Returning to History
Christian Wiman, in the preface of his riveting book My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, tries to explain why he left his regular space of poetry to write explicitly opinionated essays about religion and belief. He opines something that I believe many of us think, whether actively or not:
There is an enormous contingent of thoughtful people in this country who, though they are frustrated with the language and forms of contemporary American religion, nevertheless feel that burn of being that drives us out of ourselves, that insistent, persistent gravity of the ghost called God.Wiman — through his singular poetic/religious viewpoint — therefore understands the future of religion as stemming from poets, and the common poetic experiences that allow us to infuse new meaning into old religious language. He doesn’t simply seek to describe the withered landscape of religious imagery and language, but rather calls for a linguistic revolution in which the words and categories we choose to evoke religious feeling mimic the contemporary experience of religion, and also provoke, challenge, unsettle people out of stubborn biases. The words “belief” and its supposed opposite, “doubt,” while once powerful words that spoke to a then-contemporary experience, no longer carry as much insight or interest because of their historical baggage, their frequent and repeated use to ostracize, to separate the Us from the Them, the good from the evil. These musty and dusty words require a new exploration for today’s world in which many care less about belief and more about intimacy, less about doubt and more about disconnect.
Of course, poets, living in a world alight with words and sounds, will see the future in words as a carpenter sees nails to hammer everywhere. But a long line of literary thinkers, writers, and poets fall behind Wiman’s insight, right up until the contemporary scene of poetry. Ben Lerner maybe best personifies this: Lerner, one of our greatest wordsmiths whose work does what Wiman preaches, also sees possibility in the expansion of language, in language emerging through and from the doldrums of clichés. In Harper’s, Lerner writes:
If I have recognized the spread in drug warnings and financial doublespeak, where the corporate use of language approaches the absurd, where the shell of a communicative form is used to foreclose communication, I have also recognized it in forms of poetry that deliberately push us to confront the contingency and craziness of our culture’s use and abuse of words.
Lerner sees the corrosiveness of stagnant politics from a linguistic perspective, as a failure in our imagination and in how we speak. This idea goes back to Joan Didion’s analysis of politics after 9/11, to Walt Whitman’s freedom in telling the story of oneself, to Audre Lorde’s intuition that language is exactly the battleground of rights and equality (see her searing analyses of the word “erotic”). We can see this notion — of language as creative and not reflective — at the heart of Postmodernism, and much of this past century’s compelling philosophy (Wittgenstein and then neo-pragmatists like Richard Rorty). Postmodernists, if we can still use that word, helped us see that the metaphors we choose matter more than we think. Consequently, language is never innocuous or harmless, but the foundation of our culture and political wars. Defining sexuality or humanity or freedom or identity is not just an effort in empathy or the kindness of multiculturalism, but the act of rebellion itself. These writers and poets see our best chance for freedom, for equality, in relearning and recreating our language. For those who see this as too lofty, perhaps we need go no further than noticing that if you choose to see an argument as a dance instead of a battle — a partnership, rather than an event which requires a winner and a loser — you might emerge with different results.
Wiman takes a long-standing literary idea and uses it to revivify what he sees as a dying religious realm. Of course, as with all criticism, it’s easier to lament than create. Wiman’s My Bright Abyss serves to try to reinvigorate language with modern experience, but he himself notes the frustration in these attempts, how much the burdens and weight of history locks these words and experience in the past. Lerner’s experiments with language (in one poem, he beautifully posits a world in which “children make love ‘executioner style’/they hold each other like moments of silence”), as urgent as they feel to this reader, will likely strike many (most?) as navel-gazing: elitist (to those who don’t read or care about poetry). Where then, how do we, recreate language? How do we refresh language without resigning ourselves to hushed and quiet conversations on the fringes of society?
One answer lies in focusing on religion. For many people, the urgencies and images of the practice of faith still occupy a central place — whether in embrace or rebellion. In response to Wiman, I feel certain that our best and most refreshing, inspiring, and effective religious and spiritual language will emerge from the perceived periphery and the powerless, and in a vulnerable encounter of religion with those it alienates. For religion to not only survive, but to urgently matter once again as a dangerous force for those in power, it must reinvent itself within an ethics and a language of redemption.
