Churches and Personal Belief


When I started this blog, I expressed a general dissatisfaction with existing Christian and Christian-derived religious denominations. I felt that mainline Christianity was too tied to old creeds and dogmas that made no sense in the modern world and which were inconsistent with a rationalistic understanding of the universe. I felt I was not comfortable attending a church that was rooted in ancient myths that I could not accept as literally true. I felt that what was needed was a kind of post-Christian realignment that could emerge out of existing Christian denominations.

And yet, in the weeks that have passed since I first expressed those feelings here, I have started attending services at a denomination of the United Church of Christ. I am now doing what I thought I could not bring myself to do. What happened to change my mind?

For one thing, I came to realize that my lofty goals of seeing the emergence of a new movement were largely pie-in-the-sky. I suppose I could have tried to take initiative myself and organize such a movement by recruiting other people who felt as I did, assuming that very many of these people actually existed and were willing to join such a movement. I could have thus tried to create something new, maybe attending meetings in homes and trying to build a new religious tradition built on a de-mythologizing of Christianity while appreciating its traditions. But that just seemed like a lot of work. And its chances of even getting off the ground, let alone succeeding, seemed remote.

At the same time, I discovered in online blogs and message boards that there were "progressive Christians" who viewed things much as I did, but at least in some instances were able to find homes within some strand of liberal Christianity. I continued to read books by Marcus Borg, John Spong, and others, and felt inspired by their own takes on Christianity. I found particular inspiration in Spong's book Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, which gave me clear insights in how to appreciate the mythologies that developed around Christian origins. From Spong's book I came to view the "resurrection" myths as having developed by Peter, Paul, and other early Christians as the visionary experience of Jesus's presence after he died, and that for them those visionary experiences were "real" without them actually believing that Jesus as a charismatic and deeply loved figure was physically raised from the dead--not unlike, I suppose, how anyone can "feel" the presence of a loved one who has died. It was only over time, as Christianity evolved, that the tales of a literal, physical resurrection developed. When Spong proposed his theories on how the Easter legends may have arisen around the Jewish feast of the Tabernacles (rather than Passover) and developed after the death of Jesus, it all made sense to me.

And thus I was able to listen to Easter stories and proclamations of Jesus's "resurrection" without flinching. Well, at least most of the time without flinching. I could listen to such proclamations and silently tell myself that I could incorporate those statements about a "resurrected Christ" into my own naturalistic understanding of what happened, and that it was okay if I didn't understand these events in the same way as the one doing the proclaiming did. And even as I listened to such proclamations, I felt a tremendous sense of awe and appreciation of the Divine, the same sense of the Divine that I have been feeling a lot of lately, that has been pulling me into a religious direction since this process of personal religious renewal began.

It was this same feeling, this sense of awe and Divine affinity that was drawing me to act in ways that I really didn't want to, towards becoming part of a religious community. Although this was a tremendously strong impulse, my natural response to it was resistance. Going to a religious service I knew nothing about, in a church full of strangers, when I wasn't sure if I could even accept whatever religious dogma they preached, was almost more than I was able to handle. Sure, I wanted to attend a church service, but I was afraid at the same time.

I knew that the United Church of Christ was a liberal denomination--generally considered the most liberal of the Protestant churches, although this does vary from congregation to congregation. In any case, their "God is still speaking" campaign caught my attention. But how to take this leap? Maybe such a grand leap wasn't necessary. I could try attending a UU church service first, and see how I liked it; if I didn't like it, it would at least represent a sort of first step towards going to a church, any church, so that I could at least overcome my generic resistance to attending a service somewhere. I would have gotten my feet wet at the very least.

So, indeed, I did attend a UU service--and it was just as stale and unfulfilling as I remembered UU services to be from my previous experiences. It only served to remind me that I wanted to attend the worship experience of a more spiritually focused religious community. I looked at the UCC web sites, and I looked at the web sites for UCC churches in my city. There was one not too far away. As each weekend approached, I would tell myself that I would attend a service that Sunday, and I felt a growing sense of anticipation. But then on Sunday morning, the anticipation was replaced by reluctance. Two Sundays in a row, I drove over to a local UCC church, parked nearby, and sat in my car--then drove away, disappointed in myself, and also feeling an unsatisfied need for spiritual fulfillment.

I knew I had no choice. I had to answer that which was pushing me to a church. So one Sunday recently, I finally went. It helped that my significant other volunteered to come with me.

What I discovered from attending was that the experience was satisfying in many ways. I liked that they used the word "God" in the church service. I didn't necessarily care for some of the Trinitarian language, but I was willing to let that slide. The people were friendly. I felt welcomed. No one forced me to "accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior." Having never attended a mainline church before, I was surprised by the little differences from the fundamentalist church I had been brought up in--such as the use of the liturgical calendar, the passing of the peace, and the manner that the communion offering was handed out. And even though I did not partake of the communion, that was okay too. I just watched and took it all in.

I think the biggest surprise for me was that I was coming around to accepting the idea that it was okay that I didn't necessarily agree with every last detail of the language or theology that was used. I never thought I would come to that point. I believe that there are a lot of people like that--people who attend a church for a variety of reasons, even if their theologies aren't an exact match with that congregation or that denomination. For all these years, I had always felt that I needed to be part of something where I was completely compatible theologically--or at least, where my rationalistic perspective was the prevalent paradigm. I have such a built in resistance not just to so much of traditional religious dogma, but dogmas in particular that are built around beliefs that I consider fundamentally at odds with my rationalistic understanding of the world. It was this belief in reason, science, and a natural laws that had led me to reject religion in the first place when I was 16 years old; I wasn't about to come around full circle and accept beliefs in miracles, virgin births, and resurrections now, after all this time. But I think my resistance to such beliefs had impeded my ability to accept and enjoy a spiritual experience in a liberal denomination where it was okay if I wasn't at the same place theologically as everyone else. The key point was to figure out what disagreements mattered, and which ones did not. Among the important things for me were the acknowledgement of God, a liberal approach to theology, a commitment to social justice, and a tolerance for my own place as a religious liberal within the congregation.

That is not to say that, at some level, there is still some discomfort with all of this. At the first service I attended, I was filled with a level of anxiety at the same time that I was enjoying the experience. Whether or how I will ultimately overcome these feelings is an open question. But for now, it is working for me as a means of finding the Divine.