Much of what I am, I tell myself I shouldn’t be. Much of what I’m not, I tell myself I should be. Some examples: I shouldn’t be in a cage about religion; I shouldn’t live in physical pain; if I must live in physical pain, I should be a man about it and not take drugs; I shouldn’t ever feel lost, despairing, angry, helpless, or depressed; I should be a published writer; I should relate to people more lovingly. I should do more good in the world; I should be an example of wisdom, maturity, stability, and integrity; I should present myself so that all who know me will love and admire me; I should live so that there will be standing room only at my funeral.
Despite all this, I love myself and have a good sense of whom I am, but I did something yesterday that I’ve never done before, and it woke me during the night: I pulled a post because I was ashamed of it. I pulled that post almost on the spur of the moment. I told myself that people get tired of reading this shit; that I’m too old to have this problem, that I must once and for always not have this problem; that it’s degrading to tell people about this problem. When I woke in the night, I realized that if I start holding back out of shame, I’ll give up blogging because I wouldn’t find it meaningful to write posts that don’t represent the true currents in my life. I decided to put the post back:
I went back to high mass (Episcopal) on Saturday for the first time in six months because I happened to be in the area. That might sound like a piss-poor reason, but I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. I must report that I enjoyed it thoroughly, and that (Father) Brent seemed glad to see me. He suggested that we get together and talk, a proposal that I met with ambivalence because I fully accept that no one can help me unless it be through books or at least letters, and Brent is no writer.
I surely have an emotional problem because why else would I, an atheist, keep going to a church where I don’t even feel welcome except by the priest. Then again, how can I really know if I have an emotional problem? I mean, so what if I don’t fit, does that mean there’s something wrong with me or something wrong with those by whom I feel rejected?
A few years ago, a reader wrote, “You have nothing to teach the church, the church has everything to teach you.” He thereby succeeded in succinctly summarizing the common Christian belief that truth and virtue belong to the speaker’s private theology, and that anyone who doesn’t agree would do better to stay away.
“American churches exist in a buyer’s market. Customers must be kept happy. However, by playing to the segment of the population which has long since abandoned the search, ministers, priests, and rabbis drive away many thoughtful people who are turned off by unsubstantiated promises of pie in the sky… Tragically, these are the people who are often most capable of giving religious institutions new vision…
“Worship is a preacher-choir performance for passive spectators. A conspiracy of niceness pervades the congregation in which everyone is smiling, everyone is friendly, happy… Talk appears to be about everything except what really matters. Deep, honest, open discussions of meaning are avoided. ...a recovering alcoholic said that after his life-changing experience in Alcoholics Anonymous, his local church was unbearable.
“‘After I had at last been a part of a real community where we loved each other enough to be honest, to sacrifice our time and energy to aid others in the struggle…the sweet superficiality of my church was repulsive. When I tried to share with them some of the insights gained from my own struggles, they looked at me like I was crazy, like my struggle was a purely personal problem.’”
from The Search for Meaning by Naylor, Willimon, and Naylor
I relate to every bit of what I just quoted because churches are unlike any other place in that they profess to be loving, yet they operate like social clubs and their preachers are like insurance salesmen whose only interest is to bring in financially contributing members.
“...there’s the temptation to suppose that people will be interested in...what one has to say. They won’t—because the Church is not and perhaps never was chiefly for people who have a deep and serious intellectual interest in religion. On the contrary, the Church is for people who…want a feeling of reassurance and self-righteousness, and are happy to live by a ready-made Truth… They want to be delivered from the extreme terror and joys of real religious thought, and nothing is so effective a protection against religious terrors than conforming church membership. At least ninety-five percent of the hierarchy and church members alike will never see the radical theologian as a liberator and rebuilder, they will always see him as a troublemaker, a nuisance, an irritant who should be got rid of….
But he (Don Cupitt) also writes:
“At least since the time of Hegel, liberal theology has been…saying to the honest fellow travelers: ‘Nowadays the Church is no longer so rigidly supernaturalist and authoritarian as she was in the past. You don’t have to be a theological realist…the modern Church…sincerely cares for freedom of thought… So we truly think a person like you doesn’t have to live in self-imposed exile. You can honestly belong to the Church.’”
from Radical Theology
The last two sentences were what Brent tried to tell me, yet he doesn’t appear to feel safe in sharing his whole person, and this puts me in the same old bind of knowing that my acceptance depends upon my willingness to remain silent in the presence of supernaturalist beliefs that I do not and can not accept. Conformists are allowed to speak openly because they can be trusted to never say anything unsettling, but the only way I can be accepted is if I keep my mouth shut. Still, I go because I don’t know where else to go. Sometimes, I think that I have a more idealistic view of what religion should be than do most churchgoers. As Alfred North Whitehead put it:
“…religion is a vision of something that stands beyond, behind, and within the passing flux of things; something which is real and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal and yet the hopeless quest.”
from Science and the Modern World
I would guess that most atheists would consider this bullshit, and maybe they’re right, but it changes nothing because I’m as stuck as an elephant in quicksand, and no one can get me out.