Encounter with a Baptist

November 2, 2014

This post will be offensive to some Christians. Take it or leave it. I am reminded of my friend Angie, who argues vociferously with people of different faiths when their beliefs result in objectionable actions, even though she’s on the board of the Parliament of World Religions, one of the world’s best interfaith organizations. We can critique each other’s faiths without hating each other.

Last week I went to an event sponsored by the Center for Inquiry that featured a Baptist youth pastor. I wasn’t able to stay for the whole time but a couple things stuck out.

He read from an online list of Things Baptists Believe and one of them is that all humans are born sinners. And the only way they get to Heaven is through accepting Jesus as their personal lord and savior—good works don’t count.

This is whacked. I think it was Joseph Campbell who pointed out this example that settled the former issue for me: He said that if two people are standing on the edge of a cliff and one starts to fall, the other will instinctively reach out and try to save the first. It’s an instinct, not a rational decision. That, to me, indicates we are fundamentally good.

However! It doesn’t take much to change our behavior. Riane Eisler writes at length about how competition over scarce resources leads to patriarchy, hierarchy, and war. She argues that humans were originally cooperative and community-minded until we abused the environment and began to compete. I don’t know that it’s that simple (was there ever a Golden Matriarchal Age?) but the general idea seems to hold up.

The whole idea of good works not counting was of course a key element of the Protestant Reformation and feelings run deep on that issue. Personally, I think it’s insane. What kind of god would create a race of beings only to make it impossible for the vast majority of them to come to him after death? A sick and twisted god, that’s what. And I have no idea why someone would choose to worship him. You can’t say “God is love” and square that with “Everyone who believes something different from Baptists is going to Hell.”

As much as atheists slam the Bible (and let’s face it, there’s a lot to slam), I don’t blame The Book. I hold people responsible. It’s been my experience that people have their own points of view based on nature and nurture, and then they look to religion to buttress those opinions. Relatively few people belong to a religion that encourages them to be radically different. Most people choose to stay inside their comfort zone. It’s my belief that narrow-minded bigots will find evidence in the Bible to reinforce their point of view, just as the most compassionate Christians will. It’s not the book that’s the problem, it’s the people relying on it as justification for pre-existing beliefs.

Before I left I asked him about women’s roles within the church. He said women are just as good as men (how enlightened!) and can take on every role except—wait for it—head pastor. Of course.

According to him, there is a core set of beliefs that make you a Baptist. If you don’t believe them, you’re not a Baptist. But there are grey areas where you can be subject to “persuasion.” Since Baptist churches are relatively autonomous, they can have different views on a variety of issues and still remain Baptists.

So I asked him what his personal view of women was. He said he hadn’t done enough study of it but he could be brought to the view that women should be allowed to be head pastors. But that’s as far as it goes. He wouldn’t be able to persuade anyone else to his point of view and he ultimately wouldn’t be considered a Baptist.

What’s the point of that? Why belong to a church which actively discriminates and oppresses, especially when you disagree with that position? I suspect it’s because he doesn’t feel strongly enough about the issue to let it jeopardize his role in the church. He might feel differently if his wife wanted to be head pastor. That might make it more immediate and worth fighting for. But I have to wonder about the morality of the situation.

On a side note, that part of the discussion made me realize that there are more priestesses than priests in Paganism and we may be the only religion on the planet where that’s the case. It’s not that men are forbidden from becoming priests. There are more women than men in Paganism in general and the emphasis on the Goddess draws many women into leadership positions. Add to that the related women’s spirituality movement and you’ve got an awful lot of women Drawing Down the Moon. It would be completely bizarre to me to be part of a ritual where there is only a priest. That’s how far I’ve come from my Catholic upbringing. I love the affirmation women have within the movement and the encouragement all women receive to become their best selves. And of course, Pagan men are some of the best men on the planet, in part because many of them revere the Goddess. They are comfortable with their masculinity because they have explored the Divine Feminine. They are open, funny, tender, strong, loving, and not afraid to wear sarongs. 😉

The thing that made me sad about the Baptist thang was the realization that one of my brothers believes pretty much everything the Baptist said. Many years ago my brother and I engaged in a long email conversation about religion because he said he wanted to understand me better. It ended rather abruptly when he finally confessed his real purpose was to convert me back to Christianity. I was furious. It still pisses me off. It’s such a denial of my basic human rights.