A modern rabbinic scholar used this insight of refreshed language being able to change our world to provide a concrete, poetic definition to the to the word “redemption.” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a figure I obsessed over in my days of faith, defined redemption as the move from the periphery of history to its center:
Redemption is a fundamental category in Judaic historical thinking and experiencing. Our history was initiated by a Divine act of redemption and, we are confident, will reach its finale in a Divine act of ultimate redemption. What is redemption? Redemption involves a movement by an individual or a community from the periphery of history to its center; or, to employ a term from physics, redemption is a centripetal movement. To be on the periphery means to be a non-history-making entity, while movement toward the center renders the same entity history-making and history-conscious. Naturally the question arises: What is meant by a history-making people or community? A history-making people is one that leads a speaking, storytelling, communing free existence, while a non-history-making, non-history-involved group leads a non-communing, and therefore a silent, unfree existence. (Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought, 1978, p. 55)
Redemption no longer awaits any metaphysical grace, but now includes a moral imperative within its meaning. He used this sense to explain the return of the Jewish people to the center of contemporary importance after the Holocaust and linked it to the act of storytelling, advocating that a return to history entails a return to storytelling.
Like many of the almost stale words we now associate with religious vocabulary and imagery, the baggage attending “redemption” often precludes any helpful meanings. The notion of redemption can mean almost anything to the spiritual person, and therefore points to very little. Moreover, its metaphysical connotation tends to overshadow its more concrete intentions. To think of redemption as a cleansing or release from sin occludes its monetary Biblical sense of reclaiming an object held in debt. The Bible uses this sense to describe not only civil law but also to describe the way the Israelite God redeems the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. Nowadays, that we can and do redeem coupons complicates the situation. Soloveitchik’s use redeems the word of redemption itself, sweeps away the more abstract and amorphous idea swirling in its wake, and focuses redemption as the right and the ability to control how you tell your story.
Perhaps trying to find new words and images sounds either pointless or ineffective, but in many ways our limping linguistic landscape is just a symptom of a larger more troubling experience. I believe that many if not most of us live and act as if we dwell outside of history, which is another way of saying that we live in an era when our actions, our words, have lost their urgency and feel only sterile, emptied of all personal meaning and content, words and meaning stolen from the lives of other people. The emptiness of our language, the sense that we leech off the meaning from others, stems from this disconnect, from the inability to place ourselves, even see ourselves, as central to history in all its variability.
What, though, does it mean to live in ahistorical religion or life?
History occurs every second, but for many Americans it happens out there, in another country, to other people, and we participate as spectators. Moral questions emerge, but usually only for large entities: governments, institutions, and corporations — rarely for humans. We don’t go to war; our country goes to war, etc. Consequently, we live lives as managers of ritualized excitement and inevitable boredom. (Less than 1% of American families have a member in the Army — but of course, no pure or distinct category of Americans can be used in such a general sense. I use the generalization “Americans” here to refer to those who largely do not feel the sting of the majority power, who reap the benefits of privilege, however indirectly, who can afford the luxury of apathy.)
Similarly, religion now seeks to occupy the privatized world of whispers, of insular life without pretenses to historical importance. True, we do live in a time of flux, or crisis, or uncertainty, but increasingly these historical changes, these feelings of doom, happen out there, in the land of TV, movies, and internet, but not in our daily lives. We don’t know of war firsthand, like our grandparents’ generation (nor would or should we want to — but it ought to strike us as problematic that we make decisions about going to war without having to bear the brunt of its costs), despite the fact that we recently have found our country in two separate unjust and deadly wars. Similarly, religion for many feels like following the script of the past, exploring rituals and liturgy whose relevancy stands outside of our urgent experiences. Not that religion doesn’t change, but too often it changes by adapting the now to the categories of the past and not the other way around: i.e., how can feminism possibly fit into our tradition, not how can our tradition fit into the revelations of feminism? Instead of using the experience of new generations as paths toward religious expansion, traditionalism seeks to guide and thereby limit the new generation in the strictures of the old.
In other words, it has become increasingly challenging to tell ourselves that our individual actions matter past our immediate world, that somehow single people matter to history. Similarly, more and more we can choose to reinforce the status quo that distances us from any urgent moral concerns. We can often live a good life without ever needing to worry about the good life of other people; we can choose not to think about globalization, global warming, sex trafficking, gun control, the rights of other people, because, for the most part, these issues don’t intrude into our mundane lives, which strikes me as the essential moral question of our generation: will you choose to engage or not? Of course, a mere return to history ensures nothing in the way of progress or goodness, but we cannot change anything, in a world crying out for change, if we continue to view our lives, live our lives, as irrelevant.
