Winning Salvation

In 2018, I started re-attending the Episcopal Church, a denomination that I joined in 1972, after abandoning the fundamentalism of my youth. I have since become the most regular participant at a Gregorian Chant Evening Prayer service, and I am among the sextons who provide building security. I volunteered for the sexton job because I felt obligated to do something for the church; because I wanted 24/7 access to the sanctuary and library; and because I needed the trust that goes with having a key to the building.

I have shared the fact of my atheism with those church members who are important to me, most notably the head priest, Bingham, and the layman, Max, who leads the evening prayer service. Bingham has shown me unfailing warmth and acceptance, and Max complimented me by saying that I approach church with a purer spiritual intention than that of many believers.*

The Episcopal Church has long embraced liberal theology, modern Biblical criticism, and archaeological advances. While other mainstream churches buried their heads in the sand during the 1960s, Episcopal priests marched in support of Civil Rights (one was killed) and in opposition to the War in Vietnam. In 1974, the church ordained its first female priests. In 2003, Gene Robinson became its first gay bishop, and, in 2010, Mary Glaspool its first lesbian bishop. The Episcopal Churchs courage and integrity has cost it many members and led other churches within the Anglican Communion to advocate for its expulsion.

Since the time of Martin Luther, most Protestant Christians have defined faith as belief without evidence, and preached that salvation is by faith alone. They claim that this view frees believers from the onerous requirements of the Mosaic Law, but ignore the fact that no one can believe that which he considers nonsensical. The logical conclusion of such a belief is that the worst person who ever lived will go to heaven if he professes faith in Christ at the moment of death, while the best person who ever lived will go to hell if she does not. An alternative definition of faith divorces it from what a person believes and places it upon how he lives. In the common vernacular, by attending church regularly, I am practicing my faith. In terms of pleasing a deity in which I dont believe, the proper definition of faith is meaningless, but in terms of being able to attend church with integrity, it makes an enormous difference.
When people lose any semblance of belief, they also lose their fear of hell, but when, at age eleven, I entered the netherworld of agnosticism (as Christina Rosetti put it, the twilight that doth not rise nor set), I was besieged by periods of abject terror that lasted for two decades. The more afraid I became, the more I hated God for making me afraid, and the more I hated God for making me afraid, the more afraid I became. Shame kept me from sharing my torment with any other person because my church believed that doubt constitutes the unpardonable sin.

Given the misery that religion caused me, what possible reason could I have for going to church--any church? I go because I hunger, and while the god of my boyhood church was like a stone, the god of the Episcopal Church is like an apple. Just as one need not be a Hindu to practice Yoga or a Buddhist to practice Vipassana, I need not be a Christian to appreciate the solace of evening prayer. I sit amid the glow of stained-glass windows, absorb the light from flickering red votives, and praise the long-dead priest who hand-carved the altar. I recite the ancient liturgy as though it were a beloved poem, and no matter how my day was going when I entered, I am soon awash in the pastel light of joy and peace. But is my non-belief not an obstacle? If I were among those who believe in the monstrous deity that much of the Bible portrays, it would be, but the the beliefs of Episcopalians tend to be amorphous, and they consider it bad form to even talk about their private theologies. This reluctance is one reason that the churchs evangelical and Catholic critics castigate Episcopalians (and other liberal Christians), for practicing a watered-down, cafeteria-style version of Christianity that allows its members to take the dessert and leave the meat(the meat being passages which support conservatives belief in hell and portray God as sharing their sexism, racism, tribalism, and homophobia). 

The church’s critics are correct regarding its theological vaguity, but wrong in that the Episcopal Church is quite specific on issues of social justice. It is not the evangelicals, or the fundamentalists, or the Catholics, who welcome such outcasts as I, but Episcopalians. Just as the Biblical Samaritan made no demand that the man he was helping give proof of right doctrine, neither does the Episcopal Church expect it of me. When my local parish gave me, an atheist, a key to its building, I offered it as much of my heart as I can offer any group.**

The Parable of the Good Samaritan expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply, Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So, too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw the man, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came to where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. Look after him, he said, and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have. 

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” 

* In researching this post, I learned that 16% of politically liberal Episcopalians describe themselves as atheists or agnostics:

** I limit my loyalty to groups because groups are unable to give loyalty in return. Also, the Episcopal Church has taken a few stands by which I am appalled. Namely, it: (1) opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia; (2) teaches that only human life is sacred; (3) opposes laws that would restrict abortion, yet expresses moral opposition to most abortions; and (4) professes a reverence for nature, but neither conserves resources nor takes measures to protect non-humans.


