On Going to Church and Falling in the Mud

When I was a kid I fought valiantly for the attention of the adults I knew from Big Church by telling stories. My goal was two pronged: make them laugh and, in doing so, make them love me. I trailed adults around the sanctuary or took food from their plates at Bible study and then forced them to listen to my jokes.  The only problem was I had no grasp of the basic concepts of humor and none of my stories were funny.

To combat this I developed a simple—yet stunningly effective—strategy. Every story or comment I made ended with a punch line that, to my childish mind, was impossibly funny.

“And then…they fell in the mud!”

It worked in every context. Whether the story was about something we learned in Sunday School or listing what I’d eaten for lunch, it never failed to get a laugh. At the time, I labeled myself a genius. I now understand the real reason people laughed so hard was because my dedication to the falling in the mud plot line was hysterical and made no sense.

I don’t tell this story very much, which is a shame because my storytelling skills have greatly improved since my mud punchline days. But I don’t like to talk about the key setting for the story—church. Not because I’m embarrassed or have anything to hide, but because I would prefer for people to dislike me because of real flaws in my character, not their preconceptions of the type of people who go to church.

Church in America

It’s no secret that church attendance in America is declining. The number of millenials who do not affiliate with any faith has increased 10 percentage points in less than nine years. Experts have taken to calling these people “nones.”

In my mind I’m the most None there ever was. No particular denominational allegiance, lots of questions about holy texts, a deep longing to reject the business model of institutionalized religion. But unlike the majority of Nones I can’t seem to quit showing up at church every Sunday morning.

There’s no logical reason for this. The rhetoric of this election season, especially over the past few weeks, has made it clear that the most vocal church goers in this country are uninterested in the things that interest me. The rights of women and marginalized groups, caring for neighbors, de-idolizing America, living a moral life etc.

Here is what America sees of church people: that Christians give a lot of lip service about caring for the unborn, but do not care at all for the living (and to be really honest don’t care much about practical solutions for the unborn either). That Christians believe women are weak, incompetent, and unfit to lead while simultaneously being manipulative, dishonest, capable of controlling everyone around them and responsible for any thought or action a man takes toward them. That what Christians care about more than their neighbors is their tax bracket and personal freedom.

This is just a perception, not an entirely accurate picture, but it persists for a reason. Why do I keep aligning myself with the people who perpetuate it?

And Then There’s Me

I could sleep in on Sundays. I could go to brunch. I could read the newspaper and pretend to like crosswords. I could volunteer or do something productive.

Instead I sit in a room filled with people who see the world through a lens that makes sense to them and appears irrevocably distorted to me. I am uncomfortable because a prerequisite of any serious church is uncomfortable seating, but also because of how strange it is to occupy a space that is as familiar to me as my childhood home and as foreign as the moon.

Like many people my age, I am unimpressed and uninspired by theatrical church experiences. I prefer quiet liturgy and well reasoned, if passionless, sermons to the tearful, darkness drenched trendiness of many modern churches. If I wanted to feel less cool and fashionable than everyone around me I would go to Brooklyn not church. But here I am. Drowning in Eurocuts and wedding bands and lots of Bible verse quoting and theologically sketchy worship songs.

I don’t mean to criticize people who go to church. Their presence there makes complete sense—they believe these things and their beliefs require church attendance. I’m the one who is wrong and out of place, who is trying to bend centuries of religious thought and practice to the will of my own mind.

I don’t like calling myself a Christian because the label doesn’t fit and also I don’t want anything to do with the title. But I’m still at church. I go by myself or I go with friends. I sit in the back and take notes and sit down when we sing songs about asking God to lead where “our trust is without borders” while surrounded by people who look likes us in an air conditioned room where we will never feel anything but perfectly comfortable. But I am still there.

I keep going because it reminds me that religion is more than memes on Facebook. Because the people in the pews are as good and kind and broken as anyone else, only they are trying to do something about it.

I keep going because church may be full of liars and organ twisting hypocrisy, but it is also full of grace. I keep going because if you don’t own your heritage it will own you. I keep going to church not to find God, but to find people. Because I have a hunch that God is not up there but in here. Because of the hands reaching up, a physical attempt to claw into God’s presence.

Outside the walls of church, many Christians are very good at shifting the blame for the world’s problems onto others: immigrants, liberals, sinners. Inside though, things feel closer to what I imagine Jesus and Paul envisioned when they talked about friendship. Where else are people admitting permanent brokenness and fault? Where else do people take time each week to look up from the pavement and embrace the sky?

