-songy canticulation by the Rabbi and Cantor. The exuberant call and response between the Baptist minister and his black congregation. In contrast, the Quaker service led by no one, where the attendees sat quietly until so moved to rise and randomly say something they thought was appropriate. The pomp and incense of the Catholic service which I recall was still in Latin rather than English. And I also recall at each religious venue looking around to confirm that these were just a subset of the regular people I otherwise encountered in my life in the more secular venues of my hometown.

In the mid 1970s my mom stopped attending the Unitarian Sunday services and my participation in the youth program ended as well. I filed it away as another experience not knowing there was more to come.

Altered Consciousness

It wasn’t until I finished high school, that I was able to de-compartmentalize and begin to find magic in moments during my regular life. Not coincidentally I was introduced to marijuana, that next fall after high school graduation, during my first year of college. Having not really had any experience at the time with meditation or other metaphysical disciplines, smoking weed was my first (at least first recognized) experience with altered consciousness. It certainly felt like a very different world getting high, and say going to the movie theater and watching the movie Fantasia sitting in the front row.

So even when I was not high, I now had been introduced to another frame of reference, and based on the preponderance of thought and discourse, historically and in the current media about spirituality and deeper levels of consciousness, I began to imagine what a deeper level might feel like, which is a first step towards making it part of your life. So recalling Dandelion Wine, when I saw a kid joyously playing and laughing, or an old woman see me and smile knowingly, or when I felt completely enmeshed in the moment, I would ponder, or at least imagine, if somehow I was in touch with some deeper magical level. It felt good – affirming and supporting – to imagine I was operating within a deeper tapestry of connected existence with the rest of humanity and the larger universe.

I recall a hit song of the time I heard a lot on the radio, “Strange Magic” by the Electric Light Orchestra…

Oh, I’m never gonna be the same again
Now I’ve seen the way it’s got to end
Sweet dream, sweet dream

Strange magic
Oh, what a strange magic
Oh, it’s a strange magic
Got a strange magic
Got a strange magic

Sitting at the Laundromat pondering entering the adult world (what I want to be when I grow up), my family’s clothes churning in a mixture of Tide and water in the Wascomat washer, it was such a relief and an inspiration to hear Jeff Lynn (ELO’s lead singer) reminding me about that non-mundane side of things. Inspired perhaps by the ELO song, I recall a tune and lyric of my own that came to me one day as I walked the tree-lined streets of my hometown, and would sing to myself over and over sometimes, like a mantra, particularly when I walked…

Everything has got magic
In its own way
Cool the rational logic
Hey, hey

Certainly to be mystically connected and in tune somehow with everything around me had some efficacy for everyday life, allowing me to relax, bear witness and be, rather than nervously fret and cautiously observe, detached.

I think some people might frame this sort of experience as getting in touch with god, and I thought about that at the time, but there was no sense of a deity, except perhaps a sense of a level of consciousness perhaps in all those big old trees around me. The question of who created all this did not seem to matter… it just is and I am. It would be years later exploring Unitarian-Universalist thought where I would be presented with the ideas of “many spiritual paths” and “creating your own theology”. After Dandelion Wine, attending various worship services, and my own earlier deeper-level experiences, these concepts would resonate with me.

Playing & Contemplating the Silver Ball

In the late 1970s during my last couple years in my hometown of Ann Arbor, inspired by that song from the Who’s rock opera “Tommy”, I became a pinball wannabe wizard, making time each day I was on campus for my college classes to drop a few dollars worth of quarters in the slot and transcend my muggle life into the world of metal spheres, plastic flippers, bumpers, targets, spinners and those accursed ball-eating gutters.

It was a profoundly simple and dazzling universe of exotic noises and lights highlighting the spectacular laws of kinetic physics guiding that iconic silver ball on its course. It was a compelling game of skill that required a calm mind, hyper focus, extreme sensitivity and the ability to meld with the machine and bring it alive in a target-dropping point-scoring flow.

So embracing this “zen” of pinball was a small but important step for me in beginning to acknowledge a subtle, deeper level of meaning in everyday life. I found I could play better pinball if I communed with the machine, treating it like a sentient being that wanted to be engaged, honored, and played well. It would be silly perhaps if you took this sort of thing literally, but I was exploring the subtle world of the efficacy of metaphor. I would later read Karen Armstrong’s History of God and other books about the efficacy of religion which highlighted the important role of metaphor and mythos is religious teaching.

