Sunday, January 25, 2009

Powerful, Popular, Perfect and Peaceful

My husband came home from work with a test.

He works at the meat counter of a local grocery store owned, and in large measure staffed, by Mennonites. We often joke that between that and the fact I work at a Catholic newspaper we’re up to our jowls in religion.

It can be, um, a bit overwhelming.

Neither of us can conceive of a company gathering anymore that doesn’t start or end with – or have interludes of – prayer. Family dinners have found us exploring why the expression “Holy smokes” is unacceptable to his Mennonite coworkers and how this intersects with Catholic ritual. We’ve both heard way too many excruciatingly earnest but awful praise-and-worship songs since we started working at our respective jobs, and between us know a battalion of people of faith who spent time in New Orleans helping people rebuild from Hurricane Katrina.

I wonder about how my husband’s coworkers don’t freeze to death wearing dresses in middle of winter as they bicycle to the store from farms many miles away, and he wonders whether priests ever get a day off from wearing clerics. Our daughter just rolls her eyes at us – and makes sure the ear buds for her iPod are in tight enough.

It is easy to talk about the day-to-day of different religions at the dinner table – after all, my mother’s proscription of “never discuss politics or religion” was understood to not apply to family. (Which, it has to be said, included secular humanists, Greek Orthodox, Baptists and a number of members of other religions along with the Catholics … and also just about every value on the political spectrum.)

What proves much more difficult is to talk about religious difference as it plays out on the national stage. Witness all the back and forth about which religious leaders were included in the inaugural events (and which weren’t) and what they said, or didn’t say, or might have said, or implied in their prayers. (Go the blog for a provocative variety of entries on this topic or to for a news story about the role of religion in the inauguration.)

Despite being a person who enjoys a good discussion, I despair of the type of argumentation that seems to follow (or sometimes precede) these displays of civic religion at the national level. The attendant commentary makes God out to be as small and as blinkered as we are – as if the Divine resides only with us, standing among our own people, speaking our own language.

Which brings me back to the test.

A number of my husband’s coworkers have taken a test that asks you to identify your personality traits – all falling into four “types,” according to the authors of the test, powerful choleric, popular sanguine, perfect melancholic and peaceful phlegmatic. It is an updated form of a “four humours” typology that harks back past Renaissance and Medieval thought into classical Greek concepts of healing. In any case, Erla, Ada Mae, Lisa and Janet sent my husband home from work a number of days ago with an explanatory book and a xeroxed version of the checklist of traits, and – because he’s been procrastinating – have asked him every day since whether he’s completed it yet.

I find this touching. Not because of the test itself (although it is fun in a formulaic sort of way) but because it is an effort on their part to try to better understand someone whose life experiences – and beliefs – are radically different than their own.

Is it trivial? Sure. Will it provide a full picture of who my husband is? Not a chance. But it is, in some sense, a sentence flung out as a rope across a deep cultural and theological divide: “I want to know who you are.”

We should all be so brave.

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