Losing my religion

24 04 2015

It’s no real secret that religion and I have parted ways.  It’s been long enough that I’ve written about it here, talked to all my family members, and even changed all my profile descriptions on the various social media platforms.  There was a time I apologized for it.  I tried to hang on to my lifelong label of “Christian,” with the clumsy modifier of “…but not one of THOSE Christians.”

My distrust of organized religion has only grown in the years since I left the church.  I follow a few progressive writers, and I appreciate what they say.  Some of them have found a way to return to church; for a time it gave me a pang that I couldn’t find a way to do the same thing, but now it gets not much more than a shrug of acknowledgement.

Other writers are in the same place I am, and speak eloquently of why they left and didn’t look back.  Their postings are almost inevitably followed by comments that tell them why they are wrong and weak and willful and not really Christians.  Okay, then.  I give.  The Real Christians can have the label.  They say I don’t deserve the label they wear.  They’re probably right, and I don’t really want it anyway.

It is discouraging.  It would be so easy to snark about how they are demonstrating precisely the problem that is killing their Real Christian Churches – and there is surely a lot of that type of response in the comments section.  I just can’t.  Jesus would not have ever responded by telling me that my pain just meant I was wrong and weak and willful and not really someone he wanted to know.  If I really do want to hold to Jesus’ revolutionary and transformative example, I can’t come back at the Real Christians with sarcasm guns blazing.

There’s a lost-in-the-wilderness feeling about this.  The mainstream atheist community can get every bit as condescending and pretentious as conservative religion.  Progressive Christianity can get caught up in No True Scotsman arguments, which get nobody anywhere.  Those of us who genuinely long for that mystic experience of communion – both with creation and with each other – are left without the community we hope for.  We instead end up in solo practice.  We see each other when our paths draw near, but the paths rarely seem to join.  It is a blessed relief to meet a kindred spirit out here.  But it comes with the certainty of transience, that you will be moving on from this place of meeting and communion.

This is, perhaps, another manifestation of the new normal.  That the faith community I once relied on as being so solid and unchangeable, simply evaporated from around me; what I thought was solid ground was really just fog.  Now the journey is more like lace – open, airy, strands twisted together and then separating, with a design that makes no sense up close.  I want to believe that my life journey, along with the journeys of so many others, is making something beautiful.



2 04 2013

If you see Jesus’ death as part of the divine plan, as part of the will of God, that suggests that God required the suffering of this immeasurably great man. It is never the will of God that an innocent person be crucified, and to suggest that is to suggest something horrible about God.

If, on the other hand, we understand the language of Jesus’s being the sacrifice for sin as a post-Easter interpretation of his death that emerges within the early Christian community, we can then see that, metaphorically, it’s a proclamation of radical grace. The connection is this: If Jesus is the once and for all sacrifice for sin, understood metaphorically now, it means that God has already taken care of whatever it is that we think separates us from God. It means that God accepts us just as we are and that the Christian life is not about getting right with God. God’s already taken care of that. The Christian life becomes about something else, namely, living within this framework of radical trust in God and relationship to God that makes possible our transformation, and, ideally and ultimately, the transformation of the world.

—Dr. Marcus Borg

I spent most of my life in what I thought was a mainline Protestant denomination.  The church was nominally part of the Presbyterian Church – USA, which overall wasn’t nearly as restrictive as, say, Southern Baptists.  We could drink, we could dance, we could play cards.  Over time I got a sense that my congregation was on the rightish edge of PC-USA, but I figured there was enough theological wiggle room to make it work.

I’ve written before about the crisis that finally forced me out of that church, so I won’t spend a lot of time on it here.  The pain of that parting was intense and lasting, and it has kept me out of organized religion for the last year.  But it has also freed me to find my own way to God, to reinterpret  what the church told me for years.  And it has given me the freedom to reject completely the theology of guilt and fear that I accepted as a given for most of my life.

For much my life I accepted the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the idea that man was so evil, and God so unbendingly “just” that someone, somewhere, was gonna get it for all that sin.  It was presented as almost out of God’s hands, that the biblical (and therefore godly) definition of justice meant that someone had to pay.  And because mankind was so irredeemably rotten, Jesus was the sacrifice, the utterly innocent atonement for all our sin.  As a child, it made sense; as an adult and more importantly, a parent, it fell apart.  I couldn’t (and still can’t) fathom the idea that someone completely undeserving of the fate was pretty much created and born just so God could get His vengeance on.