Trying to live viscerally in the moment, I began taking greater notice of the plants and animals that inhabited my home town, giving them metaphorical sentience as well, touching the plants, inquiring into their health and acknowledging the squirrels, crows and other critters. I became very cognizant of the weather, which became the metaphorical communication and commentary of “Mother Nature” with me and my fellow Ann Arborites. Walking across town, in the humid heat of summer or the biting winter wind, became a journey with a host of friends and acquaintances, going through the cycles of their existence. I imagined the big old trees advising me. In summer I would often walk across town barefoot, feeling all the sensations of pavement, asphalt, wood, grass and bare ground and the subtle messages implied metaphorically in each.

Still at this point, if asked, I would call myself an atheist and not acknowledge believing in god or any other such deities. Instead I was enjoying my relationship with Mother Nature, a more relaxed metaphorical deity, with less of a need to be real.

Practicing Unitarian-Universalism

Thirteen years later in 1991 my partner Sally and I joined the Sepulveda Unitarian-Universalist society (often known by its nickname “the Onion” because of its onion-shaped sanctuary) in the midst of the San Fernando Valley northern suburbs of Los Angeles. Our son Eric was five and his sister Emma was two, and the several neighborhood kids they played with were well indoctrinated in their family’s Catholic or Evangelical Protestant religious beliefs. Since I had grown up as an atheist in a humanist college community and Sally had parted company with the religious aspects of her family’s Judaism, we thought it might be a good experience for our kids to to be exposed to a progressive alternative to the religious dogma the neighbor kids were relating to them.

Sally and I started regularly attending the Sunday service at the Onion and Eric and Emma participated in the “Sunday school” youth program. Sally and I really connected with the congregation’s minister, Charlotte Shivvers, and I recall a number of her “sermons” about UUism and tales of famous UUs that we found very interesting and inspiring. It was certainly a strange new thing for me (who had never taken any religious practice seriously as a youth) to see the humanist values that I had grown up with reframed in a sort of religious context.

Given my obvious interest and initial enthusiasm for this strange new thing, Charlotte recruited me to serve on one of the congregation’s committees, which I was soon co-chairing. Then I was recruited to serve on the Board and eventually to do a two-year term as Board President. During my four-year tenure on the Board I was exposed to every element of the logistical and administrative side of running a religious congregation, as well as how a congregation was woven into a larger denominational structure. My tenure on the Board, and particularly as President, was during a very difficult time for the congregation. There were major issues with direction, staffing and budget, and a debilitating split among significant factions within our small congregation of about one hundred members.

The UU denomination tends to be good about training their key volunteers in the best practices for egalitarian meeting facilitation skills, and I took full advantage of that training. As President, I ended up facilitating a number of Board, committee, and full congregation meetings, that included a very difficult working through of those issues. So much so that after two years as President I felt that there was no sort of assemblage of angry people that I could not navigate and assist with moving through due process.

Also typical of UU practice, there are a number of “lay led” (led by a congregation member rather than a professional minister) Sunday services, and all members are generally given this opportunity (including formal or informal training) if interested. I was interested, and learned every aspect of putting together and leading such a “worship service” as it was often generically referred to. This included creating a sense of “sacred space” (a temporary separation from the muggle world) as people entered the sanctuary by preparing the venue beforehand with pictures, artifacts, candles, etc. Having the appropriate opening music (whether recorded music on the PA or played on the piano) to set the right mood for the particular focus of the service. Weaving in the various standard components, including an introduction and welcoming, a meditation, music and opportunities for the assembled congregants to sing, prearranged individual readings by selected congregants, and responsive readings by the entire group. Then generally a “sermon”, or really whatever the main presentation would be. Finally an appropriate conclusion and tying-up of things, including more music, maybe hand-holding and blowing out of candles, etc.

Over the 20 years I have been a member of the congregation I have probably been involved in developing and leading two or three Sunday services a year. I also developed and led the two memorial services for my mom. Between my experiences on the Board and those occasions “in the pulpit”, I feel like I could function as (or at least present a pretty good imitation of) a full-blown minister. These days, whenever I attend a religious service – whether weekly worship, wedding, funeral, coming of age (UU or some other denomination) – I note and critique the various aspects and the work of the “moderator” (person leading or otherwise facilitating), and log away any particularly effective components I had not thought of before.

