Whenever the house gets messy enough I like to retreat to a favorite little space where I hope everyone will just let me be. There, in that small room, I find some quiet ways to come to terms with all the messy troubles in the world. I’m suspicious of the way the word “spiritual” is used, so I tell myself it’s where I make my separate peace.
In that room there’s a window looking out. So I also call it a room with a view.
That window is small enough to provide me some dense impressions of how human beings tend to behave. Yesterday, after turning off the TV news and its steady stream of talk about wars and the horror potential of four-hour erections, I imagined myself somewhere in the Mideast right after a fellow named Jesus, like many others, was crucified. The region I’m in is teeming with religious cults, rituals, prophets, seers, and devotees. Some of these cults come from Persia and beyond, others from what we now call Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey, and beyond. And all these cults compete for attention with the devotees of the various Greek and Roman deities.
The region is, religiously speaking, untidy, and messy if we disapprove. The Romans, who rule the scene, think it best to let people believe what they want as long as they pay their taxes and behave. A few of the Roman emperors think of themselves as gods, but because there are so many gods all around the emperors secretly know they’re not the only ones playing in a crowded field of minor league gods.
Anybody with teenagers in the house knows this much: Untidiness gets on the nerves. So many cults, so many deities, so many important things to believe, this way or that. The urge for neatness kicks in, for the sake of order and clarity––and purity. Throw a bunch of stuff out, finally. Get rid of all the cults and gods that clutter the temples, streets and minds. Get back to basics, the god I like.
So polytheism officially lost out, and the great monotheistic religions took over. The woman devoted to chastity no longer has her own special goddess, Artemis, to call her own, and the drunken lecher no longer calls on Bacchus to juice him up. The Gnostics, who believe themselves in the special know about most things divine, have to join the Roman church or play dumb, and the Manichaens, with their rival kingdoms of evil and good, become just one more designated minority “heretic” group. The One God––Jewish, Christian, and eventually Muslim too––becomes the acceptable, invariable and eventually required only God.
So why don’t we get along? Why all the trouble and fuss in the Mideast? The troubles are not just about oil. They’re also about dignity and belief and the right to believe and be left alone to get on with the daily chores of life. Trapped by these troubles are ordinary and reasonable people who want zealot politicians and preachers to go mum for a change. These good folk don’t like others trying to mind their spiritual business.
The monotheistic leaders agree that they all worship the same God––one, absolute, an invariable. Meanwhile, the other invariables persist––the chaste woman, the lecherous drunk, the mystic knower, the saint who thinks he’s living in a black and white, evil and good, world with other believers who look at all things––spirituality, morality, abortion, gay marriage, big corporations, and religion’s role in politics––this way and that.
But now there are not countless sacred cults to choose from and to find comfort and community in. So here we are, stuck either inside the umbrella, or somewhere outside. If we’re inside the One God umbrella it’s easy to take potshots at everyone outside, and vice versa.
Things get much worse when those inside the umbrella multiply and divide. Then they begin taking potshots at each other too. Various types of Catholics and Protestants come to mind, and Sunni and Shia, with many local variations. Things get much worse when the uncivil comments the zealots hurl at each other turn into civil wars. While people stuck in civil wars crucify each other, they also live in the same town, and sometimes next door.
There’s usually no backing down, especially when zealots begin making speeches and when the basic response that results from thinking of the world as good and evil gets on the roll called revenge. You kill my son? Then I’ll rape your daughter. That kind of thing.
And when there’s no Rome to collect taxes and keep the calm, that is, when people require government to take only one side, things are likely to get worse.
It makes a lot of people wonder where they can find a decent cult to join. They’d probably do much better by clearing space for a little room of their own, but please, everyone, don’t bring your messes into my little room.