It is 2004, and I am sitting in a pew at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Jonesboro with my good friend Jeanne. She had been raised evangelical — her father was even a pastor — but though she loved the church, it refused to love her back because she was a lesbian. Despite the rejection, however, Jeanne always entertained the hope that she might find Christian acceptance somewhere, and so that week I invited her to join me at Sunday mass. Blessed Sacrament had a few more intellectual types than most churches in Jonesboro, I told her. Sermons tended not to be so political, I told her. But while we sit there, the deacon who is presiding, a man who also serves as a professor of political science at Arkansas State University, launches into a homily about the propriety of the Church’s understanding of family and its stance against homosexual relationships. That man makes a liar of me, and as he keeps speaking, I become angrier and angrier, my jaw clenched so tightly that I can no longer recite the congregation’s portion of the liturgy or sing along to the hymns. I do not even risk going up for communion. As we walk out of the church at the end of mass, all I can say to Jeanne is: “I am so sorry.” And in a still, quiet voice that I had never heard issue from this strong-willed woman, she replies:
“It’s okay, Guy. I’m used to it.”
It is 2006, and I am living in North Little Rock now. The move to Central Arkansas made it easier to avoid that Sunday obligation to attend mass, but I am still not free of the occasional desire to sit in a church and attempt to feel myself part of something bigger, something mystical, something that transcends this world. And on this morning in 2006, I’m needing a bit of transcendence. My mother called the night before to tell me that Kris, my little brother, is being shipped off to Iraq. Now, Kris and I never really got along growing up, and I thought he was crazy to join the Marine Corps in the middle of a war, and I thought the war itself immoral and misguided. But I do not know how to react to the thought of him being sent into a hot, hot warzone. Moments of confusion like that leave one longing for a little bit of certainty, and so I find my way that morning to St. Patrick’s just a short drive away. I have been there a few times before and never found the experience comfortable, but this morning I am going to make an effort. I go through all the motions and settle myself for the homily, and then the priest mentions the upcoming midterm election and how it is necessary to stand for Catholic social teaching with our votes, and right now, the most important issue before the electorate is not the war or torture or health care, but instead: artificial contraception.
I leave in the middle of the next hymn and never step foot into a Roman Catholic church again.
Occasionally, I found myself feeling wistful for that old sense of mysticism, for the overwhelming odor of incense at Holy Thursday (always my favorite service), for the reverence reflected in my favorite authors at the time, the likes of G. K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Endō Shūsaku, Graham Greene, and others. But time and effort finally put to rest that longing. The experience was rather like quitting smoking, actually. I was never a smoker, per se, but certain situations always felt better with a cigarette, such as sitting on the porch with a beer or driving down a long, isolated highway, and especially if a friend offered, who was I to say no? But then I took up running, and if I had a cigarette the night before, the next morning’s run would feel like my very first ever, with my lungs struggling for oxygen and my head swimming with nausea. So when I next wanted a cigarette, I would remind myself of that sick and weak feeling, and soon the craving dissipated. Likewise, when I started feeling the pull of the nostalgia of faith, I would remember those soft and pitiful words spoken by my friend Jeanne as we left mass that day. Jeanne, a woman whom I had once seen, despite her not even reaching five feet in height, place herself between an armed man and the ex-girlfriend he was chasing and driving him off with nothing more than her words. I would remember her eyes downcast and her spirit broken yet again, and soon the yearning would disappear.
Just like a smoker, too, I did, in those years after walking away from St. Patrick’s, briefly experiment with certain substitutes when the craving of faith would strike hard. I visited with the Episcopalians and the Unitarians and was even briefly a member of a local Ecumenical Catholic congregation. In all those places I found good people striving to do good in the world, working to understand the universe in all its chaos and glory. But the substitutions never worked, and it took me many years to understand why, to understand that the problem was not the flavor of faith but the nature of faith itself, that to indulge in faith of any kind is to invite a clash with conscience and reason.