As a side note, our kids have had similar training in and experience with creating and leading “worship services”, as they both have participated extensively in the UU older youth community, conferences and camps. Our son Eric in particular has functioned as a youth camp “chaplain”, which included developing and leading several worship services during the camps duration. Moving beyond his dad’s experience, Eric recently was asked by friends to officiate their wedding ceremony, which he did apparently to the satisfaction of the couple and the family and friends in attendance. (Prior to the service he was “ordained” through a donation to the Universal Life Church.)

Wrestling with Religion in History

I’ve always been fascinated by history and the developmental narrative of our human species. I have had my share of formal history classes in school, including the standard high school and college general studies fare along with some more niche classes in modern Russian, women’s and journalism history. But the bulk of my study of history, including religious history, has been initiated by my own interest outside of any school context and has generally involved reading any number of books on the topic.

The history of religion particular fascinates me because I have found religion to have played a critical role in that history, including the history of the United States, explaining so much about why our society is how it is today. That critical role, to a large degree, went unacknowledged in my standard high school and college history classes. It intrigues me how much of that was about keeping education completely secular and how much perhaps is just a conventional wisdom that misjudges the significance.

My greatest exposure to the evolving role of religion in the sweep of human history has been through reading many of the works of British theologian and historian Karen Armstrong, including her books A History of God, The Battle for God, and A Case for God. Armstrong chronicles the development of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism and Christianity) during the Axial age (800 to 200 BCE), and later spin-offs of Islam, Kaballahism, Protestantism, Deism, and an evolving atheist thread. Her thesis is that religion emerged and has evolved to address human needs for meaning, and I find this passage in her Wikipedia biography telling…

She has been particularly inspired by the Jewish tradition’s emphasis on practice as well as faith: “I say that religion isn’t about believing things. It’s about what you do. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.” She maintains that religious fundamentalism is not just a response to but, paradoxically, a product of contemporary culture and for this reason concludes that, “We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.”

Reading Armstrong’s work and weaving it together with the books I’ve read by Riane Eisler (particularly The Chalice and the Blade), I have shifted from the conventional wisdom about religion from my own upbringing in a secular, humanist college town. That conventional wisdom was that religion was the enemy of human progress and (per Karl Marx) “the opiate of the masses”. What I have come to see is that the inspirations for the development of the world’s great religions were humanistic, but in many cases the practice of religion was co-opted by the powers that be into a tool (the opiate part) for controlling people. (See my piece “Religion is not the Problem, Patriarchy is” for more on this.)

I have read extensively about the period of the Protestant Reformation in Europe and its role (for better and for worse) in challenging the religious control model of the Roman Christian church, and playing a critical role catalyzing a “Modern Era” of individualism, nationalism, republicanism, industrialism, and exploration and exploitation of the larger world. It fascinates me how the dour 16th century religious theology of John Calvin went on to become the underpinning of a secular industrial Western society. And how that theology in its WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) expression has been so critical to the development of American society and culture. (See my piece “American Calvin” for more on that.)

I also had the pleasure to read a great book, Out of the Flames, about one of the mostly unsung figures of the Reformation era, Michael Servetus, who is credited as the founder of Unitarianism. He was a brilliant scholar, Renaissance man and challenger of conventional wisdom about God and religious authority. In the simplest terms, Servetus challenged the conventional Christian belief that Jesus Christ was an aspect of God and essentially believed that he was a regular human being like the rest of us. Jesus was not our “lord” in some hierarchical sense, but more an egalitarian exemplar of what all human beings could aspire to be. Even today, such a belief would be considered by many Christians to be very heretical. It continues to intrigue me how UUism plays out so many aspects (both positive and negative) of Servetus’ legacy.

Religion in American History

I have come to understand that religious ideas and practice have played a key role in the history of America and the development of American culture in at least two ways, that often are underplayed in American history textbooks. First, Calvinist theology and the associated religious practice as embodied in the “Puritan” or “Protestant Ethic” has played a crucial role in powering and regulating the secular development of the nation, its people and resources. Second, religion has played a key role of catalyzing much of the grass-roots resistance to the American “establishment” (for better and for worth) throughout the country’s history and continuing today.

