On the way to visit my brother, I stopped at Starbucks for a quick coffee knowing I’d need it if I wanted to hop around the city for the rest of the night. A mother and her daughter were ordering when I stepped in line. I watched the pair as they asked for caramel frappuccinos and said yes to whipped cream. The girl looked 12 or 13, and walked with a noticeable limp, one leg a bit shorter than the other. The guy in front of me quickly opted for a latte, and went to sit down. I stepped up to the counter, in a bit of a rush and ready to head out.
I forgot about all that though, as I happened to glance over toward the door. While her mother was still waiting at the counter for her drink, the daughter was standing by the large window, taking selfie after selfie. Each pose included some variation of her facial expression and the position of the smoothie. There were kissy faces, goofy smiles, drink tilted down, drink to the side, and whatever other combinations that would take up the two solid minutes she was at it. It was a bit mesmerizing. For her it might have rivaled an intense professional magazine shoot. The coffee shop had clearly disappeared for her. I looked back to the cashier, who I suddenly realized might be impatiently waiting on me to order, but he had been looking, too. Our eyes met, and we both gave each other a look that acknowledged we weren’t sure what we’d just witnessed, but that it had indeed happened. Then we both tried not to laugh about it.
The advantage of a drip coffee order is that you get it quickly, so I found myself walking out behind the mother and daughter. I could hear them talking to each other happily, laughing as they reached the parking lot. They seemed like a fun family, and I couldn’t help but smile. When I got to my car and sat down, the only thing on my mind tumbled out as I said to myself, “I don’t really get this world, but I like it.”
“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe…What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.” – Flannery O’Connor1
Apart from what you see here on the DB, Logan and I are friends who still talk about religion and belief quite often. We do so in funny and serious ways. He also knows what love I harbor for Flannery O’Connor, so he sent me the quote above. I guess it worked, because I’m writing this. It’s also a chance for me to provide my own angle on Logan’s most recent post. Doubt and the ability or desire to believe is something I spend a lot of time wrestling with, which is what makes something like a “non-religious church” an issue for me, particularly for its shallow approach to something that is by its nature paradoxical and mysterious.
I think what we’ve got going here is a battle over terms, over the language of church and religion, which is no small battle as words are all we’ve got to explain what we’re doing. As Logan noted, Sunday Assembly hasn’t done away with religious structures even in their attempt to provide a secular alternative to “church.” This isn’t just another community organization we’re talking about here; otherwise, it wouldn’t have made the news. Rather, it’s an attempt to co-opt and then negate the mysterious connection afforded to us when we attempt to interact with the divine.
Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not saying Sunday Assembly should go away, or that they are wrong in their approach. Do what you want. Being a good person is good. I generally acknowledge that how you choose to experience joy in community isn’t my business. What I’d like to say though, if SA is your cup of tea, is this: don’t cheat yourself.
If we’re going to get at the contention of language presented by trying to separate what church is from what you want church to be, it begins with “feelings.” Church isn’t about making you feel good, which is what O’Connor is getting at in the quote above. Want proof? Christianity, at least, is a religion that houses an execution instrument at the front of, and on the tops of, its buildings. Granted, the effect has been lessened by its shallow usage and smothering frequency on everything from jewelry to coffee mugs, but still. This is a religion about the cross, and that’s not “feel-good.”
There is a public notion at large, one which SA bases itself upon, that being a good person and feeling good about it captures what church is about if you can so conveniently place the “God-talk” by the wayside. Wrong. Church isn’t about feeling good, it’s about confronting mystery and power, confronting a cross and all it represents, and wondering what you should do about it. When people reduce “church” to something you can do non-religiously, you’re pigeon-holing religion into something devoid of mystery and power, which is antithetical to the origin of religion itself. The major religions negated by SA’s “feel good, do good” approach [and we’re going beyond Christianity here], and the organization of church as an extension, is about dealing with a truth and a reality which is, often, profoundly uncomfortable. You’re not all there is, how you “feel” isn’t really the center of anything, and what’s more, you’ve got to get over that and do some real work for others with a real eye towards love and obedience. And what makes groups like the SA so inept in their attempt to make a church is this: church is the place where you go to face that and fold yourself, along with your neighbor, into an attempt to live out those uncomfortable truths. Faith and belief are real concepts that those of us committed to living out religious truth must deal with, but church isn’t even really the place we go to do that. Faith, or even the longing for faith, is a foundation upon which church is built. Church is the second step in a religious process. So you can’t separate church from faith. Sorry.
This is where the language of struggle and the concept of belief as something painful come into play. O’Connor is right in that “religion costs.” It costs a great deal. I count myself among those who cry out for belief, wishing they had it in a way they used to or can only imagine now. And in my position, I do find it much harder to believe; yet I still strive for it. When confronted by the cross, I no longer truly know what to think or feel. But I don’t go to church to figure it out. That’s work for me to do, painful work, in which I grasp for something I believe truly matters and yet consistently avoids my longing, outstretched fingers. It’s work I do in silence, work I do with friends and family and mentors and professors, work I do in books and on paper and on an awesome blog called Disembodied Beard.