As the Canadian scholar Yves Gingras writes, “While adhesion to a religion is an individual and private act, reason is public and accessible to all normally constituted human beings. In this sense, reason is universal and democratic, while faith is private and autocratic.” We all have access to the tools needed to interrogate this material world, but what can you say to the man or institution who insist that they alone are the recipient of divine truths? We cannot interrogate these claims, only take them as either gospel or lies. Private revelation is the very antithesis of politics — which, as the Greek root word, polis, indicates, deals with the public sphere.
So although good people may abound in the various denominations, and not all of them are averse to the uncomfortable realities that confront us in this material life, I decided that I would no longer commit to principles that could not ultimately be tested. While biologist Stephen J. Gould spoke of science and religion constituting “non-overlapping magisteria,” I found more accurate the views of Jerry A. Coyne, who regards them science and religion as making competing, not complementary, claims; but the claims staked out by religion have regularly proven inadequate, with history providing ample evidence of “the failure of religion to find truth about anything — be it gods themselves or more worldly matters like the cause of disease.” The methods advanced by religion have not been able to sort out even the most basic debates about the alleged divine: Is there one god or many, is god triune or unitary, does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father and the Son or just the Father? These theological debates remain, and despite millennia of interrogation, they are no closer to resolution.
This is where my thinking led me, not only away from the Catholic Church, but eventually away from religion all together. Is my own experience unique? Apparently not, for a recent survey shows that membership in a church (synagogue, mosque, etc.) is now below the 50% mark for the first time in the eight decades that Gallup has been recording this information. Talking to The Guardian, political scientist David Campbell described the decline as being driven by “an allergic reaction to the religious right,” adding that “Many Americans — especially young people — see religion as bound up with political conservatism, and the Republican party specifically.”
It’s a reliable thesis. After all, I did not arrive at this point on my own. I got here because I brought an outcast friend of mine to church only to see her cast out yet again. I got here because I went to mass hoping the father behind the altar would give me the bread of comfort, and instead he handed me a stone to cast at the enemies of the Church.
These days, if I remember that most people are in church on those Sunday mornings when I’m driving out to Burns Park or Rattlesnake Ridge, it’s only because the roads are so pleasantly clear. I do not feel the faintest longing to join those churchgoers myself — no more than I have any desire to light up one of those Pall Mall unfiltereds I insisted on choking down. I am working to be a healthy person with healthy habits.
Not so our political representatives, however. The whole world has taken notice recently of the Arkansas state legislature’s endless harassment of transgender folk, its denigration of women, and its embrace of the cretinous legacies of the Confederacy and creationism, both of which were discredited back in the 19th century. And all of this is being carried out in defense of tradition and faith. Even if David Campbell is right, and all of this will ultimately serve to seed secularism in our state, bringing with it potential to reverse the sorts of fear-fueled policies Arkansas lawmakers have signed into law this session, it is still not worth the evil these bills will engender in the meantime, for they will hurt people, and maybe even kill some. However, the bill will eventually come due for these houses of worship and all those who have mortgaged their powers of reason and sense of social responsibility to a faith that is nothing more than political posturing rendered in rhyme for the church hymnal. As Albert Camus wrote, “Do not wait for the Last Judgment. It takes place every day.” It takes place every day when grown children don’t come back for Sunday worship. It takes place every time someone adds a little extra volume to the chorus of “How Great Thou Art” to make up for those missing, for the empty spots and now emptier pews. It takes place every time the faithful pray that this new preacher or this well-paid revivalist might turn things around, only to fail yet again.
It takes place whenever a Christian man breathes his last, knowing that the faith of his fathers is not the faith of his sons. For the Last Judgment has always been the judgment of those who come after us.
Our leaders, this generation of vipers, have bequeathed unto us pain and misery aplenty, just because they are so terrified by the change forever going on in this world. It well may take decades to undo the damage they have wrought. But these petrified people have completely failed to notice that they were building their temples to the past not on rock but on sinking sand.
And the rain is coming down.
The flood is coming.
And the wind is blowing.