Monday, October 05, 2009

Ritual, Story, Debate

A few weeks ago, I went to the Bar Mitzvah of a friend’s son.

The young man had obviously put a lot of himself into the ceremony as had the rest of his family.

It was a powerful and emotional experience.

Many in attendance, myself included, wept openly during the ritual and I was honored to have been included.

As I left, there were a few things that stood out for me.

First, the Rabbi discussed the way that the Jewish faith was one that honored life-long learning and debate.

In particular, he referenced this young man’s duty to study and question the Torah for the rest of his life and to engage in debate about the nature of its meaning with those in his faith community.

Second, when my friend’s son made his speech, he said that he found it ironic that he was standing before us at all as he had been a two-time Hebrew school drop-out.

He talked about many late night walks with his mother and how their discussions led him back to pursue the Bar Mitzvah.

Having participated in the study that led him to the Bar Mitzvah, he said he felt more connected to his ancestors and to himself.

He talked about the power and importance of story and ritual in one’s life.

I left thinking about both of these things – lifelong study and debate about the true meaning of faith narratives and the power of story and ritual in our lives.

I don’t have what I would call faith, I don’t have absolute faith anyway.

I used to think Church was only for the faithful.

Then one day, about ten years ago, I argued about this with my Grandfather.

“Church isn’t for people with absolute faith,” he said angrily. “Church is about community. It’s a place where you go to struggle through your questions about faith with the support of others.”

I remember this moment so vividly.

My grandfather’s remarks made sense to me, but the task of finding the right faith community seemed Sisyphean in nature.

[And who wants to roll a huge rock up a huge hill forever and ever?]

Since I’ve had children, this notion of finding a faith community has nagged at me.

I didn’t grow up going to church, so it doesn't feel like I worry about it over some sort of guilt that I need to teach my children about the Bible.

I mean, I hardly know anything about the Bible.

I tried to read it once and got as far as Leviticus.

Leviticus is all about how many lambs, bulls, goats, chickens and other animals out to be sacrificed (and in what order and frequency) to please god.

After the sacrificial overload (the literal Silence of the Lambs) and a long string of The Begats (John Boy begat Billy Bob who begat Roy Rogers), I was done reading.

[I hear I missed all the excitement of the smiting.]

I think the nagging I feel is more about suspecting my grandfather was right.

I still don’t have what I would call faith, but finding a community within which to explore my questions seems like it could be worthwhile, something that opens me, something that invites new possibilities…

A few days after the Bar Mitzvah, I was sitting with the father of one of my daughter’s friends at pre-k pick up.

Talking about the Bar Mitzvah, I asked him where he found himself on the spectrum of faith.

He told me he was an atheist.

I probed for clarity.

“So you are absolutely certain that the existence of some force or spirit larger than us isn't possible at all?”

He got his dander up.

“To posit that there is some sort of life force controlling the universe is ridiculous! It’s also incredibly destructive. Some of the most horrible acts of violence throughout history have been perpetrated over conflicting ideas of faith. It’s horrifying and depressing and it doesn’t make sense. God doesn’t exist. This is it. This is all there is.”

His wife, who attended the Bar Mitzvah with me, and I talked further.

She too describes herself as an atheist.

“Maybe it’s because we’re scientists,” she said. “What you can’t prove, can’t exist.”

“I think there’s only a thin line of difference in your belief and mine,” I replied. “That I can’t prove it one way or another makes it possible in my mind.”

I guess I think the existence of God is possible.

That’s what I’ve got.

[Pretty thin, eh?]

Though my parents were essentially agnostic, both sets of my grandparents were Presbyterian.

There’s a Presbyterian church near my house with a reputation for attracting a very diverse congregation and for being oriented towards social justice.

Last week, a friend of a friend who is an active member offered to meet the kids and I there and to show us around.

She met us on the front steps and led us inside.

The sanctuary of the church felt familiar in that it looked very like my Grandparent’s small, country church in Virginia.

