I’ve been struggling a lot with this idea of religious tolerance and paradox. I wrote a few weeks ago on bigotry and conflict, and then on the struggles I have with my own visceral reaction to Christian religious language, particularly how I struggled with that at my brother’s wedding. As I wrote about the wedding, I began to think about my father and his spiritual experiences.
My dad died in 2011 about a month after he had a spiritual rapture. I’ll get to that in a bit. My dad was very much against a lot of the dogma of the dominant religions. I’m not quite sure what he would have made of the wedding ceremony I blogged about last time, or what he would have done. I’m outspoken and an activist, but I have tact; tact isn’t really a word I ever associated with my dad. My mom spent a lot of time kicking him under tables when he’d say stuff that was inappropriate.
Dad was into Atlantis, Edgar Cayce, ancient aliens, Jesus as Reiki healer, ascended masters, crystal powers, astral travel…in other words, mystic woo woo. However, my dad was in some ways more religiously conservative than I think even he knew, or at least, he had some conservative assumptions that flavored his mystic explorations. He and I used to argue about religion and other things. To be honest, I don’t remember all of what we fought about, but in my late teens we got into arguments a lot. My dad was homophobic, and sometimes said stuff that (in retrospect) I realize was racist, in the sense of systemic racism. He would never have called himself a racist, but in hindsight, he said some things that were offensive and discriminatory toward people of color. And Dad had some views that–now that I’m older–I realize I took issue with because they went against my feminist values. He and I used to fight about a lot of this stuff years and years ago, though there was a point where I guess we found common ground or agreed to disagree. I can’t remember.
When he died, I read through his attempts at journaling his spiritual process. My dad felt like a complete failure at life, and as a spiritual seeker. He was looking for that big spiritual whammy. I think what he wanted was for God to speak to him directly and tell him he was on the right path. Despite the fact that he struggled against the religious dogma of the dominant religions, he still wanted that almighty God to speak to him. He was looking for the “right” answers, for someone “in charge” to tell him he was doing it right, whether that was a spiritual guru or the disembodied spirit of an ascended master. He paid for channeling sessions, past life regressions…he subscribed to all sorts of different New Agey correspondence courses. For a while he lived at a spiritual retreat center/commune, he thought about working more with the Edgar Cayce institute.
He never quite found anything that fit.
Like me, my dad struggled with depression, and that flavored his daily life. I could see it in his writing, too. One common theme (other than him writing about how he felt like a failure) was that he wasn’t getting any communication back from the divine, from God, from the ascended masters or Saint Germaine or the Atlanteans. He wanted a vision. He wanted the Voice. He wanted the Word of God, and every day his failure to somehow transcend his dirty mortal body left him feeling more and more bereft, more empty, more sad and dead inside.
As I said, a month before he died, my dad had a spiritual rapture. A full-on rapture. Two days of going in and out of weeping. He wrote about his experiences in snippets all over a couple of pieces of notebook paper. Disjointed thoughts, sentences, fragments. He called friends and family to tell them he loved us.
One of the snippets he wrote down was, “Love is the answer.”
My mom says that when he called her, he was weeping. “I didn’t know,” he said. “You told me all those years ago, but I didn’t know.” Reading his writings, I knew that he was angry with my mom. She divorced him when I was thirteen, and he wrote a fair bit about how he was concerned that my mom would raise me to have too much of a focus on sex. Reading that, I realized some of why my dad and I used to argue; I’m a pantheist, and I work with the immanent divine. Meaning, we are all divine, there is no separation between flesh and divinity. I’m theologically a nondualist. Dualism is (roughly) the idea that there is good and evil. Unfortunately, this binary concept gets used to categorize everything. Thus, flesh is “bad” and spirit is “good,” sex is “bad” and chastity is “good.” Female bad, male good, black bad, white good, gay bad, hetero good. You get the picture.
I realized that–even though I couldn’t have articulated these concepts at the time–I was reacting to my dad’s beliefs that flesh and body and sex were something to be transcended. That women were somehow inherently bad, inherently flawed. That there was some kind of master on high to tell me that yes, I was good,I had followed a righteous path.
My dad was coming at his spirituality as a dualist, trying to push aside the concerns of the body, and the heart, to connect by spirit only. He meditated. He paid for workshops. He read books. He took courses. But he couldn’t connect to that spirit, that divine. He couldn’t hear the Word of God.
And somehow, that one day, he came to that place of connection, of union. Body, mind, and soul. It was through his body, through embodied emotions, through that resonant, complete sense of love that he connected to the divine, not by separating from his body. The answer is love.
It hurts me so much that Dad lived his life thinking he was a complete spiritual failure…and to finally connect to the divine and find what he was seeking in a visceral way, and then to die just a month later at the age of 54. I don’t even have words for the raw, hollow, bone-aching place inside me where my anger lives. I don’t logically believe there’s anything “fair” about life, but the unfairness of that gnaws at me anyways.
