April 14, 2009

Beyond Religion 101

Over at Parabasis, Isaac posts Coherence, Theatre God. The gist of the post is summarized as follows:
Carroll, being both a novelist and a devout Catholic, sees the human aspect of theatre coming not from the liveness of the event but rather the coherence of the text, because in that coherence of moment to moment, meaning is created (or at least meaninglessness is denied).
. . . . . . . . . . .

For me, it strikes me as an acutely religious (or spiritual anyway) understand of the dramatic art.
. . . . . . . . . . .

To me, part of what is beautiful and ennobling both about being an atheist and about being an artist is that we get to create our own coherence and thus meaning.
I was tempted to reply in his comments about how his whole line of questioning is suspect and and just how fucking wrong he is about the meaning of faith and belief, as well as the difference between faith, belief, and dogma.

Then I thought better of it and decided to post my thoughts on my own blog.

I'm going to come clean about something so that people who have religious discussions with me can actually get somewhere. Here it is:

I am not interested in Religion 101 discussions. Does God exist? Is the Bible literally true? Is homosexuality a sin? Let me make it easy for everybody . . .

I. Don't. Care.

Those types of grade school-level ontological questions bore the fuck out of me. The discussions they produce always go in the same circles and never reveal anything new. And I'm fucking tired of talking about them.

Just like I'm not thrilled about making well-made plays, I'm not interested in talking about who believes what. I'm far more intrigued by the cutting edge of contemporary religious thought (particularly with how people experience and/or express God), and you don't get that when you're dealing with people whose religious education consists of what's spoon-fed to children. The religious avant-garde (and I don't mean New Age) approaches our experience of God in a way that's deep, subtle, and complex. This appeals to me far more than rebutting the gross misrepresentation of faith in public discourse.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Religious-Secular Divide conference at The New School early in March. Why? Because I get to ask shit like this:
  • To what extent do the intersections of religious and secular identities - for example, queer Black Jews or transgender Latina Catholics - play into or resist the compartmentalization of selfhood as lived through individual experience?
  • What are some strategies for: developing new definitions for religious and secular that are nuanced, subtle, complex, and rooted in lived experience; taking the public discourse between religion and secularity away from academic and media strongholds and into other areas of public discourse (including but not limited to blogs and other social media); and bringing religious ideas and values into the public discourse for addressing secular issues facing people today?
(Side note: I have to gloat here. I fucking stumped the people on the panel - people with motherfucking PhDs in this shit. This is how I know I'm PhD material. Fuck a Master's.)

(Note to educated White folks: Read that last part a few times before you start talking down to me - about anything. Chances are that whatever comes out of my mouth goes way over your fucking head. Do me a favor and acknowledge that then let me explain myself better instead of assuming that I don't know how to fucking communicate.)

Back to Isaac's blog post.

In the comments, Tony asks a couple of really good questions:

In practical terms, does a religious writer necessarily have a overtly different type of coherence in a work than a non-religious writer?

Does having a different way of seeing how our world is created automatically equal a different way of creating a work?

I think that helps steer conversation in a better direction, but it doesn't go far enough for me - doesn't go far enough in addressing the implicit and problematic assumptions behind Isaac's post or far enough in opening the discussion to genuinely different points of view.

Let me address the implicit assumptions first.

I'll be fair and acknowledge that Isaac doesn't want to offend anyone and apologizes in advance for doing so. Fine. But to prevent future offense, I feel compelled to explain the source of the offense in my case.

I frankly think the way Isaac presents his post (particularly the part quoted above) is kind of a set-up. It presumes a lot about my reasons for calling myself a person of faith or the role religion plays in my life. It also presumes a lot about how I experience God, especially how it undermines the depth and complexity of that experience to one or two cliche variables. And from there, I'm forced to engage with the discussion on those limited grounds (limitations that don't necessarily apply to the people involved) or not engage at all. So, even without meaning to, the way he frames this discussion excludes and marginalizes the very people who could enrich it.

As far as opening the discussion to divergent points of view, it's simple: ask more genuinely open-ended questions - questions that overtly assume nothing or are at least open about the limitations of those assumptions.

So, rather than linking a religious response to theater as by necessity rooted in the search for a predetermined meaning or coherence, why not come out and ask us how religion interacts with our experience of the aliveness of theater?

That is a far more interesting question than whether aliveness or coherence is the predominant mode of a religious experience of theater.

And to answer the question I really want to answer, it's really difficult to describe in words. Like most things that are truly profound, it has to be experienced.


  1. How do you even begin to have a discussion when both sides have dismissed each other from the outset?

  2. In all seriousness - figure it out. Think about it. Find a way. Make a way if you don't see one. Abandon all preconceptions. Give it time. Do whatever it takes.

  3. "What are some strategies for: developing new definitions for religious and secular that are nuanced, subtle, complex, and rooted in lived experience . . ."

    "And to answer the question I really want to answer, it's really difficult to describe in words. Like most things that are truly profound, it has to be experienced."

    How do those two statements match up with your last comment?

  4. A deep conversation is not a version of "stump the chump." The inability of someone to understand your words is not their fault, it is your fault. Dialogue rests on a willingness to communicate, which has very little to do with race, sexual orientation, or any other category you care to wave about. It is about CARING whether somebody can engage you. And everything you have ever written on this blog indicates that you DON'T care about that. In fact, you take your inability to communicate as a badge of intellectual superiority, sort of the intellectual version of Don Mclean's "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)," proof that this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.

    Educated White Folk

  5. I'm sorry that came across so harsh, but damn it RVCBard, you are a smart, articulate and thoughtful person who could make a difference with your ideas, but only if you care whether people actually get them or not. Your objection to shallow discussions of profound questions and your call for more rigor and reflection are points well-taken that I wish everybody could hear. It isn't that you can't be angry about something -- shit, I'm angry all the time on my blog, and sometimes it is necessary in order to be heard -- but be angry with the expectation that your ideas will be heard. Hockey player Wayne Gretzky says you miss 100% of the shots you don't take; I say you miss 100% of the points you don't make clearly. Let people join your cause -- it is a good one.

  6. Tony and Scott,

    I'm addressing you both separately, but the entire comment is made for the both of you.

    How do those two statements match up with your last comment?To answer your question, Tony, like you're doing now - similar to drawing water out from a well. Like I said before, asking questions to truly understand goes a lot farther than assuming I think a certain way. I honestly need more time to answer your initial questions, so I'll be back at it in a few days.

    Scott, the comment about talking down to me when I say something is a corollary to "Being Black, Being Real." You might not see the issue of communication the way I do because you're not me, but it's something I've had to deal with a hell of a lot longer than it took to write that statement on my blog. So I would appreciate it if you at least attempted to understand and validate the feelings that emerge from that experience instead of comparing me to a fictional character. It goes a lot deeper than I'm willing to talk about in public.

    And it's sort of weird that you are taking me to task for firmly describing the conversations that I want to have (or rather, don't want to have) on my own blog. Just like you don't want to dwell on the fucked-up nature of worshiping NYLACHI as the "true source of all American theater," I don't want to talk about the same old questions and rehash the same old assumptions people make when they have a conversation about or including religion. I was a bit extreme in expressing my aversion to that sort of thing, but that's a far cry from not wanting to communicate with people. You might not understand where I'm coming from (I really don't judge people that way; I don't look down on people for not knowing something), but that's your opportunity to ask instead of assume.

  7. Scott,

    Sorry. Cross-post.

    I'm going to come back after I eat something.