When he was going into the hospital to get a brain tumor operated on, I asked him what time the surgery was going to be so I could light a candle. No prayers, no incantations, no magic, just a candle. And he told me he didn’t want it. He didn’t want me involved at all. I told one of my sisters (who was Catholic) and she was so enraged that she immediately emailed him and asked him for the time of the surgery so she could light a candle. He told her.

Sometimes I think about what will happen when he or his wife dies, or if I ever get married. Would I be allowed to go to his funeral? Would he come to my wedding? Even though I’ve explained in every way I can that I don’t worship Satan (I don’t even believe in Satan—he’s a Christian construct, not Pagan, and I don’t believe in Christianity), because I’m not a Christian, I am—what—a leper? Contagious? Disgusting? Evil? Certainly not worthy of his respect and love.

Now, my brother happens to be one of the most upright people I know, but his religion prevents him from expressing his love in any other way than the patronizing “I will show you Christ’s love and that will make you love him” way. Ugh! It hurts me to think I may be excluded from his life, or he will exclude himself from mine, because his supposedly superior religion prevents him from simply living with difference.

To me, the sign of a useful religion is whether it pushes you to be a better person. And by “better,” I don’t mean “please follow these arbitrary rules.” I mean becoming more compassionate, more honorable, more respectful, more accepting of difference. When people are committed to pushing their boundaries and becoming their best selves, we not only get the personal benefit of one-on-one interaction, we also get the social benefit of a more civil society. It’s in the interest of the state to encourage respect and embrace difference. I’m not suggesting the state should endorse religion—far from it—but I do think there are core principles that apply in both secular and religious contexts.

Friday night was the anniversary of my initiation into the Craft. Every year I read the instructions I wrote way back in 1991 and they still hold true. They are a reminder to me to “hold pure, then, your greatest ideal—strive ever towards it.” I don’t usually get there, but the journey is worth it. And as much as I disagree with some of the points the Baptist made, I thoroughly uphold his right to believe them. I don’t think they’re particularly useful beliefs, but I support religious freedom. Just because it mystifies me doesn’t mean it should be suppressed.

When I used to do public education about Paganism, I likened it to a potluck. There are all these dishes on the table, each representing a different belief or practice, and we go around, looking closely, asking questions, poking and prodding. If we see a dish that looks interesting, we take a little bit. If we like it, we go back and take a lot of it. And if we see something we don’t like, we leave it where it is. We don’t dash it to the floor in a fit of righteous pique. We leave it there because others might like it. Works for them, doesn’t work for me. No biggie. We focus instead on enjoying the party. 🙂

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Shame: Roman Catholic vs Witch

June 1, 2014

In therapy we are doing EMDR on shame. I started out a few sessions ago doing inner child work, which led quickly to a sense of disapproving adults. I see myself about five years old in a dark red space, curled in on myself, my body hot with emotion, my brain draining with horror at some shameful thing I’ve done.

One memory of shame is when I was celebrating my tenth birthday party. Because it was a family party, it meant lots of presents I wasn’t particularly thrilled with. But they were, after all, presents. I devoured them, ripping through the paper eagerly, barely looking at one before going on to the next.

My dad yanked my into the kitchen and gave me a dressing down. “You didn’t even say ‘thank you’!”

Oh, the shame! I wanted the proverbial hole in the floor to open up so I could be cast into the fiery pits. I knew I was in the wrong, and I knew everyone had seen it. There was no escape. I was a bad person. And to make it worse, I had to go back in and finish unwrapping presents, this time in a more subdued manner, being scrupulously polite. Awful. Scarred me for life.

