One day, in a September some time ago, the door opened and there she stood: Yifan, coming in on a Couchsurfing hop. For all those who don’t know what Couchsurfing is, I’m very sorry. Someone in your life has been keeping quite a large secret from you.
In an age where one can find think-pieces in any corner of the interwebs decrying how social media tears us apart, (only to be one-upped by others claiming it kneads us closer together [and then shown up by the smartypants who says, duh, it obviously does both]), Couchsurfing comes as a breath of fresh air: there is no question of its ability to connect folks in weirder and more powerful ways than maybe any other handheld app/site. Even counting Pokemon.
The concept is simple: like other hospitality-oriented social networks like Hospitality Club, BeWelcome and Trustroots, the entire thing is based on complete strangers going to the homes of complete strangers and crashing on their couch. For free. Usually with food, a city tour and cultural experiences thrown in for good measure. Everyone has a profile full of pictures, descriptions of favourite sitcoms and, crucially, personal references as to whether one has a tendency to axe-murder or otherwise violate incoming guests.* It’s a wonderful thing and has changed my life numerous times over the past few years of active usage.**
Skeptical? So are most folks before using it the first time. Think it’s just for kids? I’ve stayed with people from 18-65. Think there can’t be that many people crazy enough to let strangers into their homes? There’re thousands of registered members in respectable cities like Ottawa, Canada (12,102), Ghent, Belgium (12,877), Saint Petersburg, Russia (53,292), Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (2,740) and Canberra, Australia (3,497). Don’t want to jump into the deep end of the pool? Check out a Couchsurfing meeting in a city near you so you can survey the wildlife in subtle fashion (there will be a CS meeting within 100km of where you are, come death or high taxes).
Yifan herself hails from China and, while working at a multinational bank, accepted dozens of people into her home as a way of redirecting the world through her living room – she eventually went on to take the plunge, quit her job, signed up for a grad program on the other side of the world and solo-traveled the entire way through into Europe overland. Thus her ending up at my Russian doorstep that early-autumn day.
In addition to being a Cambridge student, published author and ice-cream enthusiast, Yifan is also a deeply committed spiritual seeker. She doesn’t identify with a particular religious tradition but has been greatly influenced by yoga and meditation (she claims a silent, ten day retreat in Vipassana-style was a life-changer). Coming from an (at least superficially) atheistic culture, she wasn’t exposed to the religious stories taken for granted by people growing up in other parts of the world. “I never heard about Jesus while I was a kid,” she explained as we walked along the canals, broaching the topic as part of our attempt to skirt through life, the universe and everything over the course of a few days.
We did pretty well covering the ground we could: we compared notes as hitchhikers and cultural enthusiasts, talked about the challenges of writing up experiences we couldn’t quite put properly on paper and, as I complained once about not being able to work at the computer for language study for more than two hours at a time without internal brain combustion, she held up a finger and said “that’s because you never studied at a Chinese school.”
I’m not sure how it happened, but back at the apartment she ended up asking about my own spiritual life and what made it tick – I guess I’d been doing a lot of listening already and she was looking to return the favour. This was a conversation I’d had a number of times before: in my university days I was pretty active in a campus group that helps students break the richness of Christianity down to the essentials for the sake of being able to communicate it in simple, straightforward terms.
Essential numero uno: God created humanity with a purpose, one involving being in relationship with our maker.
One of the things I noticed right away about Yifan was that she wasn’t the average, nomadic, New Agey spiritual seeker I’d seen a number of times on the road – maybe it was her background (full scholarship to a national university for math, holding down a job in said investment bank [before eventually, of course, ditching it all for shamans, Burning Man, permaculture and the whole bit]), but she approached metaphysics with a logical bent, as if it were a testable field like any other. She felt keenly the presence of Something and intuited there might be a system behind it, ways of entering communion one could find by trial and error.
Essential number two: people themselves broke that relationship with God, creating an infinite and unbridgeable distance between us.
She too, as we spoke, described feeling this: the gap inside one’s soul, the distance between us and the Presence we keep brushing up against, the effort needed at times to connect with whatever it is people call God. During her time in South America she met a number of people who experimented with psychedelics and different drugs in order to try and strip themselves of sediment and stand unfettered before the Am that Am.*** “Someone told me that when people can’t find a way to connect other than using chemicals, it’s more like taking a short cut,” she recalled. “They’re not really willing to put in the effort you need to actually reach out or surrender. They don’t get the real thing.”
