Dear Bitter Butch:
I am a member of a very progressive Mennonite Christian church that welcomes everyone, regardless of their belief system, sexuality, gender, etc. The church members are dedicated to solving social and justice issues, believing in peaceful solutions rather than military. This church could almost be called a type of Unitarian Church. However, the Sunday services are still centered around Biblical stories which at times, are difficult to listen to.
You see, I do not believe in a personal, supernatural God. I do believe that the so-called teachings of Jesus gives us rational and excellent guidelines to live useful lives. I am agnostic, humanist, in my belief system but believe that Christianity that truly follows what Jesus taught has validity. I also like very much a saying by the Dalai Lama—“My religion is kindness.”
My husband and I have established some wonderful friendships in this congregation, some who share our rather unorthodox religious beliefs.
My problem is that I feel uncomfortable at times while attending a Sunday service because I am really not always “in tune” with what is being discussed. The pastor is very tolerant and understanding of “heretics” such as I am, but often I feel somewhat hypocritical because I cannot be as fervent as others are in their expressions of faith, prayer, and belief in a personal God. There are times when I think I should not continue to participate in this church as a member and I wonder if I should consider giving up my affiliation with this church. The members are such good people and are supportive—a wonderful community of friends. Do you have any suggestions?
There are a few ways I could go in answering your letter. I am tempted to say that you could have a very broad interpretation of what Jesus meant when he said “Whosoever believeth in me.” For instance, when I tell my friend: “I believe in you!” I mean I believe in her heart and soul and what she is striving for, not that she is going to lead me into the Kingdom of Heaven. And it sounds like you are down with the peace and justice that Jesus preached.
But honestly I think that might be cheating a little. The very basis of modern Christianity (which as you know is very different from most other religions) is founded in what you believe instead of what you do.
So instead I’m going to accept your self-description of “heretic.”
I don’t know your church. But every accepting, open, and affirming church I’ve ever been to says they ‘welcome all, wherever you are on your faith journey.’ Implicit in this is that you will eventually accept Jesus the Christ as your personal Savior and you’re just on a journey toward that, maybe; but also implicit in this idea is that faith, belief, and religion is a journey. Not a destination of perfect fervent devotion. (More on that later.) If they incorporate that phrase into their liturgy or on their information, you clearly belong there– at least from a theological perspective.
But you said three things that really stick out for me, and I want to address them one by one:
1. You said that you have made wonderful friends and community there, some of whom share your unorthodox beliefs.
The most obvious question regarding this is: have you spoken with your agnostic friends at church about how you feel? Not about God – about your attendance. Have you asked them why they continue to attend? I think talking this out with like-minded people in the same community could really help you to feel more grounded in the community and give you more of a sense of belonging, easily and naturally. Or, it will help you hash out, with non-judgmental people who share your basic worldview, why you have to go someplace else .
2. You said that sometimes the bible stories are difficult to listen to.
How difficult? Do you squirm in your seat in outrage that you feel you cannot voice to the pastor or community afterward? Or do you just sort of wince when they use certain phrases? I think that if you are absolutely dying inside whenever they read from their Holy Book, there are other ways to be involved in a church community outside of services, such as joining in on volunteer activities. Participating in teach-ins and protests organized by or attended by many in the community. You can belong to a community without accepting all of it. I belong to this nation, and I certainly do not accept all of its precepts and cultural assumptions.
3. You fear you may be hypocritical as you cannot be as fervent as others are in their expressions of belief in a personal God.
This one made me sit straight up in my chair. How can you be hypocritical when you are being honest about your feelings and beliefs? It sounds to me as if you are not pretending to believe anything you do not believe, so there is absolutely no hypocrisy there.
I also wonder: how do you know how fervent and devout these other Christians are? I am not trying to call any of them hypocrites, but we can never know what is going on in someone else’s heart, mind, and soul. Everyone I know who has a deep and profound faith has at least had moments of doubt and confusion – sometimes years of it. I think comparing the state of your soul to theirs is a waste of time and energy. I think that there are so many things in life — church most especially — in which people come to the table for many different reasons and take away from the table completely different portions of the feast.
So, I guess my question for you is this: do you want any of that feast? Can your like-minded community members help you to decide this?
Like I said, you can be involved in ways other than going to service. But you can also go. What would not going look like? Would you sleep in on Sundays and read the paper in a leisurely fashion as you sipped coffee? Does that sound better than going to church? Would you join a Unitarian or UCC church and probably meet equally kind and interesting people there to add to your group of friends? Perhaps someday you could have a bunch of them all over for dinner, and stay in touch with the community you left behind.
Here’s what I love about the decision you have to make: it is not irrevocable. If you stay for now, and then further down the line if you realize it was the wrong decision, you can always leave. If you leave now without burning bridges, you can always return. This is an interesting dilemma, but it seems to me that you can’t really make the wrong decision in a situation such as this that is so easily reversed.
Good luck. For what it’s worth, I think any congregation would be lucky to have such a thoughtful person in their midst such as you.
BITTER BUTCH aka Haddayr Copley-Woods is a queer, a cripple, a nerd, a mom to two kids with neurological differences, and has a truckload of opinions on everything including sex and relationships, parenting, disability issues, family relationships, work dynamics, gender/sexuality issues, and etiquette. You can reach her with all your questions at email@example.com
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