Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"Here is the church, here is the steeple . . ."

" . . . open the doors, and there are the people." If you grew up in a family that attended church, you probably recall this little rhyme which was always accompanied by one's hands forming a church and steeple. Some of my earliest memories are of attending church with my family and that experience - good and bad - obviously constitutes an important part of my complex spiritual DNA. And, if one were to try and scribble a grocery list of my beliefs, the resulting enumeration would look as if I had gone to the "Piggly Wiggly" store and browsed the aisles for the most eclectic selection possible: plenty of carbs, a psalm or two, a pinch of agnosticism, sugary snacks, a healthy dose of seafood (because, hey, weren't a bunch of Jesus' disciples fishermen?) and hot dogs, which are ultimately all about faith. So at 43, racing for the checkout lines - and I certainly do not have twelve items or less - I'm starting to wonder what's this all going to cost and did I forget something in Aisle Three? (If you read my "Lenten non-discipline" post, you're probably now wondering if I was serious about that whole "non-discipline" thing. This isn't a "discipline"; it's just a bit of self-examination prompted by my reading.)

Living in New York City one encounters a seemingly limitless wealth of religious traditions. I've encountered atheists, Buddhists, Buddhist Christians, Quakers, Unitarians, Unitarians who believe in the Resurrection, fundamentalist Baptists, liberal Baptists, lukewarm Methodists, evangelical Episcopalians, mink-adorned Episcopalians, Hassidic Jews, Orthodox Jews, non-practicing Jews, Muslims, and a diversity of Catholics that hobbles one's understanding of the Catholic Church. And this is, by any means of measurement, not a complete list. Although I knew the City was a heterogeneous place vis-a-vis religion, I still found it altogether unsettling at first. There were so many choices! Where does a southerner in New York City start when "religious diversity" has always meant Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, as well as a few Episcopalians and Lutherans, living together in one's community under a cease fire reminiscent of the 1914 "Christmas Truce" of World War I. They're willing to leave their trenches long enough to sing a verse of Silent Night, but thereafter the sniping continues. As for Catholics and Jews in the South . . . in many towns and cities they represent the religious margins.

So, where does this leave me, possessing a higgledy-piggledy spiritual DNA, a double helix of agnosticism, Southern Baptist childhood, Episcopal adulthood, casual flirtations with Buddhism and Quakerism, as well as a fascination with some of the more ascetic and insular religious sects, including the Hassidim and the Amish? (Although the Shakers have much to admire, their separation of men and women, as well as prohibitions against marriage and sex, represent deal breakers.) Complicating the matter, I also represent that segment of the liberal populace that thinks "fundamentalist Christians," particularly those who identify with the Republican party and have tried to manipulate its agenda through groups like the Christian Coalition, are America's answer to 1930s fascism. These people - and not Islamic-based terrorist cells - are the most dangerous group in this country . . . but nothing new, given our nation's long history of breeding religious extremists. (Read Bruce Bawer's Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity for an excellent examination of this topic.)

I'm beginning to reach the conclusion - long in the works - that we're all chasing after the same God. Christians don't have a monopoly on "the truth" and are rather arrogant to think it. Indeed, Jesus and the Buddha have more in common than most Christians realize. (No doubt many of my deceased antecedents, particularly the Methodist-Episcopal ministers and Baptist Sunday School teachers, are now rolling in their graves.) Unfortunately, however, many Christians in the U.S., including members of my own family, maintain that myopic view of their faith, in which a thoroughly Anglo-Saxon, almost hippie-like Jesus, presides over the faithful.

An old friend refers to this mass produced, suspiciously feminine image as the "benign Jesus." She even collects "benign Jesus" ephemera, including postcards, clocks, and calendars. Of course, the most famous example comes from Warner Sallman, whose painting, "The Head of Jesus" (1941), has arguably become the most widely circulated image of Christ, having been reproduced an estimated 500 million times. In the largely Protestant South, this image showed up on everything but grocery bags. Every "fellowship hall" from Charleston to Biloxi possessed at least one framed copy, while churches and funeral homes always included Sallman's painting on hand-held fans in the years B.A.C. (before air conditioning). I'm also quite certain that my paternal grandmother's living room included at least one Sallman rendering of Jesus (and the man produced many, in addition to the "Head of Jesus," including the image at the top of this post).

Where do I stand in this religious fray, having rejected the path trod by my Baptist and Methodist forbears? Hmmmm, it's still a work in progress, like some of my paintings. Although occasionally involved in a neighborhood Lutheran congregation, I'm still intrigued by Buddhism and the Quakers. Perhaps it's a product of their common emphasis on simplicity and a belief that one needs to pare away the extraneous material elements in one's life. I recently saw something of this in a Henri Nouwen book on the current relevance of early Christian ascetics, although it's a practice that enjoys only a limited following in this age of "mega-churches," which seem little more than Wal-Marts for the religious bargain hunter. For now, I'll continue to read and assimilate these new ideas, questioning my Buddhist friends and perhaps even attending a Quaker meeting. And although I want my children to reap the potential benefits of an upbringing that includes religion, I don't want them to face the "you must go to church each week" mentality that punctuated my childhood. If they become atheists, I'll be disappointed. However, if they eventually decide to become Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, or something altogether different, so be it. At least they will have made a conscious choice to recognize that voice of God which doubtless stirred our earliest human ancestors.

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

Great, thoughtful post. I read it but haven't had a chance to digest it to comment. I'll save this for my important weekend reading if you don't mind. I will tell you now that it seems we share a lot of the same ideas and feelings on the subject.