Friday, April 16, 2010

Questioning religion in the process of discovery with Baldwin

Interpretation can be everything. The subjectivity involved in the interpretation of life becomes an individual’s reality. Interpretation is also a process of discovery. Done right, discovery incorporates an open minded approach to life. This applies to politics, culture, religion, career, etc. How you perceive your world and what you perceive its meaning to be becomes your motivation, inspiration, aspiration and perspiration.

Religion and scripture are the perfect illustration of how interpretation plays into a belief system. The idea of a Higher Power and the way to it involves subjective not objective thought patterns. First, there are the various major religions with their own “inspired” scriptures and traditions. Second, WITHIN those religions, there is a constant battle of conflicting opinions. These thought patterns are tied to race, economic status, system of government and historical conditions.

The best writers often ask more questions than they answer. It is rewarding to read works of literature that open your mind to ways of thinking that you didn’t realize were there. This is the role of the great writer. If you can’t step away from a book compelled to think deeply about the meaning of things, then either you or the writer has not tried hard enough.

James Baldwin’s classic first novel Go Tell It On The Mountain takes a look at an African American family’s interpretation of religion. Even WITHIN this family, we are able to see the vast differences in thought incorporated in the representations of God. The imperfections of humanity are what take center stage as our narrative develops. Our characters are faced with the challenge of fusing everyday life in a racist America with an all-powerful yet judgmental God. The deepest, darkest thoughts, actions and desires of our various characters are painfully portrayed, painting a reality so vivid that one can find ways to relate to all of the characters at one time or another. However, the very NATURE of Baldwin’s writing style leaves it open to subjective interpretation. To read the novel completely through and properly define the writer’s beliefs in narrow terms is near impossible.

Baldwin’s profound questions are subtle. We are challenged in every way about the concept of religion and the Higher Power. Gabriel as the patriarch of the family uses religion as a crutch for his faults. This is often true in religious communities. It is the idea that God will cover up your sins and erase them, thus causing you to become a pure person no matter if you consistently fall. It’s all about asking forgiveness. It is the reason Gabriel sees his affair and child born with Esther as no longer a concern in the eyes of God. He is therefore abdicated of responsibility. He sees his physical, emotional and verbal abuse of his family as keeping them on the straight path. It never occurs to him that his dogmatic way of thinking is causing repression and doubts in the minds of those he loves about the possibility of a compassionate God, let alone Gabriel’s own true motives FOR his actions. Is Gabriel acting out of a feeling of guilt for his own demons, or is he just as selfishly insisting on absolute compliance to what HE believes as a way to ensure his own salvation?

Furthermore, Baldwin provokes contemplation on what IS the very purpose of religion. From the beginning of time, man has looked to a moral system (often involving gods) that defines what is good and evil. We can see this in the author’s way of incorporating various situations such as the “sinful” father of Elizabeth. Here is a man whose business revolves around “sin”, yet treats her better than any other man in her life, especially those supposedly more “Christ-like”. What it amounts to in the end is that the common theme of the great moral traditions, religious or otherwise is love. Elizabeth’s father saw love as the greatest thing that he could do for his family. That can never be faulted in a person. Yet the majority of society would choose to elevate the “wrong” behaviors of the individual, failing to balance it out with the good.

Baldwin’s emphasis on religion is central to understanding the African-American experience. Religion and the church were for centuries a source of hope, joy and fellowship in the midst of unbelievable suffering. The sense of COMMUNITY and support also rings loud through the pen of Baldwin. I believe that this CAN be a positive with religion. However, too much good has an equal opportunity to become evil.

Gabriel and Elizabeth’s son John’s intense vision is an interesting way to end the book. It would appear that he had a genuine spiritual awakening. What are we to make of that? Again, my opinion is that the question is left up to us. There are many possible answers, not least of which is whether or not the experience could be self-induced.

James Baldwin tells it like it is, but does so with an open mind. This is the kind of book with which you could easily discern different meaning every time you read it. It is this certain amount of vagueness and open-ended questioning that in an ironic sense (at the risk of sounding blasphemous) is relatable to scripture.

Life involves much tragedy and joy which is also possible in religion. However, the most important theme I derived from this book is that questioning is common to humanity. I grew up in a stifling community that discouraged questioning in religion and education. It was all about rote learning vs. free thought. As you grow older, the process of personal discovery and reflection is one of the most important that you can incorporate into your life. This questioning is essential to you becoming your own person. Blindly following any ideology takes away your individuality. Intellectual laziness should be avoided at all costs. Don’t let modern society (as it’s so masterful in doing) dictate to you how you are to believe. Learn from being your own person. You will find life to be all you thought it could if you are true to yourself and don’t repress that process of discovery.

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