And No Religion Too by Elizabeth Cunningham


Elizabeth Cunningham headshot jpegReligion. As a species we can’t seem to live with it or without it. There is dispute about the derivation of the word, but some scholars believe it has the same root as the word ligament, ligare, to bind or tie, to reinforce the bonds between human and divine, or perhaps the bonds between believers. The words bond and bind also have a variety of meanings and connotations. A bond can be used to tie someone up; it can be a bond of kinship, or bond given as surety.

Religion’s impulses and manifestations are just as ambiguous. Did religion arise because the world seemed so beyond human control (weather, health of crops, availability of game)? Perhaps there were gods or spirits to appeal to or propitiate? Or did it arise equally from a sense of gratitude for the earth and seas that feed us, for a sky that dazzles us, for the life that flows through us and surrounds us. Song, dance, storytelling, drama, art likely began as religious or ritual expression. No aspect of life was beyond the sacred. And so religion also went into the business of law, social control. Religion has a long, bloody, ongoing history of occasioning and/or justifying war, oppression, persecution, torture, genocide.

Was religious expression ever purely benign? Were humans? Perhaps when we were still small bands of hunter-gatherers or when we lived in matriarchal, matrilineal cultures where men did not feel obliged to control women (or each other) to ensure the perpetuation of their own DNA. There are benign tenets in most religions still—food as something to share, the stranger as someone to welcome. Birth and death and all the phases of life as a time to gather in community to celebrate or mourn. The call to respond to infirmity, grief and suffering with compassion and to injustice with bravery and truth.

lennonI titled this piece “And no religion, too” after a line from John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” Maybe I am struck by that line, because my life and work have been dominated by religion, literally since birth. My mother’s labor was induced to accommodate my curate father’s schedule. One of my earliest memories, age three, is of plotting to kill God and Jesus. Other childhood memories include being terrified that I would go to prison or hell for trespassing on the property next door. (From the Episcopal version of the Lord’s prayer, I knew trespass meant sin.) I also remember a skirmish with the Roman Catholic kids down the street who used to be my best friends until we went to different schools. A backyard holy war.

As I grew up, I repressed my deicidal tendencies and remained a creed-saying Christian until my mid-twenties when I began to participate in the silent worship of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Later an encounter with the goddess called me to join with others in creating earth-centered ritual at High Valley, a center I directed for eighteen years. During that time, I also became an ordained interfaith minister and counselor. All my life I have been writing novels that ponder religious questions, starting with The Wild Mother, a reimagining of the Garden of Eden story. For twenty years I worked on The Maeve Chronicles, novels from the point of view of a Celtic Magdalen who remains an unconverted pagan. My latest novel, Murder at the Rummage Sale, is set in the church of my childhood. Clearly I am still working with my primary material.

Yet I don’t know that I have a religion any more. I am still friends with my co-celebrants. We meet in a variety of contexts. But for the first time in my life I am not part of a religious community. No doubt I have beliefs, but I have no belief system. As I struggle to write this post, it dawns on me that it is my own life without religion that I am trying to imagine.

My other early memory, twinned with the deicidal plot, is my first encounter with the ocean. I waded into the surf and sang at the top of my lungs. I recall reading Christian theologians who argued that it was idolatry to worship creation instead of the creator. This assertion has never made sense to me. Nor has the literary question of whether or not Shakespeare was really the Earl of Oxford. It doesn’t matter. Read the plays. Love creation. Be filled with wonder. Mirari ‘to wonder’ is the root of the word miracle.

