Why I pulled this post and why I put it back

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.


stephen Hayes said...

I fear that there isn't an answer to the great question you're asking yourself. You don't seem content being an atheist and that seems to be a big concern for you. I wish you could find spiritual contentment, even outside of organized religion.

kylie said...

a few months ago i was asked to speak in church, to testify about my spiritual experience. In my eyes it was raw and confronting but also positive and powerful. Precisely one person commented later.
It is true, churches are full of sanitised stories and veneers of respectability. Not many care about what is real.
The church is too middle class for it's own good

Elephant's Child said...

No-one except you can get you out. When and if you are ready.
Do you think that your constant search is positive or negative on the whole? Or is it just integral to the questioning soul that you are?

Snowbrush said...

“I wish you could find spiritual contentment, even outside of organized religion.”

I wouldn’t know how to make a clear distinction. Of the first two authors I quoted, one is “Dean of the Chapel” at Duke, and the other is a well-known theologian, but do either of them sound like insiders to you? If you join a Wicca coven, are you are inside or outside of organized religion? How about Jesus, was he an insider? I think that when people talk of outsiders, they often have reference to those who go it entirely alone, but that works for few at most, and I question whether it even works for them. My guess is that religion simply isn’t important to them, but, for whatever reason, they like to refer to themselves as “spiritual not religious,” so they do so without giving the matter serious thought. Why do I think this way? Because, in my experience, they’re ignorant and shallow.

“Precisely one person commented later.”

Which made it an exercise in disillusionment, I should think. I’ve been there many times over many years. The only group that even might accept me would be the Unitarian, but darned if I can figure out what they have to offer. I tend to think of them as primarily a social club for atheists, but other churches that please me more on some levels are never so liberal as what they pretend to be.

“No-one except you can get you out. When and if you are ready.”


“Do you think that your constant search is positive or negative on the whole?”

I don’t know, but if I could live my early years over, I would see to it that I never set foot inside a church.

“Or is it just integral to the questioning soul that you are?”

Yes, it is integral to whom I am, but whether this is for the good, or whether I could have been some other way if I had grown up differently, I have no idea.

Tom said...

Did you see "Faith vs. Facts" by T. M. Luhrmann in Sunday's NY Times? An interesting take on the question.

Snowbrush said...

“Did you see "Faith vs. Facts" by T. M. Luhrmann in Sunday's NY Times?

Yes, thanks to you, and I agree that it was interesting. Here’s the link to it for those who are interested: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/opinion/sunday/t-m-luhrmann-faith-vs-facts.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

Child, in relation to your question, this article mentioned that the older one gets, the more supernatural explanations tend to take hold. I don’t see this in myself, but maybe the fact that I’m now drawing within sight of the end of my life, and am also living in increasing pain and disability makes me feel more despairing about not having a satisfying spiritual dimension, as it were. While I’ve never NOT thought about such things, my thoughts haven’t always been so intense. I have no confidence that any of my atheist readers share or even understand my feelings, just as I don’t understand how my believing readers find it possible to believe. I do know that atheistic churches are on the increase, so I’m surely not alone (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/25/opinion/religion-without-god.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Ft-m-luhrmann&action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=Collection&region=Marginalia&src=me&pgtype=article)

Fram Actual said...

You seem fixated to me on "the church" (a church, any church) and the people inside it to provide answers to your questions and to suggest solutions to your sense of wandering in a spiritual "no man's land" when you might be better served by following Moses into the wilderness. Even cathedrals sooner or later come crashing down and the worshippers within them turn to dust in time. There never have been any actual answers there.

I think your "social club for atheists" might be the perfect middle ground for you.

By the way, my hackles rose when the fellow you quoted referred to the church as "she."

kylie said...

i no longer expect or hope to fit in, i go along and take what i can from the teaching, i also offer what i can but i dont really expect too much. it actually works well.
you often wonder how people believe: in large part i believe because i have no other source of confidence or hope. and then of course there is always confirmation bias to keep the cycle going

Charles Gramlich said...

Gotta agree that the church, and most religions, I imagine, are not for the intellectually curious about religion, but for those who need the comfort and reasssurance.

Snowbrush said...

“my hackles rose when the fellow you quoted referred to the church as “she.’"

