Thursday, April 24, 2014

Why (Many) People Really Go to Church

This morning, while walking the dog down a switchback trail from the G. Ross Lord reservoir to the West Don River, I came upon an elderly woman dressed in many layers of Middle-Eastern garb, including a headscarf. Her clothes were old and drab. She walked with a limp and a pronounced stoop. No one else was around.

She was bending over and rising, bending over and rising, putting something that she was finding down by her boots into a plastic bag. As I approached her, I said “Hello! What are you collecting?”

She looked at me with real fright. I smiled, tried to disarm her. I pointed to her bag. She showed me—still, with real fright in her face. The bag was full of young dandelions, not yet flowering. She put her free hand to her lips and said, “Eat.” But she was also completely unnerved.

Maybe she was scandalized by meeting me alone, a man. Maybe she was afraid of me because it was a desolate place. Maybe she was worried about how to handle conversation, her English being nonexistent. Maybe she was ashamed to be collecting dandelions, or ashamed of seeming so out of place, or maybe it was all the above.

Walking home, it struck me that it can be very hard to be an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land. No wonder so many immigrants stick together in whatever places they can find to do so. When I was a teen I worked in a chicken processing plant where most employees were either of Portuguese or Dutch extraction. When I used to go for a walk in the park in Cobourg I was always amazed that so many Pakistanis beat me there, especially since I didn’t think any of them lived in town. But then I remembered meeting the Dutch clans, as a kid, on the beach at Niagara-on-the-Lake, also on Saturdays.

It is hard to be an immigrant. No wonder, then, that so many also stick together in church or mosque or temple or synagogue. One thing that many of us—the Muslim woman picking dandelions, my many Jewish neighbors near Toronto’s Bathurst St., and I as a child of Dutch immigrants have in common is that ethnic religious services and communities play a huge role in helping us adjust to life in the diaspora.

At the same time, as children and sometimes even their elders adjust, the role such faith communities play in immigrants’ lives usually plummets. The faith communities themselves slowly wither away, usually while trying hard to deny their ethnic reasons for being, and while spinning off conservative splinter groups that continue to deny they’re ethnic groups in part by yelling louder and louder about their doctrinal distinctives.

But ethnic churches usually do go into decline. Since I’ve left the Christian Reformed church I’ve started noticing others who have done so. I have realized I can make lists many, many names long. These lists include family, friends, people I grew up with, people I went to parochial school with, and readers of my book, blog, and Twitter feed. My guess is that less than half of the Christian Reformed kids I grew up with still belong.

But it isn’t just the Christian Reformed Church. When I drive through my mother’s neighbourhood, in Brampton, just outside of Toronto, I’m struck by how many Sikhs walk the streets. They’ve mostly done very well. Of course, there have been racial and ethnic tensions along the way, but people are finding ways to get along. They’re a part of the landscape now.

How do I know they are Sikhs? Well, there were newspaper articles about how and why Brampton has become a favourite destination. There is a Sikh temple around the corner of my mother’s home. But mostly, Sikhs look like Sikhs: turbans and flowing robes and hairnets for younger men and great majestic beards and long hair and no earrings. Sikhs are hard to miss, and their dress is definitely a lot less boring than most of ours!

But last time I was in Brampton, it struck me how many people in my mom’s neighbourhood also looked like lapsed Sikhs. These were mostly younger men and women, who had the same beautiful olive complexion and dark hair, who often walked with other Sikhs, but who also wore miniskirts and t-shirts and jeans, colored hair highlights in many styles and bling—people who were obviously not participating in anything like Sikh orthodoxy. Many, many younger Sikhs must be leaving their temples and striking out on their own. Not so different than in my old Dutch Christian Reformed community.

What does it mean? Well, to the degree a temple or church or mosque relies on ethnicity to thrive (whether this is acknowledged or not) it probably will, but only for a generation or two. The thing is, like sticky notes, ethnic glue is not strong and dependable for the long term. Many who belong to such ethnic communities will leave when the protection and support such communities provide is no longer needed. Their leaving will also demonstrate that the spiritual convictions that were supposed to be at the heart of these communities are not and were not nearly as compelling as the spiritual leaders, professors, and teachers thought they were. Most people belong to spiritual communities for reasons other than what those communities teach from their pulpits or podiums.

Don’t get me wrong. I now belong to a denomination that has been bleeding members for nearly as long as my previous denomination has been in this country. Deep-seated conviction about theological confessions of any kind is not much in favour anywhere these days, in almost any faith community—again, except among the professors and professionals.

I’m reading a just-published (fascinating, too) book by United Church historian Phyllis Airhart. She describes how in the face of massive foreign immigration into Canada of non-Protestant people over a hundred years ago, part of the motivation for the United Church’s founding was the idea that it would missionize these people in order to help the Canadian state build a unified Christian society. The book is titled, A Church with the Soul of a Nation. It turns out to have been a lofty Constantinian-type goal that was never achieved. But it goes to show, once more, that the intersection of faith and ethnicity—in this case fear of new immigrants and what they meant—has a long history.