I first experienced the opposite of this void, of the difference between living inside and outside history, on the weekend of the DOMA decision. I followed the DOMA decision from when it first went to the Supreme Court, but I did so in the only way I knew how — conceptual analysis — which still kept me on the sidelines. To try to balance this lopsidedness, I decided to attend the holiday-like service that Friday night at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBTQ prayer service in the NYC Chelsea area.
I arrived two hours early just on a whim. Not to get a good seat but to get a feel for the environment as a reporter for Huffington Post. But turning the corner I saw myriad people waiting to get into a service. I repeat: hundreds of people lined up to get into a synagogue for a religious ceremony. Religious leaders world round would fight for that ability. Of course, people came to hear Edith Windsor, the main plaintiff in the Supreme Court DOMA case, and her lawyer Roberta Kaplan speak, but still. The crowd dressed for the occasion, formal but festive, full of color and life with flags and signs and t-shirts pronouncing support for Love and Equality. I cruised through the line picking up snatches of conversations, smiles, hugs, kisses, and the sort of kindness we tend to reserve for the hours, days, and weeks after a tragedy. Time both stopped and sped up, time canceled itself, allowing the importance of the moment, of the right now, of how we respond, to fill in the void.
Everyone felt something.
That day, one of our nation’s best storytellers, David Grann, tweeted: “I feel like I am inside of history,” and we all intimately understood his insight without explication. I like to call the way I felt, the way many of us felt, a return to history. A return to the sense that what we do matters; others will call it God, etc., but something “Other” permeated the crowd who felt on the precipice of a better history than they knew, or thought they could ever expect. To that extent, I felt like an outsider — a white, male, heterosexual there as an ally — but despite these differences everyone embraced me. I was amidst a group of over six hundred people, with over ten standing ovations, listening to the historic speeches of Edith Windsor and Roberta Kaplan, embracing people I didn’t know, all in celebration of a historic victory of justice over discrimination.
But, I intuited that this fleeting feeling usually lasts a bit then falters, but that if this is history, it would remain important and require something new in me, in us, in our society. The religious life I grew up with, while flourishing in a way that focused solely on its adherents, had little to say about today. Had little to say about the concerns of the periphery. Much of the religious rhetoric, as Wiman notes, feels sterilized, robbed of its immediacy. Aloof from the considerations of history, the words we invoke of redemption, of justice, of the glory of God, lie fallow, falling flat because they focus only our personal or proscribed communal needs.
Growing up in the dogmatic world of Orthodoxy, we took the Bible literally and defined belief as adhering to the rigid dogmas of the past. We worried about the purity of our community against the impurities of divergent sexuality, feminism, and other similar groups and ideologies we perceived as threats. These words remained abstract categories throughout most of my life as I lived in a homogenous world that lauded exposure and dialogue with the “outside world,” but insulated us from that world in actuality. I therefore kept my philosophical doubts about these dogmas — my discomfort with the constricting boundaries of our social categories — quiet, learning to adapt to the strictures of the proscribed religious life in order to succeed.
I found the beginnings of answers, a new sense of redemption, a key of how to integrate this need for history in everyday life, in a sign hanging in the synagogue. The synagogue, brilliantly so, takes its slogan from Psalms 118:22, in which the author famously writes, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This echoes the sentiment of a movement from the outlines to the center. Traditionally, the verse refers to the feelings of King David, chased by his enemies, despondent, in hiding, neglected by all of his family and friends, crying out to God in his despair and finding solace in the Lord of Justice and Peace. I cannot think of a more apt way to signify the reclamation of Jewish tradition, the whole of religious tradition, and even culture, than this metaphor. That the Jewish LGBTQ community, like similar religious communities of all kinds, not only stays within a tradition that has so despised and reviled them — and not only stays, but does the dirty work of redemption — in itself points the way for the future of religion.
