Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What I learned about maps and cults and churches

Some decades ago, a few downtrodden Irish and German people did something that set off a chain of events to put me where I sit at this very moment. They didn't know each other but their descendents eventually crossed paths, and the circumstances of history that brought them to America led to my existence on this planet. I am, like we all are, a product of fate, and Catholicism runs in my family.

At one point it became more than a burden and I was spared the excesses of the Church. My mother married outside it so it was never a big part of my childhood, but at one point we went to Sunday school and CCD classes, and in one or two summers we had to go to vacation Bible school, though that was more to get us out of the house than to learn about Jesus. I never thought much about religion unless we were forced to go to church or when I was contemplating the occasional U2 lyric.

Then I went to college.

The year was 1995. Bill Clinton was POTUS. Dave Matthews Band was on the radio; Friends was on TV. I had my first email address and no one could anticipate where online technology was about to take us. The United States had unprecedented growth and prosperity, Rabin and Arafat had won a Nobel Peace Prize, and the belief that peace in the world could be achieved was real. All I wanted to do was make friends with the girls in Morris Hall.

When Mackenzie Clark asked a bunch of us on our floor if we wanted to join her for a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting, I said, sure, why not? The event was held in a voluminous lecture hall that was located on a rather remote part of campus, and a certain density to the crowd embellished the significance of the event. We listened to speakers tell us what awful people we were and how the way we lived our lives was wrong, as if they knew us, as if our births were some sort of vicious crime.

For whatever reason, despite my desperation for friendship and the virginity of my mind, I realized rather immediately that something was off about CCC, and soon I came to understand that tearing people down to build them up again was a recruitment tactic of cults. I referred to it as such. I started to attend meetings of the College Democrats instead, where all people were welcome, even with their flaws. But my interest in religion didn't wane.

I took my first international anything class (excluding language courses) during my sophomore year - World Politics 101 with Dr. Jeanne Hey. I'd gone into Political Science thinking I was on a pre-law track; I came out of Dr. Hey's class with a decidedly different view of the world. It started with a map. She unfurled a map of the world in a style that had been common in our primary school classrooms, but I had never wondered much about them. The map showed the United States in the center, with Asia split right down the middle.

Dr. Hey's class also taught me how arrogant Americans are and how we think we're the center of the universe. "The best country on Earth," as so many who've never been to another country say. Hence the map that splits Asia down the middle as if the people in those places didn't matter. I'd later come to learn how few of us left the country, which greatly contributes to American ignorance about other places. Just having a passport put me in a rather elite category. Soon I would witness the consequences of our arrogance firsthand. We all did, actually, on September 11, 2001.

I don't know how many students that day learned her lesson, that our perceptions of the world are shaped by seemingly innocuous things as maps, but I did. I became aware that just because I learned something one way didn't mean it was the right way, that I had to ask "why" things were as they are, that I really had to think about things instead of accepting them, as there was a real danger in them being wrong. It's the nature of human beings to think they live in advanced societies. People who thought the Earth was flat also believed they were living in an advanced society. We have a robot on Mars but we can't go there ourselves. The truth is that we're still very primitive and until we learn everything there is to know, we're going to find out that from time to time what we think we know is completely wrong.

I took Dr. Hey's lessons to Luxembourg the next year. That was one of the reasons I didn't like some of the other MUDEC students (as I wrote about in my "If there were blogs in 1997-1998" series.) They hadn't learned the lesson on arrogance and treated Europeans as if you could just split Europe down the middle of a map. But I think in the end, they did get it. I had just had a head start.

I visited dozens of churches during that year in Europe, old churches with character, with soul, unlike many churches I had seen in America that felt like gymnasiums or bus station waiting rooms. Several of them were some version of churches that had been around at the time of the Crusades. Some claimed to have artifacts from various saints; one church in Brugges, Belgium claimed to have one of the thorns from the crown of Christ himself. I became enamored with the Catholic Church. I thought it was the religion that I liked, years later realizing it was a love affair with history that I was after.

I took this new interest in the religion back to the US with me and sought to be initiated into Catholicism during my senior year, enrolling in the RCIA course at the local church. I attended mass nearly every Sunday and went to the classes on Wednesday evenings. On Easter, I was confirmed. Even then, though, my interest was starting to wane. I stopped going to mass soon after, and aside from that Christmas, didn't set foot in a church for a year. Not coincidentally, I took a course on eastern history that year, which included the Middle East and the Mongolian Empire. There was a lot of religion in it. It involved a lot of fighting.

