The Apostate Returns II – The Heathening

They say you should never go back, apparently. I don’t know who “they” are, or what the context is for this statement (I have a hazy impression that it ought to refer to revisiting past triumphs in the hope of recreating them), but people say it so often it’s become a cliché. It’s been running through my head recently, because I paid a visit to the old church this week.

Ray of LightI’d been thinking about going along for a while, for various reasons – pester power featuring quite strongly. The boys wanted me to come along, and seeing that there was a special service for Father’s Day (a vile Hallmark holiday that has no place in any calendar, let alone a liturgical one), I suppressed my multiple misgivings so that they could at least have Daddy around on that one day that had been decreed special by marketing and the church’s unexpected conformity to the dictates of popular culture.

As I approached, it began to feel strange, as if I was trespassing somewhere I didn’t belong. Once through the doors, though, it started to feel as familiar as ever, almost as if I was back among family. Some greetings were effusive, some were awkward (on both sides – a conscious lack of familiarity was often lurking, unspoken, following my long absence), but it was a long way from the ordeal I’d feared.

Unsurprisingly, everyone was much the same. The nice people were still nice, the earnest people were still earnest, the interesting people were still interesting. But nothing truly stays the same. A lovely old man quickly glossed over his struggles with his wife going into a home since I last saw them, and I realised with shame that I’d barely thought about either of them in all those months.

Soon the service started, and I began to feel quite relaxed. Some sentiments I liked, some I didn’t, but I was back in an environment which has been a significant part of my life, for good or ill. The familiarity washed over me, having a similar effect to Proust’s madeleines as I recalled services past, even while remaining stubbornly silent when I didn’t feel willing or able to join in. This would always be a sort of home, even though I moved out long ago.

Then came the time for prayers, and the usual bland, dispassionate appeals to God to sort out all the really bad things in the world. Stop people killing each other in countries X, Y and Z. Stop people being greedy and find a way to pay for everyone to live comfortably. Stop people trying to marry other people with the same dangly bits.

BOOM! My bubble was well and truly burst.

Bad AppleOf course, I hadn’t really expected anything different. While this is one of the more welcoming churches I’ve been in, there are still a number of people who think like this. But although my quiet enjoyment had been in the reminiscence more than the event itself, this sharp reminder jarred me back to reality as suddenly as if I’d been savouring an apple only to find a worm – or worse, half a worm.

I left in a thoughtful mood. I understood the mindset – I’ve been there myself – but it left me wondering. Were my reminiscences a sign that I may ultimately be able to find some sort of uneasy peace with the church, or would that necessarily involve tolerating unpleasant views? And what of those who believe without the unpleasantly regressive social opinions?

The day wore on, and the questions faded from my mind. Unvoiced, unanswered, unclear.

Images courtesy of LMorris2 and Ayla87, used with permission


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

21 responses to “The Apostate Returns II – The Heathening”

  1. Karin says :

    I left the Church for the same reason as you, at least that was one of the reasons. It left me totally disillusioned with the Church and even with my Christian faith. I got to a point where I questioned the existence of God, but eventually I found I could not believe that there is no God. I am far less certain who God is, but convinced there is something or someone that fits the description.

    I never really let go of Jesus, though, and perhaps he’s hard to explain without God.

    I’ve been away from church for several years, looking at Buddhism and especially at ideas around peacemaking and being more in tune with the world around me.

    Recently I started to miss the little church I used to go to and being part of that small community and eventually I went back. It was strange at first. I felt uncomfortable with the creed.

    I started re-reading some of the books I read just before I left and some of those I bought then but didn’t get around to reading and I’m finding they are helping me develop a more mature faith that allows for doubt and living with questions.

    Have you read anything by Marcus Borg or any of the Jesus Seminar, or perhaps Dave Tomlinsons?

    I don’t have a problem with people believing things I don’t. My problem is with people who insist I share their beliefs . If your (ex)church is mostly full of the latter kind of people that could be a problem, but if it’s most of the former you might find a bit more tolerance and acceptance on your part could make it possible for you to continue to go to church fairly regularly. Sometimes I find reinterpreting the language people use is helpful.

    I feel strongly I want to be part of the community of my church and help it reach into the wider community, not to evangelise, but to bind up the broken hearted and try to heal the wounds life has inflicted on people.

    If you don’t feel any going to church has no real purpose for you, however, it wouldn’t be any wonder if you didn’t see any point in contuinuing to go.

    I used to have the oppposite problem, taking the kids to church while hubby stayed at home. I did miss the support, but not having a’ Christian’ husband to tell me what to believe meant I have had to work my faith out for myself and couldn’t get too complacent about it.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I didn’t get Dave Tomlinson. I read The Post-Evangelical, and it all seemed very nice and jolly and everything, but while he was very clear on why “those people” have got it wrong, he was pretty vague on the subject of why it made sense to believe in any of it. Maybe I’m not the target audience, but I would have thought that it would be worth at least waving in the direction of “this is right”, rather than “that’s wrong”.

