Sunday, September 26, 2010

Metaphysical Reflections

It's not a giant secret to those closest to me that I've spent most of my adult life away from organized religion, and almost as much time away from "unorganized" religion. I grew up in a religious home, but we went to a pretty awful church when I was a teenager. They basically asked us to put our blinders on and go through life without questioning, doubting, or doing anything even remotely fun. I mean, even the Waltons were scandalous sinners by comparison to these people.

When I got to college, in a fit of uncharacteristically optimistic "maybe this time will be better" philosophizing, I went to a church with a family member. It was okay at first. Seemed more open, people seemed nicer. But, alas, in the end, it turned out to be as much a product of rigid conservatism and unquestioning/unquestionable legalism. I remember one day at lunch with one of the pastors, I asked for an answer to a tough question and got the textbook diversionary answer. Tried again. Same answer. Tried one more time. Same answer. That was the final straw in a long series of frustrations.

So by the time I graduated, I was done. Religion was not for me. I still respected my parents and others who managed to be religious without being close-minded, but I just couldn't participate. A friend/neighbor and I spent lots of time talking about religious issues, but I found myself increasingly alienated from it. By my mid-20s, being in church became truly uncomfortable. I felt like I didn't belong there, and not just philosophically. Whenever I went, I felt a vague physical uneasiness in my chest and stomach. I felt no connection to the messages, to the songs, to the imagery. In fact, it was more the opposite. I felt like crying when I was there. Not because of a longing to fit in but from a feeling of an increasing, gaping (and angry) separation from all that had felt normal as a kid.

Hearing people talk about their faith felt frustrating and alienating. It felt false, like empty rhetoric, even when I knew it to be otherwise. All I could focus on when hearing religious talk was the hypocrisy--the hateful antigay rhetoric from divorced people and adulterers; the anti-immigrant spitefulness from those who spouted "love thy neighbor;" the sexist drivel against female church leadership from people who claimed we are all created in God's image. Et cetera.

I have been purposefully using the past tense in this post, not necessarily because things have changed in any meaningful way. My bullshit detector still flares up when I hear religious talk. But I will confess to experiencing some alterations in how I think. I don't know what it means, what I'm meant to do with it, or what I will choose to do about it once I figure what I'm meant to do about it. I'm nowhere near ready to walk through the doors of a church.

But a few things have been happening. First, I have been having random flashbacks to childhood the past few weeks, and the first image that always hits me as I go through the wave of memories is of me, about age 4-6, running around outside the doors of the (normal, happy) church we went to until I was 11 and we moved. It's not something I actively try to bring up. These flashes just pop into my head at unexpected moments. It took quite a few times before I even noticed that it was the same image that started it. I'm never inside the church. I'm always just running around in front of the doors. That inevitably leads to images of my dad from around the same era. Those differ each time in terms of what he's doing and/or how I'm interacting with him. Even now that I've noticed the pattern, it comes to me unexpectedly but in the same pattern before I even really realize I'm thinking about it.

Then, this summer I read a book by C.S. Lewis. While he wrote many books on religion, the one I read this summer is one of his academic works as a literature scholar/professor. As I read it, I thought back to Mere Christianity, one of the books I read with my friend/neighbor nearly 10 years ago. I got an urge to read that again, but was distracted by being included in a new book club with a book to read by October. I finished that early, and the idea kept nagging at me to read the Lewis book. I ignored it because I wanted to read another new book I had recently bought. But the feeling would not go away. I kept thinking about Lewis and his book. So I got it off the shelf.

What's particularly interesting to me about that is that it also connects in a fairly abstract but notable way to the topic of one of the classes I'm teaching this semester. The topic is social constructionism, which basically argues that all we are as people is a product of the social interactions and relationships--basically our communication and how we're communicated to. (It's more than that, but that's the two-cent summary.) Lewis, unsurprisingly, takes a different view of human nature, but that has made his argument all the more interesting, and the book all the more useful to me in a broad way through multiple aspects of my life. All that does, then, is to force me to really dig into my vision of my self and how a metaphysical entity fits into that...how god/God fits into that.

I have no idea what any of this will lead to. I'm still quite adamantly resistant to a return to being religious in a Christian/organized sense. But I feel like these two things are telling me that this is a time in my life when I'm meant to do some intense and meaningful reflection on my relationship to god/God in some sense that's useful, relevant, and realistic to me. The flashbacks are too intense, and the call to that book to persistent, to ignore. Given my recent shift toward more optimism and openness to whatever positive energy wants to find its way to my door, maybe this is the next logical area of development.

Maybe by the time I'm 40, I'll know who the heck I'm supposed to be.

1 comment:

saramason said...

Since you like to read ;) I definitely recommend "Good News for Those Trying Harder."

The author Alan Kraft addresses the hypocrisy of Christians and what Christianity should and shouldn’t be. He writes that Christians focus on trying to be good on our own, without relying on God, which not only distorts our vision of ourselves but also damages our view of others and God. The Pharisees looked down on others because they didn't meet their standards of "goodness." When we are earnestly trying to keep our list of good behaviors we inevitably become quite critical and judgmental of others who aren't following our list nearly as well as we are. Our behavior instinctively becomes the standard through which we evaluate others. We have our top "evil behaviors" list and make a big deal about those who participate in such practices. All the while conveniently oblivious to certain other evil behaviors in our own lives that God also has decidedly strong feelings about. He mentions how as a pastor people come in all the time with major sins but he never hears someone come in to talk about materialism or prejudice or pride for example. Keeping that list allows to alleviate feeling ashamed before God. As long as we are keeping our list, we feel holy. But how complete is our list? What's missing? Like the Pharisees, our goodness often blinds us from spiritual reality that we need God. It is the antithesis of living the gospel. Because we cannot fix ourselves no matter how hard we try.

Not sure if that strikes your fancy at all but I thought I'd share it. I'm only on chapter 3 so far, but I think you'd appreciate the author's perspective. I know I have. Sara