I understood that night that religions, to stay viable, need to stop seeing these issues as issues, but rather as opportunities. For example, many religious people ask how can we adapt or protect ourselves in a world that appears to embrace not only the rights, but the lives, of LGBTQ people. Religious communities then wonder how to deal with this issue: what traditions to retain fiercely, and what to let go. This model sees religion as central — its institution, its traditions as occupying the basic and fundamental viewpoint from which to judge other people and cultures. It opens itself to learning, but to learning with boundaries. A line exists, and across it, this model posits, you will no longer exist within this religion. Religion will revive itself if it changes its model of knowledge. Instead of seeing something like LGBTQ rights as an issue, it ought to see it as a chance for revival, an opportunity for the creative spur that has pushed religion forward and made religion more moral throughout history. To do so religion needs to accept not only an allegiance to an ancient and dogmatic revelation that resides only in the past, but open itself to the revelations of the Other, the infinite experiences of other people, especially those classically hurt by religion.
Emmanuel Levinas — philosopher, Jewish thinker, and teacher par excellence — saw the opposite of this proposed model of learning, viewing the world solely from the entrenched foundation of the Ego, as the cause of much of the evil in history, and especially the 20th century. (He spent most of the war in a POW camp in Germany set aside specifically for Jewish soldiers, while his father and brothers were killed by the Nazis). He viewed the whole thrust of Western Philosophy since Descartes as self-obsessed. You start with a self — an I of which is the only thing you can remain certain — then move about the world trying to assimilate other potential existences into your own. This power, Levinas argues, allows a person to simply define another existence away as sub-human, irrelevant, or not worthy of attention.
This requirement that everything new and strange be assimilated into pre-existing notions of self, he argued, denies the essential and inherent irreducible humanity of other people. We like to think of our souls, our minds, emotions, our complexity, as endless. Categories cannot capture our whole selves, but Levinas would argue we don’t push the idea far enough. If we ourselves feel endlessly complex and infinite, surely other people are infinite in the same way. As much as we enjoy and revel in thinking of ourselves as infinite, we rarely like to think of the Other as infinite, for it creates demands and responsibilities. Levinas argued that when we realize the infinite Otherness of the other people, we would realize that our selfhood — like language for Wittgenstein — only emerges in a relational dynamic:
The epiphany of the other person is ipso facto my responsibility toward him: seeing the other is already an obligation toward him. A direct optics — with the mediation of any idea — can only be accomplished as ethics … To hear a voice speaking to is ipso facto to accept obligation toward the one speaking. Intelligibility does not begin in self-certainty … Consciousness is the urgency of a destination leading to the person and not an eternal return to the self. (Nine Talmudic Readings, p. 48)
Other people make us people.
We don’t encounter another person as a complete I, a full and readymade Ego, but as incomplete, as aimless, formless, and shapeless. Only in the encounter — which, according to Levinas creates an urgent ethical demand — do we even gain a consciousness, a self. Levinas believed that if we could inculcate this understanding that we only take on a personhood through the other, we could move forward morally. Consequently, he crafted one of the more original systems of modern philosophy in his understanding of the Other and the infinite responsibility it engenders. To ask how this other person fits in to my already established notions of the world violates the humanity of this other. Levinas, like other thinkers of the 20th century, tried to establish a pre-conceptual, pre-lingual ethical obligation so as to defend it against any metaphysical distortion or attacks. If one of the great questions of the Western Tradition centered on grounding our moral obligations to one another — the question of why we ought to be moral — then Levinas answers that to give a logical answer commits an act of violence against the other. Rather, he argues, the obligation already exists the moment we try to think about it, the moment we gain awareness of ourselves as an I, a self.
Levinas’s often dense, esoteric, and sometimes frustratingly complex system of thought remains interesting and often important, but his specific insights matter to much more than the morality that emerges. His intuition of the importance of the other remains prescient for our time as we learn again and again that we cannot, even if we try, separate ourselves, and quarantine our identities away from those we disagree with or do not understand. Of course many try to do just that but too often end up living a life and crafting an identity solely in contrast to the supposed nefarious forces out there. This locks a community in a cycle of regression as it stagnates trying to regain a mythical past free of the impure influences of these outsiders. For religion, and us, to grow or flourish or remain historically central and relevant, we must open ourselves infinitely to the periphery. Religion must see its imperative to redeem others as its central law.
