Sunday, December 30, 2012

Is God a Republican? and other musings on a dying faith

My husband likes to say that January 1st is just "a day like any other", and maybe he's right, though I used to think of him as an awful party pooper. Only the numbers change, after all. There are those who might think 2013 is already unlucky because of that ominous 13.

But hey, it's not really 13. It's 6. Add the digits together, and you'll have. . . I don't remember the numerological significance of 6, though I used to know.

I used to know a lot of things.

Years and years ago, I knew about palmistry, astrology (so much so that I cast birth charts for friends), numerology, spiritualism, magic stones, and even (my strangest allegience of all) the United Church. Though all these things might be seen as attempts to understand the unknown, they're also a means to try to bend reality in some way, to shape it in a fashion that suits you. What surprises me most of all is how long I followed that path without really questioning it.

Maybe I needed it so desperately that I couldn't question it.  I think my greatest spiritual addiction was prayer. When you really think about it, the whole concept of prayer is pretty ludicrous. What is it, anyway, but an attempt to change reality? With the exception of praising God or thanking God for being so swell to us when "good" things happen, prayer is a sort of petition. All right, Big Guy, here's what I want.

It implies that there is something wrong with things as they are. This person shouldn't be sick, that person shouldn't be bankrupt or an atheist or whatever-else is unacceptable to us. So we pray that they (or the situation) will change, that it will be different than it is. And we think it will be different than it is because of the intervention of "God", some force that either cheerfully obeys our request or decides to withhold his grace, either on a whim or because for some reason we piss him off.

From the outside, as an ex-pray-er, that's the only way I can see it. Either we "worship" some being who is completely capricious in granting our wishes like some wayward genie, or "thank" this being for being so good to us in giving us things we're largely providing for ourselves, or "ask" this being for help to stop being such a wimp in the face of reality, or seriously "approach" this being to convince him (it's still generally him - calling God "her" still provokes chuckles and "oh yeah, isn't it true" in most circles) to change things so that they will be closer to what we want. There's even an official name for it: prayers of intercession.

But even the most selfless prayers imply that things aren't really good enough they way they are.  Hey, I thought God was omniscient and knew what was best for us! Then why should things have to change?


And here's a doozy. Everyone knows the Nazis thought they were Christians, and terrorists sometimes identify as devout Muslims. Surely they pray for certain things that are somewhat at odds with our own desires. The ramifications of this are too horrendous to contemplate. 

But what if it's less clear? What if two different people, or two different faith communities, pray for opposite things? What if, in fact, they are praying against each other? Who does God favor, or do the chips just fall where they may? I've been in a situation where a spiritual community devolved into civil war, and believe me when I say that prayer was being used as a vindictive weapon by both sides.

My years and years of fervent praying that the world situation would somehow get better seem to have backfired. I see only alarming deterioration. So what's the purpose? There's a stubbornness that believers exhibit at this point, a "no, we're not going to give up" that reminds me of my own futile and somewhat ludicrous efforts to accomplish what I thought was my work on earth. It's not gonna happen, so why bang your head?

You keep banging your head because on some level, you believe in fairy dust. You believe in that sparkling magic that will somehow make it all better. If a situation spontaneously gets better, which it sometimes does, you say something like, "Look, God intervened". If it doesn't change or gets worse, you can always blame Satan, or maybe just pray a little bit harder (and louder). In any case, you never, never, never give up. This is called "faith" and I often wonder what it does to change anything at all.

It's been said that practicing prayer as a way of life increases sensitivity and compassion in the person who does the praying. I can't think of a better way to be hacked to pieces when certain events happen in the news, such as 20 sweet blameless school children being blasted to kingdome come. Their parents and siblings will never see them again and will be wounded for the rest of their lives. You can pray for the survivors, but does that help them feel better, feel the loss a bit less, or "heal"? If so, how does that happen? Does some mysterious current of energy leap from your God-charged brain right over into the area of trouble where it magically swirls around like a fairy godmother and takes the pain away?

I started off writing about the new year, a day like any other, and somehow ended up here. Gee, I wouldn't be bitter, would I? I wonder. When did that succulent apple turn so acidic and sour? But bitterness only elicits pity from those who still believe, who still think that prayer is just as effective as UNICEF or an ambulance rushing to provide real help.

One could say, OK, UNICEF is divinely inspired and ambulances, far from being hired and paid for, are God-given vehicles. My concept of God at this point (and I still can't quite call myself an atheist or agnostic because these quasi-religions only promote more of the suffocating "isms" I hate) is something that is indwelling, and sometimes gives us a shove to do something we might not otherwise do, or even something that we used to think was impossible.

Years and years ago I asked my husband, who does not adhere to any particular ism or category of faith, how he defined God. He said, "God is your conscience." I asked him, is that all?  He added, "God is. . . going with the flow." He was describing the sort of innate grace I will never have as I head-bash and flail around, feeling mostly God-forsaken.

