Tuesday, June 24, 2008

My Ancestor Was Here

While cleaning out the attic here at my new residence, I must sift through layers of junk and treasure left behind by so many previous residents. The other day, I came across a pile of old books - bound periodicals of church history from the turn of the 20th century.

Thumbing through the 1910 volume, I saw a familiar name: Joseph Burton - my great-great-great-uncle. It was a biography of Captain Burton (he was a merchant ship captain) written by his wife, Emma. Surprised to see my own relations mentioned, I started to read, following the serialized biography into the 1911 volume.

Being a merchant sea man from Nova Scotia and New England, it isn't surprising that Joseph sailed all over the Atlantic - from Europe to the Caribbean and all along the Eastern United States. What was surprising - at least to see it in print - was the brief reference to Joseph making a trip to Amsterdam in 1867. Then, not too much later, another trip from the US to Rotterdam. My great-great-great-uncle was in Rotterdam more than a hundred years ago.

This was, of course, before he had joined the church, and some thirty years before he would captain the missionary boat Evanelia from California to the Society Islands. But still, to have such a random and concrete connection with Rotterdam - to imagine my great-great-grandfather walking the downtown streets (or approximately, since the whole of downtown R'dam was destroyed in World War II) - touches me deeply.

I am, truly, just following in others' footsteps.

(The painting above is something of the scene Joseph Burton might have seen approaching Rotterdam. Johan Barthold Jongkind, The Schie Near Rotterdam, 1867.)

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Why Religion At All?

I was having a discussion with a friend recently - a friend who has been reading a lot of books in the "New Atheism" movement. (I don't know why they call it "New Atheism" - except that perhaps it's a new movement, a resurgence or renaissance.) And perhaps it's the fact that we share so many sympathies on the subject that I found it difficult to answer her questions the way she seemed to want me to. None of my answers were apparently getting at her fundamental question. So she sent me away from the discussion with something to think about: why have religion at all? Wouldn't our efforts and energies be more constructively placed elsewhere?

It got me to thinking.

Even if we take the most natualistic definition or description of "God" - God being the experience of neurons firing in our heads and our brains being bathed with certain chemicals as a result (as some recent articles have suggested, our brains might be hard-wired to come up with the idea of God) - that doesn't mean that the experience isn't valid or even helpful. It is much the same thing as love - our brains doing certain things with certain data, causing emotional and intellectual reactions, moving us to do (or avoid doing) certain things. Even knowing this, the most convinced neuroscientist doesn't give up on Love.

But the question is not about "God" - whatever that is or how it is experienced. The question is about religion: is it necessary or helpful for people to become the best they can be - as individuals and as a communal whole.

Obviously, this critique (in part) is reacting to the enormous and horrific narrow-mindedness of various fundamentalisms and the religiously-infused history of the 20th century. The Holocaust was committed by Christians as Christians, capitalizing on centuries of Christian anti-semitism. World War I saw every country - on each side - declaring God on their side, with the attendant implicit divine blessing on unthinkable death and destruction. The New Atheist critique is also laying claim to the Human Rights culture that has been growing since the 18th century and has oftentimes been explicitly beyond religious distinctions in its call for fair treatment of all people. (Curiously, the New Atheists don't lay much blame for the horrors of the past at the feet of nationalism, capitalism, imperialism or colonialism. But that might just be too broad a front to engage the world on. And, it must be said, the New Atheists are English-speakers from the Northern Hemisphere, whose nations and cultures are steeped in capitalist rhetoric of "freedom" being equated with "buying power.")

I will have to save a larger discussion of this for another post - or perhaps a book - but I do believe that American Christianity deserves this New Atheist critique. Religion in the Western world (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) has been astoundingly complicit in (if not outrightly encouraging) nationalism, prejudice and violence. We have directed enormous resources at our own comfort while neglecting (if not capitalizing) on the suffering of others - most horrifically when our comfort comes at the expense of others. New Atheism raises some profound and legitimate questions that Christians (my community) should take seriously - searching inside and among ourselves for a Christ-like response rather than reacting in fear and offense, and continuing to ignore the fundamental premise of their complaint. (Recognizing that the Christ-like response might be to change the way we are acting, speaking or thinking.) With American Christianity the way it is, I can't blame anyone for wanting to be an atheist. The questions resonates inside me deeply: why be religious at all?

