07 September 2011

Are sunsets boring?

Here are my comments on a thought-provoking piece by Lillian Daniel called Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me. Thanks to Rabbi Joel Nickerson for bringing it to my attention by tweeting a link to it.
On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious."
On airplanes, I dread conversation, period. I guess that makes me an all-around misanthrope. This could be argued to be either an ethically stronger or weaker position than Daniel's more targeted dread. While I dread more people, a worse thing, I dread all people equally, perhaps a better thing.
Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.
It is indeed tiresome when people overestimate the novelty of their thoughts, especially in the age of Google. But in some communities in the US, being non-religious is still a daring thing to share and does represent a divergence, if not a rebellion, from the status quo.
Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet? 
Like people who go to church don't see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.
Right, so why not use this as an opportunity to engage with this person and suggest to them that their "god in nature" idea is not only not in conflict with religion but in fact contained within religion? Perhaps they're more interested in showing off their not-so-novel idea than learning something. If so, I sympathize with Daniel. I know the type. I am one myself.
Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself.
But the premise here is that this god-in-sunsets person is not having these thoughts all by himself! He's trying to engage with you about them. Or at least he might be, if he's not just trying to show off or pick a fight.
What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself. 
I agree with this idea of creating meaning through friction or even conflict between people. One might even go so far as to (circularly?) define God as "what people are arguing about when they argue about what God is." Perhaps this attitude is not surprising, since I am a Jew. But of course Jews have no monopoly on this.

But, I think it is the friction, not the tradition, that is necessary here. Having a tradition as a background for the friction grounds the discussion in a useful way, but is not necessary for the discussion.
Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.
The idea that our culture has become too self-centered resonates with me. I think the rise in popularity of self-authored wedding vows is perhaps an indicative trend, though one I can hardly condemn since I was part of it at my own wedding. My wife and I did use Google to borrow from others to form our vows and in that respect perhaps we showed some humility. Or was it just laziness? I suppose we formed our vows within the amorphous spiritual community that is the Internet.

I can see how the companion Daniel wishes for would be far superior for her, and perhaps even for me. But I feel compelled to point out that being religious is far from a guarantee that a person will be as spiritually rich as she describes. She is asking to sit next to someone very like her extraordinary self.

She seems to appreciate some degree of difference, so perhaps a rabbi companion would work as well for her as a minister. Though it is interesting to ask whether a turbulent flight is a time in which you want your beliefs to be questioned; I can see it going either way. On the one hand you might want to be comforted by agreement; on the other hand the rich engagement that comes with some disagreement might provide some welcome distraction.

In the end it is of course not important that we are interesting but that we are good. It matters not whether we see God in sunsets, or the testy supernatural being of the old testament, or both. It matters how we relate to the world around us: its people, animals, and environment. Then again, isn't being interesting part of how we relate to other people, and therefore perhaps a facet of being good?

P.S. For full disclosure, about 20 years ago, Lillian Daniel played bass in a band called Geek with my brother Derek Denckla.

1 comment:

  1. Well, engaging with a tradition is the kind of friction you're talking about, only across time. It's a different kind of dialogue, perhaps one that is more abstract than the one you have in mind.
    Becoming a meditator has suggested to me that attention and engagement are the same thing as love. So perhaps being interested (rather than interesting) is a facet of being good. Although perhaps people who are interested in things are the most interesting.