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.
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.
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.