To begin an answer, let me start with the analogy I mentioned earlier: love. Is it necessary for love (both the neurological "happening" and the experience of love in people's lives) that we have ritualized behaviors and communal expectations? Of course not. People can feel love without dating or marriage, monogamy or... whatever. I must admit that my partner and I decided to get married (almost five years ago now) without knowing precisely why - but that I have found our marriage to be profoundly moving and formative for me. I have been made a better person by my marriage in ways I never imagined or was aware of - and part of that was, honestly, giving myself over to the convention of the ritual relationship, and exploring my new personhood within it. But my partner and I certainly don't begrudge any of our friends or family who don't get married, who only date or live together, or have even decided against romantic relationships for the present. We also don't begrudge our friends and family who have gotten married - and for most, marriage has served them well, while others not quite as well. I can imagine a person who has neither the need for nor would be helped by "marriage" or even monogamy - who can have healthy, honest, full relationships with people in ways that I am unaware or incapable of. My way of being in relationship is not the only right way. I don't think for a moment that "marriage" is necessary for love, or for a person to fully actualize themselves, or to grow in compassion toward others, or for a thousand other virtues that flower from healthy intimate relationships.

Is it necessary for people to participate in an organized religion in order to find fulfillment and become healthy individuals? Of course not. I can imagine someone being healthy and dynamic, self-aware and challenged, compassionate and sensing a call to profound generosity and vulnerability, without being taught or encouraged to within a ritualized framework. Those people, I would probably find enviable.

I am not nearly so strong, creative, self-aware or self-challenging. To be honest, if it were up to me, I would probably spend most of my existence comfortably within my own prejudices, feeling a sense of distant concern for the poorer situation of others but that's about it, and would likely find my own righteous indignation adequate for sustaining my views about myself and my world. I would likely be quite comfortable not holding myself within a community that demands critical introspection, not being held accountable by a community, or wrestling with a tradition and the inheritance of millions of lives before mine. I feel like a pretty ritualistic person, so I'd probably come up with my own significant ritual acts - but there would be little basis for me to share these with others or invite their participation in them with me. But, if I didn't have religion in general - and progressive, peace-church Christianity in particular - I just wouldn't have the personal hutzpah or gumption to really set myself to work on these tasks. And I'd be a worse person for it.

In the end, I'd have to say that religion isn't necessary for a full and happy life. I'm just saying I couldn't do it. By being a participant (and now a minister) in a Christian community, I am opened up to challenges and ways of being that I don't think I would have were I not here. (I also think most everyone could benefit from being in a union. And, really, I probably begrudge people not being union more than I begrudge anyone being irreligious.) I also wonder if people who haven't been brought up in a religious community - or who's experiences have been markedly different than mine, even - can't know what they're missing.

I've been both religious and secular in my life, been both theist and atheist, and I like myself better as a minister in this particular Christian peace church. It isn't that I just "feel better" - sometimes being a Christian fills me with profound sadness and awareness of suffering, and being a Christian also denies me easy answers to many of life's truly difficult questions. I am constantly pushed outside my prejudices and self-centered thinking. I am pulled to engage with, feel for, and perhaps even love people that I don't like, don't care being around, and disagree with. (I don't always do very well at this, it must be said. But forgiveness and grace are also Christian tenets.)

I don't like it when religions - Christianity in particular (since it is my larger community - teach prejudice and superiority. When someone is religious, or admits to a belief in God (not necessarily the same thing), one thing that can signify is that they are confessing they don't know everything, that there is more that they are subject to than they can know or explain, but that they feel it nonetheless. To use the word "God" can oftentimes do one of two things: it can open people up or close them off, it can say 'I am seeking the truth' or it can say 'I have the truth,' it can mean 'I am open to connection and genuine growth' or it can mean 'I am right and if you don't agree with me then you are at best misguided and at worst evil.' I cannot express strongly enough my disdain for religion that does the latter - and I assume it is to this variety that the New Atheism is responding. And there's plenty of that kind of religion around - it seems they own most of the television channels and radio stations, have the biggest churches and promote retrograde politics. I wish the New Atheists good luck in their quest to break the hold of this kind of religion on people's minds and hearts.

But there is also the kind of religion that opens people up, that seeks to love and grow, and seeks to change the world not to be more like 'us', but to be more like a generous, just and loving God would want it to be. And there as many different kinds of being faithful to that kind of God as there are ways of loving. Religion isn't necessary for that to happen. But for some of us it really, really helps. For me, it is indispensible.

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