I met a friend for drinks on my birthday a few weeks ago, and we got to talking about faith. This friend was raised in a multi-faith household, the product of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother (which means he’s got guilt-trip issues to spare). Having been raised rather devoutly Catholic myself, I’ve long had my own issues with faith — the inherent contradictions in scripture, the scientific impossibilities of things not thought of as articles of faith but indeed facts, the anti-gay streak that doesn’t sound like any of the Christ-y love I grew up hearing about… and that’s not to mention the rape scandals that have plagued the Church for the last fifteen years (but were, quite obviously, issues long, long before then). So anyways, our conversation drifted to the idea of church-going, and I admitted that, well, yes, for the last month or so, I’d been attending church. His response was one of surprise: he said, “I’ve always thought of you as a ‘free-thinker.’ Did that change?” I sort of flippantly responded that no, that hadn’t changed, but that I had used my power of free-thought to come to a different conclusion than many so-called “free-thinkers.” His response didn’t, I don’t think, indicate so much a hostility to religion or faith as his bafflement that someone who had been denying the existence of God for quite a while (and who has always wanted to meet St. Augustine just so he could punch him square in the jaw for being such a dick) would just suddenly lay on the whole church thing. The thing is… it wasn’t sudden, and it wasn’t an accident, and it isn’t an affliction. It’s… something else entirely.
I should back up a bit here. When I was a kid, I went to church more out of habit than anything else. But around puberty, something clicked within me, and I started taking church and religion very, very seriously. I was pious as hell: church every Sunday, prayers at night, journal entries praising God — I was an evangelical in Catholic clothing (no, literally; I went to a Catholic school). And I absolutely loved the Church and the Mass. The ritual all meant something; all that standing and sitting and kneeling and bowing and genuflecting all had meaning. It gave me the feeling of being a part of something greater than myself — this ancient church, still adhering to (essentially) the same precepts as it did 2,000 years ago, preaching about God’s love and the fact that despite our sinful ways, we could still be redeemed and lead good lives. There’s something to that.
Now, this isn’t to say that I was ever conservative about it. I was a teenage boy; I don’t think more than three seconds passed, even whilst in church, without my thinking about sex. I’ve always believed in equality for gays, that it wasn’t a disorder but rather the way God made them, and that discrimination in any way was absolutely against God’s plan. I believed even then (as I do now) that, as a practical matter, abortion an euthanasia ought to be legal, even if they weren’t things I’d personally choose. There was never a moment where I thought women should cover up more, and indeed, it made no sense to me that women couldn’t be priests or that priests couldn’t be married. In fact, that was what kept me from pursuing the priesthood instead of English — I wanted to fuck, and I wanted to fuck a lot. When asked by a dear friend in high school if I was a “wait until marriage” type, I believe my response was, “Abso-fucking-lutely not.” She reprimanded me for that… and then she got laid before I did. Of course.
Then the rape scandals began to drop — first as a trickle, then as an apparently unceasing flood. The thing is, I always felt a smidgen of sympathy for the guys that actually performed the rapes: not that they shouldn’t have gone to jail or anything like that, but because they were obviously disordered. They were, for all intents and purposes, insane. The real criminals, I felt, were the ones who knew and understood that raping children was a terrible, terrible idea but did nothing to stop it and in fact encouraged it to happen by simply reassigning these poor bastards, still allowing them around children.
Simultaneously, I began to feel a strong pull towards nature. I didn’t like the simple way we Catholics viewed God, either — this old man in the sky who delighted in meddling in our everyday lives. And don’t even get me started on the Book of Job, which I finally read, and which made me rather pissy with God for a good long while.
Just like Willow!
So, I stopped going to church. But that didn’t quite make me an unbeliever yet. I still felt the presence of God, or of gods, or of something. Thanks mainly to my own research but owing a deep debt to a girl I was seeing at the time, I began to dabble in a solitary earth-based religion that bore elements of Wicca and reconstructionist paganism, but which I refined to be my own thing. And what really got me going, honestly, was the duality of everything: it was ritualistic and much like the Catholic mass; the “gods” were essentially doubles of the saints I’d been praying to my whole life; the “spells” over which some Christian
denominations get themselves into quite the tizzy were really just meditative prayers. And, of course, I was at my most devout when I found myself in a most unfamiliar situation, that of being in Spain, not knowing the language, and not really knowing anybody, added to having been dumped from a two-year relationship a few weeks prior to leaving for said trip. It was a rather stressful time, and I took solace in the ritual that was my personal religion.
