Friday, April 23, 2004

Religious Diversity Friday: Kilgore on Holy Ground

While my political leanings don't always dovetail with the Maximum Leader's, I like his blogrolling taste. Earlier this week, I stole two blogs off his blogroll, Anna's hilarious Primal Purge (thanks again for the shout-out, Anna), and Kilgore Trout's Chaotic Not Random. Kilgore's a professed atheist, and he's given me permission to put him on display for Religious Diversity Friday.

You see, Kilgore's joined a church.

Ahhh, I notice the bumpkins among you gasping in shock, dropping your armful of baguettes, and running over to the nearest sheep for some quick comfort sex. An atheist joined a church? The hell you say! Now take it in the ass, Sheepie! Baaaa to your master!

There's nothing particularly shocking about atheists in churches, especially if you're in the field of religious studies: you see them all the time. One of the very first anthropological observations you make is that atheists don't burst into flames when they step across a church's threshold. A good buddy of mine, engineer and agnostic, hasn't combusted yet despite having a Catholic wife and having sat through a number of priestly homilies. He's been repulsed by some of those homilies, to be sure, but this hasn't prevented him from fulfilling his ceremonial duties by stepping onto holy ground when the occasion calls for it.

Kilgore didn't join his church for ceremonial reasons. He's on a mission. Here he is in his own words:

I went to church this morning.

"Now, wait just a minute," you are saying. "You are an atheist, Kilgore Trout. You should be spending your Sunday mornings engaging in self-abuse or giggling at the Daystar network over a bowl of Cinnamon Life cereal. What in the name of Bertrand Russell were you doing in church?"

Well, I went to a service at the First Unitarian Church of Denver, a Unitarian Universalist congregation that welcomes people from all religious traditions, including nonbelievers like me.

"You're skirting the question," you are saying. "Why would an atheist want to go to church at all?"

My lack of belief in God does not preclude my spirituality. Five times I've climbed mountain peaks over 14,000 feet high, and the incredible views filled me with awe. I've completed nine marathons and one ultramarathon, and my life has changed each time I've crossed a finish line. I've marveled at the human capacity to love and to learn and to heal and to achieve. As an atheist I appreciate spiritual ideas as deeply as anyone. I just don't believe that an invisible man runs the whole show.

Being an atheist can be lonely and frustrating. Some atheists -- including this one -- spend too much time arguing against theism. I went to church to find a community of people who had rejected religious dogma but sought deeper communion with themselves, with other human beings, and with the wondrous universe we inhabit.

I hope I've found this community at the First Unitarian Church. I attended an introductory class on Saturday morning with twelve other people from diverse religious backgrounds: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, humanist, Christian Science, fundamentalist Christian, and Eastern religions. We described our spiritual journeys, and I noticed that everyone's story contained the common elements of a past struggle against religious authority, a current search for meaning, and a desire to share the quest with like-minded people. I felt that rare sensation that comes when you belong somewhere.

Kilgore's not in denial about something that many in the "spiritual not religious" category have either rejected or failed to grasp: when enough people are in that "spiritual not religious" category, you've got the makings of a new community. Kilgore's motivation was explicitly to seek out such a community and experience a sense of belonging.

I've taken Beliefnet's Belief-O-Matic test a couple times, and I always score 100% compatible with Unitarian Universalism. I suspect a lot of people do, and this is more a function of UU's openness than of the diverse nature of individual beliefs. But a lot of people make the mistake of discussing UU purely in terms of its general lack of traditionalist dogma. From a sociological standpoint, joining a UU church means you're joining a church. You become part of a community. You meet at a special time, and at a special place-- not just anytime, anywhere. We Protestants have for centuries been proud of how "simplified" our Christianity is compared to what you find among those incense-reeking, over-ritualized Catlicks, but the fact is that Protestant traditions aren't young anymore; they're well-established, with complex liturgies. My own church, PCUSA, has a two-part constitution (The Book of Confessions and The Book of Order) that's as thick as a Webster's collegiate dictionary. So much for the notion of a stripped-down, streamlined Protestantism. As UU continues to grow and evolve, it too will begin the same process of accretion: rules, rituals, maybe even dogma (antidogmatism can itself become a kind of dogma). None of this is particularly important to Kilgore, I'm sure; he's there for community and maybe for a little pussy:

(Full disclosure: Yes, there was an attractive, single woman my age at the meeting. I would have enjoyed the class even if she had not attended.)

Riiiiight. Sure, I believe you, Kilgore. You were probably thinking of what it would be like to lick chocolate syrup off her nipples.

There are plenty of Christians, Christians in mainstream denominations, no less, who don't believe "an invisible man runs the whole show," as Kilgore puts it. I'm one of those. Theologians like Paul Tillich, John Hick, and John Shelby Spong are also in that camp. I suspect that Jesus Seminar folks like Marcus Borg (and maybe John Dominic Crossan) are part of this crowd, too. The spectrum of belief inside large denominations is bound to show great diversity; that's only natural. Intrareligious difference can be as important as interreligious difference. Sometimes, for us Protestants, it's surprising to discover that the people next to us in the pews have a totally different understanding of what's happening when we worship.

But ritual, liturgy, practice-- these external things bind us together even when our internal realities are all over the map. They constitute the "together-action" you find in Zen circles; they provide for and constantly fuel that crucial sense of community and belonging. Religious life is composed of the same elements as regular life. Among these elements are habit (which often gets a bad rap, but is essential for good practice), discipline, and imagination. Kilgore, if he's serious about his church, will make it a habit to attend. As he notes in his entry, UU has a set of principles and purposes. This isn't the same as religious dogma, but it does mean the church has its share of propositional beliefs. By joining this church, Kilgore makes some degree of commitment to those principles in a slightly more formalized manner than before: he may have believed in those principles all along, but now he acts on them by being part of a church.

Well, Kilgore, I wish you luck, man. Here's hoping you find (or that you've found) what you're looking for. Please report back to us on how the lady's nipples taste, and keep up the fantastic blogging. Folks, if you haven't visited Kilgore's blog yet, you're missing out. The man's a fucking nut. His blog is witty and very well-written. Check out one of his theological posts for starters, then scan up and down for movie reviews, language rants, and more.

Ave Kilgore!


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