As a kid, I went to the Church of Christ when we visited my grandma, and most Sundays to a Presbyterian church when home. My mom was flexibly Christian: “It doesn’t matter what you believe, but you ought to go to church.” In Sunday School I learned that the Catholics have seven sacraments and we have only two, so we take ours more seriously. And once I caused tumult in the mind of a Sunday School teacher by asking, “Why are we down on Jews if Jesus was a Jew?” I didn’t consider myself a heretic at the time.
In my early teens, I was very committed, partly from kissing Janis at church camp, partly from reading the Bible start to finish—great stories, interspersed with lots of babble. And I had my own interpretations of their meanings—now, indeed, verging on heresy.
I began to fall away when our preacher left. His sermons were radical for Council Bluffs, Iowa. I was appointed the “youth rep” on the Search Committee. The way the Presbyterians did it, finding a new pastor, was to send out a squad to hear a nearby preacher, and if they liked him, they’d try to lure him away from his job and into our clutches. It was really my experience, listening to the conversations of that committee, that frosted me on the church. It had nothing to do with rejection of Christian dogma but with seeing the Elders’ violation of what I valued in it. Ironic that one week I received the Boy Scouts’ God and Country Award, and the next week I stopped going to church.
Jump far ahead. We’d left a teaching career to start a theatre ensemble in Milwaukee; at the time there was much anti-war activity, and many of our short pieces addressed that and other social issues. Liberal churches and campus ministries were heavily involved and were sponsors of many tour bookings, and our performances were the “sermons” for many congregations. For me, religion wasn’t about God—if he existed, he could take care of himself—it was about how you treated your fellow humans.
In Chicago we discovered Unitarians. They were very light on theology, very focused on social issues, as were we, and it was helpful to have coffee with “tribe.” Moving East, we gravitated to the Quakers, whose central premise is that “there is that of God in each person.” If you take that as a premise, you have to really listen to the guy you think is a total asshole and hear what’s a whisper of truth, even if it’s a debate on when to fix the roof.
(By the way, I use the term “premise” from our theatrical practice: given this, then what follows: the source of Hamlet’s, Medea’s, or Willy Loman’s acts.)
When we moved further East, to Philadelphia in the 90’s, we didn’t find Quakers who rang our bell, but we discovered neo-pagans. The theology was anything-goes. I don’t “believe” in Kali, Odin, or Inanna, but I believe the myths have greaat value. It was just the people, the songs, the rituals and even the stupid rituals. To be among seekers.
I think that’s the heart of it for me. Seeking. I grieve that traditional Christianity has been besmirched by the fascists and fundamentalist crooks.
I don’t really blame religion for its sins of enslavement, war, and suppression of thought in the past. The record is severe, yet no imperialist ever needed religion to justify aggression: any excuse will do.
I grieve that religions have become the refuge of people who lie in fear. Yet we’ll always seek to know, and in meantime we’ll have to make decisions: who to talk to, who to sympathize with, what to do. That’s a problem that’s persisted a lot more than two thousand years, and still persists.