Monday, August 21, 2006

Part IV, from Jan 2005

(I left out parts 2 & 3 because they didn't seem particularly relevant and they made this way too long. This was originally written in Jan 2005.)

The Boring Posts, Part IV. In Which Aunt BeaN Attempts to Make Sense of Various Things Which Are Too Big for a BeaN of Very Little Brain.

So the purported subject of this particular post is supposed to be what I believe now. And why I still go to church, and believe me, I'm not sure I have the answer to that one sometimes myself. I've been putting this off for ages because it's hard to figure out how to say some things, and also because it sounds so pompous and self-important to announce What I Believe, as if you are sure everyone wants to know. So I just want to say in advance that if this sounds pretentious, at least I know I sound pretentious and I feel bad about it. OK?

So what I'm after now is some type of testing my ideas about God and the universe and life against the truth of my experience and the experiences of those around me. Geeze, that doesn't sound nearly complicated enough to express what I'm trying to say. When I was an evangelical, if someone said, "Women can't hold positions of authority because this verse right here says so," I would just nod my head, even though I'd had plenty of experience with smart, capable women who were great leaders. Why didn't I protest? Why didn't I say, "That's not true, because look at example a, b, c...." (the answer, of course, is because I had been trained to agree, but let's not get off on that topic right now).

I want a belief system that is big enough and complex enough to hold everything, all of my experience, not one that jumps and runs for the cover of simplistic platitudes at the first sign of discomfort. Not one that tells me things that are obviously not true and expects me to toe the line. Here is Pema Chodron: "we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is." and to paraphrase an earlier paragraph of hers, the point isn't to avoid pain or to find ease and comfort, the point is to seek out what is true.

I just started figuring some of this out in the last couple of months. Partly as a result of keeping this blog. I've typed a lot about what I don't believe, the things that turned me off about other belief systems, but it occurred to me that I haven't really figured out what I do believe, and that I've even been avoiding that topic. Sure, it's partly because I don't really know, it's a work in progress. But that's the easy way out. Then I started reading good books again, all this great classic literature. And it occurred to me that part of the reason why I loved being an English major is because really great literature helps you get at that mystery-- what is the truth of human experience? It's not possible to express it in a series of theological statements (abortion is wrong, homosexuality is wrong, George W. is right, whatever-- or even the reverse of those statements), but in a big huge sprawling novel like Bleak House or Lonesome Dove or a smaller more intimate one like Pride and Prejudice or The Great Gatsby, you can create a work of art that comes close to catching a glimpse of what is real. What resonates for everyone on the planet: the pulse in your throat, the cacophany of traffic, two toddlers fighting over a toy, rain on the window, the sound of the wind in the trees, the silence between one breath and the next. Those things are real. Pie in the sky, shining-eyed fanaticism is all about believing what someone else tells us is true, or maybe what we're afraid not to believe. Touching down to the center, opening your arms wide and taking it all in, is about finding holiness in reality, about being blind to nothing.

The thing I haven't figured out yet (among a zillion other things) and that I may never figure out is how God figures into all this. Does She exist? (OK, that has even become a cliche, but it's still worth saying, imo.) Does it matter? That one I'm still thinking about and will be, I'm sure for a long time yet.

So why do I still go to a Christian church? It's all well and good to say that you don't need religion because you have your own spiritual practice. And that probably works for a lot of people. But for me, I find that if I don't have a regular reminder, spirituality falls off my radar. I don't think about it, I don't practice it. It's too easy to ignore in the press of all the other things that are going on. It turns out that religion is a pretty good support system for spirituality, as long as you don't start taking the religion more seriously than the spirituality.

Then there's why I choose a specifically Christian church, in a traditional denomination. A large part of it has to do with cultural issues. Take Native American spirituality, which so many whites have co-opted as their own. It becomes a kind of cultural snobbery, in many ways. We're going to swoop in, take your ideas, and make them into something "better" by whitening them. Can Native American spirituality truly exist outside of a subsistence culture where the believers must live in harmony with their surroundings or die, must know intimately the rhythms and details of every animal, every plant, every stone? If you're a descendent of Native Americans of course it can be adapted and should be to the way you live now. but if you're Joe Smith from Cleveland, is it possible to take on Native American beliefs without being a cultural vampire? And again, of course, the answer must be yes, because there are plenty of people who find their spiritual path in a belief system outside their own culture. But I just can't quite get there myself.

Christianity is my path, though it galls me to say it sometimes. It has been poisoned, almost beyond retrieving, by fundamentalists (which would include me at an earlier age). But if you read the Bible, actually read it as the huge, bloody, rowdy, complicated, contradictory, amazing book that it is, there is still plenty of room to move. So that is one reason why I still go to church.

