I visited a Jesuit mission church on Wednesday, in the city of La Paz. The missions along the West Coast of Mexico and the United States have a very complex history of bringing faith that people value deeply today but also bringing coercion and violence and conquest. Nonetheless, the guide focused mostly on telling us about the Jesuits’ role in educating the people and how they were a threat to the king and eventually expelled because their loyalty was to the Pope (and God) even if that conflicted with their loyalty to the king. “And they were educating us, and that was also a threat to the king, because if we are educated, we are dangerous,” he added.
I visited another church in Petatlan three years ago. It was near the former fishing village of Zihuatanejo on the west coast of Mexico, and the tour guide who took me there told me it was the church of the state’s most revered saint.
Out of curiosity, I asked, “Is this a saint verified by the Vatican?”
“The people of this state verified her,” he responded, not quite defensively.
When we went in and went to the very front of the church, people were going up the steps on their knees to the foot of the cross and praying. “Do you hear that?” asked the guide. “They’re speaking in one of the indigenous dialects. Some of them come from many miles away and enter the church on their knees in reverence.”
And while I’m not from a tradition that believes in saints serving as intermediaries between us and God, it didn’t matter too much to me that day. What I witnessed was deep spiritual conviction.
I was in conversation a couple of weeks ago with an atheist friend, one for whom atheism is a somewhat passionately held belief (and one for whom the fact that I am both religious and clearly very smart is a real irritant). I was trying to explain that to me, spirituality wasn’t about verifiable facts, and I made the mistake of talking about postmodernity. This is a mistake because I value good scholarship, and I’m a really sloppy scholar when it comes to talking about what the postmodern era is, borrowing largely from other sloppy emergent church leaders. I said the last 500 years had been driven in particular by a search for truth, by which we meant knowledge based on verifiable fact—the modern era of science with its huge strides in astronomy and physics and understanding the human body as well as leaps in terms of technology and manufacturing.
The postmodern era, in contrast, continues to value the pursuit of factual knowledge but doesn’t think that things have to be verifiable to be true. (I recognize what an unnuanced and grossly exaggerated distinction this is.) When my friend didn’t find this at all helpful, I used this story to illustrate spirituality in the post-modern era, a story I heard Diana Butler Bass tell at a conference 8 years ago.
Church historian Phyllis Tickle (what an awesome name, right?) was invited to give a lecture at an Episcopal church one day. It was in the midst of a huge controversy in the church about a recent book by John Shelby Spong, who had written that the virgin birth of Christ was a myth. Almost every question she got from the audience was trying to suss out where she stood on the issue, and the church clearly had two strong factions. She did her best to avoid answering the questions directly, and she also noticed a cluster of teenagers at the back squirming and looking bored—presumably required to be there by their youth group leader.
As soon as she was done, Dr. Tickle made her way through the crowd, still avoiding the questions being hurled at her about where she stood on the virgin birth, and found the teenagers at the back before they could slip out. “I’m curious about how you feel about this whole controversy,” she said to them. “Tell me what you think about the virgin birth.”
They looked at her for a moment. “It’s such a beautiful story, it must be true,” said one of the youth eventually, “whether it happened or not.”
Another friend of mine pointed out that the paradigm I was bringing was a very Christian one; I would say more western than Christian—-Islam and Judaism in the west have functioned out of this same paradigm (and, like Christianity, struggled with and rebelled against it; none of the monotheistic traditions is completely of one mind). Certainly Hinduism has always been able to hold in balance fact and myth without discounting one or the other, and this creeps into our culture around non-religious issues as well.
I remember telling a friend about a visit to India where I learned some of the family stories I had never heard before. My cousins told me about my great-grandmother, whose son was poisoned as a young child because someone else wanted to claim their land and killed the only (male) heir in the family. “She cried herself blind from grief,” said my cousin who has a masters degree in chemistry.
I told this story to my friend to say I was grateful for these family stories that told me a lot about how we understand the world; it is a quintessentially Bengali story, romantic and sad and saturated with familial love that transcends the grave. “That’s a stupid story,” my very American friend responded. “She had glaucoma.”
My atheist friend and my American friend are not at all compelled by the truth that can be found in stories that are not necessarily factual. But I’m grateful to be moving into an era where we develop more fluid ways of engaging what is valuable and worthwhile. I’m grateful to be moving into an era where the power to determine what is true does not lie exclusively with people in traditional roles of power (such as the saint claimed by a western state in Mexico whether the Vatican believes him to be a saint or not).
There are a lot of difficulties that arise from postmodernity. The biggest fear of most religious conservatives is moral relativism—how do we create any consistent values for society if every single person gets to determine their own truth? In fact, I think much of the religious violence and vicious ugliness we see today across the globe (and on Fox News) is connected to this deep-seated fear.
At the same time, I’m excited to be living in an era where the power of stories can help shape who we are at least as much as the power of science. Because ultimately, most of those stories are us figuring out who we are and what we value.
The tattoo on my arm says (in Bengali), “Satyagraha,” or “the power of truth.” It was the slogan Mahtama Gandhi used as a way of being that would unseat British power. It was not about facts. It was not about a specific religious doctrine. It involved civil disobedience and Indian self-sufficiency and nonviolence all intertwined. The truth of Indian collective self-worth and spiritual power would eventually force the British to do what is right and leave. Truth as Gandhi understood it was a much bigger concept than facts, and it included things that were entirely nonverifiable and nonetheless essential in the liberation struggle.
Although I don’t define postmodernity well, and although I recognize that we face some real complexities in forming community in the postmodern era, I’m grateful to be able to claim the truth of the unverifiable because it’s so beautiful it must be true, whether it happened or not. And I’m grateful that beauty can be of value alongside the great value of science.
Maybe the Jesuits, for all their sometimes brutal participation in the conquest of the Americas, were onto something when they provided education to the indigenous people. Spain was right. Indigenous people with access to scientific knowledge and access to deep spiritual truth really are a threat to empire. And their time, perhaps, has come.