In response


“By Brent’s own words, ‘the creeds need not be taken literally’ he holds the creeds he represents as truth to be of varying degrees of nonsense.

 To me, I’d rather be hounded by a persistent pentecostal than to realize a man in church authority has ambivalent feelings regarding honesty and is a hypocrite to boot!” –Lotta Joy

“...stop trying to think about religion, it is doing your head in. Just look at what’s going on in the world today; death and destruction all in the name of some potty religious belief. That alone should make anybody with an ounce of common sense see how idiotic these divers belief are. Sorry for you Snowy. Sad that a man with your intellect keeps banging on about this crap.” –Philip

I’ve thought a great deal about issues of bad faith pertaining to my attendance at church, though not in regard to Brent but myself, so it would be difficult for anyone to offer an objection that I haven’t already considered, not that I’ve made peace with them all. I’m also more aware of the evil and stupidity done in the name of God than are most people, because I read about them more. Perhaps, the best I can hope for is that those who disapprove of my actions will indulge what they interpret as my stupidity—if not my insanity—as the misfortune of a fellow about whom they care and who appears to be prudent and sane in other ways. Now, I’m going to share some loosely connected reflections about various things pertaining to the creeds and to my attendance at church. I doubt that they will change anyones mind, but theyre all I can offer.

The Nicene Creed dates from a church council convened by Charlemagne in 325; the Apostles’ Creed is older, its authorship unknown. The two are similar, and some denominations use both. The creeds’ creators believed that the earth was flat, and that the sky was an upturned bowl beneath which the sun circled during the day and through which the lights of heaven shone at night. According to the creeds, this heaven is under the dominion of a patriarchal deity who sits on a literal throne with his literal son seated at his literal right hand. Because heaven is above our heads, Jesus had to descend from it when he came to earth and ascend to it upon his return.

The creeds raise other awkward images and questions, the awkwardest of which concerns Jesus being “…made incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the virgin Mary.” Try to envision God the Father wanting to become his eternal son’s male parent by an earthly virgin, but rather than impregnate her himself, he sends the Holy Ghost to do it by what might be the first instance of artificial insemination. 

The early church might have created creeds that encouraged good, something along the lines of, I believe in equal rights for all. I believe that it is wrong to force religion on others, or to harm anyone in the name of God. Instead, they based Christianity upon the acceptance of theological propositions that have inspired nothing but exclusion and persecution. Even today, membership in the Episcopal Church, among others, is predicated solely upon the willingness to say words that never ennobled anyone. 

Even so, the liberalism of the American Episcopal Church puts it in constant danger of either disintegrating or being excluded from the Anglican Communion, so I would not discard the creeds even if I could. I consider it worth threatening church unity over human rights—and Episcopalians have often done that—but I don’t believe the creeds rise to that level of importance. 

I asked Brent if anyone in a position of leadership in the church is required to accept the creeds literally. He looked thoughtful for a moment, and then said that the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote that Anglicans should maintain an openness to the creeds as a source of ideas for reflection, but that there is no requirement that they be accepted literally. People often argue that the church is too dogmatic, but in this instance the Episcopal Church isn’t being dogmatic, so I do not regard myself as a hypocrite for accepting the church for doing the very thing that I have long wanted it to do, which is to accept me despite my rejection of dogma.

The Episcopal Church once supported slavery, the subjugation of women, the prohibition of homosexuality, and other evils, but it would not have been for the benefit of the Episcopal Church (or of society) had those who opposed these things left the church because they believed their choice was between that and hypocrisy. Likewise, it would only make growth impossible if everyone who didn't like the creeds were to leave today's church.

When I went through the various Masonic degrees, I had to promise to submit myself to being slowly and ritualistically killed if I violated Masonic law. Few Masons would torture someone for such a violation anyway, plus no felon can remain a Mason. I don’t think of 1,700-year-old, largely nonsensical, church creeds as anymore binding than those Masonic oaths. Even if they were binding centuries ago, they’re not binding now. They’re simply a part of tradition that is becoming increasingly awkward.

I think of the creeds somewhat as I think of hymns that contain statements that no one takes literally. Like many hymns, the creeds pretend to be statements of personal conviction, but I think of creeds, hymns—and the liturgy as a whole—as more akin to a play. Some parts I like, and some parts I hate. Since I can’t do anything about the latter, my choices are to work with them, stay home, or be a Unitarian.

I doubt that anyone would know or care if I didn’t say the creeds, but I choose to say them because I consider them a part of the experience—of the play, as it were. My usual thought as I say them is that they’re musical and succinct, and that they represent a shared experience with the community by which I’m surrounded. 

