A Word on My Religious Roots

chris-new-southerner2KAIROS AND CRISIS

Contributing Editor

Note: This entry is something of an “interlude,” and the first of many that I hope to write for this blog. Every so often, amid writing about major themes and current events, I would like to take a step back and write something entirely personal, in the hopes of showing the roots of my interest in and concern for all things having to do with race, religion, and social justice in the South.

Thomas Merton defined kairos as “the time of urgent and providential decision,” a time that involves the risk of crisis. This sense of kairos, particularly here in the South, has much if not everything to do with race and religion. These things are bound to our identities as Southerners, whether accurately or stereotypically. They have been wellsprings of goodness and grace, and they have suffered as objects of hatred and ignorance. Always they have required response. Kairos and Crisis hopes to be one such response, seeking nothing less than healing for our places, our neighbors and ourselves.

Upon reading my first entry for this blog, David King, a friend and teacher of mine—who happens to be a devout Catholic and a Thomas Merton scholar—offered an important critique having to do with the following sentence I’d written: “And just as many people today, it seems, claim that religion—even the religion enacted by [Martin Luther] King and written about by Merton—is of no consequence.” This is what he had to say:

Merton was not simply writing about religion.  Merton was, first and foremost, a solemn professed member of the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (a Trappist) and an ordained Roman Catholic priest.  Above all else, he was religious.  Many people would like to move Merton away from his monastic and Catholic roots, but it can’t be done.  Even when he shifted his attention to social, ecumenical, and artistic concerns, he did so from his Christian conscience.

Granted, he knew that I knew this, and he was not merely trying to split hairs; after all, this paragraph-long critique was in response to the tail-end of an appositive phrase, and he did not mean to take such a short phrase too literally: It is a simple fact that Merton did indeed write about religion, and my saying so did not imply that Merton was not religious himself or that such writing did not spring from a religious conscience. But my teacher was right to make the distinction, and the value of his comments, for me, is that they reveal not so much a set of facts I already knew about Merton, but something about myself that I’ve tried time and again to suppress—to “move away from,” in the words of my professor—but that I ultimately cannot.

You see, I, too, write from a Christian conscience. In these blogs, as with most everything else I write, I aim to not only write about religion, but to be religious. The trouble is that I am not a solemn professed member of any religious order, and my religious heritage is largely one of confusion; there is nothing I know to point to and say, Here, this is what I am.

But if you were to press me on what I am, on how I identify religiously, I would say Christian. What this might ultimately mean, I do not know. I am very hesitant to define my faith with that word because it is a word that has suffered much abuse—and yet, the very fact that it is an abused word is one of the reasons, if not the biggest reason, that I can’t leave it behind. I simply mention all this here, in the third entry of this blog, to say that if you’ve already detected or at any point detect an unnamed friction in anything I write, it’s because it’s there, and this is it.

I do not want this blog to merely be an objective, distanced exercise. Religion is one of the big themes I’ll be writing about here, and if such writing contains no religious grappling, no personal investment, then I see no point in it. I do not want to simply write about religion. As my professor reminded me, I’ve got to see myself as writing from religion, too. If anything, my bond with the Christian tradition shows that it is not a tradition completely owned and overrun by the self-assured. And if I’m evidence of that, then surely this confusion isn’t for nothing.

New Southerner contributing editor Christopher Martin lives his wife and their children in the northwest Georgia piedmont, where he studies creative writing at Kennesaw State University and edits the online journal Flycatcher. Chris is author of the poetry chapbook A Conference of Birds, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous places, such as Shambhala Sun, Still: The Journal, Drafthorse, Poecology, Ruminate Magazine and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume V: Georgia.

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