Let me first say it's not because I begrudge people their beliefs. I stopped reading Pandagon years ago because of the shit the bloggers there said about religious folks. This was years ago, mind you, and I haven't been back since, but my point is that, at that time I perceived a lot of biases against religious belief itself that I just couldn't deal with. This, at a time when I basically identified as an atheist.
I've read somewhere, recently, that when Karl Marx wrote, "Religion is the opiate of the masses," he didn't mean that it was something that made people dull and stupid and complacent. He meant that it was something that eased the pain they felt just from the hardship of existence. That's a powerful statement. How could I sneer at anyone for that?
I've got my own beliefs. Weird and scattered beliefs, at that, ones that I haven't really figured out just yet because I'm just coming into this new way of thinking about words like "soul" and "spirits" and other loaded terms like that. They're also not the reason I'm writing this post.
When I do go to church for personal reasons (I sometimes go for work-related reasons; I work with adults with developmental disabilities, and sometimes the job involves going with them to church), they are generally Episcopal churches. The Episcopal church is basically, from what I can tell, the American version of the Anglican church. All the things I like about the Catholic Church - meaning the Latin and the rituals and the pretty ornaments - minus everything I don't like about most of the rest of Christianity. I'll put it this way. Ash Wednesday service, 2009. Ash Wednesday marks the start of the Lenten season, the time for serious penitence and reflection about one's transgressions. Typically, this means lots of guilt for sins of the flesh and materialism and things that separate one from God. Things that make one forget Christ's sacrifice, maybe. Sin has mostly been defined in recent memory as bodily sins, things that make the individual impure. Vice. Homosexuality. Masturbation. Not giving enough of one's time or money to the church. Whatever. A whole lot of guilt piled on top of someone like so much graveyard dirt just for enjoying the body that was given to us by God or whom/whatever, in ways that don't hurt anyone else.
Back to Ash Wednesday, 2009. There is this huge church that I go to occasionally, with the enormous organ that thunders through the stone walls and floors so that you can really feel the music, which I always appreciate. The sermon at this particular Episcopal church is not one about how we are lowly because of who we are or what we do with ourselves. Not about how we're not giving ten percent to the church. It's about how we've failed, of course, because it's Ash Wednesday. It's not the beginning of a happy season. It's about how we've failed other people, how we've failed to do everything we could to relieve the suffering of others.
We forget this a lot in American culture, I think, this society built on an idea called rugged individualism that is really impossible. We forget that we do not exist in a vacuum, that we as individuals are not free of the influence of others and we are not free of the fact that our actions influence others in turn. That we do, in fact, have a responsibility to other people because it is simply the humane way to exist. Not free of the fact that when some of us are downtrodden it really affects all of us. I'm not just talking about charity, although that is certainly part of it. I'm talking about awareness, the courage to constantly examine one's privilege, the refusal to turn a blind eye to oppression.
That Ash Wednesday service was about that. About realizing that one's inaction is also sinful, that we are not free of the pain other people feel just because we turn away from it.
I had never heard something like that in a church. To be fair, I was not raised in a religious household. The number of times I went to church as a child is probably in the single digits.
My church attendance lately has mostly been while I'm working, like I said. I live in North Carolina, and the Baptist church is one of the more prevalent denominations here; the churches I have been to with my clients are churches that are obviously leaning toward Baptist theology.
There is a lot of rhetoric in these churches. The sermons are never ones that I can easily parse because at the best of times, they are so vague that it is hard to see exactly how the pastor wants us to apply to our own lives the things he is saying. I have spent time in two churches as part of my work: one of them I've attended with a client on a fairly regular basis, the other I've been to only once. It's weird but I am realizing now exactly how much alike their teachings are. It's not just because it's the South and I am not enough of a churchgoer to tell much of a difference between any given group of Southern churches. The church I attend semi-regularly has been doing an ongoing series of sermons about something called victorious Christian living. (I'm not sure what this means, really.) The one I attended only one time happened to be on a day when the pastor was talking about perseverance, and going all the way when it came to ... something. I'm still not clear on what. Belief? Not giving up one's religion just because things get hard, I suppose.
And victorious Christian living sounds a lot like that, I suppose. Keeping up one's belief and growing as a Christian, and not stopping even when things get difficult. I understand that part. It's kind of what the earliest teachings in the Christian church were about, which makes sense, considering that the earliest Christians lived in Rome in a period when this was quite difficult.
Here's the thing: no one seems to be sure about how victorious Christian living really works pragmatically. The things that the pastor always comes back to are reading the Bible, going to church, and prayer time. This will help you grow as a Christian, he says. This is the basis of victorious Christian living. How does one grow out of reading the Bible - a book which is inconsistent, at best, and incomprehensible at worst (see the entire Book of Revelation) - and then going to church to listen to a sermon that seems less and less meaningful as it goes on? I have listened to this man speak for up to an hour about these things, and the thesis of any given sermon about victorious Christian living seems to come down to this: Grow as a Christian. Open your eyes to God's will. Convert people. That is victorious Christian living.
Converting people - or "saving" people, as they usually call it - is, of course, the best thing you can do for them. I understand this - I don't agree with it necessarily, but I understand where they're coming from.
But people can't eat salvation, and it won't keep their children from freezing in the winter.
The pastor at the church I attended this past week, the one I've only gone to one time, summed up exactly the thing that bothers me about churches like this in his sermon. He was the one talking about perseverance, see, and he said something like, "God gives us glimpses of what heaven is like every now and then, to help keep us going. Times like when we're all singing and praising and fellowshipping, here in the house of God, those are the glimpses of Heaven He's giving to us."
That is the only part of the Christian church I can really see most of the time. It's the part that only looks in, where its people look only at each other. Occasionally they'll spare the rest of the world a look, but it's usually only to talk about people like me. Sinners. People who damning America. People who have fallen into temptation. The things that are wrong with the world. Examples. People who need help.
Both of these churches, and the few others I've been to throughout my life, are just echo chambers. Where the windows and doors are sealed and blacked out.