On my way to the grocery store I pass two churches. The first is a Lutheran church, an open and affirming one. I visited it last year, and while I thought highly of it, I couldn’t sit through an entire service. These days I barely notice the large brick building with its stained glass and preschool playground. Until it hosts the farmers’ market in its parking lot. Then I am there weekly, even if I bypass its front doors and sanctuary.
The other church is much larger (churches here seem to be large compounds, in general). It’s got a huge Christian school attached. Lately this church has been getting a new roof put on, so I have been noticing it more than usual. What’s interesting to me is that I get…… flashes of memory as I pass it. Phantom feelings. Misplaced muscle memory.
When I pass this second church I remember being a Christian in college. There is no specific associated memory, just a remembrance of what it was like to be a Christian in Washington state in the 90s. I remember the way these churches view the world and interact with it. I remember the way everything is ordered, everyone has a place, both in the church and in the world. I remember the unspoken gender norms. I remember how ordered the world seemed and how everything had neat boxes and a rather simplistic theology to explain it. I remember the plaid shirts, the goatees, the bible studies and fellowship groups. Judging by the people I’ve seen enter the building and by the website, nothing seems to have changed. Well, now there are wireless mics and power point, rather than an overhead projectors.
Sometimes I think it would be so easy to slip back into that way of being in the world. We’d have automatic community and make friends right away. The kids would have activity groups. Our Sundays would have focus. I’d easily find a musical outlet, what with praise bands and worships groups. More importantly, attending evangelical church would make sense of modern American living.
One of the things I’ve found is that modern American living (commuting, box stores, overconsumption, CAFOs, gas guzzlers, social conservatism, Calvinistic social ‘darwinism,’ heteronormative gender hoo ha, etc) is really difficult to reconcile with Pagan values. But mainstream American Christianity fits right into it. They are peas in a pod.
I’m a Big Umbrella Pagan. By that I mean, I want as many disparate groups to identify as Pagan. I want that term to include Heathens, witches, Wiccans, Ceremonial Magicians, reconstructionists of various stripes, Druids, neo-Pagans, polytheists, Voudousaints, and others. Not all Pagan faiths are based on earth reverence. Not all of the values espoused in one group are endorsed by others. But I find that I have more in common at heart with most Pagan groups than I do with mainstream Christianity, even though my family superficially appears more similar to the latter than the former.
Christianity has at its core an idea that humanity/our souls/ Christians (take your pick based on your theology) are ‘not of this world,’ that we belong in Heaven. Not all Christianity thinks this world is evil or tainted. Some say it’s just humanity, but some say that everything is. This idea creates a world where you’re either a Christian or you’re not. You’re either with them or against them. The world is fine in the here and now, but in the Last Days it will be destroyed anyway (so don’t go getting all worked up about environmentalism) and Yahweh will create a new world. Plenty of other traditions also view the world/matter/humanity as a problematic and something from which to detach.
Yet Christianity is at home in this world. In the US Christianity is the norm. Its values pervade government and morality. Christian culture is everywhere. When I was in college pastors talked a lot about how the Pacific North West was the most ‘unchurched’ region in the US. I am pretty sure it still is. But if this is unchurched, well, I’d hate to see how many churches are in a ‘normal’ town. But for some one raised without religion at all, I feel like churches are everywhere here!
Most of Paganism embraces the world, but is at odds with the overculture. Most Pagans have a different set of values – or the same things are valued but for different reasons. While family, worship, devotion, and service (things Christians hold dear too!) may be honored, they may be expressed in entirely different ways or for different reasons. I find that most of the values of Paganism don’t sit well with mainstream, overculture values. At least, my values don’t.
I think how much easier it could be to sink into a ‘normal’ mainstream way of being if I’d go back to Christian life. I’d have more in common with my extended family. I could get involved, have leadership positions, a social network, a more obviously ‘god-driven’ life. But I know full well how miserable I’d be. I remember chaffing at the expectations. The tedious ‘god language’ and Father God prayers (“Father God…. I just…. I just want to thank you for just raining down your blessings…”). The bad theology. The confusion of culture with religion and vice versa.
I can’t do it. The same muscle memory that remembers what those churches feel like – in all their goodness, and there was good – also remembers just how unhappy my soul was. I remember how hard it was to find God there. I remember the cognitive dissonance. I remember I didn’t fit in.
[There is actually an entire Christian brand called NOTW, not of this world. I tried to upload an image of its logo and it kept displaying ERROR. I'll take that as a sign.]