A Long Walk Through the Mud

Several years ago I was in the thick of spiritual questioning and doubtful thinking that all humans experience. At the time, I comforted myself by envisioning this period as a slow sludge through a large sea of mud. It was disheartening and difficult, but I remember telling people how glad I would be it when it was over. I assumed I would come out on the other side with decisions, moral clarity and conviction, and then continue my life with a clear sense of direction.

I no longer make the assumption that there is an end to the mud. Now I think the mud patch isn’t what you trudge through to get to the start of your real adult life. I think the mud is without end and the trudge is life. I assumed there would be an end to the questions and the dirt, but now I think maybe I was a genius when I was a child who thought every good story ended with a gleeful “and then they fell in the mud!”

I keep going to church because we are all stuck in this mud, but here is the only place I’ve found that attempts to find joy in the sludge. My presence in church is a protest and a prayer. It is a dare to myself to look up and out, to laugh at the mud and accept this stained landscape, with all its senseless happenings and tragedies, as a good place for my story to take place.

I go to church. I fall in the mud. We laugh together. It is beginning to make sense.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

What Does It Mean to Be Conservative?

For better or worse (mainly worse) when it comes to working American theories of government there are two lines of thought that have dominated the political arena.*

One of these belief systems is tied to the Republican Party, but as this election has demonstrated in painful detail, people are at odds over what being a conservative Republican actually means.

I’ve written before that political loyalty is more determined by personality than chosen intellectual beliefs. With this in mind, I’ve broken down what we typically mean when we describe someone as conservative using the umbrellas of culture, practice, and ideals.

What being conservative means culturally:

  • Christian (or religious)
  • Morally traditional
  • Higher income bracket
  • Typically reside in less urban areas

What being conservative means practically:

  • Supporting gun rights
  • Support of a large military
  • Oppose gay marriage and abortion
  • Skeptical of political feminism
  • Oppose illegal immigration

What being conservative means ideally:

  • believing the government should leave people alone with their bad selves

Here’s the official definition of conservatism  according to Merriam Webster’s:

  • belief in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society
  • dislike of change or new ideas in a particular area

Paul Shlichta,  writing for American Thinker, puts it this way:

  • Conservatism – all men are equal but not necessarily good
  • Liberalism – all men are good but not necessarily equal

I asked the Twittersphere what they thought being conservative meant. Here are a few responses:

Nowhere is this desire for a return to the way things were more evident than the Republican Presidential candidate’s slogan. His entire campaign is based on the belief that America needs to return to a lost state of greatness.

This nostalgic desire for a distant past is practically inseparable from the modern Christian perception of original sin.* The conservative struggle to return America to a former state of greatness mirrors the current Christian understanding of fallen, sinful humans trying to get back to a perfect God.

This election has helpfully boiled down this narrative and clarified what conservatives truly value by highlighting what they are willing to compromise. Morals have become less important than strong, vocal opposition to liberal opponents. It appears that conservatives are willing to compromise on abortion, gay marriage, and international trade policies as long as they maintain the right to free speech and can prevent immigrants from entering the country.

The contradictions between what conservatives claim to believe in and the realities they vote for makes it difficult for someone like me—young, trying to make informed political decisions—to align herself with them. As a group, conservatives currently stand for nothing but dissatisfaction with the current form of government. This stance does little to differentiate them from liberals who are also extremely unsatisfied with the government.

As an ideal, conservatism rests on a hesitation to place too much trust in the government. It’s an ideal that makes a lot of sense to me, but I’m hesitant to prioritize voting for an ideal rather than a reality. American conservatism in practice is a hot mess I want little to do with. I’m wary of the contradictions and mindless outrage it encourages.

What I find most depressing about all of this is our apparent inability to change. A tenet of both conservative and liberal theories is ensuring freedom—of course, the details of this are drastically different on both sides, but most would agree that a crucial part of this freedom is choosing a political belief system in the first place.

But if our political associations are indeed motivated primarily by innate personality traits, then this foundational choice is nothing but a mirage. I have a natural tendency to trust my own conscience and question authority. It’s a personality trait that also leads me to distrust government institutions. Accepting this natural tendency as the foundation for my political beliefs means I don’t have to assess these sociologies honestly. It also means there’s little reason to worry about changing people’s minds because the political party that can attract the most common personality traits will win regardless of the strength of their political platform. I find this unacceptable, but just because it’s unacceptable doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

In my next post I’ll be looking at what it means to be liberal. Got thoughts? Comment below or send them to thinkcuriouser@gmail.com.

