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My Faith Must Be of This Land

January 29, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I paused from my study to read back over these entries, trying to make sense of something that eludes me. It has to do with this subject of lineage and place and how they affect religion.

I think I understand how we got here: how the history of ancient Israel came to be so important to us contemporary American descendants of European pagans. It’s a strange story, but logical enough when you lay it out.

We Americans are just as strange, ourselves. We’re not Europeans (though we each have a nation or two across the Atlantic to claim for a heritage), and we’re not natives (though we were born here). We’re the starling among birds, the rock dove, the non-native blackberry that has become an icon of our region just the same. We’re firmly established, yet foreign. We belong and do not belong. We only fit in here at all because our presence has so completely transformed the place, that now the ones who must struggle to survive are the natives themselves: native animals, native plants, native peoples, native religions.

If you trace my people back some hundred years, back to when we were native to the land in which we lived; then traced us even further back, to when we practiced our own original religions there, you would not find Christians. Our religions were once native species themselves, struggling to survive in the midst of foreign influence. In the end, they were displaced, and the dominant religion, Christianity, filled the people.

I suppose what happened all those centuries ago at the Jewish diaspora is that the religion of ancient Israel, facing extinction, adapted instead; and in learning to survive in a new climate, it developed characteristics which actually gave it an edge on the competition. Like the crow – able, intelligent, dominant – its child Christianity did more than survive; it came to replace other less competitive species.

It’s not to say that Christianity, or the crow for that matter, is evil. Yet when one species of bird or plant or religion is allowed to dominate others, the sacrifice is diversity. We lose a kind of wealth when a songbird disappears; so too we lose an unrepeatably unique vision of God when a religion dies. Extinction is tragic, whether it strikes a language or a moss, and when it strikes, the whole world is poorer for it.

In my last entry I said that religion is place-specific. I also used the words “should be.” Religion should be local. One’s heart should be rooted in one’s land. “Should” is an interesting word. It implies that something is not the case; that what is, is wrong; and that the call to action to remedy this carries ethical weight.

When I was a member of a Christian community, my standard of truth was the Bible and the biblical interpretations shared among that community. Because we believed that morality and ethics were based in the character of God, and because we agreed on what God was like, it was possible to use a word like “should” with few hiccoughs. Since then, though, I have found it necessary to seek a more basic standard when talking with those who don’t happen to care what the Bible says, or who don’t take anything for granted, let alone the character of God, the relationship of God’s character to ethics or even the idea that God is real. This was no great problem. Believing as I do that if a thing is true, it is true everywhere, I proceeded in the confidence that there would be other ways to build the argument. If it were true, it would not exist solely in the doctrine, but would be self-evident in the world at large. So I sought to translate my values into a language that did not depend on biblical assertions, knowing that if such a thing were possible, it would only serve as a confirmation of those assertions and allow me to dialogue with people who did not share my worldview in a way that mattered to us both.

The standard I found is wholeness. Health. Life. Without a credo to curb your questions, you can call into doubt just about anything – but what I found to be consistent anywhere I looked is that things want to live, they want to thrive, and they want to be in balance with one another. Whatever leads to this on the largest and smallest scales simultaneously is in line with the universals, the absolutes, the basic nature of who we are and what our cosmos is and what God seems to want.

Then there are all the variables, the community-defined taboos and values which interpret our universal need for life in non-universal ways. This is culture, the way we agree to behave. On this scale, murder is frowned upon not only because it upsets the balance and stamps out a life, but because the law of the land condemns it. Yet what is defined as murder in one community may be defined as justice in another, and it’s often difficult to say that one community’s set of agreements is right or wrong in any absolute sense. Difficult: not impossible. There are times when such judgments are necessary, as in the case of genocide.

At any rate, “should” is often a culturally specific word. Start throwing it around in front of someone from a different culture, and you may find that the things you most take for granted are hard to prove. As I look back at yesterday’s entry, I’m caught on the idea that religion “should” be locally derived. Should it? Why? What’s wrong with worshipping a savior who wore middle eastern sandals? (Especially if he really is the Son of God.) What’s wrong with the early Jews holding onto Zion in their hearts, teaching their children of a land far away where God spoke and their way was first forged? What’s wrong with the place that New Jersey holds within me, the land of my childhood, the wind that still moves my heart from thousands of miles away?

