What religion looks like to the non-religious

Science, and particularly geometry and astrono...
Science was linked
directly to the divine
for medieval scholars.
The compass in this manuscript
is a symbol of God

Every so often, something reminds me just how different religion must look from the outside compared to the view from the inside.  Then my memories remind me that even the inside has an inside…

Social science researchers distinguish between emic and etic accounts and descriptions.  The emic is the insider’s view, a description that the person living the experience would agree is accurate.  The etic is the outsider’s view, grounded in a form of objectivity that would allow a second outsider to reach the same conclusion, but which the insider might find alien or wrong.  Both perspectives are useful, although social scientists may fall to debating which is best rather than using the one more appropriate to one question or another.   [The social science lecture ends here.]

I received another quasi-spam e-mail today from a book publisher, asking me to review and provide a review for an upcoming book.  The message included a summary of the book’s contents.  Halfway through the first sentence, I began to wonder, “Who would think I would review it positively to drivel like this?” It seemed like yet-another in the unending flood of pseudo-spiritual stuff. It reminds me of the papers my students write when they haven’t done the reading.  Not knowing anything, they fantasize about the topic and then write a report about what it must be like.  Jesus, especially, is especially popular as a figure for that kind of projection. This book decided to ignore the crucifixion but imagine how people in the early Church experienced him.

“How,” I wondered, “could they think a Catholic Benedictine would have anything positive to say about this?”

Then I had my Aha! moment for the day: from inside, it’s possible to see differences that, from the outside, are not visible or don’t make sense.  To this public relations firm, there were two categories: people who believe in God/something supernatural, and those who don’t.  I suspect the publicist was in the latter group, and figured someone whose blog includes spiritual perspectives would like a spiritual book like this.

It’s sobering in a number of ways. My first reaction is to be horrified to be lumped in with the (to my eyes) naive and gullible people who fall for this stuff.  The second is realizing that, to the publicist, the Catholic intellectual tradition is indistinguishable from the drivel.  The third, after even more pondering, is to remember how some aspects of the spiritual life seemed incredible and impossible to me when I first read about them – and now they seem like common sense, a description of the way the world operates – “How could anyone be so foolish as not to know this?”

Every once in a while, some little encounter like this makes me aware of how different is my experience of things than those around me.   Sometimes it’s little things. A colleague asked why I turned down one task for which I’d get extra pay and then agreed to do one without any pay.  The money hadn’t entered my thoughts – I don’t see my pay anyway!! My discernment revolved around which one would work to the detriment of my prayer life, was in tune with my sense of my call, was interesting, better served mission of the monastery …

I appreciate these Aha! moments because, just for an instant, I realize just how much my experience in the “real” world is an etic experience: the outsiders view – and understand that my way of life is opaque or incomprehensible or, yes, just plain weird to the rest of the world.

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