“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.” -Robert Frost
There is a term in some religious circles being tossed about which I have heard referred to as either dechurched or the equally neologistic unchurched. I am given to understand that they mean "one who retains a form of the religion in question, but has untethered themselves from any orthodoxy, denomination, or, to put it simply, church." Some will "church-hop." Some will attend very small home gatherings. Some will go out into the woods of a Lord's day morning with their Bible in hand or a mind toward prayer. Let me make two things abundantly clear right here at the beginning: 1) I am not here to disparage anyone's chosen spiritual walk and 2) I am not, myself, "unchurched" (leaving that dangling at the end of the paragraph anticipating an inevitable "however.")
However, I have great apprehension over involving myself in any group of fellow believers at this point in my biography. Since just shy of a year ago now, Laurie and I endured a series of trying episodes wrapped in the Gordian world of spiritually abusive, right-wing fundamentalism. In the face of such predicaments, I came to reassess my faith.
In that time I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, who, as most of you are probably well aware, is an outspoken atheist and this book a sort of atheistic apologetic. I read that book at that time because I really did want to scuttle my faith. I wanted to have nothing to do with Christians because of the abuses I'd suffered at their hands. I bring this up because my interaction with the text was sort of holographic of the entire issue I've been wrestling with. Dawkins, in my reading of him, had two major key points to the book and a conclusion. It went something like this: 1) Religion is a highly destructive force in human civilization, likely having caused more harm throughout history than good. Religious people are capable of horrible things and often exhibit the behavior of the ostrich when faced with the option of viewing reality or the depths of the sandbox. viz., 2) The evidence that Darwinian evolution is an accurate representation of the history of biology is overwhelming. Therefore Dawkins' conclusion is: There is no God. I spotted the hole in the logic immediately. What if all of that is true, but there still is a God and a Gospel. The two do not necessarily lead to that conclusion. It is entirely possible that religious people are horrible and destructive, that Darwinian evolution is accurate, and that there is also a God. Dawkins failed to write me a permission slip to write off my religion and I am left to reconcile my beliefs with the difficult experiences. And that is where I still find myself.
I'm writing about this aspect of my experience in this manner to armor both myself and the general public from the specific personal abuses we've observed and suffered (also, hoping against hope that I am not calling down those same evil, bastard Christian forces down on my head again by mentioning them again, eschewing accepted wisdom in these matters and throwing everything I learned from H.P. Lovecraft to the wind), but I would stress that almost every one of said abuses were some manifestation of Dawkins' two key points. Church came to be, for me, like a job where the boss micromanages and yells at you all the time. The society around you dictates that you have to keep going and you know that, when you do, you are going to get abused. And so you exist in this world as a sort of Purgatory.
Why is it thus? Because the church is full of humans.
Left to my own devices, I would go back to attending Quaker meetings. My experience there is an earnest group of people set on living out the fruit of the spirit through social justice and attempting to do good in this world. I swallowed the lie for years from the mouths of men that there are vast doctrinal problems in modern, unprogrammed Quakerism. Now I see that loving mercy, justice, goodness, peace, and equality and living consistently with those values is far better doctrine than hashing out at which point in pre-history God ordained the Elect or some such pedantic nonsense.
Also, with any homogeneous group, there is the issue of diversity. In this case, I am not only speaking of diversity in types, but also diversity in ideas, the ability to question, explore, learn, grow with and from others. In my particular area of space-time, it is the norm in the mainstream or fundamentalist branch of my religion for the common parishioner to assume their fellow congregant subscribes to a conservative political worldview. This has never been the case for me. I am not just a liberal, but I would probably be more accurately called a Leftist. Possibly an extreme one who is only being slightly hyperbolic in stating that Trotsky may have been a bit too conservative for my taste. I think that a mind toward shared resources, the abolition of property to a large extent (certainly the abolition of avarice), and the common goal of building a great society is not only consistent with Christian scripture, but consistent with any person seeking to be virtuous. Being in a large group of people of differing opinion is not in and of itself a bad thing. If it is in an anthropological or free exchange of ideas situation, it can be a wonderfully rewarding and broadening experience to converse with and peek through an alternate reality tunnel. This has not been my experience. When you presume upon the homogeneity of your group and denigrate any different point of view or type, anyone who is of that type and has not expressed it yet will most likely keep their mouth shut and feel terribly unwelcome. That is largely the story of me and Christianity. It is not just politics. I also don't hate, dislike, or think there is anything wrong with homosexuals. I am fairly convinced that the evidence does, in fact, point to the veracity of the Theory of Evolution and the antiquity of the universe. I think that there is a great deal that all religions could learn from one another if they allowed for an open dialogue with hearts of loving-kindness and respect. Also, I find myself most likely becoming an Annihilationist (one who believes that God is not a torturer and that life without Christ being death literally. As in, the unbeliever simply dies instead of eternal torment in the afterlife. I am not willing to argue this point and have absolutely no interest in theological debates, so please extend the basic respect of not commenting with pistols blazing over anything I am saying here. It bothers me enough that I even have to have that fear in speaking honestly about my spiritual walk.) To secular eyes, these may not seem like extraordinary statements, but I know that in most of the churches I've attended there are at the very least a contingent, if not the consensus, that people who think that way should not be allowed in the door. In fact, I once had a church leader tell me, years ago when I was more sartorially immature, that I wasn't welcome in his church simply because I was wearing a Jerry Garcia t-shirt. He wasn't even the pastor. This may have something to do with the irrelevance of the church in modern Western civilization. The loud and the bully within will not even permit a fellow believer if they do not lock step.
But, returning to those original two points, I found myself holding all of these bags, but still incapable of disregarding the truth of the Gospel. So, this is where I find myself after all that we've gone through in the past year. I find myself still a believer in the path I set out on over a decade ago, but now I find myself decidedly on that path as Paul Mathers the individual. My hope is to find a congregation in which the love of Christ is a reality made manifest in the lives and actions of the congregation. I also hope for a pegasus that will fly me to a magical castle made of gumdrops. But I believe that one ought to strive to do what is right, be a person of virtue, and live a good life in spite of the odds being stacked against one. It puts me in mind of that bit of verse by Vachel Lindsay:
I am unjust, but I can strive for justice.
My life’s unkind, but I can vote for kindness.
I, the unloving, say life should be lovely.
I, that am blind, cry out against my blindness.
Come, let us vote against our human nature.