Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Getting Religion

My mother was crazy about religions. By this I don't mean that she pursued a multitude of faiths; I mean that she was fascinated by the world's religions -- by why and what people believed. Although she was an essentially practical woman, she collected interesting religions the way some people collect antique vases or political buttons.

A lot of people who ask others about their religion are merely using this as a means of promoting their own religious views. My mother was different: she really wanted to know. Whenever she got lucky and found someone who was prepared to talk, she would listen, enrapt, interrupting only infrequently to ask more questions.

"Tell me about your religion," she would say to the turbanned man in the adjoining garden allotment while I cringed in mortification. "What sort of things do you believe in? I've heard you are vegetarians; is that true?" The Sikh regarded her warily: Is this woman for real? you could almost hear him thinking.

If you've read the Harry Potter series or seen the movies, imagine a slightly more respectful Mr Weasley encountering muggles. That was what my mother was like when she met someone who practiced a religion she had only heard of or read about in books. It was too much to ask her to keep her curiosity to herself, and bless her, she meant absolutely no harm.

"Now if you were an Orthodox Jew," my mother would say eagerly to a friend of mine she had cornered, ignoring my exasperated embarrassment, "then you would have two separate sets of cooking utensils, wouldn't you? For milk and meat dishes." My friend would squirm. "Umm, I'm not sure, actually..." My mother was, though. She'd read about it: she knew about keeping kosher, and she knew about the parts of the Old Testament that covered this. But she wanted to know more.

Agnostics and atheists were not exempt from my mother's interest either: she wanted to know all about why they had come to their own personal decision not to believe. She felt a little sorry for atheists, but she did expect them to be able to back up their convictions with a convincing explanation.

"According to Annie McIntyre, Catholics don't consider our marriage binding," my mother told my father one evening. "Not even after twenty years!" She wasn't upset by this; she was fascinated, and amused. She had been raised to hate and fear Catholics, but it hadn't taken. She had a number of Catholic friends and, though very much a middle-of-the-road Republican, subscribed to the Catholic Worker for over a decade. When concerned friends and family members told my mother this was a Socialist paper, she just shrugged. "Dorothy Day takes care of poor people. She puts her money where her mouth is, like Mother Teresa. I don't care what her politics are."

But what my mother liked better than anything was discussing the Bible. Raised in a fundamentalist religion, my mother had rebelled and joined a gentler, more tolerant denomination when I was seven years old. For the next twenty years, her sisters cried, scolded and begged to get her to come back to their straight and narrow road. They would not listen to her explanations and refused to accept her interpretations of the Bible. My mother longed to have an open, informed discussion of the Scriptures. As a result, she was the only person I have ever known who actively welcomed all religious callers. Jehovah's witnesses, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons -- my mother was their willing and eager audience.

There was only one problem: my mother knew the Bible too well. Not only had she grown up in a poor home where the Bible, a ragged dictionary and a set of Shakespeare's plays were the only books available, she had a prodigious memory and could quote whole sections of the Bible verbatim. Most of the people who came to our house bearing religious tracts found that their own Biblical knowledge wasn't up to scratch when pitted against my mother's.

"I think I might have upset Gloria," my mother sighed once, when the young Jehovah's Witness left after a lengthy -- and no doubt exhausting -- discussion. "But she really should brush up a little on her New Testament."

My mother got to know most of the door-to-door missionaries by name. Whenever she saw one in the neighborhood, she would run to find her Bible and keep an eye out for him or her, frequently peeking out the window to make sure our house hadn't been passed by. In time, they stopped coming to our door: my mother was too much for them.

"They were at the MacDougalls twenty minutes ago," my mother noted sadly one day. "And now they're down the road and across the street. I think they're skipping this house intentionally!" Clutching her Bible, she looked like a child who hadn't been invited to her best friend's birthday party.

At the time, I could not understand her fascination in the beliefs and philosophies of others, her determination to explain her life's views, her zeal to share her opinions, though not proselytize. But every few days when I write a blog entry, I delight to present my view of the world, my opinions, my insights, however simplistic. And as I read the comments others write -- which I find infinitely fascinating and amusing -- I see that I am engaged in a very similar activity to my mother's.

I'll bet she would have loved having a blog.



Kim Ayres said...

I could have chatted all day to your mother. Religious ideas without forced conversion is philosophy.

Which reminds me, I start teaching an evening class in that next week so really do have to start planning the sessions...

...need more sleep...

Eryl Shields said...

Sounds like your mother was born out of her time, these days we don't have to wait for people to come knocking on the door. We can all hold forth on any subject and publish our thoughts then wait for the comments to come in. Or we can go searching for the thoughts of others and comment on them. It's got to catch on!

