The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali
All the clocks in the house are telling the wrong time. Greer has lost her watch. I am in this funny surreal space where I feel like I am re-making my life. I know I said a similar thing a year ago, that I’m back at the beginning again, but it’s true. I actually do get to start again. Every week I learn something new, and it’s a process that continues to unfold. This ‘growing’ business is ongoing. Why would it ever stop?
I went up to Auckland last week and got a brain update. High school statistics, plus a few extras. My supervisor is gifted with the ability of teaching with the barest minimum of spoon feeding, and in the kindest and most gentle way spent almost a whole day explaining to me what comes as naturally to him as tying his shoelaces. The update was successful: I am now immersed in analysis of the data from my Master’s research, and there are numbers everywhere. I’m swimming in them. After previously having almost zero faith in myself as a mathematician, here I am doing maths.
I’ve never been more aware of the gaps in my brain. Great holes I’ve allowed to stay wide open for so long. Although it might have seemed otherwise, I’ve always lacked confidence in my intelligence deep down. Everywhere I looked there were people more coordinated, more organised, and more consistently performing than I ever was, and somehow along the way I decided they were the smart ones. They were the ones who studied law, or held down full time jobs at the same time as bringing up their babies, or had letters after their names. I was convinced I couldn’t do any of that. So I strenuously avoided my gaps and weaknesses – anything to escape the shame of them.
But it would be a half-truth to say that my lack of confidence was the sole reason for those gaps. My insecurities were well and truly enabled by the religious framework I was brought up in. A framework which conditioned me to see the right answers as situated outside of myself, which convinced me that others were the experts in my life, and which valued a body of knowledge that could only be accessed through those same experts. And more than that, it was a framework which denigrated reason and discouraged any learning that was not of a religious nature, and a very narrow version of religion at that.
I grew up in the bosom of Pentecostal Christianity. Pentecostalism is the “happy-clappy” version of Christianity. It’s always evangelical and often fundamentalist. Its roots are blue-collar, and its emergence at the turn of last century was in part a push-back against the traditional dominant structures of religious power of the day which were strict, ritualised and top-heavy. It began because a group of ordinary, uneducated people wanted more than the current Protestant orthodoxy had to offer. They were convinced they were part of something bigger than themselves and that that something was available to be experienced; to be touched, felt, heard, and seen. Even more than that, they were convinced that such an experience should have an effect on their lives. Whatever their need was – physical or otherwise – they brought it with them. Their spiritual experience was borne out of the reality of need.
I think it’s important to understand that the birth of the Pentecostal movement, while it had detractors both from inside and outside the traditional church, represented an important rejection of the racial segregation and sexism that prevailed at the time. Those ordinary people who came together to seek a tangible experience of God were from marginalised communities. The leader of the movement in its early days was William J. Seymour, an African American and the son of former slaves. Many of the people who joined him were from immigrant or lower-class families, and women were free to preach and lead. These were people without social status or wealth and in this new experience of God they found belonging, security and a new kind of freedom.
It’s not surprising then that the Pentecostal denominations which grew out of those very unstructured beginnings became staunchly anti-intellectual. The ordinary people who flocked to Pentecostal meetings were rejecting not only the orthodox church as it was, but the education that went with it. The education that was available either by becoming one of the elite ministers themselves (if they were male) or by sitting in the pews each Sunday. That, alongside the social class of the majority of those first Pentecostals, meant that the leaders and dominant voices of the movement were largely self-educated. In itself, this was not necessarily a dangerous thing. But when combined with the power structures of the church – which ironically evolved to mimic the structures of the traditional church – it created a powerful minority who were suspicious of higher education. These leaders valued experience and personal belief above all else. This has been a hallmark of almost all Pentecostal churches up until the present day.
I realise you don’t want to read an essay about power and the church, so I’m trying not to write one. But what I do want to say is that the dominant theme of my religious upbringing was that experience outranked thinking and education by a long shot. I was taught to be suspicious of my own ideas, and to consider them automatically inferior to the ideas and teaching of those in power in the church. The experts were always right. If I disagreed with them, it was because there was something wrong with me, not because there was something wrong with them or their ideas.
It’s been fifteen years since I began my slow journey to the very outer edges of institutional religion, and it’s taken me that long to even begin to understand how damaging those early years were. I’m aware that the way I’ve described my religious upbringing makes it sound like I was in a cult. I wasn’t. But it’s very easy for a religious organisation (or any organisation) to have cult-like characteristics without actually being a cult. And being in a cult-like organisation is almost as damaging as being in actual cult, as far as I can see.
But here’s the clincher. My religious upbringing didn’t just happen in church. My religious upbringing happened at home. And all the messages I got at church about distrusting my own thinking and relying on the experts for the right answers were amplified there. In fact in many ways, home was cult-like too. There was very little room for me to develop my own thinking in either place. By the time I turned twenty-one I was pretty sure of one thing: that there were right ideas and wrong ideas, and if left to my own devices I was more likely to come up with the wrong ones. It wasn’t a winning strategy for life.
I’m not writing this to garner your pity. I’m writing this because I’m in a strange time of life, the clocks in the house are all different, my daughter’s lost her watch, and I’m starting again. Writing helps me get my head straight. These are things I’ve thought at various times and in different ways for a while now. But it wasn’t until I began to believe in myself as a thinking person that I realised it actually all makes sense. It makes sense to me, anyway.
So here it is: despite having seen religion at its worst, I remain a fan. And in these strange times, when in the same week Turkey’s president claims the military coup was “a gift from God”, and televangelist Pat Robinson has a vision of Donald Trump sitting at the right hand of God, I actually believe we need religion more than ever. Because we can’t talk about religion without religion. And we can’t even begin to understand that fraught intersection between religion and human experience without at least some understanding of religion itself – it’s language, ideas, symbols and practices – as strange as they may seem.
After all, that’s what religion is about – human experience. In other words, people. People with longings and desires and needs. Underneath the dogma and the power-play and the flawed organisational structures are a bunch of humans who have this crazy and yet quite sane idea that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. And I can’t argue with that.