Another reason I still go to church has to do with the unhealthiness of so many of the groups I was in while I was in my searching days. I would say that almost without exception, the groups functioned as 'cults of personality'-- with a very strong, gifted person at the center, who wanted to be recognized not just as someone with good leadership skills who was willing to use those in the service of the group, but as a dictator almost-- wanted to control who was in the inner circle, pitted people against each other to get their way, discouraged alternative points of view, etc. In some cases it was entirely benign, but sometimes it was a little scary. For all the faults of traditional denominations (and there are many), at least there is a power structure beyond the local church. The pastor of our church doesn't see himself as having phenomenal amounts of power because he doesn't -- he reports to presbytery, which in turn is part of a larger group, which is part of a national group. If something were to go wrong in our congregation, there would be a way of reporting it and taking action to correct it. It's not a perfect system, I kind of can't believe I'm defending institutional religion here, but on the other hand, it also works, in a limping, stumbling, occasionally loping, kind of way.

And then there's church itself. For one thing, you get to sing. Singing is highly underrated in our culture. Singing clears you out, it cleans you. Even if you're not very good at it. And if you go to a church with a decent preacher, you get some new ideas to think about, even if it's just one or two small ones. You get to hear some of the great wisdom literature on the planet read to you in the Bible readings. You are reminded, during the prayer time when the pastor is running down through the prayer requests, how small your little troubles really are. Or if you do have big troubles, you're reminded that there are people out there who would like to try to help. And last but maybe most important of all, after 13 years of admittedly imperfect attendance, there are many people I love at our church. More often than not, that one thing is what motivates me to get there on Sunday morning.

It's a pretty good place, in a lot of ways. It does drive me crazy sometimes. It's half full of people who've never questioned a thing in their lives, and who don't want to, and (in fact) will refuse to if pressed. But on balance, it works for me. Not that we're the worlds best attenders-- we probably average two Sundays a month. But when I go, I'm almost always glad I did.

And after that long-winded, far-too-wordy response, I think I am done.

Aunt BeaN

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Part I- from November 2004

This is a combination of two posts, you'll probably be able to tell where I pasted them together, written in 2004 and early 2005, and edited in early January 2008.  Both this post and the next one seem a bit gush-y and naive, even just four years later, but there aren't any major changes so I'm leaving them here.

My father is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, although he never had a church. He was a seminary professor, a college religion professor, and the director of an Evangelical retreat center and youth camp for many years, as well as a few other things along the way. He was from the Midwest, the son of a GARB (more conservative, fundamentalist Baptist) minister. My mom was raised in the South in a well-to-do home. She is as sweet and lovely a person as you can imagine, but she has her occasional rebellious streak (which I love), and one of her most amazing rebellious acts was to marry this Yankee with few prospects for success in the way her parents defined it.

My father is a theologian, by training and temperament. He loves to think about God and the nature of the universe and the beauty of the Christian scriptures. We had amazing conversations around the dinner table. For his time and his upbringing, he was quite progressive in his thinking. He was far less concerned about the externals of his fundamentalist upbringing, concentrating instead on the love and mercy of God, and how that can be expressed in our lives. I didn't always agree with him, but he was/is a powerful, charismatic speaker and it is hard to disagree with him. If I disagreed, I didn't say it. And if I said it, I caved in quickly, even if I still didn't agree. All in all, I was pretty happy with my faith, and I was sure it was Right. The Truth.

The turning point for me was when I went off for my freshman year of college at a conservative Christian school. It was far more conservative than the way I had been raised, but I was convinced it was going to be wonderful-- all those Christians together in one place? it would be like one big love-fest all the time, wouldn't it? Well, of course, that turned out not to be the case. There were cliques and popular people and snobs, just like at any other school. They just said they were Christian. I don't want to be too hard on that school, because I met some wonderful people there and had a great time. But I became increasingly uncomfortable with the larger picture, what was happening outside my group of friends.

So after two years, I transferred to a secular school on the West coast. I was in nirvana. I loved it there. Oddly, my new friends, none of whom were Christian, were so much more honest. There was no striving to be achieve the outward look of a "good" Christian. They were just good people, learning and growing and questioning like I was-- well, of course, they weren't asking the same questions I was, since none of them came from a similar background, but their attitude toward the search was similar. I was so much happier, and I felt at home. That was the first stage.

At the end of my junior year, I had a tiny experience that had large consequences. There was a housing lottery to see where we would live the next year. I don't remember exactly the mechanics of how it worked, but I remember what my prayer was: I prayed and prayed not for any particular outcome, but that I would get some sort of housing in the lottery so I wouldn't have to worry about housing over the summer. I prayed about it a lot, and I was confident that God would grant my request, as "he" had so many others.

