Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On Faith

BrightStar blogged recently about wanting to re-embrace her faith. She wrote, "the very idea of trying and trying and not finding what I am seeking scares me."

Her short post resonated with me. I haven't written much here about faith because it's a hugely difficult thing for me to talk about. It's like several skeins of yarn all tangled together, each strand representing some years-long line of thought.

Among the strands:

- My early experiences with religion. When I was a small child, my parents attended with some regularity a Presbyterian church whose Sunday school teachings were largely inscrutable to me. When I was in the middle of elementary school, we began attending a local Congregational (later UCC) church. The Christian ed there made more sense to me, but the theology still didn't jibe with my understanding of the world. So in junior high I stopped attending church, and I considered myself an atheist. Maybe my conception of God was too narrow, but I just couldn't see the workings of a divine being in the world.

- Politics. The loudest Christian voices in this country are absolutely repellent to me. The homophobia in particular is unconscionable. (Note: I know there are plenty of queer Christians and queer allies among Christians. I'm talking here about the usual suspects we see in the mainstream media, OK?)

- My own long-term commitment to pacifism, plus a frustration with the American conflation of god with country and the resulting unthinking patriotism and jingoism.

And yet, despite my distaste for religion and my lack of belief in anything resembling the Christian god, I have retained some confidence in what might be called the soul--by which I mean not something that goes to heaven or hell once we shuffle off this mortal coil, but rather something profoundly human that at the same time transcends our everyday humanity--the essence that drives the best art, makes love possible, and allows us to empathize with people very unlike ourselves.

I am, it appears, an atheist with an abiding belief in the soul.

As you might imagine, there's not a lot of room for someone with my beliefs in the religious practices, and especially the Christian denominations, most common among Americans.

And yet I feel moved at this time to write something about my search for a welcoming spiritual practice.

* * *

In the fall of 2004, I was a graduate fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, and I found housing that was affordable, safe, and within walking distance of the National Mall in the form of the Young Women's Christian Home, a (theoretically) nonsectarian residence. I learned a lot about conservative American Christianity from my dorm mates during my three months there, and I had a lot of interesting conversations about faith and politics.

Sometimes "interesting" also meant troubling. At one new friend's invitation, I attended Baptist Bible study on Wednesday nights, an experience that underscored for me the delusions of fundamentalism based on "close readings" of the Bible. Let's just say that polysemy never occurred to these folks, and questions that suggested the possibility of multiple interpretations were not exactly welcome.

On Sunday mornings, the YWCH emptied as most of the women went to church, and frankly, after all of my nodding during dinner conversations with young conservatives and listening to one particular Baptist minister persuade his flock that the second coming of Christ will look like an atomic bomb blast and seeing the congregants imagine the schadenfreude the newly raptured would feel when that day finally arrived, I needed to cleanse.

My childhood best friend was Quaker, so when I was looking for someplace to be on Sunday morning, perhaps it's not surprising that I found myself walking from the Metro station in Dupont Circle, up Connecticut Avenue toward the neighborhood of ambassadorial residences that surrounded the Washington, D.C. Friends meetinghouse.

* * *

I had been reading a couple of books by Shelby Spong, who writes in Why Christianity Must Change or Die, "Institutional Christianity seems fearful of inquiry, fearful of freedom, fearful of knowledge--indeed, fearful of anything except its own repetitious propaganda, which has its origins in a world that none of us any longer inhabits." This really resonated with me, as did Spong's explanation in A New Christianity for a New World of his own beliefs. Spong is a former Episcopal bishop who, according to the first chapter of this book, is a Christian. Yet, as he writes,
I do not define God as a supernatural being. I do not believe in a deity who can help a nation win a war, intervene to cure a loved one's sickness, allow a particular athletic team to defeat its opponent, or affect the weather for anyone's benefit. I do not think it is appropriate for me to pretend that those things are possible when everything I know about the natural order of the world I inhabit proclaims they are not.
Spong writes that because he does not see God as a supernatural being, he cannot claim the divinity of Jesus, nor his virgin birth, miracles, or resurrection. He continues,
I do not believe that this Jesus founded a church or that he established an ecclesiastical hierarchy beginning with the twelve apostles and enduring to this day. I do not believe that he created sacraments as a special means of grace or that these means of grace are, or can be, somehow controlled by the church, and thus are to be presided over only by the ordained. All of these things represent to me attempts on the part of human beings to accrue power for themselves and their particular religious institution.
As I read on, and learned that Spong espouses feminist, antiracist, and queer-friendly stances on civil and human rights, I uttered an involuntary amen.

