Thursday, March 27, 2008

Religion, Faith, and Alchemy

I am constantly on the lookout for new ways to explain my own ambivalence about religion. I despise it, and yet it has made who I am, and it forms the basis for nearly all of my endeavors: academic, spiritual, psychological. I am drawn to religion, but only in the sense that it must necessarily be an ongoing process, rather than a product of one group of people's musings on the nature of God. Religion, for me, is beautiful only when it is allowed to be fluid, constantly evolving and in flux, and when it teaches people to love other people. Why? Because I think that is how God must be.

When I was 19 or 20, my then-boyfriend, a year younger than me, gave me The Alchemist, by Paul Coelho--he said the book had meant a lot to him. I loved the book, though I didn't really get it all at the time, since I was so immersed in a community that privileged rules and rituals over real spiritual inquiry.

Today I was reminded of this when I saw that over at there is an interview with novelist Paulo Coelho that gets at some of my evolved ideas of God and religion in a very insightful way.

Paul Coelho:
"I think that traditional religions face this backlash because they overlook the necessity of personal faith. To follow rituals is extremely important for the cult, but religious leaders should understand our individual faith, our need for actions that truly stir the souls of the men and women. Because these institutions have been ineffective in doing this, we have been seeing a gradual disinterest in all segments of society.

I always say that religion and faith have to be thought of separately—mainly because faith is sometimes at odds with the cult. You can find this difference in other realms, including politics. We all know that laws are different from rights. We all know that certain laws may be unjust and that we have the right to oppose them if we think they are unfounded. The same goes for religion: individuals don’t accept rules that are no longer tied to their personal lives and questionings. People need meaning and only life and faith can supply this, not merely rules."

Joey Kurtzman, the interviewer, asks:

"Along the same lines, as we try to remake our faith so that it can serve some purpose for us, how careful should we be about violating the 'authenticity' of the tradition?"

Paulo Coelho:
"First you need to be clear about the 'authenticity' of tradition. In my eyes, personal faith is the beating heart of this authenticity. This is the living fabric of all religions."

It's true--when tradition stops meaning something to people, and when it loses its ability to move people, perhaps it has stopped mattering. And perhaps, when that happens, people must create new traditions.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Why Do the Wicked Prosper?

I've been working on my dissertation all evening. I'm tired of writing about theoretical things, so this post is going to be something different.

I was driving home from the library late this afternoon, and I heard myself say, out loud, "God has blessed me with so many things I do not deserve." I don't really know where it came from, other than that it is an idea that is built into the tenets of the religion in which I was raised. Somehow there are still so many remnants of that religion, both good and bad, in my consciousness. I tend to be a person who is always surrounded by some trauma, disaster, or catastrophe of some kind. Somehow, though, I never feel sorry for myself, because I always have a crazy story to tell.

The latest catastrophe was me falling on the ice and crushing my dog's foot--not one broken bone, but countless broken bones. It's so my style to go extreme, all the way. But there have been a few really great things that have happened for me over the past couple of weeks as well. And so tonight, without realizing it, I was reflecting on them in a rare moment of positive thinking; I say "rare," since I tend to be a "my glass is two thirds empty" kind of person.

But as soon as the word "blessed" came out my mouth, it was crushed with the resounding biblical lament of King David: "Why do the wicked prosper?" And I thought to myself, how would one know if she was blessed? Then it occurred to me, that perhaps I am not blessed. Perhaps I am downright wicked, and that is why I prosper--a chilling thought.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

From Boilermaker to Bruin: The Journey Begins

It's official: as of July 1, I will be a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish American Literature at UCLA. The teaching load is extremely light, and I will have ample time and resources for research.

But, more importantly, I will have warm weather. I've had my fill of Midwestern winters. A couple of weeks ago, as a matter of fact, I slipped on the ice while carrying my little dog. When we fell, I crushed pretty much every bone in his little foot. Now, post-surgery, I will be taking care of him for the next six weeks. He's my little invalid.

We both look forward to the impending move back to Southern California. I don't want to live in a place where ice forms on the ground--very dangerous. This week is spring break, here at Purdue, and the weather was typical for this time a year: snow showers and highs of 35 degrees.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Tagging: Bringing Michael Chabon and Giorgio Agamben Together

Oh, what fun! Not to mention a great reason to take a break from dissertation-writing. It seems I've been tagged, and apparently the rules are as follows:

1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

As you can see from the above picture of one corner of my desk, which I took just minutes after realizing I'd been tagged, there are two books that seem to be equally closest to me: Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union; and Giorgio Agamben's Remnants of Auschwitz. And if you think they are an unlikely pair, note the strangely close proximity, in my stack of books above, of Amy Tan and Linda Hutcheon.

Anyway, I'm going to cheat and give you both. First, here's Chabon:

Zimbalist struggled for the next hour to understand that move, and for the strength to resist confiding to a ten-year-old whose universe was bounded by the study house, the shul, and the door to his mother's kitchen, the sorrow and dark rapture of Zimbalist's love for the dying widow, how some secret thirst of his own was quenched every time he dribbled cool water through her peeling lips. They played through the remainder of their hour without further conversation. But when it was time for the boy to go, he turned in the doorway of the shop on Ringelblum Avenue and took hold of Zimbalist's sleeve.

And now, Agamben:

For the one who knows, it is felt as an impossibility of speaking; for the one who speaks it is experienced as an equally bitter impossibility to know. [new paragraph] In 1928, Ludwig Binswanger published a study bearing the significant title The Vital Function and Internal History of Life. Introducing into psychiatric terminology a phenomenological vocabulary that is still imprecise, Binswanger deelops the idea of a fundamental heterogeneity between the plane of the physical and psychical vital functions that take place in an organism and in personal consciousness, in which the lived experiences of an individual are organized into an inner unitary history.

I couldn't resist rendering the first sentence in bold. This is why I love Agamben, and this is also why I actually have a good idea for my dissertation.