Spiritual but not religious. All of my projects — four books, two web sites — are about, and for people who describe themselves that way. And I get it. Over and over I find myself writing things like, “don’t get me wrong, I’m not particularly religious myself.” Usually right before I click into doctor-mode and start talking about how healthy it is to be religious.
It’s complicated. There are really only two places in the world where SBNR is a cultural phenomenon.
But like a lot of things Americans think they made up, it’s been around for a while. It’s been part of the fabric of Japanese culture for probably a thousand years. As part
of my research for “Ego and the Problem of Death,” I looked at data from around the world as to the practice of religion and belief in a Higher Power or Creative Principle. Seeing how people react to questions like, “Do you believe in God?” or “Do you go to church?” Every article includes a disclaimer about Japan, noting that these questions are culturally inappropriate. Not that the Japanese people find them offensive; it’s that they don’t quite know how to answer the question. They tend to answer “no” to both; but depending on the source, a huge majority of people follow traditions that sure look like religion to your average American.
In all fairness, there’s no such thing as an “average American.” We are a nation of immigrants, and we came from all over the world. The Native American peoples who first settled on this continent are actually very much like the Japanese people with regard to attitudes about spirituality, for much the same reason. You look at religion differently if it’s a part of your self-identity. Indigenous faith practices are all wrapped up in culture, ethnic heritage. Even geography. The vast majority of American immigrants have lost touch with the idea of ancestral homeland, and we need to remember that not everyone in the world is that way.
An excellent way to remember that is to visit the ancestral homeland of the Navajo people in modern-day New Mexico and Arizona. Don’t handicap yourself by calling it “the res,” which is one of those words that’s only appropriate to say if you’re Native. The term “reservation” is a reminder of the brutal war the United States fought against the Navajo people, a war where the US was definitively on the wrong side. The United States is the beneficiary of a considerable amount of undeserved grace on the part of the Navajo people; let’s all agree right here not to elect people that will start unjust wars, K?
If you’re a regular tourist, just ask normal tourist questions. I meet tourists all the time. They ask me, “How do you like living in Florida?” Or, “How do you like Tampa?” Or, “What’s it like to live in a humid, alligator-infested swamp?” Substitute “Navajo Nation,”, “Window Rock” or “chupacabra-infested desert” and you’re there. They’ll do like I do; they’ll look around at scenery like this and say, “Meh. I’d really like to go to Florida sometime.”
If you’re going on a faith-practice tour, though, think about what it would be like to walk through this beautiful country with your grandmother, who tells you stories about who you are, and where you came from. What it means to be you. Imagine how it feels to see that all those stories took place right here. If you’re a girl, she might stop off on the way to the Aztec McDonald’s, and tell you about the ceremony that will honor your passage into womanhood, how it was first sung for Changing Woman, who was born on that mountain right over there, and that’s how we learned the songs that Grandfather sings. And once you get to Aztec she’ll show you a mountain that is tethered to the earth with a rainbow; a place that marks the northern border of a place that will always be your home, where there are herbs that Grandmother gathers to make you feel better when you are sick.
Stories like this help followers of exoteric faith practices to understand that, back in the day, spirituality was not a separate part of life. It wasn’t something practiced inside a certain building on a certain morning once a week (or once a year, for many of us). Spirituality is everywhere. In you, around you, everywhere you look. Funny thing is, some Navajo people follow three faiths (tradtional, Catholic, Protestant) and yet you’ll find them struggle for words if you ask them if they are religious, or if they believe in God. It’s complicated.
Likewise, in Japan, we have traditional faith practices like Shinto practiced right next door to a Buddhist temple, with the same people going back and forth between the two. And then you have the whole Zen thing, where if you ask “What do you believe in?” they will answer, “Define ‘you,'” and that’s meant to be a precise, literal answer to your question.
I’m writing a book about consciousness, assiduously avoiding use of the word “consciousness.” I’m writing a story about death, without specifically going into death. I’m writing a book about knowing God, without uttering His not-name. That doesn’t make me Zen, because “make,” “me,” and “Zen” are all undefined parameters in that context. So let’s just call me a ninja and leave it at that.
Religion is not what we are longing for anyway. The only person who says she’s “religious” is the nun, who walks around in spirituality all day long, just like the Navajo girl. We don’t envy the nun because she gets to go to church all day. Look at the joy on the faces of these women. That’s what we are longing for. We envy the nun because she is connected. We are tired of being disconnected.
And the sad thing is, we did it to ourselves. We disconnected ourselves. We can re-connect, and there are a million ways to do it. First step is always the same. We need to stop lying to ourselves about who or what we are. Our grandmothers told us stories about who we are, but somewhere in there we switched stories. The new story — the one that ends with, “it is what it is” — is neither deep nor valid, and we suffer as a result.
(That Gorman is gorgeous, isn’t it?)