Everything happened in the same order during the service and, like all Presbyterian churches, the “trespasses” were replaced with “debtors” in the Lord’s Prayer.

What I wasn’t expecting was when the sermon addressed whether or not David and Jonathan were lovers in the book of Samuel.

I wondered what my Grandparents would have thought of the sermon.

I thought, “What difference does it make if they were or were not lovers?”

But then, the pastor said the same thing… and more.

He said that whether or not they were lovers was irrelevant to the story’s message about the transcendent power or friendship, but that is was politically significant to call out this biblical story of intimacy between two men and accept its possibility from the pulpit.

He said he felt a responsibility to bless their intimacy, the possibility of their homosexuality, and to publicly recognize it as acceptable in God's eyes.

[Preach it, radical church man!]

At other points during the sermon, the pastor referenced the congregation's uncertainty on matters of faith.

This relieved me.

Still, it was jarring to sit in what looked like any small, southern, Christian church but tasted like something else entirely.

Flavor combinations I had never before experienced were being offered here.

The Mayor and The Rooster seemed to enjoy themselves quite well.

They were whisked off to various Sunday school and other children’s activities where they did various arts and crafts projects, heard stories and were not, at any time, asked to sit still.

Towards the end of the service, the children of the congregation rejoined their parents in the sanctuary for communion and the recession.

During the final hymn, The Rooster danced joyfully in the aisle between the pews.

No one seemed to mind, so I didn’t stop her.

As the robed members of the choir and the various church elders stepped down and into the aisle marching towards the back of the church, The Rooster turned and began high stepping her way out as well, leading them all.

I called her back then.

I know my shy girl well enough to realize that if she fell out of her musical reverie with the length of the church between us, she would dissolve into an instant bucket of tears.

When it was our turn to spill out into the aisle and out of the church, a number of people stopped me to remark that they were sure The Rooster would have led the church elders and the choir right out of the building and onto the street.

The way she had been swept outside of herself made me think again about my belief in the power of ritual and story.

Faith based or not, ritual and story bring meaning to our lives and I want to provide it for The Mayor and The Rooster.

I looked around at the assembled congregation.

“Is this the community?” I wondered. “Are these the people amongst whom I will finally struggle with my questions about faith?”

I left feeling like I might be willing to go on a second date, but that I was nowhere near ready to make a commitment.

[Definitely no good night kiss.]


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The Wife said...

It's not that what you can't prove can't exist (you may just not have the means to prove it yet, because you don't have the right tools for instance -- let say if you have not invented the microscope yet). Rather the issue is that you have to set the problem as a testable hypothesis (something you can disprove). In this sense, there is no way to prove or disprove that there is a God. I do think God is a mental construct. Nothing wrong with that. I just don't see myself praying to that (why not the plate of spaghetti then, instead of the man with the white beard?). My big issue is when people start arguing that their God is the only acceptable one (really, the mental mechanisms are all the same, whether you are worshipping a tree or the Christian God), and use it, as if it was factual "truth", as an evident premise from which everything else (what behavior is acceptable, who is righteous and who is not, who goes to hell and who goes to heaven, who can marry who and how to do science).

I just don't think I have ever seen any evidence of the existence of God, at least nothing that is convincing to me. So it makes buying the rest of the package (praying, churchgoing...) difficult. For everything that matters to me (loving my family and my friends, being invested in my community, passing on strong moral principles to my children, social justice and human rights across the globe), I have never felt that the religion component was necessary.

Momish said...

I have struggled with this as well so I understand what you are going through completely. I just enrolled my daughter into Catholic school and thus have been going to mass every week. Religion and faith aside, the sense of community I now feel with my neighbors is overwhelming and most welcoming in my life. It's nice to belong and have a place to go where you are welcomed and considered a valuable member.

Not Hannah said...

It sounds like you had a great experience. Have you tried a Universal Unitarian congregation. The one here is great--it has an emphasis on racial justice and harmony. There are all sorts of folks who attend; everybody from atheists to Wiccans to evangelical Christians are welcome. The focus seems to be on doing good works. I don't know if there is one near you, but that might be an option.