Emma Springfield said...

As I'm sure you know the National Cathedral is an Episcopal church. They welcome people of all faiths and non-believers. They have services held by all religions. If our National Cathedral can do it we should all be as accepting.

Andrew said...

If you have to have religion in your life then the Episcopal Church sounds pretty good.

kylie said...

I'm glad you find beauty and solace in the church and I love that you contribute.
My faith helps me to have hope and hopefully makes me a better person. I think the theological questions and arguments are secondary to that

Tom said...

This reminds me of my sister in law who goes to her Congregational church regularly, sings in the choir, volunteers on several committees and then says, "Of course, I don't believe that Jesus is really god and all that nonsense." Anyway ... I don't think you're an atheist. You're a searcher.

Sue in Italia/In the Land Of Cancer said...

I am always impressed by how well you write. If only more "Christian" churches would follow the words of Christ instead of searching the old testament to find justification for their hatred.

Sounds like this church brings you the peace you need and welcomes you despite your doubts.

I am a scientist who questions everything, the very opposite of one who has faith. I need proof.

Snowbrush said...

Yesterday, I had a chat with a man named Craig who is in a position of leadership in my parish, and I told him of the survey regarding how many Episcopalians are nonbelievers. He was clearly surprised, perhaps shocked, but a woman who was listening in said that she could understand why non-believers would want to attend church, and she said it in such a way that I suspected her of being such a person. I wanted to ask Craig how he felt about the many--apparently closeted--nonbelievers who belong to the church, but the conversation moved on before I had a chance. I actually don't know if it would have been right of me to ask him because he doesn't know where I'm coming from, so if he were to find out later, he might feel that I set him up. It would be similar to a situation in which a black person who looks white asks a white acquaintance how he or she feels about black people.

"As I'm sure you know the National Cathedral is an Episcopal church...They have services held by all religions."

Yes, I knew that the National Cathedral was Episcopal (more Episcopalians have been American presidents than have members of any other religious group), but if it's going to use the word National, then I agree with you that it needs to be open to non-Episcopal services. However, this is not something that I would want my home church to do because I want to attend a church that offers a uniquely Christian service rather than a smorgasbord of religions. Here in Eugene, there's an Interfaith group for that, and, of course, there's a Unity church and also a Unitarian.

"If you have to have religion in your life then the Episcopal Church sounds pretty good."

Ha. You seem to be saying that if I simply must engage in this kind of thing, then being an Episcopalian is at least better than being a Moonie, and I can but agree. However, your statement does raise the question of whether, if I could choose, I would prefer to feel no need to attend any church. The answer is that I'm happy attending church as long as I am well-received and have something to offer. My only real problem is that I don't believe in the church strongly enough to give money to it, and so if it were left to people such as I, this institution that I value would wither and die.


Snowbrush said...

"My faith helps me to have hope and hopefully makes me a better person."
I don't think of church in regard to these things, although anything that quiets my spirit and provides me with an enjoyable social outlet surely provides them. It's just that I don't receive them from the actual content of Christianity because while I don't question that Jesus existed, I don't know but what the character of the Biblical Jesus was as we know him was primarily created by others to further their own values. The only service I attend is Evening Prayer, and part of the reason I attend it is that almost no one comes. I feel lost in a crowd because I'm very much an introvert; I don't have anything to contribute; and if I were not there, it wouldn't matter.
"This reminds me of my sister in law who goes to her Congregational church regularly, sings in the choir, volunteers on several committees and then says, "Of course, I don't believe that Jesus is really god and all that nonsense.'"

"Nonsense"? If you represented her accurately, she looks down on believers, and doesn't want you to mistake her for being so droll as to be one of them. This is surely unfortunate. The Congregational Church grew out of the Puritan Church, and is now a member of the United Church of Christ, which is a liberal body. I rate liberal churches as follows: first the Unitarian, then the Episcopal, and then the United Church of Christ. The Unitarian Church is creedless and has lost any semblance of being uniquely Christian, and while the next two churches recite the creeds, few members believe every part of them (I believe no part of them). By the way, it looks as if the United Methodist Church will be splitting soon over the liberal-versus-conservative dilemma, specifically, how it treats LGBTs.

Snowbrush said...

"I am always impressed by how well you write."
I greatly appreciate you saying that. I work awfully hard on my posts.

