I’ve finished the second pass through Chapter 22 of the second draft of my work-in-progress Street Song. The chapter deals with my first days on the street. Everything before this has dealt with my getting closer to homelessness—the issues that led me there. Those first days were intensely frightening and humiliating. But I didn’t find it difficult or embarrassing to write about them. The greatest difficulty was a bunch of real-world, here-and-now issues that kept tearing me away from my work. And research. Now I have to thread my way through another minefield of diversions—the holidays. The next chapter continues where 22 left off. There were several phases of my life on the street. In the next one, I make some adjustments and right myself. At least for awhile, I do.
Archive for November, 2010
I read in different places that the United States is a Christian nation, that Americans are a deeply religious people, and that as a religious people, we are naturally conservative, since religion is conservative. But not one of these statements is true. We are not a Christian nation, neither legally nor spiritually; we are not religious; and religious people are not conservative—at least not in the conventional, thoughtless sense of the word.
When writers and commentators say that we are a religious nation they’re simply taking at face value the assertions of the self-described “religious.” In this country, we have an easy definition of religious. Essentially, it means anybody who says they believe in God. Atheists are content with the definition since they prefer that religion appear shallow. And the “religious” are content with it because it lets them off the hook. They don’t have to take on some extraordinarily difficult teachings. One notable example:
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
This is not a conservative idea; it’s a radical idea. It’s universal, unequivocal, and has many implications, few of which are ever addressed here in Western Civilization. One of its simpler meanings is that we shouldn’t desire “things.” And yet creating the desire for things is one of the basic tenets of our economics. Economists, businessmen, and politicians are deeply concerned with how we’re going to get people borrowing and spending again. We have to “grow the economy,” they say. And, as much as ever, the great majority of Americans believe that they should be enjoying an ever higher standard of living. When that doesn’t happen, somebody has to take the blame in the next election.
One of the problems with defining God as a being—the anthropomorphic idea of God—is that people can soften an idea like “you cannot love God and mammon,” by insisting that they do indeed love “the big guy” more than they love things. They can talk to Him and assure Him that they love Him more than money and then feel as though they’ve met the requirement. But if you consider God to be truth, the picture changes. Loving truth more than money means taking everything apart, examining it in detail, and living solely by principle. The deeper meaning of “You cannot serve God and mammon” actually means abandoning one’s materialist existence and following truth—never doing anything simply to make money. To those who would question this, I will point out that the lines immediately following “You cannot serve God and mammon” are, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, not about your body, what you shall put on.” (Jesus encouraged his disciples to leave their jobs and to become beggars.) Historically speaking, this idea is not at all strange. There are many people in many different cultures who have pursued it. It’s strange only to us here in the modern-day Western world, where power, comfort, and entertainment have become paramount. It’s not my point exactly to suggest that anybody renounce their livelihood and pursue this other way of life. But it might be helpful if people were to recognize that, as it currently stands, we are not really a religious people, that we are not really a Christian nation (we would have to follow the teachings of Christ to be that), and that religious ideas are not “conservative.” If we understood that much, it might be helpful in getting us to speak frankly with one another again.
I could spend years doing this—language gets horribly abused—but this is the last one for awhile. The word today is religion. It’s my conviction that Western Civilization has been generally misusing “religion” for at least 2,000 years, and the East has understood it well only at certain times and only in certain pockets. Most of us think of religion as subscribing to a particular set of beliefs and rituals. That’s even the dictionary definition. But real religious practice is the seeking of objective truth without any a priori assumptions, and doing it in as straightforward and as simple a manner as possible. The aim of authentic religious teaching is to help the seeker along the way to his or her own direct experience of truth. (I don’t mean by this that each of us has our own individual truth—a common sentiment nowadays. The truth I’m talking about is universal and beyond individual personality.)
In the end, religion cannot be found in a book. At the point it becomes tangled up with elaborate doctrines and rituals, it has lost its way.
Work on Street Song got interrupted by a weekend trip to Seattle and then my having to digest the election results. I resumed work today, starting my second pass through Chapter 22 of the second draft, which is about my first days on the street. Some of this is touched on in the first chapter of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.
The trip to Seattle was quite fruitful. I went up there to do some research on my family, who, up to this point, has been a set of stick figures. I left home at an early age and saw very little of them after. I learned a lot that I didn’t know—not all of which I’ll be using in the book. As I’ve said before, it isn’t my intention to write my autobiography. Rather, I’m using part of my life story to address some matters that I believe are important generally. But I assume most readers will want to know something about the narrator’s past and antecedents. Hence, the trip to Seattle.
There’s another term I want to clarify before I begin work on some posts that I want to put up here. The term is Christianity. I make a distinction between the teachings of Christ and Christianity. The only thing they have in common is that root word, Christ. I don’t believe that we know much of what Jesus actually taught. His time was short and his teachings began undergoing heavy distortion right after his death. This happens all the time. I see it happening now to Suzuki Roshi. What we call Christianity or Christendom begins not with Jesus, but with Paul. When I read the Epistles, which I find an onerous task, it is very clear to me that Paul knows very little about true religion. He is not a seeker, but a zealot, more interested in building a movement than in truth. From what I’ve read, Paul would not have had access to what became known as the Gospels. It was only after his time that different books purporting to be the true story of Jesus came into circulation. The four “official” choices all drew from other books that were available to scribes, and they quite obviously dressed the teachings up in myth. I’m convinced that all four books were chosen because they suited, or were more acceptable, to a particular political and cultural persuasion. Another early architect of Christianity was Augustine. Before he became a “Christian,” Augustine was a speculative intellectual. After his conversion, it became his aim to make his new religion acceptable to the Roman Empire. Accordingly, he came up with concepts that are not only absent in what Jesus is purported to have taught, but are even hostile to it. The distortions and obfuscations in Christianity built up over a long period of time and go on to this day. I don’t need to detail any more of them to make my point, which is simply that when I use the word “Christianity,” I mean the movement that descends from Paul, not the teachings of Christ.
The Left sits in its ineffectual, postmodernist hole, while the Right continues its descent into fantasy, ignorance, rage, and greed.
Where do I fit in?