A word of warning: I discuss a visit to church but I am functionally atheist. If this bothers you, don’t read; go do something else.
My husband and I are friends with Pastor Chris Owens of the First United Methodist Church of Laurel, MD. My husband Edmund is atheist; functionally, I am too1. One pet peeve we have about theist behaviour is that people often seem to think that “I’ll pray for X” is a sufficient response when action is needed. Very few people just try to pray a compound fracture away, for example; they know that unless they get medical help it will not just get better. So why would they think that it was sufficient to pray about ills that don’t affect them directly, instead of taking action?
Edmund and Chris had an online discussion about this after Edmund wrote a blog entry on this following the Sandy Hook massacre, and the discussion continued on Facebook. Edmund ended up challenging Chris to get his parishioners to do something — send letters, sign a card, etc. to show solidarity with the Newtown community, rather than only relying on prayer. In exchange, Edmund offered to undertake a task of Chris’s choice, so Chris asked him to go to mass “at a Christ-centred church” the following Sunday and report his thoughts on the experience.
I wasn’t part of the bargain, but a few days before Edmund and I had been talking about Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco (we live just south of SF), so we both immediately thought this would be a good place to
serve penance complete the challenge. I said I would not go to a mediocre church, but I was interested in seeing service at Glide for myself. I had high hopes because Edmund said they were big on liberation theology, which was my particular bent back when I was Catholic. So yesterday we went to the 9am service, and I had a few thoughts. (Edmund wrote his yesterday.)
Glide is a well-attended church and the service filled up as expected, but it’s not larger than the Catholic churches of my youth. It is most emphatically not a mega-church. There is a movable pulpit but no altar proper because the space fills up with the Glide Ensemble choir, the accompanying band (I think they are called the Changed Men), and the pastors. There is no physical cross on the large expanse of wall behind this, only a suggestion of cross as a large shadow. The blank space is used to project the words to prayers and songs, and photos that illustrate the topics.
The first thing that struck me, and made me feel pleasantly disposed towards the place, was that the crowd, choir, staff and volunteers look like the real world: a mix of races, ethnic groups, ages, genders, affluence, etc., able-bodied and handicapped, and, I suspect, of all sexual orientations. This was a refreshing change from unnaturally homogeneous churches I often see. (The last time I regularly attended a church about 20 years ago, it was in fact such a diverse church.)
When the singing started, I saw with fondness and amusement that the words to well-known carols and hymns were unabashedly modified to proclaim the liberation theology faith. Good on them! The results didn’t always scan all that well, but they were sung enthusiastically. And speaking of singing, the Glide Ensemble really is every bit as good as everyone says. It was like being in the ending sequence of The Blues Brothers (minus most of the police cars).
Two of the female soloists, in particular, were amazing and made me think of my father. He was a very unconventional Catholic and he loved a good soprano or mezzo; he was not particularly subtle in his enthusiasm, and sometimes you could hear him in between a singer’s notes, commenting “Maudit qu’a chante ben!” (“Damn, she signs well!”) For sure he would have loved these ladies’ voices.
There was a lot of clapping, some hand-holding but not taken to an obnoxious level, and I did not feel like I would be pressured to do anything if I didn’t feel like it. There were people who didn’t stand with everybody else, or didn’t clap, sing, or hold hands, and that was OK. There were a number of requests for donations or financial support towards the end, but standard for a church. There were testimonies and a short and heart-felt sermon.
Ushers went by to help late arrivals find seats, and walked down the aisles to offer fans and tissues for whoever needed them. I had never seen tissues offered outside a funeral service, but in this season of colds, not to mention all the lonely people who may be feeling blue in this holiday season, and all the sadness at recent events, it seemed like a brilliant idea.
The fans I had seen in the South but not here, but it was still a good idea because like most churches, it gets very warm when hundreds of people assemble. Besides, there was useful material printed on the fans such as help line numbers for those who struggle with depression, addiction, domestic violence, etc.
The message was one of inclusiveness, and although Jesus and God were mentioned, we also heard “spiritual power”, “deity”, etc. We were called on to respond with “amen” but also with “shalom”, “salaam”, “namaste”, etc.
The Treason of the Season
The Glide community is wrestling with the very same event that led to Edmund and Chris’s discussion and brought us there on Sunday, the Sandy Hook school shooting. There were a lot of photos of Newtown and Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto’s sermon tackled the subject directly.
Before that, we heard a volunteer of 30 years describe his involvement with Glide, how its community had helped him against addiction and homelessness, and how he had given of himself in return. But almost in passing, as he was describing how the Glide community had recently helped him manage to become a homeowner for the first time, he mentioned that just a few days later a bullet had shattered one of his windows. He didn’t make a big deal of it, but in the context I think the link was clear to everyone.
When Rev. Oliveto gave her sermon, she was very frank in tackling the subject of her sadness and dismay at the recent shootings but also fearless about making the link with the casual, prevalent gun violence in society in general and her community in specific. She emphatically explained that there are too many guns everywhere, creating risks of accident and violence. She and other pastors offered to go to the police station with anyone who wanted to turn in their firearms.
So there’s that — whether talking about poverty, violence, loneliness, homelessness, etc., people who are the face and voice of Glide all turned to action, to suggesting concrete things to do. They just distributed 10,000 toys to children, and had people coming in from as far as Vacaville in the hope of receiving some. They are having a big prime rib dinner today and a turkey lunch tomorrow for Christmas day, where anyone can attend.
And here’s the interesting part, you have to sign up on a schedule to volunteer for the various events, and the volunteer slots fill up well in advance. If you want to volunteer, you have to plan early! I love that. I felt pretty sure that a secular humanist willing to do something about poverty or inequality would be more at home there than a Christian who was not driven to act.
But like every other faithful, they are struggling with the question of why such terrible things happen and squaring that with their belief in a personal, omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent deity. And like other faithful, they end up coming up with answers that cannot stand up if you start looking at them closely at all.
This irritates me in the same way that people who take horoscopes seriously irritate me. But more importantly, I hate that the general conclusion is that what is bad always comes from humanity (that part is fair enough) but what is good always comes from God. This doesn’t make sense and it warps our expectations of ourselves. Yes, we are responsible for our bad acts, but there are plenty of bad things that just happen randomly. Nobody sent them, but nobody caused them by angering God either. And the good stuff? That’s also also from pure chance or from us. The kindness, the generosity, the unexpected help: people do that.
I also dislike the blanket promise that light will always shine through, there will always be a happy ending. Sometimes there isn’t — many people live short brutish lives of famine and war, then die suffering. And much as it would be wonderful to be able to tell ourselves that there will still be justice and fairness and these people will live on a happy afterlife, there is absolutely no evidence for that. This is the cry of our heart, the hope of our pattern-building brains, and it lulls us into complacency: where is the need to act if everything will be eternally better in the afterlife?
I have this personal interest in the narratives we construct to make sense of the world and our lives. (I need to write a few posts on this topic one of these days.) Glide was pretty open in the way is reframes religious discourse to suit its theological approach, but the truth is that everyone — and certainly every religious organisation — does this.
So why not, I thought — I can try the same. These people are nice and their official core values — inclusiveness, truth, love, hope, celebration and focus on people — agree well with my own. They act in a way I approve of but they say things that drive me bonkers. Can I take the good parts and reframe the discourse so it makes sense to me?
Here’s what I’m thinking. Everything good which theists attribute to God can in reality be attributed to one of two things: the wonders of the universe are in fact wondrous but they are not manufactured by a divine entity; they are superb but not supernatural. And every good deed and kindness comes from people, from humans, from the idea of goodness and kindness we have formed over hundreds of thousands of years as the most sentient species (as far as we know) on the planet. Cooperation, compassion, altruism are all found among the rest of the animal kingdom and especially mammals; but we are smart enough to also have developed rational reasons for this drive.
When theists say “We believe that the light of God’s love will always be there for us at the end of the darkness,” I think “Human goodness will always be there, whatever else humans may do that’s shitty, awful, selfish, thoughtless or cruel, and whatever impersonal disasters may strike us.”
When we talk about the goodness of God, we’re talking about our ideals, our aspirations. We constructed many gods over humanity’s infancy, powerful and terrible ones, loving and nurturing ones. In them we described what we wish to be true, but to borrow a phrase and use it improperly, We built that. We made them in our image, or in the image of what we wanted.
But we have to see the light in others, and we have to be the light for others. We have to give meaning to tragedies, and meaning to our lives. We can’t guarantee that there will always be a happy ending — there won’t — but we have the capacity to create the happy endings for each other.
We have this life to make a difference. That’s the only thing we know for sure, without a doubt. We may hope or wish that there is some Heavenly Janitor to take care of all the loose ends and clean up our messes, but the evidence we have is that all changes, smallest to largest, are accomplished through our own hands.
I’ll agree that Glide Memorial is one of the closest kinds of church to my values because it promotes acting, not just talking. Still, I’m unlikely to attend service again unless I want to hear the music or there is a guest speaker I’m interested in. While I understand and respect the need such rituals fill for other people, it is not my need. I can enjoy visiting, but I don’t have a wish to become part of it.
However, I would not mind giving time as a volunteer: serving food, tutoring, etc. To be honest, I would actually prefer doing this with a secular group but right now I would not be averse to volunteering with Glide, because while I don’t agree with the religious aspect, they don’t seem to do anything I object to. They don’t exclude people on the basis of sexual orientation, race or belief, or push any anti-science/anti-reality agenda.
1 In truth, I am actually more of a pantheist, but in practice that means I do not believe in a personal god that has the ability and the will to suspend natural laws on a whim, or who takes a personal interest in the daily complaints of each of us. I prefer to use the term “freethinker” for myself.