fabrication (of spirituality)

The poetic couturiers of religious traditions (theologians, prophets, mystics) are master stylists with clever techniques for fitting and shaping their most cherished abstractions onto the thick, meaty body of life in (as we often glibly name it) “the world.” As someone who is fixated on the daily art of costuming I have an eye for a certain kind of metaphor. I’m a collector of a particular sort of confession: that the spirit, spirits, or spirituality work like fabric. That spirituality acts in the manner of a textile—it can get intimate with our skin without ever, really, fusing. It can brush up against us like a sumptuous shred of velvet. Or, perhaps, it scrapes at us like raw wool. Maybe the myth of the perfect fit corresponds to the apocalyptic hope that, one day, the most elusive curves of truth will be revealed.

But what bothers me about most of these metaphors is they’re terribly out of date, out of style. They fit, today, like a lifeless frock. Or, perhaps, they’re like whale-boned corsets that leave no room for movement. More to the point, spirits tend only to move like textiles, to work like textiles. And they reject the crude, brute weave of even the finest silk as something too literal, too objective, too much of this world. An actual cut of fabric is too much a thing, itself. It is not an object relevant to the world of spiritual things. Spirituality travels above, outside of, the industrious textile. Fabric, itself, is spiritually irrelevant.

Some examples, perhaps, are in order.

There is, of course, the famous New Testament passage from Romans 13. The Apostle Paul puts forth the challenge to don the spiritual armor of light—to make a garment of the lord Jesus Christ. He does not mean, of course, that Christ is a thing you can pick up and put down, zip up or unbutton. Instead he means only to utilize the language of costume to make this spirited force more approximately tangible. The cloak that is Christ is better (more powerful, more eternal) than your favorite pair of jeans. As an application of this model, I gesture toward the life narrative of 4th century Saint Syncletica. We, readers, are meant to admire this rich girl who had the discipline to turn her eyes, entirely, from the sumptuous weave of multicolored garments all around her and clothe herself, instead, in nothing but her own humility.

Feminist theorists Judith Plaskow and Carol Christ have, in a more contemporary register, deployed the metaphorics of fabric production to illuminate something about feminist spirituality as cultural work. Together women alter the social fabric of ancient intellectual and religious disciplines. Plaskow and Christ use the figure of weaving to describe this women’s work—toying with the old stereotype that it is the network of women who weave (or hem, or mend) the garments that shroud us. But this remains, too, a metaphor that speaks to specific social struggles and configurations. And, by and large, the intellectual work of 20th century feminist spirituality has little to do with the social production and distribution of actual textiles, fabrics, or garments.

This is, I think, a shame. For it is right through the weave of fabric that the most pressing spiritual questions we face today are passing.

If, in another era, the most pious option was to be as indifferent as possible to the act of daily costuming, the same ethic no longer applies. We are today zipped up and tucked into garments marked with the labor of fingers that met this fabric in a sweatshop. Fingers that, most likely, were undercompensated for their work, allowing us the privilege of paying next to nothing to hide our nudity. And we are, increasingly, aware of this. Our hems and seams are backstitched with human pain. How can any vision of a good life refuse to take this weight that sits on our shoulders (or wraps around our thighs) seriously? It is too easy, now, to toss a garment off, to throw our fabric away. Which is, perhaps, why it makes less sense—ethically—to do so. The Trans-American Trading Company, which operates out of Clifton, New Jersey, reportedly processes 70,000 pounds of used clothing in its factory every single day. Each year, the company claims to ship 17 million tons of American textile refuse overseas. The life cycle of some of these garments will be extended, through further human adventure and creative re-use. But most will end up in landfills, destined to spend centuries in the expenditure and decomposition of their synthetic fibers.

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