Finding my way back to church

One of my friends from college is currently working on her PhD (she’s wicked smart!) and every once in a while she sends emails about articles that she has read (and that she thinks others might find interesting). Last week she sent a link to a talk given by Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin. The talk is titled Finding my way back to church — and getting kicked out: The struggle over what it means to be Christian today and it was presented to the Methodist Federation for Social Action (probably sometime in 2006). I’m posting an abbreviated version of the talk and want to note that due to my edits, the version below does not follow all the main themes from the talk (all the text is directly quoted, all I did was take sections out in a way that I hoped would not change or confuse any of Jensen’s thoughts/ideas). If you would like to read the talk in its entirety, the title above is a link to the full version. The sections I chose to focus on deal with his personal struggles with faith & belief and the ways the Church has helped/hindered him wrestle with his questions and doubts. I do not know anything about Jensen beyond this article, so I am not endorsing him or anything else he has written, but I think he raises some good questions/issues in this talk and shares opinions about the church that are worth reading, thinking about and discussing. If you have anything to say in response, I hope you will leave a comment for me and others to read.

This past year, after decades of steadfastly avoiding churches of all kinds, I returned to church…I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but my early experience with church had been life-threatening: I was bored, nearly to death…

Whatever one thinks about theology, church is a place where people go to think about essential questions: What does it mean to be human? What are our obligations to other people and the non-human world? How do we create meaning in a world that appears to be playing a cosmic joke on us…

I think about those questions a lot. I ponder them in the abstract, and I struggle with the very concrete implications of them in a world saturated in so much suffering. I am always looking for help in that pondering and struggling, which is what led me to a new church…

I described myself as “a Christian, sort of. A secular Christian. A Christian atheist, perhaps. But, in a deep sense, I would argue, a real Christian.”

After talking to people about what I believe, they quickly realize I’m not a dogmatic atheist, the kind who takes pleasure in ridiculing religion or faith…So, people ask me, why don’t I call myself an agnostic or a seeker or a doubter or something that conveys more openness? Am I really so sure God doesn’t exist in the traditional form? How can I be so sure?

I can’t be sure, of course. It’s impossible to prove the non-existence of God. In that sense, I’m an agnostic, just as I’m an agnostic on the question of whether or not my life is controlled by tiny magic elves who live in my desk drawer at work. I can’t prove that I’m not under the influence of those alleged elves, and hence I can’t really be an atheist on the question. But what really counts is not what I can or can’t prove, but how I live. Do I go about my day as if elves are running the show? Do I sneak a peak into my drawer now and then to try to catch them plotting? Do I ever offer prayers to the elves to which I think they will respond? No, I don’t. In philosophical terms, I’m agnostic on the question. In practical terms, I live like an atheist, on the assumption they don’t exist.

In that sense, most people in this culture, no matter what their stated beliefs about God, live like atheists… We assume that actions in the world are governed by laws of physics that scientists have begun to identify, however incompletely. Whatever our views on the power of prayer, most of us also seek medical help when we are sick and trust in some worldly system of healing — whether Western medicine or alternative traditions — that is rooted in accumulated experience and/or scientific experimentation…

It seems to me that we all — secular and religious alike — need a lot more humility, and the recognition of that simple fact is part of what led me to church. The older I get, the more I’m aware of the scope of what I don’t know, and the more scared I am of the people who claim great confidence in human knowledge, be it about science or religion…

When struggling with any difficult problem in our lives, we tend to rely on those closest to us. If we are lucky, as I am, we have a supportive and loving partner. We may have good friends, as I am lucky to have. We may have the resources to hire a competent therapist when a problem goes beyond our friends’ ability to help. But what we need in addition to all that is a community in which we can just be. It need not be a church, but a church is one place where people seek that. In my experience, we humans tend to want to have a place where we know we can go without worrying about whether our hair looks good that day, a place we can find validation and connection without having to prove that we deserve it that moment. Church is not the only place that can happen, and there’s no guarantee it will happen in church; despite Christ’s admonition against self-serving judgment of others, such judgment happens all too often in Christian churches and, no doubt, other churches. But whatever our failures, church is one place we seek out such acceptance…

The older I get, the less I know and the less certain I am about what I believe. But I’m pretty sure about that one point — being human is hard sometimes, maybe most of the time, maybe all of the time. We are cursed with the capacity for critical self-reflection and a linguistic ability that allows us to express much — but never quite enough — of what we feel. That’s why we need poetry and art and music, to try to close that gap between what we feel and what we can rationally explain. But, in the end, it’s a gap that can never be bridged completely. Maybe that’s why we need religion. I’m not sure. I’m still chewing on that one…

I don’t remember much about the rituals of the church I attended as a child, but I do remember the Doxology. The version we sang was different than the one St. Andrew’s [Jensen’s church] uses. Both start with the same line: “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.” Because St. Andrew’s is committed to not using patriarchal language, a policy I wholeheartedly endorse, in our service it continues:

Praise God, all creatures here below;
God does create, redeem, sustain.
All creatures, praise God’s holy name.

That’s a lovely version. But in the church of my childhood, those lines were:

Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

I like the St. Andrew’s version better; I think gender-neutral language is important in a world where women still are so often denied their full humanity. But I also find that the old version still resonates for me. So, when I’m at St. Andrew’s, I sing along with the first line, and then I silently sing the old version to myself. I find it comforting, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. I have mostly negative memories of that church, and my politics are in line with the St. Andrew’s version. I don’t understand why I can’t just recalibrate to this new version. But something in me still wants to hear those words from my childhood. I don’t have to sing them out loud — for now, it works for me just to stand there, in a community where I feel loved, and repeat to myself words that bring me comfort. Maybe someday I’ll find myself singing the new version; maybe those words will find their way into me. But for now, I am praising Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

I asked my pastor about this, and Rigby [Jensen’s pastor] said it was okay. That’s what I like about St. Andrew’s — it’s okay to struggle, to be uncertain, to doubt, to search. In short, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian is a church in which it’s okay to be a human being.

Am I a Christian? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure I’m a human being.


4 thoughts on “Finding my way back to church

  1. Beautiful deep self-reflexion. I can percieve the struggle that is going on.
    It is very hard for a righteous minded person to see the right path in this confused world of religions. The acceptance of the Bible as the voice of God, plays a pivotal rol in deciding what direction to take. . Nevertheless this author appears somehow confused with his new identity, since atheism is contrary to christianity, perhaps he should cathegorize him self as an spiritual atheist, due to his perception and acceptance of good and evil in this decaying world.
    Deny the existence of God is a true challenge even for an atheist. Without the acceptance of the Bible, christianity has no meaning.

  2. Excellent story that truly resonated with me.

    I’ve long been looking for an alternative doxology. I love the melody and often sing the traditional doxology with friends when we gather for dinner. However, the images of God no longer reflect my faith.

    Today I sat down to write another version. I share that with you.

    Doxology for Humanity
    © 2013 Kurt Struckmeyer

    Praise life that makes us change and grow
    Praise love that makes compassion flow
    Praise peace that ends all strife and fear
    Praise hands that work for justice here

    Praise ears that hear the children’s cries
    Praise truth that drives out heartless lies
    Praise hearts that value human worth
    Praise lives that build a better earth

    Praise eyes that see all human need
    Praise minds that cast out selfish greed
    Praise lips that challenge those in power
    Praise those who struggle every hour

    Praise faith that keeps us ever strong
    Praise hope that triumphs over wrong
    Praise dreams that make our spirit’s rise
    Praise voices raised in joyful cries

    Kurt Struckmeyer

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