Saturday, February 26, 2011

Check Your ______ At the Door

One of my students recently commented that she wondered if the more educated a person is, the less need they will feel for religion. This is an interesting comment coming from a person who is both religious and educated enough to be seeking a degree at a theological seminary.

My American Religious Histories class has been in session for three weeks now. And one of the things we tackle early in the semester is the decline of "establishment Christianity" in favor of the more free-wheeling, more individualistic "free-market" Christianity of the early Republic. (I have them read Nathan Hatch's, The Democratization of American Christianity, which includes an interesting account of early Mormonism.) We discuss how Americans in the early 1800s were openly questioning and rebelling against the then "Powers That Be" of organized religion. This resulted in a Christianity or Christianities that were more reflective of the deepest values and aspirations of ordinary Americans, but it also created a kind of chaos of competing religions, all vying with one another. This was the "war of words and tumult of opinions" that Joseph Smith, Jr. described in his own story.

This way of beginning my American Religious Histories class is always more than a bit disconcerting to my students. The majority of my students are liberal, well-educated seminarians preparing for ordained ministry in main-line Christian denominations. I sort of force them to confront right at the outset of my course the fact that most of the dynamism in American religion has come from less educated people who rejected seminary learning and religious hierarchy, who embraced a religion of the heart, and who had experienced a kind of "born-again" conversion in dramatic encounters with the Spirit of God. As the message sinks in, I often see my students' faces expressing puzzlement, disappointment and disillusionment. Last Thursday, one of my students raised his hand and asked, "If what you're telling us is true, then what are we doing in here, at a seminary?"

I always love those kinds of questions. I always love the struggle that comes with them. Everything we ever learn of value always comes from confronting those kinds of painful existential questions.

The same student who asked if education somehow made a person less religious also asked if it might be true that in order to be religious you have to somehow "check your brain at the door." This is a common accusation flung by liberals of many religious persuasions at more conservative or "fundamental" religion. But it seems to me there are many different things that individuals can be asked to check at the door in order to become acceptable to any given religious institution. Some of us have to check racial or ethnic or working class backgrounds. Some of us have to check our yearnings for transcendence or our spiritual experiences. Some of us have to check our deep emotions, our pain and our wounds. Some of us have to check our non-traditional families, our sexuality, or our gender-nonconformity. In so many ways, we get (or give) the message that whatever you are that doesn't fit with some arbitrary image of acceptability doesn't belong here. So if you can't check it at the door, you don't belong either.

These kinds of barriers are so commonplace in most religious communities, it's almost assumed to be what religion is all about. It's why in so many people's minds, religion is basically just some form of judgmentalism masquerading as godliness. This in spite of the fact that at the heart of the Christian message is the utter repudiation of this attitude. Isaiah denouncing the Sabbaths of the wealthy self-righteous. Jesus purposely violating purity laws and laying his hands on lepers. Alma turning his back on the wealthy, respectable Zoramites and addressing himself to the poor they had cast out of their synagogues.

True religion addresses itself to our fullness. When my heart is filled with the Spirit of God, my brain doesn't shut down. It actually starts working overtime! My hunger to understand, to know, and to experience actually deepens and broadens! When I feel a burning fervor and love for God, my love for my partner does not wither and atrophy, it is set on fire! The love of God fills me with a love that overflows all the bounds of my heart, that naturally stretches toward others, starting with my 'significant other' and our son and my family, and going ever farther out in concentric circles to every other child of God with whom I share this planet. To be religious in the truest sense, to feel a profound connection with the Spirit does not make me asexual. To the contrary, the Spirit lets me see and know with crystalline clarity the fullness of my experience as an embodied spirit, as an intelligence with a soul. Becoming pure is not a process of becoming disengaged from our bodies. Becoming pure, rather, is a process of understanding the profound connections between what we think, what we feel, and what we are.

We are so terrified of the power that exists in our fullness, we do almost anything to avoid or ignore it, to cover it up and deny it. And we do this in so many ways! We are afraid of intellect, we are afraid of questions. But we are also afraid of miracles! We are afraid of the mysterious! We are afraid of bodies, of sexuality. We are afraid of truth. We are afraid of the fullness not just in others but in ourselves! This is why every time God sends a messenger, the first words out of their mouths are almost inevitably, "Fear not!" We cannot enter into the way of Christ until we have understood the basic principle that perfect love casteth out all fear.

So whatever you've got, whenever you enter the spaces we define as sacred, don't check it. Bring it!


jen said...

I've always felt like I had to check ME at the door for religion...

I like your questions, and I like your take on doubts and struggles.

Thanks for posting this.

jmb275 said...

Wow, I really really loved this post. I feel like I currently have to check a lot of things at the Mormon door, and yet I still choose to do it hoping that I might someday experience the divine!

J G-W said...

I guess there are things that we ought to check at the door.

I love that line from "Come, Come Ye Saints":

"'Tis better far for us to strive our useless cares from us to drive."

There are lots of things we should let go of. But we can't afford not to bring our whole selves -- mind, body and spirit -- to Church!