My continued adventures

There are several liberal churches here that I’ve visited from time-to-time over the years, not for the service itself but for the various classes. Last night, I went to a two-hour event at First Methodist, which is the least liberal church that I would dare attend. Unfortunately, it had been advertised as a class about God when it was really a discussion group about a particular anthropomorphic version of God. When I arrived, I was handed a list of questions that would guide that night’s discussion, and they all presupposed that one felt God’s presence frequently and could talk about God in familial terms. Looking over the list, there wasn’t a single question that I could answer, so I debated whether to leave before the class started. Having gone to the trouble to get there and curious about what the others would say, I decided to stay.

A short film of a talk by the theologian Marcus Borg (a decidedly non-anthropomorphist) was shown, and in the following discussion, I discovered that I was the only one present who knew much about him. Not knowing this at first, and there being two ministers in the group, I decided to ask them to address one of my problems with Borg. Namely, he regards supernaturalism as “childish,” and describes himself as a panentheist, which is the belief that God contains the universe (“like water contains fish”), but is separate from the universe. I therefore asked what distinguishes panentheism from supernaturalism, and why Borg regards it as the “mature” way of conceptualizing God. The room grew terribly quiet as the clergywoman shook her head, the clergyman shrugged, and everyone else sat looking at me like I was from another planet. We then took up a discussion of what we wanted God to do for us. I thought this was a rather ironic direction to take since the theologian on whose thoughts we were building our discussion doesn’t believe that God intervenes in people’s lives, so I said as much.

Of course, no one seemed to know anything about Borg’s view on prayer (the film was but a first-person account of a supposedly mystical experience that caused Borg to regard God’s existence as being “as certain as the existence of elephants”), and the clergyman challenged the truthfulness of my statement. I offered to give him a source for it, but he said that wouldn’t be necessary, and he then challenged me directly—and angrily, I thought—to say what it was that I wanted from God. I was forced to say that I didn’t want anything from God, and, becoming angry myself, added that I didn’t regard the Bible as the Word of God, along with other such sentiments as would have once gotten me burned at the stake. By now I was sorry I stayed, and I recognized that, given the purpose of the group, my comments were counterproductive. This is why it is dangerous for me to be around Christians. They want to believe what they want to believe, and to support one another in believing what they want to believe, and it only takes one oblivious statement from me to throw a monkey wrench into their machinery. The only church I know that encourages people to think outside the grooves is the Unitarian, yet I very much doubt that a Christian would be much better accepted among atheistic Unitarians than I was among those Methodists. We are a tribal species.

When the group broke up, a bright and loving man in his eighties said he enjoyed my comments and looked forward to hearing more next time. I appreciated that, but I doubted that others shared his appraisal, and when I looked at the questions for the next meeting, they were pretty much like the ones for this meeting in that they presupposed that everyone come prepared to discuss their experiences of God. If I returned, the clergyman would most likely challenge me to justify my presence, and I wouldn’t know what to say, yet I must confess that a part of me wants to go anyway just to see what would happen. I won’t because I know from experience that it hurts to be rejected by a group, and that it is unwise of me to ever imagine that I am tough enough to handle it well even when I understand their reasoning and think mine is better. The bottom-line is that I probably have nothing to give the group, and the group probably has nothing to give me, and for my participation with any group, or even with any person, to succeed, two-way giving is essential.

I came home feeling like an idiot for going and a worse idiot for talking as I did. Then I read the responses from my last blog post, and they gave me a lift because the way that some of my readers see me is the way that I try to live so that I might make the best use of my remaining time. The road is easier and cleaner for one who is on a well-defined path, and I envy those Methodists for their apparent clarity and their support of one another, but I wouldn’t choose to be them because I believe the price they pay is too high. I know more than they, and I think more deeply, and I could never abandon these things in order to experience what they euphemistically call faith. What I would say to them, if they were open to hearing it, is that no skeptic can attack God—assuming for the sake of argument that God exists—but we can attack human representations of God, and the extent to which we can do so effectively is the extent to which they deserve to be attacked.