Adrienne Rich echoes this sentiment in her remarks on the more concrete topic of policy:
If you are trying to transform a brutalized society into one where people can live in dignity and hope, you begin with the empowering of the most powerless. You build from the ground up. (“Going There and Being Here,” Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–1985)
If we believe that we build and rebuild society in how we talk about it, then her insight matters as much for language as it does for policy. Religion must heed this important insight. Starting from the ground up tends to focus on those abused by those in power, those oppressed and victimized, those that do not fit into their long-standing worldview. Religion must follow this imperative not simply to reclaim anything resembling possible moral grandeur, but to rejoin history as something that changes and grows and remains relevant. Religious change teeters back and forth between innovation and tradition, but this interpretation calls for something more radical, more vulnerable. Religion must take upon itself the insecure and vulnerable position of Levinas’s human encountering the other. It would manifest itself in the thinking that yes, perhaps religion contains wisdom, but right now the wisdom we seek is the wisdom of the powerless. Only through the periphery will religion create a new language of faith and devotion.
But why care about religion?
Why bring religion into this public discussion and not keep it in the realm of private imagery and ideals? Philosopher Richard Rorty, a king of the pragmatists, argues that religion should remain completely a private endeavor to protect both religious freedom and the freedom of others. In no way should religion, or religious thinking, Rorty argues, include itself in public discussion. We don’t need it — or worse, sometimes it’s inefficient and even harmful. In the short but powerful work, The Future of Religion, Rorty writes:
It is the view that ecclesiastical institutions, despite all the good they do — despite all the comfort they provide to those in need or in despair — are dangerous to the health of democratic societies … On our view, religion is unobjectionable as long as it is privatized — as long as ecclesiastical institutions do not attempt to rally the faithful behind political proposals and as long as believers and unbelievers agree to follow a policy of live and let live. (pg. 33)
It’s important to realize Rorty and his coterie do not simply advocate for a fulfillment of the separation between church and state, but something considerably more drastic. He argues that religion should never even affect how you think about anything past your own individualized life and concerns. Our notions of good, just, moral — our visions for the world — should not contain even a hint of religiosity, or the remnants thereof.
I believe that for many of us, religion, however we experience that word, feels larger than a private choice, yet we tend to feel ashamed of it as a historical force given its track record. Many therefore feel inclined to see this whole question as absurd and pointless: Why should religion re-enter the stage of history? Hasn’t it done a dodgey job, so far, at best? I also imagine that most people, even those who advocate for a stark split of Church and State, see Rorty’s position as drastic and at least disconnected from the facts on the ground. Because, in some obvious ways, there’s no argument to make. The ground up is speaking and changing religion with or without the approval of the old institutions. Without needing permission or explication of their ideals, the ground is already living within this ethics of redemption, already moving the previous generation’s periphery (women, non-believers, LGBTQ, those in other religions) through rituals, and takes on the tradition that seek no approval from the center into the center.
That so many Jewish people, and religious people all around the world, still choose to infuse God into their lives and public struggles, despite feeling hate and intolerance from traditionalists, feels like the truest sense of the word “redemption.” These groups are already redefining religion and grand traditions without the permission or sanction of anyone else. They know the dynamics of redemption, the creative force it unleashes. The only question that remains is how long it will take for everyone else to catch up.
Here’s an example that already inspired me. Many women feel hurt by their religion’s avoidance or disgust and even a denial of a woman’s choice to get an abortion, its status as a grave sin. However, some have begun to fight back, to redeem their religious experience of the whole of life, in creating a ritual that makes use of the holy bathwater used for purity immersions, bathwaters that have often been perceived as a mode of sexual oppression, of control, for women to engage in after their abortions. It includes a prayer that asks God for support, “to begin healing from this difficult decision to interrupt the promise of life.” This is the future of religion that creates a symbiosis between tradition and a woman’s sense of autonomous identity.
Of course, this sense of the power of language and its ability to foster change applies to the secular religion of culture as well. The future of our art also lies in its redemptive ability to redefine our notions of society, government, self, identity — pretty much all of our values — through the lens of the periphery we either actively or passively infringe upon. It doesn’t take much to see that so much that ails America at this scary point in time emerges from our inability to deal with how we’ve systematically excluded our perceived peripheries in the past, and continue to do so until this day. This is not just about accepting that America sinned then moving on: redemption requires changing our sense of ourselves as country because of that past.