A Paperback Writer said...

Your mother would've loved me.
I usually have the opposite experience. (However, I do love to ask people questions about their own beliefs in return.) The second people see me take juice instead of coffee or smile a "no thanks" to a glass of wine, I get bombarded by "Mormon questions." I usually don't mind. Normally, I assume they're only curious and not exactly interested in converting (here I differ from the usual Mormon), so I answer away. Occasionally, I've had people get a little miffed to discover I know my Bible very well also. (I think lots of folks believe that Mormons don't use the Bible, but we do.) But usually, people just want the facts to set straight what they've heard.
I found I had tons in common with a born-again Pagan in my MSc programme (spiritual creations of animals and plants, etc.), and I had a great, bonding discussion with a Muslim woman who lived on the same floor of my dorm -- the two of us had the same loathing of polygamy, and similar cultural backgrounds with it.
Anyway, I would've had fun chatting with your mom.

Kanani said...

Oh, I'd of loved to have spoken to your Mum.

But it is pretty touchy these days, with so many people convinced that theirs is the right track.

I'd write more. But I'm tired.

kathie said...

Great post, as it hits the spot while I'm mid religious crisis as well as general life crisis. I am very spiritual, but feel less need for religion than I do spirituality. However, I want my kids to have some formality as I'm not equipped to fully handle their spirituality--should I admit that???? So, I'm settling into a kind church that lives a gentle existence...I'll keep you updated...I admire your mom's quest for information and true love of learning. Very special. Perhaps she should be president based on that alone.

Brian said...

Around about the age of 12 years I was always at home alone on Saturday mornings (mother working, father on other business) . I had to wait for Stevenson's pie cart ( a motor cycle with a specially adapted sidecar as a hot oven )to arrive with the wonderful treat ,to be purchased for lunch, of their superb pies and pasties

Regularly there would also turn up a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses, together with wind up gramophone on which they played the recorded speeches of Judge Rutherford, in an attempt to enlighten me, and with numerous copies of publications like Watchtower and Awake!

They filled in my time nicely, and I read the Bible several times over to be able to discuss such matters to their chagrin as David and Bathsheba (and his other sexual peccadilloes).

I am afraid that they did not manage to put a dent in my atheism, but they gave me great practice in sharpening my polemics and debating techniques.

Long dead now as they must be, may their putative souls rest in peace.


Benjamin Rubenstein said...

"Depressingly good," huh? I'll take that as a complement. Thank you.

bella principessa said...

I would have loved meeting your mother. Faith and belief--my own and other peoples'--are totally fascinating to me. (I don't do so well with Biblical passages.)

The world needs more people with that attitude. More people like your mom, who don't judge based on what you believe or what you eat. (Thanks for proving there are tolerant vegetarians out there!)

Carolie said...

Your mother sounds like a fascinating, amazing woman (and the apple didn't fall far from that tree!) Wish I'd known her...and wish she could have visited to help me with my own odd door-to-door proselytizers!

I bet she would have loved having a blog, and I bet she would have loved reading yours.

Gorilla Bananas said...

She must have had a very open mind. I would have liked to have listened to her chatting with Dicky Dawkins.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- My mother was a true believer -- in meaningful dialogue. And like me, she welcomed any diversion from housework. She would have loved sitting and chatting with you, take my word for it. Getting out of doing laundry would've been a real plus, too.

Good luck with the philosophy class!

Eryl -- Writing is a great way to satisfy the urge to create and, um, vent. Blogging is a great way to satisfy the urge to communicate and exchange views, and I find that it also serves a wonderful venting function. What I love about blogging is that you can have an idea about something, write about it, and within a few hours have the reactions of people all over the world. Like ham radio, but without all the static. Plus, you don't have to be out in the garage...

APW -- You and my mother would have gotten on like a house on fire. The fact that you knew your Bible well would have pleased and impressed her. My mother once got into a friendly dispute with a neighbor about whether a particular quote was from the Bible or Shakespeare. My mother was convinced that the quote was from the Bible; when she discovered that she was wrong, she raced back to the neighbor to apologize. From that time on, the two of them were firm friends, even though this woman had scandalized the neighborhood by being a divorcee with a live-in boyfriend.

Have you ever read Isabella Bird's account of the time she spent in the Rocky Mountains? She doesn't always portray Mormons -- or other Americans, come to that -- in the most flattering of lights, but her writing is wonderfully descriptive and honest.

Kanani -- My mother would have been thrilled to talk to all my blog commenters; the trick was getting her NOT to talk to my friends.

Your award has made my day! Quality time wasting: I flatter myself that this is EXACTLY my purpose in life! If you are going to waste time, do it in a meaningful, thoughtful, enjoyable way -- or failing that, fake it. I'll have to get one of the kids to show me how to append it to my blog -- that ought to be fun...