She expressed the perceived weight of the Fall as a kind of bad karma, the accumulated presence of sin both original and committed. Which is closer to Christian doctrine than might be fashionable to suggest. We went deeper. I described how this “gap” between people and God is seen as something humans can’t get past on our own efforts alone. She nodded, also believing the need for the divine to make that first move, to suffuse our efforts, to bring us to Itself.
Essential number three: Jesus, through his death, bridges the gap between people and God.
Yifan adjusted herself on the couch. “But why Jesus?” she asked. “What makes him special?” And then, tapping her fingers on a nearby table, she said something that strikes me: “It doesn’t really explain, either, what happens to our bad karma. That stuff just doesn’t go away.”
Here was this young woman trying to feel out the presence of God in the world without the strict guidance of a concrete tradition, but she didn’t use that outsider status as an excuse to dismiss the existence of consequences. I can’t count the number of folks I’ve met who would never take a different spiritual tradition seriously enough to test its internal, metaphysical logic, to actually engage with it on its own terms. For her, though, every action has a reaction and I could tell she was wondering if the Christian concept of Christ was just another short cut hiding behind a front.
I took a breath because I wasn’t sure if I was about to do something stupid.
“Jesus…” I began, “Christianity says…he wants to take our bad karma onto himself. So we don’t have to carry it.”
She stopped tapping. “What?”
This is where it starts to get into tricky ground – using the language of one spiritual tradition to talk about another has always been a controversial thing. I remember a talk given at a local event once where someone offhandedly spoke about the concept of namaste, a Hindu greeting amounting to “I acknowledge the divine in you,” being a potential reflection of the Christian sense of God making a home inside us.
It made a bit of a stir afterwards, with some people freaking out at the possibility of opening doors to something sketchy, while others wondered if there was some breach of intellectual integrity or buckling to fuzzy spiritual fads. And then there were others telling everyone to get over it and stop making mountains of molehills. Maybe the guy was trying to reconcile the varieties of religious experience to Christian revelation, or maybe he was just appropriating a concept that actually didn’t really jive. I myself don’t have a definitive answer to that question, but I certainly think about it from time to time.
Forgive a minor academic detour.
First, let me say I’m not ignoring how the theologies Yifan and I lean towards aren’t the same – not all spiritualities are actually just synonymous things with different names.**** What interests me more is the way names actually work.
Semantics is the study of the relationships that symbols (including, importantly, words) have with the meanings associated with them. The classic explanation goes thus: the word “tree” isn’t actually the same thing as a physical tree – they’re two separate things: the signifier (the word “tree”) and the signified (the tree itself [if this sounds familiar, it’s because this was talked about a bit in the comments section of a previous post here on Deep Down Things]). Which seems like a super obvious thing – like, duh, of course a word and the object/concept it refers to are different things.
But stuff starts getting sticky when people start a) blurring the line between the two, b) using the same word to mean two different things, or c) using a bunch of seemingly different words to talk about the something that’s actually the same.
An example of issue “a” rearing it’s head could be when people try to define what is or isn’t a blasphemy/curse – the phrase “damn you,” in its literal and historical sense, is actually much harsher than shoving an f-bomb up in someone’s grill. Like, it’s pretty much wishing nine whole basements of eternal darkness and isolation on someone. Nice thought. But a more accurate reading of how people use it today would put its seriousness alongside that of “responses I’d use upon stubbing my toe.” If there were a person who wanted to blur the line between sign and signified here (perhaps making a potentially-dubious argument that the sound/phrase “damn it” objectively meant a curse of damnation), then they would certainly have major issues with the language youngsters use these days.
Everyone feels the bite of problem “b” whenever there’s an election around the corner – political newspeak ends up getting plastered everywhere from billboards to all-too-casual retweets. Trying to pin down what a politician means by words like “freedom,” “security,” “progress” or “values” is as slippery as trying to engage in a cultural conversation when words like “love,” “phobia” and “bigotry” have as many different definitions and connotations as there are people in the room. Most of the conversation’s running time often gets sucked up trying to figure out what another person means by what they’re saying. I’m sure you have an eyeroll-inducing memory of one such conversation coming to mind right now.
