Living Communities 3: Religion

Roy Herndon Smith

Betwixt and Between


“Mind the matter now,”
Betwixt admonished Between,
“Filagree’s entranced

Big Bang all aglow
in lace of shadows dancing
with leaves fluttering,

with wind frolicking,
with sun beaming, light streaming,
tatters on the ground.

them all with masses of voids
into wombs of words

and messes of births,
while I blur definitions.
Quick now, life’s at stake.”


“What’s the matter now?”
sleepy Filagree mutters.
Big Bang, dreaming, moans,

“Be da bee body
buzzing ally ally lost
betwixt the betweens.”

Filagree wakes wide
up, “Oh freedom, gotta be
as little children,

hopscotch void to void,
through the shadows, through the light,
falling out of line.

Oh freedom, gotta
get back up, be da bee, buzz
betwixt the betweens.”


“Where’s the matter now?”
Between complained to Betwixt.
“I big banged it all,

crescendos of stars,
bodies electric in voids
of velvet silence.

There’s no accounting
for it. It sings, “Come a down
doody do down down,

heavenly angels,
fly us to the moon beyond
the blue horizon.”

Between joins in, “Where,
o death, is thy bite, when, there,
my little dog, barks.”

The understandings of reality as loving communities and of trust as the womb of being are “religious.” A “religion” is a sense of reality as a trustworthy whole. This definition is a variation of the understandings of “religion” a hundred and fifty years of anthropological, social, psychological, historical, and philosophical studies of “religion” have generated. It builds specifically on the Jewish religious thinker Martin Buber’s statement that “religion” is “the whole of human reality” and the psychologist Erik Erikson’s understanding of “religion” as the social institution charged with restoring, when threatened, basic trust.

By “sense of reality…as a whole” I mean that the word “religion” designates the usually unattended to feeling of, or what the psychologist Daniel Stern calls the “atmosphere” that pervades, each waking moment of each of our lives. This “sense of reality” is specific, tangible, and contingent—it differs from moment to moment, place to place, context to context; and it is, again to use Stern’s word, “global”—it composes, out of the disparate co-creative entities, qualities, and movements present in this moment, a whole. It is unique and new, discontinuous with all that has come before and will come after; and it recalls the past and imagines the future as familiar constituents of, and continuous with, this moment. It is the unknown, unknowable, unnameable other or, to use Buber’s word, “Thou” I meet; and it is the source of all that I know in this moment. Religion is the atmosphere that changes when a beloved person (or, more subtly, anyone) enters a room. It is the shifting feel of the world that happens with the movement from home to street to work. And it is the different sense of reality that accompanies a newly written, spoken, or thought word or set of words—most obviously, words such as “Christianity,” “Buddhism,” “science,” “USA,” and “MAGA”; but, in fact, again more subtly, any word—for instance, ”I,” “you,” “here,” “there,” “everywhere,” “or,” or “and.”

I place the modifier “trustworthy” in the definition to call attention to religion as the inherent complement to basic trust. As Erikson observes, trust assumes the presence of the trusted, trustworthy other. Basic trust in reality as a whole rests on the sense that reality as a whole is trustworthy—religion. While basic trust is “the primal form of knowing,” religion is the primal form of the known, the sense of trusted, trustworthy reality as a whole that is the ground and presupposition of all knowing.

Religion, understood in this way, is, just as trust is, inherently communal and loving in two senses. Reality as a whole is trustworthy to the extent that we sense it is a community that supports our existence as co-creative participants in it. And reality as a whole is trustworthy because it manifests in and through the particular and concrete communities that hold me as a co-creative participant in them in each moment. In this moment, I sit writing on a Sunday morning in Brooklyn. The air fills me and sustains me and I breathe it out, adding carbon dioxide and some warmth to it. The sunlight the clouds gentle opens the world wide; and my skin, the clothes I wear, and my eyes color the light that reflects off of them. I write on a computer others have made, using electricity generated by power plants others maintain (I aspire to switch to relying on solar panels the city will install at a reduced price); and I turn this electricity into black words that appear on this white screen and that I will be sending out to circles of readers, including you. You and these other readers, including myself in another time, are both absent, in the sense that you are not here reading these words as I write them, and present, in the sense that you are the known unknown and unknowable other to whom I write and who creates these words as much as I do. Mary, who was sleeping in the bedroom and is now up walking by me on the floor that creaks, holds me in unfathomable tenderness, as I hold her. And each of these words, as it moves from thought to screen, carries with it the sense of the multitudes who have spoken it before me and will speak it after me; through it, these hosts of individuals, societies, histories, cultures, and languages touch and shape me as I touch and shape them. The word that opens me to the infinitely complex music of this co-creating symphony of communities is “love.” The word that opens me to the sense that this symphony is a whole that plays me as I play it is “religion.”