Yesterday I had an interesting and moving faith experience at church. That sounds a little odd almost – a faith experience at church. Duh.
The 20s/30s group, which I moderate, was supposed to meet and eat and discuss our faith experience after church. I was dreading the discussion, on those moments in our lives that we have been sure that God existed, or conversly that there was no God. While this is an interesting idea at some level, there are a number of problems with it. First, it assumes that you’ve had such an experience or such a moment. second, it precipitates discussion of a certain type of event – probably a powerful moment in your life, some sort of irrevocable event – rather than addressing some of the more rational aspects of belief. Third, it can lead to a discussion of ‘Jesus Saves’ moments that I occasionally find disturbing. If you find your faith because some stranger whose identity was never discovered rescued you from your burning house, that’s great. I wish you well with your faith. But for me personally, it’s difficult to find comfort in a God who saves a few from misfortune and perishes the rest.
But the discussion was not that – it was much better. I heard stories of many paths, all with a consciousness of still being on a journey, of not being settled into a routine of faith but still exploring. I heard one woman’s experiences with a more modern church and their rock-style service, and of the power of seeing that and other’s joy and excitement for it, but still not feeling it for herself. Wanting it, but not feeling it. I heard a man’s experience with the churches in his area, each one telling him what he shouldn’t do and what he shouldn’t believe, rather than giving that example of what he should do. I heard another woman speak of her experiences with her mother’s Christian Scientist faith, and her own conflicting emotions around that; and another speaking of her struggles to balance between a Christian college where she felt she did not belong, and her somewhat atheist home environment, which she returned to in a struggle to protect what she believed.
Most importantly what I heard about was power. not the power of manipulation, or control, or financial power, but some sort of ‘faith charisma’, some sort of spiritual or emotional draw. There is an idea for many people, Christian or not, religious or not, of a certain attraction. Many of the people who discussed with us yesterday told a story of returning, often in times of doubt or grief, to a church environment. And that is one type of statement on humanity, the way we reach out for comfort from each other when troubled. But there was a story – most people continue to go to church or to practice a faith or religion after they’ve had a traumatic experience. Is this simple human habit? Perhaps. But I also think there is a draw towards spiritual and religious practice that overcomes the negative aspects of organized religion. I think it is best described as the way one non-Christian spoke of her attendance at a church. She had gone at first to help get through the loss of a close friend, thinking she would no longer attend after that period of grief. But she still attends, though that period is long past, and she’s not quite sure why. But there was something here – some indescribable thing was attracting her to come, something she was getting out of the experience that she couldn’t quite define.
I know a lot of agnostics and a lot of atheists and a lot of people who just don’t believe or find the idea of organized religion too fraught with strife and negative history. And there are many, many terrible things that have been done in the name of organized religion. There is nothing necessarily wrong in decrying religions or in having a more general belief in something bigger out there. Personally I don’t think it means you’re going to hell, though many would probably disagree with me. But this is not what I believe, and I’ve often struggled with why I continue to be a Christian in the face of the many flaws of Christianity.
There is a religious leader, I think a rabbi, who has a famous quote about immersing yourself deeply in faith. I am going to mangle it, and I apologize, but the idea is one I respect and helps explain a bit of my own faith. His idea regards the importance of deeply embracing a faith, practicing it deeply, and truly exploring it. He says it doesn’t matter what that faith is. And this is a powerful and good idea in my mind. But it gives another question: why? If I have respect and understanding of multiple faiths (which I think I do) what makes it better to embrace one over others? And how do I choose? I love and hate these questions of faith, because they confuse and disturb me, but without them I would stagnate.
There are those who say it’s impossible to truly understand other faiths when your thoroughly engrossed in one, but I don’t agree. I feel awe in a Buddhist temple just as I feel awe in a great cathedral. They are both sensations that are unquantifiable, and I would probably have that same feeling of awe whether I was a Christian or not. I would have the same respect for the faith of others if I was Christian or not. I would probably have the same moral code and act in the same way if I was Christian or not, though I would like to think I do good things now because of a sense of affection for God. But there are things I would miss, not being a Christian. I would never walk into a strange church on a Sunday morning and pick up my little hymn book and know that these people were my people. I would never speak in time with others and feel the words swelling beneath me like a wave. I would’ve walked out of my home this morning with the sun on my face and my cheeks red with the icy wind and my breath puffing and not known who to thank. I might even think and think and think and not quite hear anymore that voice deep inside me that says, ‘Wait. Rest. It’s ok to just be for a moment’. And for better or worse, that’s too much of a loss.