But it’s issue “c” that involves us most closely here, a problem best exemplified by the act of translation. Say you’re standing in a small room with an absurd amount of people shouting “frog!” or “grenouille!” or “лягушка!” or “!قورباغه” – it might sound like more than a few colourful declarations of war are getting thrown around, but everyone’s just trying to express their love of one Mr. Kermit. Lots of different words all pointing to the same Muppet.
Amphibians aside, though, it gets rather tricky when people with very different cultural and spiritual backgrounds (ie, Yifan and I) actually try to parse out the aspects of our worldviews that genuinely match up, as compared to the ones that’re just passing ships.
To make it even more fun, another factor complicating things is how stuff’s been taken to both extremes in the past. There‘ve been some who’ve claimed there’s no overlap whatsoever when it comes down to religion: you’re either one hundred percent right or a flaming heretic. Then there are others asserting that, actually, it’s all the same elephant we’re touching in the dark and there’re no substantial differences within the mainstream world religions whatsoever. But both of these ways of approaching the issue fail to satisfy – we either end up with the intellectual equivalent of chicken soup or, well, heretics aflame.
The Catholic tradition has agreed, as put in the Catechism (paragraphs 843, 28 and 856) and elsewhere, that there’re definitely areas of intersection between different spiritualities, but that still doesn’t make it any easier knowing what those intersections are and how to relate to them in the real world. To what point should a word like karma be used to describe a Catholic sense of sin?***** Are people actually able to, without falling on their principled asses, reach into seemingly foreign concepts and pull out something they deeply affirm to be true?
A tradition can be thought of as a line pulsing through time, changing and being changed by thousands of influences along the way – the test, though, of whether it actually forms a tradition (as compared to some [ironically-mustachio’d] fad) comes from whether or not there’s an unmistakable shape over time, a distinctness that in spite of all unfolding over the years remains firm. Like the surviving quirks from your childhood, or the dental remains that, though thoroughly charred, identify victims of bombing.
And sometimes a particular curve in that line, despite the distance, is identical to the arc of a separate line originating on the other side of the continent. Sometimes it happens, even in a small and post-Soviet living room tucked into some Saint-Petersburg corner, a single word or image can furl seemingly incompatible traditions into a tight, burning moment of recognition. And then, maybe, you’ll find your guest, after a pause, saying “I really appreciate you telling me this – I never got what Christianity was about before. No one ever told me.”
This conversation took place just shy of two years ago and I think about it from time to time.
This disparity (between words and objects, or, between signifiers and signifieds) starts taking on broader meaning when we bring art into the conversation.
A while ago there was post here about the band Arcade Fire and how, while a number of their songs may be considered by some to be anti-Christian, they might be better understood as railing against an “unChurch” rather than against the genuine spiritual tradition. This is basically an issue of semantics – necessary communication breaks down when a word such as “church” is used to mean both “a community-structure helping broken people genuinely try to move deeper into relationship with God” and “a large number of people more interested in culturally-bankrupt notions of decency/respectability than in the actual work of loving thy neighbour.”
Same signifier there, but different signifieds – and when Christians become aware of it they can start reacting to this kind of art with cooperation (as in, fighting this unChurch together) instead of culture-war. It also helps to remember the opposite, namely that a concept like “searching for truth with whatever integrity we’ve cobbled together” can also be referred to by a wide variety of names – some such entries include “religion,” “rebellion,” “freethought,” “obedience,” “orthodoxy” and “heresy.”
It’s tricky to respond helpfully when labels like this are thrown around, mostly because various subcultures have a flamboyantly-broad range of differing emotional responses to each. That, and the whole one-person’s-terrorist-is-another-person’s-freedom-fighter bit.
Take a character in a book who feels, with sincerity, that the search for truth necessitates exploring outside the Christian tradition,******* and there are indeed several out there. Well-intentioned Christians could feel quite justified condemning those depictions as dangerous or at best unhelpful, and that condemnation might come in colourful language or rather high levels of zeal. Which is very understandable, but if there’s a young person reading that book and finding themselves identifying with the character’s search for truth and integrity, then it’s possible they could misinterpret said outcry against the book as an outcry against said truth and integrity. And so, in an effort to safeguard the truth, a Christian’s attempts might actually push people further away from it. Which, unfortunately, is not a new phenomenon.