Then came the Army. Literally. I enlisted to be a linguist and was sent to basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. The Army practically forces you to go to church services at basic training - you either go to church or scrub toilets, clearly discrimination against atheists. I enjoyed going to mass, however, because it was the one hour a day when you were alone with yourself and your thoughts were allowed to be yours. The rituals became ritual once again for me, and I continued to attend mass when I was sent to Monterey for language school. But Dr. Hey's lessons came back to me as I was exposed to Arab culture for the first time, and the more I learned, the more religion didn't make sense to me. Oh, and I became friends with Stanley.

Monterey is a lovely little town on the Pacific Ocean, comprised of an eclectic local population, graduate students from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and servicemen and women from the Naval Post Graduate School and the Defense Language Institute. The town is full of coffeeshops, British pubs, and bookstores, and as I sat in Plum's Cafe one day, a stack of freshly purchased books sitting on the table, Stanley came in to get some coffee. He was, among the students, an elder, having enlisted at the ripe old age of 35, the last year of eligibility for enlistment. He was an academic, earning two masters degrees in German and Russian literature, and seeing me with all those books, he recognized something of a kindred spirit. I ended up learning more from him than most of my college courses. My reading interests diversified. Books on ancient history and comparative religion became part of my library. I read the Russians for the first time, and Orientalism, too. And the Arab cultural lessons from the language course continued. Eventually I came to one conclusion.

Religion is bullshit.

That's not to say that there's no such thing as a soul or that we're not all part of some collective conscience or any of that other spiritual or mystical aspect of existence that people talk about or even that unknowable thing people refer to as "God." I'm talking about rules, rituals, and holy books that drive people to think their religion is the only one that is correct, the mentality that causes wars and people to fly airplanes into buildings and create entire countries because they think "God" gave that land to them. Religion and spirituality are two profoundly different concepts that are nearly always confused by those who proclaim to be religious. If you study history, you learn that the religions we have today are based on religions of ancient times. (For example, the story of the virgin birth isn't unique to Christianity; many ancient religions also believed in a virgin birth of a deity, like the Egyptians. In fact, there are so many common threads among all religions that to cling to one is pretty insane.) Religion can be a means to practice spirituality, but one should remember it really is just a collection of ancient stories twisted to fit whatever culture is teaching it. Gandhi got this. He said he worshiped his maker in a Hindu temple because that's where he grew up and what he was comfortable with, not because he was right and everyone else was wrong. For me, I feel like a Catholic church is a perfectly comfortable place for reflection and meditation, as long as the priest isn't preaching some political nonsense.

Which finally brings me to the point of this piece. (If you've made it this far, thank you.) On Sunday, I found myself in a universalist church for the third time. I wasn't there for the religion or the spirituality. I was there for the music! Chris sings for the choir. He was asked to do it after St. Anne's Catholic Church disbanded the choir he'd been singing with for nearly two decades due to budget cuts. I don't go all the time, but if he's singing a solo or if there's a piece he particularly wants me to hear, I hop on the bus and go down to the church. The thing about it being a universalist church is that there's room to sing almost anything, so the conductor will choose music from Leonard Bernstein or Chopin to traditional hymns. It's actually quite liberating for him, and he seems to be the focal point of the music because he has such a talent and the building itself fits his voice perfectly. He is all of 5'7" but can produce decibel levels that sometimes can blow you away. He can truly fill an opera house with sound.

The congregation is quite small - I've never seen more than 18 people if you don't count the choir. That's too bad, because the music is wonderful and the church is welcoming to all people. They don't tell you you're going to Hell; I don't think they even believe in Hell. They allow congregants to talk in church if they have something to share. Afterwards, they have coffee and snacks, which I suppose is the luxury of a small church. They barely mention Jesus except when they read from a gospel. It's rather refreshing that they don't offer a prescription for life, just love and support for other human beings.

I better end this now. I don't know if I've even made a point, and I think I've run out of steam. But if you appreciate good music, come to 16th and S at 11am on Sundays. It's worth your time.

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