Saturday, July 26, 2008

Adventures in Religion

Even at my tender young age, I've been part of many different religions. While reading Barbara Brown Taylor's "Leaving Church," I was reminded of my long religious path because she, too, was an "ecclesiastical harlot." She leapt from church to church, denomination to denomination before asking to be confirmed into The Episcopal Church.

My path, though, has been a bit more winding and confused. Like Mother Barbara, I was not brought up in a particular religion. My mom talked about God and Jesus some and gave me my grandmother's Bible, but we didn't go to church or anything. Matthew's Gospel was my primary source of religious education.

Because I started asking a lot of questions (as a curious child tends to do) my family decided to start going to church. My parents were baptized Mormon, so that obviously was the choice. I was instructed in the basics of the LDS faith and was baptized and ordained a deacon. I then started asking a lot of questions and found the church to conflict with what I was taught by my mom (who had converted before I was born) so I asked to be excommunicated. Big deal for a high school student.

I then studied Wicca but maintained some iota of faith in Christ. Amazingly, there are Christian Wiccans, and I'll talk more about this later. But, suffice to say, Wicca was my religious practice and worldview for a few years. It gave me, more or less, a consistent cosmology, and the branch of Wicca I studied allowed for solitary practice.

Later I discovered Buddhism. It gave me an intellectual challenge and provided a system of ethics which I adored. But meditation's really hard on its own, let alone without a community. I didn't meditate all that much; my religious practice was more or less prayers to Avalokitesvara. But I did start compiling a prayer book, which speaks volumes about why I became Anglican.

But solitary practice is incredibly hard. While I might feel some "communion" with the universe while walking in a pasture or in praying to White Tara, there was no "communion" with other people. I had no one to talk to about religion who would agree or, best of all, disagree with me.

After coming out in college, I converted to a non-creedal Christian church. While, sadly, I was not instructed much in the fundamentals of the faith before baptism, I was quickly baptized and brought back to Christ (even though I would argue Mormonism isn't part of Christianity). I flourished in that church but soon grew distant from it theologically. It was very adamant about liberation theology, but the head pastor didn't seem interested in anything other than social justice. That's a poor foundation for the faith. What about Christ? It's a good question. Who Christ is influences the way our religion interacts with the world. "Theology" isn't nearly as abstract as it is made out to be.

Because I had to find a church back in Idaho, I had to again experiment with religion. That was where I found The Episcopal Church (kind of by chance, as I had just seen a TV ad for them). They actually responded to my email query and so I went.

The priest there was very much into liberation theology, too, but he was also pretty theologically reflective. The creeds and sacraments united the church, not just a commitment to social justice. The lifeblood of the church is in the sacraments. Long story short, I was later confirmed an Episcopalian.

~ ~ ~

Enough wandering. So what's the point of this post?

I think my spiritual journey explains part of the American fascination with Sheila-ism. If you don't know what that is, it's pick-and-choose religion. People find what's meaningful and use it and discard the rest.

It's really easy to do! Just peruse the "New Age" or "Spirituality" section of a bookstore or library and see the wealth of options available. Even atheists can find something spiritual. And, best of all, it doesn't require a group commitment! It's like bowling alone- why bowl on a league with all that pressure when I can go down on an afternoon and bowl by myself?

And I did pick and choose. I may not have been nearly as eclectic in my spirituality as some people, but I did not feel any limitations. I could be both Christian and Wiccan, Wiccan and Buddhist. While, in reality, religions do blend together, it becomes a real problem when it's driven by one's desires. If we can pick and choose our spirituality (I like Vipassana meditation, I like Sufi mysticism, so let's combine 'em!), we lose the element of challenge. My Wicca practice was more about controlling my environment and seeking a defense for my personality, the "way I am." I would put myself into a spiritual box. "Oh, I'm very inclined to the water element- to being emotional, kind, spiritual."

Because I got to choose these things, I wouldn't challenge myself. By focusing on "being"/my nature, I wouldn't examine "doing"/ my actions. "I'm kind" is incredibly limiting- what happens when I'm not kind? "I'm acting kindly" is freeing- when I'm not acting kindly I can correct myself.

This goes for a lot of the pick-and-choose elements. We readily choose that which agrees with our worldview and our view of our selves. We construct our cosmology, our ethics, our liturgy. And, I think, deep down there's probably a recognition of that construction. We've constructed a religious experience, but is it genuine? And can it challenge me as well as nourish me? Can a pick-and-choose religion guide me if it is made up of elements which already agree with me?

And the community element comes into play here. The community is necessary because it sustains, nourishes and guides us. It challenges us. It forces us out of our selves and into the universe. We may be forced to defend or, gasp!, change our opinions. It's not comfortable but it's crucial for spiritual development.

I wasn't brought up religious, yet I became religious. I later grew up and felt the needs for community and for the Triune God. Perhaps the church needs to articulate exactly why it is the remedy for this broken world? And explain why do-it-yourself religion feels good but doesn't bring us any closer, either to God or to our fellow creatures?

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