It’s Easter, and I’m thinking about—surprise, surprise—God. In part, that’s because various things keep reminding me of how much I am intimidated by certain atheists. I mean, they’ve got science on their side, they make totally valid points about the damage inflicted by religious institutions…they’ve got the eyeliner-sporting snarkmaster Tim Minchin as a quasi-spokesman, for crying out loud. And I guess I find it a little bit difficult to describe where I stand when confronted with the view that rationality supersedes religion, because I do acknowledge and agree with much of its basis. But I’m done with being a passive participant in conversations about faith. I don’t want to silence myself because I’m afraid of sounding ignorant or simple-minded anymore. I’m done with thinking that atheism and secularism are automatically more intelligent ideologies, and that I have to continually justify my attachment to religious practices and spirituality. A year ago, I said: “I couldn’t articulately tell you where I stand in terms of religion right now,” and I’m happy to say that that’s no longer true. So let’s start.
1. What’s the purpose of religion? Why do we, er, relige? According to the syllabus for IB World Religions, a class I really wish I had access to, there are three fundamental questions addressed in every religion: what is the human condition? Where are we going? And how do we get there? These can be further broken down and translated: where do we come from? Why are we here? What is the future of the universe? What happens after we die, and what impact do our lives have on that outcome? You get the idea. These are all questions that humans gravitate towards naturally, and every belief system—including the secular ones, like atheism and rationalism—puts forth theories and musings about them.
2. But wait, if we’re going to think about those core questions regardless, doesn’t that mean we don’t need organized religion to facilitate? Well, we don’t need it, per se, but its facilitation provides valuable bonuses. What’s awesome and beneficial about religious institutions is that they foster the formation of communities of faith and give you the opportunity to bond, argue, and celebrate with people who are also struggling to make sense of such fundamentally unanswerable questions. One of my favorite quotes about the religion I’ve had the most experience with describes just that: “As Episcopalians/Christians, God does not call us to agree. God calls us to Communion.”* The importance of human relationships is right there! In the etymology of that word! Communion: with oneness. It’s superficially about the sharing of bread and wine, but at its root it’s about fellowship.
3. You can find fellowship outside of religious communities, though. So why all of the silly dresses and strings of beads and opulent places of worship? The way I see it, the ritual involved in organized religion gives seekers very concrete ways of accessing the spirit of the universe (what we sometimes like to call “God”), which has a tendency to be elusive and difficult to wrap your head around. I know this varies on a pretty personal level, but I love the way tangible symbols of faith make me really think about God and my values. One of my favorite church services is the one on Ash Wednesday because you get to walk around with a smudge on your forehead all day, which forces you to explain the significance of the day and the Lenten season to perplexed bystanders. Even though that’s a uniquely Christian practice, at its heart is something universally human: a reminder of mortality and the impact its spectre should perhaps have on our priorities and life philosophy. I find that, some days, wearing a crucifix makes me feel stronger, and that holding a set of prayer beads during meditation instantly helps me feel more grounded. And although saint worship isn’t a major tenet of Episcopalianism, I’m very much drawn to religious iconography. I use it more as a rosary-holder than as an altar, but I still find great comfort in the seashell-and-dollar-store-candle shrine to San Judas Tadeo (the patron saint of lost causes) on my dresser.
4. Okay, fine, maybe religion does some good things for people. But it has such a terrible legacy, and continues to uphold that—how can an educated person in today’s world still follow the scriptures put forth by antiquated institutions with so much blood on their hands? Yep, a lot of oppressive legislation is promoted by interest groups with “religion” at their centers. But I’d argue that these particular institutions are stepping out of line in trying to merge government and faith, and that there are plenty of religious people and groups out there who would prefer an America (or Iran or Somalia or France) that isn’t theocratic. And it’s absolutely true that wars and genocides committed in the name of religion have killed millions over the years. But I would argue that this is because religious institutions are run by humans, and humans are really good at making mistakes. We can’t forget that atrocities have been carried out by institutions that reject religion, too: an estimated 85 to 100 million people died in mass killings perpetrated by the leaders of various Soviet regimes in the 20th century. The Soviet system was made of institutions built on an ideology that held atheism as a critically important tenet. It would be absurd to say that atheism is a force of evil because it played a role in these crimes against humanity, and I think that extends to theism with regards to its role in past and current bloodshed.