I don’t have the exact quote, but I recall the Dalai Lama saying that his religion was only useful in so far as it helped him to be kind. Do we need religion to be kind? If we stopped justifying our cruelty with religion, would cruelty cease to exist? Is religion cause or expression of our conflicted human condition? I don’t know. I invite you to wonder and imagine. I leave you with a poem that came out of my difficulties with this post.

miracles

the root of the word is mirari: to wonder
maybe mira! in Spanish shares the root

look! sometimes all it takes is
walking in a different direction

on the route you usually take,
the familiar revealed as wonder-full

being present at the moment the ice
begins to form on the stream

silvering the rocks beneath the green
flow, creeping out over the still places

or glimpsing the eyes of a lost child
in someone you fear or hate, even if you

can’t reach him or her, just knowing—
deep in recesses of flesh, hollow of bone

there is innocence. I admit things look bad now
wars, repressions, persecutions, extinctions

flood, fire, climate changing beyond our ken
still, miracles are scattered like frost crystals

in cold winter light, small kindnesses everywhere,
and now and then a joke on us that we all get.

Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen, now also available as audiobooks. She recently published her third collection of poems, So Ecstasy Can Find You. Her first mystery novel Murder at the Rummage Sale is forthcoming from Imagination Fury Arts in August, 2016. A counselor in private practice, Elizabeth is also a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute.

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Categories: Belief, Faith, Poetry, religion

Tags: , , , , ,

52 replies

  1. Or did it arise equally from a sense of gratitude for the earth and seas that feed us, for a sky that dazzles us, for the life that flows through us and surrounds us.

    I like that. Once religion began to collude with the state, the military, the colonizers, the slaveholders, the patriarchy, religion was turned to other purposes, namely to shore up the divine right of kings, to coin a phrase.

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  2. A wonderful post that expresses many of my own thoughts of late. As I “wonder and imagine” about religion I am brought to the experience I had witnessing the effects of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse catastrophe in my own community, which did not, to my knowledge, have victims, but our neighborhood parish was dissolved and joined with another parish some miles away, and nearby communities, some of which had many, many victims and also lost their parishes. Clearly, to the church’s hierarchy in Boston that was responsible for the catastrophe, they and the institutional church were their religion and the people in the neighborhood parishes were important only as supports to them. To some people in my and nearby communities, the institutional church was also their religion, and they left the church, wanting nothing to do with religion again while others stayed because they could not imagine life without the church. To many in my own community, the church hierarchy was not their religion. Their religion was their personal relationship to their Creator and, as importantly, their parish community, and they struggled. Eventually some stayed and moved to the new parish and some left. Before the crisis, maybe most people would have said that their religion was the hierarchy, and their neighborhood parish community, and their personal relationship to their Creator, all combined, but afterwards, it was clear that the true situation was much more complex.

    For me at this moment, I’m coming to love the “space” of being without a traditional and institutional religion. I know that for many people, “religion” is what brings their lives meaning and they find great wisdom, peace, and love in it and so being part of a religion is perfect for them. But, to me, my inner “space” is the place where so much is able to come in and be experienced because I am no longer trying to fit it into a structure created in another time and place by other people. For me at this moment in my life, there is nothing more “religious” or sacred than a moment spent in communion with the beauty of either nature or another being’s soul through friendship or artistic expression.

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    • Thank you, Carolyn. My heart goes out to your community. I remember during one of many crises of faith to words of Alan Jones (Madeleine L’Engel’s sonin-law) something to this effect–If you have to choose between Christ (or you could say God or the church) and the truth of your own experience, choose your experience and trust that Christ/God/community will be revealed in a new way. Sounds as though you have found beauty and peace in the truth of your experience!

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  3. A wonderful koan-esque post and the poem–by beginning with ‘miracles’ and ending with ‘joke’– subtly reminds me of the likely etymological connection of ‘miracle’ and ‘smile.’

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  4. I don’t think you’re alone in your ponderings. Last week on Facebook, Jim Rigby posted this. It’s the closest statement I’ve ever seen (if you replace Buddhism with Christianity) to my own belief spiritual practice: “I am not a believer nor an unbeliever. I am a mystic, a humanist and a naturalist. I am at home with atheism as much as theism so long as both can meet at the threshold of reverence, compassion and interconnectedness. Christianity is my particular footprint, from which I join every other footprint in the march to universal human rights and to ecological stewardship within the web of life. And, there is no point in being alive if we do not stop from time to time to be overcome by the wonderment of it all.”