TRS said...

Sounds like you have set forth on the right path! Good luck to you!

I feel it's very important for children to have a faith base... rather than none at all. That way they can decide for themselves when they are older rather than starting from a place of no knowledge.

You may enjoy/appreciate this...

TRS said...

Also, for your Atheist friend... does he love his wife? Does he love his children? Can he prove it?
If not, his love must not exist. Hmmm?

Can love be proven except for intangible feelings and ideas?

God is love. That IS the proof.

Joie said...

Your grandfather was right about community and the reason that the Bible was boring as hell is that you weren't reading it and discussing it in community. I love where that preacher went and then went again in his sermon. If I could recommend any author to you right now, it would be Anne Lamott who struggles with her faith in incredibly authentic ways and writes about it. Her community is what has grounded her (maybe also Presbyterian but this Episcopalian can't remember). She is hysterically funny and irreverent.

Anonymous said...

Your atheist friend probably has faith--just maybe not in a supernatural being. I assume that because you're friends and based on your blog, I imagine that he is probably a decent sort of guy. And he probably has faith in making a better world or in some other positive but unprovable tenets. I think what matters is the outcome of a person's faith. Where does it take that person, to compassion, to curiosity, to love or to narrow mindedness and dogma. That can happen with or without God. In fact you've spurred me to blog about this.

The Atheist Wife of the Atheist Friend said...

In response to TRS' comments:

- Yes he can prove that he loves his wife and children. He does every day, in fact. That's an easy one to demonstrate, in the way we act towards each other. I think any observer would attest to that.
- You see, when you say "God is love, that is the proof", however hard I try, it means nothing to me. I don't see that as a proof at all. (How many atrocities have been committed in the name of that love!!) Others will say "God is punishment", "God is joy", "God is anger". God is anything YOU make it up to be, it is a concept that you choose or not to embrace.
- Just because we are not raising our children to be religious does not mean we are raising them "in a place of ignorance". We have actually had to engage in quite a bit of talking and debating with our son, if only to reassure him that no, contrary to what their well-meaning little Christian friends tell him, he will not burn in hell for not going to church on Sunday (this being the South and all).

Leah said...

I love the Lord plain and simple. I hope you are able to find God, start with reading the bible, become friends with someone either in that church or maybe one of the parents in your childrens classes. As for your atheist friend I hope that you can be example for them.

Omaha Mama said...

Your church can be a family of famiies, it is for us. :0)
And the science thing? I think science absolutely proves the existence of God, how else could everything be in such perfect balance to sustain life on this Earth?
Simply Christian by N.T. Wright would be a good read for you. The heading on the back says Making Sense of Faith. I'm reading it myself right now. Well not RIGHT now, as I am reading your blog. But you know what I mean!

Random Thinker said...

As a scientist and an engineer, I struggle with this question every day. Not only there is a possibility, there is also a high probability, that God exists. Scientists are also led by faith, a blind faith which I more fully discus in this blog entry

Wishing you the very best in your spiritual journey to reach a place where you can hang your life on:)

Mary G said...

Me too! Questions with no answers. This was a marvellous discussion. Thanks.

The Super Bongo said...

Given your thinking approach to life and your commitment to social justice . . . have you thought about the Society of Friends? Especially a silent worship type? The focus is very much on aligning your actions to principles you believe worthy. Also, working towards social justice, equality, simplicity, and freedoms.

Marmite Breath said...

I'm a Unitarian Universalist. I find that this offers a sense of community while I struggle with what I believe. It also helps me to see the world as bigger than myself. My kids love it too.

Aimee Greeblemonkey said...

Oh, friend. I think we have talked about this before but we are soooooo on the same page. I love this post down to my bones. There is a church here in Denver that I pass that always has funny or liberal or uplifting sayings on it, like "Thou Must Seeth The Inconvenient Truth" or "Who Would Jesus Insure?" - that I wonder, "is that the place for us?" maybe we'll check it out sometime and report back to you.

