Every now and then, when I have a free Sunday morning, I will show up at church. These occasions are becoming fewer and further between as of late, but I wanted to share a bit about why a person who has enough beef with Christianity to write an entire blog on the subject might still go to a religious service now and then.
As you know if you’ve been reading along the past couple of months, I wasn’t just taken to church by my parents as a child and then left to my own secular devices as I got older. I did not attend apathetically for a few years in my youth and then quietly taper off my attendance. No, I was all in. Like, Luke and Lorelai “in” (sorry, I’ve been listening to a lot of Gilmore Guys). For the better part of two decades, I was a devout Evangelical Christian.
Even once the serious questioning started, I maintained regular church habits and connections. Thankfully, while at seminary I was able to find an Episcopal church with theology and practices liberal enough for my evolving sensibilities but still close enough to what I had grown up with to be comfortable. This particular congregation provided space for me to explore and grow into ideas like using gender-neutral language for God, accepting and celebrating the lives of LGBTQ and straight/cis people alike, and being open to the credibility of other religions and cultures; at the same time, it was (and is) professedly “Christian”. I found it refreshing, and it remains the church I show up at when I do show up at church.
But why? Why go when I’ve essentially stopped believing in God, let alone Jesus’ resurrection and all the rest? Well, as I said, church was never a nominal thing for me. There’s been a lot to lose in the leaving of Christianity, and church services provide two of the things it’s been most difficult to risk not having: community and ritual. As much as the supernatural doctrines of Christianity can get pretty ridiculous, there is really something to be said for what religion in general--including Christianity--can provide in terms of bolstering the human experience. It does seem to me that, anthropologically speaking, religion persists in large part because community and ritual are, at their best, important.
I know that when I show up to church, I will be greeted with genuine smiles. I know that I will see people whom I care about, and who care about me. I know that, were I to choose to become more involved in the church community, I would meet person after person who would be ready to talk about deep things and who would hold intimacy as a priority when it comes to social connections. These kinds of relationships are, unfortunately, hard to find in the city I live in, and I want them. Can I find them in secular/agnostic/atheist communities as well? Absolutely. But church is what I’ve known for so long, and I’m good at it. It will take some strategized effort to find, build, and maintain that kind of centralized relationship web outside of the fold.
As for ritual, it’s nice. It is both comforting and rejuvenating, at least for me. I like to sing, and there is usually a lot of singing in church. I like reading and beautiful language, too, and there tends to be a lot of both in the Episcopal tradition. Also, I like learning, and the homilies--again, at their best--are essentially tiny inspiring lectures. Finally, there is the ritual of meeting: the coming together to acknowledge, via physical presence, that you are a small part of something very big--that the world does not revolve around you. I tend to get caught up in my own head quite frequently, so the humbling I often find in the towering sanctuary and the kneeling during prayers is a reliable perspective provider.
Clearly, I don’t have a problem with everything about church. But it’s getting to the point where the things I do have a problem with feel like they outweigh the things I actually value. And while I consider the things I’ll be leaving behind when I finally stop going altogether, I also have to consider whether those aren’t things that it’s okay to grown out of--or at least, things that it’s time I figure out how to provide for myself. The truth is that I do have community; it’s just more scattered and irregular than I would like. And, I have found meaningful ritual in meditation, listening to podcasts, reading, and writing. These aren’t exactly collective rituals, but then they’re not hive-mind inducing either, which is a good thing.
As I hope I’m showing with this blog as a whole, de-converting is a process, and it’s not always a quick one. For me, figuring out what to do about church--especially when I happen to have access to a congregation that’s as close to the best version of Christianity as I’ve ever seen--has been a major part of the journey. I’m trying to walk away from my faith thoughtfully, not as a rebellion or in a tantrum, which means acknowledging and working through the places where I still feel torn. Given how much of my life I spent in it, I feel really torn about church, so even as an agnostic/ex-Christian/atheist/whatever, I still sometimes show up.