As opposed to what—he? it? I suppose the church has always been referred to as a she, the Catholic Church anyway.

“you seem fixated to me on "the church" (a church, any church) “

When I think of “the church,” I think of Catholicism and Anglicanism, the former because the history of “the church” is largely equivalent to the history of Catholicism; the latter because it’s the only church whose services I love.

“you often wonder how people believe: in large part i believe because i have no other source of confidence or hope.”

You might want to read the NY Times article that was mentioned in my last response. When I read what you wrote, I pictured myself on a desert island feeling desperate to be rescued and somehow convincing myself that a ship was on the way, although I had no rational reason to believe that this was true. So I am in regard to religion, only I don’t believe that a ship is on the way, and I don’t really understand how you—or Brent, perhaps, can.

“Gotta agree that the church, and most religions, I imagine, are not for the intellectually curious about religion, but for those who need the comfort and reasssurance.”

Yet, presumably, that is enough to convince people that it’s all true.

Fram Actual said...

Whether one is referring to "the church" as a particular faith or religion, or as a building, it is an "it" for my purposes. Does one refer to communism, for instance, as "she" or existentialism (a word so often misused these days) as a "he" or even another religion such as Lutheranism as "he" and so on ad infinitum?

I suppose it puzzles me more than anything because there is no logic for it, only political purpose .... and, probably for that reason, it also offends me. No big deal; it simply is the way I feel about the matter.

Snowbrush said...

To go into it a little more, the Bible repeatedly refers to the church in feminine terms (http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/bible-verses-about-the-bride-of-christ/). Most notably, perhaps, it calls it the “bride of Christ,” and brides traditionally bear, nurture, teach, inspire, and protect, children, all being things that the church presumably does in the life of Christians.

As for referring to other things as feminine, you know more about other languages than I, but I do recall the Spanish genderfication of nouns. I can’t say that it makes any sense to me, but it’s there. It’s also true that, in English, ships and airplanes are often referred to in terms of gender (invariably female), not to forget pipe fittings (which can go either way dependent upon whether they’re externally or internally threaded). The first time my father sent me to the store for a male tee and a female coupling, I thought he was pulling my leg. In any case, there is a logic to these things, and I think a similar logic holds for the church. Too, there is a desire to personify that which one loves, and if you’re a man, you’re probably more apt to do this in the feminine. One more thought that comes to mind is that I’ve observed that strangers nearly always refer to a dog as a “he” and to a cat as a “she.”

By the way, does your objection to referring to the church in feminine terms suggest that you also object to the use of male terms in references to God? In some churches, such language has been partially replaced. For example, “his people on earth,” might be changed to God’s people on earth. At the church I sometimes attend, changes that have not been officially made by the “mother” church are unofficially made by the congregation during the recitation of the liturgy.

rhymeswithplague said...

Slightly off-topic, I guess, but the mini-discussion above about the use (and misuse) of pronouns reminded me that President Lyndon Johnson once declared, "Uncle Sam will keep her word." (The film clip was included in a CBS-TV documentary hosted by Harry Reasoner many moons ago called The Strange Case of the English Language.)

possum said...


Thought of you...

Snowbrush said...

I've seen the video, thank you. I agree with Fry, but will point out that the question--and therefore the answer--presupposes a personal anthropomorphic deity with unlimited power. I would therefore ask who gets to define God, why is it assumed that God is one, and what characteristics must be present for "something" to be referred to as God? I grew up with the image of God that is implied by the interviewer’s question, but upon what authority can anyone say that this is necessarily the only valid image of God? Ancient and confused Scriptures, of course.

Sparkling Red said...

I had the same experience when I went through my church phase; my church talked the talk about being passionate, open, and willing to handle tough questions, but did not at all walk the walk. If you will allow a little New Agey sentiment for a moment, sometimes I think that spiritual community would be better served by a group that can admit together that no one has the answers, and then commits to continuing on the quest together. What are we questing for? I guess the best way to live, love, and cope with losses and disappointments without losing heart.
I still remember the time I dared to speak up and accuse the church of being condescending to non-believers. I got scolded angrily by a woman I later found out was the pastor's daughter. That was one of the major events that added up to stop my church attendance.