But church? That’s where I go to live out the parts I know are true and struggle to keep my heart and mind open to the parts I’m not sure about. Like, that if God exists, God is love. And love is hard. Loving God and loving neighbor aren’t any easier than loving in romantic or familial relationships. Church is where I learn how to live out that love, where I learn how to express religious truths that inherently speak power to action, where I bind together with a community to buckle down and get things done. Sometimes that makes me feel good, and sometimes it doesn’t. But my “feelies,” my “believies” (Logan already linked the best clip in his article, so go to it) aren’t a factor in all that. My actions are, and they’re predicated on my desire to know more about the divine and myself.
So, do what you want to feel joy, but don’t confuse that with what church is supposed to do for you. Church is supposed to confront you with mystery and power and transform you, often in painful ways. And if you want to gather and sing songs and love each other, that’s great. Seriously, it’s great. The world would certainly be a better place if everyone did that. But that’s not “church minus religion.” That’s a club, and if that’s what you want, name it and own it.
Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, 354. ↩
Two comedians in London, England created a non-religion religion called Sunday Assembly. They wanted the feeling of religion without the God parts.
It’s good to get together with people you might not otherwise meet and listen to music and maybe do a community project. That’s what religion is about.
Theoretically I’m all for opportunities for people to take part in community, expand their horizons beyond their particular view, and get involved in their community. That’s the opportunity Sunday Assembly is trying to provide. This is already being done in various ways by clubs, nonprofits, and community organizations already in existence, but if Sunday Assembly can attract people to what it offers, that’s all to the good.
What bothers me, though, is the generalizing attitude toward religion among people quoted in the linked article. Those interviewed suggest that Sunday Assembly has isolated something about religion and offered it up to be practiced by secular people: church, you know, but without the hard religion parts.
Except they haven’t jettisoned religion entirely.
The article claims “there’s little God talk at Sunday Assembly.” A member says they aren’t out to critique or debunk religion. Pippa Evans, one of the group’s two founders, says simply, “It’s all the best bits of church, but with no religion and awesome pop songs.” I’ll admit, this is a refreshing change of pace from so-called New Atheist proselytizers like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins – especially Dawkins, with his half-baked philosophies and reductive fundamentalism.
That being said, while Ms. Evans may argue to the contrary, there is a theology at work behind the scenes at Sunday Assembly. The word “theology” simply means “God talk” (Theos: “God” + Logos: “Word” or “Talk”). Though the rejection of the divine may go unspoken at Sunday Assembly’s meetings, this unspoken theological position is the grounding principle which speaks the group into existence. I found a short paragraph near the end of the story interesting. A New York chapter of Sunday Assembly has suffered a split over how much to emphasize their rejection of God. How much God talk is too much for a people who’ve rejected talk about God? Better hire a theologian to figure that one out. Maybe hire two.
But I’m not a religionist. I’m a Christian. And as a Christian, all of the throwing around of the word “church” opens Sunday Assembly to critique.
Specifically troublesome is part of the quote from comedian Pippa Evans, above: “it’s all the best bits of church.” From what I can tell, “all the best bits” seem to be the parts that feel good. The word “feel,” or a form of it, appears seven times in the roughly 920 word article. Often accompanying all of this feeling are references to belief (also appearing seven times).
Another comedian, Louis CK, has something to say about beliefs. Namely, that we hold “believies" that make us feel good just for having them and then there’s the way we actually live.
I suppose it’s an indictment of the Church in the West that the generalities Sunday Assembly isolates from the experience of church is “believing things,” “doing good,” and “feeling good.” But, religion cannot be practiced generally, it must be practiced specifically. It must not simply be believed, it must primarily be lived. The best of Christian practice does not call people of faith in Christ to strive toward a poorly defined ideal of cultural “goodness” or to consume the good feelings that may come from being in community. No, a Christian is called to become a servant, to become not more but less, so that the mystery of grace may increase in one’s life and work.1
I can see why Sunday Assembly hasn’t repackaged this bit of church. It doesn’t necessarily feel good. It downplays the ever-present “Self,”2 so precious to us, in favor of servitude to the neighbor and to God.
That this call to become less embraces death3 makes the glossing over of the particularities of church even more predictable in a culture that worships at the altar of eternal vitality. Indeed, to lay down one’s life is what leads to a becoming in the self that is greater than servanthood. But only after becoming empty shall one be filled.
Believe what you want though, you know. I don’t want to push my beliefs on you. It’s not like it matters or whatever.
Be sure to check out Logan’s take, also.
This was something Logan said to me, and we pretty quickly had the idea to both write posts around it as a topic. No guidelines were set, no directions were discussed. Here’s what I came up with. It’s sort of fiction and sort of not. Sorry.