I will continue to use metaphors liberally by saying that I regard going to church as like sitting by a waterfall. If someone were to come along and ask me whether I regarded the waterfall as true, the question wouldn’t fit the experience. Likewise, church isn’t a truth experience, in regard to rationality anyway, but an emotional, communal, reflective, and aesthetic experience. The fragrance of the wine takes me back to my childhood when I would return home from church and celebrate my own communion with Saltines and grape juice; the communion and the passing of the peace connects me to those around me; the sometimes ancient hymns reminds me that I’m partaking in a tradition against which my own lifespan is miniscule; Brent’s presence inspires me to be as open toward others as he has been toward me; the movements I perform enable me to feel like a participant rather than an audience member.

I’m experimenting with church, not to discover the truth about God, but to reconcile parts of myself that are in disharmony. If I could find another way to do this, I wouldn’t go to church, but there’s something there that I need, and as grossly imperfect as church is, I don’t know of another option. Even so, if I felt utterly alone in the Episcopal Church, I wouldn’t go. But as it is, I know there are others who have many of the same problems with the church that I do, yet they go because, like me, they find something there that they need. Will my attendance then be longterm? I have no idea. I have made no commitment, and any commitment that I tried to make would be meaningless.

How did I get this way?


I’ve struggled with religion for 54 years, which was when I was 11 and entertained my first serious doubt upon reading about a God-ordained massacre in the Old Testament. From there it was downhill all the way, but I couldn’t let go. I would ask for faith, and then open my Bible at random and point to a verse with my eyes closed, but I never felt that God guided my finger. A concrete statue of Jesus stood in a cemetery near my house, and I would talk to that statue, but I never felt God’s presence through it. I could beg, cajole, or curse, but God never once gave me reason to think he was there, so I came to hate him even as I lost more and more faith in his existence.

When I was 17, I decided that my church—the fundamentalist Church of Christ—was too conservative, so I optimistically set about to liberalize it by writing articles for the newsletter, but my articles were never published, and no one seemed to care when I stopped attending, although some people I had been close to never spoke to me again. I visited over fifty denominations looking for one to join, but only the Episcopal Church appealed to me, but I didn't go much. When I was 18, I started taking theology courses at a Methodist college, thinking that they would satisfy my doubts, but my questions were unwelcome, and what I learned caused me to have more doubts. My favorite professor urged me again and again to give myself to Jesus, so again and again, I gave myself to Jesus, but I never felt his presence, and the professor always seemed disappointed in my efforts.

Captivated by its rituals and loved by a priest who said I was like a son to him, I finally joined the Episcopal Church when I was 23, but my doubts continued to grow. When the priest was transferred, and I didn’t like the new priest, I stopped attending. At age thirty, I joined American Atheists, drove 100 miles to New Orleans for chapter meetings, and wrote for the national magazine. I was named a non-resident editor and Madalyn Murray O’Hair asked me to call her Grandma.

When I wase 39, Peggy and I moved to Minnesota, and I joined the overtly atheistic First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis. I missed it terribly when we moved to Oregon two years later. When I was 42, I attended a Quaker Meeting with an atheist friend for several months, but found it boring. At age 48, during a time of emotional upheaval, I became a Catholic in the hope that the act of joining would magically cause me to feel differently about religion, but it didn’t, so I lost interest almost immediately.

In my upper fifties, I became the leader of a local atheist group. The meetings were too left-brained and too much dominated by the most talkative members to hold my interest, so when the group got too big to meet at my house, I stopped attending. It now has hundreds of members, but I have only retained my friendship with two. They have a 17-month-old daughter, and, since they were both rejected by their Jehovah’s Witness parents (who haven't asked to visit their granddaughter), they named Peggy and me as Sidney's grandparents. Other than Peggy, they are the nearest thing to family I have, and I worry that my current foray into Episcopalianism will alienate them. After all, religion has never brought anything into their lives but weirdness, heartbreak, alienation, and abandonment, and my unstable behavior hardly gives them reason to see things differently.

Three years ago, I attended an Episcopal church as an open atheist. I was initially made to feel welcome, but by the time I left, people were glad to see me go. I can see how I bear part of the blame for this, but I was also surprised at how quickly they turned against me. I’ve thought of writing to the ones I was closest to about the possibility of us getting together for a talk, but I wouldn’t anticipate my overture being welcomed.