One more bit from Spong:
The primary question I seek to raise in this book is this: Can a person claim with integrity to be a Christian and at the same time dismiss, as I have done, so much of what has traditionally defined the content of the Christian faith? Would I be wiser and more honest if I were to do what so many others in my generation have done--namely , resign from my membership in this faith-system of my forebears? . . . . In the eyes of many, both in the Christian church and in the secular society, it would. . .have represented an act of integrity. It would not, however, have been honest, nor would it have been true to my deepest convictions. My problem has never been my faith. It has always been the literal way that human beings have chosen to articulate that faith.
Dude was an Episcopal bishop. He knows whereof he speaks, and I suspect he knows to whom he speaks, that his audience is a very large one.

I'm definitely a member of that audience. I'm open to Christian philosophies of empathy (walking a mile in another person's shoes), forgiveness and nonviolence (turn the other cheek), and deep caring for people who are unlike oneself. I don't see sufficient embrace or application of such philosophies in the many, many church services I have attended across the Christian spectrum.

So I wouldn't call myself a Christian. Maybe Christianish, though even that makes me uneasy because I find nauseating what passes for Christian discourse in the American political sphere.

* * *

Back in the fall of 2004, I found myself spending increasing amounts of time on the Friends General Conference website. The overview I found there of Quaker belief was reassuring. I don't remember if the website had the same content then as it does now, but these questions in particular interested me:
  • Are you seeking haven in a world which may not be in pace with your needs?
  • Do you wish to join with us to help in finding ways to implement the historic peace testimony of Friends "to oppose all wars and preparation for wars? "
  • Do you wish to discover how you, as an individual, can help to create a better world?
  • Do you seek a religious home, without creeds or required statements of belief?
  • Do you desire to wait upon God in an expectant silence without the presence of intermediaries?
  • Are you looking for meaningful spiritual community?
Aside from the primary testimonies of the Friends—simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and care for the earth—perhaps what most attracts me to Friends is their willingness not to always have an answer at hand. I've found other Christians and pseudo-Christians, when asked a question they cannot answer, turn to the Bible, a book that has never really spoken to me. Friends, on the other hand, will sit with something for a while, individually and communally, listening to the wisps of God within themselves and reflecting on what they hear. I also appreciate that, at least in the strand of Quaker practice that most appeals to me, they don't have a theology of heaven or hell; instead, they focus on this life, on this world. Theirs is a faith, it seems to me, rooted in contemporary concerns and with practices that allow for dynamic engagement with the world rather than judgment of it based on static creeds.

* * *

At the moment, I have many things I'd just like to sit with in silence.

* * *
This past Sunday I attended the local unprogrammed Friends meeting. There were only nine of us in the room, which is a bit small for my taste, but we just about filled the room at the local literary center where the meeting gathers. The meeting last Sunday was a completely silent one, and afterward, instead of people shaking hands as I've seen elsewhere, we joined hands in a circle and shared our thoughts on the previous week.

I met some very interesting people, and I intend to go back, but since there weren't any other kids there, I'm not sure how I'll handle the Lucas situation. I do want to raise Lucas with Quaker values, and establish his dedication to the peace testimony--assuming he chooses to embrace it--so that if there's a time when he needs to be a conscientious objector, he'll have a long personal history to draw upon.

I haven't said anything here about Fang, but he's shown some interest in Quaker values, but I know that he and I don't always tune into the same faith wavelength, so we'll see if he joins me in my latest experimentation with faith.

I'm still uneasy writing about faith in this space, because as I said, I'm an atheist, and I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking I'm opening my heart to their particular conception of Jesus, or that I'm open to proselytizing or evangelism. I wouldn't say I feel as if there's something missing in my life so much as I feel there's something there that I haven't adequately addressed.

