Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Evangelical Christianity and Me (Part 2)

I've touched on the role that the Friends (Quakers) played in my mother's religious life. Before we joined the Episcopal church when I was about 5 or 6, my mother was attending a Quaker meeting, and I was going to First Day school (RE) there. I remember that only vaguely. At some point we must have been going back and forth between that and the Episcopal church, because my mother is very fond of telling a story when, coming home from the Friends meeting one Sunday (where I had apparently been very bored), I said to her: "I want to be babatized and go to the Episcopal church!"

I don't have a clear memory of this. Sometimes it seems familiar to me, but I'm not entirely confident that it's indigenous to my memory as opposed to residing there from repetition of the story.

Even after we did join the Episcopal church, my family remained very close to a number of Quaker friends, some of whom taught on the college campus where my father (and later my mother) taught, others whom they'd known from Philadelphia, where my mother had worked as a teacher at a Quaker school.

Then, starting in 8th grade, I attended a Quaker school as well, further cementing my ties with that faith. I think I got three particularly strong messages from my experience with the Friends: Their strong commitment to social justice, the concept of the light of God in everyone, and a respect for pluralism (which I know may not be universal among Friends). Meanwhile I continued to attend the Episcopal church, was confirmed therein when I was 12 or 13, and remained quite happily engaged with it through high school. I also was active in an ecumenical Christian youth group in the community, which had representation from Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists. Our own priest had been a driving force in putting that group together. I am not sure, in retrospect, whether the Baptist church involved was American (Mainline) or Southern (Evangelical), but I rather suspect the latter.

And it was during this time that I continued to encounter strongly fundamentalist peers. Most of them were through the Boy Scout troop to which I belonged, but one of them was a classmate at the Quaker school -- an African American -- who had had a born-again experience in about 11th grade or so and in my senior year tried mightily to convert me. We had many earnest -- and mostly good-natured -- arguments/discussions, but he never did succeed in converting me.

Yet the impact of his persistence was ironic. He had come to believe certain things in the Bible literally, and as I reflected on my very clear understanding that the Bible was not to be taken that way, I found myself examining the creed that we recited every Sunday in my own church. "Born of the Virgin Mary." "On the Third Day He rose again." It was one thing to read the Bible symbolically, but here we were, reciting those phrases and stating unequivocally, "I believe..."

Could I really believe these things? I asked myself. And if I couldn't, wasn't it as absurd to be stating them as articles of faith as it was to believe in the literal creation story, the literal forecasts of Revelation, or the literal notion that only by asserting personal belief in salvation through Jesus Christ could I be spared from eternal damnation?

Although I had only a superficial awareness of other religions (besides Judaism -- my sister had married a Jew when I was a high school freshman), it was at this time in my life that I became very clear on one principle that has stayed with me ever since: With so many religious faiths in the world, I just could not believe that Christianity was the only "right" one and all the rest were "wrong." I concluded that in some way all must have a piece of the greater cosmic truth, whatever that was.**

In my first semester of college, I went once to the Episcopal church near the campus. It was the fall. A guest priest was there that day. I remember nothing of the sermon except one line. Well into his delivery, the priest acknowledged that there were some who sought a "Copernican revolution" in religion, placing Christianity alongside other faiths and taking away its primacy. I found myself nodding in agreement -- and then he followed up: Well, he said, that was absolutely the wrong idea.

I stayed for the end of the service, but when I left the church, I didn't go back. I attended the Episcopal church a few times after that, back home (once because I went to Christmas Eve services with a girl I briefly dated); I attended Quaker meeting once or twice over the next several years, but was bored, missing the liturgy of the Episcopal church if not the wrestling with dogma, however gently couched. I took a Religious Studies 101 class in Interpreting the Bible in my senior year of college -- a class I liked very much. But I felt little interest in returning to the church of my childhood, or to any Christian church in those days. Eventually I found my way, some seven years after I graduated from high school, into a UU church (as I've written about here.)

But over the years, I've continued to harbor a bit of a grudge toward fundamentalism and Evangelical/"Jesus Saves" Christianity.

Why is that?

I've come up with three answers--none of them mutually exclusive, all of them probably a piece of the answer.

1) I felt it both anti-intellectual (especially the rejection of science) and monstrously unjust. (It was only fairly recently -- within the last decade I think -- that I connected the fundamentalist insistence on the literal Adam and Eve story with the Jesus Saves Christology: Without the literal fall, the atonement theory has no meaning. I mention that in passing here.)

2) Somewhere deep down, I may have harbored an irrational fear -- what if the fundamentalists are right? And resented them for sparking that fear.

3) And I resented them for tainting even Mainline Christianity for me, contributing to my loss of faith in a source of real comfort, guidance and meaning during my growing up.

There may, indeed, be yet other reasons I have not managed to articulate for myself. Some days, I think 1) is the most powerful source of my resentment. Others, I find it is 3). Sometimes -- not much any more if at all -- even 2) has raised its head.

The last two years, however, have seen me on a journey back to Christianity. Certainly not the Christianity in which I never believed, and to be sure, not exactly the Christianity of my own childhood and teen years. But Christianity -- in a form that I can claim and embrace wholeheartedly -- nonetheless.

I will write more about that another time.


** Indeed, when I first read Forrest Church's metaphor of The Cathedral of the World (first presented in the book he co-wrote with John Buehrens, A Chosen Faith) some 15 or more years later -- and long after I had become a UU -- the image in that metaphor brought me back to the insight I'd had in high school. I don't have any kind of diary from when I had reached that earlier conclusion, so I have no way of knowing for sure whether I had arrived at it through the same or at least a similar metaphor. But it felt very at home with me.

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