I’m transient. This time my journey takes me back to college. Actually, I’m back to teach this time: Major World Religions.
Twice a week I go to class and talk about how religion is shaping the news, in good and bad ways. The Major World Religions students get to hear that from me often. I tell them that in graduate poetry writing class, Dr. Lucia Cordell Getsi insisted we learn the names of living poets, that we could not just cling to our old-beloved-long-dead-poets, as much as I wanted to cling to Walt and Emily and T.S., I had to let go. Lucia insisted we find voices of living poets that rocked our worlds. Likewise, I tell my students, religion is alive and well. Religion has not been mothballed, nor is it dead. In fact, it’s shaping stories daily.
I know, I know, there are detractors at almost every turn. I get that. Most religions have blood on their hands, which is not a fact to be discounted. I don’t. But, I also don’t discount the power that religions can have in the world, to do good, to help people, to be a place of solace, to provide food for body and soul.
The poet Novalis wrote, in the 1700′s, “Their so-called religion acts merely as an opiate: irritating, numbing, calming their pain out of weakness. Later, Karl Marx tweaked it:
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”1
Religion can be an opiate, a way to cope, a way to dull the ache. The dark side of religion can be addiction, a helpless dependence that is not about depending on God, but about depending on ritual, or feelings of superiority, or whatever. I hear stories of “Religion Gone Wild” all the time, “Religion done me wrong” stories, and they make me sad and sorry and angry, wanting to say, “It’s not like that everywhere. I promise.” Because this is what I know, religion can also be a light.
Teaching Major World Religions reminds me there is more that unites us as people on earth than separates us. Many talk radio programs would have us believe otherwise. But, I do believe there is much that unites us, that there are countless commonalities, and that this planet can hold us all just fine. There’s room for all of us here. So hold on tight, this is our journey…through the world of Major World Religions.
Sometimes I see people look at religions the way they look at possible dates, they ask the same sorts of questions:
- Do I want to go out with her/him?
- Do I want to get to know her/him better?
- Does she/he appeal to me? Is there chemistry?
- Is there anything in her/his personality that resonates with me?
- Do I find her/him attractive?
- Do we have much in common?
- Can I be myself?
- Could I stick with her/him long term?
- What are her/his expectations of intimacy?
- Is she/he someone I’ll enjoy hanging out with, then she’ll (he’ll) stalk me or get weird and I’ll want to bail ASAP?
- Is she/he vapid? Is there anything there besides the appearance? Or, is she/he all about image?
- How would we age together? Change together, over time? Would that even be a possibility?
- Could I see myself living with her/him day in and day out, for the rest of my life? I mean living with her/him, in the same home?
They are good questions.
What questions do you ask about your religion? It’s funny, teaching Major World Religion has reminded me of all the questions we ask of religions, all the things we want answered. Welcome to the journey. In the syllabus I quote a dead poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, his lines:
God won’t be lived like some light morning.
Whoever climbs down the shaft must give up
earth’s repleteness for the craft of mining:
stand hunched and pry him loose in tunnels.
As I see it, this is our job in Major World Religions: mining, prospecting, seeing what’s there, what is prying loose within us and without us, giving up what’s replete for what is unsettled within us. Looking at religion requires deep digging, a soul search that relationships require as well. So grab your headlamp, off we go.
1 Marx, Karl. 1844. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, February.
Photo: WPA; Unemployed Miner, West Virginia by Lewis Hine, March 1937, (NARA), National Archives, public domain image
Note: I will be talking about my journey through teaching Major World Religions, not my students’ trek. My students are rock stars and they have their own stories to tell about what they discover while digging.