Question: It may be semantics, but leaving church and leaving congregational religion may not be the same. Consider–if I woman has been for whatever reasons in abusive marriage(s) and decides that marriage is not a good thing, that is not a declaration that all men are bad, but a declaration that marriage is not the way she chooses to relate to men. It may be that people who leave congregations/church (one word for both in their mind) are seeking a different way to relate to God.
This thoughtful question showed up in my box in response to the piece I wrote some time ago about the author Anne Rice, who decided a while back that she was no longer going to go to church.
Here’s how I think I’m going to, dare I say in light of the reason for this discussion, take a stab!! at this question (I crack me up!): I want to first consider the manner in which Anne Rice makes her point, and then consider her point.
Anne Rice didn’t just say she was going to find another way to relate to God. She did say that, that is true, but she managed to give quite the raspberries to the Church–awfully broadly defined–in the process. You can some of her find her splattered fruit here. Let me show you just two of her ripest selections found on his page:
“For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”
“In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”
How does she really feel?
Like I said in my original blog linked above, I do understand why a person would leave organized religion (and let’s be clear, it’s not always so organized).
I respect that position.
But it’s hard for me to respect splattered fruit.
The congregation which I attend is not quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and, near as I know, infamous. Or, rather, perhaps it is infamous, because it was in our basement that the movement to repeal our state’s food tax was born, and it is in our sanctuary that we welcome gay couples (not to mention dyed-in-the wool Democrats and Republicans), and it is from our sanctuary that we bring church to prisoners and give away a lot of money to foreign and local “undeserveds.”
What perturbs me about Anne Rice’s comments is that they are not nuanced, and seem to indicate no small measure of ignorance about the powerful and rich tradition under the name of Church which defines itself precisely over and against her notion of what it is, through and through.
How do I really feel?
It’s a good moment to think through the matter, though, as there are a number of issues swirling about the Church proper these days.
Can you imagine Anne Rice’s reaction to Santorum and the Birth Control Coverage controversies? And in the spirit of candor, I’m guessing I’m largely with her.
This is where we come to the point about her point, or, rather, points.
First, the matter of what Church is.
The Church is fallible. It has been the bastion of hate, condemnation, myopia, ignorance, and bigotry. It should be held accountable for the awfulness that has been done in God’s name.
But it is not monolithically so, anymore than feminists, gays, and Democrats (most, but not all, of my friends fall into one or more of these categories, as do I) are monolithically infallible.
And as much as I sympathize with all of these groups, we can find instances when they (like the Church) have claimed the Corner of Truth when they can’t, in truth, park there.
Groups, and I don’t care which one you are talking about, are as fallible as are individuals.
Which brings me to my second point.
I’m all for praying alone (that is, in theory. I’m a lousy prayer, as I’ve ‘fessed up to before. But theoretically, I’m all over it). And I’m all for private spirituality, for meditation, even for the occasional lazy Sunday morning worship of God on St. Mattress, as a late friend of mine called it.
But an individualistic relationship with God alone seems to me to risk living out in microcosm what one might critique with the church in macrocosm: that is, a sense that the individual person or group has it right, and doesn’t need another opinion, and that you really don’t need any past, any present, or any future but your own.
Consider another one of Anne Rice’s statement’s:
“I think the basic ritual is simply prayer. It’s talking to God, putting things in the hands of God, trusting that you’re living in God’s world and praying for God’s guidance. And being absolutely faithful to the core principles of Jesus’ teachings. I loved it.
Did you note that sentence I bolded? I’m curious how she knows what those core principles of Jesus are. The best scholars I know continue to poke around to learn about them. And these thinkers didn’t discover them simply by sitting in a room talking to God. They engaged history and each other.
Which brings me to a fusion of the above:
There is a new pulse in the Church, a new vibrancy, across denominational lines, often referred to as the “Emerging Church.”
I find it refreshingly Jewish.
Participants and observers of this movement (and it is a movement, as in fluid, changing, alive) notice that people want to know more, they want to do more, they want to engage more.
The liturgy is central, but not entire.
Rehearsed dogma is out, curiosity and grounded claims are in.
Belief in action is the name of the game, which, necessarily, implies that you have to know what you believe in order to act accordingly.
It is not a new denomination, but it is a different way of thinking about Church, and it is, to quote the esteemed questioner, a different way to relate to God.
Keep your ears and eyes open for glimpses of its presence.
Meanwhile, part of me wants to say that it is no skin off my nose if someone chooses to leave the Church to worship God in isolation from congregational community.
Another part of me says that I feel a huge gouge in my nose if someone chooses to leave the Church to worship God in isolation from congregational community.
Jesus gathered people in from isolation into community. He brought together those who came from disparate traditions and said, “You are welcome here.”
A commitment to living in community moves the community to find a way to live together in nuanced fashion, and for people in the community to come together in nuanced fashion.
I think it’s possible. I know it’s possible. And I think that where you see gathered diversity, as opposed to gathered triumphalistic uniformity or isolated disdainful piety, you see something of the reign of God.
And there is, indeed, a different way to relate to God.