02 10 / 2012
Two weeks ago in our Friday “Soup Salad and Soul” discussion, the topic was this: Sometimes we have a positive visceral emotional response to a work of art or a religious representation of some sort, but we disagree, cognitively and ideologically, with the “message” embedded in that art or representation. The student who led the discussion is a sophisticated reader of poetry and prior to the lunch discussion she and I talked about how Christian themes are prominent in the work of one of her favorite poems. As a Jew, she feels an internal rumble—some of these poems that move her so deeply frame life’s questions in terms of the poets’ deep (and fraught) and lifelong relationship with a Christian God as represented in Jesus.Part of her feels the profound solidarity evoked in us by great writing, part of her feels she is a visitor in another country.
I thought this was such a rich and fascinating topic to pursue for several reasons.
First, this is such a theme within religion and spirituality for so many of us. Many people feel drawn to the liturgy—that is, the actions, rituals, and music—within a tradition but cannot have what feels like a true experience of spiritual sustenance through that tradition because the institution in which that liturgy is contained represents such a radically different worldview. Even if (sometimes especially if) the institution belongs to “their” (or “our”) religious tradition.
Second, and perhaps on a deeper level, so many have been nourished by a religious tradition but then find themselves alienated by it. Every day I am reminded that people all around us; our colleagues, our classmates, our house mates, ourselves; are nursing fresh wounds caused by a stance that a religious institution has taken…We are a progressive liberal arts community, and we have access to new paradigms and even the capacity and positioning to change paradigms ourselves—yet it feels as though at least once every day on the Smith campus someone is registering the pain and confusion of the dissonance between their sexual orientation or gender identity and the mores of the religious tradition of their childhood.
In our Soup Salad and Soul discussion the student facilitator listened graciously and followed the discussion along its rich and complex trajectories, and we eventually moved from the deeper, more artistic and literary dissonances to our “conflicting tastes,” when it comes to all forms of media. For example, what about reading, and loving, fashion magazines yet being aware that there are messages being aimed at our sub-conscious as well as conscious mind—about how we should look,what we should wear, and how our worth is defined by the consumer gaze? What about the lyrics of some rap music that stirs us and even inspires us, while flying in the face of other values we hold dear? A Buddhist student pointed out that we are permeable but sturdy. We are not immune to what we take in, but on a cosmic, energetic level, we are also able to have an effect on what we see, depending on how we respond.
In many ways then, how we “take in” works of art and representations of all kinds involves an “act of faith.” We have faith that we have a “whole self” that is large enough not to be taken over by something that part of us is drawn to.
So, this Soup and Salad and Soul was an interesting and relevant topic because it touches upon the deep truth that we are never just one thing, and thus our tastes, proclivities, and even loves manifest in multiple ways. Accepting that we are many things and hence have complex, and even sometimes conflicting responses, is part of the confounding adventure of being human.I think that a thoughtful, curious process of “going with it” and having the sort of conversation I describe here, is a sort of act of faith—one way of “Living the Questions” that Rilke speaks of.
Tell me what you think!
(Soup, Salad and Soul meets every Friday at 12:15, and delicious homemade lunch provided. ALL WELCOME!)
Matilda Rose Cantwell