Thursday, February 23, 2012

Live action

Today's round table discussion of lived religion was a blast! We had promised discussion of "Buddhist environ- mentalism, Jewish humor and queer Christians," and delivered on every front. B, a Canadian scholar I heard at a conference last year, spoke about her research with Wind Horse Farm, a Shambhala forest village. J, a colleague who teaches Jewish history spoke about how "A priest, a minister and a rabbi ..." jokes record a subtle refusal of Jews to be classed as a religious group. And I spoke about the icons of Brother Robert Lentz, OFM, reproductions of some of which are important parts of American queer Christianity.

The unifying theme was "lived religion," and we explored its methodology and fruits in different and complementary ways. B's work is ethnographic, J is working with materials from folklorists, and I was engaging with material culture. In another way we generated a cohesive discussion as all of us are trained as text people, philosophers and ethicists, and have come to the study of lived experience for many of the same reasons. I don't have time to summarize all our arguments, but I'll give you one of the takeaways of B's talk, one of the jokes from J's, and the itinerary of my talk.

B's work is in what has sometimes been called "empirical ethics," and as a result of five years' regular visits to Wind Horse Farm she has been able to document how the intentionally Buddhist community has worked through a number of different understandings of their life sustaining community and working the forest. Some of the Buddhist concepts which Buddhist ecology scholars say should be important are - especially interdependence and ahimsa. But you can't understand their role in the life of the WHF community without also grasping the Shambhala understanding of Buddha nature ("basic goodnesss," "nothing missing"), and the importance of meditation in the forest ("forest mind"). Attention to the lived experience of life with the forest can "complement, challenge and transform" philosophical understandings of the meaning of Buddhism, she concluded.

J used collections of jokes to suggest that the promotion of Judaism as part of the "Judeo-Christian tradition" underlying American values, promoted by the National Conference of Christians and Jews in the 1930s (they sent "tolerance trios" of Protestants, Catholics and Jews across the land, the airwaves and newsreels) and given official presidential imprimatur by Eisenhower in 1952, was not unproblematically accepted by Jews, who started telling jokes like this (I paraphrase, except for the punchline):

A priest, a minister and a rabbi are asked what they hope people will say of them after they die. "I hope people say I faithfully presented the mysteries of the Trinity," said the priest. "I hope people say I saved many souls for Christ," said the minister. And you, the rabbi was asked, what do you hope people say after you die? "Look, he's breathing!"

J suggested that in this and kindred jokes the Jewish voice, presented as down to earth and a bit crass, conveys a "deep ambivalence," an angry refusal even, of Christian understandings of religion, a rejection under the surface acceptance of the idea that Protestant, Catholic and Jew are in fact the same kind of thing. The jokes also represent a vindication of the everyday, making them doubly interesting as an object of reflection in "lived religion."

My remarks, finally, were an extended infomercial for the Queer Christianities conference, which is exactly one month away! I drew on William James and Robert Orsi to suggest that lived experience is the most creative part of religious life (systems, etc., are what James calls "second-hand religion"), and that the discovery and veneration of saints is a good example. I proposed that every age or group finds the saints it needs, including queer Christians today, and worked my way through six icons by Brother Robert, allowing them to accumulate in the screen above our heads like an ikonostasis. Icons are figures that you don't so much look at as looked at by, doing a little more than just representing a Christianity in which you can live. Behold (and be held):
St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes (and also, Orsi argued, of a generic American Catholicism); Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker and not a canonized saint (and someone whose most devoted followers would hate to see her coopted by the church); Mychal Judge, the gay Franciscan FDNY Chaplain who died on 9/11 (also not likely to be canonized, although a campaign is underway and miracles claimed); two icons of early Christian martyrs, Polyeuct and Nearchus, and Perpetua and Felicity, both presented as couples; and as a final provocation, since he wasn't any kind of Christin, Harvey Milk. Images of these and other icons of Brother Robert circulate widely. A lived religion study of them would look at who uses them and how, and what they think they are doing, both to understand this particular community now, but also to understand better what must have been happening for all Christian communities at all times.

Together the three presentations, with the rather exciting discussion which followed, made for a very satisfying afternoon, with lots of interesting new perspectives on various religions, and useful methodological and ethical reflection, too. In particular, do we think that "lived religion" can escape being a corrective, a reaction to older tradition-based understandings of religion? (Yes, for various reasons, hopefully... but it's a good question!) Thanks, everyone!

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