While I was writing the above, Father Brent from Resurrection Episcopal came for a visit. He initiated it, so I thought that maybe he had an agenda in mind, but he didn’t beyond wanting to know more about me and to reiterate that I’m welcome at his church. I’ve either emailed or told Brent everything in this post and more—in other words, I’ve gone out of my way to point out that I’m nutty as a fruitcake, probably won’t be around for long, am only there for utterly selfish reasons, and have nothing to offer his church—but he continues to be so welcoming that I feel as if I’m being courted. I’ve known five Episcopal priests well enough to have an opinion of them. Counting Brent, I’ve respected one, adored one, hated one, thought the fourth was childish and superficial, and considered the fifth neurotically petty. I guess two out of five isn't bad.

Brent said he knows a couple of atheists at Resurrection, and he described himself as an agnostic. As he put it, “When I pray, I don’t know that there’s anybody out there listening, but I hope there is.” When I told him about my feelings regarding universal consciousness, he suggested that maybe I too am agnostic, but I said that this depends upon how God is defined, and since the word normally points to the supernatural, I regard myself as an atheist. My problem is that liberal Episcopalians define God in various ways, not all of them involving the supernatural, so I can see how the word atheist would be more confusing than clarifying, so I won’t be making a point of using it as I did at St. Marys.

Brent also said that the creeds need not be taken literally. I already knew that few Episcopalians take every word of them literally. The trouble is that I find it impossible to interpret them metaphorically. I guess theologian Marcus Borg does too, because he compared saying them to a lodge ritual in which members hold their hands on either side of their heads in imitation of a moose. In other words, they’re an act that binds without its content being rational. Brent said that, for him, they also represent subjection to an ancient order, and that he finds the subjection itself of value.

I can’t tell if such thinking is a reason or a rationalization. I just know that the creeds are a problem for me, but then a lot of things about church are a problem for me, yet I can’t let it go. I think it likely that thousands of Episcopalians can relate. As Brent said, it’s a “non-confessing church,” meaning that members don’t have to believe anything in particular. I said that I worry less about being welcome than about myself eventually falling victim to cognitive dissonanceCognitive dissonance” is a term that doesn’t get used much anymore, Brent said, and I wondered why nothing has replaced it.

I then remembered the drug trip from Easy Rider, and it reminded me of what I love about the creeds: they’re ancient; they’re musical; they've been a part of my heritage for a hundred generations; they're said or sung by millions of people in thousands of situations day in and day out, century after century; and they paint a world as insanely fantastic as that of a demon, a gargoyle, a succubus, or a painting by Bosch or Beksinski. If other Episcopalians can say them without believing them, why shouldn't I? Why must I be rational when rationality seems so profoundly unrewarding, especially now that Peggy and I aren't so very many years away from dying? 

Resurrection


I don’t know why, but I became paranoid this morning (no, I wasn’t on drugs, but I sure wished I were). I was walking from the library to my car when, all of a sudden, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was about to be attacked, so I watched everyone closely, hoping they wouldn’t look at me. My next stop was Costco, which is a large box-store (as such places are called in America). I hate most big stores, but I love Costco—just not today though. God, but I wanted out of that place. Then, I got to observing the dance that we all perform in crowded situations just to avoid bumping into one another. I focused upon this dance, and it enabled me to reflect upon how cooperative people are, and that made my fear tolerable.

Like what I wrote about my mind and my heart sometimes being in conflict, today it was my mind and my fears. I often feel claustrophobic when I can’t leave a crowded place, and that’s how my morning was, only worse. I’m home now, and peacefully alone in this quiet room. Other than being paranoid at times on marijuana, I’ve never experienced anything like today, and I think it might be a small taste of how it feels to live in a place where people really do want to harm you.

Tonight. At 6:00 p.m., I went to a mass/rosary recitation at Resurrection Episcopal, and I felt as happy and peaceful there as I felt freaked-out this morning. It’s not just church I need, it’s the Episcopal Church, and not just any Episcopal Church, but a high church with incense, candles, holy water, altar bells, formality, and solemnity. I can put my heart into every word I say in such a setting without believing them literally. They possess me. Their beauty, their antiquity, the closeness I feel to those who are saying the same words and making the same gestures, is no less strange and beautiful to me than anything that’s strange and beautiful, whether I’m among people or in nature, whether I’m straight or on drugs. I don’t know how anyone could love high church more than I, or approach it more joyfully. On days when I know I will be going to mass, I count the hours. No one would ever suspect that I grew up in a church that considered ritual and ornamentation to be Satanic, but even back then, I missed what I had never had, and now I’m tired of depriving myself of it.

The day after George’s funeral a few weeks ago, I wrote to the priest at Resurrection: “I’m an atheist pure and simple and through and through, yet I keep being drawn-in by religion.” He wrote, “I am not a Christian who believes that believing correctly, that thinking correctly, has much to do with our relationship to God.” Years ago, another priest had written: “I accept atheism as a valid spiritual path.” Based upon what these priests, various lay people, and some prominent Episcopal theologians have said or written, I think it likely that I could find limited acceptance in this, the only denomination that I’m drawn to, so is the problem with it or with me? I just know that I leave an Episcopal “high mass” a different person, a more peaceful and happy person, and I fully believe that my life would go better if I could consistently allow myself that.

