In instances too numerous to describe, I have experienced what Mormons refer to as the influence of the Holy Spirit-sometimes in the form of a profound, transformative empathy, sometimes in the deep impression that Christ’s grace mattered and was real to me. Sometimes it was as simple as the desire to do better and to be good. I value these experiences, and the religious tradition within which I interpret them, with both my heart and mind.
So if the Christmas lights approach to faith doesn’t work, we need something else. Something like sourdough bread.
I bake our family’s bread with a sourdough starter that-according to tradition, at least-came across the plains with the Mormon pioneers. Artisan sourdough bread with a golden crust that crackles and a creamy interior with large, irregular holes and complex flavors doesn’t just happen. Enzymes must work to break apart tasteless starch molecules in the raw flour so that the wild yeasts can feed on simple sugars and create bubbles of carbon dioxide that stretch strands of gluten. Strains of bacteria compete for dominance in creating an acidic environment.
From start to finish, it’s all a process of fermentation-what we would normally call “food going bad.” It begins with the starter, an unruly colony of wild yeasts and bacteria swimming together in starchy soup. There is nothing lovely or pure about sourdough starter. Its exuberance makes it sour on the verge of stinky, fermented bordering on decayed. Yet, when introduced into a properly balanced supply of flour, water and salt, the starter is a catalyst for building a complex, living community that results in heavenly bread.
Religious traditions, like sourdough, are complex, living things. They are both organization and organism, created and sustained from many different processes and actors, shaped by time and their environment. They even can be naturally subject to corruption.
And yet they are also susceptible — through this same process of leavening — to producing goodness. Appreciating this goodness, and engaging productively with the complex processes that create it, is a project of intellect, not ignorance.
(Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University in East Asian Languages and Civilizations. She currently lives in Hong Kong, where she is writing a book on the history of the True Jesus Church and Protestant Christianity in China.)
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