"If only more 'Christian' churches would follow the words of Christ instead of searching the old testament to find justification for their hatred."
On the one hand, he said some very good things, but on the other, he said some awfully bad things. For instance, he referred to Gentiles as "dogs;" told his apostles to buy swords even if it meant selling their winter coats to raise the money; said that anyone who didn't follow him was destined for hell; forbade a new follower's request to attend his father's funeral and otherwise sought to sever ties between his followers and their birth families; told his followers that if they engaged in name-calling, they would be in danger of "hell fire," yet called his detractors vipers, liars, white-washed sepulchers, etc. Then there is the problem of making sense of his commandments, For instance, he said that those who wanted to "be perfect" would need to sell all they owned and give the money to the poor, but he made no allowance for those who had dependents. He contradicted his commandment to buy swords by telling his followers to turn the other cheek, but why turning the other cheek made sense if someone was trying to kill them, or what they were to do if the person was trying to kill others, he didn't say. He said that if the army ordered his followers to carry their supplies one mile, that they should carry them two, but he didn't seem to care that the Roman army was an army of conquest and occupation that might have been on their way to murder or enslave. He said that if someone sued one of his followers, that the person was to give the person who brought the suit more than he sued for, this without regard for the justness of the suit. He also told his followers to pay taxes without regard for what the money was to be used for, his view being that when it came to their relationship with government, his followers were to do as they were told because rulers served at God's pleasure, so to obey the government was to obey God. The best thing that I can say about Jesus is that he was more inclusive of scorned peoples than were most people of his day, and that he treated women well. Indeed, in at least one of the "Lost Gospels" (the Gospel of Mary Magdalene), he made Mary Magdalene an apostle, and his male apostles were jealous because he respected her more than he did them.

Marion said...

My dear Snow, Winter in Louisiana is filled with bipolar weather: hot, warm, humid, freezing, sleet, hot, cold, windy, then suddenly beautiful with aching blue skies. Then dense fog for a week which all spells horrendously brutal pain for me. I cry a lot because: VIRTUALLY NO PAIN MEDICATION. My life has been stolen from me because of drug addicts. I was going to the gym, walking, cleaning house, doing some gardening, etc., but since my medicine has been cut by 2/3, I am almost immobile. I try to keep moving, but it’s difficult. I can stand for 15 minutes, then my lower back pain kicks my ass. I do as much Yoga as I can and my physical therapy exercises, but it hurts like hell...and the assholes who crippled me want to do my hip replacement surgery which is not going to happen. Sigh. I’m a cliche: older complaining woman full of ailments. LOL! I hope your pain is better.

I’m happy that you’ve found fellowship in your church. Community is important. I’m still searching for a church. I considered the Episcopal Church, but I don’t know anyone who goes there. I love the Pentecostals because their spirits and music are both awesome, but the ‘big church’ is too far away. I read and study my Bible daily and that satisfies my spirit. I just miss the community spirit. Thanks for asking about me. I’m hanging in. Take care, my wonderful cat friend. I hope all your kitties are doing great! xo

Snowbrush said...

Marion, I just spent an hour and a half in my pain specialist's office purely to get narcotics because, as he acknowledges, that's all he has to offer. Now...

"I considered the Episcopal Church, but I don’t know anyone who goes there."

I'm far from being a social lion, but I don't recall EVER going to a church because I knew someone who attended, and I truly don't understand your preference.... Upon thinking about it, I suppose I had rather NOT know anyone because they would no doubt introduce me to at lot of people whose names I would immediately forget.

"I love the Pentecostals because their spirits and music are both awesome..."

I've been to a number of "charismatic" churches out of curiosity, but was appalled by their demonstrativeness rather than attracted to their exuberant swaying (or dancing), prophesying, lifting their arms in worship, speaking in tongues, and so on. I find it hard to imagine that any high church Episcopalian (by which I refer to someone like myself who considers elaborate ritual a barebones necessity--there are Episcopal parishes that proudly refer to themselves as "low church") would react to a Pentecostal Church other than by at least wanting to run out the door screaming, but I could be wrong. I do know that some low church Episcopalians are definitely charismatic, but they're not the kind of people who would welcome an atheist. Something that I very much enjoyed when I was lived in Mississippi was visiting black churches because they were so very, very welcoming. I really couldn't have asked for more warmth than what they showed me, and the thought wasn't lost on me that they would have been refused entry into most white churches.

Here is the latest poem that I'm memorizing. I share it because I think you're enjoy it: