Becoming a Religious Free Radical

I haven't blogged in three months - this has been primarily a religious blog, and I haven't known what to say on the religious front during the last few months. I haven't been to church since I finished at St. Margaret's in June. Part of that's been burnout - after the last few years, I feel about church about like I felt about Moon Pies in the 7th grade after I ate six of them in a row and almost puked. I don't know what's in store for my relationship to the church, but I still don't eat Moon Pies, and they used to be my favorite - especially the banana ones.

I think the greater part of not going to church though has been that, since I'm no longer employed/paid by the church, I can be honest about my feelings that at this stage of life there's not much there for me. I've been wrestling with that feeling quietly for a few years, and I want to sketch out some of what I've come to for the sake of those who are interested. This might read like a critique of religion - it's really just a critique of religion for me. I'm still generally for it, and would probably participate in religion again if I could find one that fit.

It's back to school tomorrow, so I probably won't have much time to do any thinking for awhile, so this is a carpe diem kind of post, and apologies for the length and perhaps seeming abruptness of this shift. I'll break the post up into sections for your reading convenience.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about what religion does for people, and I guess I would still consider myself a religious person in some sense - I think most of us have the needs that religion usually meets, it's just that not everyone participates in organized religion in order to meet those needs.

Ceremony and Ritual

One thing I think religion provides is structure - a structured gathering with our community and a structured reinforcement of the values and beliefs that we deem important. Also, often, a structured approach to the transcendent and the spiritual life on a regular basis. I've been really influenced by the thought of one of my fellow Marquis Co-op residents, Ellen Dissanayake, in my belief that ritual sets out things as 'special', or important. Engaging in communal and individual ritual on a regular basis, and on special occasions, adds a layer of psychological meaning to everyday life and important events that isn't concretely there otherwise.

The problem I've run into is that these days most religious ritual either 1) reinforces ideas that I don't agree with and so causes more anger than reassurance, or 2) doesn't resonate culturally, and so seems painfully and ironically boring and meaningless. I miss the beauty of the Eucharist, but the rest of it just hasn't been clicking for quite some time.

The converse of this is that I've been able to find and practice other types of ritual that have basically replaced organized religion for me. In Seattle pop culture, music is, I think, the primary art form, and shows are the primary rituals. My strongest ritual-based experiences of transcendence and community connection in Seattle have come at shows - and particularly shows performed by people I know: Spencer Moody standing with a microphone in a crowd of about 30 and singing about loneliness at a Triumph of Lethargy show, and John van Deusen singing about hope in a crowd half-filled by people who are HIV positive. The weekly structure in my life has been fulfilled by yoga classes with people in my building, and the daily structure by regular exercise, triathlon training, and healthy cooking - all of which are directly connected to health and my own wellbeing in a concrete way which religious practice never was for me.

Belief and Values

This has been a struggle for me since college - religion is a place where you are supposed to develop your beliefs and values related to the most important questions. I've definitely been shaped by religion in this regard. I've worked out my beliefs systematically and academically through religious training, and I probably still hold most of the same values that Christianity instilled in my growing up. However, one of my primary negative religious experiences has been repeatedly finding that I disagree with many of my religion's (stated or unstated) beliefs and values - evolution, anti-gay sentiment, supernaturalism, classism, racism, etc. So, when I think about religious belief, the first thing I think of is what's wrong with the religion I was raised with. I'll own that as my own issue, but it's a big barrier between religious practice and I.

The fact is that I don't know that I really have a package of beliefs any more. When I was in New Zealand, the idea of panentheism - that God is in everything, and that everything is in God - played an important role for me, I think because it was such a naturally beautiful place and such a generally good place to live. Nowadays, my beliefs and values are probably better characterized as some kind of vague postmodern eco-humanism than a particular religion. Religious ideas, at best, represent good and interesting metaphors to me - and I have to admit that I'm not exclusively interested in any one metaphor - Christian, Muslim, Jew, etc. I don't know what to do with that, other than to say that I don't feel a lot of cognitive dissonance about it - I'm fine with not knowing, and I don't think it's a cop out to say that's the best I can do in relation to God questions. I think actually the 'Open Question' is the Western world's real new theology, and there's no compelling church for that.