When I returned from Spain, however, the rituals slowly began to go away, as did my little talks with God, or the Goddess, or the gods, or whatever. Soon enough, I was pretty much over the whole religious thing altogether, a brief attempt at attending a Unitarian Universalist church notwithstanding. But yet it never really left me: I still felt the strong sting of every unfolding Church scandal; I still tracked the sabbats on the Wheel of the Year; and, as Lafayette Reynolds once put it perfectly succinctly on True Blood, “Just because Jesus an’ me agreed to see other people don’t mean we don’t still talk from time to time.” Actually, I think that’s wholly accurate: I didn’t still have my churchgoing faith, but there was an inkling of something that simply didn’t go away. In my darkest times, I’d still find myself saying a prayer, having a little talk with God, as Stevie Wonder might put it.
Fast-forward a few years. Since then, I’ve started my first postcollegiate job, hated my first postcollegiate job, run away from my first postcollegiate job (so far, in fact, that it took me to Aberystwyth, Wales, also known as my favorite place on Earth), returned home, started up the most important relationship I’ve ever had, moved in with said partner, and gotten engaged (we’ll be married in September). Through all of this joy and wonder, I fell deeper and deeper into a negative mental state that I’m not going to get into on this blog, because that’s not really the point. Except to say this: about six months ago, I was in an incredibly dark place, and there were only two ways out; I chose the one that wasn’t dying.
Here’s where I’m supposed to say, “God saved me,” but that simply wouldn’t be true. God didn’t save me, at least not directly. It’s not like His hand touched me or He healed my wounds or He came down from heaven and took all my problems away. Because that’s just not how this works, see. But thanks to a good amount of positivity, the help of a perfectly-matched head-shrinker, an extremely patient fiancee, and shit-tons of Polyphonic Spree music blaring through my headphones, I made it through that dark time. So no, it wasn’t God that saved me.
What happened, though, was that God did kind of, well, find me.
One of the things my shrink recommended I explore to get out of the thick grey bubble I was in was stuff that made me happy when I was at my happiest. The first and most obvious choice was music; I’ve been an avid musician since I was old enough to sing a few notes. Then, of course, there was reading, and read I did, on a tear — I’m currently on my eighth book of the year thus far. Yet still, something was missing. So in February, quite out of the blue, and after about a month of saying, “I want to go; let’s go” and then chickening out, I walked from work over to a Catholic church for Ash Wednesday. Going to church felt good, but not great; something was still missing.
The following Sunday, I skipped church, but a week later, my fiancee and I attended another Catholic mass. And it. Was. Awful. The priest’s rambling sermon had more to do with penance and guilt than it did with the loving sacrifice we were supposed to be commemorating — “For God so loved the world that He sent His only son,” etc. Where was that? I was really confused.
But I still had this void in me; I still wanted to go to church. Even though I wasn’t sure that I believed even in God, much less the divinity of Christ, I felt a– a– calling (yeah, that’s a cliche way of putting it. Sue me.). So we started looking into churches that might balance what we both wanted — me, the tradition and ritual; she, a casual and younger-skewing congregation. What neither of us wanted, however, was a place that was too, shall we say, Jesus-y. Not that Jesus was bad–far from it! But we wanted a place that lived like Jesus, not a place that talked about him.
So, I was looking up churches in our area, and I came across one that piqued my interest. Mainly, it was that it was just cheesy enough without being lame, and just goofy enough without seeming impious (example: the church’s staff includes an Assistant Sexton and Shepherd, both of whom, well, see for yourself). It had the added virtue of being Episcopalian, which was good for me because it wouldn’t seem quite so alien as other denominations (Episcopalians are very much within the Catholic tradition and refer to their “rival” denomination not as the “Catholic” church, since they, too, consider themselves lowercase-c catholic, but as the “Roman church,” which I personally think is more accurate). There are a few minor differences between the churches (most notably that Episcopalians don’t adhere as strictly to any idea of transubstantiation), but mostly, the tradition was something with which I’d be mostly familiar.
All Saints’ Church
So we went in one Sunday morning in early March, and I was immediately skeptical: they started the mass off with a reading of the Ten Commandments, a tradition during Lent. Already, this new place was doing alien things. And I was honestly a little scared. Then things simmered down, and the readings began. By the time we got to the Gospel, which was an obscure parable about a fig tree, I was back in the swing of stuff I remembered (though I didn’t recall the parable). But I was thinking all through the readings, the songs (which were sung and played beautifully by a very able and wonderful choir), and the rest of it, Well, I mean, this is fine and all, but I don’t feel it. I’m still not moved. Am I maybe just trying to force this church thing? Maybe I need something else to fill my time. Maybe it wasn’t so much church calling to me as–
I was cut off in my own thinking by the sermon. It kind of came out like a bolt of lightning. It wasn’t shocking or particularly vibrant (though the preacher did have an excellent bit about nobody knowing what the hell the “Parable of the Barren Fig Tree” was). But it related precisely how this obscure little parable might actually apply to life. And then came the shocker (though I shouldn’t have been shocked, it was flabbergasting for this now thrice-lapsed Catholic to hear from the pulpit): the preacher thanked God that marriage equality would hopefully soon be coming to Illinois. By this point, I couldn’t suppress my smile. By the way, if you’re at all curious, you can hear the sermon in its entirety here.