That doctrine leads to fathomless guilt – “Jesus SUFFERED and DIED for YOUR SINS!!!!”  I heard again and again that I had to rely on grace, because my own sin was such an integral part of me that I could never, ever be good enough – but that didn’t let me out of the obligation to work harder, strive more for holiness, even as all the effort was utterly futile.  The same people supposedly proclaiming the grace of God were handing out a list of rules for how to be more godly, and at the same time telling me that nothing I could do would ever get me there.  None of it would ever be good enough.  Grace was necessary, but not sufficient, and it came filled with hooks.

Last year, in one of the few times that I attended a service post-crisis, the minister preached on grace.  But what she offered was real grace, true good news – that Christ’s act in going willingly to the cross was enough, sufficient for all of humanity, and that grace flows in abundance for all of us.  Grace washes over us like a river – all of us, whether we reach out for it or not, whether we profess belief in Jesus or not… grace is simply there, as God’s overwhelming love for the creation and all the lives in it.

And I realized, after five decades as a Christian, that I had never really heard the good news.

I cried through that sermon.  My eyes fill again when I think of it… remembering how my heart rose up and finally said yes, this is truth.  Saying that God is love is not some remnant of the 1970s Jesus movement, but instead a powerful statement of absolute truth.  God so loves humanity that God became incarnate – actually put on flesh and blood, and signed on for several decades of sweat and smell and desire and frustration, just to understand our existence fully.  That’s how enchanting we are to our creator, how much love we’re bathed in.  And that isn’t a God who creates a perfect sacrifice just so He has someone worthy of smiting.

So, God is no distant deity in some pure heaven far away. God is with us on earth in our horror, our terror, our violence, and our suffering. God refuses to add to the evil and violence, but instead responds with vulnerable, compassionate love. That’s how God wins. The resurrection of Jesus proclaims that love is more powerful than hate, compassion triumphs over oppression, and vulnerability overcomes power. Jesus invites us to put our trust in God, even in the face of horror, oppression, cruelty and death. God is with us. God feels and suffers deeply with us. And, what God does best is to bring life out of death.

—Lowell Grisham

The Creator loves you.  Infinitely.  Freely.  And what you are, right here and right now, is enough.  Because when Jesus whispered “It is finished”… he meant it.

I will live

4 03 2013

(Listen to the song here.)

Since the crumbling of my relationship with my old church, I’ve found it very difficult to find my way back to any kind of worship.  Even sitting in a church makes me feel uncomfortable – it feels psychically cold and damp, all hard surfaces and windows too clouded to admit light.  I don’t know how to explain it, the kind of damage the old church did to me; probably dwelling on it doesn’t make it any better and maybe even makes it seem worse than it was.

Nonetheless… I miss the feel of church.  The sense of fellowship, of being lifted up by the music to a spiritual awareness of joy in God.  I did find a more modern church to join, one that is much more inclusive of gender and sexual identities.  The minister is a woman.  She is a good, loving, compassionate Christian who speaks eloquently to the Christian life.  I think maybe I’m in a place now where theology isn’t working for me any more.  I want to feel the presence of spirit.  You can’t talk your way to that place.

I’ve known for years that music will reach me when nearly nothing else will.  When I shut down in response to sorrow or stress, I may not be able to hear the voices of those who love me – but I can still hear music.  So on Saturday I went to a gospel concert sponsored by our community college.   I went  with my mother, and we were in a really REALLY tiny minority of whiteness. (Which is sad… and maybe the subject of another post some day.)   The theater was filled with people of color from all over northern Illinois; I think local churches were promoting the concert to their congregations, so it was like each church had its own enthusiastic cheering section.  And when the concert started?  No longer a concert… but a heartfelt response of joy and acclamation that rose from the audience and the performers for nearly four hours.   There was the initial discomfort of being in the middle of people who pretty obviously had some different church habits than I did – Presbyterians aren’t called God’s Frozen Chosen for nothing – but it passed and was replaced by a spiritual uplift that I haven’t felt in years.