Or, to take the concept further, look at a novel like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. As mentioned in a previous post, it’s no conceivable stretch to say that the author created a fantasy-world-equivalent of Catholic Church (his “Magisterium”) and set his two young protagonists out in a quest to effectively put YHWH (known here as “The Authority”) out of His misery and re-create the conditions of the Fall. No joke. Their fight eventually brings them up against a high-ranking angel named Metatron, a guy who’s effectively taken over as commander-in-chief of heaven and wages war against liberty and love and cat gifs.
Okay, so there’s a lot in these books unabashedly meant to offend Catholics,******** but I’d suggest the reader is never without agency. Looking at these plot devices as semantic concepts, what kind of signifieds are creations like the Magisterium, Metatron or the Authority?
When one reads about a character like the Authority they’ll usually make the leap and associate him with Yahweh – it’s usually an unconscious reaction, and if that person’s a Christian then it’s highly likely (and, again, understandable) they’ll get pissed at Pullman. But we don’t actually have to make that choice – when someone looks at any signifier (such as a cheapish stand-in for God), that person doesn’t have to actively associate it with the first obvious signified that comes to mind. As in, a Christian doesn’t have to see Pullman’s Authority as God if s/he doesn’t want to.
But wait, one might ask, Philip wants us to associate the Authority with Yahweh – why wouldn’t we want to make the connection between that very clearly defined signifier-signified relationship? Well, because while Pullman feels the Christian God is a life-and-freedom-devouring monster, most Christians don’t.
We have a choice here – we can see His Dark Materials as a signifier that means “the Church is bullshit and therefore the act of raising kids as dogmatic Catholics is paramount to child abuse,” or we can see it as a cry against hypocrisy and the abuses committed by people representing organized religion, a draw to resist that which is only a false beauty and power. Yes, Philip may identify the seat of that abuse as the Vatican, but I don’t. And, as I disagree with his fundamental statement, I have a reason (perhaps a right) to interpret the book differently. For some this’ll, at least, make it palatable enough to finish if they’re having difficulties with the subject matter.
But why go through all this, anyway? What benefit’s going to come out of it? Why would a Christian defend or find beauty in a book that tries to drag things Christians believe through the mud? Where’s the value for them in knowing or understanding books like these?
The value comes down to one thing: people. No matter where we stand on a variety of issues, we’re presented with a choice whenever there’s a cultural conflict that we’re invested in – we can get angry with superficial theatrics or go beyond the surface in order to plunge deeper into what’s really, really going on here. Because on the other end of an idea there’s always a person attached. And it’s for the sake of connecting with that person that we come to know and understand art that’s likely to cause us pain or frustration.
What if you, as a Christian, have a fifteen year old girl in your orbit who’s finding herself, for various reasons, growing more and more into an atheist mindset? She goes on to discover this trilogy of books and finds it reflecting her own struggle and search for truth. Maybe she admires Lyra’s courage in the face of a giant system, or Will’s compassion for those who fall through its cracks. Maybe she sees herself there in the plot, and maybe it speaks to a very deep place inside her – one lying right next to her aorta.
Maybe she feels the way she does because all the religious figures she’s had in her life correspond to the hypocrites and cheap schemers found in Philip’s pages, and so the book echoes her own prejudices right back to her. If so, who’s she going to respond better to? A Christian reprimanding her for even engaging with that kind of stuff (thus confirming the stereotype in her mind and getting, effectively, nowhere), or a Christian who actually understands the book’s beauty and why it speaks to her?
Because the beauty here lies more in the images and encounters than in the political-spiritual context: a manifestation of your soul that takes the appearance of an animal, a limbo where the dead are tormented by guardians who themselves are wretched for lack of tenderness, a knife that senses latent rips in the fabric of space-time, a compass able to interpret dreams, the chance to meet (and speak with) your own death only to realize this, indeed, may be the most intimate encounter you will have in this life. These chapters might mean more to someone than we realize, and dismissing them out of hand may be interpreted as dismissing someone’s very heart or capacity for feeling deeply.
