From the heart

I went to church today. No, I am not a Christian—I don’t even have an unreservedly high opinion of Jesus—but I enjoy studying religion. I also enjoy being in groups in which people speak from their hearts. So, I go to church sometimes, or at least to Sunday School. If a church has two services and Sunday School during each of them, I go to Sunday School twice and skip church. In Sunday School, I learn; in Sunday School, I contribute; in Sunday School, I hear other people’s stories; in church I am just another member of an audience that is listening to a speech, and I am probably bored.

Joanne is 75 and goes to First Christian. I met her two weeks ago, and right away she loaned me three books. People who loan out books without even knowing where to go look for them are different cats than I, and I love them for that difference. I also love Joanne for other reasons. I love her because she is impish, sprightly, speaks her mind, punches the preacher on the shoulder when they disagree, has a sense of humor that goes right over most people’s heads, and most of all, because Joanne loves me.

Today’s lesson was from the Psalms. I’ve read that there are monks all over the world who get out of bed every morning at two a.m. and stand on marble floors in unheated chapels just to chant from the Psalms, but I don’t know why. Granted, it is a book of praise, but much of that praise was a thinly veiled attempt to persuade God to grant the speaker health, wealth, and happiness while annihilating his enemies; and the praise was interspersed with warnings that God would look awfully bad if he didn’t do these things. Today’s text was from Psalms 19:

“The heavens are telling the glory of God… Day and night, they keep on telling about God. Without a sound or a word, silent in the skies, their message reaches out to all the world. The sun…moves across the skies as radiant as a bridegroom going to his wedding, or as joyous as an athlete looking forward to a race. The sun crosses the heavens from end to end, and nothing can hide from his heat.”

Parts of the Bible, I abhor; other parts touch me down deep. Even when I don’t believe the Bible’s words, I cannot escape its power.

Peggy grew up much as I did. We both went to fundamentalist churches three times a week, only it was her parents who took her, while it was I who took me. The day she left home was the day she left church. I’ve never left. For years I tried, but I always went back, so I finally stopped fighting it. When I’m in the mood to go, I go; when I’m in the mood to stay home, I stay home. Mostly I stay home, but when I do go, I take my heart with me, sometimes to one kind of church, sometimes to another. My only requirement is that people feel free to speak openly. The participants in a recent class were asked to summarize what they thought about the Bible in one sentence, and one woman said, “The Bible is bullshit.” I thought it an odd statement, standing alone as it did, but I liked the fact that no one blanched.

During our study today, Joanne talked about how, years earlier, she came home from a wedding to find that her husband had packed up half of everything they owned and left. She didn’t know what else to do, so she started getting up early each day and reading from the Psalms. The ancient writer seemed to be expressing the misery that she felt in her own heart. Morning after morning, she would read and cry until, after many months, she was all cried out. I pictured Joanne, alone in the wee hours in her half empty house, crying, and I started to cry. Wanting to hide my tears, I searched the Bible in my lap for verses that might help me understand what Joanne had found that comforted her.

“In my distress, I screamed for the Lord…and he heard me…
The Lord is my fort where I can enter and be safe…
The Lord is my rugged mountain where I can hide…
The Lord is my rock where no one can reach me…
The Lord is my tower of safety…
The Lord is like the strong horn of a mighty fighting bull…
The Lord gives me the surefootedness of a mountain goat…
The Lord leads me along the tops of cliffs…
How I love Him!”

The second class today only had eleven people and started with a check-in. Martin, who had been in the Bataan Death March said that last week, for the first time, he had been able to bring himself to hug a Japanese. I thought of how that must have felt to him after 65 years of suffering, and I started crying again. The only other visitor was a woman who was seated beside me, and she too started crying, noticeably so. Someone asked her if there was anything we could do for her, and she said that her marriage had just ended, and that she felt as if her world was falling apart. Two more people now had tears in their eyes.

When the class ended, everyone held hands in a circle. Someone thanked God that I had come. Someone else asked God to heal my shoulders. I knew that both classes had been more meaningful because I was there, and that felt really good.

