24 Apr 2012, 5:18pm
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[holy daze] my year of christianity

Hi, potential readers! I’m starting a project. I probably won’t tell anyone about it for a little while, just in case. But I’ve gotta start from somewhere, with something, so I’m starting with this long, rambling post. Here’s the project: for a year, I’ll be following the Christian calendar. I mean, I’ll be using the liturgical calendar as an entry point to learning about Christian holidays and rituals and history and so on. I know I won’t really do it justice, of course, or get into any kind of real depth, but it will be a start. Then, in a year, I’ll start in on the Jewish calendar. After that, maybe Hinduism. You see where I’m going with this? But first, Christianity.

I’m pretty sure I grew up with some idea that I was a Christian, probably because all of my friends were either Christian and celebrated Christmas or were Jewish and celebrated Hanukkah — and my family celebrated Christmas. When I was a young kid my mom and I went to a Unitarian church together. I graduated from some kind of Sunday School program and received a lovely book with my name, the church’s name, and the date in 1992 handwritten in neat script in the inside cover. The book is called The Big Book for Peace. I flipped through it last night, and I found a few mentions of God and one mention of Jesus, in this context: “If he’d known how to pray properly he would have thanked someone. ‘Take care of her,’ he said to the angel or God or Jesus — whoever watched out for old bag ladies and crazy kids” (page 110). Not exactly staunch conviction.

Later I got really into critical thinking, I guess, and in fifth or sixth grade my friends and I started sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance every morning because the “under God” part didn’t allow for freedom of religion and I thought pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth was weird and we had already figured out that the part about “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” was bullshit. (The fact that we imagined our classroom disobedience made any kind of difference speaks to our still very much alive belief in the American myth of democracy, though.) Middle school made a quiet conformist out of me, though I remember feeling uncomfortable in eighth grade when the Columbine school shooting happened and a friend of mine told me with horror that one of the shooters had asked one of the victims if she believed in God, and upon hearing her affirmative answer, had shot her. I mean, I was pretty sure I would’ve said no.

The year after that, my non-religious parents enrolled me in an all-girls Episcopal boarding high school (yup). A couple of years after that was 9/11 and all of the “God bless America” stuff that was so prevalent right afterwards creeped me out and pissed me off and gave 16-year-old me something to be outspoken and opinionated about. As it so happened, the really cute girl on my soccer team was an atheist, too. We bonded in our lonely, persecuted state (ah, to be 16!), and by mid-November we were in love.

In the meantime, we went to chapel twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays. We stayed resolutely seated during the prayer, but I always stood and sang for the hymns. My favorite hymn was (and remains) “Morning Has Broken.” I also loved (love) the ones with the long drawn-out glorys and hallelujahs. I think probably if I’d been paying more attention I might’ve learned a bit about Christianity and Episcopalianism in particular, but mostly I think I zoned out and/or stared at my hot girlfriend. Things got interesting when our chaplain (a wonderful woman whose brilliance I did not appreciate at the time) started asking students of various faiths to do short presentations about their religious practices during chapel time. Some Muslim students presented on Islam, a Wiccan friend of mine spoke on Wicca, and so on.

Then our chaplain asked my girlfriend and I to present on atheism. For some reason our presentation was the first to be announced in advance, and the art teacher got upset about the idea of a presentation on atheism happening in a sacred space. In the end we gave our presentation — ten years ago, almost to the day! — in the school’s outdoor courtyard, and then we boycotted chapel, just the two of us, until hanging out alone on the school’s front lawn twice a week got more boring than sitting in the pews whispering with our friends.

Anyway, my girlfriend went out of town with her family for a couple of weeks before our presentation, and I put together most of it on my own. It was the first time in my life, really, that I’d been asked to examine my own beliefs (as opposed to, you know, judging the beliefs of others). I read a lot of stuff about morality without religion and atheistic thinkers in history and so on, and I wrote a nice little presentation. And in the midst of all my research, I stumbled across the idea of pantheism (specifically the World Pantheist Movement) and eventually adopted that identity, which I carried, casually, for the next few years. Atheism, examined, didn’t feel quite right.

I went to college at ultra-liberal Reed College, whose official-unofficial motto, emblazoned on t-shirts and water bottles in the bookstore, is “communism, atheism, and free love.” I didn’t think much about it (or religion) until my sophomore year, when I dated one of just a few out Christians on campus. I was a bad influence on him. Before we got together, he wanted to be a minister; while we were dating, he wanted to be a professor of comparative religion; after we broke up, he got back on track for ministry. That’s how hard it was to imagine me as a minister’s wife. It all worked out in the end; he’s an ordained Lutheran minister starting an awesome art-based ministry in Brooklyn now, is happily married to my dear friend, and will be performing my and my partner’s wedding ceremony this summer. Anyway, just as my high school’s chaplain had asked me to examine my atheism, he asked me to examine my pantheism. He prayed every night before bed. I started doing sun salutations and, I dunno, getting really into chanting om in my yoga classes.

