No religion too
Michael Chaney is a professor of film and television at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Independent filmmaker and visual artist, Michael wrote, produced and directed the award-winning short film, Luke. He also works as a bi-vocational priest at the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia where he places an emphasis on establishing sacramental and pastoral relationships with the community of students, artists and educators.
In his three-part column Moshpit to Pulpit Michael explores his own relationship and history with religion, his views and experiences on how a spiritual approach can impact the creative process, and the ever-changing role of spirituality in the 21st Century.
No religion too
by Michael Chaney
I was born and raised in Mississippi, smack dab in the gut of the U.S. Bible Belt. Now, if you’re not clear on this, religion is a big thing in the Deep South. The first question you usually asked someone when you met them was “Where do you go to church?” Fortunately I was Episcopalian, which, unlike the Southern Baptists, meant we said “hello” to each other in the liquor store. We tended to be not-so-hot-around-the-collar with our evangelism and were pretty tolerant of difference. I saw some fine charitable things done in the Church but I also saw a lot of oppression in the name of religion. It wasn’t until I got a bit older and looked back that I also discovered a lot of liberation.
My principle interest in religion during adolescence was the opportunity to go to retreat weekends and pull tongue with girls all night after curfew. And cigarettes. We smoked a lot of cigarettes at church weekends. I had more interest in Jello Biafra than Julian of Norwich. I’d take Bad Religion over organized religion any day. I was rowdy, iconoclastic, a self-described maverick. Let’s make art and raise hell!
When I moved to Southern California for art school I promised my mother that I’d drop in on a church. Figuring I’d bang out this assignment on week-one of my relocation I dropped into a church to pick up a bulletin that I could send home as proof of my attendance. What I encountered, however, was wholly unexpected.
This was the late 1980’s. I’d walked into a church at the height of the AIDS crisis and here I was quite literally face to face with people who were days away from death. I’m from Mississippi. The gay people I knew sure weren’t open about it. And if anyone I knew had HIV or AIDS then they sure weren’t talking about it. I’d met gay men with AIDS. In a church. And something happened. At some point the rote ritual of the liturgy became a doorway to something inexplicably huge. We became a community. I became aware of our spiritual connection.
I went back to that church. This time for myself, not my mother. I wanted more of whatever was going on there. For the first time in my life I took real notice of the reality of homelessness, oppression, exploitation, and injustice. These issues weren’t just punk songs anymore. This shit just got real.
Here was an opportunity to engage in a process of actualizing those political statements that had been abstract lyrics. I’d discovered something revolutionary, something that champions the weak, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, and the poor.
At its heart, I’d discovered that religion can take on the system and challenge the status quo. It can connect us to the bigger picture. Religion can become for us a roadmap that guides us closer to that deeper understanding of our spiritual connection, what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the beloved community. And in doing so it can provide us rest from the weary world. A respite from the challenges of the “self”.
This is why it saddens me when people denounce religion in all its forms. I get it. People are pissed off at religion. And with good reason. Yet, every single one of us subscribes to a code, an ethic, a pattern of behavior pursuant of some supreme importance, whether that importance is the greater community, one’s self interest, or some kind of hybrid of both, and it’s all still religion, isn’t it? Whether we consider it “organized” or not, there’s still some pattern and structure in our lives that is informed by our individual and collective history, experience and social location. Religion.
In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that we’re all religious. Some people use the word “spiritual”, but I wonder if the word has become a hackneyed description of a saccharine emotional state. Maybe we even need a new word. We are a thirsty people in desperate need for connection to one another and to that something greater that binds us all together with the rest of creation. How will our religions take us to that place that transcends our understanding, to a closer connection to the spiritual?
As I see it we are all these finite creatures experiencing life/reality through a particular lens while trying to understand and get closer to this deeper thing that we can’t name. So we try to name it anyway. We call it “God”. Some folks call it the Tao, the uncreated cause, that which is transcendent. “In the beginning was the Tao” – not too far off from the opening of John’s Gospel in the Christian Bible. And when we name it we create cults around it. We engage in systems of veneration and devotion that we call religion. It starts wars, it robs people of reason, it’s rife with inconsistencies and contradictions, it’s used as an instrument of oppression. But religion can also be a thing that can lead us to an ethical method of community engagement and a deeper connection with that thing we call the “spiritual”.
Regardless of the religion that we’re born into or connect with later in life most of them aim for the same objective: a deeper connection to this infinite deeper reality that we’ve precariously labeled. And there’s a lot we can learn from one another in this regard.
The G-d of the Jewish people brings us into an understanding of “being”.
Hinduism speaks of the soul as the spark of the divine.
Buddhist teaching reminds us of the suffering caused by desire and how we might transcend it.
Islam teaches us that surrender to this deeper reality leads to peace.
The Christian tradition is firmly grounded in unconditional love (agape).
Secular humanism seeks reason and a deeper understanding of consequences.
Has religion been used as a tool of oppression, subjugation, control, and manipulation? Damn straight it has. And religion has also been utilized as a path to a deeper understanding of our cosmic spiritual relationships that can lead to a powerful, fulfilling approach to liberation of those very same oppressed. Confounding, but fascinating contradiction.
I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest that most of us might agree that we’re limited as a species. To think otherwise is hubris. There’s just so much stuff we don’t, or can’t, understand. I’m a pretty big fan of reason and empirical evidence, and, like trying to explain algebra to my cat, I’m also very open to the cosmic reality that transcends our capacity for comprehension. Yes, I think there is an ultimate reality that runs much deeper than what we know. This deeper reality is ineffable, it’s indescribable, it’s an infinite experience that transcends language. It’s that thing that that creates awe when we encounter a newborn child or a sunset or a great work of art. It’s that spark that ignites the kindling in our creative selves. It’s what the theologian Gordon Kaufman described as spontaneous creativity.
I remember experiencing this awe, this spontaneous creativity, on the day that my wife and I brought our first child home from the hospital. I ran down to the grocery store to get some popsicles for my wife. I was practically sprinting. I didn’t want to be away from my family any more than absolutely necessary. I wasn’t prepared for the explosion of emotions that came with parenthood and my son’s birth was nothing short of a miraculous experience. As I booked it down the sidewalk I started to take note of the broad diversity of people in my neighborhood and something occurred to me. Every single one of these people was a baby once. I know it sounds ridiculous. Of course, we were all babies at some point. But at this moment I began to realize just how fragile we all are. It occurred to me that we have more in common than different. It occurred to me that we are all part of something together: something bigger, something cosmic, something that we can’t quite grasp in its entirety.
So here we are, both religious and spiritual, a people searching for a beloved community, for a deeper connection to one another and adhesion to the great cosmic glue that connects us all. I look forward to the day when we can actually say and mean:
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
– M.C. 2015
Published: September 17th, 2015