At the same time, this real function of many churches—being a safe place for immigrants and their children and (hopefully, they think) their children’s children—this actual function reveals the hubris that most denominations display in teaching that their way is the best way. That sort of confessional bluster is just smoke and mirrors for the real reasons churches succeed, sometimes, for a while. Or, at the very least, this confessional bluster is just a small part of why some churches succeed for a short time.

So what? I’m not sure. I’m thinking that someone, somewhere, needs to think creatively about what is going on when churches say they’re all about their confession or teachings or dogma, but the truth is that they fill quite a different social function.

And, given that community and love of neighbour gets so much stress in scripture, maybe that is something that should be more openly and strongly embraced, while doctrine ought to be given the public place in churches that it actually has in our hearts.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Why Do Institutions Tie Us Up in Knots?

It happened again, this past week. I went to Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing. I was there to make a presentation with Christy Berghoef on how one goes about writing a spiritual memoir. We had fun. The seminar was well attended. People seemed to enjoy it.

Walking around campus afterward, however, I felt disquieted. I’m not sure I can pinpoint why. Maybe it was because I am very introverted. I don’t enjoy floating like a butterfly in a big crowd.

But some of my disquiet also had to do with my deep emotional attachment to Calvin College—and even more so, the Christian Reformed Church. Or rather, I should say my disquiet was rooted in no longer being attached to those institutions.

We all know the legal fiction that makes corporations—institutions like the church or its college or seminary—people. The law generally treats institutions as if they are persons. The law treats institutions as independent centers of will and action. They can earn profit, make donations, pay taxes, sue and be sued, and so on—even though they are not flesh and blood.

But there is actually more going on here than the necessary legal fiction. The truth is we often become deeply attached to institutions, just as we become attached to real people. Attachment to people is a basic human need. Adam needed a helper who could be a partner. Children are born pining for mothers. We need friends and community to thrive. And institutions, like people, can partly fulfill that need for attachment. Mostly through their human proxies, institutions love and nurture, accuse and forgive, embrace and reject. People are deeply affected by such actions and respond emotionally. Thus they often become deeply attached to their institutions.

Being back at Calvin disquieted me because it brought home with great emotional force the injury I’ve suffered by abandoning my lifelong attachment to the Christian Reformed Church.

The best analogy I can think of is a story that a former parishioner told me, years ago. This older person had been married for over thirty years but was abandoned by his wife. They divorced. They had no children. While married, they had also moved around a lot, often far from family and old friends, never putting down deep roots.

The parishioner told me that his thirty years of marriage now seemed, to him, a big black hole. There was no one to talk with, anymore, about those thirty years. No one could recall with him his mountaintop experiences or triumphs. No one would remember with him the pain or defeats that punctuated those years. Without anyone to speak to who was there those thirty years, it was almost as if they had never happened. “Sharing memories, good and bad, is how we process things,” this man said to me. “But I can’t process. It is as if someone imposed a press blackout on half my life. No one will ever know what happened.” He had become "unattached," as they say.

Now, I’m sure that leaving an institution behind isn’t as painful as leaving the one person you were daily and deeply attached to behind. Besides—I still have a spouse I’m happily married to, family is an important part of my life, and I’ve got many good friends of long-standing both inside and outside the Christian Reformed Church. Still, much of what I believed in and worked for in the Christian Reformed Church seems insubstantial now, thin and watery, like soup stock. Thinking back on it alone isn’t fulfilling. It makes the past thirty years seem, if not a great black hole, then at least a long excursus. An emotional loss.

Some readers will wonder, then, why I left. Why not—like a couple in crisis—get some counseling, work on the relationship, and repair what was going wrong? But here institutions are utterly unlike people. They cannot negotiate relational issues. Where people can engage in self-examination, change their habits or even their minds, confess sins and make promises to do better next time—institutions rarely do any of these things. When they try, only herculean and time-consuming effort will lead to change. There are, after all, bylaws to follow, creeds and confessions to uphold, and conflicting factions to balance and appease. I’m reminded of what a former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, wrote in his autobiography, Leaving Alexandria. “All institutions over-claim for themselves and end up believing more in their own existence than in the vision that propelled them into existence in the first place. This is particularly true of religious institutions. Religions may begin as vehicles of longing for mysteries beyond description, but they end up claiming exclusive descriptive rights to them” (p. 151).

My problem with the Christian Reformed Church—which I loved—is that I have changed my mind about those mysteries beyond description. And the church isn’t about to change its mind. The thing is, when potential change in a relationship can come only from one side, counseling and repair isn’t an option. The relationship is over.

Just so that no one misunderstands—I recognize that my new denomination, the United Church of Canada—is as hide-bound an institution as any other. This is especially true when it comes to its government and administration. The great difference, for me, is that the United Church is also institutionally committed to not “claiming exclusive rights” to any specific mystery, unless it is the mystery of loving neighbors (however imperfectly we actually succeed). Right now, the wide-open space my second church relationship allows me is also perfect for me.

But still, I was very sad at Calvin this past week. I’m reminded of something (a bit naughty) that my great-grandfather is reputed to have said, long after both of his wives had passed away. “When you remarry, you go to bed with your new wife. But you always sleep with your first love.”

Institution-wise, at least, I think I know what he meant.