Couriers

They were given the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings.  In the manner of children, they all wanted to be couriers.  As a result, there are only couriers.  They gallop through the world shouting to each other messages that, since there are no kings, have become meaningless. Gladly would they put an end to their miserable existence, but they dare not, because of their oaths of service. –Franz Kafka: Translated by Lyman Baker.

I’ve been reading through Kafka’s “parables,” as they’ve come to be called. The genre designation works for Couriers, if not for the whole collection. This one struck me because as I attempt to come to grips with religion as a no-longer-religious person, I’m forced to contend with questions of meaning.

Teaching religion every summer to college students of diverse backgrounds forces a fair degree of introspection and reflection on me, both as I assemble material for class and as I attempt to answer questions, many of which, inevitably, have no good answer.

“How can you not believe in God?” A student will ask upon finding out I’m a former pastor and current skeptic. “Where did creation come from, if not from God?” The question is asked with genuine befuddlement, and mostly, a proper concern for my soteriological well being. Many of you will know what’s coming. It will feel a bit like a parlor trick, in fact, but it’s a question that has to be asked in an introductory religions class, if only to establish that the playing field will not favor a religion or religion in general.

“Where did God come from? If all things emerge from something else, in the causal sense, then what is God’s cause?”

When confronted with difficult questions, questions not just of meaning or origin, but questions of morality and practice, most of the students revert back to the answers they have been given, and they will continue to repeat those answers even when it’s apparent the words don’t actually satisfy the question’s demands.

It’s a trick of language, of course, a sort of demythologized magic that allows words to retain power — much like an incantation to be used against doubt — long after they have ceased to be real answers. When confronted with the above question, the student will always say simply that God always was/is. Then follows the moment at which they realize that this class will not be like Sunday School. I will not nod in agreement, because “God is” is not an answer; it’s an article of faith.

Sitting in a religion class must be an amazing thing for a novitiate of education, and I’m constantly disappointed that my initial introduction to religions other than Christianity came in the form of books, most of which were written by Christian apologists, that noxious sect of faux philosophers whose sole aim is to disprove all other religions, even as they do not understand that they saw off the branch on which they — the carrion birds of faith — perch. What must it feel like to sit side by side with people of other and no faith and discuss these things for the first time? I’ve never had that experience at the level of an introductory religion class.

The juxtaposition does create tension, obviously, but not the type you’d expect. The faith-havers tend to side with each other against the faithless, because many of us still believe that there is epistemological safety in numbers. To argue, however, that a person of no faith is deficient without faith requires an argument based on some sort of reason, and it’s at that point that the bright student realizes that if reason is applied to the whole process, all are doomed. Reason combined with a preference for a specific religious tradition, then, causes a balkanization of religious alliances, so that all fall back on their own dogmas. How else do you face a world without fixed meaning? If the answers no longer work, it’s best to keep using them lest you are forced to confront something worse.