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“A new order shall arise . . .and every man shall be his own priest.”

Walt Whitman

 

Warning: This post will be about the subject of religion.

My topic today came out of the decision by my book club that each of us would read something that would help us understand ourselves. Browsing nonfiction shelves, I discovered Create Your Own Religion by Daniele Bolelli, which came out this year. Since I seem to have had this project underway for a long time, I thought Bolelli might tell me why. 

Actually, I kind of know why: an extraordinary number of unfortunate experiences with organized religion. Since I’m going to be writing more about Bolelli’s book, I thought I would begin by providing the context for my interest. 

I know many people who have found affiliation with a spiritual community a wonderful thing, and I respect that. However, neither of my parents was brought up that way; and although they arranged intermittent experiences with church and Sunday school, nothing took. 

The end for me may have begun pre-school when I joined siblings and other neighborhood children at Bible class with a woman a few doors down. She was crazy. Children know when someone is crazy, and I knew by her flyaway hair and the white spittle foaming at the corners of her mouth. Soon, she would become the agent of unjust punishment. 

I will digress here a moment to say a few words about my older sister, who stars in this anecdote. Ann is the beauty of the family and is renowned for balance and diplomacy. On Thursday she expressed concern that my spam filter had deleted her comment on my DNA post. In it she had made reference to “laying the groundwork for fascism” or something like that. I wanted you to know. When Ann speaks, everyone should listen. 

Unfortunately this was not true early on, and now back to the crazy Bible class teacher.  Ann and I were in our playhouse one day when we saw her hanging clothes on her line. Loud enough for the woman to hear, Ann hissed “You old witch!” 

The woman came flying down the street on her broom and confronted my mother. When she turned on us and demanded to know who had done this, Ann said it was me. For some reason I didn’t protest, and I got a spanking and went to bed crying. Ann must have confessed after a while, because my mother later woke me up with a plate of homemade, apology fudge. Ann was redeemed. 

Reading the Bible to Kate

 

Then there was the afternoon when I was reading to my younger sister, Kate, from an illustrated book of Bible stories. The critical moment came when I got to the part where God commanded Abraham to make of his son Isaac a burnt offering. I stopped cold and stared. “This can’t be right,” I said indignantly. My mother must have been watching this charming scene from the kitchen and cranked the window opened and called my name in a threatening voice. Hmm. I asked for a Bible for my ninth birthday. Maybe I planned to do some fact-checking.

My family went to church occasionally, and we often attended sunrise services on Easter, shivering in new clothes in an amphitheater on the side of the mountain in El Paso. I went to Methodist Sunday school with a friend a few times but was always uncomfortable, finding the whole thing rather odd. The experiment with Baptist Sunday school ended when we informed our parents that dancing was evil. Later I went to church camp with a Presbyterian friend in the Hill Country of Texas. I remember best the giant cockroaches in our rustic cabin. 

Then there was a Catholic experience. My brother and his friends ran around in a group called “the bicycle brigade,” but it was disrupted by Pope John XXIII. Of course this could have come from a local priest walking in error, but the word came down that Catholics were not to consort with non-Catholics. Two of my brother’s best buddies disappeared for all time. It was very odd and upsetting. 

In college I met with some religious substance in my all-time favorite class titled “Theology and Contemporary Literature.” There I also met the young Catholic I would later marry. I didn’t take catechism before that rushed event, since he was heading off toViet Nam. Soon we shared an experience that ended his involvement with the church for as long as I knew him. When a priest said during the sermon that anyone who was not Catholic was going to hell, my husband took me by the hand and we left, never to return. 

After that marriage ended, I did have a brief, pleasant experience with religion when I took the initiative to attend the First United Methodist Church in Houston because of its famous minister, the Reverend Charles L. Allen. His reputation was well deserved, not because he was constantly quoting the Bible but because he told these wonderful homilies that guided people in how to live. When he retired, his placement swiftly extinguished my interest, and that was terminal. I have never been back. 

Years later, I would be introduced to the shadow side of Christian fundamentalism. There was a moment in a marriage ceremony I attended when the minister commanded the bride always to be “submissive” to her husband. I knew personally that the requirement had long ago established a tradition of incestuous behavior in one branch of her family, the guilty protected by scripture. I am sure more innocents will suffer. 

The most religious member of my own family was my Great Aunt Lura. The daughter of a Methodist minister, she once told me that I would never be a truly educated person until I had read the Bible. So years after she died, I undertook that task with the help of an annotated teaching aid. 

The author of the book I am about to read comments in the early pages that, although many people lean heavily on their understanding of the Bible’s teachings, few have read it cover to cover. I believe it. As I plowed through the Old Testament, night after night, month after month, I kept thinking, “Does everyone know what’s in here?”

I was often appalled and wondered why the Christians pursuing censorship in American fiction don’t do a bit of work on the Bible. There are things in there no young person should see. Instead of finding my study illuminating and inspiring, it made me feel depressed and discouraged. I began to dread the daily reading, and about eight months into the project, I quit. 

My eyes then turned simply to observing the world I live in and the divisive role that organized religion plays in it. And then there are the illusions Americans cultivate. Some of the fundamental guidance in the Bible is wonderful, or would be if we followed it. For example, it is clear that the only neighbor that many Christians could love is the person of the same color sitting in the same pew. And although we like that idea of turning the other cheek, we invest more than $800 billion dollars a year in “defense” spending that says very clearly, “It ain’t going to happen.” We are also more skillful than any country in the world in teaching people how to do that “Thou-shalt-not” thing. 

I guess it was my beloved dog, Cassie, who provided me with the opportunity on our walks in nature to develop a form of spirituality that serves me well. I’m not the only one. Native American spirituality was developed through acute attention to the natural world. According to Bolelli, the Taoists also believe that true religion begins with the study of nature. Such could lead humanity to preserve as much of it as possible, which would be very, very good. 

So there is the background of my own interest in this unusual book. The author speaks of it as “an invitation to question all the values, all the beliefs, all the worldviews that humanity has so far held sacred in order to find the answers we need to the very practical problems facing us.” He hopes Walt Whitman’s prediction is correct: “A new order shall arise . . .and every man shall be his own priest.” I think this is going to be very interesting, and I will share some of what I learn.

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