Religion then survives — and so do countries — not through zealousness, but through moral advancement. Religion takes a step forward morally, and creatively, and spiritually, in the equal treatment of all those it specifically helped alienate. When Abraham Joshua Heschel walked with Martin Luther King Jr., when Dietrich Bonhoeffer chose to stay in Germany to fight with his fellow compatriots against Nazism, when Edie Windsor celebrates in her synagogue, religion redeems itself and its future. Religion cannot exist in some abstract vacuum. It, like us, needs to live in its own contingent history, with its own actual past. I witnessed just this on that weekend of Pride Shabbat.
The climax of the night came in a moment of unprecedented beauty. Stuffy, sweaty, packed into an increasingly humid room, the service was set to begin and in walked Edie Windsor. Small in stature, her presence permeated the whole space; elegantly dressed, her face radiated with the shine of saintliness, even if for just that moment. At first, no one saw her, but then a congregant spied this hero and burst out in cheers and clapping, which created a chain that ended in a long-standing ovation. Edie smiled at her loving fans (some came to synagogue in Edie t-shirts) and congregation, and everyone cried and hugged strangers and lovers in a moment of communal catharsis that comes a few times in a life, if you are lucky. It was a moment of redemption, where the once periphery no longer felt the need to view itself as the periphery, but the other way around.
Yet, here, as a true historical victory, the words of praise and gratitude, the words of inspiration, resounded with the sounds of momentousness. They no longer felt like hollow shells, spoken to some being out there, outside of our world looking in, but words spoken to a partner in peace and justice and sacrifice for the progress of civil rights.
Despite this, we would do damage to ourselves to deny the power and insight of Rorty’s argument. Rorty presents a compelling argument for keeping religion out of the realm of public morality and even emptied from our dreams of a better society. But this clean break with religion and its constellations of religious imagery belies some of the most fruitful tensions in many of our lives. So many of us are ex-believers, let down by one belief or another. We left these systems behind not necessarily because we weren’t moved by their beauty but because they demanded a too-rigid adherence. These once-inspirational images hardened into dogma that excluded and, thereby, turned harmful.
Personally, the deepest and most abiding religious trauma in my life came through a case of vicarious trauma. I couldn’t fathom how the religion I loved, the center of my thought and desires, could take such a harsh stance toward homosexuality. Especially given that my brother was gay. I painfully remember the wince on my Rabbi’s face as I explained to him the suffering I felt in my brother’s shame and his need to hide from the community. His response, one of visceral fear and rejection, as he told me that I wasn’t allowed to discuss my brother’s sexuality with him (my brother), left me wounded in a way I didn’t yet understand. It became increasingly hard to care about the minutiae of a tradition, increasingly painful to explore the brilliance of a tradition that so easily discarded the pain and experience of other people. Why should I care about this tradition, why should I learn ancient Jewish law for twelve hours a day, if it didn’t, and didn’t want to, care about anything else besides its own preservation? It wasn’t simply this one issue; rather, this issue allowed me to see the way this form of religion seeks to purposefully exclude. I therefore left not because religion couldn’t comfort me, but because it didn’t seem to care about those who needed comfort and redemption.
However, leaving meant nothing when I carried with me this religious history, which inhered in me like a scar. I left to live a new life, but instead lived a post-life: in the shadow of the greatness of my once-beliefs, in the meanings of my old life, wandering around trying to live in contrast, but instead living in quiet conflict without resolution. If one of the most common traits of our contemporary lives is the frequency of immense changes, of instability, of moving from city to city and institution to institution or lack thereof, the most formative one for me was moving from a deeply religious life to a deeply secular one. What therefore remained confusing to me was how to relate to this odd mixture of realities we all live with, the sheer variability of it all, the clashes, tensions, and contradictions. How could I learn to live not in the shadow but in concert with my religious past? For me, and for others, religion, even in conflict, plays a maybe too-important role, or still feels hot and raw. Some relate to the past with a hope for its own sort of redemption, or, maybe more realistically, reconciliation.
One way or another religion still matters even if we don’t consider ourselves religious, or religious like the previous generations. Many want to believe that the individual beauty we experience of religion, or the communal beauty, can once again return to the historical realm and contribute to the greater good. We believe that to separate the transformative beauty of personal religious experience from the potential of social justice surely does a disservice to our sense of the expansiveness of the world. Rorty would say that we don’t need visions, we need solutions, but at that point it’s hard to know what actually works and what doesn’t, what inspires people and what moves them to extremism or murder.
