Saturday, August 27, 2016


Someone wishing to criticize my qualifications as a writer about religion said,  “She doesn’t even go to church.”  That person assumes that a religious person is simply one who physically goes to church, which undoubtedly means to them attending a group in a building with a leader at the same time each week for about an hour.  The number of people might be small (where two or three gather in “My Name,”) or might be thousands, but all in the same space.  Probably the religion in question is Abrahamic in origin, though they probably don't think of it that way.  

Radio and television services are a gray area created by technology.  Those in attendance may be there by proximity (they live in the “parish”) or by affinity (they are in sympathy with the thought stream of the group).  Radio and TV audiences are unknown, unnamed, uncanvassed.  Part of the point of gathering is to create a community that knows each other or at least has a reasonable expectation that the other people will be compatible to them.  

We’re talking about the water in which fish swim without reflection about it.  These gatherings go back to the roots of the Abrahamic religions with tribal assumptions and try to recreate the tribe.  In order to reflect constructively on the practices of “church” in writing, I will sometimes go back to these roots and usually concentrate on what is still conventional now, but I think it is a good idea to realize that other religions might never gather in this kind of audience. It is rather like any European-style arts presentation: opera, symphony, theatre, ballet, movies, vaudeville, travelogue and university lecture hall.  It’s always useful to check our assumptions.  In this case, the idea of gathering as audience to a presentation by one or a few others was seriously challenged in the Sixties and Seventies, but was never dropped.

We do not all gather for spoken words and prayer now, but many will fill an arena for sports, perhaps violent ones like football, soccer, or rodeo.  They persuade the audience that conflict and winning are central to life.  If compared to Roman gladiator spectacles or to Christian rallies, people get angry.

The idea of one celebrant as powerful might have originally been an adaptation of the authority of the rabbi or teacher who had studied the writing of the Torah or Gospel or Koran— even memorized some of it.  If literacy and learnedness were a qualification for a rabbi, then the magic of Communion gave a priest even more power.  The advent of Christianity pulled in the idea of sacrifice -- not the older holocaust blood sacrifice of a lamb, rather the substitution of bread and wine.  Some Unitarians, including Emerson, do not approve even of a bread/wine communion, considering it a leaning to "magic" instead of the natural wonder of existence.

Part of the custom of the Unitarian fellowships — which were based on the lack of affording ministerial leadership because of thin population — is that they often meet in small spaces, maybe schools, where it was not necessary to unscrew the pews because the seating was individual chairs that could be easily arranged in a circle.  But meeting in schools with movable chairs also meant that the loss of use of the space to convey mood and meaning: no stained glass, no stations of the cross, and so on.  Still, a chalice to light if it doesn't set off the fire alarm. 

Even the asceticism of some believers who prefer relatively empty spaces could be challenged by posters that depicted prepositions as piggies trying to get over/under/through/
around a fence.  Banners, candles, boomboxes and opening prayers or songs are ways to summon up gathering and focus.  But the secular world creeps in from the surroundings to the content of the service. The need to have some kind of spoken word can drift to the secular and then even away from the usual equivalent to the Sacred: political thought and therapeutic reassurance.  When the committee looking for speakers begins to invite town officials, some call it "City Sewer Syndrome."  At least it gets down to basics.

The Sixties and Seventies brought in many new ideas and possibly the membership of African-Americans introduced more attention to movement and communal song from religions that did not build temples but maybe gathered around a fire to sing and dance.  Most of us know Native American pow-wow dancing, enough to recognize the symbolism of the fancy-dancer, which has managed to escape from the trope of "war dancing."  

What I’m getting at is the undone work of a new analysis of conventional church, both those who improvise and those whose predecessors made sure of fine architecture.  There are ceremonies all around us, some with spiritual dimensions, that are going unrecognized.

Returning to the very beginning of the Abrahamic religions, another vital thread is that of print -- writing -- maybe beginning with the Ten Commandments.  Leaving oral culture meant more openness to variety but also a need for a reference point that could be carried along, thus scrolls like Torah. Adopting print culture was gradual and top-down, because only the elite learned to read or had charge of the documents.  It also meant hierarchy, and institutions were more technical and elaborated, less influenced by either crowds or charismatic individuals.

When some Unitarian ministers felt the need for reconciliation among religious traditions, something like Bahai which honors most religions that have a book, the result was mostly written materials arranged in traditional sequence around a theme.  Duke Gray felt strongly that the only truly legitimate sequence was Anglican vespers.  I doubt that The Malleus Maleficarum, the medieval treatise on witchhunting, was used by anyone, though there are groups now that identify with either the darker medieval lore or the modern Wicca.  The KKK has evidently persisted semi-invisibly.

A private chapel for family devotion.

Content matters.  Membership matters.  Form matters.  Place matters.  When I was learning the history of religion in America, I heard about how the congregations of the north tended to be influenced by their siting where there had been forts or commercial hubs, therefore creating towns that could support churches, compact congregations that gathered every Sunday.  But in the South -- where the governmental organization responded to stretches of land along rivers, which served as roads, and a commerce based on cotton agriculture/slave labor -- the religious base was the white household.  A chapel was included in the large building in the style of European gentry, while out in the back was a satellite black community that was oral, which allowed for a Christian-appearing surface of gospel but carried under that a rich tradition from another continent.  Occasional tent rallies were popular for everyone.

On today's reservations the Catholic ministers who follow the element of sacrifice that is Communion and other vivid symbols like Holy Water and Unction, do much better than the Protestants with their readings and hymnals.  The oral culture of indigenous people persists so long as they are in contact with the land.  Blackfeet were fortunate to be able to stay on familiar terrain, though it was much shrunken and the buffalo were removed.  Pentecostals have done well with their emotional oral culture and movement, but they suffer (or maybe benefit) from being considered low class.  Maybe for lack of a print literature.

Universally among all congregations I know was that they had no interest at all in what I’d learned at seminary.  They wanted reassurance, a little guidance (not too much), the feeling of being with friends once a week, a name for themselves and a little explanation they could use for family.  Sundays (Unitarians generally follow Christian practices) had more structure if they included church.  National festivals could be marked.  Then there was Sunday School, which was often the real reason for a group, because that’s a middle-class marker of respectability.  Like learning to read and figure.

Like the other bourgeois markers of the middle class:  cleanliness; good manners including lack of profanity; avoidance of drunkenness (no spitting tobacco); dental care; eyeglasses (now contacts or corneal planing); fountain pens (now replaced by handheld devices); regular employment, craft or business; a green flat weedless lawn; an up-to-date car; and so on.  It’s hard to know whether these things are disappearing because the middle class is disappearing, or whether the middle class is less visible now for lack of these clues.  

But surely one of the disappearances is Sunday morning church.  I haven’t gone non-religious — I have changed social classes and am no longer middle class.  Now I am Class X, as Paul Fussell defined it:  low income, highly educated.  Religious all the time, not just on Sunday -- and post-Christian.  

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