Works by various authors I have read document how Calvinism, a seemingly dark and dour theology that sees the mass of humanity as innately “depraved” and undeserving of salvation in its own weird way liberated Western society from the grip of Feudalism and catalyzed the “Modern Era”. It allowed Europeans to harness the advances of science, wield large sums of money to build and staff factories, and explore and commercially exploit the rest of the non-European world (including the “New World” of the Americas). It ameliorated unbridled exploitation, great wealth amidst great poverty, and all the winners and losers in the exercise of state sponsored war and capitalism.

Calvinism caught fire in Colonial America, where a strong ideology that both inspired hard work and restrained profligate behavior was needed to “tame” the wilderness and subjugate the indigenous “heathen” Indians. Various Protestant sects, growing out of Calvin and Luther’s ideas, became the religion of the majority of European-American colonists. Many of the emerging American elite, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, believed in a non-puritanical Deist or Unitarian theology that saw human nature in much a more positive light, not innately and irredeemably depraved. But much of the common folk of the country embraced flavors of Christianity with very Calvinist roots. But both elite and common folk embraced the secular Calvinistic ethos that “living to work” was next to godliness.

That embrace of religion by the common people in America brings us to that second role I now understand that religion has played in U.S. history, that of catalyzing much of the various national movements that challenged the “establishment” of the time. This includes the Great Awakenings of the Colonial period, the Abolition and Temperance movements of the 19th century, and the Civil Rights and more recent conservative movement of the 20th.

Coming to Grips with the Bible

I’ve always been a bit intimidated by the Bible, since I was a kid who grew up outside of religious ideas and practice. I would see copies lurking (seemingly unread) in the nightstands of motel rooms my family stayed at when we traveled and I would see it sworn on in real or fictional court proceedings in TV and film. At each occasion of its presence, I would be reminded that it contained some sort of ancient wisdom that I and the circles of people around me were choosing to do without (at our peril perhaps). I understood it to be the words of a deity that I was choosing not to believe in. It was best out of sight, out of mind!

As an older youth watching the news on TV (particularly speeches by Martin Luther King or interviews with Billy Graham) or reading various fiction or non-fiction I would see references to various biblical passages with their at times archaic syntax and moralistic tone. I understood that there were good people that found wisdom and inspiration in its text and I recall making a few half-hearted attempts to read the first several chapters of its first book Genesis. But lacking a compelling enough narrative in any context that I understood, I soon put it down. I also experienced various pop culture recitations of the Jesus story (drawn from the New Testament) in the form of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell that I found interesting and at times compelling.

But it wasn’t until I was a young adult in college and then beyond when I started reading a lot of feminist works that referenced the Bible and were generally highly critical of many of its cited passages. At yearly Passover dinner with my partner Sally’s family, I learned the gist of the story of Exodus told around the Passover Seder. After reading Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade I even made a more determined effort to read significant excerpts from the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. I have also heard various pieces of these tracts at a number of Jewish worship services I have attended, mainly for relatives’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

After reading Eisler’s work, my partner Sally’s mom suggested that I read Karen Armstrong’s book A History of God. Like Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade, it was a long tough slog through a scholarly work written more like a text book than an engaging narrative. But reading Armstrong after reading Eisler gave me a unique perspective, moving me for the first time beyond that conventional humanist wisdom that, as my mom used to say, “Religion is the root of all evil in the world”. My exposure to UU non-dogmatic theology was also broadening my religious perspectives. My synthesis of these two provocative writers with the UU framing thrown in was that religion was not the problem in itself, it was religion woven into patriarchal models of power-over and control that were the real problem, like gasoline and an open flame.

One of the things I found fascinating in Armstrong’s work, was her looking at the people who compiled the first five books of the Bible, identifying four such “editors”, each designated by a name or its one-letter abbreviation.

The first has been dubbed the “Jawist” or “J”, and was given this name by an 18th Century biblical scholar because he used the Hebrew God’s proper name “Jahweh” (“Yahweh”). This person is believed to have lived in the southern Hebrew kingdom of Judah and compiled the original version of the Adam & Eve story in Genesis that depicted God inhabiting the Garden of Eden and interacting directly with his human creations.

The second writer is known as “Elohim” or “E”, because he preferred to use the more divine title “Elohim” for God, and this person was probably a contemporary of “J” but lived in the kingdom of Israel north of Judah.

The two had had very different interpretations of the stories of the people of Israel, based perhaps on their geographic contexts. Says Armstrong…

J saw Abraham, a man of the south, as the prime hero of Israel and had little time for Moses, who was far more popular in the north and one of the leading protagonists of E’s narrative. Neither J or E seems to have made any effort to research the history of Canaan, but were content to adapt the old stories to the conditions of their times.