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  5. Wonderful post, Elizabeth. I think those of us who are born and bred in families where institutional religion is the bedrock of our parents’ life work have unique difficulties coming to terms (if you will) with this whole thing called religion. (My parents were Protestant missionaries in Argentina, proud of being “denomination-free,” yet that very space created a specific way of being and doing religion.)

    The Dalai Lama seems to have several quotes dealing with kindness. I like the following two:

    “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” Of course, one can ask, What does it mean to be kind? At times, one’s actions can come from a “kind” place, but the receiver of that “kindness” may not perceive it as such–perhaps because the giver of that kindness is not properly using their ego (referring to yesterday’s post and comments).

    “We can live without religion and meditation, but we cannot survive without human affection.”

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  6. Brava! I was never a huge fan of John Lennon, but “Imagine” still sings to my heart and soul. Now I’m wondering if the FAR community can indeed imagine a new world and then give birth to it. Thanks for writing this.

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  7. I wish it were August so I could read “Murder at the Rummage Sale” on this rainy Sunday!

    I found religion helpful at some points in my life. During my childhood spent within an abusive family, dedicated and kind Sisters and clergy were loving and supportive, and revealed for me a “face of God”.

    But as time went by religion also became binding, limiting my experience, concepts, exploration, into the confines of “orthodoxy”, especially under the rule of the two previous popes (JP23 and B16) They made theology into god and canon law into “gospel”, even tho it wasn’t “good news”. They force-led me beyond religion to discover the mystery that religions were meant to point to. They also convinced me that “Christianity” went wobbly very early in it’s existence as men grabbed power, argued about beliefs, and forgot the teachings of Jesus.

    I do like being spirit loose and fancy free! There is so much to explore.

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  8. OMG! This! These words laid at the feast of my soul.
    ~sob~
    You have no idea how much I needed these words today.
    “miracles are scattered like frost crystals

    in cold winter light, small kindnesses everywhere,
    and now and then a joke on us that we all get”

    Thank you…
    so very very much.

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  9. Dear Eliz… this post soooo resonates! Having been raised in the hellfire and brimstone First Southern Baptist Church, I struggled mightily for years with the terror and horror I was threatened with for non-conformity. Threats that if I didn’t stop asking intelligent questions, I would never share the rewards of heaven with my family in the end times. Threats of the loss of Divine Love of my Creator. The wounds of the patriarchal church were deep and spiritually disfiguring, and when I fled, it was the proverbial “pendulum-swing” to the opposite extreme. Lucky for me, there were human angels out there for me to connect with. A beautiful Bear of a male, Orthodox Rabbi who is a therapist; a female Rabbi named Tirzah Firestone (whose book With Roots In Heaven, was a life changer for me), Sue Monk Kidd, whose book The Dance of The Dissident Daughter was another life changer; a feminist pagan Priestess, you yourself with the Maeve Chronicles (also life-changing), and now, a young woman named Tia. who has challenged me in the most incredible and amazing ways to finally realize that I AM God/Goddess/All-That-is, and as such, LOVE… because truly, is the Creator (no matter if we envision a father God or Mother Goddess, the Universe, whatever) anything OTHER than LOVE?

    I have been blessed and healed by allowing myself to face down all the fears that are such an intrinsic part of many “religions”, and now realize that I am ALL OF IT!

    Thank you, and rolling waves of gratitude to ALL for my growth and realizations, and indeed, remembering that it’s all love, and whatever doesn’t FEEL like love is just opening the way for it to BE LOVE.

    Bruja/Erica/womyn42@tde.com

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  10. Dear Elizabeth,
    As difficult as this blog post may have been for you to write, I am so delighted by the poem that it birthed! Thank you for sharing this with us.

