Parent, poet, professor, Alana Joblin Ain has contributed a thoughtful, witty, rigorously honest piece on faith, family, parenthood, and language — a response to (and along with) the folks involved in this conversation about religion and culture, some of whom have posted on this blog: Scott CheshireSteve Crampton, and soon to come, Erika J. Galluppi.  Alana’s piece is called “Faith Times at Liberal High.”  I would love to hear what you think.

Faith Times at Liberal High

When I hear negative experiences of religion — which is often and for good reason — I sometimes think about my students’ initial reaction to poetry: they tell me it is pretentious, inaccessible, irrelevant, boring, anachronistic. And I don’t disagree: I think that a lot of poetry is just those things. But then I spend 15 weeks trying to expose them to other types of poems, verses that have mattered to me, that feel alive and relevant and worth reading. And they often say: “I didn’t know this was poetry.”

This is not dissimilar from my experience with Judaism where, in Hebrew school, I learned primarily suffering: the holocaust, the pogroms and of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Certainly not a compelling reason to keep the faith. But at the same time my grandmother taught me prayers and read me torah stories from her silver plated bible, and because I always loved stories, I loved these stories. I didn’t know what to make of them, but I held them close.

When my family moved to a rural area for my high-school years, suddenly my brother and I were the only Jews, a detail about my life I did not immediately disclose.  While in Germany singing Mozart’s Requiem –- a truly holy experience -– my host family asked what I had gotten for Christmas and I answered: a bicycle, a record player and whatever else I imagined the desire of earnest Christian teens.

Years later, in college, I read the philosophers: Spinoza, Buber, Heschel – and I had the experience of my students: This is Judaism?

But how do we talk about faith?  There are the inherent limitations of language, not to mention general issues of semantics (already in this conversation our tent has widened from conservatives to religious conservatives to religious faith).

So, I will attempt to discuss aspects of my faith.

The sacred is that which I hold dearest to my heart and whole being. It is not what I pray “to” but what I pray to be worthy of — it feels pre-verbal. It is more than love and respect and devotion, but embodies those things. The sacred, to me, feel like moments of grace or mercy or utter inexplicable beauty which make me want to pray or express gratitude to what I call God.

A personal anecdote, which, for me, embraces faith and critical thought, as well as the limitations of language: After the birth of my daughter, ten months ago, I experienced an extremely difficult post-partum.  When I confided in others that I was feeling waves of sadness and anxiety, they responded that this was normal.  A couple of months later, as it worsened, I became more specific: I spent seven hours terrified for no reason, or felt bereft in a way I did not believe would ever pass, and someone gently suggested that I had postpartum depression.  I am a person of faith, the wife of a rabbi, but I didn’t pray for God to “cure me” like the plot of one too many prime-time dramas. I went to a doctor. And I continued to pray for the strength to receive help, and gratitude for my life. Faith and science don’t feel mutually exclusive; the religious framework that I affiliate with holds room for nuance — it demands this type of discourse.  Even in those darkest of days, I found it impossible to look at the ocean and not pray.

Still, I don’t feel particularly implicated by the speculation that I, personally, might be incapable of both critical thought and religious faith. Perhaps because my expression of religious faith doesn’t feel conservative (especially in a sea of artists and academics: my belief in a God feels downright liberal!) And, so, it doesn’t pose a divisiveness, in the same way that atheists don’t seem troubled crooning Bob Marley lyrics in praise of God at their summer barbeques.

I do love Steve’s question about other avenues for expression of community and grappling with the big questions.  If I felt that I could openly discuss, in the artistic and academic community – and not in a theoretical way — issues of alienation, experiences of joy and meaning without fear of loss, expressions of mercy and grace, well, I’d be racing to the faculty lounge.  Thanks to Joe for getting us started with these online office hours.

Meanwhile, I keep coming back to a Franz Wright poem:

Year One

I was still standing
on a northern corner

Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves

Proof
of your existence? There is nothing
but.

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