For those who don’t know, I was brought up in a very devoutly religious family. We went to services every Saturday (our family were Adventists) I participated in youth groups, and summer camps. I went to religious schools from first grade until after graduated from Andrews. Don’t worry. This isn’t an expose of social dysfunction. As a child I had a wonderful supportive family and not in that weird creepy way that some religious families can be. My disaffection with religious life has nothing to do with some horrible trauma, or legalistic authority figure. No Footloose style drama. No huge dysfunction. No villainous archetype. I’m not trying to suggest that my village church was perfect. It wasn’t. They weren’t immune from small town attitudes or bad behaviors but the church was full of people trying to be better. To grow in whatever way they could. They didn’t always succeed but they tried. In retrospect, the lack of any huge dysfunction probably made it a lot easier to distance myself from them. The church is an excellent place to be if you need them. If you need that level of emotional and familial support. If you don’t, then it struggles to find meaning or a purpose.
When I think of my own experience with religion and my own religious beliefs, I have known far too many shallow, petty, anti-intellectual people to ever feel welcome in a religion. I’ve met the anti-gay bigots, and the paranoid fanatics or the militant anti-evolutionists / anti-scientists. One can not possibly hope to belong to a church for long and not find them. When it comes to just treating people well, the political church has become an anathema. The way women, homosexuals, the poor, and a unbelievers are treated in so much of the country should bring complete and utter shame to Christianity. Unfortunately, it’s not just the political church, but the personal one as well.
But that is too uncomplicated of a picture. I have also known far too many warm, caring, honest, people who have outwardly personified everything I would hope for the human race to ever completely divorce myself from religion. There are countless others surrounding the vulnerable, protecting, supporting, and encouraging in the best example of humanity that I know. I have met them, talked with them, lived with them, and I can’t ignore them. You can’t not love them. Not if you expect to remain human. I’m not saying there aren’t some real bastards out there. There are and they shouldn’t get away with their behavior. But that’s not most people. Not by a long shot. It’s so very tempting to put everyone in a box of good and evil, liberal or conservative, and forget that real people are complex and contradictory.
Finally there’s one last thing that I could never forget. One of the last conversations I had with my late grandfather, an Adventist pastor, was when I managed to get a semi-private word with him at a family reunion. I told him of my discomfort with the church, and the churches discomfort with me. How I feel let down by the promise of religion and it’s narrow, rigid interpretation of life and history. How, in some ways, I feel the church could never accept someone in no-man’s land like myself. He told that there were a lot of people like me out there and also that I had his unconditional love and acceptance. This is perhaps the least shocking thing I’ve ever heard from my grandfather. Of course I had his love and acceptance. And in this one case, I even had his understanding, which is something rare and precious for me. My grandfather isn’t unique among Adventists or generic Christians. He’s special to me, but his attitudes are not unusual. That’s not something that you can just dismiss or ignore when thinking about religion and religious people.
My hope is that we think better of each other. I know this isn’t something I’m really good at but it’s what my religious experience has taught me: that we could all be a little bit more understanding and gracious.