Blue Zones Project: Belong, a Small Essay on Organized Religion

The final suggestion of the Power Nine for the Blue Zone project is that you should attend worship service.

Now, I think the Blue Zone Project is pretty liberal on what that means, given that it’s talked to Buddhists, Seventh Day Adventists, Jews, and so on and so on. So, this isn’t the usual dogma of why you should belong to Jesus.

But it’s been almost two years since the husband and I have become what those in the field call “unchurched.” And I gotta tell you, being involved in a religious institution too much is what got me to the point I’m at now. So I’m really struggling and resisting the idea of being involved in another religious organization.

This is a personal essay. My views may differ from yours. Please respect them. I respect yours. I’m working through some issues.

Forgive me for sounding like the typical American, but I do. I do not believe you have to go somewhere to be spiritual. That’s as stereotypical as I hope I get this morning. My first problems started when Bryon suggested we get involved in Bible Study. Bryon is a very intellectual Christian, as his roots trained him to be, and our friend Kathy the pastor was looking for more participants, so yeah, we did that.

Before the Bible study, when we went to church, which was usually once or twice a month, I would have a meditative, spiritual experience at the service, whether what I took from it was what the minister talked about our not. Bryon and I did our best to seek out smart ministers who taught, and we attended a liberal Methodist church. We loved the non traditional JAZZ service (read–not rock bands, country music, or a charismatic tradition. JAZZ.) So, there was about a year when I felt like I was getting that weekly meditation in. The very large church we attended shut that service down to save money, and we left them. We didn’t care much for traditional church, or the other alternatives.

But we did find a church where one of our favorite ministers at the large church had transferred too. First, we found her at a church that was full of poor people, more like a mission really. This church was doomed to bankrupt and close, but we had a good minister whom we could listen to and respect.

But Bible Study. The more I read, the less I respected the Bible. I found it to be a book full of whiny, complaining old men who had decidedly limited opinions. I developed a hatred of Paul and his sexism and his self-importance. Don’t get me wrong, some of these essayists and philosophers wrote well, and I liked some of the ideas they had to say. But some of these other guys had weird agendas, and suggested that God had some ideas that were just, well, down right rotten.

It didn’t seem to me that God would be that hateful. But old Testament God? He is one bad mother you don’t want to mess with. It wasn’t much of a step from here to doubt that the Bible is the divine word of God. But honestly, I didn’t believe that. I know that the Bible has been selectively edited from its inception. I wonder why people don’t spend time reading the works of other moralists as well, and discussing them. This constant study of one book, as if you hope to have new revelations (no pun intended) pop off a page and change your life? Well, I like to be more widely read.

I hit the wall of the Jesus versus God dichotomy that many Christians hit. After all, it’s Jesus’ philosophy that put Christ in Christan right? So I decided that the gospels deserved my attention. And mind you, I don’t care if Jesus is divine or not. He had some damned good ideas on how to live and treat other people. That’s the important stuff. This believing he’s divine or else thing? Well, forget that. That’s not what the idea of religion seems to be about to me at all. It’s trying to live well with your fellow man and woman. Divinity would be a swell bonus, but it’s often used as a way to excuse the behavior of people who don’t want to try to be very Christian. Forgiveness is their back up plan for an eternal life they might be banking on. And hey, forgiveness is cool, but it shouldn’t be a panacea for not trying very hard, right?

So, we hit the gospels. I find the gospels FASCINATING. It’s like four guys doing a biography of the same guy with a different agenda. And while I found that problematic, I also appreciated those wisdom stories. We actually engaged in some discussions about what if heaven was supposed to be here, now, and that Jesus was telling us that he had come here to make earth better. BTW, this is a current theological theory that is gaining some speed, and I dig it.

I was beginning to make my piece with some of this and something else shook me up. I mentioned that the poor church had closed. Because the church was so poor, Kathy also ministered at a Reconciling Congregation that had a strong mission in giving gay folks a place to go to church. Not for any other reason but inclusion. Bryon and I could live with that, even though the church service was traditional.

That church exploded in a series of squabbles over a variety of issues concerning money. Money? Which I thought we were supposed to give away as a church? The streak of greed and bad feeling that ran through that church is typical of organizations of human beings poorly managed. It’s hard to be in an organization without it ultimately factionalizing, and if you don’t have strong leadership, this can be a problem. Kathy, while gifted with many strengths, is not that leader.

Normally, I can manage this idea. People will behave like people. But what shook me to my core was that a church was supposed to be about acceptance and love and forgiveness and no one was even trying. Further, I hear from many of my friends who grew up in pastoral families, and many people I know who have been involved in churches at deeper levels that this is not uncommon. Bitter fights are held about music, carpet in sanctuaries, whether to have daycare, just because you don’t like the way someone handled a bake sale. This was an eye opener. I knew people fought at church. I assumed that they would try to resolve these things in a way they had been taught was a good way. They’ve been studying that book forever, after all.

Yeah, I know. Anyone of you could write me a treatise on war and religion, the Crusades, the way religion has been used to justify violence, discrimination, and death I was depressed to see hatred and conflict even at the level of the local church. Not much of a chance those perps were going to make the world a better place for themselves or anyone else.

Now, I am still sad. I am still burned out. I don’t know if I want to go back to church. I don’t even know if I want to return at a shallow, just attend service level. I don’t know if I can look at a church goer, and not see the potential hypocrite underneath.

I can’t throw out the baby with the bath water. While I’m not much more than an agnostic, I believe a good purpose of religion can be organized charity (in the case of the Methodist church without spiritual strings). I believe that there are earnest people at every church seeking a path. I believe that regardless of the religion, if there is a wise, peaceful philosophy at its core that emulates secular humanism, the core is what you go for. So I get religion. Even if there is no (as my friend Kim would put it) great sky fairy in the air who made the world, the message you must take away is we must be excellent to each other.

I don’t know what will end up happening with me. I suspect Bryon will want to return to church, and I will go with him, but maybe I won’t. Bryon feels much the same way about the experience as I do, but he can approach a new church with hope and optimism, especially if we just go to the service and nothing else. He’s burned out, but he’s seen this sort of thing before. I’m the naive one that feels broken up.

Maybe I just need to meet a group of secular humanists for coffee every Sunday morning, and we can talk about what good deed we want to each month, no strings attached. No more than five or six people. Hopefully that’s a small enough group not to factionalize.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

3 thoughts on “Blue Zones Project: Belong, a Small Essay on Organized Religion”

  1. You know my thoughts on the whole religion thing, but have you considered Unitarian Universalism? Or Baha’i?

  2. I do not know much about Baha’i.

    Bryon and I tried the U/Us, but the Unitarians, well not so much. The Universalists are awesome, but you don’t get them alone. There are also some odd things. They won’t say the G– word, and that was weird for us. And the one is CR actually shuts down for the summer. So it didn’t suit.

    Aric says his mom’s old U/U church? Another vicious fight about something stupid. Not that I should discard them all, but they don’t seem to be any farther ahead.

    But next time I see you, tell me what you know about Baha’i. I know you and Dan have had a little exposure.

  3. You know, I have to admit that I read Lisa’s comment as the Unicornian Universalism, and then I had to backtrack. In my defense, I had two hours of sleep last night.

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