Fun convo going back and forth among a couple of women I know, and I wanted to join in. You can read the Atheist here and the Mormon here. I won’t wax on for hours – I don’t have hours – but I just wanted to say a couple of things.
I come from a long line of devout people. My mother was a Catholic who left the faith partly because of its teachings on birth control, my father was raised Methodist. I grew up in Presbyterian and Methodist churches – we always went to one or the other, depending on which congregation and preacher my parents preferred in whatever new place we’d moved (I was a Navy brat, we moved a lot). I continued to attend through college – I even taught the 2 year old Sunday school class at the Presbyterian church near my Presby-affiliated college. But already by then I had become alienated from my faith, and I left the church thereafter for a long time (in a huff, I might add). The Bible is not a feminist document, nor is it environmentally friendly. Many Christians selectively quote the Bible to support small-minded opinions, to shore up their feelings of moral superiority. A lot of what I experienced as a young seeker of truth/maturity/adulthood was frighteningly cultish and reactionary, and I began to recognize how these wacky people were manipulating, even preying on, the young and uncertain. As I embraced socially liberal ideas, nothing felt farther from “right” and “correct” than the church, which talked up Love but was trying to use me as a mouthpiece for Hate.
Kathleen Norris was part of how I found my way back. Her faith journey (gag) has been similar to mine, and her writing opened up the door to my liberal exploration of Christianity. I realized that the alliance of the conservative right wing to Christianity creates a false dichotomy. We all know there are a number of right wing people who’ve never darkened to door on a church or spent a second grappling with a religious text, and yet many of them feel that their party is the party of God and would lecture me on my religious failings. Anyone who attempts to wade their way past a knee jerk reaction will understand that there is room for God, church, and Christ on both sides of the aisle (there are also plenty of Democratic hypocrites as well). We both love and want to help the poor, we just have different ideas of how to do that.
I struggle with the Bible as well, but I’ve reached the point in my life where I recognize that as the point. Difficult stories, like that of Lot shoving his daughters out to be raped, are why the Bible is worth looking at. It isn’t any kind of instruction manual, a guide on how to do things – modern Christians are far too selective to be able to claim such a thing with a straight face. (And of course there’s the translation problem, the written-by-humans problem, the selection-of-books problem.) I don’t read parables to my children as a sort of After School Special, a guide on how to be. I have a lot of issues with the Bible. Its patriarchal framework can be very harmful. Stories like that of the rape of Lot’s daughters, and even the more mild verses like that calling for wives to submit to their husbands, cause real harm to women, around the world, when communities take them at face value and use them as tools to uphold oppressive patriarchal norms. The construct of dominion over and caretaking of animals implies that we are not one of them, which I think falsely separates us from the food web and downplays how interconnected we are with the environment, at the cellular level. I understand the power of the text to combat the values that I embrace. (This is true of all mainstream religions, which are very similar, and similarly susceptible to misuse and manipulation by those in power.)
However, it is in this battle that I find value. Repeating the Bible stories we like back and forth and trumpeting them as truth because we like them (while ignoring or explaining away the ones we don’t) creates an echo chamber that leads to spiritual shrinkage rather than growth. I find most Bible studies a little narcissistic and shallow for this reason. It is much more meaningful for me to be angry and reject that crap as crap – and then try to figure out why the “crap” is in there, and why I react to it in the way I do, how I can value crap. It is similar to the Zen koan, for me – the study of the paradox is what leads to growth. It is all part of the beautiful mystery – not just the failure to understand, but the search for understanding. If it were easy, it would not be worth my time.
I would also argue that religion doesn’t cause war, oppression, destruction. People do those things. If religion didn’t exist, there would be some other excuse – though religion will always exist. It is a reflection of the human mind, and like the human mind is imperfect. That said, it is clearly something we need, have needed since our prehistoric brains developed the capacity to wonder and fear. Religion is a tool, one that many people use for good and many people use for bad and most people use for a little bit of both. The failings of religion in the world are ours, as are its triumphs. Calling all organized religion “bad” reflects thinking that is just as lazy as Christians making similar pronouncements about their own values. Organized religion is a vital and inevitable part of the human experience, and it can be a tool for bettering oneself and the world, or it can be a tool for self-congratulation and close-mindedness. There are other tools – politics, drama, education, music, all with followers just as fervent. There is room in my own fledgling faith pick and discard the tools I like, and to allow others to do the same. I will never tell the atheist she has no wisdom to offer, or that she will go to hell. I will never tell the Mormon that what she believes is wrong. My biggest struggle with my adult exploration of religion has been to understand that I dictate the terms of my private faith, not other people. My continuing struggle is to extend that courtesy to others, including the evangelicals whose religious practice I reject.
My return to the church has been tentative. I’ve been ready to flee at a moment’s notice. Except for our collective prayers in worship service, when people hold hands and pray in public it sets my teeth on edge. When people say “my relationship with God” or “faith journey” (see above) or announce a “religious testimonial,” I want to jump off a cliff. When people sprinkle Bible verses around or wear shirts with pictures of Christ’s bloody thorns or lecture about God’s love on facebook, I definitely roll my eyes. But I shouldn’t. Exploration of faith, how we reveal it to others, whether we go to a service, whether we read a religious text – these are up to the individual believer. I used to think there was some right way to do it, and I was always falling short. And then, when I learned to think critically in college, I bristled at the thought of some other human telling me the right way to do something as vital and private as religious faith. Over time, I learned that I could make it my own. I go to church because I like it – the hymns, the Lord’s Prayer, the rhythm of the ancient service. It gives me a feeling that I am connected to generations of church goers who repeated the Apostle’s Creed in cathedrals, chapels, houses, even closets. I like the feeling of community I get when I go, and I like having my children as part of that community. Our church also exposes us to service opportunities that we would have to work harder to find without it – we’ve built homes, raised money for natural disasters, fed the homeless and the poor (and all, I might add, without including acceptance of Christ as part of the package, which is an important caveat to me). What draws me to this particular church is that its leaders, too, seem to be more focused on the struggle with understanding than with revealing some Absolute Truth.
I will continue to disavow the oppression of women and exploitation of the environment around the world while exploring my own patriarchal religion. I will continue to struggle with the paradox that presents. The deeper and more difficult my struggle, the closer I will feel to some kind of Truth. The more sure I feel, the farther from Truth I’ll be. My kids may grow up to be whatever religion they want (though as my fellow bloggers point out, people tend to be what their parents are). They can adopt my Presbyterian faith if they want to or not, and I won’t care. I care more that they adopt the idea of faith-as-personal, faith-as-service, and faith-as-struggle. And even if they don’t – well, it will be the ultimate test of my more mature faith for me to accept whatever they do as their own.
So, hours later, Thus Endeth My Essay.