Charles Jenkins and Fellowship Chicago opened the second half.  And before they even got into what I would call a song, Jenkins reminded the audience of Jesus’ promise of “abundant life” (John 10:10).  That particular verse has been twisted into the prosperity gospel, where if you are Jesusy enough, you get rich.  (Yeah.  I do have a problem with that.)  Saturday night, though, I heard that abundant life means having the tools to live… to engage with life, be part of it, to take the chances and the risks to taste and smell and feel and experience all of it.  An abundant, fully engaged life is what we are meant to have – not just something that occupies the brain, but that touches our hearts, invites us to feel and love without fear.    Or more precisely, to feel the fear and to love anyway.

The framing on Saturday was Christian.  It doesn’t have to be.  I know what I felt on Saturday, though, claiming my right to live, and live fully.  There have been some rough things in the last few years that have hit hard – I lost my husband, my church, my career.  The temptation after a few blows like that is to keep my head down and stay with the herd – so I am surrounded by a sea of churning legs, but at least I have the illusion of being safe.

I want to live.  Abundantly.  Fully.  Probably not safely, or at least not in the way I’ve been thinking of safety.  And not within the confines of narrow theology, of God contained in dense verbiage.  I’ve listened for years, decades even, as preachers and ministers tell me I can’t trust my own feelings and my own experience of God, that flesh can’t be trusted, that nothing can be trusted except their version of the Word of God.  The safety of theology denies the abundance of the human experience, an experience so real and true and vital that God became incarnate.  How can the church take that incarnation, something so central to their belief system, and turn it into the vilest sin?  And why has it taken me 50 years to get here?

I want to live.  I choose to live.

(For real… listen to this.)

The morning after

9 11 2012

So I don’t know if anyone noticed, but we had this election?

Words cannot fully describe my relief, not only at having this particular episode behind us, but even more at how it came out.  The Tea Party will never be repudiated fully enough for my satisfaction – that would involve public humiliation and tons of rotting fruit – but this election delivered some deliciously solid smackdowns.  And I plan on basking in the afterglow for some time.  Here in Illinois, Tammy Duckworth defeated Ball-of-Tea-Party-Rage Joe Walsh; I also have a Democratic congressman for the first time in something like 40 years in this district.

And of course there is some post-election activity on Facebook.  Part of me thinks that if I were any kind of a good person, I’d let this stuff slide on by.  And then the part of me that cares about things reminds that first part that we let things slide on by for a good long time, and it led to nothing but tears.  So instead of taking that little post-election respite, I’m still in the thick of it.

The one that will never cease to amaze, depress, and infuriate me is the attitude of conservative Christians.  I have reached the point you reach as a parent with a whining, overtired child – okay, that’s enough.  You need to go take a nap and pull yourself together.  Or as my mother used to tell me: you have fifteen minutes to go into your room and change your attitude.

I don’t know when I’ve ever seen a more willfully obtuse group of people.  If Romney had won, they would, every one of them, be blasting out how this election was God’s will.  But since the election results didn’t agree with their will?  Then it can’t possibly be God’s will.  A couple of comments apply here… first, if the God you worship can have His (because their God is always male) will thwarted by people with ballots?  That’s a pretty damned sad excuse for a deity.  And second, Anne Lamott’s observation: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Funny how these things work out.

I have seen laments of how we are no longer a Christian nation, how we have turned away from the Christian principles of our founding fathers.  And because we’ve turned away from Jesus, we’re also turning away from morality.  (Yeah, that might be where I cracked and decided to wade back in.)  I have had it with a church that wants government out of religion, but thinks that religion – specifically, their brand of conservative Christianity – should be all over government.  I have MORE than had it with anyone who thinks that their religion makes them more moral than another religion, or no religion at all.  Even if we were not a country in which Protestants are now a minority, there is no excuse for the continued privileging of Judeo-Christian theology.  I’m sure the one commenter I found thought of herself as being quite inclusive when she wrote “I don’t care if you use the Old or New Testament… we need to work together.”  That’s some diversity you’re showing there, all right.