The thing is, when people leave a place they love, it remains with them. We Americans consider ourselves Irish or German or Greek even if we’ve never been to those places, don’t know anyone there and no longer hold anything in common with them. People have this ability to identify with things that are far away and long ago. I can’t honestly say that this shouldn’t be so.

I begin to see that it’s not that religion “should be” connected to place, but that it already is. Everything is. Yes, our fruit and toys and clothes may come from around the world, but the fact that they have been shipped doesn’t dissolve the influence they received from where they were or receive from where they are now. The religion of ancient Israel was not unaffected by the death of its nation and the relocation of its adherents. In foreign lands it became something new, transformed by new influences – new neighbors, new cultural norms, a new place – even as its followers sought to remain like they were. As for Christianity, it developed a flavor as unique as any culinary tradition in each new community it entered. So too, we children of European immigrants have become Americans, distinct in our own right, in our own way. This isn’t something to encourage or resist. It’s just something that happens. Whether we want to be or not, we are deeply influenced by place. Ourselves, our plants, our styles and our religions too.

The question is, what now? Given that the relationship exists, what sort of relationship shall we make it? As non-natives, how shall we treat this land we have entered? And how shall we respond to the non-native influences that have recently, or not so recently, entered us?

Would Oregon really be better off if you extracted every last non-native blackberry? Sent all the pigeons home? Even if the answer were yes, you couldn’t do it. Couldn’t send us non-native Americans back to Europe, either; couldn’t send today’s Jews back to Zion. For one thing, it would be logistically impossible. For another, Europe and Zion are not physically big enough to welcome their respective wanderers home. Thirdly, it wouldn’t be “home” to them, now, anyway: we’ve changed, we’re of a new substance now. The non-native American would be just as non-native now in Germany: more so, in fact; and it’s possible the Russian Jew might not even recognize the great mountain that fills their dreams if they saw it in person.

We have changed our new environments and they have changed us. So again, what now?

I think part of the answer lies in building attention and concern for the specific places in which we live. Not only to know how to get around, where to find food and sleep and work, but to invite the land into our deepest dimensions as well. Places far away and events long ago may be our religious foundation, but they’re not our only religious influence – and until we develop points of reference that we can see, smell and touch regularly in the land around us, we will not know the richness of being in relationship to the most fundamental ground of being we possess – our world. By ignoring “place,” even while it’s affecting us so deeply, by leaving our immediate physical context out of our body of religious symbols, we allow our religious framework to remain partially truncated: forced to confine its physicality to our imagination, unable to fully inhabit the range of our experience.

Even nomads, throughout history, had places they returned to. They were not rootless; they simply moved from one root to another and back again. In our country we tend to move at random, regularly uprooting whatever we plant, and it seems to me that this has weakened us. It has compromised our ability to form rich, multi-generational, extended communities. It has made us blind to what we receive from our home and what it needs from us in return. It has made us more or less indifferent to the local wind and plants and people. As tribal animals, we are most likely to treat things well when we understand our kinship to them; rootless, practicing our disembodied traditions, we have largely lost our sense of kinship with the life that immediately surrounds us. Instead, much of what we consider “kin” is places and people we meet only in stories.

I cannot say we should stop loving the faraway places. I can say we should start loving the immediate places just as much. I say “should” here because I believe this is the healthiest thing to do for all concerned: ourselves, our communities, our neighbors, our homes.

What would happen if Mount Tabor was, to a Portland Jew, as holy as Sinai?

How might our world be transformed? What if the sacred elements were not only something you could put in a box, the bread and the wine; what if the sacraments were also administered by the evening wind, officiated by the voices of crows? What if, even as our minds were expanded to recognize the global consequences of our local actions, our feet were rooting themselves in the specific dirt that lies here, in this region and nowhere else, as we wove the fabric of our global traditions indelibly into our own specific time and place?

Our time and place would be affected; so would the traditions themselves. The lines of intercourse would be opened, and, not trying to hold too closely to an unchanging faith culture, our traditions would come alive. Living things change. In adapting, they would only become more relevant. Stronger, thicker. More congruent.

For this land to become a principal religious point of reference to me – not just “the land,” but this land – the thought intrigues, baffles, allures me.

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