Thursday, December 21, 2006

An unbeliever on Christmas Eve

In a recent post PB writes I remember the years before I was at all interested in, or knowledgeable of, the Bible. I would go to church services now and then and it was all absolutely meaningless to me. No one ever suggested to me that if I wanted to get anything out of this, I would actually have to put some intellectual effort into it. Church was like a magical social club -- if you were a member, you'd just "get it," and your heart would be opened by some great priestly abracadabra, and you could sit there with dewy eyes and feel moved by all this archaic language about begating and prophecying and parable-ing and healing lepers or whatever other crazy biz was going down in that day's reading.

This fascinates me because it is 180 degrees from my own experience as an unbeliever. I was raised by liberal Christians who explained the bible as metaphor Healing lepers and the like were symbols that I either understood on some level or accepted that I didn't. Now even to this day, there are some things about the bible's metaphors that really turn me off. God's utter indifference to human life excepting the people he REALLY likes is too pervasive a theme to be written off as symbolism alone. I realize a lot of old epics are like this, but still...

For me it was Christianity that was the club, but I wasn't faithful enough to get in. In retrospect, my rather screwed-up home life made my own unworthyness very easy to accept. I tried to believe though, though. I built a little alter at the edge of my playroom, I conducted church services for the cats and put on elaborate biblical skits. But I still felt left out. My grandmother talked about faith in God as a gift that I was lucky to have as it meant I wasn't going to hell. That alone was good for a few sleepless nights*.

My lack of belief and my not knowing how to tell my parents about this continued through my teenage years. My skits had given way to an elaborate yearly pageant for which I wrote the script and did much of the directing. (Every other high school kid in my church had quit going seemingly guilt free, I stayed and kept working and remained anxious. That's CC for ya.) The church got a new minister, a woman, who now shows up on this blog occasionally still as "Mary-who-Dances." She was really good and she made me think, and I started to hope there might be a future for me an Christianity after all. By the time I went to college, I was taking classes on religion, though not actually attending church. I actually continued my at that point life-long habit of lying and professing a belief in God so God club members would think I was in.

My freshman year in college, I came back to visit for Christmas. Still not believing, still anxious, I sat in the back of the church at the Christmas Eve service and listened to the hyman and the readings I'd heard so many times before. I didn't believe in God, but the familiarity was still comforting. It was a candle service, but our candles weren't lit yet. I dug deep grooves into mine with my thumbnail.

Near the end of the service, Mary stood at the front of the church and asked every child under thirteen to come forward. (Neatly excluding my brothers, who were thirteen.) The kids came up and Mary lit their candles and talked to them seriously about their duty to spread light to the world. I gripped the candle, my eyes never leaving Mary.

The kids turned, and with majestic and serious expressions slowly walked back toward the pews. I understood then why churches use so many candles. People carrying candles instinctively adopt an expression that tells the world they are doing reverent and serious business. I understood this intellectually, but was still deeply moved. The kids got that bringing light to the world was a dangerous activity. One was likely to get burned or look stupid if wax got on the carpet. And they brought the light anyway. Because it was their job.

Mary watched the kids start to touch candles with the people on the ends of the pews, who then leaned over and touched candles with the person next to them, spreading the light. Seemingly spontaneously, Mary began to sing softly and almost to herself.

"Go, tell it on the mountain,
over the hills and every where..."

And the congregation picked up the words and began to sing along, mimicking Mary's soft and thoughtful tone...

"Go, tell it on the mountain,
that Jesus Christ is born..."

The kids walked and lit, and we all kept singing...

While shepherds kept their watching
Over silent flocks by night
Behold throughout the heavens
There shone a holy light...

On what I'm sure is a simplistic level, I get the theatrical mechanics that went in to creating this incredibly spiritual, deeply moving moment for me, where I felt instinctively that the light, not the belief behind it, was the point. But it still worked.

The service ended and I left, determined to spread light.

It's been ten years. The church fired Mary three months later because she's a lesbian. I had another deeply spiritual moment when I was sitting in my first UU church and Katy-the-Wise calmly mentioned how illogical it is to assume people can believe whatever they want. My doubt wasn't just OK, in this new faith it was damn near a sacrament.

But of course, ten years later, I am sitting here thinking about that moment and writing about it and I find myself wanting to renew my commitment to spreading light.

Not bad, for an unbeliever.


*Christians, on the whole, really do seem to feel that one can believe whatever one wants to. Tim LaHaye's books assume this for example. Pascal's Wager does too and I recall having it explained to me from an early age by a well-meaning older man who assumed I was on the believer's side and who wanted to give me ammunition against doubt. Pascal's Wager also served as an example to little CC of how Christianity was all about what you could get God to give you and one didn't necessarily follow God for Gods own sake. I get now that this was the simplified version (Be good! Get stuff in Heaven!) that they explained to kids.


Anonymous said...

I feel that way about singing The Messiah.
It's the feeling behind it I respond to, not the content.
there was a hymn we sang a lot when I was a kid that had a line in it
...Fairer is faith's surmise,
Shining in pilgrims' eyes....

for me, that line was always about that state of responding to the hopeful, joyous feeling and not taking the content too seriously.
We don't sing that hymn anymore because when they made the hymns politically correct in the '70s, they took out all the alliteration and poesy. It was my favorite.

Emily said...

how illogical it is to assume people can believe whatever they want

So true. Back in the day (high school, I think?) I realized that faith is not chosen, it is discerned. I couldn't just up and decide to continue being Catholic--I wasn't, not anymore, and to pretend to be so was just an elaborate charade--one I continued for years, with varying degrees of belief behind it. I'm starting to accept myself now, but it's taking time. My grandmother has no idea.

Anonymous said...

How interesting. I quite agree with you that we can't choose what we believe. I myself cannot be anything except a Christian because, allmost despite myself I believe that every word of the Nicene creed is true. I would like to have a more deist faith, or even adopt an earth-based spirituality. However, I remain a Christian, because I believe what Christians believe.

OTOH, I believe what I believe because of my subjective religious experiences. While I do not think Christian faith is illogical, I do not think that I could evangelize anyone without getting them to experience the power of God for themselves.

Oh, and I found you through PeaceBang, I think.