Kathie -- It is hard to find a church where the congregation are open minded enough to listen to the sermon. So many religious people seem to spend all their time worrying about the way others conduct themselves and how to legislate against what they perceive as sinful lifestyles, that they lose sight of the whole spirit of love and charity. I think it is good to try and give your children a good grounding in religion as long as you can find teachers who are open and tolerant and genuinely try to answer their questions.

Brian -- I confess that I used to sit and read the Bible in church, no doubt looking very pious and studious. In fact, I was skimming it for the poetry (Song of Solomon and the Psalms are particularly wonderful) and the salacious bits. At least I had the decency to blush when friends of my mothers commented on my piety.

And what a great story -- Jehovah's Witnesses with a wind-up gramophone who were prepared to debate with you! You must have been a pretty advanced kid to have read up on the Bible in order to keep up your side of the conversation. I wish my kids had the same spirit: religious discussions don't inspire them, and they are always dragging me away from the Hare Krishna street people or the Salvation Army collectors.

Benjamin -- I meant it as a compliment! And I thought you handled that troubled anonymous commenter with great tact.

BP -- Faith and belief fascinate me too, though I don't have one fraction of my mother's Biblical knowledge.

If only the gung-ho, radical vegetarians realized how many people they put off, they would no doubt learn a more thoughtful way of putting forth their philosophy. They remind me of the people who are determined to convert you against your own will.

Carolie -- In Japan, we were often visited by a pair of very kindly, well-intentioned Jehovah's Witnesses. I worked full-time, and my husband didn't speak very good Japanese, so I am afraid that I was less than cordial when he used to get me out of bed on my rare mornings off to come to the door and find out what they wanted. For some reason, the fact that they were carrying Bibles, had 'church lady' practically written on their foreheads, and had religious tracts in their hands, didn't clue him in. I wished I had my mother around then too!

Gorilla Bananas -- My mother would have been thrilled to discuss religion with Dicky Dawkins. I suspect if he had visited, though, she would have been embarrassed about our worn carpet and cracked Melmac tea cups...

Christy said...

Your mom sounds like my kind of people. The basis of my faith is respect for human dignity and it sounds like she had that in spades. Would that we all could take her example.

Kanani said...

You've just won an award. Dress up --meaning put on your best t-shirt an pick it up!

Carole said...

I was raised in a household with an absolute policy of "We are right, everyone else is wrong." I just believed because I was told to. But even as a youngster, I thought something might be incredibly wrong with this thinking. Still I got quite fearful to question GOD. Luckily life prevails and question I did. I learned a lot about different beliefs, gained a lot of respect for people of all faith walks, and am in the process of really figuring out my own faith...which looks quite a bit different than I thought it would. I was attracted to Kim's blog because of his posts on religion. They spoke to my heart. So on I go. Who knows what my faith will look like when I am 80.

Mary Witzl said...

Christy -- The basis of my faith is respect for human dignity too, and kindness. This sounds awfully simplistic, but in practice, it can be very tough, especially when I meet those whose faith is pounding others over the head with their own particular dogma.

Kanani -- I really do appreciate that award, especially because heretofore no one has ever used 'prolific' to compliment me.

Carole -- Welcome back! I've missed you!

As a very small child, I can remember my aunt telling me that we were different because, unlike others of different faiths, we would be going to heaven. Lucky us. I felt so sorry for all of my hell-bound friends until I talked to them and found out that they unaccountably thought the same thing, but they had our respective destinations wrong. Amazing how people can have these crazy ideas, isn't it? I just hope I make it to 80 with some faith left in the human race...

Anonymous said...

Your mother and my husband would LOVE to talk. I would enjoy the talk too, but I'm certain my Bible skills won't be up to par for her.

Mary Witzl said...

Riley -- My Bible skills didn't measure up to my mother's either (and they never will), but she was very forgiving.

How heartening it is to meet people who enjoy talking about religion, though. It almost makes up for all the narrow-minded religious bigots I've met in my time.

Danette Haworth said...

I must have overlooked this post before. Your mother sounds wonderful. I bet she would have enjoyed a blog indeed!

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Danette -- I like to picture my mother happily discussing religion with all the people of the world. Perhaps she is doing just that wherever she is.

ExpatJane said...

Wow, that sounds cool. My mom wasn't even that well-versed, but what anchored her was her faith.

I would have loved to see your mom have discussions with missionaries. Where I grew up the Jehovah's Witnesses would rap on your door every Saturday. She might have liked Korea too because they and other sorts are here now cornering people at bus stops and the like.

Yep, for sure, she would have loved having a blog.