Sunday, January 11, 2009

Fragments of a Religion That Never Existed

My senior fine arts project was called something like "Fragments of a Religion That Never Existed" (I can't find anything with the title printed on it). It consisted of the text of Tales of the Tattoo-Rumba Man, with some artworks illustrating the text.

It's become clearer to me that one of my challenges as someone who does not identify with most traditionally "religious" texts or practices, is that I need to make clearer what I do identify with and what I do hold instead. I think that not only have I historically made a straw-man of orthodox practices and beliefs, but I have used that straw-man to deny the places those practices and beliefs hold in orthodox religious people's lives.

What I mean: the conventional view of non-theists around religious ideas like "scripture" and "prayer" and "sacrament" is that these are "superstition," things that can simply be discarded like Tiny Tim's crutch. But I believe that these and other religious forms are present in most adults, whether we call them by their religious names or not.

Take "scripture."

Scripture in its usual sense is the sacred text at the heart of a religion. In most Christian sects, this is the Old and New Testaments. Interestingly, while early Quaker texts are regarded as essential to our heritage, they are not regarded as scriptural. Quakers have long argued about the centrality and the role of scripture (it's one of the main points of contention in the 19th century schisms that rent the Society for Friends). But never did Friends seek to raise Fox's Journals or Barclay's Apology or Penn's No Cross, No Crown to the level of "word of God" reserved for at least the Gospels.

But there is a special class of scripture that varies from person to person—scripture taken to heart. It is the group of particular passages that keeps coming back as a reminder, a support, a running theme. And this special class in fact funtionally breaches the bounds of the Bible. Friends absolutely take passages from Quaker classics to heart (Fox-as-reported-by-Fell saying "What canst thou say?" is a common favorite. One of mine is Fox's answer to Penn on sword-wearing, even if it is urban legend).

What I'm interested in here is the idea of scripture not defined by its innate qualities (e.g. dictated by God), but by its functional qualities. What does scripture do? I find scripture-as-community-glue interesting, but my sympathies lie with scriptures-taken-to-heart. I do have a series of books, passages from books, poems, some formal religious texts, ballads, and films that form what I believe is similar to the sort of scripture-taken-to-heart that orthodox folk might have. Except I do not have a community that draws from the same set of texts.

And, in fact, the creators of those texts may object strenuously to their being taken as scriptural. But I think a big part of that objection is the sense that scriptures ought to be treated in certain ways, they they themselves are inherently different.

My thinking is this: if we take the Universalist idea that our goal as Quakers is to abolish not the clergy, but the laity (a view I think has a lot of resonance in Friends circles), then wouldn't the scriptural variant be that in some ways, the qualities some seek in traditional scripture are in fact present in all texts, that what varies is the accessibility of those qualities. This is not placing some sort of special responsibility on authors' shoulders, which I think is perhaps what makes writers least comfortable about the idea of their work being "scriptural."

It's like saying "namaste" to the text and to its author. And it is holding and appreciating texts, regardless of where they come from, that open us up in some way.


Anonymous said...

Hi again, Nat!

You write, "What I'm interested in here is the idea of scripture not defined by its innate qualities (e.g. dictated by God), but by its functional qualities."

Interestingly enough, Christ defined the scriptures by their functional qualities in John 5:39: "...those are they which testify of me." This functional definition persisted in the early Christian world until the time of Bishop Marcion, in the middle of the second century, at which point it became clear that the disagreements over which scriptures testified truthfully of Christ and which scriptures misrepresented him and/or his teachings were too serious to ignore. The leaders of the Church then spent several centuries working out a list of "canonical" scriptures, scriptures that they agreed represented a truth that was salvific for all readers in all situations. Scriptures that they felt were of slightly lesser quality — helpful for some readers or in some situations but not all — were "deuterocanonical".

I would suggest that there is a respectable list of writings by early Friends (Fox, Barclay, etc.) that qualify for deuterocanonical status within the traditional Friends community.

natcase said...


Good word.

And then the Jesus Seminar came along and downgraded the canonical gospels...

Browsing the Westar site I came across this, which looks interesting, and applicable to this discussion.

natcase said...

Hmm, it looks like "deuterocanonical" is more frequently used to describe the Old Testament Apocrypha (as decided at the Council of Trent), while canon-for-some New Testament books are "Antilegomena"

At least, that's what Wikipedia says, and Wikipedia is never wrong. :-)

James Riemermann said...

I most certainly have my "scripture" in the sense you speak of. A fair bit of what's in the Bible qualifies, a great deal more of what's in there doesn't. Most of my "scripture" in this sense is fiction, some is poetry, and a very few choice bits of philosophy.

When I tell those who take the Bible as their one essential scripture, that I read it the same way I read Melville or Dostoevsky or Kafka or Cormac McCarthy, they tend to take this as a dismissal of the Bible. It's not. Literature like this plays a powerful, crucial role in my spiritual life. At its best it unveils to me a rare and breathtaking view of the usually hidden essential nature of human existence. What is revealed is sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrifying, sometimes--most revealing of all--both at once.

I suppose if I had to choose one volume to serve as my scripture, the Bible would be a pretty good choice. There are stories and passages in there as soul-shattering as anything I've ever read. But I don't have to choose one volume, and I think there's something to be said for not choosing.

natcase said...

James wrote: "...I think there's something to be said for not choosing."

To me this is one of the keys to this sort of approach to scripture (and I guess to life in general). I little different meaning to "not choosing" — to me one of the important things is not to choose scripture, but to let them choose me. I can name on one hand the movies that have literally left weeping over the last two decades. In every case, I was left mystified at the depth of my grief. Where the hey did that come from, I say to myself. And so I try gently to follow that grief, to let it tell the story to me, instead of me having to provide a structure for it.

In a sense, having the Bible as an unchosen sole source can be an advantage, in that you can simply rely on it, you can simply give over. That's harder to do when your approach can be described as "making up your own religion."

James Riemermann said...

Yes, "let them choose me" is more like it. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Good criterion for personal scripture, as well.