Armstrong paints the picture of two very popular regional bards, holding forth to their different regional audiences, aware of and reinterpreting each of the other’s stories to add their own slant and biases. There appeared to be none of the tension with the pagan deities in either of their stories that was later added to their reworked tales and made the cut in the version of the Bible that has survived into the modern world. Yahweh/Elohim was just one deity among many, not yet the be all end all. Armstrong sees their portrayals of God and their human characters not as “morality tales”, but more morally ambiguous stories like many later works of great fiction.

The third school of biblical editors, are known as the “Deuteronomists” of “D”, and represented a group of priests, prophets and scribes during the time when the Temple still stood and the ancient nation of Israel was still a strong political entity. They were attempting to reform the religion of Israel by reinterpreting the stories of J and E into a more secular political context. Their program, according to Armstrong…

Would have included the establishment of a secular sphere and an independent judiciary separate from the cult; a constitutional monarchy, which made the king subject to the Torah like any other citizen; and a centralized state with a single, national shrine. The reformers also rationalized Israelite theology to rid it of superstitious mythology.

The fourth group of editors is known as the “Priestly” school or “P” and reinterpreted this edifice of stories of the people of Israel in a very different context than the “Deuteronomists”. The nation of Israel had been conquered, the Temple destroyed, and its leaders and many others deported to Babylon in exile. Temporal power was no longer in the cards, and the exiles who came together as the P group reworked their cultural stories away from the power and glory of the D school into a portable theology that could support a people in exile, wherever they might be. It sounds to me like something not unlike the Christian Reformation two millennia later. People should be their own priests (thus the name “Priestly”), and read the liturgy and follow the dietary laws that had been previously practiced only by the official clergy. God would be present wherever they gathered to pray. Out of this new orientation came the biblical books of Leviticus and Numbers, laying out a how-to of religious practice and law.

For me as a “secular humanist” and atheist, Armstrong’s framing of the context for these five opening books of the Bible (the Torah of Judaism) takes a lot of the negative “charge” off the Bible, and puts this literary classic more in the realm of Shakespeare than scripture.

Wrestling with the Concept of Mythos

My exploration of religious thought, particularly the works of Karen Armstrong and Joseph Campbell, has included wrestling with the two types of wisdom that the Greeks called “mythos” and “logos”. In classical Greek culture, each had its own sphere of competence, and it was considered unwise to mix the two. In modern American society “mythos” has become devalued, both by believers and non-believers, equating the word “myth” with something that people continue to believe which isn’t really true.

Logos (reason) is the pragmatic mode of thought that enables people to function effectively in their day-to-day muggle world. But for many if not most people, accepting and understanding the deeper and often inscrutable mysteries of life and life’s struggles is best done through mythos (metaphor).

In ancient times, according to Armstrong, the “why” and other metaphysical questions of life – why it was okay to kill other creatures for food that were not all that different from humans, why it was important to be kind to others, why bad things happened to good people, why life was such a struggle, how a young person became an adult – went beyond the rational logic. These questions required mythology and ritual practice beyond mere words and knowledge that was attainable through the senses. Out of this mythology and practice religion developed, and when undertaken in the appropriate context, led to individual discovery and insight on the deeper “why” and other metaphysical questions of life.

I have had my own experience with ritual practice transcending logical thought. I recall the last evening of a yoga retreat Sally and I attended. All the retreat participants gathered in the lodge for a drumming circle and a sort of call and response chanting and singing know as “Kirtan”. In the midst of the rhythms that we were all contributing to (with the array of drums they made available to everybody) or amidst the sound of sixty voices in unison responding to the call of the person leading, I felt a profound sense of some sort of “truth” well beyond what any words could fully describe. A connection between all of us in attendance that felt like it was also between everybody else as well.

I consider myself a humanist who believes Albert Schweitzer’s famous quote…

There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.

But somehow, I believed that even more strongly after participating in that Kirtan circle, in a state of great relaxation and inner tranquility, hearing the combined voices of sixty human souls (including my own) all unique but choosing for that moment to blend as one.

So was that perhaps at least a more visceral glimpse at the religious “practice” that Armstrong was talking about in the ancient world? Something she attempts to write about with mere words on a printed page? Were the great religious thinkers of the ancient world, like Buddha and Confucius, often described as a profound “nothing” beyond all the muggle somethings of the world.