    Years ago I remember hearing an interview with an S&M bondage couple that were particularly into tying each other up with ropes. What stuck out in that interview was the woman saying, “After you are completely bound and cannot move you realize that you are more than just this bound up body. You are more than that physical body and you are absolutely free.” It was an important reminder to me- we choose the bonds that bind us and we have so much in us that can far exceed any limits the bonds may place on us.

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    • We choose the bonds that bind us. Thanks for that reflection. And when bonds are imposed, as they sometimes are, we need to find some place within us that is still free. Thank you for your thoughts.

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  11. After reading all the comments it seems this post has made us all dig deep into where we have come from religiously and what our next step might be. About 30 years ago, after about 30 years of being part of one organized religion or another I decided that I no longer wanted to be a religious person but a spiritual one. I have discovered along the way that there is a vast cavern between the two while at the same time difficulty sometimes telling the difference between them. It’s interesting that you wonder about the beginnings of religion, how humans came to “invent” it. My own feelings are that we were first spiritual creatures until someone realized they could gain power over others by using that spirituality to dominate others. It is still going on to this day.

    I do worship the creation as well as the Creator and miracles abound. They are everywhere if we only open the eyes of our spirits to them.

    I love the poem, Elizabeth. Especially the line; “still, miracles are scattered like frost crystals”
    What a delicious visual!

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    • Thank you, Treetalker. It is amazing to be able to imagine, and wonder together, about what is next. I aw the frost crystals in the air one morning in my own backyard. They stayed with me!

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  12. I have wrestled with this thing all my 81 years of life. Have come to the conclusion that spirituality is an internal reality and religion is an external. When I move into my GREAT ADVENTURE if anything can be taken from this current physical existence it will be that which exists in my internal reality. That is good enough to give me the sense of peace I am experiencing as this physical journey continues.

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    • I love seeing death and whatever lies beyond as a Great Adventure. And how wonderful to think that our internal experience here may shape it. Thanks, Jim!

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  13. Elizabeth, what a wonder-full post. I wish there were “Like” or “Love” buttons that I could click for every response. Like many in my generation, I was raised sans religion, sans spirituality. Filling that emptiness has been the challenge of my life, and while I am comfortable with the Goddess – natural – blessed spirituality I have discovered, I am still very much a work in progress. Thank you for your beautiful poem too.

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  14. Dear Elizabeth — I too am not connected with any particular religious community right now (cannot find quite the right place for my pagan-shamanic-Jewish-Quaker-Buddhist-fairytale-myth-loving self). But I live in a town with sacred chanting twice a month and community-centered rituals held at every solstice and spiritual workshops on everything (Olympia WA) — so in a way the entire community that has become my sangha. And the entire place my church. I like that!

    Thank you for this column, and your books which offer so much in the way of resonant spirits!

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  15. “No doubt I have beliefs, but I have no belief system.” Oh, yes! My own beliefs shift and evolve. Systems tend toward stagnation.

    I love the poem. Wish I got the joke more often. Still learning to laugh.

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  16. Thanks, Elizabeth. There is a well-known mosaic dedicated as a memorial to John Lennon in Central Park, in NYC, that simply says IMAGINE, in bold lettering, and inlaid in the ground, with a sunburst all around it. And I used to have to walk through there every day on my way to my job. I can’t tell you how conflicted it used to make me feel because Lennon was a hero to me, and I felt so sad for him as well as inspired by the message.

    It seems to me we are at a crossroads in our world right now, and a time which needs a lot more imaginative solutions. Thank you for your poem. And let’s all pray for our world leaders to creatively find ways to bring about more peaceful and loving solutions.

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  17. It would seem I share many sentiments and views on religion with you. Even though I am working on a set of goddess poems and find female divinity fascinating, I myself find it nearly impossible to believe in anything that remotely resembles religion. In fact, I remain convinced that religion is destroying the world. Research even indicates that the stricter the religion in which a child is raised, the less caring and kind the child. I am going to have to read your books.