*There’s many more complex and nuanced political theories that get less attention for a lot of reasons, one of the most interesting being that the most partisan are also the most outspoken

*It’s important to acknowledge that this is the current Christian perspective, but is certainly not the only historical view Christians have taken

What is the Purpose of Government? Part 1: Abandoning Assumptions

On my list of things that are actually the worst, assumptions rank somewhere between the musical Cats and wet napkins. Unfortunately, unlike nonsensical musicals and damp paper products, assumptions are necessary for the world to function.

It’s impossible for one human to know everything so we rely on others to fill in the gaps. I have to assume history books are accurate, teachers are trustworthy, and journalists are honest to create a belief system. This is how we function efficiently in the world.  We take people at their word.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in an election season. Most of us haven’t been to a campaign rally or personally met a candidate. We form our conclusions second and thirdhand—from televised debates, news coverage, and conversations with friends.

The assumption the two largest political parties are making in this election is that if they lose, the results will be catastrophic. There are a few problems with this line of thinking:

  • It demonstrates a profound lack of faith in the American people, and places an extraordinary amount of rhetorical power on the office of the President
  • It encourages dichotomous thinking by branding anyone who votes for the opposite side as ignorant
  • It fails to offer compelling reasons to choose a candidate, instead relying on the weaknesses of the opposition to encourage participation

At the core, these apocalyptic pronouncements stem from a firm belief that there is a right and wrong way for the government—not just an individual politician—to work.

This apocalyptic line of thinking is completely unconvincing for those these campaigns most need to sway. People who have spent years entrenched in bipartisan battles are unlikely to be moved. It is the young, the undecided, and the unaddressed who need to be motivated, and these groups require something more than broad assumptions to base their vote upon.

If Hillary Clinton is so obviously evil, Bernie Sanders so obviously delusional, and Donald Trump so obviously incompetent, why have millions of people voted for each individual? Why do the American people have such different ideas about what will bring on an apocalypse? To argue without evidence that these millions are ignorant fools is to insult the intelligence of those entrusted with voting and decidedly unhelpful for those who have yet to pick a side.

I’ve decided to write through these questions on this blog. I want to move beyond the assumptions I’m routinely fed and look at the foundational beliefs propping up these assumptions.

To begin, I decided I needed to create a working theory of the purpose of government. I put the question out on Twitter and received mixed responses:

 

These responses give a glimpse of the tools people use to talk about government. We make jokes because it’s an impossibly divisive subject matter. I don’t like talking about politics because it’s difficult for me to come to any conclusions. Also, I have a bad habit of making people cry at the dinner table so it’s much more comfortable for everyone if I stay silent.

However, personal discomfort and a lack of conclusions is not a good enough excuse to  ignore the intellectual responsibility of voting. Thought without action is vanity, and action without thought is selfish. It is action-oriented critical thinking that has the potential to produce meaningful results. This is one attempt at achieving this goal. 

To start off, I surveyed what some of history’s most revered political thinkers have theorized about the purpose of government:

Aristotle

“When states are democratically governed according to law, there are no demagogues, and the best citizens are securely in the saddle; but where the laws are not sovereign, there you find demagogues. The people become a monarch… such people, in its role as a monarch, not being controlled by law, aims at sole power and becomes like a master.”

Plato

Democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequaled alike.”

 

Alexis de Tocqueville

“Our contemporaries are constantly wracked by two warring passions: they feel the need to be led and the desire to remain free. Unable to destroy either of these contrary instincts, they seek to satisfy both at once. They imagine a single, omnipotent, tutelary power, but one that is elected by the citizens. They combine centralization with popular sovereignty. This gives them some respite. They console themselves for being treated as wards by imagining that they have chosen their own protectors. Each individual allows himself to be clapped in chains because that the other end of the chain is held not by a man or a class but by the people themselves.”

George Washington

“The basis of our political system is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government.”

Thomas Aquinas

“But public authority is committed to rulers in order that they may safeguard justice. And so they are permitted to use force and coercion only in the course of justice, whether in wars against enemies or in punishing civilian criminals.”

Thomas Jefferson

“The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.

James Madison

“The diversity in the faculties of men from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.”

David Hume

“We are, therefore, to look upon all the vast apparatus of our government, as having ultimately no other object or purpose but the distribution of justice.”

Alexander Hamilton

“Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.”

The general consensus is that government exists to protect its citizens. Later this week, I’ll look at the reason citizens need protecting and how this protection should be delivered is up for debate.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about the purpose of government, and if you have any questions about the election you’d like to see explored please let me know.

PS: Keep up with the latest Think Curiouser posts by subscribing to our email list here.