I think I understand how we got here. (When I say “we,” in this moment anyway, I mean European-Americans who grew up in a Christian tradition.) I think I understand how the history of ancient Israel got to be so important to us contemporary American descendants of European pagans. It’s a weird story, but sensible enough when you lay it out.
Our social history is just as convoluted. We’re not Europeans (though we each have a nation or two across the Atlantic for a heritage), and we’re not natives (though we were born here). We’re a starling among birds, a rock dove, a non-native blackberry that’s ended up becoming an icon of our region nonetheless. We’re firmly established, yet foreign. We belong and do not belong. We only fit here at all because our presence has so completely transformed the place; now, natives are the ones struggling to survive here: native animals, native plants, native peoples, native religions.
If you trace my people some hundreds of years back, to when we were native to the land in which we lived, then further, to when we practiced our own native religions there, you wouldn’t find Christians. My ancestors’ religions were once native species too, struggling to survive in the midst of foreign influence, eventually displaced and absorbed by the dominant newcomer Christianity.
Religions spread and die like flora and fauna
I suppose what happened all those centuries ago at the Jewish diaspora is that the religion of ancient Israel, facing extinction, adapted instead. In learning to survive in a new climate, it developed characteristics which gave it an edge on the competition. Like the crow — able, intelligent, dominant — its child Christianity did more than survive; it shouldered out other less competitive species and overran them.
It’s not to say that Christianity, or the crow for that matter, are bad. I grew up Christian, and I like crows. But when one species of bird or plant or religion is allowed to dominate others, the sacrifice is diversity. We lose a kind of wealth when a songbird disappears; so too we lose an unrepeatable vision of God when a religion dies. Extinction is a loss whether it strikes a language or a moss, and when it strikes, the whole world is poorer for it.
I value the specificity of place. I like the way that geography makes diversity. I love how the phonemes, songs and stories of a tribe on this side of an impassable swamp are unrecognizable from those on the other. This is what heritage means to me: this is the personality, the indelible stamp, of a culture. It’s not a new idea. Turn on a radio show about cooking or travel and it’s easy to find people celebrating, or mourning the loss of, specificity.
In my last entry I used the words “supposed to be”
I said that religion is supposed to be local. One’s heart should be rooted in one’s land. I was trying to get at the importance of specificity, but “should” is an interesting word. It implies that something is not the case; that what is, is wrong; and that the need to remedy it carries ethical weight. “Should” is an ethical word. Those are big assertions to throw out there.
It used to be easy for me to say things like that and see them as self-evident. When I was a member of a Christian community, my standard of truth was the Bible and the biblical interpretations shared among that community. Because we believed that morality and ethics were based in the character of God, and because we agreed on what God was like, it was possible to use a word like “should” with few hiccoughs.
Later, I found it necessary to seek a broader foundation when talking with those who don’t happen to care what the Bible says and who don’t share my views on the character of God, the relationship of God’s character to ethics or even the idea that God is real.
This didn’t bother me. Believing that if a thing is true, it’s true everywhere, I moved forward with confidence that there’d be other ways to argue a point. If an idea were true, it wouldn’t exist only in the doctrine. It would be evident in the world at large. So I sought to translate my values into a language that didn’t depend on biblical assertions, knowing that if that were possible, it would only confirm those assertions while giving me tools to dialogue with others in a way that mattered to us both.
The standard I settled on is health, wholeness, life. Without a credo to curb your questions, you can call into doubt just about anything, but what I found to be consistent anywhere I looked is that things want to live, they want to thrive, and for multiple things to thrive together, they need to be in balance. Whatever leads to that balance, from the largest to the smallest scale, is in line with the universals, the absolutes: the basic nature of who we are, what our cosmos is and what God seems to want.
After that follow the variables, the community-defined taboos and values which interpret our universal need for life in non-universal ways. This is culture, the way we agree to behave. On this scale, murder is frowned on not only because it upsets the balance but because the law of the land condemns it. Yet what’s called murder in one community may be justice in another, and it’s difficult to say that one community’s set of agreements is right or wrong in an absolute sense. Difficult: not impossible. We’re right to condemn genocide.
What I’m circling toward is that “should” is usually a cultural word. Start throwing it around in front of someone from a different culture, and you’ll find that some of the things you take for granted are hard to defend.
