Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Having Faith in SD - Part I

One of the things I really like about living in this part of the country is that there is an acceptance of faith that I have not found in other parts of the country (esp. the Northeast).

In the Northeast, it is entirely cool to be on a faith journey, though less so if you actually call it that. It's more acceptable to be seeking something, or trying out a religious or faith tradition, esp. if it's something "exotic" (i.e., non-Western religious tradition or at least a less well-known Western religious tradition). It's less acceptable to speak directly about god or to join a traditional organized religion. I find this to be particularly true in the academic community (as a whole, not limited by location), regardless of the faith that one professes. I would go so far as to say that in certain circles, admitting a belief in the divine can cost you the respect of your peers.

In the Midwest, it causes confusion and sometimes suspicion and fear to talk about things like a "Goddess circle" or Buddhism. Non-Christian traditions are very definitely seen as "other," to the extent that even the newspaper reports on "other holiday traditions" when talking about Kwanzaa or Hanukkah.

But in the Midwest, I've heard people use the kind of godtalk I've only ever before heard in association with fundamentalism (e.g., "god is trying to teach me a lesson about x") without the slightest hint of religious orthodoxy or fundamentalism. Perhaps because Christianity, or at least religion, is assumed to be nearly universal, there seems to me to be an opening up of possibilities in the way that one can interpret these traditions. For example, on the East Coast, I knew lots of people who had more or less rejected the faith of their upbringing, or who had at least stopped going to church. Here, I know lots of people who question the faith they grew up with, but a larger percentage of them seem to use that as a motivation to find a different church rather than to stop going altogether.

There also seem to be fewer walking religious stereotypes and more complex individuals - or at least, you would think so, because people actually do talk about their faiths somewhat. I mean, this is still South Dakota, and for those of you not familiar with the Midwest, let me just say that it's not like you think. Lutheran Midwesterners are not large with the pouring out personal issues and emotions, so while there are groups like the "feisty Christies," as some of my friends and students call them, they are a small percentage of the overall population.

Anyway, so when people talk about god out here, it's kind of like they're just telling you something general about their day, and it doesn't have to be a "moment," and it doesn't mean that they are in the next breath going to insist that women must obey their husbands. But it does mean that there is sometimes a connection between our every day lives and our thoughts about that which is spiritual. There's a common understanding that this is important to think about in order to be whole people, not from the perspective of "being saved" (I have encountered much more fundamentalists on the East Coast than I have here) but rather from the perspective of thinking about ourselves as spiritual beings. And while those who are atheists probably find this to be a very frustrating undertone (hell, even those of us who don't fit easily into the Lutheran or Christian faiths find it frustrating), if often feels to me to be a welcome breath of fresh air just to be able to talk openly and express my questions, doubts, and faith.

So what I've found here are some people who are very faithful (usually, but not always Christians, who also have liberal politics that serve social justice (this makes me happy), and who also work hard to live out their beliefs. (Yes, of course, I know people like this in the Northeast, too; perhaps I'll hammer out the differences between the regional groups in a future post.)

On the other hand, as the last Presidential election reflects, people tend to be generally more conservative here, and issues like abortion and gay marriage freak many of 'em right the hell out. But that's a whole 'nother story.

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