Finding Fellowship (while avoiding the spots in the carpet where the furniture used to be)
One of the joke variations I used to enjoy making was the variant involving “Atheist God”. Stuff like “I’ll pray to Atheist God for you” or “I swear to Atheist God” (or similar). As time went on, I found the jokes to be somewhat less funny because, for whatever reason, I usually found myself actually doing exactly that. Instead of talking about what these prayers/affirmations were, it makes more sense to say what they weren’t. Not necessarily making entreaties… there was no “please, Atheist God, give someone else (or me) the (something)”… but neither was it some form of creative visualization. They were unprayers. Snapshots of adjectives and nouns. Perhaps adverbs and verbs. Perhaps half-promises.
It seemed silly to pray except for the fact that I found myself doing it reflexively, almost constantly when I had a moment to sit still. If someone asked “why don’t you just stop?”, I would have answered something like “I think I tried, but I don’t know how to not.”
“Even to something that isn’t there?”
“I don’t think it’s about the something that isn’t there.”
Time went on and the jokes faded while the prayers became somewhat more recognizably prayers, and I was invited to a friend’s church.
A Unitarian Universalist Church.
I admit to having been taken aback. I mean, seriously, I’m an atheist… but, even so… well, I was reminded of a quotation of Phillip Pullman’s:
But because of my upbringing I’m a Christian atheist, and I’m a church atheist. And I’m very specifically, because I was brought in my grandfather’s household and he was a Church of England priest when the old prayer book was used, so I’m a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist, a Hymns Ancient and Modern atheist, and King James Bible atheist.
That flavor of atheism probably sounds silly to most Christians out there (and probably half the atheists), but it was something that made sense to me… and it was in that vein that I tended to see Unitarian Universalism as kind of silly. I’m sure you’ve heard the argument that “I can worship God just as much by lying in bed and sleeping in”, well, this is an argument that made twice as much sense to me for the religion whose fundamental tenet I had always paraphrased as “well, there probably isn’t more than one God”.
I was raised in the church in which I was raised, and we made big deals out of feasts of fried meats and mashed carbs and 17 kinds of desserts and singing songs like:
And that was before we’d have our trip to the cemetery to visit the family plots and we’d point out where our ancestors were and then the much closer plots where we would be buried someday. Looking back, those were obvious fantasies. Silly daydreams about an eventual future that would, of course, be utopian compared to this one… Best left behind. Yet those memories were the memories sticking with me when I was invited to the UUs.
I wondered: What would the Unitarian Universalists eat? Would they make tubes of tofu available for visitors? Five or six kinds of herbal teas? What would *shudder* the music be like? I played Look For The Union Label through my head twice (both commercials) and agreed that I would show up and see what it was like.
What I found was a church that, at first glance, pretty much appealed to my prejudices. It felt… “progressive”. It was the church version of walking into a Whole Foods. As I watched people interact and then sit down, I noticed a bit of dancing around what might be an elephant in the room. A church where everyone was stepping around a very obvious thing. Then, as I settled in myself, I was better situated to examine how they were moving around… they weren’t stepping around an obvious thing. They were stepping around a thing that wasn’t there anymore.
As I listened to the pastor discuss fellowship and community and justice and grace and all of the various words you’d expect to hear someone say as he greeted a congregation, the word “God” was not there. But it wasn’t not there in the same way that he didn’t talk about the Soccer World Cup. It was an absence like, well, an unpresence. It slowly dawned on me that I was sitting in a church that was trying to do many, many things… but one of the main things it was trying to do was figure out how to deal with Atheist God.
I admit, though it ought not to have been, it was something of a surprise. I had expected to go to the church wearing one of two hats (perhaps alternating them throughout the service). The first was of Former Southern Babtist (the sermon didn’t even crack 20 minutes!) and the second was of amateur anthropologist (how do they deal with visitors? how are the cookies from the fellowship table?). Instead, I found myself wondering “what is their name for Atheist God?” and “Does Church *REALLY* help with (waves hand around) all of this?”
I mean, one of the things that I’ve had problems with is shoving the nihilism away. The service didn’t seem like it’d provide much help to deal with that. If anything, it seemed to be teetering on the edge of coming out and saying “yeah, we’re just muddling through, just like everybody.” Because, seriously, I can muddle through just as well on Sunday morning by sleeping in… but then they switched topics to missionary work.
Now, as a Babtist, we had no shortage of Missionary segments. Show some pictures of backwards people living in backwards places, show how we sent a doctor to give them vaccinations, clear up some of their malnutrition issues by sending food and clearing up some of the food taboos, but most importantly: planting churches in places that had not yet heard the name of Jesus. I expected… I don’t even know *WHAT* I expected. Probably some variant of the same. Instead I got missionary work that I agreed with so very much that I found myself wondering if I was, indeed, in a UU church.
I was floored.
They were exporting Capitalism, you see. They were going into third-world countries and talking to women and training women into new careers. Initial discussions with the women were usually of the form “well, I’m doing pretty good with ducks and chickens… maybe I could cultivate *MORE* ducks and chickens?” And the response was “you could be doing so much more with your time and getting so much more of a return… here are some trades you could learn and, on top of that, here are some marketing techniques you could use” and teaching the women how to start their own businesses and make money for themselves and their families.
I sat there aghast. I had expected part of my brain to be giving a mocking running commentary on everything I sat through but there I was thinking “I’ve never seen a missionary program I’ve ever agreed with more.” When they sent the offering basket around, I couldn’t reach for my wallet quickly enough.
The missionary segment ended, and we were back to having one of several “reflections”. (Where Babtists would read scripture, Unitarians quote other books or pop culture or whatever may have been handy that morning (“indeed, though Lucky complains about people wanting his Lucky Charms, isn’t he better off whenever he acknowledges his relationship and responsibility to others and their need for blue diamonds, pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars, green clovers, and purple horseshoes”)). In this particular reflection, a lay minister’s voice broke as he gave a short reading and asked us to take a minute to think about it afterwards. A speech in which he seemed to struggle to find words to fit exactly what he wanted us to do or why. It seemed to me, from where I was sitting, that the points in the sentence where he stopped and stumbled would be the points in the sentence where I, were I giving the sentence, would be talking about Atheist God.
(I should note, of course, that not everyone there fit this particular mold. Some were liberal Christians, some were pantheists, some were polytheists, and some were pagans. Indeed, I’m sure that a large number of these folks would take great issue with my interpretation of their missionary work and they’d explain to me, at length, that it wasn’t “capitalism” but “womens’ self-sufficiency” (or similar) being taught in these foreign countries. I should absolutely acknowledge the former and, for the latter, this seems to be a case where we are saying the same word with different regional dialects.)
Digesting the service for the next few days, It hit me: I was absolutely narcissistic to think that my struggles were anything close to unique. My struggles, existential though they were, were struggled through by millions (billions?) of people all over everywhere and it was blindness on my part to not see it. Sure, I dealt with it my way but not everybody is introverted like I am, or analytical about it like I am, or are even helped by having something like a structure to deal with it… and not everyone is (or *CAN* be) a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist. Some of us are stuck being Beckett atheists: It will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
The “come up with a good zinger!” back of my head is saying something to the effect of “I guess extroverts have existential crises too” but that’s just being vaguely jerky. While there was a (small) chunk of my worst fears manifesting at the service, it was more than balanced by a (larger) chunk of people trying to deal with the absence of God using the best tools they have. Communion, fellowship, meditation, gratitude, and something that looks a lot like prayer from a distance in service to… well, something that doesn’t seem to be there at all. But, it seems, that’s not the point. And that’s okay.
It’s not about the something that isn’t there.