Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Church of Conformity

In the lobby during the intermission at classical music concerts, I almost never overhear conversations about the music or the performance. Indeed, observing such audiences mummified in their evening dress, with their vacant stares, suggests a certain shallowness of middle class interest in culture. The concert is more of an occasion to dress up and be seen, a sort of of class ritual. This isn’t very fruitful an insight, except that I immediately drew a parallel with going to church.

I like to think that I’m far from alone in remembering feelings of oppression and bewilderment when I was made to go to church as a kid. Five days of the week I was forced to sit at a desk in a school, enduring a great deal of boredom for the sake of very little actual learning. The weekend should have been a break, but on Sunday mornings I was dressed up in a suit and tie (hot and uncomfortable) and taken to church. “Sunday school” was not school in any meaningful sense. The little we were “taught” made no sense; mostly we were just baby-sat. As for church itself, if anyone remembers sitting on wooden pews, standing and singing horrid and incomprehensible songs, and listening to the pretentious babbling of a bore in a black gown as a pleasurable experience, I would like to meet him.

I always assumed that the church experience was meant to signify religious truth in some way. Being a precocious child, I set to work reading the Bible, and although I was often confused and disturbed—especially by the Old Testament—I sensed the titanic nature of the text, the assumption of overwhelming importance and gravity in almost every line. Subconsciously I felt a great distance between the goings-on in church and the world view of the holy book. Sunday service was quite patently mediocre and petty, even to a young mind, whereas the Bible had a huge, looming, dramatic presence that quite dwarfed anything ever said or sung in church.

Only much later in life did I see, in a way that the analogy with the classical music concertgoer makes vivid, that church was not experienced as significant in religious terms, but as a social event with a purely social meaning. Going to church meant that you were an upstanding, normal member of society. It signified one’s status as a conforming member of an acceptable group. It also reassured parents that their kids would continue in the path of normality. The “values” assumed under the rubric of religion were primarily general cultural values, such as obedience to authority, sexual restraint, and (to some degree) helping behavior. They were only religious in the most abstract sense. And to continue the analogy with the concertgoers, I never heard parishioners discussing religion on the steps after service. I got the feeling that it would have been considered embarrassing to do so.

I’m sure there were, and are, exceptions, but I think the exceptions prove the rule. My experience was with mainstream Protestantism. I didn’t notice much difference when I talked to my Catholic friends. I’m not sure how different it might be in the Jewish traditions. I suspect that it’s fairly universal, though, simply because the true religious impulse is not a common one. The idea that it could become common, that devotion to God, spiritual fervor of one sort or another, could become the status quo, has proven illusory. Most people just want to live their lives in reasonable comfort without bothering about the “big questions.” This has always been acknowledged at some level—in the ancient pagan traditions there were regular worshippers and initiates; in the Catholic Church the monastic orders were set apart from the laity, and so on. It’s only that the gradual advance of reason and science has made the forms of organized religions seem increasingly irrelevant to the real needs people have for social cohesion.

Fundamentalist Christianity was in many respects a “non-conformist” movement in the sense that it decried the lack of passion in the church, the lack of religious meaning in the church service. The fundamentalists brought enthusiasm back into the service for white Christians. (The black church is an entirely different matter—social and political conditions channeled spiritual passion there.) The Pentecostals and their like defied the upper middle class decorum of the mainstream churches, and in that respect seem like more of a lower middle class or sometimes even a working class phenomenon. On closer inspection, however, we find that fundamentalists are still wedded to a vision of social conformity, and that their religious doctrines follow from that vision rather than the other way around. There is a sense of great anxiety about liberal social change. The intense anger around feminism, abortion, and gay rights, for instance, is not centered on religious passion, although they think it is. The Bible has simply become the authority figure which absolves the worshiper of reason and responsibility—the written “word of God,” because it is does not require anything except obedience, is a handy tool for conformity to the social norm. For all their sound and fury, the fundamentalists do not mark a significant change in church culture. All they did was give it a sharpened political edge that isolated church members within their group through a shared sense of threat from secular forces outside. But when it comes to secularism, they pick and choose what to accept and reject—embracing the social Darwinism of predatory capital while fighting against scientific Darwinism because it threatens the centrality of man in the cosmic narrative.

I believe that all the stages of culture are present in any current stage. Children will always be pagans, and it is folly to bind them in suits and take them to church, and nothing less than cruel to deny them fairy tales, Halloween, and Harry Potter. For adults, however, I think that the church experience is becoming useless at best and harmful at worst. I have no idea what more healthy forms of social cohesion are going to look like, except that they will have to foster and reflect a more humane social order.


Mike Goldman said...

They call themselves Christians but they quote mainly from the Old Testament, Book of Leviticus, and they forget all of the teachings of Jesus. I look at the Sermon on the Mount, and I do not recognize them.

Liberality said...

Very thoughtful post Dashiell. I enjoyed reading it.

Rich said...

Hi Chris,
I collect the personal narratives people write about their experience with religion. Mostly I try to find apostates in an effort to understand what convinced them to leave. My preliminary conclusion is that when children leave home they are finally free of parental domination and they start to look closely at their faith. Many who were tightly sheltered discover the real world for the first time. They then report doing a close reading of the bible and studying the history of religion. That is enough to convince many of them to leave, but a good number just drift into another religious trap. They don't usually swing all the way over to atheism or even agnosticism. That takes considerable time and study.

Your feelings of oppression and grief at the loss of your childhood is not uncommon.