Religion is truly a lived experience. In today's volatile world, with world events hinging on various interpretations of religious texts perhaps more than in any other time in human history save, perhaps, during the Crusades, humanity is increasingly aware that religion is not a stoic object of study. Rather, it is a living breathing force in which we live and which inhabits us, whether we seek it or not.
Robert Orsi's edited work, "Gods of the City," provides vivid evidence of how and why religion is a lived experience. The best example of this, perhaps, lies in Karen McCarthy Brown's "Ecological Dissonance and Ritual Accommodation in Haitian Vodou." Here, Brown chronicle the unique religious subtexts and culture of Haitians living in New York.
Mama Lola, a Brooklyn Vodou priestess I have worked with for more than fifteen years, originally thought that her move away from Haiti would be a move away from the Vodou spirits as well. At that time, she said, 'I don't think I'm going to need no spirit in New York.' Yet whenever she tells this story, she quickly adds, 'And I was wrong!' Mama Lola found that the same pain and struggle that required the help of Vodou spirits in Haiti were present in New York, although in different forms, and if the problems were there, the spirits had to be there too. But how could the spirits be active in New York if they were tied to the particular spaces and places of Haiti? Mama Lola's solution to this cosmo-logistical problem is, on the surface at least, deceptively simple. 'The spirit is a wind,' she says. 'Everywhere I go, they going too... To protect me.' (Orsi, 79)
Here, Brown provides a perfect example of the nature of the force Orsi tries to compile into his volume. The spirit of religion transcends space entirely. Mama Lola thought she had no need for religion when she moved from Haiti to New York, but she found immediately that she was wrong.
In fact, perhaps she found a greater need for Vodou away from her homeland, now living in her newly adopted homeland. In New York, she resumed her connectivity to religion by becoming a Vodou priestess. Here, Brown illustrates the fact that yes, perhaps religion transcends issues of space, but perhaps more accurately, humans create their own sense of space with religion, their own sense of community.
For Mama Lola, the Haitian spirits easily convert to her new York life as they, like the wind, follow her to protect her. But rather than comment only on the spiritual, Brown notes the practical effect that religion has had on a sense of community in Haitian circles in New York:
There is another, perhaps more important, way in which Mama Lola and many other Haitians living in New York remain in touch with the spirits: they return to Haiti. While Haitians in New York may suffer the melancholy that comes from being away from home, they do not suffer the trauma of cosmic proportions that their African ancestors did when they realized that home was irrevocably lost. Even the sizeable number of Haitians in New York City who are undocumented aliens, and therefore cannot at the present time travel back and forth between New York and Haiti, have reason to hope that this will not always be their condition." (ibid)
In the exploration portion of this paper, the paper will further examine how exactly religion impacts every day life and how it maintains a sense of the past.
Robert Orsi's compilation truly demonstrates how religious activity sustains an understanding and awareness of the past. For Orsi and the authors in "Gods of the City," the importance of religion is not so much to find a pathway to eternity, or a route to salvation; rather, it is a method to ground oneself in one's past, to sustain a belief in culture more than in any group of deities.
In order to explore this idea, this paper will closely examine Karen McCarthy Brown's "Ecological Dissonance and Ritual Accommodation in Haitian Vodou" chapter of Orsi's book. We may begin with a critical paragraph:
The significance of the earth is, in the final analysis, its ability to connect human beings with their ancestors and with the Vodou spirits. The soil, which contains both the bones of the ancestors and the seeds of the next harvest, provides the context for exchange among the living, the dead, and the spirits. The living need the spirits to come from Ginen, the watery world below the earth, and to possess their "horses" in order for those spirits to gain voice and body. The living need the blessings, advice, and protection that only these embodied spirits can give. The spirits and ancestors, in turn, need to be nourished by the praise, the gratitude, and, most of all, the libations and food offerings that only the living can provide." (Orsi, 84)
Here, religion and spirits contribute directly to a connection to history and to their ancestors. That is the key to the Haitians' belief: Even if they are far from home, and even if they cannot return to their motherland, they are connected through a living, breathing immersion in their religion, in their belief in Vodou and their spirituality.
Indeed, those are the blessings of which Brown speaks: the ability to connect to ancestors through spirituality. In this manner, the ancestors are constantly a part of the Haitians' lives.
Brown successfully actually grounds the spirituality and religion in the actual soil. That is the clearest assessment of how religion sustains an idea of the past and of ancestors; and this is how the Haitians go about being religious.
And although Brown and Orsi provide the evidence of Haitians' religion grounded through and for the past, this interpretation translates across cultures and religions. Hindus, for instance, are incredibly awed by their past and their ancestors, and they too ground their spirituality and religion in the actual soil, but planting ancestors' spirits in the soil in their homes' compounds.
In Hawaii, gravesites are often constructed at the place of an ancestor's death, and spirituality is grounded in those sites. This is very similar to Brown's observations of Haitian religion and spirituality.
But the soil, in Brown's assessment, not only grounds in the past, but looks to the future as well. That is exactly what a "living religion" entails. This returns us to Mama Lola: The wind, the spirit, follows her and represents not only a connection to her past and to her ancestors, but also her faith in her future. Her future is physically tied to the wind, physically tied to her spirituality.
This tie to both the past and the future results automatically in a more secure present. This secure present helps Brown's Haitians and all other cultures with feelings of displacement and longing. Take, for instance, the following paragraph:
Africans enslaved in Haiti knew they could not return to their homeland. This realization was traumatic for many reasons. High on the list was loss of contact with the land, literally with the earth of the homeland, and therefore with the protection of the ancestors buried in that earth. The profundity of the loss may help to explain the significant cosmological shift that accompanied it:
Africa was "spiritualized" and transposed to the New World where it became an invisible but directly accessible parallel world lying beneath the feet of displaced Africans. It is a matter of some importance that, with Africa lodged there, both the Vodou spirits and the ancestors could once again receive the libations poured for them. In contemporary Haiti, people use the word "Ginen" to refer both to the continent of Africa that lies across the Atlantic and to the home of the spirits and the ancestors that is found in the water beneath the earth on which they stand." (Orsi, 82)
Here, Brown details the link that spirituality provides from the past to the future. The Ginen term, for instance, does not refer to a past in a distant motherland; rather, like for Mama Lola, the term Ginen is something that follows a culture wherever it may currently reside.
Terms and beliefs such as the Ginen define the present through linking the past and the future. After all, as Brown comments, Africa was spiritualized and transposed to fit a current model of life that did not even exist in Africa.
On the level of everyday life, this translates into a displaced group of people acting eclectically in their belief structure and day-to-day meanderings. A Haitian crossing guard, for instance, in New York, performing a job that does not even exist in his native Africa, and exists in very little capacity in Haiti, still links to his past beliefs through a transposable religious spirituality.
That is the true value of a living religion. Rather than being grounded solely in a past that in reality does not exist for practitioners of Vodou, the religion is grounded in…