Monday, August 05, 2013

Religions and the Ex-Believers Who Believe in Them

The mother of a friend of mine is a recovered Catholic. Actually, that's not true. One couldn't even honestly call her a recovering Catholic. Both terms would imply that some form of greater healing and reconciliation had taken place. Instead, the wound remains, on plain display in person or posted on a religiously updated Facebook page. She keeps hyper-vigilant watch over every significant act of the latest Pope. She delights when a Cardinal or a church official speaks with intolerance, proving once again that she was right to leave the church.

This person of whom I speak has such lingering animosity towards the church of Rome that she has even gone to the trouble to have her baptism and confirmation revoked. That takes some commitment and patience, especially when one recognizes that the church has its own plodding, methodical bureaucracy. She has become an Ex-Catholic, but keeps the same sort of zeal as an ardent believer. Her lasting hurt and feelings of betrayal have, with time, grown to a severe hatred. I am careful to use the term "hatred" lightly, but in this situation it could not be more appropriate.

The problem is that she is, even years later, far too emotionally invested with the Catholic Church. Her behavior mimics that of a bad breakup or a divorce, complete with smoldering, residual bitterness. I wonder if she realizes the power that the church still has over her if she is led to delight in every misstep or controversial remark. Of course, I'll never have this conversation with her, meaning that my analysis is somewhat limited, but I've seen enough to question whether twenty years' worth of holding a grudge is healthy.

In an 1957 sermon, preached when he was still minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the silent and not-so-silent toil hatred takes upon us.

There’s another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. We usually think of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates. You just begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things.
You can’t see straight when you hate. You can’t walk straight when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your vision is distorted. There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate. He comes to the point that he becomes a pathological case. For the person who hates, you can stand up and see a person and that person can be beautiful, and you will call them ugly.
For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does. You can’t see right. The symbol of objectivity is lost. Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.

I could well call myself an Ex-Unitarian, but I won't. Even when I left, that was a label I had no interest in pinning to me. The time I left that church roughly coincided with the time I developed an audience as a blogger. I wrote my online goodbyes in the form of an essay, and then started the process of getting over it. The first couple of years were the worst, mostly because I myself was emotionally invested and attempting not to be. These feelings eventually faded into the background and now, I don't think of them nearly as much as I once did. I'm happier now where I am.

Earlier last week, I had a slightly tense e-mail conversation with a Friend who defined herself as an Ex-Quaker. I was taken a little aback by this, not sure how to respond. My instant assumption was that her separation and mine had taken similar paths. I stopped attending Sunday worship service, no longer participated in the young adult programming, and canceled my subscription to both the church newsletter and the denominational monthly magazine. I wanted a clean break and I received it.

Hers was a different path altogether. She wanted to keep company with other Quakers, even if she no longer wore the Quaker label. She'd always been agnostic and, according to her, she no longer wanted to feel guilty about it. She'd sought to believe for a great long while, without success. And yet, even when feeling isolated and misunderstood she never cut ties completely. One might say she was still emotionally invested and unwilling to sever herself from a network of people.

People want to believe and to belong, although sometimes it has to be on their own terms alone. Quakerism tends to attract skeptics or at least those less inclined to disguise their authentic religious preferences and beliefs. Here it is difficult to know where theology begins and a person's inner religious life ends. Some people might be quite happy to take part in a proscribed existence where the search for individual truth is less elongated. Churchgoing people of every flavor have always had doubts.

I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where the Bible Belt is alive and well. The Baptist and Conservative Presbyterian kids I went to school with were obsessed with the notion of Salvation by Works. They had to be perfect and flawless on the outside. The inside work went on as well, but because these kids were trying diligently to look the part, they had little time left over for anything else. I feel sorry for them now and sympathize with their plight. I was not always so gracious.

We are sensitive creatures looking for community and validation by others. Memory is a component of the bond we form with other human beings. I'm sure every Ex-Catholic or Ex-Quaker or Ex-Unitarian holds within them the memory of good times. If what any person experienced was completely negative and damaging, then returning to the epicenter of pain would be a task fit only for a masochist. Blessed are the disappointed and the disillusioned, for they will find peace.

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