Back in 1990 I felt like my life did an almost violent about-face, turning me  (completely unexpectedly) towards organized religion. It was a sort of conversion, or a re-conversion to the faith of my childhood, and I needed it desperately. Whatever I didn't believe, I swallowed anyway, not knowing how toxic that can be. It all came down to a desperate need to belong.

In 2005, my life fell to pieces (no thanks to the church, which only isolated and stigmatized me in my hour of need). I experienced another violent about-face, away from everything that I thought had helped me for 15 years. It wasn't exactly like waking up and saying, "Gee, I think I will renounce everything I once held sacred." In fact, I didn't even WANT to renounce God or anything else that I thought had helped me. But it was like the end of a marriage. It started out great, but one day the lights went out, and frantic efforts to re-light them were utterly futile.

It was over.

I am left with that indwelling model, but I wonder if it isn't just part and parcel of being human. We want more. We reach for more. We want it so badly that we create it. The old philosophical/atheistic argument is that WE created God in OUR image, not the other way around. Certain recent items in the news seem to run counter to the model that we were created to resemble God.

It's not that there's no religion left in the world. While mainstream congregations founder and sink due to boredom, hypocrisy and irrelevance, the fundamentalists are thriving on their own particular brand of smug insularity.  Anything they don't like is Satanic. Sure, they'll feel compassion for you if you toe the line, give up your homosexuality and have that baby even if you were raped.  After all, there's a certain kind of rape where women can prevent getting pregnant, isn't there? And just think of it this way: you'll have an entire political party supporting your every prejudice and prayer.

They didn't win, but they still lie in wait, crouched.

I don't know what happened to Jesus, but I am beginning to seriously doubt he ever existed. This idea would have appalled me a few years ago. He's a beautiful story put together to teach us a lesson, but at this point I'm not sure what that lesson is. The funny thing is, the longer I stayed in the United Church, the more it seemed to espouse that particular model of Jesus as myth. Even United Church moderators began to make proclamations that Christ wasn't actually divine, or even that God doesn't really exist except as a sort of abstract concept.

I think this was done to attract more people, mainly younger people, or to get lapsed members back, mimicking the way the Catholic church is trying to round up the strays with those endless TV ads. It isn't working because a secular church is too much of a puzzle. Painfully pseudo-hip web sites don't help, even if they supposedly "get the discussion going" and provide cute, pat answers delivered by magic squirrels.

While I'm still in this bizarre realm, can I pose a serious question: why am I the only person I know who thinks this E-Z Answer Squirrel is a ludicrous joke that makes the United Church look even more shallow and irrelevant than it already is? And why is their web site called WonderCafe, as if any mention of the United Church - or ANY church - is assumed to be anathema to the public? This desperate scramble for the attention of younger people seems to go without criticism or even comment of any kind by church members. It's hard for me to believe that everyone is in favor of it.  Are those who disagree with it afraid to say anything, and if so, why - and of what?  No wonder more serious and committed denominations think the United Church is "squirrely".
Mainstream religion is a sinking ship. This isn't exactly why I jumped off when I did. I jumped off because of loneliness, despair, and the pity of people I thought respected me. I also jumped off because of stultifying boredom and an appalling abuse of leadership, often designed to suit an agenda which the congregation only reluctantly agreed to (if at all). This involved things like TV cameras in the sanctuary during Sunday service: if anyone objected, they were told, "oh, your face won't be on national television unless you sign an agreement". So the sense of violation and invasion as those cameramen swooped down on the sanctuary like nasty dragonflies didn't count at all. 

Personally, I hated it, but such was the atmosphere in my church at that time that I knew I could not say anything about it without being seen as overly negative or a spoilsport.

In the course of fifteen years with my former church, I saw one minister run out of town after nine years of faithful service, another minister shattering the congregation with vindictive lies (which wasn't our fault: obviously he fell from the sky, meaning we had nothing to do with selecting him as the best of  five candidates), another trying desperately to glue the shattered pieces together, and - finally - someone who really just wanted to be on national television as a shining and very public example of moral courage. Give me a break!

I stayed as long as I did out of incredulity that things could deteriorate this badly, along with personal need and spiritual loneliness. I think by the end I was viewed as pretty much of a crackpot. I once asked a psychologist, "OK, please tell me, what is a FUNCTIONAL family?" She answered, "A functional family is a family where everyone gets to express their thoughts and feelings without fear of being put down or ignored." It had been a long, long time since I had felt comfortable expressing my thoughts and feelings in that place.


So where does that leave me with regards to God? I have a conscience, and I do, at times, find myself able to go with the flow, music being the most powerful example of "flow" I have ever found. The finest Christians I know aren't even Christian and don't identify themselves with any sort of spiritual label. They just get on with it. It might take me the rest of my life to even begin to follow that quiet but supremely effective example.