This post has been living in my body for some time, gently trying to break free. I poke it back behind my liver, stuff it in my big toe, or grasp it within my elbow joint, but it keeps nesting in my heart and whispering in my ear. This isn’t something I want to write, partly because I feel I have preached myself hoarse on this subject, and because I feel this is a harsh, even if apt, way to express this. This is what my pastor calls a “hard word,” and it is heavy too, weighing down my heart.
Over the past few months I have noticed a trend in how people react to my attending a Christian church. They are entirely supportive until they realize I might be serious about embracing the Christian faith. Then their tone changes entirely. It’s not one person, or even two who have reacted this way. If I were to count them off I would run out of fingers and be forced to take off my shoes.
I have tried to be polite when people have this reaction, even when I feel betrayed by it. It’s not just one kind of person who has been supportive and then balked. I’ve gotten it from secular friends, from Wiccan friends, and even from hardcore polytheists.
No one has a problem with my using Christianity to get my spiritual needs met. No one has a problem with my putting up a Christmas tree or going to Easter dinners. No one has a problem with my singing hymns or listening to sermons. No one has a problem with my seeking out community in Christianity, and several have even admitted there is no option for community in much of Paganism and polytheism. No one has a problem with my reciting the Lord’s Prayer in unison with a church full of Methodists as long as I don’t mean it.
Ironically participating in Christianity, being a hipster in the pews smirking inwardly, gets me praise. Being a sincere seeker gets me criticized or shunned.
If I were to use Santeria without believing in it just because it makes me feel better, I would have people waving virtual pitchforks at me. If I started using Native American spirituality without being invested in that faith, Pagans everywhere would be angry with me. If I started using the trappings of Judaism without being invested in that spiritual tradition, people might suggest I was racist.
So why is it Christianity gets a pass but no one would be ok with my simply using African Diaspora or Eastern European indigenous traditions? Because Christianity is part of the overculture? Because it is mainstream? Because it has a problematic past and present? Because it is so diametrically different from modern progressive spiritual inclinations? Does that really make it ok?
This attitude pisses me off in so many different ways, and is one of the big reasons I walked away from Paganism and polytheism.
If you make a virtue of using other faith traditions, then why build anything of your own? Why build your own temple when you can simply co-opt the local Unitarian-Universalist church? Why develop your own theology and cohesive tradition when you can throw some yoga on top of some kabbalah mixed in with some low-fat NeoPlatonism and a dash of European fairy tales?
Why on earth would you consider it better to use a faith tradition for your own selfish purposes rather than fully inhabiting it to give your life shape and meaning? Doesn’t this simply lead to your not valuing relationships, using both Gods and people as they are useful to you? Doesn’t this virtue of using affect the ability to build lasting community?
Why is being a user a virtue? Why is being serious about your faith a failing? I think back about all the times I have been preached to about the virtues of spiritual consumerism, about not taking shit so seriously, about just using the pretty comfortable parts of various faiths, and about how if I really just tried to do Paganism right I would learn to stop worrying and hug a tree. Beauty of nature, poetry, image, and doing whatever works to make me feel right is all I need. Pretty thoughts and sexy darkness and everything ephemeral.
Religion isn’t a tool to be picked up when convenient, to get me high in the moment and then be discarded until I need whatever spiritual jollies I currently desire. I feel like I have said this so many times my brain is ready to explode at the thought of articulating this again: religion isn’t a matter of style. Faith traditions aren’t tools. Plug ‘n’ play spirituality is both disrespectful and ultimately harmful. Spiritual but not religious ultimately means you are making a virtue out of using things and people for selfish reasons.
I’m not entirely sold on Christianity yet, certainly not on traditional theologies, but I am trying so hard to inhabit this tradition because it nurtures and disturbs me. I am engaging in this as thoughtfully and sincerely as I engaged in Paganism and polytheism for the past 15 years. Mostly I am learning to love people rather than use them, I am overcoming bad habits, and pushing past my comfort zones. I am struggling towards compassion, and every time someone thinks I am merely using Christianity to fill the gaps in a Paganism that takes pride in not being whole, it makes me angry. It makes me bitter towards Paganism.
This attitude is so prevalent that I could easily rattle off a list of prominent folks who promote it, who wrap themselves in a supercilious cloak of righteousness even as they hold all religious impulses and traditions in contempt. To paraphrase the lovely phrase from Practical Magic: you can’t practice religion while looking down your nose at it.
So be disillusioned: I am not some hipster smugly smirking in the pews as I get off on vibrant gospel music. I am struggling for my soul’s liberation in a community that has the capacity and compassion to support me in that struggle.
Though I am trying to embrace a more loving and compassionate attitude, I am still me. Assume I am using Christianity, smile approvingly at me while calling me a user, and I may throw some foul and salty language your way. Forgive me, I am only human, and, as I keep being reminded, a fundamentalist to boot.