What about you? What are the things you're uncomfortable writing about? And how did you find yourself where you are in your particular faith journey?


Anonymous said...

I started a whole theology blog because I write about faith so much. It's my job. I mean, I teach seminary for crying out loud. So I'm pretty comfortable talking about faith.

I'm not terribly comfortable owning parts of that faith in academic circles, especially among folks who are not scholars of religion or theology, because I find that, for the most part, their understandings of traditional Christianity are pretty uninformed.

Meanwhile, I can't stand Spong not so much for the content of what he says but because he's not Christian in any identifiable sense. If you don't want to be Christian, don't be Christian. but redefining Christianity such that it has no recognizable connection to what has historically been the content of Christianity? Why bother? Why the intellectual dishonesty? Take your ball and play on another court.

What I think Spong is right about is that there are plenty of people who would reject the trappings of traditional Christianity who do have a spiritual sense. We talk about this in my class a lot--do we really think we're just bodies or is there something more? And if there's something more, how do we nourish it? And that may not add up to embracing a traditional religion. But I don't think you need to believe in God to have a spiritual side. Plenty of people don't--even some who attend traditional churches, which is Spong's point. I don't have a problem with them. I just don't think they're Christian. And hey, that's okay!

Leslie M-B said...

Anastasia, I agree--like most academics, my understanding of traditional Christianity is pretty uninformed. What frustrates me--and what would keep me from trying to embrace any Christian faith more fully, were I inclined to walk down that path--are, as I said, the more outspoken practitioners of it today. I'm actually quite a fan of the UCC and Methodist churches because of their commitment to gay rights, and the Unitarians as well (though I know many Unitarians don't consider themselves Christian). But when I get invited to attend other Protestant churches with friends and family--and I won't name them here, but let's just say they tend to term themselves "Bible-believing"--I'm frustrated by the narcissism and the apparent lack of understanding of events in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

One of the reasons I'm uncomfortable writing about faith is something I alluded to near the end of my post--that certain people will see it as an opportunity to proselytize. I've been testified to so damn many times, and I'm sick of it. I've long been a magnet for such well-meaning people, so I'm very careful not to show any chinks in my atheist's armor, lest they redouble their efforts.

I was a bit puzzled by Spong's claim to still be a Christian--it seems to me believing in the divinity of Christ would be a prerequisite--but I also understand his impulse to want to be considered one, and to want to reclaim his faith for people on the edges of mainstream Christian belief, people who may be turned off by the same things I am.

Bryan Alexander said...

That's a beautiful, thoughtful post, Leslie. I admire your self-exploration on this score - it ain't easy, even in/especially in 2010. Keep posting on it, if you can!

Me? Wasn't raised in any religion, and knew very little of Christianity or Judaism, nothing of the rest of the world's religions. As an adult, I ever felt attracted to any of the three Abrahamic ones. Closest I come to a religious belief is enjoying classic Taoist writing.

My wife's a pagan, so we get to offend everybody. :)

Susan M said...

I find that non-religious people often assume it was a feeling that something was missing that got me on a religious path, but instead it was more "something there that I haven't adequately addressed." Being a progressive religious person (and, as one friend says, a Queer of Faith) isn't easy--I get it from all sides it seems, at times. But I've been delighted to find loving, justice-seeking communities of relatively like-minded people all over the place.

Suzanne said...

Leslie, I applaud your exploring these questions in public and expanding the ways your life shows up on the internets. I'm a Quaker, and a queer Christian--after what was to me an astonishingly unexpected conversion as an adult.

I'm not a huge fan of Spong, for exactly the reasons Anastasia mentioned.

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Leslie: thanks for sharing this. I always love stories of how seekers approach Friends. I had a extra big smile when I saw the reference to the FGC website circa 2004, as I was their webmaster then! I spent a lot of time making sure there were resources for curious seekers. The tracking showed it was the majority of our visitors. Some of the best content is still up, unlinked from subsequent redesigns, at:

I'm still trying to share seeker-friendly content, now at http://www.quakerquaker.org. I just posted a link to this article from there--hope that's okay. I think it's important for Friends to hear these kinds of stories. Thanks again for writing this!
God bless, Martin Kelley

James Riemermann said...

