Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Question everything, including this

I've hit the point in both my "becoming an engineer" and "path to social justice concerns" stories that I can't avoid discussing my spirituality. I'm pondering a post about "the far side, where the fringes meet," but this will not be that post.

My parents were conservative, Catholic, Charismatics.  There's a lot to unpack from those three words.  One of the blogs that I subscribe to and periodically read, is Love, Joy, Feminism on Patheos.com.  Things were a little different in my family, where she was homeschooled by Evangelical Protestants, we went to Catholic schools and Catholic church... but that also is another post.

The Charismatic part, means that my parents believed that the Gifts of the Holy Spirit described in Acts, gifts like prophecy, healing, and speaking in tongues, are alive and occurring in the world today.

I also grew up with Star Wars.  In my mind, the Force and the Holy Spirit seemed very similar, and granted similar gifts.  I went looking for more information, and learned about mysticism, and a variety of mystic traditions around the world.  I found a translation of the Tao te Ching, and thought that the Tao, also, sounded like the Holy Spirit.  I read about Zen Buddhism, and the tradition of koans, puzzles to induce enlightenment, and I found books by Anthony de Mello, specifically his "One Minute Wisdom" series, which put a Catholic spin on koans.  (I've learned more since then, both about religions and about appropriation, but that will also have to be another post.  For now, let it suffice that I had read a little bit about other religions.)

For my senior year of high school, we moved to South Bend, IN, and my sister and I returned to Catholic school. Senior year religion was a set of four 1-quarter courses.  First quarter discussed religion in literature, we read Chaim Potok's The Chosen and Margaret Craven's I Heard the Owl Call My Name.  Then, in the final quarter, we reviewed the major world religions at a very high level.

Important note, I know now none of these things make me an expert.  If you want to understand Taoism or Zen Buddhism, you'll need to go learn from the people who practice them.  I am not one of those people.

But as a young student in St. Louis, I didn't know that yet.  I used the library extensively, read as much as I could.  I wasn't impressed by the Science Fiction section, mostly books I had already read or wasn't interested in, so I read non-fiction.

In truth, though, my studying did focus more on my own understandings.  On campus, life felt very compressed. I was taking heavy engineering course loads, and didn't always have time to reflect on who I was, what I believed, or where I wanted to be.  Nor was I stuck living with my parents and raising my younger siblings.  On internship, once I had my hours in at the office, I was free to decompress and differentiate myself.

Much of my studying took two directions.  The first, was understanding the history of the early Church, the first two centuries.  The many different forms that early Christianity took, Elaine Pagels and other writers, and also the bigger context of the world in those days.  Mithraism, Zoroastrianism.

The second was more exploration.  A friend had discussed Jungian archetypes with me, and suggested that if I wanted to know more, I should read Joseph Campbell.  Now, I recognize that today there are many good critiques of Campbell's work, in particular the way that he took stories and art out of context.  What good that I do still hold from his writings, are the concepts of fundamental human experiences:
  • Day / Night, Light / Dark, Wake / Sleep
  • Human needs for food, drink, air, shelter, solitude & community, knowledge & wisdom
  • Human lifecycle transitions: birth, puberty, usually sex and/or marriage (but not always), parenting / creating / ministering, becoming an elder, death
A large part of culture are the ways that we come together for those needs and those events.  Campbell also wrote extensively about the contrasts between civilian community life and military conflict with others.  He particularly wrote about the importance of managing the transition back home.  We still have not successfully scaled a process that does that up to the level necessary to meet the needs of our veterans.

And then I encountered the writings of Starhawk.  Spiral Dance was okay, but Dreaming the Dark and Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery were really the meat of what I found.  Now, those books are not for everybody.  She is not kind to military personnel, and some of her words could be triggering or offensive to veterans.  Having grown up military, and interacted with active servicemembers on a daily basis, I found that there were both things I agreed with and things I did not agree with in Starhawk's books.

I am uncomfortable with the worship of military personnel that I see from my conservative friends.  The memes that compare a soldier to Jesus Christ.  The idea that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines can do no wrong. Growing up military, watching the news, I was peripherally aware of problems that occurred.  I also heard stories from my mother, of women who had been hurt by service members.  Still, for the most part, I felt safe walking around military bases and military housing.  The officers I encountered behaved professionally and respectfully.  

I was still 15 when I moved off base. We were "officer-class" as opposed to enlisted, and I am white. How much of the difference do those things make, in my sense of safety?  I do not know.

The history in Starhawk's books also needs to be examined critically, both the numbers of people killed in medieval witch hunts, and the ancient history of the middle east, don't necessarily stand up as historical facts.

What I found of value in Starhawk's writings were the exercises in overcoming the censor, her discussions on human communication, learning both how to speak up AND how to listen (and when, for both), about power dynamics, and the ethical use of power.  Group dynamics, for working in small groups and larger communities.  She writes about when, where, and how to speak up, particularly in cases of injustice.

All of this reading happened 15-18 years ago.  I've gone on to think further, learn more, and practice many of the communication techniques that Starhawk describes since that time.  I've carried the question of "good feminist" or "bad feminist" for all of that time.