As I look back at yesterday’s entry, I’m caught on the idea that religion “should” be locally-derived. Should it? Why? What’s wrong with worshipping a savior who wore middle eastern sandals? (Especially if he really is the Son of God.) What’s wrong with the early Jews holding Zion in their hearts, teaching their children of a land far away where God spoke and their heritage was woven? What’s wrong with the place that New Jersey holds for me: the land of my childhood, the wind that still moves me from thousands of miles away?
When people leave a place they love, it remains with them
We European-Americans consider ourselves Irish or German or Greek even if we’ve never been to those places, don’t know anyone there and hold nothing in common with them. People have this ability to identify with things that are far away and long ago. I’m not about to say they shouldn’t.
I realize, it’s not that religion should be connected to place. It’s that it is connected, already. Everything is. Sure, our fruit and toys and clothes may come from around the world, but the fact that they’ve been shipped doesn’t dissolve the influence they got from where they were, or that which they get from where they are now.
The religion of ancient Israel was not unaffected by the death of its nation and the relocation of its adherents. In foreign lands it became something new, transformed by new influences — new neighbors, new cultural norms, a new place — even as its followers sought to remain as they were.
As for Christianity, it developed a flavor as unique as any culinary tradition in each new community it infused, while we children of European immigrants have become Americans, distinct in our own right, in our own way. This isn’t something to encourage or resist. It’s just something that happens. Whether we want to be or not, we’re influenced by where we live.
Given that the relationship exists, what shall we make it?
This is the more pressing point. How shall we non-natives treat this land we call home? And how shall we respond to the influences that are acting on us in turn?
Would Oregon be better off if you extracted every last non-native blackberry and sent all the pigeons home? Even if the answer were yes, you couldn’t do it. You couldn’t send us non-native European-Americans back to our various origins; couldn’t send today’s Jews back to Zion. Even if it were possible, Europe and Zion aren’t big enough to welcome their respective wanderers home.
It wouldn’t be home to us now, anyway. The fourth-generation German-American would be even less at home in Germany than they are here, and the Russian Jew might not even recognize the Mount Sinai from their stories if they saw it in person. We’ve changed our environments, and they’ve changed us.
I think the work now is to build attention and concern for the places in which we do live. Not just to learn how to get around, where to find jobs and drug stores and so on, but to invite the place itself — its physical specificity — into our deeper selves. To weave ourselves and our homes spiritually together.
Places far away and events long ago may be our religious foundation, but they’re not our only religious influence, and until we develop points of reference that we can see, smell and touch in the land around us, we won’t know the richness of being in relationship to this: our most immediate ground of being. By ignoring place, even while being affecting by it — by leaving our immediate physical context out of our body of religious symbols — we allow our religious framework to remain partially truncated: forced to limit its physicality to our imagination, unable to fully inhabit the range of our experience.
Even nomads have places they return to. They aren’t rootless. They move from one root to another and back. In our country, we move at random, regularly uprooting whatever we plant, and it seems to me this has weakened us. It’s compromised our ability to form multi-generational communities. It’s made us unable to see what we receive from our home and what it needs in turn from us. It’s made us more or less indifferent to the local wind and plants and people.
As social animals, we’re inclined to treat things well when we understand our relationship to them. Rootless, practicing imported traditions, we’ve lost a sense of kinship with the life that directly surrounds us. Much of what we treat as kin in our religious traditions is made of places and people we meet only in stories.
I can’t say we should stop loving the faraway places. I can say we should start loving the immediate places just as much. I say “should” now because I believe it’s the healthiest way forward for all concerned.
What would happen if Mount Tabor was, to a Portland Jew, exactly as sacred as Mount Sinai?
What if the sacred elements weren’t limited to things you can put in a box, the bread and the wine; what if the sacraments were also administered by the evening wind, officiated by the voices of crows?
What if, even as our minds expanded to recognize the global consequences of our local actions, our feet were rooting themselves in the specific dirt that exists here, in this region and nowhere else? What if we wove the fabric of our global traditions into our own time and place and infused them with our own local flavors?
Our time and place would be affected. So would our traditions. The lines of intercourse would be opened, and, not trying to hold too closely to an unchanging faith culture, our traditions would come alive. Living things change. In adapting, they would become more relevant, thicker, more congruent.
For this land to become a principal religious point of reference to me — not just “the land,” theoretically, but this land — that allures me.