Thursday, October 27, 2011

Extended family

Today could have been the day we exploded the category of "lived religion," but I'm not sure anything like that happened. We've been discussing the adoption and adaptation of mizuko kuyô 水子供養 rituals in America as chronicled in Jeff Wilson's brilliant book, Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America (which I've discussed before). This gave us an opportunity to think about the work of ritual - what it does and how - and whether the mysterious continuum from fertilized egg to successfully delivered baby isn't perhaps better understood through ritual than definitions and artificially drawn lines. (I put on the board the awful proposed amendment to the Mississippi State Constitution which is likely to be voted in at the next election: the term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.)

I also got to talk about what in other classes I call the question of the limits of the moral community. A discussion of rituals for "children who unfortunately were not able to be born" (to use the language used at Hasedera in Kamakura) let me suggest that our discussions of "lived religion" have focused only on "human beings who managed to be born and haven't yet died." But no religion thinks that's all there is, and certainly no lived religion, which where ties with ancestors, the departed, and whatever other forces and agents there are perhaps most intimately felt and maintained.

To make the point I recalled the painting above, Charles Willson Peale's portrait of his family - painted over thirty-five years (1773-1809), during which time his first wife died and he married again: both wives are in the portrait, and the two little girls at the table died as children. I recalled other family portraits from the exhibition at the New-York Historical Society where I saw this one which included gauzy figures of babies who had been stillborn. Not so easy to answer the census-takers question "how many people are there in this family or house?"

What happens to "lived religion" when we expand the sense of the community in this way, and take into account the fluid boundaries which lead William LaFleur to entitle his book on mizuko rituals in Japan Liquid Life? We don't - well, I don't - want to endorse an approach which accepts the "buffered self" Charles Taylor thinks replaced the "porous self" in our "secular age."

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