Or, perhaps more selfishly, maybe so many of us who live in the shadow or within the web of religious imagery — the poetry of Judaism or Islam or Catholicism, etc. — can’t fathom a social vision without some of the similar imagery and poetics. Some of us believe that even if religion isn’t necessary or sufficient for morality, or the sole avenue toward social justice, and even if in some cases it reinforces and even urges harm and genocide, we still take great comfort and moral inspiration from religious striving. To talk about redeeming the periphery or rebuilding society from the bottom up, centered on the powerless, cannot help but feel religious. In that sense, using this religious imagery in this redemptive manner can, for many, redeem their own personal experience of religion. It can serve as an act of reclamation of the tradition you grew up with, a testament to the love you felt and feel, to the history of your family that fought for this on some level. It’s adhering to the tradition while hoping that this radical shift to otherness can revitalize historical religion. It’s hard to use religion as part of a moral system of a better world because it feels insensitive — but so many of us feel too traumatized by religion, in some sense or the other, to simply let it fall by the wayside.
Trauma sounds like too strong of a word, too serious, too indulgent, too belittling of real trauma. In a sense it creates a tension with our notion of trauma as rare, as found in a small group of people, but surely generational trauma exists in human history. Wars wound whole generations. The Holocaust continues to harm my Jewish family through three successive generations. For many, religion traumatized them because they felt traumatized by religion. It doesn’t require anything more than that. The victim controls the definition of trauma, hopefully, in this current climate.
It doesn’t take much to notice and embrace our generation’s obsession with trauma. For good and bad this central metaphor of our time pervades our sense of self. The wounds we feel and perceive we reinforce as central, as transformative and defining. The stories we tell ourselves are so often focused on the trauma in our lives, and perhaps and hopefully on potentially overcoming, or living outside the shadow of that wound.
Religious trauma emerges in countless manifestations. Most think of this term as applying to dreadful misuse of power in cases of physical and sexual abuse, but fail to realize that it also applies to subtler and less obvious cases of trauma. Religion, in creating a stark contrast of believers and heretics, discourages exploration, and engenders shame stemming from creativity, free thought, and experimentation. Too often women in religious communities face harsh categories of pre-defined roles and then consequent shame and guilt if they attempt to redefine the role of women in religion, or try to create equality — which is too often perceived as wanton rebellion. Similarly, religion’s view of sexuality, famously so, leaves too many stewing in fear and guilt towards their identities and desires. At its root, the essence of religion as espousing a “true” view of the world alienates, and does what many refer to as an epistemic violence: categorizing some knowledge as safe and other ideas as evil or harmful. In trying to provide a map for how to live, it too often solidifies into one path for everyone. Religion — while it sees itself as protecting ancient and rare truths — too often uses this worldview to hurt other people, to bludgeon them into roles, and to exclude those who do not fit.
To exclude is not often enough, and religion then furthers this violence by fighting against the supposed insidious influence of those who differ. This type of religion works by creating an “inside” and “outside,” which engenders a sense of trauma for any deviance. Some of this sense of trauma stems from current religions’ disconnect from history. Personally, I not only felt left out for many of these reasons, but felt almost existentially let down by the flatness of the religious truths I inherited, in contrast to the urgency of the world out there I was taught to fear. Inside the protected walls of the Yeshiva faith, belief and transcendence felt real and concrete, but in encountering the heterogeneous world of Others I realized the limitations of the systems I once adored, and I felt betrayed.
Choosing this metaphor of trauma for our personal religious histories posits an act of interpretation that might strike many as strange and unnecessary. Why think in terms of trauma? Trauma not only allows us to confront the extent of the pain that our religious upbringing often causes, but points the path toward how to heal ourselves. One of the most enduring truths of psychology, like language, is that our pains are also choices. If trauma turns us into passive victims in which we live and relive within the enforced definitions of the initial violence, then healing entails an act of redefinition, an active wresting of interpretation away from the perpetrators to create our own identities within the truth of that violence. If we can learn to change how we think and act, how we use our language, we can begin to feel less pain, more whole and redemptive in our identities. It’s easy and often too unfulfilling to simply leave religion, for religion never truly leaves us. Instead, we can learn how to reintegrate the pain into opportunities, into spiritual outlets of exploration and comfort.