Part 2

I grew up in the fundamentalist Church of Christ. When I was twenty (I'm going to be rounding off a few numbers), I joined the Episcopal Church. A few years later, I joined American Atheists, wrote articles for their magazine, and was named non-resident editor. When I was forty, I became a Unitarian. When I was fifty, a Catholic. When I left the Catholic Church, I saw that my relationship to churches was as much of a joke as Elizabeth Taylor’s relationship to marriage, and I vowed to stop pretending that I had it in me to be faithful. I had imagined that the simple act of joining would open me to some insight or experience that I couldn’t otherwise obtain, but it never did.

The advantage of growing up in the Church of Christ is that I learned far more about the Bible than most churchgoers. In a recent class at First Christian, everyone was given five obscure stories and asked which ones were from the Bible. I was the only one of thirty people to get them all right. The Church of Christ didn’t use literature about the Bible: all we studied was the Bible. Kids were drilled on it. We would work our way from the front to the back, and then start over again, year in and year out. It didn’t hurt any that I also studied the Bible in college. I haven’t looked at it much in decades, yet I learned it so well that I could pass for a clergyman, which is what everyone expected me to become.

I can only attend very liberal churches. Fundamentalist Christians aren’t free to express doubts in church just as fundamentalist atheists aren’t free to express doubts in their organizations. People who belong to liberal churches are all over the board regarding belief so the concept of heresy is nonexistent.

I washed out of my first Catholic confirmation class because the priest didn’t welcome my questions. I went across town to a church that had a liberal priest, and I did okay there except for my relationship with the sponsor who was assigned to me. He quickly decided that I had no business being a Catholic, but he didn’t stand in my way. In fact, he did everything I could have expected except to put his heart into our time together.

I had wanted this most ancient of churches to show me a side of Christianity that I had overlooked, and I had wanted it to accept me, but I saw nothing new, and my acceptance depended upon how well I kept my mouth shut. After my confirmation, I left the Catholic Church.

Most churches are like political parties in that you only belong if you believe the same things that everyone else believes. I can see the sense in this, but it contradicts any promise of inclusivity. Because they agree among themselves, church people have no idea how exclusive they appear to someone like myself.

I am a pantheist. The reason a lot of people object to pantheism is that pantheists don’t believe that the universe contains any more or any less that what atheists believe it contains; pantheists just call the universe God whereas atheists simply call it the universe. The difference, for me, is a matter of reverence. I find within myself an implacable impulse to worship, and this impulse makes me constitutionally unable to be an atheist. Yet, most versions of theism leave me cold. Theists typically believe that God hears prayers, performs miracles, provides guidance, and cares about justice. These are comforting ways to look at the world, but I see no reason to think they are true. I am nonplussed as to how anyone can think they are true. Yet, most theists are no better able to doubt than I am to believe.

The books that Joanne loaned me were from the Cotton Patch Version of the Scriptures. It is a serious translation from the original languages, and was made by Vernon Jordan in the 1960s. The thing that Jordan did differently in his translation was to use Southern U.S. vernacular, and to substitute Southern locations and groups for Biblical ones. For example, in the Cotton Patch version, Jesus preferred the company of bootleggers and black prostitutes to that of the white elders at First Church; Pilate was the governor of Georgia; and Jesus was “lynched” in Atlanta.

I was a teenager in the South during the ‘60s. I watched crosses burn in the yards of “troublemakers,” and I saw groups of men standing guard in the doorway of my church “to keep the niggers out.” Had some white preacher called the church elders “white-washed tombs,” and said that he preferred the company of Yankees and whores to that of “Good Christian White People,” his life most certainly would have been in danger. Just as the Jews of Christ’s time believed that Gentiles were unclean, I grew up believing that sinners and black people (but especially black people) were inherently stupid, filthy, immoral, and germy. I sanitized the sinners of the Bible while standing in self-righteous condemnation over the ones in my own neighborhood. I was a Pharisee, and I didn’t even know it.

Something else struck me about Jordan’s translation. In fact, it figuratively knocked me to the floor. I am speaking of the difference between Jesus and Paul. If Jesus can be thought of as an itinerant hippie who wore tie-dye and spoke of love; Paul can be considered an IBM executive in a white shirt and black tie. Jesus was directly accessible to his followers; Paul erected a hierarchy that still stands between Jesus and his followers. The church might have died without his organizational skills, yet much was lost because of them. Thomas Jefferson made his own New Testament by throwing out everything that Jesus didn’t personally do or say, and I can see the merit in that.