My nephew is 18 and is carving out a place for himself as an atheist.  Because he’s 18, some of his opinions and postings are perhaps not as gracious as I would hope.  Nonetheless, I am with him 100% in his fight to express his beliefs, and to live free from religious beliefs that make no sense to him.  I believe in a creator who loves all of her creatures, and that includes the ones blissfully unaware of her presence; those who marvel at her power, beauty, and humor; and even (perhaps especially) those who doubt or deny her.

The time is over – is, in fact, LONG past – for one half of the two-party system in this country to be controlled by the religious right.  Rachel Maddow delivered the most perfect summary of this that I am ever going to see. Part of it has been transcribed into a piece that is all over the internet now as a rebuke to the ignorant-by-choice Tea Party.  But the more important part of the commentary comes in the second half, with her heartfelt plea for everyone, in both parties, to stop arguing over the stuff that actually IS well established (evolution, global warming) and instead spend time on the very real problems that our country faces.  The whole idea of having different political parties is to throw different, competing solutions to these problems out there, so that voters can see those solutions, talk about them, and then decide the path that makes the most sense.

In spite of the inflamed rhetoric of the last several months, in spite of the ugly commentary I’ve seen on nearly every article I’ve read (pro tip: do NOT read comments, ever) I do believe that most people in this country want many of the same things… we want to work, to stay healthy, to raise our children to productive and compassionate adulthood.  We cannot find that common ground as long as the religious right – or the Tea Party, or the family values crowd, or any of their assorted cronies – sets the topic and tone of the discussion.

If you actually believe that this country is going to hell in a flaming handbasket, then by all means I encourage you to hide in your houses, and cower in the fear provided by your imperfect and inadequate faith.  That at least will get you out of the way.  For those of us who actually do believe in this country, in the basic goodness and humanity of the people with whom we share a country and a society: Forward.

I aspire to be the tax collector

13 08 2012

So Paul Ryan is Romney’s running mate, and he’s probably a really good choice for what they want to accomplish.  Romney is viewed with suspicion by the hard right Tea Party faction – not conservative enough, and not Christian enough.  So now he has Ryan, Tea Party darling and devout Catholic.  I heard interviews with voters on NPR this morning that made my skin crawl – how people are planning to vote based on Ryan’s religion; others who talk about his nice hair, his white teeth, and how he “looks honest”… I’m starting to think that an issues quiz, as unconstitutional as it would be, might be a really good addition to the voting procedure.  Don’t know anything about the issues, or don’t care?  Then you don’t get to vote. 

I know.  It can’t happen, and deep in my liberal heart I know that it shouldn’t.  But it continues to amaze me how, in an age when information is so readily available, people don’t make an effort to inform themselves.  They don’t have to agree with me – my best friend’s husband is a staunch Libertarian – but they need to be informed, and they need to think.  

I hate finding myself in a time where someone’s faith is (in my mind) a detriment to their political standing.  I never thought I’d see a time when fundamental Christian zealotry would play this large a role in American politics.  I know it isn’t the first time religion has come up, but I don’t have the personal memories of Kennedy’s election, and the kind of suspicions that were raised about Catholics.  Nowadays the questions that were raised in the early 1960s are presented as slightly silly, but really they differ very little from the types of Christian litmus tests that current candidates face.  Although religion tests for election to public office are specifically prohibited in the constitution, as a matter of practice they happen all the time.  Can you even fathom having a non-Christian as president?  I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime.  

It’s a theme I come back to again and again.  (I know.  You’re shocked.)  I don’t know what the Christian right is so afraid of.  I don’t know why they need to be so public in their display of faith, what it supposedly means or proves to them.  I guess they see it as a way of showing that they’re not ashamed of Christ, but I see it more as an example of what Christ said in the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14).  Read the description of the Pharisee’s prayer and ask yourself how different this is from what we see every day from the Christian right:

The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

How they congratulate themselves on not being like all those people they oppress, while at the same time congratulating themselves for “hating the sin, loving the sinner.”  In my darker moments I comfort myself with the thought that karma will catch them.  But until it does I still have to live with smug, self-congratulating, self-appointed Keepers of the Faith.  Who are all about their worldly political power in spite of the repeated instructions in their own bible, telling them to step away from the temptations of power, wealth, and status.