All along the watch tower

Posted 09.11.03

Friday evening, driving home alone, westward on the 148, I hear a few lines on the radio from a song I've loved for years, "…there must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief…"

Out of where? I've always wanted to know.

The light directly west is darkening gold, well past sunset; the sky above, pale, pale blue, three or four clouds, virtually black. The lights of my car pick out the brush and tall grass bordering the highway, although there's still enough light to see dimly across the fields. White cattle, bush lots, a few horses, leaning fences, elms, these are all visible. This is the view that makes me feel fortunate every day.

Get out of where? Here?

For the last month, besides the usual news we've been covering the same-sex marriage debate in the Bulletin d'Aylmer. Too many intense and angry letters around that topic. I wouldn't mind forgetting this week's letters, all right, but our job is to face the music. In the end it will be good. That's my faith. So much of this debate is about faith.

I was raised a small-town Catholic and so appreciate the benefits of ethical behavior and truthfulness, but I cannot grasp the benefits of today's religious extremism.

One letter we received could have been written by a Taliban member, except the writer is a Catholic living in Aylmer. I associate religious belligerence with the Middle East or Sri Lanka, not my country.

Local fanaticism isn't as well-formed and nasty, but it's here. The thought is here, the brain-waves. What motivates these brain-waves? That's what I can't figure out. What sustains it?

The answer, the letter-writers will tell me, is simply the quest for Truth and for God's glory.

OK, but after the truth and glory, what brings a person to believe religious counterfactuals with so much conviction? Is it skimpiness of evidence that gives religious views such power?

Is absolute conviction a substitute for common sense?

Psychologists have explanations, partial ones, and political historians have explanations that are all depressing.

I'm neither theologian, psychologist, nor historian. When I listen to what religious people are writing and saying, I hear them wanting to get out of here.

Life is suffering, insist the Buddhists.

Ascetics, monks, hermits, even celebrates -- all are withdrawing from our world.

Many Christians want the Apocalypse. It'll bring the Second Coming and, finally, Heaven.

Moslem suicide bombers want to strong-arm their way into Heaven, too. The eyes of all these warriors are said to be glassy, flushed with adrenaline. Fanatics' eyes, because they think they're escaping this Vale of Tears.

There's a Glory to be experienced in meeting your maker, as I understand it. The prize experiences are all outside our world.

Intensely religious people want to be someplace else, with different people, under different living arrangements -- they want out of here. I'm referring to the local -- earnest as well as the aggressive -- Christians . . . my neighbours in West Quebec.

Ahead the sky is growing darker. The gold has narrowed to a line; the horizon faintly crimson. The pavement is bumpy, wavy; above, sky the colour of water stretches away unendingly. The air in the car window, slightly mild, is sweet: cut hay, grass, milkweed and trees along Highway 148.

Another fifteen kilometers and the scent will evaporate, the wind cool, and the light will be gone. The light has gotten out of here, but it returns; it isn't an intentional act like our own ambitions. I've just watched the sun leave, and I'm facing the stars -- all those suns -- as they reappear. The millions of stars are telling us we are planted here on this planet. The sunset's last lines of colour are a fence around us. We can't escape, we're here, is what the stars signify.

And faced with any place from which we can't escape, no matter how beautiful and comfortable, we have an itch to escape. Like a pebble in our shoe, a pebble's inside us somewhere: our escape.

There must be some way out of here, and we know there isn't. Imagine wormholes and other dimensions, other states of mind and their states of reality, imagine great efforts of will, great self-destructions: still, there's no way out of here.

It is this itch which religions address, as houseflies address a drop of jam. We keep going back to religious tales, because they are the only tales, at least the easiest tales. (We could go to poetry, but poetry's too unpoetic. It tells us we're already in heaven.)

There is one way out of here which we all recognize, but the question we don't ask about a normal death is: will we survive the exit? How could we? No, religious tales and theories avoid all this uncertainty.

By the time I cross the town line into Bristol Township the sky is dark and the stars bright. Mars is to my left somewhere. There's a faint glow ahead; the air has turned damp. I close my window, and the sound of the tires on the pavement and the wind blowing in the window is muffled.

How muffled is our ability to understand? We're muffled by constant repetition of religious tales, the tales woven and embroidered through our culture, education, and entertainment. Are we so muffled we fail to notice that not everyone wants, or needs, a way out of this beautiful here?

My brain is tired after a long week. I don't get it. I don't get how religion's innocent tales of love and help, muffling everything, can grow into such intolerance and hatred.

Fred Ryan is publisher of Quebec's Aylmer Bulletin, West Quebec Post, and the Pontiac Journal. He is also a director of the Quebec Community Newspapers Association.

Copyright © 2003 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/04.03