WILLIAM said...

This is one of the best posts I have read on this topic anywhere.


SciFi Dad said...

I've written about this subject a couple of times (most recently, this morning). I feel similarly to you, although I haven't taken the step of actually taking in a service yet.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

TRS here...
to Atheist Wife.

But that's my point... your husband does things to SHOW love, but it can't be PROVEN.

You can't put his love under a microscope and say... "Yep, there it is, next to the red squiggly thing."

You feel love - but not in a tangible way.
He could never PHYSICALLY prove that he loves you.

But you know that he does.
That is called FAITH.

Heather, Queen of Shake Shake said...

I'm not really sure it even matters if God exists or not.

I like this outlook on religion:

"When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That's my religion." Abraham Lincoln

CM said...

Interesting... I'm experimenting with church too. I've never belonged to a church, or really to a religion, on my own behalf before. I am more or less an atheist, but of a different stripe -- I'm not convinced that there can't be a God, I just don't believe in one. I started going to the Unitarian Universalist church in my town mainly for the community, and have found that the beliefs line up pretty well with my own. I'm not sure whether we'll stick with it. I hate to say this, but church is one more commitment, and it feels like a burden. At the same time, I think it will add something to our lives. We'll see whether it sticks.

Atheist Wife said...

Back to TRS
- Phenomena don't need to be "tangible" in order for their existence to be demonstrated. You cannot put gravity under a microscope either... but you can see the effect it has all around you. You just need to be able to set up an hypothesis that can be tested: IF gravity exists, THEN we should expect to see dropped objects behave a certain way. Do they or don't they? If they do but not completely as you expect, what other alternative or complementary explanation can help account for what you are observing. Similarly, IF my husband loves us, THEN we can expect to him to display a certain range of behaviors (telling us so, wanting to spend time with us, doing things for us or with us in mind, making certain decisions that benefit us, the list is pretty long).
- You last comment actually got me to thinking: do I take it on faith that he loves us? And I have to say no. I very much base my conclusion on the way he behaves. If he were to quit spending time at home, quit taking care of the kids, spoke to us harshly, started hitting us, took his physical love somewhere else, I would very much reassess my conclusion, and the "faith" in his love would not evaporate quickly. I don't think I am unusual in that regard, or that love is a special case...
- But as far as God is concerned, you are very right that it is a matter of Faith. What I am trying to say is, from my point of view, it is OK to say "I believe there is a God", but not "there is a God".
- [I am not a very good debater... Tomorrow morning I will suddenly figure out exactly what it is I wanted to say...]

Print Brochures said...

"He talked about many late night walks with his mother and how their discussions led him back to pursue the Bar Mitzvah."

Communication is really the key. This is an inspiring story. Thank you for sharing your experience to us.:)

Kyla said...

Wow. That's great, J.

For me, as I'm studying science, chemistry, biology, any and all of it...I find myself more firm in my beliefs that God exists. It is all so intricate, so well functioning, so precise that I have difficulty believing it could be happenstance. Funny how things are viewed differently by different people. I find that fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Remember, God is that which no greater can be conceived. Therefore, God nor the intensions of God can be imagined. This results in faith in God. Since we are all of God, it is up to us to show the mercy and charity that we would expect of ourselves having faith that perhaps this is something God woudl favor.

Heidi said...

Born and raised Presbyterian here. Still attend the same church I was baptized and married (twice!) in. We have a strong children and youth ministry. Many members of my community who were either raised Catholic or never attended church have joined in the last several years for just that reason. In the process some have found acceptance; some have found community involvement; but all have found a source of support similar to that of an extended family. Go for that 2nd date and see what develops.

Random Thinker said...

To atheist wife: Love and beauty exist but cannot be brought into scientific realm as they cannot be measured. They can be observed and definitely exist.Once in every while as we step out of the house we view a sunset which takes our breath away. We see beauty, but we cannot define it measure it and quantify it. So is the spiritual experience of God.

