Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Institutionalizing fluidity

When I tell the story of my faith journey, sometimes I begin to doubt that I was rejected as much by traditional church people as much as I felt like I was. Sure, I have some specific anecdotes. For instance, I clearly remember being told by my friends from youth group that marrying my first husband was wrong because we would be unequally yoked and realizing that such an unsupportive comment was indicative of a deeper judgment that those friends felt for me. I remember being angered by Sunday School classes where volunteer teachers insisted that the interpretation of Revelations in their book were the only possibility. I remember arguing with the new youth director when he brought in a guest speaker who cared more about declaring "right teaching" than about how unwelcome he was making my friend Nels feel. I remember the condescending tone of voice of the member of Intervarsity who told me I used scripture incorrectly in the fundraising letter I had written as a favor to him. I also have a slew of experiences with my extended family (who I am quite close to) where they used dirty argument tactics to try to convince that my liberalism wasn't right in God's eyes. My aunt once told me that if it was right to make condoms available in schools then everything she believed was wrong. That's a heavy weight to put on an 18-year-old's shoulders if she wants to stick to her convictions. An uncle was so insulting as he argued that we celebrated the Sabbath on Sunday because it was literally the day that Jesus was raised from the dead that my father left the table in and announced his protest of the way I was being treated.

However, the vast majority of experiences that I have had with traditional church people have been strikingly positive. I have felt safe and loved and supported in most of my life. People who welcomed me into this world at my baptism are on my Christmas list and show delight at seeing me when I show up at Christmas Eve services. The church I attended in my early twenties welcomed me and valued my participation in the choir and asked me to be a deacon.

Still, by then, I was learning only to bring part of myself to church. I had doubts regarding the fallibility of translation or my thoughts about homosexuality not being a sin or my discomfort with the idea of good people going to hell simply because they hadn't acknowledged Jesus as their lord and savior. I knew, just knew, that if I discussed these thoughts, I would be labeled "heretic" and a gulf in the relationship would widen between the church person and myself because I would now be viewed as the sheep who had wandered from the flock and needed to be rescued rather than being part of the in-crowd. Since I was desperately looking for community, I left these parts of myself at home when I went to church. I did this with all of the churches I attended before I found the emergent movement. And it didn't work.

I was still lonely.

Unless I was being loved for my whole self, it just wasn't enough to feel like actual community.

However, once I reached adulthood, I didn't give any of those three churches even the chance to love me. I had my defenses up and didn't want to give them the chance to hurt me with their rejection. So I don't really know how they would have responded.

So, I come back to my original statement that I wonder sometimes if I'm not remembering my history with the bias that comes from my insecurity. Once bitten, twice shy, you know? Do I think that my experiences were worse than they really were?

The reality is that it doesn't matter if people were as inhospitable as I thought they were. What does matter is that I perceived them to be that way and acted on that perception. If I felt that way even though most people were nice to me most of the time, then other people are also feeling alienated from God and alone in this world even though most Christians are nice to them most of the time. (And this doesn't include people who feel alienated from God and alone in this world because most Christians think they are an abomination just for being who they are.) If I felt this way when maybe I shouldn't have and other people feel this way when they don't have to, they why do so many people feel disaffected with the Church?

For my experience (which is probably generalizable), I believe my fear of being rejected stemmed from two sources:

1. A growing sense that I didn't like the person I was becoming when I did things that traditional Christians were supposed to do. The greatest shame of my life is telling my best friend that I thought she was going to Hell. In addition to feeling remorse that I had hurt her, I slowly (so slowly) began to realize that I was damaging all of my relationships by practicing a faith that was so judgmental. So, I feared rejection from other Christians because I myself had been repeatedly judgmental.