We broke up for pretty good reasons mostly unrelated to religion, and I dated a few other folks before pairing up with a hardcore rationalist philosophy major with no patience for mysticism and a tendency to suffer from existential crises related to a lack of objective meaning in the universe. College was everything it was supposed to be — I was exposed to all kinds of new and old ideas, and I tried out many of them. My relationship with the philosopher ended right around the time we graduated, though we are still friends (and he has mostly recovered from the existential crises). At commencement I was seated next to my now-fiancĂ©, but that’s a story for another time.

Growing up, for me, has meant shedding layers of identity that I put on over the years in self-defense, or to be part of a community, or to distinguish myself, or just to try it out. Often I’ve been surprised by what’s peeled away and discarded, and by what lies underneath. God was (is) one of those things I didn’t really know was somewhere in there underneath those layers, but little by little, there God was. At first, God came with a lot of conditions and qualifications, but in the past few years, those too have fallen away. Are falling away.

I’m skipping over a bunch of stuff here. Trying to limit this more or less to my background in Christianity, lest I go on and on and on…

I started going to the huge Unitarian Universalist church in Portland on an occasional and then regular basis. Mostly I snuck in right before the service, wept my way through it, and snuck out at the end. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but it felt like something I needed to do. I moved away from Portland a year and a half ago, and eventually I walked into a UU church that I love in my new city. I signed the membership book a couple of months ago. A few Sundays ago we sang “Morning Has Broken” and I wept maybe a little more than usual. (Also, until I googled it just a moment ago, I had no idea that Cat Stevens had recorded a version of the hymn. Enjoy.)

So here we are. There’s probably some reasons for this project hidden in there somewhere, but here’s a few more –

* I daydream about going back to school for a Masters in Religion & Art. A domain name and a Wordpress installation is a lot cheaper.

* I saw the movie Blue Like Jazz recently. It’s set at Reed, which is why we went to see it, and it’s a pretty fair and fun representation of the school and of Reedies, all things considered. I liked it. The same day we planned to see the movie, my partner and I found a copy of the book it’s based on for sale for $3 at the coffee hour at my church, so we picked it up and I’ve been reading it. The book is nothing like the movie, really. Unlike the movie, the book does not have much of a plot (nor is it meant to), but the author, Donald Miller, did audit classes at Reed and does mention the college a bit in the book. The subtitle of the book is “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” which describes it pretty well. Miller has some interesting, thoughtful, and insightful things to say, but one aspect of his perspective has been annoying the crap out of me. He is so dismissive of other religions! Here’s him on Buddhism:

“There were times I wished I was a Buddhist, that is, I wished I could believe that stuff was true, even though I didn’t know exactly what a Buddhist believed. I wondered what it would be like to rub some fat guy’s belly and suddenly be overtaken with good thoughts and disciplined actions and a new car. I would go into real estate and marry a beautiful blond, and when the beautiful blond tilted her head to the side as I talked about socialized education, I could rub the Buddha, and she would have the intellect of Susan Faludi. Or Katie Couric” (page 88).

The sexism doesn’t really win me over, either. I guess I understand what he’s saying. He wants there to be an easy answer to the mysteries of life, a quick solution. He’s sharing the part of himself that doesn’t want to know that things are complex and irrational and unknowable for everyone, even Buddhists. But in doing so, he’s propagating religious misunderstanding (not to mention being kind of a dick). I guess where he is content to return to his own unknowing about Jesus, I want to know more about the other guys’ unknowing. I even want to know more about Miller’s unknowing, and about Jesus.

* Ursula K. Le Guin, one of my very favorite authors, writes in one of her books (Four Ways to Forgiveness, a collection of four beautiful novellas) that “no truth can make another truth untrue.” I feel that, very much, and in fact I think that truths, when true, make other truths truer. If you follow me.

I’ve chosen to use calendars because I’m interested in cycles and seasons and in returning, changed, to where we were. At the end of my project, I imagine I’ll return for my last “year of” to Unitarian Universalism, which has, after all, been the launching-off point and the returning-home point already in my life. I’ll have to make my own UU calendar, with the help of my church community. In my head that’ll be the perfect final chapter, where everything sort of comes together and is reconciled and fulfilled. In life, of course, I have no doubt it will be much more complex.

(all images from The Big Book for Peace)

[this entry was originally published on april 24th, 2012, at holy daze.]

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