Thursday, June 19, 2008

To go or not to go - the church dilemma

Last summer, my "ex-husband" Johannes, who I hadn't seen in years, came over to visit, and we had an absolute blast. I know Johannes back from the days when I lived in the "convent" (me working for the magazine, him doing his civil service at the mission centre). Being friends with the civil service guys kept me sane, because they weren't so over-the-top religious and holier-than-thou like the bible students, teachers and missionaries, who would even turn their farts into hymns if they could. We did what we could to not go stir crazy in the village; our parties were legendary.
So even though we attended the obligatory bible and prayer meetings, the lads never seemed massively bible-bashing... and Johannes never seemed much the type who was very vocal about his religion. It sometimes makes me forget that he actually is religious, to the point where I was almost flabbergasted when he told me on Sunday that he hadn't been to church in ages, and I almost felt like I owed him an explanation why I hadn't. Isn't it funny how our behaviour is shaped by those who surround us? Even weirder, how much of a behavioural trap is created when different people meet, who know different sides of us, to the point where they would probably define us in different ways, and how you suddenly feel that acting in character with one person makes you act out of character with another? I have been around my current (non-religious) friends for so long that I am just not used to being my convent self anymore. It feels like putting on an old dress which is yellowed by age and a tad too small.

The reason why I haven't gone to church in years is quite simple. Church congregations make me angry. I dunno why, I think I have just developed an allergic reaction to religious communities. I have been looking around to find a church to feel home in, and none of them felt like IBC in Berlin, with Scott Hinton as our pastor, who was a legend and who was one of the very few pastors I ever knew who didn't talk out of his arse. Who could accept me for who I was, no matter what I said or did. Who I could tell that I wanted my mother dead at a time when I was terrified of her nasty plots, without having him going all sanctimonious on my ass.

Most - well, all the other churches I have been to, with rare exceptions, were places where people put on a religious facade, but essentially didn't give a crap about others, where I saw a lot of religious hubbub but felt about as welcome as in the schoolyard of my junior high. Where attending felt like nothing but going through the motions, like something I did because I felt obliged to, if not guilty about if I didn't show. And it didn't take long for me to realise what damage it actually did to my faith. In quite simple terms, if I had continued going to church, I would have lost my faith.

Years and years ago, when I spend nights crying myself to sleep because I felt that very core of mine was dying, and I was afraid to lose it, I made a pact with God. I cannot tell you how terrifying that was, when you're so indoctrinated that you believe any straying to the left or right will send you straight to hell. When in your mind this is a real possibility. But when you feel you are going to go there anyway, just a little sooner, because you've begun to crack under the pressure.
It was probably more a conversion than the night I said the sinner's prayer. Then, I handed myself over to guidance the way the church offered it, but this time, it was a complete leap of faith. That pact was about that I was going to go my own way, and have whatever notion of God existed, lead me. It would mean relying on my instincts, and my conscience, and not on the contradictory and simplistic doctrine that was spoon-fed to us and felt like the spiritual equivalent to something they would have fed you in Victorian orphanages. It would mean falling, messing up, possibly not being a religious role model, but at least always knowing that I believe what I do for the right reasons, and not because some religious community peer-pressured me into it. I'd know that the faith I'd have would be the faith I'd asked God for, and was willing to receive at that point in time, and all I'd know would be something I had learned in my heart, not just head knowledge that means nothing to me. It would perhaps be a dirtier faith in "their" terms, a more sullied, impure one, but at least it would be mine, and I wouldn't be lying to myself or act contrary to my beliefs.
And to be honest, I have never looked back. I have moved far away from the evangelical roots I have, and I have allowed myself to be open enough to learn about the divine from all sorts of sources, by recognising it for what it is, and not rejecting it just because it has a non-evangelical label attached to it.

But getting to the peace of mind was hard. It took me ages to rid myself of the sense of guilt, the feeling that I had committed an unforgivable sin by rejecting the church and its doctrines just due to their nature, because for too long it has been drummed into me that belief in church equals the belief in God - the only acceptable belief.

But when Johannes mentioned that, that twinge of guilt returned... just because of to the context in which I got to know him. And I suppose I tried to justify it again to myself.
I thought about what that particular word actually means. Gottesdienst. Directly translated, it means "god service". In which way, actually? Us serving God? Or God serving us?
I don't think God needs us to serve him. I don't think he needs us at all. I don't see him as an entity that has the need to be worshipped, to fulfil an egotistic need. Maybe God needs us in the way we need our own children, not in the sense of them ensuring our survival, but because they're the object of our love, and without them this love would be unchanneled, empty and frustrated, or not even existent... maybe loving children makes us more of what we are. We were created out of love, and perhaps our existence created a need in God. Of course you want your children to love you. But then again, would you want this love to be expressed in a doctrinal way? Would you want to force them to love you, or to show something that resembles love but is, in the end, only an act?

What is the point of us going to a service if God can be with us wherever we are? Would you summon your kids into the lounge and say, right, it's Sunday morning, show daddy some love? Isn't it more natural to love your dad in a thousand different ways? Quietly, when you walk next to him, not having to say a word, talking to him like a normal person, laughing, joking, crying? Does it have to be in Christian speak, in lame pathos that sounds fake and put on?

I don't think God has an ego in the human sense. If our ultimate goal is to be like him, and to dissolve our ego, which is a granite pillar of self-hood preventing us from melting and blending into that Ocean that is God-hood, then surely creating a barrier of falseness and pretension, of distancing worship, of rituals, of anger-creating guilt, can't be the way forward.

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