My assignment for conducting class for the past week has been to read two books by James Jordan, one of my conducting professors, and then do some writing. Part of the writing assignment is to choose 4 quotes from the books, and then respond to them in one page essays.
Well, here's my first quote and response. Much longer than a page!
Ever since there have been men, man has given himself over to too little joy. That alone, my brothers, is our original sin. I should believe only in a God who understood how to dance. - Henri Matisse
When I read this quote, I wanted to cheer. Right on, my sexist brother! (Footnote: I have no patience with this “brotherhood,” “man,” “himself” crap. I think that the automatic use of the pronoun “he” is incredibly alienating. At least, I find it so. Douglas Hofstadter has a really good bit on this in his introduction to the reprint of Godel, Escher, Bach. I think “her/him” is clunky, and “womyn” is not productive, but there are graceful ways to do it. The use of the male pronoun implies an assumption that “woman” is a subsection of “man” and so the notion that I shouldn’t feel alienated by use of the male pronoun is ridiculous. I do feel alienated. It makes me feel like I’ll never be good enough b/c I can’t be part of some old boys’ club called “Brotherhood of Man.” Knowing that I am meant to be included consciously doesn’t mean that I don’t feel excluded unconsciously. But people writing before 1970, like Matisse, are forgiven. (People writing after 1970 are forgiven, too, but they will nevertheless get a stern talking-to if I ever meet ‘em.)
I’m a big fat feminist. Something to know.)
My response to this quote will have some background.
I am not a Christian. I was raised UU, which was a perfectly spectacular way to be raised. Sunday School consisted of learning about world religions. I got all of the community – growing up, church was a safe space where I always felt loved, embraced, and appreciated for my gifts – and none of the dogma. In the absence of anyone telling me what to believe, I tried on different hats. I tried the Judeo-Christian god, I tried Greek mythology, I tried Norse mythology, I tried a bit of Irish fairy-tale. (I was a huge mythology buff in middle school.) Nothing really stuck – I couldn’t figure out where to fit this idea of God into my natural and instinctive view of the world. So I drifted along as an agnostic until I got to college.
There I met Christians. Real Christians, who thought about their religion, and believed it - Son of God, transubstantiation, the whole nine yards. And I realized how much that was not me. I realized, in fact, when faced with true belief in God, and people who were willing to talk about it, that I did not believe in God. (Adults at church were so leery of involuntarily imposing their own beliefs on impressionable young minds that they would never share their own beliefs – the one drawback of my UU experience.) As in, truly did not believe, or rather, believed that there is no God. I was an atheist, not an agnostic. I believed in none of these things that people of other faiths – Bahai, Jews, Christians, whatever – believed.
I realized there was no place in my world for a God, and that I had been trying to attach an extraneous belief onto a world view that was whole by itself. I felt that God was a belief for people who could not believe a more difficult belief – the universe. “How could all this have happened without a God?” people say. Well, for me, it’s easy. What’s the problem? I have faith in the universe. I have faith that it could be this complex, this ordered, this miraculous, this beautiful, all by itself. Trees don’t need help being trees. Stars don’t need an excuse for existing, like “God made me.” Stars are allowed to exist all by themselves in my world. And I don’t need an excuse for existing either. I am. Isn’t that enough? Why demand the extra miracle of a God who created it all? Occam’s Razor is the answer for me.
I still talk to God. Swearing, sometimes, but when I sing sacred songs, I sing to God. I occasionally feel that I have a much better relationship with him than talking heads on radio shows. I think at stars. I hug trees. My atheism, and my belief that stars cannot in fact hear me talk, does not preclude my talking to them and believing that they twinkle back. I read tarot. The cards speak to me, and in fact I have a personal relationship with my deck. The fact that the meanings of the cards are so precisely geared towards me during a reading does not conflict with my belief that any kind of disembodied consciousness is impossible. It’s not a problem.
So, I am an atheist. Do not think this is less true because I sing sacred songs to God, or hug trees. It is a place that I arrived at after careful consideration, and I feel the opinion some people have that, “Oh, you believe in God, you just don’t know it yet!” is false. There is no way I can convince these people not to set themselves up for disappointment. I have listened. I have thought. And I am quite solid in my belief.
However, after talking to many friends, I have also realized that their religious faith, which I have often been tempted to view as weakness (see above re: God being an easier belief) is just as much a part of their world as my atheism is of mine. My world without God (or anything approaching it – collective spirit, guiding consciousness, etc.) is complete. Theirs would be rift, broken. This is OK. The world is big enough for two ideas, even more.
This was all a prelude.
I came to Westminster. It is the most Christian place I have ever been. I joined Jubilee. That brought me into close contact with some of the Christianity at Westminster. I realized that many of the secondary beliefs of Christianity are antithetical to my personal beliefs. And chief among these is the notion of sin.
I believe that the notion of original sin is incredibly damaging. We are sinful? From the get-go? Having done nothing, I am in the red? It may be our culture, or it may be human nature, but we have a hard time loving and accepting ourselves. I feel that a belief that we are inherently sinful just exacerbates that problem. There may be philosophical arguments for what this belief in original sin should mean, but as it is, I see people saying “I am a bad person.” How is that helpful? Someone who thinks they are sinful will not let their light shine.
Then, connected to that, is this problem of lists of sinful behaviors. Like having sex outside of marriage. Boy, that one pisses me off. Sex, and any other activity, whether it be drinking or fighting or anything, is sinful according to me if it hurts you or the other person involved. To steal a page from your book, if it is done without love and giving.
Is sex big? Yes. Should you enter into it lightly? Probably not. Is it a good bet that someone you’re willing to marry is a safe sexual partner, and that will lead to a safer first experience, less tied up with regret? Maybe. But not if you’re taught that sex is sinful first. That will guarantee a bad experience on into eternity, no matter who your partner is.
This life was not given to us to be easy. There is no checklist. You cannot follow rules of what is good and bad and then collect $200 at the end. You are not allowed to go through life without messing up. That bears repeating: not allowed. You don’t get to inherit rules. You have to do the work.
This, then, is why I object to the notion of sin, whether original or as a list of bad actions. It is used as an excuse in the former, and a shortcut in the latter, and as a way of rejecting the responsibility of the exploration of life.
Are there other, and valuable, and rewarding ways to approach the concept of sin? Absolutely. I really believe that. But unless this concept is taught along with the tools for self-reflection and examination, it will be damaging.
I have ignored the aspect of this quotation dealing with joy, both the recognizing and the necessity. But that is not the part of the quote that fired me up.