      Talking of binding and healing doesn’t do anything for me either – in what way does the church do this, and in what way is anyone else unable to do it? The thing is, I don’t really want to have anything to do with the church, but I would like to find a way of dealing with those inevitable times when I’ll be attending some service or other, without spending the whole time dwelling on my own feelings.

      • Karin says :

        I didn’t think much of the Post-Evangelical, either. Perhaps it was too soon, or perhaps Dave Tomlinson wasn’t so clear himself. I’m reading ‘Re-enchanting Christianity’ at present and it’s not bad, but he quotes Marcus Borg’s ‘Heart of Christianity’ a lot. I quite liked ‘How to be a Bad Christian’, but he is fairly cautious and not too original.

        I use ‘binding’ and ‘healing’ in the sense of comforting and encouraging people and helping them deal with rough deal they may have had in life. I generally like to help people if I can.

        I have found that the stronger I have grown in my own beliefs the less uncomfortable I have felt with the things I disliked about church before, so the answer there is probably time, but it might help to explore what you do really believe.

        I’m getting the impression that you aren’t very interested in spirituality of any kind, but perhaps that isn’t true.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        I don’t know if I’m interested in spirituality – it all depends on what it means, and what its purpose is. It seems to be one of those words that people use without any clear agreement on what it is.

      • Karin says :

        Yet you had an experience of Jesus at some point, I think you said? If so, does that still have any resonance in your life?

        What do you mean by spirituality? What gives your life meaning?

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Unpacking this is kind of difficult. I used to believe, if that’s what you mean. To say that I “had an experience of Jesus” assumes all sorts of things that I think should properly be up for discussion, rather than assumed.

        I don’t tend to mean anything by spirituality, because I don’t think it has an obvious meaning and it’s not something I generally talk about. There are certain things that I think give my life meaning, but I’m not always certain about that and I don’t think there’s a clear connection between meaning and spirituality.

      • Karin says :

        I thought I’d just say that having read more of ‘Re-enchanting Christianity I am finding it very interesting and different from ‘the Heart of Christianity’. It seems only fair to Dave Tomlinson to say that I am now finding it more than OK.

  2. mgm75 says :

    I’m guessing this was a CoE church (apologies, I can’t remember what you said about it in the past) so I can identify with the dichotomy of preached bigotry with the (relatively) normal proceedings and pleasant congregation. I went to a Carol Service about three Christmases ago. I enjoyed the carols despite being tone deaf but everything else was as you described – a mix of wishy washy and underlying moralising about the woes of the world, and this was known as a church that was Methodist by affiliation but liberal ecumenical in practice.

    Once you’re out, I think there’s no going back without internally forcing the issue.

    • Karin says :

      According to Dave Tomlinson it’s about re-enchanting the Christian faith after becoming disillusioned with the simplistic, and even literalistic, faith most Christians start off with.

      It’s about finding the conncection between what is written in the Bible and everyday modern life, and I do believe that there is one.

      You might find either Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity or Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time help you to do this.

      • mgm75 says :

        Thank you Karin but I have no intention or interest in reaffirming a belief system I have not had since my early teenage years. I went as a matter of courtesy for my then partner and a family friend because it was suspected that the church would close in the following year due to falling congregations – it did so.

      • Karin says :

        OK, so perhaps it was the faith that was on offer that was childish. Even adults are offered a pretty simplistic faith, especially in many evangelical churches.

        I’ve had to put a lot of effort in over the last 30+ years to understand what Christian faith is about, so I appreciate that if you aren’t interested that could seem like too much effort.

      • mgm75 says :

        Well no, not really anything to do with it being “childish” it is simply that I had an analytical, sceptical and questioning mind since a very early age. No amount of indoctrination was ever going to make it stick with me.

      • Karin says :

        It might surprise you to learn, then, that people with “an analytical, sceptical and questioning mind” can still have faith.

      • mgm75 says :

        It might surprise you to learn that those of us who reject faith at an early age don’t always do it because we were simply taught the wrong parts or in the wrong way – as has been your implication so far.

      • Karin says :

        Not at all, but there is a lot of bad religion taught in churches. There are many reasons why people don’t believe and many why people do. I was just saying that people can be analytical, sceptical and questioning and still have faith, something some atheists/agnostics find hard to accept. There is a wide range of Christian belief, even though Evangelicals often claim that is not the case.

      • mgm75 says :

        And there are many on your side who misunderstand why people reject childhood indoctrination – and it is rarely because we were taught a “childish” version. For many, rejection is inevitable because of the whole package, not because of a flawed delivery system.

