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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Whatever makes you feel good

"Whatever makes you feel good. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?" She asked to an office full of nods and secular equivalents of "amen" or "hell, yeah!"A friend of mine is struggling to work through a tragic loss. The wounds are still ridiculously fresh and deep. Two weeks in she’s being sustained by her anger, best I can tell. Another friend brought her gifts of new music and a statute of a Hindu goddess. Some other less new-agey, but probably still non-religious co-workers in the room seemed to look at it a little funny, so the giver seemed compelled to explain awkwardly. "Well, I’ve got one in my upstairs room where I do yoga. She just makes me feel good." To which the friend in grief said, somewhat sarcastically, "well that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? Whatever makes you feel good."

I’m thinking "no." Actually, I’m thinking "NOOOOOO!" But I keep it to myself. It’s not the time or the place. I know she’s right, at least for a lot of people. Their religion is whatever makes them feel good. It might take the form of wearing crystals and burning incense, fanatic allegiance to the state university football powerhouse, acquiring that 3,500 square foot home in the gated subdivision, early retirement, political power, personal assurance of salvation, reality tv, a strictly vegetarian diet combined with regular yoga practice, evangelical fervor, a well cared for home and family, a string of sexual conquests or nightly confessions with a Grey Goose vodka martini. If you define religion as one’s utmost concern, then a lot of people in this county who claim to be practicing Christians, (or Jews, or Buddists, or Moslems or Hindus) just ain’t.

In my book, when it comes down to "whatever makes you feel good" that sounds like a better argument for a heroin addiction than a disciplined spiritual practice (with a nod to Mr. Marx). My religion, or my spirituality isn’t what makes me feel good. As millions of others in this country and the vast percentage of people in this city, the crown jewel in the buckle of the Bible belt, I claim Christianity as my profession of faith. But not the version you see on tv. I’ve never voted for a Republican president, I plan to send my kids to public school, I’m concerned about the environment, I’m not offended by gay marriage, I’m anti-war and I’m probably more concerned about all the "born" people on the planet dying unnecessarily of disease, starvation and violence than the "unborn" who are victimized by a medical professional before they get the chance to come into the world and experience the real thing first hand. Not wanting to be a hypocrite, I have to confess I don’t know that I have much success working these ideals out in my everyday life. Still, I don’t practice Christianity to feel good. I was disillusioned of that version of religion over a decade ago. Now, I hope I adhere to the tenets of my faith to the extent that I believe them to be true.

I remember a conversation once with an atheist girl I dated briefly. She couldn’t get my "faith." Ultimately, the best answer I knew to give her was that even though I neglected or rejected my spirituality at different times in my life, I couldn’t shake it. I didn’t always want to believe, but at some level I didn’t seem to have a choice anymore. It was there. A part of who I am. Something given to me more than something I achieved or earned. Something I didn’t always want, but something I’m not sure I could truly live without.My experience includes a heck of a lot of doubt, questioning and struggling as to which parts of those things which have traditionally become a part of the practice of Christianity are valid and which are the unfortunate by-product of human involvement in the divine interaction. It’s not a crowded booth at the spirituality job fair. Assurance of salvation, absolution of guilt, and initiation into the "chosen people" are much more popular options. Our religious beliefs in this country are undeniably, in my opinion, influenced by our economic system. There’s a consumer motif and credit card mentality to too much of our spirituality. And a jingoistic nationalism. And an elitist class ethic. And I need to stop this before I start sounding too much like an angst-ridden second semester Junior year philosophy essay.

My friend needs something to help her feel a little comfort right now. Today, I can’t say that what she needs is "Truth". But someday soon she will. And the truth is there are a lot of terrible things in this world. But also a lot of beauty. Religion shouldn’t be just about making one feel good, or safe, or justified in her beliefs or prejudices, or giving someone something to cling to when she wakes up in the middle of the night wondering what happens after she dies. It should give hope, which seems like such a small word. In the midst of tragedy and suffering and violence and hatred and perversion, you have to do something to cope. You can distract yourself, anesthetize yourself, delude yourself or quit giving a damn. You can’t stare at all the horror in the world honestly and openly and survive for long. Unless you have hope. Hope isn’t an answer to life’s questions, but more an ellipsis...


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