Adventures in Church Attendance: Estrangement

There are, I believe, no limits to conversations, only the limitations of time & occasion. Beyond these, though, there can be no vulgarity too crass or cliché too vapid. When we speak to one another, truly speak, everything is open game in its own way.This is not to say, however,  I’m always happy about it.

Take. as an example, the matter of religion. Last week, in the course of such a conversational free-for-all I let fly a really quite stammering, nearly incomprehensible, only vaguely related to the matter at hand “confession” concerning my recently aborted attempts to attend church. Thankfully, my new friend was graceful enough to listen & then to re-route the conversation off its badly drawn detour. Because, let’s be frank, I was laboring, like a too-fat boxer by the third round. While I still maintain nothing in particular is off-limits conversationally, religion, like an old annoying friend you always try to insure never enters the orbit of your other friends, annoying in their own right, they, is a complex business.

My “relationship to religion,” so my aforementioned friend described it, though largely in the past, remains the informative stuff of this past, if there is but one, and my personality, of which there are surely multiple. Although my father had as little to do with religion & the church as he did we three boys, my mother most definitely did. And there was a time that where she went, so was I. Consequently, when she was concerned, with a grave sort of glee religious folk have long-ago mastered, with “The 88 Reasons the World Will End in 1988,” I, too, was concerned. So concerned, in fact, that I repressed any notion of teenage rebellion I should have had at the time, and instead fell to my knees often and confessed all the fruits of my pistoning pubescent hormones. Even prior to that, I forget how old I was, I remember waking my mother, simply to say I was sorry. For what, she asked with irritation. — Everything.

Ass that I was at one point in my life, I felt “called,” so goes the language, to ministry. All throughout college, in fact, the assumption was that I would make the family proud: one who might finally bring fire upon all these, thy devils in the making. Thankfully, by the time I’d graduated, I was no longer quite sure the calling was, after all, mine to claim, a naughty boy I was becoming. So it was I left religion but fell even deeper into academic religious studies. Somehow this kept matters of faith at bay; so far at bay, in fact, as to be out of mind. Even now, if I try to identify myself as one who “believes” or “disbelieves” in things religious, I’m required considerable pause to sort through the conceptual confusion I’ve placed around the issue. — Really, there are people who do either? Which isn’t to say I was or am ambivalent. Even when I returned to the church for a time, I knew very well where I stood. There was no personal crisis involved. It was, in fact, all remarkably, maybe inappropriately, clinical. Freed from all that informs religion, but not its actual form.

— “So, tell me again why you’re attending church?” Ah yes. Valid question, after all, I live a secular life within a secular world. I curse and drink to excess, am unsentimentally non-spiritual, etc. Paying no mind to God, disbelieving in belief, I don’t pray and thus expect no answers or guidance to questions big or small. So it was quite valid indeed when the issue was pressed, — “Why are you doing this to yourself, then?” I had my reasons, of course. I mean, I studied religion for Christ’s sake, so how shocking is such an experiment, I reasoned.  — “Yes, but your thesis was nearly failed because of that section where you characterize theology as a sexual assault.” Okay, yes, quite. So, yes, no, maybe I didn’t have sound reasons, but I did have good intentions–they often are when formed from the outside.

Religious communities are, I have reasoned, one of the last best possibilities for a modern avant-garde community whose aim moves beyond its own self-maintenance & promotion. I discussed in the linked post a general sense amongst people my age and younger, or at least those with whom I most identify, that we have been sold a false bill of goods about the world. The American Dream, in all its insipid forms, seems lost on us. We are apt to continue our flight from the reigning regimes of normalcy—for us this includes suburbia, 2.5-kids and lifelong spouse, green grass of home, a career, etc. It’s not that we’re against structures of power or authority, as some might imagine, but rather the false promises that have tended to attend thereto. Most, I suspect are not interested in some hell-bent anarchist do-as-you-please fuck-fest (though those are occasionally nice), but an improvisational experimentation for something that is plainly different, a “not-this-but-always-that”; something, though, that is somehow in the service of creating a moment (if nothing else), a glimpse, of something better, not merely different; or, barring that, something that matters; or, as much as it it sounds like a haggardly beatnik sentiment, something true. Although, yes, an atheist, I returned to the church, albeit one as liberal as I could find, because I thought it had the potential to enact the creation of these moments & glimpses.

And, who knows, maybe it does. For some, I’m sure that it does. But, well, for me, my intention met experience, and experience outdid me. I have no doubt at all that there are a good many non-normative religious types in such a church, maybe even a few Leftist non-believers amongst the all-we-are-saying liberals, who come for the social justice and stay for the coffee & cake. That is all well & good, but I wrote recently but not happily: “I find no camaraderie in their agreement. If anything, I end up feeling more isolated as a result of the agreement.” That last part is funny, I think. Darkly, and maybe importantly, so. To go into a situation with a certain set of intentions, say; to see those intentions played out in some way or another (not exactly, but only the most naive ever assume that will be the case); and then, despite all that, or maybe because (that’s the scary part), you feel even more lonely than you did before laying out the intentions and beginning the experiment. I don’t mean lonely in the sense that nobody is around or that the wrong people are around. More of an existential, psychic loneliness. An estrangement from even one’s best ideas made more or less real.

The trick, it seems, is to find your fellow travelers in estrangement, wherever they might be–those whose reach exceeds their grasp, for whom the mundane workaday is all quite real but not enough, and whose experience of that grasping, its failures mostly, very much, at least enough for conversation, resembles our own. That last part is key. Lots of people are grasping, but we don’t all experience that grasping in a similar way. That, I suspect, was the problem with the church experiment and what proved its undoing.

3 Responses to “Adventures in Church Attendance: Estrangement”

  1. Sergius Says:

    I appreciated your post.

    Seems like you are yearning for contact and community; you probably realize that academics isn’t quite getting you what you want, but you don’t know what to do to get what you want. Maybe you want to find that perfect best friend(s) who will be like a twin, someone to share the challenges of life.

    It seems to me that you need to let go of your ideas a bit and allow yourself to risk vulnerability with other people. Maybe not at church – that might have been the wrong venue, unless you fled to soon to know for sure. Maybe you should go to a Zen retreat or something. Just a thought. But wherever you go, you’ll be disappointed when you find out that everyone there is not your twin; then you’ll have to see how much you can face being vulnerable if you really want to move forward out of old patterns into the great unknown.

  2. joelaf (@joelaf) Says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Brad. I would welcome any further writing, particularly regarding the sense of estrangement you described.

  3. Brad Johnson Says:

    Thanks, Joe. I’m rather at a loss as to what else to say about it. Inspiration being what it is, I may come up with something. But, the material being what it is, I’m not sure how or when it will. Glad you liked it, though.


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