In my last post, I decided to postpone my public ululations over the recent elections. As I’ve spent the last week or so in an apparently endless struggle to get the Madroño Ranch bison label approved by the Texas Department of State Health Services, my ululative impulse has caught in my throat. Maybe Republicans and Tea Partiers are right.
I mean, what difference can it possibly make whether the net weight of the package appears on the bottom third of the label (as required), the middle third, or (gasp) even the upper third? And don’t get me started on the “approved” list of cuts, a list whose existence we discovered only after we’d submitted the label, and which has driven our obsessively copy-editing family mad with its redundancies and omissions. Our “Boneless hump roast” was not on the list and so was nixed, but we’re fine if we say “Bison Roast (Hump).” Generously, the state allows both “Bison for Stew” and “Bison Stew Meat.”
It’s enough to make me think Very Ungenerous Thoughts about the government’s regulatory role in business or about authority in general.
Some of these thoughts are just moans, like the ones our dog Phoebe the Fabulous used to make when she was forced to stop on our walks while I looked at birds. Oh, the personal inconvenience! But the issue of authority has, in fact, been in my thoughts recently, to wit: when does authority cease to be authoritative? What makes us change our minds? What would make me stop being a “liberal” (if that’s what I am) and become a Republican, or even join the Tea Party? I’m not talking here about repressive political authority, but rather those internalized authorities to which we bow without really being aware that we’ve made a choice.
In thinking about my own track record when it comes to mind-changing, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not primarily a rational process, as we often presume. Rather, it’s a supra-rational affair, requiring the willingness and discipline (and perhaps the talent) necessary to learn a new language.
Here’s what I mean: I used to think that all Christians were most likely not just fools—an identity St. Paul claimed—but idiots. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority began to fill the airwaves when I was about fifteen or sixteen. Not having had much contact with self-professed Christians at that point, my exposure to this most vocal sector of Christians forced me to conclude that I could never be one of them. From what I could infer, they were anti-intellectual, judgmental, and close-minded. Their rhetoric made me think that Christianity represented everything I had been taught to turn away from. (Especially the “judgmental” part.)
Imagine my chagrin when, after a series of unexpected and absurd events, I came to be enrolled as a student at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest (now known simply as the Seminary of the Southwest). My habitual place of study was a nearby coffee shop. As I studied, I made sure that any books that had the words “God,” “Church,” or “Jesus” (especially “Jesus”—such an embarrassment) on the cover or spine were face-down and turned to the wall. I didn’t want to be mistaken for one of “them,” one of those stupid sheep who followed an anti-intellectual, judgmental, and close-minded shepherd. Authority. Whatever.
I learned during my years at the seminary—and during my years as a practicing Christian since then—that I had been mistaken in my first ideas about Christianity. I had to change my mind, and, consequently, my self-identity—an anxiety-provoking and disorienting business. This doesn’t mean that I like all Christians. Or even most of them. When I started at seminary, knowing nothing, I had expected to find a bunch of Bad Thinking I could counter and correct.
What I discovered instead was that my initial premise was wrong. I found out that practicing a religion is not the same thing as signing a lease, requiring you to follow a bunch of rules or else be kicked out. Rather, I found that practicing a religion is more like wrestling with a new language. There is a grammar to learn, there are rules to follow. But unless you immerse yourself in it, unless you try to speak it yourself with native speakers—even if you have a lousy accent—you will be just another Ugly American, unaware of your own foolishness.
Having become reasonably fluent in Christianity, I’m trying to learn at least something about the other languages around me. As I learn more about Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, I don’t become less fluent in my own language; rather, I understand it more profoundly. I understand its distinctiveness and thus its limitations. I understand something of its fraught interactions with other religions and have learned the uneasy need for shame and humility. I try not to speak slowly and loudly in my own language when speaking to non-native speakers and hope they will do the same for me. In my limited experience, I’ve found hospitality, not hostility, whenever we try, in our different tongues, to speak with each other.
And so I wait to hear yet again from the inspector at the meat processing plant about the newest version of our label. I know that he’s pleased about the results of the recent election, as are most of my Hill Country neighbors. I’m pushing this metaphor past its limits, but in order to be a good neighbor myself, I may have to have to learn a little bit of a new language. To understand myself better, I may have to be willing to change my mind.
What we’re reading
Heather: Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety
Martin: S. C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (still)