Sunday, October 7, 2007

On church

... Church? Me, write about church? This is the least likely thing that's probably happened in this blog so far. I was raised with no religion -- my parents were atheists for all practical purposes. My dad is "culturally Jewish" but nobody in his family has actually believed in the religion end of it for three generations. My mom was raised generally Christian and didn't buy it, and her grandparents, who were raising her, didn't force her to go to church after a certain age. My mom did sometimes start getting into Buddhism or Mary-worship or Taoism, but she never tried to pass the interest on to me. I basically had no spirituality at all (except for six months in the 11th grade when I tried to be a Taoist as well, and a month in college when I decided to try Judaism out. Neither one took). This has never bothered me.

What other people seem to get out of religion, I'm satisfied either not getting or getting somewhere else. The faith that everything will be OK and that people are generally good, I just was born with. The need of someone "higher" to turn to when things go really sideways ... I like philosophy for that, but also, nothing has gone so wrong that I've been compelled to pray about it, so I'm lucky that way. The awe of this beautiful planet, however it got here -- got it, but I don't see any creator behind it. I chalk it up to the miracle of science.

So, no church, no religion. Last night my husband (also agnostic) asked me if I'd like to be Unitarians. I said I didn't even think I had enough spirituality for that. He laughed but it's true. I'm about as secular as you can get.

But lately -- in the past month or so -- I've had this urge out of nowhere to join a church here in The City.

Go figure, huh?

When I realized this I blinked at myself. What? A CHURCH? Then I had to start figuring out why.

Of course, it all starts and ends with my own personal Bible -- the Little House books. I should have known.

When they're 40 miles from anywhere, or it's a day trip into town, the Ingallses kept Sunday sacred in their own way but without going to church. But when they got to where they could all travel to a town easily, one of the first things they did was join the church. Specifically in Little Town on the Prairie, the church was the center of the new town. The church put on sociables for the women to get a break from housework and come have some adult conversation; the church was the recipient of or the benefactor to other towns on the frontier (Christmas barrels, donations); the church put on the holiday suppers. Of course, church was where you saw everyone you may not see the rest of the week. Say you have a person who lives ten miles out, and they're busy -- they have a bunch of kids maybe, or a lot of animals or land to take care of or even a busy office job. Year after year, you see that person at church -- and they're in your extended tribe.

If church wasn't the community, church definitely facilitated the community. And church was where all the action -- the activism, the improvement, the charity -- took place.

Last night my husband and I came to the conclusion that when this country became non-church-centered, no institution stepped in to take its place: to take care of the needy, to give the people a place to meet and share in something common. You had a civic-minded institution in the church, so people didn't need the government and kind of looked down on the government or didn't trust it. Now, the government (town halls, city council) may be the only institution that could take the place of the church, but while we don't trust the church, we also don't trust the government. So we're adrift.

The church in the prairie idiom, of course, is something I can't aspire to right now. The main reason is that those towns were conservative socially and that was the end of the story. If you had to wrestle with a possible un-belief, you'd better not tell anyone or it would get around that you were a heathen (see Laura not wanting to go to revival meetings but even her best friends begging her to). In general, you just WERE a Christian, no ifs, ands, or buts.

I kind of think that the spirituality was secondary in the prairie church -- at least to some people. If I had been raised in one church and it was a good community and a bunch of decent people, I don't think I would leave it if I decided I didn't believe in God, Jesus or the Bible. I think the church was a conduit for community.

That's what we don't have anymore. If churches and entire religions weren't so full of abuses and repression, maybe more people would still be interested to go just for the neighborly aspect of things. But they are, so you have to be really committed to the spirituality of a church to put up with the kind of things you might encounter -- judgmental authorities, political maneuvering, money grubbing, desperation. Nobody I know is willing to do that. The community of the church is not worth the trouble.

And I know, personally, it would be wrong-hearted of me to join a church to hook onto the communal aspect of it. Something wouldn't be right about that: not that I would go to hell or that the other parishioners would know I was a "fake," but that regardless of its benefits, a church is still primarily an avenue of worship, worship of a higher power. If you don't believe in that kind of thing and aren't interested in cultivating that belief, it seems kind of hollow to go to a place, ignore the elephant in the living room, and avail yourself of the charity, community and leadership.

So what's next? What has the potential to bring a town or neighborhood or group of people together that isn't focused on everyone being similar (having similar interests, the same skin color, the same money, the same background)? Groups based on similarity are often comfortable but not terribly dynamic. What, in the secular world, can fill the role of the old-time churches?

Town hall meetings are a possibility. We trust the government ever less, even when Democrats are in power, even when grassroots activism has been shown to work. We're cynical over the government and we don't want to put our energy into it. This is what I hear from more people than I can say, old and young. We live in a corrupt system, they say, and while we don't have to work against it, we also don't have to work with it. (The same goes for the churches, by the way.) So while we're not working with it, we're also not working with anything. We're adrift.

Clans and extended families are good for survival and support. But those are smaller, even, than I'm thinking is necessary. Your tribe is your inner circle, but you still need an outer circle around that, where the town should be.

Neighborhood associations are based on socioeconomic similarity; but if you could get a neighborhood association that would work outside its own neighborhood, reaching out to people NOT in the club, you might have the potential to do some real good and some honest community building.

Unions, school groups, charity/volunteer groups ... all good, with limited potential. There's a reason most activism takes place on college campuses: actually two reasons -- the first one is that there's a context for what you're doing. You see the people you're canvassing with or whatever in your math class. You trust them because you see them in front of your face every few days, so you're more inclined to get into something a little more deep with them. The second reason is that there's leadership. If you join a campus activist society, or a high school one -- you know that someone there is in charge who won't send you off to get killed.

If you decide to undertake charity on your own, you can't TRUST your own instincts as much as you can with a church/campus/even governmental leader. You don't know whether you should talk to that homeless guy on the street because he hasn't been vetted as someone who will or won't stab you. So you have to leave him alone. If you're part of an organization, with a leader, dealing with this kind of thing, you have more backup. That's something else a church provides that nothing else has really stepped into the place of.

So, a lot of possibilities, not a lot of answers. I need to start thinking of community activism and building in a different light -- or decide that God really is the answer -- which I don't see happening. I also have to realize that alone, I can't have as much of an effect as if I were part of a group, all working toward the same basic goal. We are so isolated nowadays that even thinking of being in a group gives us the willies -- who will be there? Will they be old, sick, irritating? Will it be more fun, rewarding, easier to stay home? This way of thinking has to go. I'm not in college anymore and don't have a calendar of clubs in front of me to cherry-pick from. I can't be a passive observer while I watch people unable to deal with their communities because of fear or lack of leadership. It's the point in my life where I have to maybe think of being PART of the leadership, or at least of the movement.

No comments: