|Oct/Nov 2009 Salon|
The essence of religious experiences, the thing by which we finally must judge them, must be that element or quality in them which we can meet nowhere else. And such a quality will be of course most prominent and easy to notice in those religious experiences which are most one-sided, exaggerated, and intense. —William James, 1902
In his wonderful collection of lectures called "The Varieties of Religious Experience," William James came down on the side of extremity. Religion was to be known not by the way the vast majority of adherents understood it, but instead on the testimony of the saints, the weirdos, the extremists.
It made for a good read. The kind of read that feeds the mind and leaves you gasping. I mean. Just a little bit.
But it doesn't really touch upon the experience of the vast majority. Which is curious, if you think about it.
It's egalitarian and democratic—and kind of elitist. Mr. James' book. A weird kind of American elitism. The tyranny of the individual.
I've got some insight into the vast majority. And I've gotten it because I've been tasting particularity.
You better be kind to the folks you meet on the way up. Climbing Jacob's Ladder. Because you're going to meet them on the way down.
And Elijah is always showing up for meals.
The vast majority. We don't ask for much. A theme upon which we can weave a variation. A place where we can feel safe. A bulwark against the undertow of history. Always taking away what we have gained. An excuse to be kind. A reason to look up. A place to sing in numbers.
It's not like William James was wrong in looking at the extremes. It's just that he missed the point.
Every Medicine Show Professor. Every Clara Bow. Every Marilyn Monroe. Every Brittany Spears.
They all know.
We're working on scales of economy, here. In this ordinary time. Every one of our extraordinary personalities a loss leader. Bought and paid for. Our secular saints.
Elvis Presley. Michael Jackson. Ronald Reagan.
But what about the vast majority? The consumers? What about the ones who are neither cursed nor blessed? The ones who pay the bills and make sure the dog has water in his dish? The great perfumed and deodorized. The ones who don't have talent. The ones who play by the rules. The ones who swallow every disappointment. And suck it up when the going gets tough. And don't want to rebel because there's nowhere else to turn.
What about them?
The stupid and the gullible. The guzzlers of oil and cheap grace. The ones who are always left holding the bag. The responsible ones. The overweight and under-appreciated. The noble and the petty. Pitch-fork ladies and the old biddy brigade. The neighbors who check on elderly widows and do their grocery shopping. The Queens of Hamburger Helper who make casseroles when someone dies.
Keepers of scrap books. Quilters and gardeners. Small town historians. The daughters who take care of their failing parents when the other siblings are too busy. Too far away. Can't deal with it now. Still hashing through the thousand wounds of being a child in the care of human beings. Particular individuals who were not Ward and June Cleaver. Carol and Mike Brady.
What about them?
The Catholic bartenders named Mary in second marriages with kids from a previous marriage. And their fund raising drives for the parish girl's soccer program. And salesmen in short sleeved shirts from Boise making a call to a client in Grangeville. Shooting the shit. Asking about the kids. Closing the deal. When it's bath time for the twins. The twins he can't bathe. And he's far from home. And can't always remember why it's important. Why all this loneliness adds up to something. Because if you ever slow down. Even a little bit. If you don't over run the barricades. Don't storm the market. Close the next deal. You will go down. And your family and everyone you love will go down, too.
And you still have to ask your dad for a loan. Cash flow.
Don't get me wrong. I love the saints. As much as the next guy. I wore a St. Francis of Assisi medal for years. And now wear a Celtic Cross.
And I have a never dying love of weirdos. Extremists.
Even though. God knows, they are boring. Tedious.
It's the other ones though. The vast majority. The responsible ones. The ones who are always already uninteresting.
Anything you need to know about religious experience can be known from them. The ones who come to church. The ones who gather at home to light candles on Shabbos. The ones who respond to calls to prayer on Fridays in middle-of-the-block houses on 55th Ave., or light incense in storefront Buddhist temples on Grand.
When so much in their life is ugly and humiliating.
Mr. James, you were so right and yet so wrong. The extraordinary is to be found in the ordinary. That's the fact of religion as it is actually experienced and practiced by the vast majority.
Fuck the weirdos.
We are all shouting to be heard. But most of us are polite about it.
Go ahead and peel the onion. There ain't nothing at the center but the truth of pot lucks and people gathering. The boring story of socks to mend. And the triumph of love. One mended sock at a time.