What is church?
This isn’t how I expected to start this blog.
To cut back to the beginning: I have been skeptical of religion for more than ten years, and have been a self-confessed atheist for almost one year. One whole year! What an amazing year it has been. Someday I will circle back around and cover that metamorphasis.
I want to write because I am sure I am not the only one like this. I admit to having visions of grandeur – maybe others are out there who are struggling with religion, and peer pressure, and family, and, well, frankly, the decades of brainwashing that went into making us who we are. Life is not easy, and yet, still, here we are. We must accept that, yes, wrestle with it, and yet make sense of it and accept it but more importantly build on it and more forward. So that’s what I am doing. Part of building on it and moving forward is sharing it. Maybe there are others out there who want to share too; perhaps we can help each other. It’s it ironic that everyone else seems to have a support group, and yet people who are logical to a fault are left floundering?
So. Yes. Here we are.
My middle son is 3.964 years old today (approximately…). Three is a fun age, but I really prefer 4. At four, the blind “why?” questions have almost been superceeded by questions that have thought behind them. I almost annoyed my wife at dinner tonight because T. (I’ll just call my middle son T – the youngest is A, then T, and B is oldest). Tonight at dinner T and I were talking about volcanoes and gravity. See the connection? Well, volcanoes are cool to any 3-almost-4-year-old because, well, come on, dinosaurs! And dinosaurs lived with volcanoes (as you know from any picture book). But volcanoes are related to gravity. (Pressure in earth due to gravity, etc, etc.) Which then leads to dropping cups and spoons off the dinner table, and mentions of 9.8 m/s^2, and Newton, and many other things which a 3.964-year-old won’t quite understand, but it still sets the stage for critical thinking as we get into 4 and then 5. This important to Dad.
T asked me earlier in the evening “What is church?”. Just three words, and yet, what a question. He will be going to preschool soon. He’s so excited about that. But right behind his preschool is this massive building, brick, huge spire, expensive as all hell, … and so we took a walk the other evening so he could see his preschool, and I don’t remember if it was mom or dad who commented on the church back there, but one of us did, and you know how kids are. Sponges. He didn’t say anything at the time, but tonight it just popped out – “What is church?”
Damn good question. You know, that could be explained to an adult, perhaps, but perhaps only because the adult has context. Perhaps the context is negative, or positive, or ambivalent, but it’s context.
Do a thought experiment with me – drop all context. Forget how you were raised. Forget what church (if any) you attended or attend. Forget religion. Forget belief. Forget the warm fuzzies you get at Christmas Mass, or when singing a hymn at church in college with your friend and almost-girlfriend. Forget your parents. Forget whatever holy book that was given to you when you weren’t far out of diapers.
Good luck on all that, right? Yeah.
You see, I have been growing more skeptical and even outright hostile to religion for years. (If you are religious, this doesn’t mean we are enemies. You may keep reading. Please understand that what I despise is lack of thought. Lack of critical thinking. Blind obedience.) And so, when T showed up, I never talked about religion. Sure, I admitted to myself that I was atheist only shortly after he turned three, but even if I had talked religion in his early years, what would he recall? So for his memoried past, there is simply no concept of religion or god. There is mom, and dad. Two schmucks trying to make it. There is B and now A. Brothers to play with. Being mean to A and getting disciplined. Having big brother being mean and seeing him disciplined. T has heard the Golden Rule plenty of times. And then there is moving – the little house and the big house. Toys. Trucks. Transformers. Thomas the train. Dogs, cats. Bugs, rolly-pollies. It’s a busy life to be a little boy.
But no god or church. What, I ask you, is really lacking in that? Again, check your baggage at the door. Drop context. If he is learning, and learning the Golden Rule, and is loved, and is learning how to love, what is he lacking? At this point I would argue that he is lacking nothing, or I’d even go further and argue that I am doing him a favor, but I don’t want to cram multiple blogs into one. “Church”, for now, is enough.
So back to the question: What is church?
Now that he asked me, I don’t rightly know. I could give a dictionary definition to an adult, but how can you phrase it with small words for a little boy with a short attention span? I failed to be able to. Words like “god” are not usable (remember, he has no such context). What is “worship”? When you step out of it all, isn’t the whole concept of worshiping… strange? Worshiping what? And why? And what does that imply about your own self worth and self image? Kids don’t have the words and sophistication to talk about such things, but they still pick up on it and figure out general ideas on their own. I know I did as a kid.
No “god” or “worship”. I was floundering. “It’s where people who think alike get together.” That was so amorphous it was as if he hadn’t heard it. If you’ve had kids, you know how this goes. The questions repeat ad nauseum, regardless what you say, until you use words they know.
I’ll probably piss someone off with this. But like I said, I was floundering. What possibly relevant word would a context-free 3.964-year-old have? (And in the back of my mind, I can’t help but think, the fact that his question even comes up shows how artificial and tribal church is.)
Me: “You know magic?”
T: “Magic is when you disappear! POOF!” (complete with poofing hand actions).
Me: “Church is where people who believe in magic go.”
And that was that, and the conversation moved on.
So, without using any loaded words, or big words, or long building discussions that a kid wouldn’t have the attention span for, what, REALLY, is church? Seriously?