As Armstrong says…

Religious discourse was not intended to be understood literally because it was only possible to speak about a reality that transcended language in symbolic terms.

That makes sense to me, even though I, like Buddha and Confucius (who are way beyond my league), do not “believe” in deities that “exist” in some form. They intuited a deeper level that did not “exist” in any precise sense of that word, but could be intuited by others by following certain disciplines of thought and action (like going beyond ego or practicing the Golden Rule).

And what I have come to see as one of Armstrong’s most profound insights, is that along with many secular thinkers, most Western religions got caught up in an obsession with logos, and in order to try and stay relevant, reframed their sacred texts, including the Bible and the Koran, as literal truth (logos) rather than metaphorical stories (mythos) meant to suggest insights on the human condition. This is the religious fundamentalism of today. Not a return to “old time religion” as many people errantly believe, but a modern ideology developed in opposition to scientific thought. I find it also reflective of the “atheist fundamentalism” of some contemporary thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or Sam Harris.

Reading Armstrong’s stuff I have had my own epiphany as well. Our country has a great principle of separation of Church and State, which acknowledges a role for both. How about agreeing as well on some sort of principle of the separation of logos and mythos, and acknowledging the value of both? If religion stayed in what Armstrong describes as its original realm of a vibrant and non-discredited mythos, would people be expressing so much hate and acting with such violence in the name of religious “truth”. Perhaps the richest thought combines elements of both.

Moving Forward

I have done my best to learn about, comprehend, and come to grips with religious thought and practice not because it has played a role in my own foundation, inspiration and moral compass; but because it has played such a role for many of the other human beings I interact with and attempt to influence with my advocacy. I want to better understand, honor and be effective when I address both “people of faith” and secularists like myself. Since it has apparently been such an important part of the narrative of human history, I don’t feel I can do my part to navigate the currents of that history into the future without a full understanding.

Armed with more metaphorical meaning of “God”, I enjoy challenging a person who believes in more of the “guy in the sky” concept of that word to dialogue with me on metaphysical concepts and perhaps acknowledge that their belief in an encompassing deity and my metaphysical non-theism are not necessarily incompatible. Perhaps “believers” and “unbelievers” can coexist in this world without one’s thought and practice contradicting the thought and practice of the other.

I like Karen Armstrong’s quote that challenges various sorts of dogmatic thinking, whether in support of or opposition to religious thought and practice. Speaking to the development of Rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the second Temple Armstrong writes…

Anybody who imagines that revealed religion requires a craven clinging to a fixed, unalterable, and self-evident truth should read the rabbis.

For me, as always… the learning continues!

2 replies on “Unschooling in the Art of Religion”

  1. Excellent – but “But both elite and common folk embraced the secular Calvinistic ethos that “living to work” was next to godliness. ” There was a fascinating mix of German Pietist, Anabaptist, and other sects on the 18th c. frontier, plus the Scots-Irish Presbyterians (who were not especially organized or formally religious.) There were also English and Welsh Quakers and Baptists. I am not sure that any of those, who formed the majority of the population outside New England, believing in “living to work.” The Scots-Irish were likely to be hunters, traders, and indifferent farmers and builders; the Germans tended to be excellent farmers and organizers, but more interested in working to support life than otherwise. This was the fusion of peoples that invented American local government before the revolution and went on to largely people the South, the Midwest east of the Mississippi, and Texas. Most American history tends to skip over all that – the Pilgrims landed, settled New England, and then there was the Revolution – thus leaving out pretty much the first 75 years of the 18th century, which was formative for most of the country outside New England.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have a handy book to offer on what is to me a fascinating period, especially religiously – there were Protestant communes, much discussion and invention outside the Reformed, Lutheran, and Presbyterian mainstream, and much of it on the side of love and not a malevolent God. I had no idea, and was completely amazed when I started running into all this through doing genealogy which eventually required understanding the regional history, including the religion.

  2. As you point out there was so much interplay between religion and U.S. society. I only hinted at it briefly and in an oversimplified summary because the point of the piece was the mostly untold connections between religion and U.S. history.

    I found particularly intriguing John Taylor Gatto’s ironic thesis that the U.S. “Founding Fathers” were more secular/deist and the common folk organized around religion to challenge the elite, while in Europe the elite had their state religions and the common folk challenged organizing around secular ideologies like communism and anarchism.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and reading my very long piece!

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