Earlier this semester I swore off the academic study of religion. It was an abrupt conclusion I came to as I realized that it put needless constraints on what topics I approached and how I approached them, so for the time being I decided to set it aside. It’s been freeing to just hunker down and get to know the methods and possibilities of the field of political culture, especially in this odd moment when I don’t have any kind of major research going on.
Of course, I got my start as a historian studying religion- going to a Lutheran school as a devout Mormon can have that effect on a person- and they say you can leave home but it never really leaves you. (Now that I think about it, though, my efforts to swear off religious studies were in vain because I’m in a religion class right now- ok, so I’m around the study of religion but it’s so steeped in ethnic terms that I’m not noticing it. Which probably gets to this whole other notion of “being present” in my life that I’m working on, for obvious reasons that include my forgetting that I just spent 3 hours of my day talking about Catholicism.)
At any rate, I don’t think a lot about religion as it relates to myself any more, that is perhaps the real change here. I am happy with my relatively unexamined life (which it turns out IS worth living). I lack a religious identity rooted in present practice- the best I can usually muster is an oblique "I used to be Mormon." As the flat on the ODT remains unfixed and I find myself worshipping at the Church of the Folding Bike—a sacred space I tend to plow through so relentlessly that I do very little actual reflection—I just don’t have much of a spiritual focus anymore. That realization, somewhat ironically, gave me pause this evening.
I didn't come to it in overtly spiritual consideration, but more in pondering the question of what I might take from my experience in graduate school if I were to quit now and go to work full time. I’m not necessarily contemplating dropping out as much as I am trying to extrapolate some meaning from this life that I chose a year ago—a life in Philadelphia that is intensely fulfilling and abundant, and simultaneously wrought with deprivation and uncertainty. The best answer I could come up with was that my time in graduate school has given me a framework to help me understand and appreciate my world. I felt that as an undergraduate, but there is something deeper and richer about that awareness in the midst of year three of graduate school and year twenty-five of life. It is a feeling that is difficult to express.
So I was happy tonight, reading an essay to prepare me to start grading a stack of midterms tomorrow, to find an eloquent articulation of what I felt. It was, perhaps not unsurprisingly, in an essay about religion. Clifford Geertz writes:
"There are at least three points where chaos—a tumult of events which lack not just interpretations but interpretability—threatens to break in upon man: at the limits of his analytic capacities, at the limits of his powers of endurance, and at the limits of his moral insight. Bafflement, suffering, and a sense of intractable ethical paradox are all, if they become intense enough or are sustained long enough, radical challenges to the proposition that life is comprehensible and that we can, but taking though, orient ourselves effectively within it—challenges with which any religion, however “primitive,” which hopes to persist must attempt somehow to cope."
(Here's the link for Geertz’s essay “Religion As a Cultural System”)
To some degree, as a historian, my supreme confidence in the interpretability of everything has made me somewhat impervious to chaos. It’s a post-modern sense of confidence- there is so much gray area and there are so many possible right answers and explanations- but yet it''s a confidence that imposes a fair amount of order on my world. The intensity of “bafflement, suffering, and a sense of intractable ethical paradox” is tempered both by the overwhelming scope of history and the inherent mysteries imposed by silences and forgetting and losses and suppressions. To “do” history is to dedicate myself to the possibility that I am capable of understanding in spite of my limits, and maybe even because of my limits. It is a simple, stark, and seldom acknowledged sense of hope that has relieved me of the constraints of what in the present seems possible, necessary, or planned. Even adrift, I am oriented.
I would have never imagined finding the infinite and spiritual and plain in the secular realm of my work, but it is one of many unexpected encounters that has made this process worth the effort. And for me, right now, that's the answer I need.