But it didn't happen. My friends and I that had gone into the lottery together didn't get a spot, and were left without knowing where we would live the next year (which wasn't uncommon, I don't want to make this sound like it was a big tragedy, it just meant we would have to find our own housing the next fall).

But that little thing totally threw me off. It was like someone sticking a rod in the spokes of my bicycle. I had been trundling along just fine with a set of beliefs I had outgrown without realizing it, and suddenly there I was with a broken bike. What happened? The bible says, explicitly, that if you ask in faith, your prayers will be answered. I had asked with the same faith that I had had for many other prayer requests, but this one wasn't answered. Now, I know the standard evangelical responses to this dilemma, you don't need to reply and tell them to me. I could tell myself all the things I had heard all my life about why God doesn't answer prayer. And it seemed silly to be so upset about a prayer request that was so small. I wasn't the only person in this boat, there were hundreds of us who didn't know where we would be living in the Fall. But suddenly the logical inconsistencies of my faith were right there staring me in the face. When my prayers were answered, I took it as proof that God loved me and cared about every detail of my life and had a plan for me. When my prayers weren't answered, it didn't prove the opposite. I was supposed to just shrug and say, "I guess it wasn't meant to be." I decided at the very least that I had to stop believing that answers to prayer were proof of God's existence, because when "he" didn't answer, I didn't therefore believe that it proved God's nonexistence. It just didn't make sense. That was the second stage. But I wasn't nearly ready to break away. It was just another nail in the coffin.

But where I finally just couldn't come to terms with it anymore was over trying to convert people. I just could never believe the whole evangelizing thing. Sure, talk about your faith and how it works in your life. But this whole organized drive to convert people -- I just could never buy it, even when I was younger, and I was ashamed and embarrassed to be part of a group that would do it. They have ways of dressing it up so it doesn't sound anything like that, but that's what it is: manipulation, pure and simple. They can rationalize any tactic because after all, they're saving your soul from eternal damnation, right?

But it didn't take me three months out there in the real world to realize that a lot of people who weren't conservative Christians had spent way more time thinking about Christianity than I had and were perfectly capable of coming to their own conclusions without any help from me. Many of the non-Christians I met were far better people than I was, in terms of taking responsibility for themselves and their world, and relating openly and honestly with others. I just couldn't believe that kind of evangelism was what Jesus wanted, if he wanted it at all. It was such a huge lack of respect for other people and their beliefs and experiences-- to assume that I had the answer and that they were desperately in need of it (they just didn't know that, you see) was more than I could tolerate. So, with all these things and a bunch of others, by the time I was 25, my spouse and I left the Bible church we had been attending and I no longer considered myself an Evangelical.

So .. there were a number of intervening years here where I was sorting things out... but the next thing I tried was more liberal Christianity, which I loved at first (and it's where I've ended up, although there were some intervening things, as you'll see) (not sure why I had to give away my ending there, but this isn't exactly a mystery novel). It was absolutely amazing to me at first to find out that there were Christians who read the Bible as a book of wisdom and inspiration, but didn't seem to believe that it had to be taken as literally true in every single syllable. If you don't know much about conservative Christians, that might seem odd, but that is the single most important defining characteristic of being a conservative Christian: you believe the Bible is literally, word-for-word, capital-T True. It is the "inerrant" word of God: without error. Yes, it was written by human beings, but they were "inspired" by God to write what He wanted them to write (masculine pronoun used on purpose, since this crowd almost always sees God as male).

I had been raised with phrase after phrase of Scripture thrown at me constantly to reinforce every belief that I questioned or disliked. For example, it is easy-cheesy to "prove" that Jesus wanted us to go out and hit people over the head with Americanized Christianity if you want to: for starters, Jesus says right before he returns to heaven, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations," in the Gospel of Matthew. This is known, in conservative circles, as "The Great Commission." And then you can prove that women can't be pastors: St Paul says "I would not have a woman be over a man," and that's not even touching all the stuff about wives submitting to their husbands in the Letter to the Ephesians. These verses can be interpreted in lots of different ways, starting with setting them in their historical context, but when you're eight, nobody tells you that, they just say these phrases over and over until they ring in your head and the interpretation you've been handed is the only one that you can imagine.

So anyway, back to the Episcopalians (because that's where I went after I left the Bible church I had been attending). It was exactly the same Bible and exactly the same set of characters and basic outline of beliefs that I'd grown up with, but so different it literally astonished me. There was a woman pastor; I found myself moved to tears the first time I saw her in the pulpit and heard her preach. I still have difficulty putting into words how much it meant to me.

But then we moved, and the Episcopal church in our new location was not a good situation. So more searching ensued. to be continued.

I've eaten half a jar of dill pickles while I've been sitting here, how weird is that.

yours in a vinegar-y state,
Aunt BeaN