Community

Most of the friends that I've developed in life I've met through religious institutions, and I still feel a deep sense of connection with most of them. When I think about New Zealand, after I think about the natural beauty, I think primarily about the church people there that I love, and how meaningful Anglicanism became for me because of them (most connection I still feel to Anglicanism relates to the nostalgia I feel for New Zealand and my religious experience there). Easily half of my positive social experiences from youth happened in some religious context - youth group, mission trips, finding my sense of identity as a nerdy junior high kid with friends from church, etc. In Seattle, I've met most of my friends through church circles, and I've related to the others as the dude with weird religious ideas. Religion has given me something distinctive to talk about at parties. Religion, without a doubt, bonds you to other religious people in a quick and powerful way.

But the negative side of this, which I've felt since Junior High, is that religious identity also shuts you off from other people in a distinctive way. Sometimes that's because your religion teaches you that those outside of it are infidels destined for hell, sometimes it's because religious communities have done so much to hurt people that they don't want anything to do with you if they know you're an adherent, and sometimes it's just because most people don't hold your set of beliefs. Religious identification is, in some ways, short hand for the tribe that you belong to, and in a world of religious pluralism, most of us are in different tribes.

From a community perspective, because of this, the value of religion since college has been a tossup for me - it's been the thing that most connected me with some people, but the thing that most alienated me from others. When I stopped being evangelical, I might have been projecting, but I definitely felt a sense of divide that occurred between myself and many of my former friends. In Seattle, I'm trying to work a balance, maintaining connections to friends made inside the church despite no longer being a part of the inner circle or regular life of a religious community, and despite the fact that I have some difficult feelings about my religious experience. Now I'm feeling like I can stay connected to people because I like them or we have shared experiences rather than simply being part of the same church, which is a shift after having worked for churches for so long. My social circle has already gotten more religiously diverse, and I don't have the same sense of obligation to 'be nice' or tow the line (again, my issue) that I've generally felt with religious friends, and I'm happy about that.

"The Cause"

I think that churches in the US play an under-appreciated role in connecting people to social justice issues and causes - even conservative churches that poo poo the idea of 'social justice'. Working in the nonprofit and human services worlds, it's amazing the percentage of people who first got involved due to mission trips or youth group outings. I've also seen churches do amazing things to support their members in difficult times, and I'm all for that. Through churches I've hung out in homeless shelters, third world leper colonies, schools for blind children, street ministries, housing projects, AIDS housing, etc. etc.

But the thing I've found is that religious institutions are actually pretty crappy at actually supporting people beyond their membership. It's natural, I think, but church budgets almost always skew something like 95% in house and 5% 'outreach', at best. And why not? Churches aren't social service agencies. The more interested I've gotten in being a part of hands on service, the less interested I've been in working for the church. That isn't really a critique of the role that churches normally play (most churches are, without a doubt, committed to improving lives - even if they sometimes go about that task imperfectly or wrongheadedly and end up doing more harm than good), but it's been my natural progression as I've realized things about myself - I want to give my time and energy to something more tangible. As a church employee, I often felt like an administrator and glorified babysitter. As an employee in mental health, I feel like someone who is working hands on with kids in crisis. Churches are great places to be introduced to needs and gain motivation to fulfill those social needs and justice issues, but they're generally no good at actually doing the work - it's not really their job. For me, I want to give some of my income to support justice causes and social needs, and I'm not going to give that to churches, just out of pragmatism.

And, so, I haven't been to church in awhile, but still feel religious somehow. Maybe at some point Angel and I will find that we want to go back. Right now, I'm still feeling burnt out, and all of the needs that religion has previously met are being provided for in other ways - and perhaps more effectively. So, for now, I'm going to keep plugging along happily as another member of the post-Christian army.

Comments

Chelsea said…
I'm with you, Tim! I'm asking lot of questions about relevance lately- what is it that the church does and should do in the world, how should we talk about God and Jesus in a way that actually makes sense... I'll be missing you in classes this year!
Darryl said…
Terrific blog, Tim. Like you (and I suspect many, many others), I've also been wrestling with religion's place in my life. For all the same reasons, Christianity played a huge role in my upbringing. It was nurturing, structured, and even confidence building.
But now, as an adult, I see how it can also be employed in a much more sinister manner -- to convict, to divide, and to belittle.

Moving to Seattle gave me great perspective and moving back to Ohio focused this viewpoint even further. My personal faith now struggles to coexist with the hateful manner by which others choose to exercise thiers.

This is an incredibly interesting topic. I appreciate your perspective and I hope that you will write more often.
Dustin Cross said…
I love you TIm. Great Post.
Tim Mathis said…
Thanks for the comments everyone - sorry it's taken a while to get to them! Darryl, it's especially great to hear from you - I've wondered how you've been since moving back to Ohio after such a long time away.

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