To Atheist Husband: Yes religion has been the motivating force for a large number atrocities throughout history. But you don't throw the baby with the bath water.
Very much as love and beauty exist, there is a God sized hole or spiritual yearning in every human being that exists and needs to be filled. Dawkins may call it delusion but indubitably it exists.
Religion is a rough diamond that each generation cuts new facet and polishes to show off its true beauty and reveals its inner kernel.
Nature abhors vacuum, and if people don't fill that hole with a religion that uplifts the society, it's going to be filled with drugs, sex, violence and video games. There is absolutely nothing in the secular ethos that pushes people to consider others rather than themselves.

Deb said...

This is mighty thought provoking!

sweatpantsmom said...

Wonderful post.

I've struggled with this as well. I was raised 'going to church' but not necessarily religious. Grandparents were Buddhist, dad was an atheist, mom was undecided. But I do remember the community you speak of, and the lasting friendships I made in our community Christian church. I've always considered myself a spiritual person but not religious.

A few years ago I decided I wanted that for my kids, and for myself as well (husband is agnostic.) I started going to a local church (okay, I confess - a big draw for me is that it didn't start until 10:30) that, while Christian based, seemed to have a diverse congregation. On my first visit I met a Hindu couple and a Jewish couple, and also found out that the 'sister' church is a synagogue.

To make a long story, um, longer, we've been going there ever since. I've made so many close friends, and their youth group has been a hugh presence in my 13yr old's life. The 11yr old stays home with dad and ponders the whole thing, but that's okay.

mamatulip said...

I really enjoyed this post, Jess.

Malini Mohan Kumar said...

You made me to read this post again and again. Wishing you all the best in everything. This is the first time i stepped in here in your blog. I wll try to visit regularly. Thanks for the wonderful thought sharing session.

Cheers to all

Jennifer said...

We are Episcopalians, and our experience(s) and exploration(s) sound very much like yours. I do have strong faith in God...but NOT in a Man In The Sky looking down at us, someone to pray TO and to ask of. My concept of God is more of a universal energy that connects everything. Prayer? It's tapping into that energy -- sending thoughts into the world can change the world, imo. Not because "God" "makes" it change, but because...we are all connected. It's all very mystical, no? *grin* But my Episcopal priest very much supports and encourges me. You'd be surprised at what priests really believe...

But! My reason for commenting at all was to recommend a book to you. It's called The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs. It's about an aetheist/agnostic man who decides to follow biblically laws and rules as closely as he possibly can for a year. It's well-writen, thoughtful, very, very funny. And surprisingly touching. It speaks a lot about ritual and community. From your post here, I think you'd really enjoy it.

Little Monkies said...

When I am in the ATL next, I want to hang with the Atheist Couple. We have much in common and I appreciate their candor.

But, Jess, what I get too is this sense of community, the sense of belonging and being able to express some sort of joy in that community (e.g. Roo's dancing). I miss that about being together with others. Service has always been that for me, living in a small town was that for me in many ways, but I struggle with how to weave a community of togetherness that offers that to my children. I love Judaism for that reason...the questioning, the struggle, the tribe. I wish as a white woman, a recovering ex-Catholic atheist and whole-hearted community weaver that I could find my space like that. To feel that sense of belonging that is more about being a part of a tribe that subscribing to something that is "in charge" of our space.

This is a fantastic post, one of your best, my friend. I love that we are in the struggle together. I am glad that you come from a questioning brood and that you are offering that on to your children as well. Love to you!

Bon said...

i am very, very late to this, but the way you wrote it felt just as if it could've slipped from my own tongue.

except i grew up in a church that sounds rather like the one you were at, and left b/c i ultimately became deeply deeply uncomfortable with others' comfort, with the concept of faith and worship in general. except i'd like a community of searching, i would.

right now, my mom takes my boy to Sunday school. and i stand on the periphery of that community, wondering.

debatepopular said...

Well, many of the things you say I can identify. Anyway you have to know how to differentiate religion mensaje.Muchas times the message is left aside to try to understand other things that have to do with religion.