The difference between making a mistake and feeling shame is that when you’ve made a mistake, you can say, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and move on. But when you feel shame, it’s intrinsically connected to the thought, “I’m a bad person.” It’s one of the worst feelings there is.

I have always wanted to be a good person. I took my cues from what my parents and teachers and the Church said, not what they did. I was always striving to perfect myself. And as I examine shame in my life, it doesn’t take long for me to shift from disapproving father to disapproving God.

I was raised Roman Catholic and had a special devotion to Mary. When I was 14 or 15 a famous statue of her was making its way around the country, hosted in churches and in women’s homes. I went with my mother to her friend’s house to pray the rosary. I was the youngest person in the room by far! I was setting on the floor, gazing up into Mary’s face, intoning the familiar prayers. She was in the usual pose: standing, her arms slightly out from her sides, palms forward, her head tilted down. Meek and mild. And as I stared at her face, I saw a gentle smile start on her lips. I sank deeper into trance. Then the smile melted and her face took on such an aspect of sorrow that my heart swelled with pain. I knew she was taking on the sins of the world, suffering so that we wouldn’t have to.

I was very taken by the martyr concept, particularly Mary and Jesus. I felt I had been touched by God to take on the sorrows of others and transmit them to the Lord. I would take on the world’s pain. I would feel intense sorrow, but I would bear it.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, they re-enact the trial of Jesus on Good Friday. The priest plays Jesus, of course, and the congregation plays the mob. This always ripped me apart. When the authorities try to free Jesus, we kept responding, “Give us Barabas! We want Barabas!” I felt a traitor to God, that I would call for Barabas when Jesus was the one I should be saving. It was excruciating. It was sick. It forced the congregation into the worst kind of behavior, pounding into our heads what miserable sinners we were. Shame on us.

Every act I did wrong was another nail in Jesus’ palm. Every sin was a spear thrust through his side. I could not live without inflicting pain on the Son of God. I could not be human without causing cruelty. I could go to confession and be absolved, but that was after the fact. And I would only do wrong again.

When we approached these memories and feelings with my present self, firmly rooted in Witchcraft, the whole situation changed. High Priestess takes my inner child in her arms and croons, “Oh, honey.” I am filled with compassion for my inner child’s suffering. And I explain that we all do things we are ashamed of, but that if we feel our feelings and make amends where we can, we can heal ourselves and move on.

There is no sin in Witchcraft. There are evil deeds, but there isn’t this obsession with sin and Hell that Catholics have. In contrast, we do the best we can with what we have. It’s a much more chill religion, more compassionate. We seek balance, not perfection.

In the Catholic worldview, all you do is fail, ask forgiveness, fail, ask forgiveness, and fail again. It’s exhausting. In the Craft, you just live. Every human emotion is holy. We seek balance above all things. It’s not about success or failure; it’s about acting honorably and cleaning up your messes when you make them. Because you will make them. But they are not the sum total of your being. Nor is it because you are intrinsically bad. Messes make you human. Not damned.

When I feel shame now, I pray on it. But it’s not complicated by wounding deities. I don’t ask a sky god for forgiveness. I ask Brighid to give me the courage to make things right and Rhiannon to give me the grace to come back into balance with myself and others.

These goddesses are not abstract divinities outside myself. They are strands in Gaia, the sacred biosphere, of which I am a part. They are aspects of the collective unconscious, which feeds me. They are aspects of my self. So I invoke the power of the sacred Whole, which is also the activation of my most authentic self. All of which restores my soul. I make amends from my place of deepest integrity, I feel my feelings—recognizing that shame is just as holy as joy or grief, and I correct my inner trajectory if I am straying from my path.

And as I sing in Barber’s Sure on This Shining Night:
All is healed
All is health
High summer holds the earth
Hearts all whole.