From the Archives: And No Religion Too by Elizabeth Cunningham

This was originally posted on January 17, 2016

Religion. 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.

lennon

I 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 the feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one’s disciple. She is a counselor in private practice, a writing coach, and an aspiring hermit.



Categories: Belief, Faith, General, Poetry, religion

Tags: , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. Brava brava brava! My dear friend, I still think you’re one of the best writers on the planet, and this essay reminds me why I hold that opinion. I love your idea of deicide and your early encounters with religious ideas taken perhaps literally. I hope you’ll come back from your vacation away from FAR and start writing for us regularly again. Bright blessings!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Barbara! It has been a while! I’m having difficulty commenting. I had to get a new password. We’ll see if I’ve succeeded.

      Late breaking news. I just signed a contract with Monkfish (Maeve’s publisher) for my memoirish book, My Life as a Prayer, very much on the same subject as the above post.

      Blessed Bees, dear Barbara and all FAR readers and writers!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A thoughtful, insightful, and important essay! Like so much of life, I think religion is what we make of it, whether we use to make ourselves and the world better, or oppress others and be destructive. Sometimes we have to undo decades of assumptions about the immutable holiness of doctrines that are actually destructive, but once we do, we have choices as to what religious paths to take, or to go our own way without formal or informal religion. So many wars have been fought over religion and so many harmed by the use of religion to divide and marginalize, but at the same time I know so many people for whom their participation in a faith community has made lives full of tragedy bearable and meaningful. So many things to think and talk about!

    I also hope you will come back to FAR at some time in the future. You are sorely missed!

    And congratulations on your book, which I cannot wait to read!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Big Congrats! What wonderful news and I too can’t wait to read your new book. You are missed here!

    There is so much that struck me in this post but I must comment on this one:

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

    Maybe we are able to see miracles in our world when we look with wonder around us. Maybe that is the secret! A wonderful nugget of wisdom!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh I love this post and I miss you Elizabeth… religion – a thorny subject and for some of us a life long struggle – like you I ended up without religion unless it is the religion of nature – which can’t be untied from the I or the body of me…. hope that you are doing well – and how poignant – John’s words….

    Like

  5. PS I will read this latest book!

    Like

  6. From Elizabeth Cunningham, she is having trouble with her WordPress account and asked me to post her words:

    Thank you, Barbara, Sara, Janet! I appreciate your comments and your inspiring posts. I am currently unable to comment. I can’t seem to set up a new password that is accepted. I hope to return as a guest contributor when all the technical glitches are resolved.

    Thank you for your interest in the new book, My Life as a Prayer. I just signed the contract. It will be published Fall, 2023–same season I turn seventy. I will let you know the exact publication date when I have it. Monkfish Publishing will also be reprinting earlier titles in 2023 and 2024. I will keep you posted.

    Like

  7. And now my own comment: Wow such a big year coming up. It is quite substantial that your earlier titles are being reprinted. Big congrats on that as well. I love, love, love all your books. The Maeve series especially.

    (Oh and for the record, to post these two comments, I have to sign in to WordPress twice. I really think the problem is on their end.)

    Like

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