Iain, who is one of the staff at Resurrection, is a female-to-male transgender person who said as much during a Sunday School theology class he teaches. Last night, I told him about my father, about how he thought he was the only transgender person in the world until he was in his sixties and read a Life Magazine article about Jan Morris. I asked Iain whether he felt accepted by his denomination*, and he said, no, not entirely, and certainly not in every congregation. Then it hit me that he isn’t only like my father, he’s also like me in that I know I’ll never be accepted by many people in the church. They might not demand that I explain by what right I take communion in their church, but they’ll always resent my presence, and I’ll always know that nothing I might say could change that. I believe that this congregation will be more tolerant than most (“a place for misfits,” I’ve heard it called), and I’m also encouraged by the non-traditional pronouncement that the priest makes as he extends the wine and the bread toward the people before communion, “This is God’s table. All are welcome here.” Then he proceeds to serve all, including small children, and including me. My heart opens when I reflect upon his acceptance of me because I know what it means. It means that he cares more about love than dogma, and I’ve found that to be rare

*The following link contains the church's position on homosexuality and transgender:
http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/lgbt-church

Symbol Rock


The Indians considered Symbol Rock sacred, and I can understand why. Unlike them, I know its approximate age, mineral content, and how it formed, yet knowing all this makes it seem no less miraculous. Why, then, does it lies ignored on the side of an abandoned logging road? Surely, there are other people who go there as if on pilgrimage, but I have't seen them.

Last week, I wanted to bring a piece of it home, there being thousands of fallen blocks, but I worried that doing so would be a desecration. I had decided against it when, after much discussion and reconnoitering, Peggy and I made a summit attempt. We proceeded on all-fours on rock so loose and exposures so precipitous that we could have been killed had we fallen, but we finally made it to the knife-edge ridge. The summit itself was hundreds of feet distant, and Peggy demurred, so we turned back. I felt good about turning back because what I most wanted was for us to be together, and because having made the attempt made me feel okay about taking a piece of the rock home--having given something of myself to Symbol Rock, I imaged that Symbol Rock was willing to give a piece of itself back to me.

We take from the earth with little thought about the morality of doing so, and with no thought about whether the earth itself might object. I do this myself. To give an example, when I replaced our wooden fence in 1997, I didn’t agonize over whether it was ethical to support the killing of trees and the destruction of habitats so that I could have a fence. This year, I gave the matter a lot of thought, and would have considered chain-link as an alternative had Peggy agreed, but she did not, and I eventually bought wood. The trees are no less dead for my guilt, the habitats no less destroyed, and the earth, perhaps, no less offended, but I take some small comfort in knowing that I’ve grown more desirous of mitigating the damage I do.

Science is increasingly discovering that life—if not the universe as a whole—is more complex and interrelated than previously thought. For example, rather than only being “red in tooth and claw,” living things are also more cooperative—if not altruistic. For instance, mature Douglas Firs have been shown by experiment to share nutrients with young Douglas Firs, and other examples of “lower species” altruism are ever increasing. Unlike many, I wouldn’t credit such things to the supernatural (images of a god who consists of some undefinable material that is separate from and superior to everything else in the universe doesn’t fit with any fact that I know, or can imagine, or would want to entertain), but to something that I consider far more interesting, which is a web of underlying connectivity that might someday be shown to not just involve obviously interrelated lifeforms but life as a whole.

My guess is that it also extends to what we now consider non-life and that it includes universal consciousness. I speculate, of course, but if I were to be penned down as to what I believe metaphysically—or at least to what I think might be the case—I would have to say that from my earliest childhood, I have believed that all things were conscious, and that I still think it might be true. When I wrote recently about my difficulty in reconciling my heart and intellect, this is one of the conflicts that I had in mind. 

I don’t believe in universal consciousness because I believe it’s true, but because I can’t believe it’s false. The amount of credibility that I give to it varies. In the presence of Symbol Rock, I was 75% sure, but as I write this, my degree of certainty is half that. This is a major issue in my life, if only because an acceptance of it would paint the universe as other than a place of meaningless darkness, meaningless frigidity, and meaningless emptiness. Unfortunately, even my desire to believe makes me mistrust the fact that I do believe. No matter how far afield my imagination takes me, I always come back to the certainty that truth matters more than happiness, but this doesn’t necessarily make truth easier to recognize.