Self-Excavation Tour 2007: The Elephant in the Room

Originally posted 8/29/07. Three years ago, I couldn’t talk about my religious life. I mean, literally, I couldn’t. I’d try to open my mouth, and a lot of times I wouldn’t even be able to get words out.

We didn’t really talk about religion in the first person when I was a kid. What I knew was that my dad was a flaming atheist. He left home at fifteen or sixteen, heading off to college without graduating from high school, in order to get away from his father, who was a Methodist minister. Mom said he didn’t like the role of preacher’s kid, but the older I got, the more I suspected that it was more complicated than that. So while I was in Detroit in July, I screwed up my pluck and asked my dad’s sister what religion was like in their house growing up.

Aunt Joyce’s answer told me something more about what makes religion complicated in our family, but just as interestingly, it turns out to be part of another puzzle that I hadn’t realized I was still missing pieces for, the one about why I have trouble talking comfortably about religion and why I needed pluck in the first place.

I.  I grew up a smug atheist. I remember that in seventh grade I wrote a science fiction story about psychically linked twin sisters who worked as spies and hated each other. One was religious and the other wasn’t. The Mary Sue character—the one who went into all the dangerous situations while her sister stayed behind to relay information back and forth–thought that her sister’s religiosity was just a crutch because she was too weak to face reality, ala Freud. There was also something about how all the weaklings who needed religion had been segregated onto their own planet away from everyone else. Yeah. Now I’m sure that whatever my dad thought must’ve been more sophisticated than that, because I had some pretty good philosophical conversations with him by the time I was in eleventh and twelfth grade. On the other hand, I’m also pretty sure that my contempt for religion must’ve had something to do with him at some point.

Nevertheless, we spent a lot of time at church, because even as a Unitarian Universalist, my mom still went to church like a good Catholic. By dint of sheer competence at everything but saying no, she almost accidentally took over the church’s main fundraiser and became the “interim” supervisor of its religious education program. We were always stopping by church to set things up, drop things off, copy things, you know.

Thing is, in our church people didn’t talk about their own religion, either. In effect, they taught us that spirituality was a safari for us brains on sticks. You gawked at the inspiring majesty of other people’s religions and then mounted them on your wall. Meanwhile we congratulated ourselves for thinking deeply on Sunday mornings and defined ourselves by whatever dogmas we’d escaped. Eventually I started to feel like they’d taught me to feel hungry but not how to eat. Of course, even if you know what would feed you, it’s hard to eat when you can’t open your mouth.

When I first got internet access in my last two years of high school, I frequented the Theological Questions chat room on AOL with the same ardor that many of my contemporaries must’ve had for talking about sex, then became co-moderator of its mailing list spin-off. In college, I took all the anthropology classes about religion and sat in on maybe a dozen more classes on topics like Jewish mysticism or sixteenth century Protestant spirituality. I played faithful Christians in roleplaying games and fell in love with Chicago as we learned or made up bits of the city’s occult backstory. Then I left to go to grad school in Religious Studies.

My major sticking point was belief. I was completely embarrassed by the thought that someone might suppose I believed something. A couple years ago, after I had finally become a practicing pagan, I wrote in my journal, “Thinking that people are going to be surprised and think I’m stupid if I declare an interest in religion is silly. I am a religious studies grad student. People know that I am interested in religion.”  You can see, as could I, that my worry about whether I was being credulous and irrational was more a concern about how I imagined my social identity than how I imagined the universe.

But I know who I am as a scholar, and as a scholar, I’d rather look at the implications and patterns of people’s religious lives than go searching for some objective truth behind them. Likewise, I’d rather treat people as authorities about their own experiences than constantly question whether their lived experience adequately fits someone else’s model of the world. Eventually I got it through my head to apply that to myself, too.

I figure that if I spend long enough pretending that I can talk comfortably about my religious life and that I’m not tossing around lit dynamite, eventually the damn dynamite will stop exploding. I still dodge the question of what I believe, but that’s because I gave up on that question as toxic and unhelpful to me, and as relying on a poorly defined concept full of assumptions I don’t like. Fortunately paganism isn’t premised on belief quite the way Protestantism tends to be, and so, oddly enough, paganism has also made Christianity more accessible to me.

II. Despite the volatile nature of religion, I thought that I’d gotten over everything but the awkwardness in talking about it. But now that I’m paying attention again, I’ve noticed at least three times in the last month when this sense of shame has stopped me from doing things I wanted to do or having conversations I wanted to have. So, dammit, still a problem.