Lovely post, Leslie. I share your admiration for Spong. While there are aspects of his belief system I stumble over--he believes in some sort of god but not a theistic god, and I'm not sure I get that--I don't think there is any real contradiction to Spong's being a Christian.

In my view, the vast majority of Christians and Christian denominations in the world today are much further from the fairly simple teachings of Jesus, than Spong is. If Christianity is more about following the example of Jesus than following the example of, say, Constantine or Athanasius, then Spong has as much claim to Christianity as anyone.

The real perplexing piece of this puzzle for me is, Jesus himself was no Christian; I suspect he might have been puzzled or even appalled to learn that a new religion would be founded in his name. Especially a religion with a track record for intolerance like Christianity.

forrest said...

Really deeply hidden in most major religions there's this intuition that (as the Hindus put it) "Atman is Brahma". That the soul you recognize is the same "thing" as God, embodied in you as it is in any other person-- and not particularly well-seen or well-understood, most of the time, so far. This view is even implicit in Christianity, but the very thought tends to frighten the pious.

I have this notion that we humans are still spiritually immature, nowhere near able to make sense of God's answers to our questions-- so that God tends to answer, much of the time, by waiting until we've become someone else. Most of what goes into a religion consists of the sort of answers we'd give a two-year-old who wanted to know what keeps the Moon up-- answers understood and passed on in much the same way that a two year old would understand and pass on what we told him-- not necessarily "wrong", but a long way from complete. Projecting our two-year-old outlooks on an infinite mind...

Knowing God is not the same as knowing "about" God. But it is very much related to knowing what you are, seeing what being a human being really means, an elusive task for many of the same reasons, necessary for the same reason... because Atman really is Brahma, you know.

A central part of the early Quaker message was that "Christ is here to teach his people himself." Calling that spirit "Christ," or believing anything in particular about it, was not the point. If we want to know/understand it better, it finds a way.

Paula Roberts said...

You've not said anything I do not believe myself. Indeed it made me smile to read your post, and to read Bishop Spong's quotes. I am a Friend. I am not a Christian, and I am not theistic. I do not believe in a god that blesses, curses, shuns, looks upon favorable, turns his back upon, becomes angry, becomes sad, becomes frustrated, etc. I have recently begun to read the bible (The Message) in a form that speaks to me, but it speaks to me as a collection of writings of people wrestling with their own beliefs. Boy does it resonate that way! Yet I am a Plain dressing friend who finds blessing and comfort in the Religious Society of Friends. I simply stopped trying to reconcile this dichotomy.

Flavia said...

Tuning in late to say that your post resonated with me, too. I was raised Catholic and am now practicing again, but I'm not sure if I'd be Catholic if I weren't raised in that faith. Still, I'm attracted to what I understand as its fundamentals--and as a scholar of literature and religion, I'm also interested in the history of the church (for better and for worse).

But I've been lucky in always having been able to find very socially-progressive parishes, with active social justice groups, meditative prayer groups, and smart, challenging readers of the Bible, whose understanding of Christianity jibes with my own.

I don't talk about my religious life much, for the reasons Anastasia notes. Curiously, though, I've found that practicing Catholics often get more of a pass than Protestants from secular academics--who seem more ready to believe that Catholicism is "cultural," as Judaism is--and thus less likely to be scary and dogmatic (which, um, sadly, no). And there may be unexamined aesthetic and intellectual snobbery there, too.

Still, I have to know someone pretty well before I mention that I go to church. And I talk about religion most in the classroom.

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

"listening to the wisps of God within themselves..." that's a truly lovely phrase.

This resonated with me as well... I have a hard time even calling myself an atheist, because that seems to be a declaration that God does not exist, and I think that our little human brains, in the context of the universe, are simply not capable of fully comprehending what God or divinity or souls might be. So any religion of any kind that declares that it possesses the Truth is immediately suspicious to me, though I do share your "confidence in what might be called the soul."

I enjoyed this post and the ensuing conversation. Thanks for sharing!