Posted on January 8th, 2012 | Filed under Community, Featured, Interfaith, Theology, Uncategorized
Tagged with Bartchy, Carl Sagan, Jehovah's Witnesses, Metropolitan Community Church, Relationships, Union Rescue Mission
This past December, I attended an “orphan party” for those who have no family to spend the holidays with. It began Christmas Eve and lasted until the following morning, with about eleven people hosted by an inspiring woman, Tannalee. For most of the past twenty-four-years, I have gone with my oldest friend to his family’s home, since my mother, who is my only family, does not celebrate holidays because of her religion. Both of these things reminded me of how true a saying that I often repeat is: “Relationships ARE life.” I began to reflect on how the relationships in my life have shaped some of my views in religious ethics.
I began knocking on strangers' doors at seven years of age. My mother had been baptized as a Jehovah's Witness two years earlier, and offering the world “the Truth” was urgent. In middle school, my best friend began to ask critical questions of the Watchtower Society that led to my questioning the faith of my mother, leading to a tension in our previously close relationship. When I was too young to remember him, my father had left with another woman, but he had given my mother two things to pass on to me when I was older. One was a letter saying that her new religion was one of the reasons he left us, and the other was the Carl Sagan book, Cosmos. I saw that religion could be a source of conflict and began, instead, to flirt with Nietzche and Hesse, curious about my place in this world.
My best friend attended a mega-church in Panorama City, and after accepting his invitations to observe, I eventually surprised him by making made a confession of faith while on a retreat at Lake Arrowhead. As time passed, the church revealed more of what they called their “Doctrinal Distinctives.” The church was associated with the Independent Fundamentalist Churches of America, teaching literal twenty-four hour days of creation, premillennial dispensationalism, and hell fire for Catholics, as well as many others. Shortly after high school, I stopped attending, completely unsure of what “Truth” was and where I fit in the world. I still wanted to believe in what Tillich calls the “Ultimate Concern,” but could not find a faith community I could fully trust.
Later, I met a woman and we married, and I found that her son – having no experience other than that of home-schooling – was in desperate need of secondary education. My wife could not home-school at that level, so I took it upon myself to teach him the subjects the school district mandated. My wife was attending a Pentecostal mega-church in Van Nuys, but soon suggested returning to her former church, a self-described “Deliverance Church” composed mostly of Brazilian-Americans, like her. Later she took me to another "Deliverance Church" composed of mostly white, upper-middle class members in Thousand Oaks. In both, members took turns each week casting demons out of one another, screaming and vomiting as they expelled the spirits. I never “manifested” in the same way as everyone else seemed to, and when I grew resistant of her proposals to solve all problems that arose in our relationship with exorcism, I found my relationship with her become strained. I saw again the potentially destructive power of religion. When my step-son died in a vehicle accident, my marriage finally came to an end.
In spite of these experiences, I have also been blessed to see the power of religion wielded in incredibly positive ways. A few years ago, a friend who had nowhere to stay moved into my two-bedroom apartment, and at the public library in Panorama City I saw a flier for a food giveaway at a local park that I took him to. It was held by a Pentecostal mega-church in the area, and after meeting some of the members, I began volunteering with them at organizations such as the Sylmar Juvenile Hall, Union Rescue Mission, and Fred Jordan Mission, encouraging the people within to pursue meaning and purpose in some form of personal cosmology. I have traveled to El Salvador, lived in Tijuana with a co-worker and his family for two years, and have also done fundraising for those with cancer, and what I have found is that no matter where someone lives, or what their current life circumstances, the search for purpose and meaning is often found and expressed in religious ways.
My mother is still a Jehovah's Witness and we love each other deeply, and out of the friends I have known the longest, one attends a fundamentalist church in the Reformed tradition, one is a secular Jewish man, and another formerly attended the gay-affirming Metropolitan Community Church before switching to a very progressive Episcopal church. I have twice lived with Latter Day Saints, fell in love with and was formerly in a long-term relationship with a Seventh Day Adventist, and have friends of many religious backgrounds, from ISKCON to Soka Gakkai.
From my location as a follower of Jesus, I find ethical imperatives in my tradition heralding interpersonal living that need to be embraced more fully. I am not a theologian, but my life experiences have given me lenses by which to read the Bible that further affirm our innate need for connectedness.
First, creation narratives show humans and the rest of nature as being together for a reason, as opposed to being on our own worlds in a vertical relationship with God, but lacking any horizontal ones. Second, trinitarian models of God purposefully reflect a relational model, so that if we are created in the image of God, than we are meant to commune together like the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are said to. Third, the fellowship meals of Jesus and his early followers were not originally designed as liturgy, but as ways to experience community. Lastly, UCLA professor Dr. S. Scott Bartchy has written on the “sibling-like bond” among early followers of Jesus, where instead of family being merely based on blood ties, people became related by faith. The connection was so close between early believers that in the second century, Marcus Minucius Felix reported that they were accused of incest by those confused by the use of familial language (Octavius chapter 9).
The agape love that inspires us to love our neighbors as ourselves is by definition a love that is mutual, receiving as well as giving, not self-denying, subservient relationships that are merely one-way, allowing for abuse. This is the love that needs to be cultivated so we all move into a new year. Religion will continue to be an important part of the world we live in, for both good and bad- Only through more understanding and less ignorance will those that are religious, spiritual, those that are neither be able to continue on a journey that embraces both our commonalities AND differences, sowing the seeds of peace.