And maybe part of the reason it’s still a problem is because there are more reasons than my atheist background why religion is hard for me to talk about. When we visited my mom’s family, we — except for my dad — pretended to be Catholic. We hadn’t been Catholics since I was five, but my mom was afraid her father’d never speak to us again if he found out. We kids kept getting older and never made our first communions, but even if everyone secretly knew we’d left the Church, that didn’t make it any less dangerous to talk about. Clearly some of the Catholic stuck with me, though, because sometime in college I noticed that I had a whole genre of wish-fulfillment dreams about the Eucharist.

Now, I mentioned in the last entry that my aunt and uncle on my dad’s side were medical missionaries, so you might think that they’d also be prone to making people feel awkward with their religious talk. Nope. They’re not that kind of missionary.

Since the late nineteenth century, liberal Protestant missionaries from the US have been increasingly aware that members of other religions aren’t really benighted devil-worshippers, and so they became less interested in converting people outright and more interested in humanitarian missions, spreading Western civilization, and showing God’s love for the world. Besides, citing the number of sick people treated or the number of students educated was more satisfying and better for fundraising than pointing to chronically piddling numbers of converts.  However, by the time my relatives went to Nigeria, humanitarian missionary work was less about being “a moral equivalent to imperialism” and more concerned with cultural sensitivity. In terms of logistics, they’d work for Nigerian state hospitals and the public health department, but their salaries went back to the mission.

But most of what I think I know about religion on the Methodist side of my family is book-learning and conjecture, which is to say I’ve managed to find out virtually nothing about their personal religiosity, even when I’ve asked questions where that would’ve been an appropriate response. But oddly enough, you know that they are Christians by their love, just like the song. Case in point: a lot of Aunt Joyce’s stories follow a narrative structure wherein someone acting wrongly / stupidly learns better and is redeemed. You can tell she dislikes speaking ill of others, so as soon as she starts talking about how screwed up a particular situation was, you suspect that you’ve stumbled into a story about redemption on one scale or another. Another awesome thing about Aunt Joyce is that she regularly gets dramatic tension out of this structure.

So I asked about religion in their family when she was a kid, and what I found out is that they didn’t discuss religion much with their father. “Oh,” I said, “So he discussed it at you rather than with you?” No. They heard his sermons, sure, but they didn’t talk about them. If anyone disagreed with him, he didn’t really want to know — but once he suspected, he had a way of worming things out of you. They disagreed about the Civil Rights movement, and whether or not “those people” should stay home and mind their own business. But, Aunt Joyce was quick to add, he changed a lot in later years and she was proud of him.

So the redemptive ending there was simply time, but it’s funny, that doesn’t make it any less real. My grandpa was a warm, kind man with a lively sense of humor. His thick white hair was cut very short, which I think was a relic of his time as an Army chaplain during and after World War II. Maybe it could’ve seemed austere at one point, but it was the softest hair any of us had ever felt. My brother and sister and I all called him fuzzy-head grandpa. Loved puns, read Roald Dahl to us, jet-skied at 80, and was always eating peanuts.

From things my mom’s said, my dad’s father was a domineering man, an untreated manic depressive and not very good to live with. But when I hear people talk about what he was like, I never think they’re talking about the same person as my grandpa. Partly it’s because there’s no rancor in their voices, as if they were reporting the goings-on of other people, nor did I ever see my dad behave uncivilly toward his father. I don’t know if forgiveness came easy or hard or how it happened, but I believe it did. Except that’s conjecture, and we still don’t talk about religion.

So I told my aunt and uncle one of my hypotheses about Grandpa Bottoms: When I was a kid, I’d heard from my mom that he really didn’t like to spend money. But then I grew up and went off to college and learned about religion. I read in Weber and elsewhere that John Wesley (Methodism’s founder) had encouraged Christians “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Wait, I said — he wasn’t pathologically stingy, he was just a Methodist!

I’m willing to bet that his unwillingness to spend money was inseparably both pathological and religious, and probably some other things besides. But my folks seemed to enjoy the story anyway. As they should, since I’d swear that the impulse behind it fits Aunt Joyce’s ethos — but then my uncle broke in and noted that sometimes Grandpa would get it into his head that he wanted something, and then he’d just buy it, even if something he didn’t need, like a new car.

So what I found out was that the relationship between my grandfather and his kids was even more fraught than I’d realized, and that even his children who remained devout Methodists weren’t exactly following his lead. I have two reactions to that: first, it makes me wonder about other people in the family who may have been better role models than Fuzzy-head Grandpa was, and secondly, I can’t help but admire my aunt even more than I did before. I also found out that my dad’s mother’s brother was a Baptist missionary to the Cherokees. That’s not surprising at all, since these things tend to run in families.

I found out that their arguments and the words they swallowed are still stuck in my throat. And I’m still stalking the elephant in the room.

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