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

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