Which brings me back to my brother’s wedding, and wrestling with theology and tolerance.
I can tell you that it was hard for my brother that my dad wasn’t there. See–my brother and my dad were always really close, a lot closer than I ever was to either of them. They were best friends, and if my dad were alive, he’d have been my brother’s best man. All of my brother’s groomsmen were also friends with my dad; they’d go over to Dad’s place and all of them (including my dad) would play computer games together. My dad was sort of a surrogate father for a lot of them; all of them would come to my dad and talk to him when they couldn’t go to their own families.During the wedding reception, my mom had been asked to give a speech, and she was pretty nervous about it. We’d decided that I’d stand with her and help her out, since I do a lot of public speaking and that’s no problem for me. She was worried she’d start crying and not be able to finish. As it happened, she wrote this fairly long speech, and she did make it through most of it.
When we’d talked about her speech, my mom said that she wished there was a way that she could help my brother’s wife’s family be more loving, more understanding. Some members of the bride’s family had made things pretty difficult for my brother and his wife. Spiritually, my mom and I are both pretty open. If it works for you and doesn’t hurt anyone, cool. Do that. However, if you’re judgmental and condescending and believe that your way is the only right way…well, we have a problem with that. My mom and I wished we could have found a way–through a message of love, through my dad’s words from his rapture–to help the bride’s family understand that they have not treated my brother and his wife with love.
We both concurred that it would be difficult to effectively communicate a message of love and tolerance in the span of a speech at a wedding that was supposed to last just a couple of minutes. We did want to at least help my brother feel that Dad was there in spirit, that my brother wasn’t there alone, and that Dad would have been really happy for him and his wife.
Honestly, I don’t know that there’s a way to do that, a way to let people know that they have been harmful in a way that actually brings them to a humble place of self reflection instead of lashing out, particularly when we’re talking deeply-held political or religious beliefs. People get into their “I must be right” headspace and they stick there. Fighting cognitive dissonance is a heck of a thing. Telling people “You’re wrong” just makes them dig in their heels. Couching things in a message of love is more subtle, but it’s not going to necessarily going to hit the target because most people are going to hear that and think, “Yeah, I’m already a good person, I already do that.” We humans, we do hate to look at our flaws.
When my mom finished her part of the speech, I went for something short and quick. My mom had gone on for a while, and I knew if I talked too long, I was probably going to trip and say something that offended the more religiously conservative elements of the family. I was supposed to keep it under wraps that I’m Pagan (much less a Pagan teacher/leader). I couldn’t rage about the wedding ceremony, I couldn’t offer up a prayer or blessing in my own tradition, but by the gods I could bring my father there and present in a way that my brother would feel.
Because, he needed to know that Dad was there, and my dad loved the both of them.
I talked for about sixty seconds; I let myself feel. I let myself cry as I spoke, and that did opened the doors to love, to compassion and connection. My tears allowed others to feel, too; it’s something I’ve seen over and over when leading rituals. By being vulnerable, we open the door to others connecting to their emotions. There was more I’d wanted to say. If I’d had time, and if I hadn’t been worried about offending the conservative Christians, I would have tried to bring forth that message of love that my father fought his whole life for, but that would have required me to get a little more woo woo, and my goal wasn’t to cause more conflicts for the bride and groom. In the days after the wedding, I started thinking of what I wish I could have said in that moment if I hadn’t been worried about offending anyone.
I wanted to tell the story about my dad’s spiritual experience, about how he came to understand that the answer is love. I’ve had a similar experience, a rapture. An ecstatic, embodied communion with the divine. Feeling filled and held by that love, knowing that we aren’t alone, we were never alone. That there is always love, there will always be love. That the world is more than dogma, more than oppression. That sex and pleasure isn’t a sin, that your body isn’t evil. That God doesn’t care about who you have sex with. That you don’t need the shackles and the control.
The answer is love. The answer is, if part of your religious beliefs include that your way is the only right way, and that it’s ok to hurt people who aren’t part of your faith…if your faith is connected to bigotry against gay and lesbian, transgender, queer, black, brown, or other marginalized people…if your faith says that it’s ok to (or necessary to) discriminate against women…then I don’t need to bend over backwards to make space for you, to tolerate you. I can love you and know you are part of that larger divine love, but I’m not going to worry about religious tolerance if the backbone of your belief is rooted in bigotry. I’m going to make space for love, for connection, for people who are working to build bridges. I’m going to work to help people find that ocean of love, that divine that is already present within us if we just open up to it.
My hope…my prayer…my fervent wish, is that more people who are rooted in hate, in bigotry, in discrimination, open up to that love. That more people move past the hate and bigotry and putting other people down, and they find their way to that love. It’s hard to hold onto, and it slips my grasp all the time, but I keep returning, I keep clawing my way back through all my insecurities, all my fears, all my shadows…through the hundred pound lodestone of depression I often carry around with me.
The answer is love.