If I had a window, there’d be gray clouds rolling between the spaces of the buildings making up the crowded skyline, stretching until it thins on the northern limits of town. But I don’t. I have a cube, four walls within four other walls, fluorescent lighting reminding me that being human is overrated. There’s more to life, I’m sure of it. But I can’t prove it.
When I stand up, looking over my domain of scattered papers and screens, I can almost see what would be better. If I stare long enough, the clutter takes shape and forms a sleeping beast, breathing rhythmically. I know it’s aware, that it can sense me and waits for me to make my move. My pupils grow wide, my breath rapid, and I am lost in wondering what that move looks like. The air around me is thick and colorful, blurring at the edge of my vision. The phone rings, and I lose sight of it. I see paper again.
There were once concrete goals I set for myself, places and positions I’d be in when I reached an arbitrary age, but it’s harder and harder to remember why those hopes mattered so much once upon a time. I can feel, in my gut, that they’re still important, but the reasons don’t really roll off the tongue like they used to while sitting on the grass of the quad or around the lunch table. It had to do with helping others, with teaching them interesting things and listening to their ideas. I dunno, it’s foggy now. Still, it feels nice to think about, so I do.
It’s raining outside, so the drive home is slow and solemn. I grip the steering wheel a little tighter and turn up the radio a little more to drown out the hum of the downpour on my windshield. A song comes on that I like, and I think about the days when I wrote my own, when I enjoyed being in front of a crowd and feeling the rush. I could do that again, I suppose. What would it take? Effort, surely, and maybe some new gear. New gear is the easy part.
At home, I feed the dog and light a fire to fight the cold chill seeping through the cracked seal around the windows. The couch gives with a little protest and then lets me settle with some hot tea and a book. I think about putting on a record, but I’m already sitting. I can listen to something later. The quiet is fine, I tell myself. Still, it lets my mind wander. I begin to think about the kind of person I’d enjoy being. Who would he be, and why would I like him? Would he be in that band, be that famous writer, be healthy and happy? Probably. Maybe I’m just too lazy to be like him. If I were him, I wouldn’t take that shit excuse from myself.
I open the book, new spine crackling, and the air around the pages begins to quiver, shaking and slowly emitting brightness like sunlight reflecting off hot asphalt. I feel myself being drawn in, being transformed and pulled into painful directions, becoming new and stretched and unfamiliar. I’m getting my wish, and I can’t stop it. It hurts. I don’t want to stop it. This is baptism, this is rebirth, I am becoming him and there are no more words.
Yesterday Mark and I were chatting. He mentioned that there’s a guy who he’d like to be and that he was thinking about what steps he might take to be more like that guy. He described this person to me and I said, “Sounds like a cool guy.” Mark agreed, and mentioned he thought he should do something about it. “That guy would,” said Mark.
This prompted me to tweet, “If I were me I wouldn’t take any shit from myself.”
Obviously I’m not going to exhaust the topic of what it takes to be a person here. I partly want to let the tweet stand on its own. But I think it’s worth unpacking what I was trying to capture in the few characters Twitter allows.
To set up the joke I establish a disjunction between who I am and the various ways I think about myself. “I” in this case may be myself as I currently exist or as I may exit or have existed. “Me” also may take either sense “I” can take depending on what meaning the reader places on “I.” “If” suggests an unrealized reality: the two – “I” and “me” – may collapse into each other or be brought into equality, thus terminating the temporal “if.”
In other words, on one hand, there may be an ideal “me” projected into the past or the future that I am trying to regain or to work toward. On the other hand, perhaps my thinking about who I am is out of step with who I “actually” am.1
Being out of step with who one is may be the product of misrepresenting the truth of who one is to oneself. For example, I may hold certain values, but do I live them out? Put more simply, do my beliefs match my actions? If not, one may either experience disjunction or live in blissful denial.
Interestingly, the former – holding a past or future ideal about oneself – may cause the latter. And here we arrive at the second part of the tweet:
The ideal me wouldn’t put up with deficiencies in the me that currently exists. Here, not only am I in disjunction with myself, I am actively at odds with myself. I make the guy I want to be exist as much as any “true self” and he kind of hates me a little bit. In the tweet this is partly because I’m going for comedy. If there isn’t any tension it isn’t a funny tweet. But I do feel an animosity within myself for myself and I wonder about its effects.
How much suffering am I putting myself through in this arrangement? I could write it off as meaningless because no one suffers but me. But I put other people through the same wringer, potentially causing them suffering when they invariably fail to live up to my expectations – whether they are reasonable or not – and causing myself additional suffering in the process.
The only solution I see to this is to let go of solutions. One must be led to take one’s hand off the railing that offers control at the edge of the cliff that is life. Rather than ideals, one must let go and accept a life of faith, grace, and love. If anyone can figure out how to make the movement of acceptance without turning acceptance into an ideal, please let me know.
This is loaded. Do we even have a “true" self? Do we "have" a self? For the sake of this post lets assume there is such an object as a self with which we can have a relationship. Or at the very least, come along with me in the assumption that the illusion of self is convincing enough for most people that it may as well exist. ↩