Are Christians indecisive? During Christmas they give each other things. In the lead-up to Easter, in the time called Lent, they’re supposed to “give up things.” Which is it? Are Christians people who give things, or give them up?
The traditional Christian calendar had built-in cycles of excess and deprivation, partying and purification that, relatively speaking, aimed to create a healthy, balanced life. Eat, drink, and be merry on Tuesday, for Wednesday begins abstinence. There were seasons, and each season came to an end in order for a new one to begin.
In the contemporary age, we’ve attained a new kind of indecisiveness with regard to things. In a culture of 24/7 consumerism, we are left with little give and take. It’s all get get get. Overlay that with a Puritanical hangover that nags at us with its constraints (the Puritans, we might recall, even banned Christmas celebrations), and we are left unsure, even a little guilty, about our relationship to things. Not a seasonal back and forth, but straining us moment by moment.
We live in the most object-consuming society known to humans and still believe materialism is bad. We are left with a collective bipolar disorder, desiring things, but not valuing them. Grabbing with one hand, while the other hand swats the offending wrist. Is there a solution to our two-handed tendencies, a more healthy ebb and flow?
For the past twenty years, I’ve been researching human religious behavior around the world. One thing has become clear to me: We humans are needy. We need things. And I don’t just mean food, shelter, and clothing. We need knickknacks, keepsakes, tokens, tchotchkes, souvenirs, junk and treasure. We put them on our desks, on our nightstands, in our purses, or wear them as “accessories.”
Consider three personal examples:
1. Roaming a beach on vacation you stop, bend over, and pick up a smooth stone. Giving it a visual once over, you pocket it and carry it home.
2. A ring on a finger cradles an obscure greenish stone at its center. It has little market value but is worn day-in, day-out because it was a grandmother’s gift.
3. Our what-would-you-grab-in-case-of-fire objects are strewn about our houses, as we lay sleepless in bed, mentally mapping our escape route, things in hand.
We love our objects, and our objects help fulfill our lives. Even if they are just old stones. These things connect us with other people, with far away places, with our past, sometimes our future, and sometimes our gods.
On a grand, global scale, religious traditions have survived largely because they take our intimate, personal love of things and write them large. In my book A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects, I tell the stories of many of the “things” that religious people have held on to over the years. I find that religious traditions continue to impact people’s lives not because they intellectually convince people that their way is the right way, but because they teach us how to sensually engage the world.
Consider these three examples from religious traditions:
1. At the geographical center of Islam is the “Black Stone” (probably an ancient meteorite) in a corner of the Kaba, that ancient shrine at the center of the Grand Mosque of Mecca. Millions come every year to be near the Kaba, to gaze upon and attempt to touch the stone.
2. Christians do the same thing in Jerusalem, walking into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and touching and kissing the Stone of Anointing. Many people realize that this stone has only been in place for the last two centuries, but that does not stop them from feeling connection to the burial of Jesus at this site.
3. At Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in central Australia, tourists collect (“steal”) pebbles and stones from the sacred space. Since this is a sacred site for the Aboriginal Anangu people, tourists believe them to have special powers, and are surprised when, upon arrival home, their luck begins to go south. People the world over have begun to return the stones to Uluru.
Things like stones are at the heart of religion. (Beliefs are secondary.) Think too about the use of incense in Buddhist meditation halls, Catholic churches, and Islamic mosques; or drums in Tibetan Tantric Buddhist rituals, northern European shamanistic ceremonies, and Native American powwows. We humans engage these things, filling our senses with smell and sound, taste and touch. As we are sensually moved, we feel enraptured, connected, freed from the isolation of our own selves, caught up in the ebbs and flows of tradition, of the community in the here and now.
We need things. Instead of a religious sensibility that tells us to ignore the things of this world and set our sights on the lofty and invisible, we might do well to come down to earth, to explore the things of this world, the things that make us whole. And while we do this anyway, what we need is to value these things, trust our senses, feel our connection to the world.
Materialism may be a dirty word, but that should not prompt us to throw out material things with the bathwater. Consider that the words “matter” and “mother” have deep linguistic connections; we come from matter, are matter, return to matter. The material matters.
This, I suggest, is what Lent is all about. Yes, it’s about being like Christ, who went for forty days in the wilderness without food and water, without things. Yet, if you’ve spent long times in silence, in meditation or prayer, you can attest to the ways the senses are sharpened, the engagement with the things of the world become so much clearer.
By “giving up things,” Lent is, paradoxically, a time to reinvest our bodies with the importance of things in our lives, senses stilled and then filled.
Lent asks to give up things for a while, if only to show how important those things are in the first place. The Christian tradition witnesses to “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (I John 1:1). Christianity is at heart a sensual religion. It says, “Take, eat.”