Questioning Religion

More thoughts on David Dark’s The Sacredness of Questioning Everything.  Previous thoughts are here.

Dark defines “religion” a little differently than I think most of us refer to it as, and that is as a “calling out.”  Meaning, it’s how you live your life, day to day.  So, religion can be anything, not just…well, the church denomination you hold to.  It can be money.  Material goods.  Success.

“Religion can never be, strictly speaking, a self-contained issue because our religion is nothing more (and nothing less) than the way we order and understand our worlds.  It’s not just what we mean; it’s how we mean.”

You’ve heard the adage that you “don’t talk about politics, religion, or sex,” and yet if we can’t talk about them, what is there to talk about?

“There are so many ways to shut down conversation and frustrate human connection, so many ways to miss each other.  This break in communication serves only to maintain the cartoon realities, the caricatures, the stereotypes, and the untruths.  How might we stumble on an alternative space?  Where’s the candor?  Where do we find people who are really talking to each other?… ‘A poet’s work’ is ‘to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it from going to sleep.’  [Spoken by a character in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.]  The voice that butts in, shakes nerves, rattles brains, unmasks pretension, and takes down names isn’t what we typically think of as a religious voice; yet it is this sort of voice that clears the space for sacred questioning.”

On art:

“We only receive art when we let it call our own lives into question.  If the words of Jesus of Nazareth, for instance, strike us as comfortable and perfectly in tune with our own confident common sense, our likes and dislikes, our budgets, and our actions toward strangers and foreigners, then receiving the words of Jesus is probably not what we’re going.  We may quote a verse, put it in a PowerPoint presentation, or even intone it loudly with an emotional, choked-up quiver, but if it doesn’t scandalize or bother us, challenging our already-made-up minds, we aren’t really receiving it.  Not religiously anyway.”

Dark used to teach at the Christ Presbyterian Academy in Nashville.  The following story I found interesting, only because I’m in the same boat.  He does a nice job of explaining here, I think.

“In what turned out to be one of the best exchanges I’d had in all my years as an English teacher at a Presbyterian high school, I asked my students to define the word agnostic.

“‘Someone who doesn’t want to believe,’ a student responded.

“The ‘doesn’t want to’ part threw me off.  ‘Why the judgment call?’ I asked.  I wasn’t sure what to say.  I told the class to try again.

“‘Someone who chooses not to believe,’ another student said.

“I was beginning to sense a pattern.  It wasn’t unexpected.  ‘No, really, no.  And I’m giving you a big hint when I say, ‘No.’

“‘Someone who doesn’t know!” came a shout of mock enthusiasm.

“And we were on our way.  ‘That’s right.  Agnostics don’t know.  They might believe all kinds of things.  And it can get to feeling like a crying shame sometimes, this lack of absolute knowledge, but they just don’t know.  Not much to be done for it, this not knowing business.  Guess who’s agnostic.’

“‘You are,’ dared an especially avid young Presbyterian.

“‘Right you are.  And please understand that I believe as much as the next believer.  I can hardly even tell you how much I believe and how strongly I believe it.  I believe, I believe, I believe [this with an intensification of my already sufficiently Southern accent].  I confess I find it hard to believe a lot of things sometimes.  I’m riddled with doubts and uncertainties.  But I see your smiling, approving faces, and I believe once more.  Now I’m a believer.  I believe again, as if for the first time.  Belief.  It’s what I do.  Guess who else I believe to be agnostic.’

“I had to wait this one out and gape at them goofily.  One finally chirped in, with one eye squinted, ‘We are?’

“‘Yeah.  But I think you think you have to pretend to know in order to not go to hell.  And I want to tell you, in Jesus’ name, that this isn’t the case.’  And out of the silence, if memory serves, I made my way into the Uncle Ben story.”  [For those of you who missed the Uncle Ben story, you can read it here.]

A hearty Amen to that.  And to the following.

“I want to announce the good news that God, the God in whom I believe, never calls anyone to playact or pretend or silence their concerns about what’s true.  I want to break through mind-forged manacles that render us incapable of seeing truthfully for fear we might let in the wrong information.  God is not made angry and insecure by an archaeological dig, a scientific discovery, an ancient manuscript, or a good film about homosexual cowboys.  Nor would I imagine God to be made angry or insecure by people with honest doubts concerning his existence.  God is not counting on us to keep ourselves stupid, closed off to the complexity of the world we’re in.”

And best of all from Dark…because I know there are many out there, like me, who are reticent to return to church once a week, because of the dialogue difficulty.  How do you converse with people who don’t want to ask questions, or reject you because you do?  It’s never a flat-out rejection, either–you know what I’m talking about–it’s the side glances, the sudden silences, the intake of breath.

Dark nails it in this quote (which I’ve cut off to make more succinct).  “The redeeming possibility of dialogue ends when the monologue begins.”

A sad story that mirrors this…and my own personal experience with church, or church-goers.  [And I must say here that Dark says that if we avoid church for these reasons, we’ll become hermits.  No church is perfect.  And although I know this with my brain, I dread going to church.  I don’t know where the next “blow” will come from.]

“My friend Alec knows the Bible very well, and it can get him into trouble.  Not because he prattles on about it or steers conversations that way, but because he finds himself in circles that think of themselves as church communities and have the nonprofit status to prove it.  Alec shows up and lingers with no small amount of hope, gets involved, and then gets disillusioned as he watches people who, in his opinion, make a general mockery of everything the biblical witness urges on us in terms of how we treat each other.  Unless he’s looking to become a hermit, I want to tell him, he had better get used to it.

“One Sunday morning, the pastor stopped Alec in the foyer to ask him about one of Alec’s friends he hadn’t seen in months.  What was up?  Why hadn’t he been around?  Alec didn’t want to get into it.  The friend’s life was in shambles, but, truth be told, it had been steadily falling apart even as he was a faithful and enthusiastic attendee.  As it happened, this particular congregation wasn’t adept at or dedicated to cultivating redeeming relationships among its members.  As Alec saw it, the way a person could show up, put on a brave face, say a word or two about the Lord, and live a life of unexamined dysfunction was staggering.  Alec suspected that the pastor wasn’t asking about all of that, so he simply said his friend wasn’t doing too well.

“‘Well, I wish he would start coming again,’ the pastor said.

“Hoping for an opening and alive to the possibility of a break-through, Alec reluctantly went for it: ‘To tell the truth, he’s been coming for decades, and it hasn’t made much of a difference.’

“‘Well, God’s word will not return void,’ the pastor said, alluding to Isaiah 55:11.

“Wincing a little and at a loss for words, Alec countered with, ‘I don’t think that’s what it means.’

“This wasn’t the beginning of a conversation.  It wasn’t the moment when the pastor received a revelatory word about his own words.  It was the end….

“People like Alec pray for the occasion or the nerve to get into better conversations, something approaching the beloved community they read about and hope for….”

I, like Alec, do, too.  I suppose that means I have to go back to church, though.  But where, pray tell, where?

[Post image: Church by monty0036 at stock.xchng]

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