      • Karin says :

        Perhaps. I appreciate that if you haven’t experienced God you’re not going to be very inclined to believe, but I’m not sure what you mean by ‘the package’.

        Many Evangelicals deliver rather different ideas about what it means to be a Christian than some others kinds of Christians might, so if that is what you mean by ‘package’ other packages are available.

        The idea of a wrathful and judgemental God does not sit well with what Jesus taught, nor does a God who grants our every whim if we use the right formula of words to ask. Things like saying ‘the sinner’s prayer’ ensuring that we will be among the saved have no foundation in the words of Jesus.

        However, I did not set out to try and convert you, I just like people to know what it is they are rejecting, because often it is a distortion of the teaching of Jesus which they have come across.

      • mgm75 says :

        By “the package” I mean everything – the idea of a god, the miracles, the resurrection, the doctrine… everything. You continue to persist in the flawed belief that my rejection of the entirety of Christian belief and doctrine is based on a flawed delivery system (i.e. had I been given another method – presumably the one you offer – I would be a fully paid up member of the Jesus Club by now).

        Take a step back from your comments for a moment. Do you fail to see how pompous you come across in making these assumptions about me or the religious education I received as a child? Do you not see how pompous you come across in assuming that you have the right method and if only you had been the one to deliver it to me I would be a fully paid up member of the Jesus Club by now?

        You sit in judgement of other Christian groups – implying that they are to blame for widespread atheism – while failing to understand that atheism is not the default position of the disillusioned or those failed by the system.

        I find the whole god concept absurd. I find the idea of Jesus miracles absurd, and they are not original either.

    • Karin says :

      I see, so your faith was probably a fairly childish faith. I can see why that wouldn’t appeal now you are an adult.

      • mgm75 says :

        No, I never “got it” in the first place. I was always an inquisitive child and now I have too many issues with religion and the concept of gods to ever walk that road again.

    • Karin says :

      Yes, I do realise it could seem arrogant (or pompous) to you and anyone else reading this, to say other Christians have got it wrong. It’s a tricky one. Faith is a very personal thing, but the kind of faith you have can have a huge impact on the kind of person you are. A guilt-ridden faith based on gullibility doesn’t do people a lot of good in my experience.

      Evangelical Christianity seems to have been a product of the Age of Reason as far as I can tell. It is certainly not more than a few hundred years old and therefore not the original form of Christianity.

      Christianity itself is very much a product of centuries of tradition and it developed as a way to control the uneducated masses who might have wanted to rebel against the way they were treated.

      Behind that are the teachings of Jesus, that the hungry should be fed, that women and children matter to God along with the poor. Jesus’ message was that God wants us to respond to each other with compassion and work for justice for all. His message was delivered in language the Jews of his day could understand and referred to their Scriptures, the ones he had been taught himself.

      There are Christians today who focus on that side of things, as they seek to discover the original message of Jesus. We may not believe that Jesus rose physically from the dead or that he was physically the son of God, not (only) because that defies the law of nature but because it seems unlikely that his first followers believed that either. The gospels were written as ‘biographia’, which are not the same as modern biographies. They may even have been written as parables based on Jesus’ life. They may also have been written in part to counter the claim that the Roman Emperor was a son of god. They were certainly written to show how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament. Some were written to show that followers of Jesus were following a renewed and more authentic form of Judaism, other gospels were written to show Christianity as superior to heathen religions as well as Judaism. They contain a lot of propaganda and metaphor, therefore.

      A lot of people haven’t come across that ‘package’. To me it seems more acceptable and far more relevant modern life, but having been an Evangelical for a long time, I can understand some of the reasons why it is at present a less acceptable version of Christianity to many Christians. It is, however, something that is gaining popularity both in the US and the UK, as it provides a faith that is both relevant and acceptable in the 21st century. The reason Christianity has lasted so long is that is has always been able to adapt, so adapting to the modern age would not be out of character or ‘unchristian’.

      So, you don’t have to believe in miracles or anything else that defies modern science to be a Christian, although there is still more that Science does not understand. This is why I disagree that once you leave church there is no going back. I’ve left the Evangelical church for good, but after my faith disintegrated to the point when I almost stopped believing in God, I found a way to rebuild it based on the teachings of Jesus and discovering what modern Bible scholars have to say about the truth of the gospels – truth but not literal truth.

      This may be of no interest to you, which is fine, but like I said, I like people to know it isn’t a matter of believing everything Evangelicals teach or not believing at all.

      Oh, and no, I don’t presume that I am the one to teach everyone a way of Christianity that they can believe in. I am quite sure many won’t want anything to do with Christianity, it is demanding and counter-cultural as well as encouraging and life-enhancing. I also have no great faith in myself as a teacher. If anyone is interested they will need to read books similar to the ones I have read and spend a lot of time considering what they say and being prepared to change some of their preconceived ideas about all sorts of things.

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