2. The larger Christian culture and the traditional institutional framework that churches function within emphasize insider and outsider statuses as a means of reproduction and survival. They need people to profess the same beliefs despite different experiences, and those beliefs need to create an "other" so that folks within the community will bond together more cohesively. This is the definition of ideology, isn't it? A system of living that protects individuals from the hard work of dealing with a changing environment? Traditional church policies ensure that our experience with God is predictable: we will be buried the way everyone else we know was buried, we can raise their children the way we were raised, our spouses expect the same things out of life that we expect. And for most of history, this worked for Christians because the world changes only gradually. However, with the introduction of instant communication, the world changes quickly and traditional church paradigms no longer comfort everyone but instead push out more and more people for the sake of the few who remain within. So, I feared rejection from other Christians because Christian ideology made it very clear that I could be rejected for the sake of the group.

So, although it's possible that many of my fears would never actually come true, I believed they would and that caused me to leave part of myself at home when I went to church, a completely unsustainable habit if I ever wanted to feel fulfilled.

I have since found a church and a movement that are trying to create new Christian norms and new church infrastructures that do not rely on some people being on the inside and other people being on the outside. These inclusive churches try to make everyone feel welcome to bring their whole selves to church, without fear that they need to change in order to be fully loved. These churches know that encounters with God rarely leave folks unchanged but we are content to leave that work of transformation to God and focus on the task we have been given: to love one another.

I have found great healing in being part of this movement and being part of the leadership team of my church, which might be a model for a new generation of churches that are trying to remove the systemic obstacles that our culture has put up to block access to God except to those who are "approved" and safe.

I know that I have healed deeply from my fear of rejection because I have recently begun re-engaging Christians who still function within the old model. I am meeting monthly with a group of pastors who have good hearts and are friendly and want to serve the poor with humility. They know that my theology is comfortable with being married to a Jewish man and they know that I am active in the emergent movement but I'm comfortable enough in my differences from them that I don't need to throw it in their faces.

Occasionally, though, I get surprised. Today I was talking about the new community of young people in which one of the young men was participating. He earnestly described for me his struggle to keep them from "heretical ideas." I think I did a physical double-take. I have spent so much time now with emergent folks who sometimes reclaim the label "heretic" to make jokes about themselves, like gay people call themselves queer or women call themselves bitches. I have spent so much time with people who believe that our understanding of God will never be complete and so the only way to know right from wrong is to be in community, groping for the right path while we keep in sight of each other to make sure that no one goes haring off down the wrong path. I have spent so much time in this new paradigm that I forgot people still talk about "heretical ideas."

I said, "Wow. That is so outside of the framework that I work in that I'm intrigued but don't want to start a fight." (Yeah. I really do talk like that.)

He acknowledged my motives and I asked him for an example. He said that yesterday was the celebration of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which is the celebration that Mary was also born and lived without sin and so was as divine as Jesus.

He expressed discomfort that by saying that Mary was also divine, folks were putting her between them and Jesus. He never used the word, "idol," but I think that's what he meant.

My mind was swirling because I live in this spiritual place where I see Christ as a tool that God used to communicate infinite love and to bring people closer to God. Again. After trying to communicate love and to bring people closer to her in a billion other stories throughout the Old Testament. I guess I don't see Christ as an end onto himself so if some Latino Catholics can get to God through the female-friendly door of an immaculate Mary, I don't really mind if that bypasses Christ.

I expressed some of this and expressed my discomfort with the idea of heresy since it created a divide between people on the inside and people on the outside. I said that if it were my community, I would wonder why people needed to define Mary that way and examine whether or not the God we were worshiping was too small to fulfill them since it was a strictly male god.

He agreed with me that God was neither masculine or feminine but protested that our theology should not be informed by our experiences. I asked him to expand on that chicken and egg idea. He expressed that theology (what we believe about God) should come from what we find in the Bible; that we shouldn't change the Bible to suit what we think the world should be like. I agree with the idea that we shouldn't just justify our desires with new interpretations of Scripture but I do not agree that Scripture is straight-forward enough to extract God's will from it whole, like Athena being born from the head of Zeus. I'm a mystic at heart. I think you can only glimpse truth with peripheral vision. So to believe that Scripture alone can dictate doctrine is a heinous denial of the human element of interpretation. And once you deny that humans are involved in the process of creating doctrine, all sorts of exploitation and oppression can get by unchallenged.