The Communion was a bit different, too: kids of all ages were allowed to take it, and they lined up one by one to do so. But what really sold me on the church came right after Communion. Rev. Bonnie Perry, the church’s rector (a woman, which was yet another piece to the awesomesauce puzzle that is All Saints) did the church announcements in a very casual, almost improvised manner that I found charming — this after she had smiled nearly the entire way through her own blessing of the bread and wine before Communion. She called for birthdays of the month, and I was forced by my fiancee to stand and give mine — Rev. Perry recognized me two weeks later and remembered that that day was indeed my birthday. But the thing that sold me the most was a very, very simple, very human moment that came after all the announcements were done: Bonnie dismissed the youngest children to head to their Sunday school, and as they trampled out the way kids do, she called out, “You can all go back now – walking!” almost the way a teacher would do — but she did so with this big, wide smile. I left the church that day thinking, Well, THAT was a thing…
So here we are, over a month later, and I’m still as enthusiastic about it as ever. I took Holy Week pretty seriously this year, going to church almost every day. However, on Easter Sunday, we were out of town, and we attempted another Episcopalian Church… and it was so undeniably different that I was actually taken aback. So formal, so rigid, so… Protestant… It just wasn’t for me. And that’s when I realized it: I’d truly found a church home, one that made me feel whole.
…which brings me back to my dear friend’s point about being a “free thinker.” I’m still a free thinker. And I’m not going to go to church just for the sake of going to church, not now, not ever. That’s just not me. But sitting in All Saints every Sunday, listening to Rev. Perry or Rev. Holliday explain what in the hell all that Gospel stuff really means (and how it’s applicable to the present, and why it’s okay to think things like, Man, I GET why the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son was so pissed off!) — I get Christ. I mean, I get it. The smells and bells don’t actually help me understand it any better. Neither do the exclusionist denominations that, however well-intentioned, just serve to be dicks to good people. And while I do still hold that ritual stuff dear, I’ve found that the ritual itself isn’t as important as the people with whom I’m sharing it. I’ve never been to a church quite like the one I’m at now, and I don’t know if I’ll ever find one again. But I do know that, in the here and now, I’m a Christian again, and it’s all because of the incredible and loving community that makes up All Saints.
That’s why I’m going to write this last paragraph very, very carefully. Having been down the atheist (or, perhaps more accurately, agnostic) road, I like to think I understand atheism pretty well. It really, really pisses me off when religious folk not only dismiss atheism but demean it. I tend to agree with C.S. Lewis’s assessment that atheism is a little too simple, but it’s also a little too simple to believe that everything that happens was just because of God (which is essentially the religious answer to, “Wizard did it!”). However, atheists come at the world differently, and they’re entitled to it. If there is a God, I’m relatively certain that if He cares about one damn thing we do, it’s whether or not we’re good people, not whether or not we believe in Him (and Jesus backs me up on this, by the way, hence the Parable of the Good Samaritan).
That said, neither, I think, should atheists get on their high horses and make fun of all religious folk. Painting in broad brushes is a bad thing, and pretending all religious people are the same is at best unnecessary, and at worst a creation of a religion in and of itself. One thing that’s always pissed me off about Bill Maher, for example, is emphatically not the fact that he’s an atheist (I actually like that, because it makes his arguments with Andrew Sullivan all the more fun); it’s that when confronted by the fact that he evangelizes his own beliefs, he backs away and says, “No, atheism by definition isn’t a religion.” That’s a cop-out. People should believe what they want to believe (or not believe), but to me, there’s something to be said for doubt in all phases. I talked about this in my last post: you can’t just go around never questioning what you believe, because it turns you into a zealot. Devout believers need to go through periods of doubt and humility, because it is by design impossible to know with 100% certainty that all this religious stuff is true; but so, too, do atheists need the same kind of doubt and humility, because they don’t know anything any better than the rest of us. I mean, sure, the Scientologists believe some wacky shit, but what happens if it turns out they were right, and Xenu will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead? I don’t so much expect that to happen, but because I can neither see the future nor see beyond the veil of this life, I can’t know for certain. Ever. And that’s okay.
See? I’m still a free-thinker. Christians can be free-thinkers too.