I had breakfast with Joanna this morning, among other people. I had oatmeal with honey and slivered almonds and she had miso soup. It was snowing again, piling up outside the Dining Hall windows and looking cozy (and advantage to never having to drive anywhere; snow is a lot more fun), and we talked about this and that. I hadn't set out to have breakfast with her, but when I came in I noticed there was a space my her, and it looked like a friendly space, so I occupied it. It was nice.
We talked so much that we didn't eat very quickly, so we were slow leaving the table and watched other people get up to leave while we finished.
"This school has the best looking faculty, have you noticed?" she asked at one point, and giggled. I looked around to see who she might be referring to, but pretty much all of them were in the room. Allen and Greg were standing together with their trays, talking, and wondered if that's who she meant. I've heard people talk about Allen that way, though to me he looks sort of middling. Not "middling" as in "dumpy," and certainly not bad, but just kind of normal. A guy. Greg is old, so I don't see why he'd catch Joanna's eye, but he's tall and skinny, like me, yet he has a certain dignity. He's pretty fit-looking. I kind of hope I look like him when I am in my seventies. And I hope young women think I'm hot when I'm in my seventies.
Kit walked by, and my eyes followed her. I realized Joanna had asked me a question and I had taken too long to answer it.
"Oh, yeah, I guess they're alright," I told her distractedly. She thwacked me with her arm, playfully. She does that a lot, and I really wish she wouldn't.
"I didn't ask you if you're gay," she told me, laughing, "I meant all of them, collectively."
"What? No, I don't care, they're all hot, whatever, it's fine!" I sputtered. I swear, people here make fun of each other for being homophobes the same way we used to call each other "gay" in middle school, it's the weirdest thing. And I make just as much of an ass of myself with my denials, even though I'm neither homophobic nor gay (I stopped that stupid teasing when I was still a kid). Anyway, Joanna kept laughing at me. I waited until she stopped.
"Kit is pretty," I acknowledged, as though I didn't care much one way or the other, but my ears turned red and Joanna started laughing at me again.
"It's alright to have a crush on Kit," she told me, confidently, "everybody does."
Speaking of getting things sorted out and decided, at Ollie's suggestion I've been checking out the area's churches. There are three within easy biking distance: an Episcopal church and a Unitarian Universalist hall in the town to our east, and a Catholic church in the town to our west. I know there's a Friends meeting somewhere around here, too, but I haven't found it yet. There's no Methodist congregation, not for farther than I want to bike, anyway, so I'm going around trying everything. Of course, I haven't been to church, except on Christmas and Easter, for three years, so I don't know why I should care that I can't find a church of my parents' denomination.
So this past week I went and visited the UUs, and who should I bump into there but Allen. He was actually in the pew next to me when I realized he was there, I jumped about a mile high. I swear he does that sort of thing, shows up unexpectedly like that, on purpose. He greeted me in that friendly, but slightly distracted way teachers have when they see students outside of work. After the service, he asked me how I'd liked it.
"Different," I told him. "I liked it, but I'm really not sure how to think about this, I mean, how does one pick a church?"
"Good question," he told me, and obviously meant it. "We can talk about it later, if you want." By "later" I figured he meant back on campus, when he wasn't taking time off. I've noticed the faculty are wholly and generously available to us, except when they're not. I think they actively hide from students when they aren't working--I never see them going into or coming out of their dorm, for example. I let the subject slide.
"So this is you? You're a UU?" I asked him, conversationally. Oh, jeez, that sounds funny, and I totally didn't mean it to, it's actually just what I said, an accidental joke I didn't get until just now. Allen probably noticed it, but did me the favor of not laughing at me. He did smile.
"No, I'm basically a Scientific Pantheist, these days. But I do come to services here a lot. I find them useful, and they suit me."
I was surprised, both because Allen didn't normally volunteer information about himself and because I'd never even heard of Scientific Pantheism before. My confusion must have shown, because he answered the question I hadn't asked.
"Scientific Pantheism," he explained, "is the understanding that all of existence has spiritual meaning, but that its causality can be entirely understood by scientific means. There is no God separate from the Creation."
"Religious atheism?" I hazarded, "like a spirituality for atheists?" Allen made a sound halfway between a grunt and a laugh.
"It's a new term," he acknowledged, "and in my case it's descriptive, not prescriptive. If my ideas change so that the term no longer fits, I will cease using the term."
"Kit said the same thing about Wicca."
Again he responded with a grunt or a laugh.
"Did she? Well, she would. Neither one of us is much for gurus, despite what we do do a living."
"You probably have something else to do. I don't want to keep you," I told him, aware that politeness and force of habit might hold Allen to stand around talking to me longer than he wanted to on a day off. He grinned like he'd been found out and nodded.
"Feel free to come back here," he told me, as we took our leave from each other, "They're a good group of people."
I walked away a little bit, to give him space to stay and mill around a little longer, and then I sat down in an empty pew and thought for a bit. There was a huge, and really lovely panel of stained glass altar piece, and I looked at it for a while and thought about gurus, religious authority, and what Allen and Kit and the others do for a living. I'd always assumed that religion is prescriptive, I guess, but that you choose the religion whose prescription you like. But that doesn't make sense. It's circular, saying I believe something because my pastor tells me to, or the Bible tells me to, but I pick my pastor, Or I read the Bible, because I like what it says. Completely circular.
So, then why do my parents believe what their pastor tells them? They are not circular people. They are not irrational, and they are not pushovers, either. And what do gurus have to do with it, and why did Allen imply that he is one?
I suppose there are really two paths, prescriptive and descriptive, that's the way out of the circle, to keep them distinct. If you're going to let someone else tell you what to do, it must be because they either have some genuine authority, or because you think they know something you don't. If you're going to be judging the validity of the instruction itself, you might as well stand up and admit you're following reason, not anyone else's doctrine.
You know, I like the idea of following my own reason, it sounds very heroic and noble, but if I'd never accepted any outside teaching I would never have learned to read. Reading was not inside me, waiting to be liberated by self-reflection. And if I wanted no outside instruction now, why would I be at college?
[Next Post: March 11th, describing campus in Spring]