At this point, I must have given off some non-verbal cues of consternation that maybe made him fear a little bit. Or, at least, he should have picked up that vibe because I was nearly bursting to tell him how wrong he was. I am relieved I was able to refrain from talking about translations of the Bible and how they can be used as tools of the hegemony or no one knows what the Bible really means and we're all doing selective interpretation and isn't that a cotton/poly shirt he was wearing and doesn't Leviticus tell us that is an abomination, also? I stayed quiet, though.

Before I could figure out what to actually say, he quickly changed tacks and asked if he could give background about why he was saying those things. I really respected his desire to let me actually see inside of him instead of just insisting he was right. He talked about how he was an Anglican (which set me raging on the inside again but I am constantly groping for a non-judgmental habit so, again, was relieved that I said nothing) and told me a few stories about his experiences that lead him to be disgusted with the Episcopals on their side of the schism. He said two things that sounded like alarmist propaganda and would surprise me very much if they were true. He sounded like a little kid complaining to his parents that his 58-year-old, established, much-beloved grandma of a teacher told him he was dumb and would never amount to anything. It just doesn't make sense within the larger framework of what I know is true. She wouldn't be all of those other things if she went around telling little kids they were dumb and would never amount to anything. The child's statements shouldn't be dismissed out of hand but they should be evaluated with skepticism about his motives. So, the man today said that Episcopals are now stating that unless you are Episcopal, you are not going to heaven. Then, he said that Episocpals have literally re-written the Bible to make it fit their world-view about homosexuals. Actually, I don't think he ever mentioned The Gays out loud but since that is what caused the schism, I'm not sure what else they would have re-written the Bible to support. Neither of these extreme acts seem to fit within the context of what I know about the Episcopal denomination. It felt like the complaint of someone who was trying to recruit others onto his bandwagon because he is feeling a little unstable up there alone.

So, I actually could have gotten pretty righteous at this moment since I would definitely qualify as someone who literally re-wrote the Bible because I look at the historical context of those 6 Bible verses that seem to oppose homosexuality and come to the conclusion that they are not describing homosexuality as we know it in our culture. Luckily, a few more people arrived and I was able to thank him for his story and blow him off a little about finishing the conversation later. Actually, now that I think of it, that wasn't very loving of me. I should probably try to have coffee with him soon and give him a chance not to reject me.

That kind of growth and chance for more healing is why I want to stay with this group, in addition to the other good things I get there. I'm not afraid of their rejection anymore because my spiritual home accepts my whole self. If they reject me, I have a safe place to retreat to.

My church is the kind of place that I want to support and also to dive headlong into building infrastructure to build capacity so that it is sustainable and can make a lot more people feel as safe as I have felt. My pastor calls it institutionalizing fluidity and no one has figured out yet how to do it. I want to try. It's crucial if we want everyone in this world to have equal access to God. It's work worth doing.


Anonymous said...

Ok so I loved the crap out of this post. What you said about sometimes questioning if it was as bad as you thought it was--I think that all the time too, about my own community. (And then one more thing happens to remind me that I'm not some teenaged brat making it all up.) I think the conflict between the love you feel in the more traditional communities and the way in which it contradicts your values is similar to the point I was making on Fifty Percenters about Holocaust survivors wanting to perpetuate Orthodox Judaism and my respect for that. On the one hand, I deeply identify with this way of doing things that connects me to my loved ones, but on the other hand, I have to bite my tongue a lot to do that because it doesn't mesh with my values at all.

Anyway I think so much of this is about wrestling the ownership over Christianity/Judaism away from the folks who...think they own it. Trying to do that (assert your own approach as equally normative and not some "freak" thing) AND remain non-judgemental, because that's what turned you off from religion in the first place, well...that's a toughie. Although I always make an exception to my trying not to be judgemental rule for people who are judgemental themselves. They are not spared my wrath. :)

ABG said...

I'm thankful to hear some of those anecdotes and it makes so much sense of why things felt so strained in our conversation when I talked about going to Urbana and when I went on IV staff. My community, too, is trying to welcome people as they are and let God do the messy work of transformation. I'm glad there are lots of people out there doing that work.