And if a Christian can understand why she finds it beautiful, then maybe this girl will listen to why they think Pullman’s image of God in the book is cheap. Maybe then they’ll be able to share why they believe Christianity is beautiful. And maybe this book, and this sharing of mutual beauty across a seemingly irreconcilable ideological divide, will be enough (perhaps like the word “karma”) to provoke a “I really appreciate you telling me this – I never got what Christianity was about before. No one ever told me.”
No one has to pretend to be a neutral party or non-partisan – nobody is. Everyone has an angle and their own assumptions for what symbols and signifiers mean. But by being aware of how we relate to those signifiers can help us enter into the mindsets and emotions of others, which is a critical step towards dialogue. And real dialogue (the genuine kind that’s never far from pain, frustration and, hopefully, ultimate exhilaration) is one of the only things that’s going to raise us up from the cultural mire we’ve created around us.
If you get to that rare moment of connection and mutual recognition, it’ll be because you listened first. Because you decided not to be one of “them,” one of the ones who stop at the superficialities, the ones who don’t understand what’s happening under the surface. The ones who, overstepping the bounds out of zeal, fight fire with fire and end up burning whatever bridge connecting you to someone on the other side.
But even if a beautiful conversation does come about, it doesn’t mean that anyone’ll change their mind at the end of the day.
There was still one more point I talked about with Yifan that afternoon – essential number four: Christians believe that while Jesus creates a way to bring people back into relationship with God (a bridge, so to speak), people themselves need to choose to take him up on the opportunity to reconnect.
And this is where a lot of dialogue will stop: people have been able to clearly articulate why they believe what they believe, but the two parties still hold to their original views. Maybe the fifteen year old girl can’t quite believe in a God, even if they view Christianity more charitably. Yifan told me, before we headed out to grab some food or check out another tourist hotspot, “thanks for telling me about this – for me, yoga is still my bridge, but I’m glad to know why people care about Jesus so much.”
We toured around the city, laughed a lot, ate ice cream.
She left and I think back to that conversation. From time to time.
*It is by far not the normal situation, but it has happened once or twice that people (mainly women) have experienced violence at the hands of a stranger abusing hospitality organizations. This is certainly no reason not to frequent the site, but do stay safe and use common sense.
**Combined with other methods of alternative travel like hitchhiking, dumpster diving and work-exchange networks (like WWOOF or HelpX) one can effectively travel the world over for free. I am four years currently into the attempt and have no pending regrets.
***While using drugs to try and connect with God probably leads to a rather, well, up-and-down set of experiences (maybe not the most conducive to genuine balance and inner peace), the connection between brain chemistry and the experience of prayer/ecstasy is a sonorously compelling subject.
****Yeah, it’s kinda dumb to deny how each tradition has a visceral sense of very similar experienced realities of unity/disconnection to the divine (take, for example, the astounding similarities that the Tao Te Ching or Rumi’s poetry have to experiences described in the classics of Carmelite mysticism [namely the work of John of the Cross and his BFF, Teresa of Avila]), but this doesn’t (obviously) lead each religion to the same explanation of why things are the way they are or come to similar conclusions of how to respond to it.
*****Obviously the comparison, even if handy, only holds up so far before breaking down – mostly because the words themselves mean a lot of different things and the metaphysics of sin and karma don’t exactly line up in all (or even most) circumstances. Yeah, the concept of having the weight of one’s moral choices dictating the details of a future cycle of rebirths (you do not pass go) doesn’t exactly sound like a slice of Christian theology here. BUT(!), one aspect implied by the word karma (or, in semantic terms, one of the signifieds implied by the signifier “karma”) refers to the sense of consequence in the world, that our actions bear down on us spiritually even if we’ve found a way to get around the physical or social ramifications. Which lines up exactly with what Christians believe about sin.******
******Give or take, of course, a number of concepts like temporal punishment, purgatory and amendments for sin, but that conversation wasn’t really the time to get into all that. Baby steps, people.
********The first book revolves around a plot involving nun-scientists performing gruesome, violating experiments on children in order to find a way to make adolescents less susceptible to concupiscence and the effects of original sin (known here as “Dust”).
*********Interestingly enough, though, there’s no Jesus stand-in to be found in the book.
Josh Nadeau is currently on retreat in Georgia (the country, not the state) and, when not writing or teaching, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.