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  18. As always, Elizabeth, you have lit many candles here and not put them under a bushel, but out there for all of us to contemplate. I believe that like many here, my spiritual path has involved many stops along the way, from my Calvinist roots to paganism today. But like many here, I have difficulty with belief systems, even beliefs. We live in a scientific age, and so it has to be experience that colors my spirituality, rather than belief. I’ve experienced a number of Goddesses in my life, and so I practice Goddess religion. I guess that’s why I don’t understand how you can speak of an encounter with the divine feminine (that called you to join with others in creating earth-centered ritual at High Valley, a center you directed for eighteen years), and then question whether or not you have religion, or is it just a religious community that you’re missing right now? After an experience of the divine feminine, how can you imagine your life without religion, or is this just a semantic question distinguishing spirituality from religion? I’m not in a coven right now, but I love my Unitarian Universalist church, in part, because it’s a religious community that both my atheist husband and I can belong to, but also because UUs share my values and actually try to make the world a better place. They don’t all share my thealogy (obviously), but the honor it as I honor theirs, and that’s enough for me.

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  19. Ah, and about bonds and binding: I think creating loving bonds in a community does limit us in many ways, binds us in many ways. If there’s more than one person in a relationship, there needs to be some compromise. But I think loving community also frees us in many ways by supporting us in our endeavors and acknowledging how hard it is sometimes, helping us mourn and celebrate, reminding us that we’re not alone in all of this, things we really can’t do alone. I think the trade-off (in a UU community) is well worth it.

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    • Thank you so much for your response, Nancy! I do have a very loosely-defined, wide-flung community but it is not the same as having a community that I commit to celebrating with on a regular basis. Definitely a first for me. I am choosing to live with the questions and even the discomfort rather than finding a community to be part of at this time. That may change, who know? Right now I am curious to see what happens. Will I dare to be a hermit? Jury still out!

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  20. Of course, duh. John Lennon saw the connection between religion and the state: the line no religion is paired with no countries and in between nothing to kill or die for. Clearly he was making a connection between the nation state, war, and religion. This is what our friend Mary Daly called the Unholy Trinity of rape, genocide, and war. She recognized she was talking about patriarchal religion, a point Lennon did not see as clearly if at all.

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    • Mary Daly knew how to name the truth! No, I don’t think John Lennon saw patriarchy clearly. He just wrote a tune with a great title (Imagine) that sings itself in my mind now and then.

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  21. I remember being so perplexed by that part of the song when I was a child–what was so wrong with religion?–as I equated it with spirituality and a belief in the Divine. Unfortunately, it didn’t take too many years before I understood what he meant (or thought I did). Thanks for the thoughtful post and the lovely poem!

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  22. Thank you, Diana! Always good to hear from you! I can well imagine how perplexing that line was–it is still very arresting to me. Wishing you a very happy 2016!

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  23. Just an educated guess, but to me the liguistics of the word religion can be broken down to mean legion again. A legion is a large group of soldiers meaning they intent to fight or oppose something, or someone. So in that sence religion requires adherence or unananimity to achieve an adgenda. Therefore religion in itself opposes inner light and revelation, and it’s why religion is an enemy of Spirit, who consoles, comforts, or convicts individuals from within.

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  24. Fascinating way to understand the meaning of the word. Thank you!

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  25. love it Elizabeth … and your deicidal tendencies so young! I had a dream about doing that quietly (in my 30’s or 40’s) with the power of my hands touching those of a patriarchal dream image “killing the mythology of the fathers”. And I had an encounter with the Pacific Ocean when I was pregnant, connecting the ocean within me with Her: wrote about it in the context of an essay “Now Recognising Her in Me” published in the She Rises book https://magobooks.com/update-on-mago-books/she-rises-vol-1/she-rises-why-goddess-feminism-activism-and-spirituality/ /. great to meet you here. x

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