Thursday, October 18, 2012

An Unexpected Journey (& A Commentary on Religious Freedom in the U.S.)

Here's what I imagine your thought process was when reading the title of this post (in a stream of conscious way, of course): "Okay, I like 'Unexpected Journey,' reminds me of how excited I am for The Hobbit coming out this December *reads further* Whooaa, hode up! Where did he pull THAT one out? What is this, CNN'S Belief Blog?!?" Well, as I've been writing these blogs I've noticed that I often include some personal musing specifically relating to something faith or society based.  Since I knew I would be an including a much more extensive commentary in this post, I decided to let my audience know ahead of time, since some people might grow weary of that aspect of my writing (it doesn't me if you don't read those parts; I'm just glad you're checking out the blog :).  Thus, the first part of this post will be dedicated to my trip to Salamanca from October 12-14, and the second half will be my commentary (which is a tangent from one of my observations of Spain).  Also, just as a heads up, the commentary will be less about the current issues of religious liberty we have seen in the past few months and more about a general observation of religious culture in the United States, though the first issue is quite important too.

My trip to Salamanca was not UNEXPECTED as I paid for it ahead of time through a group called "Galicia Sharing Galicia," but my reasons for that part of the title will soon become clear.  This was my maiden voyage with GSG, since I did nearly all my travels through ESN Santiago.  However, in general I was pleased with what GSG had to offer: a smaller travel group (only 2 busloads), fun, informative guides, and the option to take a day trip to Segovia and Avila on Saturday.  We left early (by early I mean 9 am, which for many of the folks of Santiago feels like the crack of dawn) on Friday the 12th since there were no classes for the celebration of Hispanidad.  After a stop of about an hour and a half at some hot springs in Ourense (I regrettably forgot my swimsuit) and another 15-20 min break at a rest stop, we finally arrived in Salamanca at about 5 pm or so.  Though it might sound odd, it surprised me how all of the street signs were in castellano (which is standard Spanish).  Most of the signs in Santiago and other parts of Galicia are in gallego, so to have it different in Salamanca, though it is the Spanish I know, kind of threw me for a loop initially.  After dropping off our luggage at our hostel, we took a guided tour to some of the main locations of interest in the old town such as the Plaza Mayor, la Catedral Vieja y la Catedral Nueva, and parts of the university.  La Universidad de Salamanca is actually the oldest university still in operation in Spain.  Initially founded in 1134 and given a royal charter in 1218 by el Rey Alfonso IX, this institution of higher learning was the first to have the designation of "university" among European schools.  In the evening, the group went to a discoteca for some bebidas y bailes, but being "Cllaaaasssiiccc" me, I spent at least the first hour or so outside the bar with my friend Ivan and my new friend Monika from Poland.  Monika tried teaching Ivan and I some phrases in Polish, but it was a fruitless effort as Polish is an extremely hard language to learn, at least as far as the pronunciation goes.

Saturday the 13th was the day scheduled for the trip to Segovia and Avila.  I didn't have exact change on the bus the day before to pay, so the spaces filled up quickly and I couldn't go.  Thus, I had a free day to explore a city I knew next to nothing about, hence "Unexpected" in the title.  But, much to my surprise and great delight, the day turned out to be one of my best travel days in awhile! First, I spent about an hour and a half inside la Catedral Nueva, which was a somewhat surreal experience.  The two best adjectives to describe la Catedral are massive and gorgeous, which sounds weird but expresses truth.  Next, I spent about an hour and half in a small museum about La Guerra Civil Española (Spanish Civil War 1936-1939).  Inside was propaganda, personal possessions of soldiers, news articles, and a section dedicated to the Free Masons, as Franco apparently persecuted them heavily during and after the war.  Though I had studied some of la Guerra Civil in school, the museum made the event feel much more real and helped me understand the profound effect it and its consequences had on Spain and its people.  Right next store was another museum dedicated to the Art Deco and Art Nouveau movements.  Much of the collection consisted of small sculptures, pottery, figurines, and even dolls, though I tried to spend as little time in that section as many of the dolls gave me the heebee jeebees.  Most of the artists were unknown to me, though I did see a few pieces of Peter Carl Fabergé, including one of his famous eggs.  I spent at least 2.5 hours at this museum, ate a great meal for a decent price, took a stroll across the river Tormes, and was on my way back to the hostel when I stumbled upon my first Spanish religious procession!  I guess had the inkling that something would happen that day because I saw a group of hombres creating a rosary out of salt outside el Convento de San Esteban in the morning.  The fiesta was called "Nuestra Virgen del Rosario," and I followed the procession for nearly 3 hrs from its beginning at el convento until its end at la Catedral Nueva.  Check out the following link to my Snapfish account to get a real picture (no pun intended) of what I saw.  FYI, this is my first time using Snapfish, so if it doesn't work please let me know:

   Though it was amazing to see the traditional attire, listen to traditional Spanish hymns, and think how heavy the float must of been, one peculiarity stood out to me and made me think about the free practice of religion in the United States: the police escort in dress uniform, which to me represented the state condoning the free practice of religion.  It hit me like a ton of bricks that something like this would be nearly unheard of in the States.  After looking at the pictures, can any of us truly imagine something like this happening on Division (Spokane), Commercial (Salem), or California Street (San Francisco)?  If you're the same as me, the idea seems absurd . . . but then we have to ask why, don't we?  We could take the easy route and say that Spain only does these processions out of tradition, and since the religious history of the United States is much shorter, there is no precedent to do so.  However, traditions have to start somewhere, and for some reason, in the cultural climate of the U.S., starting those type of traditions seems almost impossible. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads as such: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."  As an aside, it seems to me people often think of "separation of church and state" as being part of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, but the phrase actually comes from a letter of President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802.  Returning to the Constitution, I think the First Amendment is worded beautifully to allow all religions and their followers to flourish, but this flourishing seems to be rather absent in much of contemporary America.  Why? Well, for starters, our American culture operates mainly on the idea of "freedom of worship," but not necessarily "freedom of religion." What's the difference, you ask? "Freedom of worship" indicates the idea that you're free to worship wherever you choose and to whomever you choose, but only in a private setting.  Once your worship is taken out into the public square, you're seen as "forcing your religion onto other people" (if I had a euro every time I heard that, I could bail out Spain's economy).  Though this idea could easily be applied to contemporary politics (meaning from the last 60 yrs or so to the present), I'd like to explore this phenomenon more from a cultural standpoint, which appears stronger than any governmental stance.  Even among many believers (and I use that word to mean any religion), I think there is this mindset that anyone who publicly expresses his/her religious belief is immediately chastised for doing so.  Basically, the argument from the other side, whoever that is, says: "How dare you express your religious beliefs in the public sphere! You think everyone is like you? We're a culture of tolerance." That's the issue at question, isn't it?  Two simple definitions of tolerance are "the act of allowing something" and "sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own."  I think we've taken these definitions to the point of ridiculousness when it comes to the practice of religion.  "Tolerance" in that sense means keeping your religious claims to yourself and your church, synagogue, mosque, etc since doing otherwise in the public sphere makes you "intolerant" of other worldviews.  Let me explain with some very simple secular examples.  Democrats and Republicans tolerate each other in that they allow each other to exist (no gang wars) and they respect each other as human beings (we hope).  However, have you heard of a moment when they weren't trying to convince the other side that their political philosophy is better? We, as a nation, acknowledge that they are different and allow them to express their beliefs publicly without concern of being "intolerant."  Similarly, *we hope* environmentalists and big business owners respect each other as fellow Americans and human beings, but to imagine them sitting aside twiddling their thumbs as each group went along its merry way is absurd.  Why should it be any different when discussing religion in the public sphere? Disagreements are normal and should be discussed and, dare I say, ARGUED with convincing supports.  Speaking now as a Catholic-Christian, one of the principal tenets of the Gospel is to make "disciples of all nations."  That charge is more than a little difficult when apologetics (the reasons & defenses of faith) are seen as "intolerant" when brought up in the public sphere, generally.  To me, it seems like our culture, in many but not all regards, "prohibits the free exercise thereof," when there is in fact a Constitutional protection that says otherwise!

Wow, that was a doozy, but well worth the time.  It's amazing how small experiences here in Spain raise some big questions, but I think that's one of the goals of a study abroad.  If you made it to the end of this one, KUDOS.  I'm surprised I did! Again, feel free to leave comments, especially if you have anything to affirm or deny in my argument.  Though we RESPECT each other and TOLERATE our mutual existences, that doesn't mean we can't have a debate :) ¡Buenas noches!



  1. Ethan, I continue to be amazed by your excellent writing skills and your descriptive accounts of your Spanish adventures! Glad your lack of bus money allowed you to enjoy some amazing sights! Looking forward to your next post! Love you! ~Claire & James

  2. You are getting into some heavy stuff, dude. I commend you for having the patience to actually present some of these questions in an informed way. I actually don't think religion and politics are very different in terms of tolerance. I think both areas reflect deeply held beliefs of a person and, when those beliefs are questioned, the person feels attacked, even if the questioning is very respectful. Thus, people usually would just rather not talk about it.

    Also talking about organized religion is tough because it can carry a lot of baggage with it. People can see religion as rigid, old fashioned, intolerant (because it doesn't teach that everyone can live any way they like), closed minded, etc. People view it as something that society tried for centuries but now we've gotten smarter, moved on and do not need anymore. At least this has been my experience. Anyway, I feel "intolerant" just by writing this. Pretty lame. Like your sister says, you have excellent writing skills. Thanks for keeping this blog up.

  3. Dearest Teddy V.,
    First of all, thank you for all your comments on the blog! I'm glad to know you enjoy my writing, and your comments always make me think harder or chuckle, of course depending on the context of the blog. I think you make some good points on this one, especially about the baggage piece. This is embarrassing, but I was thinking in the present and ignoring the religious/political history of the past which has indeed created the pickle we're in as far as discussing these topics goes (and I call myself a history major . . .) As far as your statement about the way people view organized religion now, I couldn't agree more. I think the perception exists more in a "mob mentality" sense. When a TV personality, author, or political commentator expresses the notion of religion as an outdated method, others jump on the bandwagon in supporting them through comments on YouTube, Facebook, and other modern media. However, it makes me wonder what people think about religion on an individual level. When you look at societies that have attempted to oust religion (USSR, China, etc), the results are horrific. Thus I think it's fairly safe to say the benefits of religion actively participating in society far outweigh the cons.

  4. Ethan! Your pictures from the procession are absolutely beautiful! Makes me want to start planning our future pilgrimage together. I'm so freakin' excited for it!

    You have been blessed with an incredible gift to speak the truth in a very loving way. It's what we are called to do as Catholics and you not only seem to understand that, but you're trying to really live out that call to discipleship. Always looking up to you brother! Love you and hopefully will talk with you soon!