5. But…you know that all of your beliefs are scientifically inaccurate, right? And there’s no integrity in accepting some teachings but ignoring others. Lots of people advocate science over religion because it adjusts its “doctrine” in response to new observations and data. I’m all for science, and I admire its adaptability (though I do think scientific paradigm shifts happen more slowly than people sometimes imagine). It strikes me as funny that proponents of pure rationalism hold this up as one of the most important and distinctive practices in their belief system, yet don’t seem to allow for the same type of thinking in religion. It’s pretty crucial to recognize that religious texts were written at a certain time, in a certain place, by certain people in a certain cultural climate, and that changes how one can interpret them. I think it’s completely legitimate to identify as a member of a particular religion but disregard parts of scripture that no longer make sense in the modern world, or to acknowledge the use of metaphor and allegory, or to care more about principles than specific commandments or practices. It’s not so much selective ignorance as the evolution of perspectives on those big, scary questions, which is what we want anyway, right? It’s unfair to say that a group’s views are destructive and antiquated and then follow that up with “but you’re not allowed to contextualize or update them because that invalidates your faith.” If you’ve got a problem with “cafeterianism,” think about it this way: it’s a sign that people who want to be connected with God and a community that shares their belief system are also thinking critically about their spirituality and values rather than blindly trying to follow every single rule in their faith (which, since both people and belief systems are chock full of contradictions, would probably result in a lot of very stressed out and confused believers).
6. Hold up. You never got to explaining this whole “God” thing. Aaand that’s ‘cause you’ve got Wikipedia. I jest, I jest—Wikipedia is useless here. You can define God as a deity (or maybe deities) that you’re held accountable to and who lives somewhere in the sky, protecting you. But that doesn’t fly with me so much. There’s this phrase I learned in Sunday school ages ago that was the only thing I felt sure about spiritually for quite some time: “God is love, and love is God.” Love, in this context, could also be described as compassion, and I’ve gradually realized that transcendence could fit there, too.
I experience God through wonderment at nature, and through meaningful connection with other people. I experience God through Bob Dylan and violet sunsets that crown the mountaintops. I experience God when I go running in the graveyard next door, and hear “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes drifting from the top of the hill there. I’ve felt God while watching the moon rise over red rock carved by ages of rushing water. Whatever God is, it’s in the birdsong and the strains of forlorn violin music emanating from my neighbor’s house. It’s in thunder, bonfires, and the moss that grows on perpetually wet Oregonian logs.
That spirit of life is in the outdoor chapel at church camp, the crunch of twigs beneath your feet and the old cracked alarum bell. There, a gaggle of adolescents just entering the slightly-too-cool-for-God-and-authority phase pack into a stone church each night to act out Bible stories and take Communion. We roll our eyes at the skits featuring Sam Samaritan, but there’s something inside us that secretly smiles. One of my most memorable spiritual experiences unfolded there just a few years ago.
It’s an ordinary evening as we gather, and by the time we reach Communion, I feel affectionate enough for this community not to scoff at the choice of hymn: Kumbayah. “Somebody’s prayin’, Lord, kumbayah, whoa-oa-oa, somebody’s prayin’, Lord, kumbayah,” it starts, at first sung only by our diligent counselors. But the voices and vitality crescendo with each repetition until our oneness fills the high ceiling. Each verse gets a new verb, some unremarkable action in which maybe, just maybe, we can find transcendence and receive the spirit of life. “Somebody’s singin’, Lord, come by here.” I’m sitting next to two sisters I’ve known longer than most of my friends, and whose family I feel totally comfortable with. One rests her head on my shoulder, brunette locks cascading gently across her face, and I can tell from the strength of her voice that she feels this sense of divine unity, too. I lock eyes with someone I’ve never spoken to before, and it feels like in this moment—“…somebody’s laughin’, Lord, kumbayah,”—we know each other. God is in that cracked acoustic guitar, that warmth and companionship with both stranger and kin.
Happy Easter, y’all.
*Thanks, Rev. Kirk A. Woodliff, whoever you are.