e-mail us


What if religion cuts us in pieces?


The lawyer leaned forward, eagerly describing how illusory our concept of a coffee cup is. “Grind up this supposedly solid object,” he said, waving it aloft as I watched, mesmerized, the sloshing of the supposed liquid over his salad. “You’ll find it’s nothing but buzzing atoms. Study the atoms, and you’ll find they’re just energy, with lots of space in between.

“In Buddhism, we say nothing inherently exists,” he concluded. “There is only a pattern of relationships determined by your mind.” I nodded, fascinated by this hard-driving Western lawyer turned Tibetan Buddhist, his very psyche held together by the tension of paradox. In his 20s, he’d been drawn, simultaneously, to the clash of courtroom battle and the utter peacefulness of nirvana. Now, 20 years later, he explained both worlds with equal insight.

Everything this lawyer said about Tibetan Buddhism made startlingly good sense to me. Until -- just before dessert -- he reached the part about ending all cravings.

Sure, I know creme brulee’s temporal. I also know we can run ourselves ragged craving what isn’t good for us, or won’t satisfy us. But religions have a disturbing tendency to chop out huge chunks of human nature in order to get to God.

Why not learn to love our flawed nature -- fondly, the way we cherish an eccentric uncle -- and move through the quirks toward the Creator who presumably designed them?

Of course, Buddhists don’t necessarily believe that sort of creation took place, or that sort of God exists. Nor do they reason backwards, natural-theology style, assuming that what’s already here must have a place in the divine order of the cosmos. Emotion, for example, is probably a random accident, an effect that was caused at some point in our struggle to survive. Understanding, controlling, even eradicating emotion makes perfect sense to a Buddhist, while I, raised Roman Catholic, would somehow believe I was ... tampering.

Again, I’d rather go through the emotions, trying just as diligently to understand their psychology, but also paying careful attention to their larger role in our lives. They do cause mental chaos -- but they also draw us to each other, remind us of our vulnerability, keep us humble and safe, guard committed relationships (nothing like a flash of jealousy to remind you of your spouse) and set the boundaries for integrity.

Craving, too, has its place, if only to keep us falling flat on our faces, reminded of how finite a hot fudge sundae -- or a trust fund, or a dream job -- really is. But there are constructive cravings, too, desires that rise more subtly, as clues to our changing needs and goals. (This spring, for example, I am craving seed and bulb catalogs, watching each day’s mail like a child, because I think I am finally ready to learn to garden and I hope develop the patience that has heretofore eluded me. If I were to ignore this craving, still this eager restlessness and act indifferently adult about this project, I might never begin to double-dig.)

Eliminate all worldly craving, and we forget how much good is in the world and how ready the world often is to share it with us. Lose desire, and we lose passion, not to mention the exquisite tension of hunger and fulfillment that cycles through our lives.

These are unevolved, uninformed, knee-jerk objections, based on a crayon-crude grasp of Buddhism. Still, the goal of eliminating human suffering by eliminating the mind’s illusory cravings reminds me of so many other goals, in so many other religions. Medieval Catholics fasted and mortified to deny the physical body. Charismatic sects spurned the logical mind, wary of the Jesuitical tricks of intellectualization. Stoics steeled the emotions, wary of chaotic impulse.

Here’s a radical suggestion: Why don’t we keep everything we’ve been given and come to our God whole? Come as fully sexual beings, our senses alive and our imaginations vivid. Keep our memories and our cravings, but keep them in perspective. Own our sinfulness, and our suffering, as part of our human condition. Cherish our troublesome sensitivities, because they connect us to what lives outside us. Admit our separate, incarnate selfhood, but develop it so fully that our ego is strong enough to break its own barriers, and our heart is big enough to span the world.

I once wrote a book about the dehumanizing, soul-killing tendencies of the corporate world, and in the course of the research I found myself asking people how fully themselves they were at work. Nearly every time, the person looked off somewhere else, anywhere they wouldn’t meet my eyes, and mumbled, “Not very.” Finally I demanded a quantitative estimate -- and heard, most often, 20 percent or less. People didn’t trust coworkers to appreciate their sense of humor, they censored their religious and political beliefs, they avoided any real vulnerability, they masked their flaws, they made over their natural affinities into more appropriate likes and dislikes.

What if religion does the same thing, valuing only choice parts of us and forcing the rest under cover? What if we finally meet God face to face, and God asks us ever so gently, “Why did you ignore all those parts of you I made so tenderly and carefully? They could have brought you to me so much faster, if you had learned to love them.”

Instead, we take the easy way out, chop off sinful limbs and pluck out sinful eyes, renounce anything that might prove messy or problematic. It’s a spiritual sort of violence, sanctioned by its particular belief system, and it wears the purple cloak of nobility, the pure white linen undergarments of austerity.

But it still cuts us apart, and leaves us less than whole.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000