A few weeks ago, I wrote about why I still sometimes show up at church. Nothing in the post was false, but it’s not exactly accurate anymore either. The most current truth is that I haven’t been to church in months--not even the hyper-liberal Episcopal one I’ve given kudos to a few times on this site--and I have no conscious designs on returning anytime soon, hence this little update.
To review, some of the things that kept me going to church in general, even after I’d realized I no longer believed in the literal truth of the Biblical narrative, were the sense of community and the comfort of ritual I experienced in that space. What made the aforementioned church particularly bearable were things like its openness to the legitimacy of other belief systems, its gender-neutral references to God, and its focus on social justice-oriented action. However, as I’ve also mentioned in previous posts, there’s been a growing tension in me between a desire to glean the benefits of being a part of a congregation and the glaring reality of my fundamental lack of belief in the God being referenced. At the moment, it seems the latter’s pull is winning this psychological tug-of-war.
The last time I was in a church service, which was...oh, probably about two and a half months ago, nothing felt right. I did not want to sing the songs (even the pretty ones), I found the homily almost unbearable to sit through, and I walked out before the eucharist was served. What is it that I can longer bear, I asked myself as I was leaving. Even if it’s all a metaphor, I have to say that I can get behind what’s being signified: humility, generosity, courage, love, etc. So what’s cutting me off from the tradition that’s been mine? What is trumping even the symbolic value of this faith when it comes to my participation in it?
The answer, I’ve recently decided, is worship. The worship of God. Now, I try to be mindful of using Christian-ese on this blog without defining my terms because many of my readers did not grow up going to church, so let me be a bit more specific. “Worship” looks like the congregation joining together in songs that tell God how awesome God is. Sometimes these songs are sung about God, but often they’re sung to God. It can also look like a call-and-response during the service that involves phrases like “praise to you, Christ” or “glory be to God”. It also looks like prayers said while bowing or kneeling, as we imagine subjects doing before their kings or queens in monarchical societies. These are gestures of hierarchy and submission, and I--especially as a female--am not okay with that anymore.
Unfortunately (for me) Christian churches (in my experience)--even the ‘hyper-liberal’ ones; even those that are perfectly fine with the prospect of the Bible ultimately being myth--still have at the center of their gatherings these various practices of worship. But if a more free-thinking congregation is open to the idea that God might not literally exist, why make such a point of literally deferring to that God? If the fundamental goal of a particular Christian church is, say, to be more generous and patient and overall loving people, as opposed to simply insisting on the existence of a deity, why spend the gathering times turning attention to this (potentially) made-up thing? If the true end game is self- and social improvement, it seems superfluously--even harmfully--self-effacing for us to spend our time telling the Lord that we know how awesome he is.
Maybe it’s pride, but I don’t think I can do it anymore. I can’t play this kind of make-believe. Why would I sing songs (even pretty ones) to “God” if I have no belief in a god? Why would I choose to recite a prayer about Jesus rising from the dead when I do not think such a thing ever happened--or even matters, quite frankly? I know plenty of places to find enlightening practices and opportunities for community service outside of religion. On the other hand, all I’ve even known regular obligatory worship to do for me is give me an out from the things for which I’m actually responsible--including dealing with the loneliness and frightening quiet of grown-up life--and inhibit me from having faith in myself.
When I was a teenager and even a young adult, I was an enthusiastic worshipper of God, to put it mildly. I adored the emotional high it provided, singing at the top of my lungs to a God I believed loved me like no one else could, raising my hands and dancing in place. And to pray! To communicate directly with the Ruler of the Universe. What could be more thrilling? I thought it was real because I felt it so much. Now I realize that that logic gets tricky when you’re dealing with adolescence, which, almost by definition, is perpetual emotion. Religion filled the still, quiet space I wasn’t mature enough to sit in--filled it with excitement and drama and something to hold onto in the chaos of life. It also gave me a sense that someone more powerful than I was taking care of the things I was too afraid to face. I gave God my love, and God was then supposed to be keen on giving me the things for which I asked, which were often very well-intended. It was a mutually beneficial relationship rife with my alarmingly arrested development.
It’s understandable. I don’t judge my young self; it was all that I knew, and I was having a good time. Getting used to this new post-Christian stage of my life, I do sometimes miss the thrill of the emotional trip a church service used to afford me. But, I am also grateful for the fact that the whole “worship” thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth these days. I’m grateful because I realize I don’t need it anymore. Not only that--I don’t want it. I like leaning in to myself; I like feeling powerful and, well (dare I say it?) almost divine. Since I’ve tapered off my dependence on church, I’ve found a courage inside of me that I never got from God--a courage to step out into the invisible chaos that is this complicated and sometimes seemingly meaningless existence--and I am happy to say I can hold my own hand from now on.