You don’t need plumbing to get water, just as you don’t need religion for spirituality, but it helps. Anyone who has ever traveled in a third world country knows that having clean fresh water is essential, but rare. In many countries, this is not because of a shortage of water, but a shortage of plumbing. Lacking wells, the people dip their drinking gourds into streams teeming with dysentery; lacking pumps and pipes, they are carrying that water all day; lacking sewers, their wastes flow into those streams and they create that dysentery in the first place. Religion serves the same function. The prayers, rites, and symbols of religion can deliver a fresh spirit as reliably as you can turn a tap. They can carry away pernicious idolatry and heresy as easily as you can flush the toilet.
The trouble is there are religions that pollute the very spirit they attempt to deliver, just as there is plumbing that poisons the water with lead. Many examples abound: just think of the Inquisition, al-Qaida, and those people that protest homosexuality in military funerals.
This plumbing analogy came to mind while crossing the Morganza Spillway on Louisiana Route 1. The Army Corps of Engineers had opened the gates of the spillway to divert 125,000 cubic feet per second of water from the Mississippi River to the Atchafalaya Basin, protecting downstream New Orleans by relieving stress on the levees. The roar of such a great quantity of water interfered with the conversation I was having with Curt, my Creole friend. He was explaining about Papa Legba.
“Papa Legba came from Africa with d’slaves into New Awe Lands,” he shouted. “D’slaves, dey took up being Christian like dere massas, but dey kept dere African roots. Dat’s what Voodoo is. Voodoo isn’t just zombies walking around and sticking needles into dolls. It’s d’Creole church, all mixed up, dis an’ dat, like me.”
The spirit’s like this old river, meandering this way and that, taking in everything that flows into it, all mixed up, changing its course, creating oxbows and cutoffs, flowing heedlessly to the sea; flooding.
“Papa Legba’s a Voodoo spirit?” I asked.
“Yea, he meet you at d’crossroads and getcha in touch wid d’spirit world. He like rum, so dat’s whatcha get him.”
“And that who taught Robert Johnson to play the guitar?”
“Yea, but d’White Man jus call him a debil, ’cause he’s a Black ding and he don’t wanna understand. Papa ain’t no debil. He like an angel, he look out for ya.”
Religion has its levees, too, as it tries to contain the spirit and protect property from its enthusiasm. You can’t have everyone talking directly to God and interpreting His orders in his own way. Religion will limit you to one God, one scripture, one top-down bureaucratic system of hierarchical revelation. It will get in the way of the freedom that the spirit needs.
“How do you know when you’re dealing with Papa Legba?”
“He’s an ol’ man wid a cane and a pipe and a straw hat, butcha can’t count on him to look like dat, ’cause he like to trick ya.”
The spillway was miles long as we drove on top of it. Downstream the waters roiled; stirring trees, and exciting pelicans. Drowning Morgan City.
Religion occasionally has its spillways, too, when bishops wink at folkways and convert Saturnalia into Christmas, Tonanzin into the Lady of Guadalupe, and the gods of polytheism into angels, demons, and saints. Religion permits some freedom somewhere so that it can restrict it in most cases.
“You ever see Papa Legba?” I asked.
Curt smiled a sly smile and said, “Just wait till we get to New Awe Lands. I’ll getcha Papa Legba. He live down dea. Dat’s whea he yat.”
By the way, if you know who said that thing about spirituality and religion, water and plumbing, let me know. I would like to give credit where it is due, or take it if it is left unclaimed.
- The Devil at the Crossroads (thenarrativeimperative.com)