Therefore, part of what we need in response to this generational sense of trauma, of living in a post-world, what we crave, is something more holistic, something that can reconcile the parts of our lives, a system of thought — maybe even a contingent metanarrative — a story about what the world can and ought to be, a view that causes no harm while allowing us attempts at redemptions of our religious selves to heal and help and prosper, but also to move forward.
If so many people feel limited by the boundaries based on our religious language and imagery, and I think many do, then part of the answer is to experiment and create. To do so, sooner or later I — and we all, if we believe in this — need to stop worrying about contrasts, about shadows, and accept the title of creators, innovators. Not in any systematic way, not in creating new and ostensibly better institutions, but giving validity to what we feel and how we act, and the rituals we create.
Those on the periphery — whether ex-believers, or those shunned for their sexuality or gender or divergence of thought — stand in a unique position to redeem. Seemingly all generational religious developments balance conflict with the past and the parents’ generation and the exigencies of their own history, and each element warrants different responses. Those on the periphery, those shunned, those who felt cold to the touch, those rejected by Dogma and stigma, acutely understand both of these. The sense of alienation engendered in leaving stands as the key to recreating — but only if they choose not to leave, but instead to engage. Of course this is all a choice, a way to heal, not a demand or a command, in no way a prescription. But it’s one of the prominent choices of our generation — what to do with the religion of our parents? In that sense, we’ve recently started and ought to continue to tell our own story as our own generation, not to simply live in the words and writers of the previous generation. Instead of wondering what they think about the millennials, or the narcissists, or the hipsters, or us lazy entitled folks, we need to continue telling our own stories about religion, America, our history and our culture.
To concretize the matter, this ethics of redemption sees the future of religion in creating new rituals that speak to people as they are — building a liturgy that includes, not alienates, those with differences, in order to create services that incorporate the trauma, the pains, and the new forms of life into their images and language. It manifests in creating egalitarian prayer services, in seeking to learn from those that religions traditionally fear. Even this though still finds itself too much using the dictates of the past, of seeing religion as something practiced in temples, a religion of rituals and liturgy when, again, the ground up defines and practice religion in a different and more expansive manner.
I myself experienced this budding sense of redemption the first year I went to a uniquely LGBTQ celebration of a Jewish Holiday at a JCC with my brother. I entered their community, a relatively new one, as a stranger. I sat there wary, uncertain of my place in their sanctuary. I could sense warmth permeating the room, as those who, in most other services in the world would be made to feel external, led and molded and told the story in their image. Purim, the holiday of costumes and redemption in which everyone dresses up in flamboyant style, felt perfectly suited to welcome this periphery back into the fold — not simply by including them in an ancient ritual, but in changing that ritual to mirror their own dynamic identities. The communal announcement was akin to saying we belong, we represent a future of religion that many fear, but everyone needs.
Too many misinterpret what religion means to an ex-believer. They opine that if an ex-believer truly doesn’t believe anymore, why still care or think or advocate anything in the way of religion? Because, what so many of us want out of religion is not just the stereotypes of the comforts and safety of faith. Rather, people crave a religion that can engage with the world. We cannot simply, like Rorty advocates, privatize religion, because we want to see more out of the confluence of religious imagery and impulses and our moral visions.
The same analysis applies to the more malleable art of our collective culture. The battle against the continuing hegemony of White Male interests is not only a moral battle, but a creative battle. A collective cultural focus on the periphery would not only correct a moral shame, but also expand our notions of self, identity, possibility, and experience. To create a new world from the bottom up, as many of the early fighters for change noted, we need to create a new language, or a new use of language. This is where religion and more secular dreams of a better society interact, in the clarion call to poets of all kinds for a new language. To enact the steps toward change doesn’t necessarily require a wholesale change of language, but both the poetic and religious impulses say that our most drastic and lasting change will emerge through this sense of redemption of the periphery, of humbling ourselves before what we once perceived as the periphery and letting these people, their experiences, guide and lead us, change us.
Until then, until we desire a return to history, we will stew uncomfortably with boredom in the language of other people. If I still believe in anything — and I still desire some form of belief — I believe this: the power of language, along with the power of the supposed fringe, if we so choose, can redefine our religious experiences, our worlds.about the author