Losing My Religion: A Casual Essay on Faith




In 1991, R.E.M. released Losing My Religion, a hit single which would prove to be a pivotal song for the group's trajectory toward superstardom. Lead singer Michael Stipe having been raised in Athens, GA -- the state itself an arguable contender for designation as "The Unofficial Buckle of the Bible Belt" -- it is reasonable to assume that he had this phrase injected into his lexicon from an impressionable age. Contrary to more colorful and poetic interpretations, the expression really just means losing your temper. To "lose your religion" means to act in a way that is ungraceful, with the implications that well-mannered Christians are expected to know better, and therefore to do better. Politeness is famously paramount in the Deep South, where God-fearing folk are instructed at home, in school, and at church to "turn the other cheek', ask themselves what Jesus would do, and all of that sort of thing before resorting to judgmental or vengeant behavior. And by that sort of thing, I mean the rote dogma which is generationally reiterated by those more dutiful in their adherence to religious legalism than they are to the brutally honest -- and often terrifying -- exploration of their own spiritual identification. I was 21 years old when this song hit the radio, and for a mix of reasons -- ranging from the song's inherent angst, to the fact that it's dominated by minor chords (and the fact that it has a mandolin hook, as my Italian grandfather played mandolin) -- it became an instant classic for me. Even now at almost 52 years of age, that one iconic line stands out as a nostalgic reference to my constant struggle with spiritual truth:

That's me in the spotlight, losing my religion.

My mother is Jewish. My father Roman Catholic. Over the course of my life I have experienced religion in many ways, ranging from serving as an altar boy, to meditating in an ashram; playing a tambourine in an evangelical congregation, to making Salat in the masjid; fasting for Yom Kippur, to memorizing and repeating the Jain mantra Navkar. I have read enough books on religion to qualify for an honorary degree in theology. To say that I've spent the better part of my life as a seeker is an understatement; I have searched for meaning in the patterns of life both to explain my own suffering, and as a way of coming to terms with the misalignment of spiritual and religious data that I've collected over the decades. Throughout all of this, I have steadfastly maintained faith. I have absolute faith in [blank]. I say [blank] because it is exactly the attempt to give [blank] a name that has confounded me. In truth, my struggle has never really been with belief itself, but rather with how to define what I believe in, how this belief manifests, and why it is there to begin with. And as they say, the devil is in the details. This is why meditation has been so profoundly powerful. It is in the quietness and stillness of meditation that I have always come back to this state of [blank], which confirms in a very visceral way that my identity (which is to say identity itself) not only transcends physicality, but creates it. Obviously these aren't new ideas. But the understanding of these ideas is different for the practitioner than it is for the skeptic, just as a map resonates differently for someone who has taken the journey than it does for someone uncertain that the location depicted on the map even exists. How do you tell someone, "I have faith in [blank], because I have intimate familiarity with [blank]", without sounding insane? But honestly, that's the best I can do using words. Still, I have been practicing as a Life Coach for Men for quite awhile now, and have worked with hundreds upon hundreds of guys, all of whom have come from a variety of spiritual traditions.... including none at all. My clients have been Christian (which is to say: Catholic, Baptist, Latter Day Saints, Unitarian, Gnostic, etc), Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Zoroastrian, Pagan, agnostic, and atheist. Somehow, we have always managed to find a way to agree on faith itself, as long as we have also agreed to leave [blank] blank. This said, we tend agree to certain attributes of [blank]. We can agree that [blank] is a unifying force. We can agree that there is an obvious parallel between what we call "love" -- in some meta sense of the word -- and [blank]. We can agree that [blank] represents a state of infinite consciousness beyond time and space. We agree that [blank] is an expression of what we might call absolute intelligence. And most of all, we agree that even our best efforts to negotiate basic terms as universal conventions become futile due to the treachery of language, devolve into frustrating arguments, and ultimately serve to remind us that [blank] is best known when [blank] is experienced through practice rather intellectualized through dialog. But again, for those who have put in the reps, the practice of meditation (or prayer, as it were) leaves no question as to whether or not [blank] exists; nor is there any doubt about the importance of [blank] as a beacon in the darkness of human existence, which by its nature is fraught with hardship and suffering. We understand in these profound moments, when we fully experience [blank] in its purest form, that we are not separate from [blank]; but rather -- like drops of water which will always, inevitably return to the ocean -- we are currently experiencing an illusion of sorts, a trick of the senses by which we imagine that we are capable of both abandoning [blank] and being abandoned by [blank] in kind. And the good news -- or Gospel, as it were -- is that this is literally impossible. And it is by this knowledge that our faith is perpetually restored, even if at the expense of our religion. While we may not always agree on its name, we know [blank] when we see it; and we see it most clearly when we pray.