Monday, February 21, 2011

I wrote a letter to the bishop

No, not the Mormon bishop. I’ve been attending an Episcopal church for the last several months. The congregation there is in a time of transition. There have been some changes in staff and clergy and discussion about the future. Meetings were held, inviting feedback from parishioners on the direction they should take and how they might reach out to more people in the community. Music was a forefront topic of disagreement between those who prefer a traditional service and those who prefer something more contemporary. I decided to share my perspective with the bishop there and wrote him a letter in December:
Dear Bishop,

I am relatively new here. I have attended both town hall meetings regarding the future of the cathedral and would like to share some of my thoughts about why I attend services here. 

I recall at the first town hall meeting you mentioned wanting to know what it meant when people call themselves spiritual but not religious. A gentleman sitting near me somewhat scoffingly said, “It doesn’t mean anything.” While I can’t speak for all who define themselves this way, my own perspective is that I am part of a growing number of people who are longing for a dimension of the divine and sacred in our lives, but are turned off by organized religion because our experience with it has been authoritarian and dogmatic.

I was raised as a Mormon. I grew up in a tiny town on the Arizona Strip. I am the sixth of eleven children. My parents now live in Utah and are still very devout, believing and practicing Mormons. I have been through some incredibly destructive experiences in the name of religion, at the hands of an organization that I loved and had devoted my life to, and that I sincerely believed spoke for God. After hurt, betrayal, anger, then a brief return to Mormonism that made it clear to me that the LDS Church was not the One True Church that it claims to be, I decided I no longer wanted to be Mormon, and I left for good five years ago. 

But I never wanted to give up religion altogether, only to find a way to be religious that I felt authentically matched my heart, and that didn’t crush my spirit.

I grew up in a tradition that claimed to be the absolute truth, where belief is paramount to all else, and intellectual dissent can be grounds for excommunication. After I left I attended various Protestant churches and read C.S. Lewis. I read books about the sacred feminine and about Eastern traditions, but none of it felt quite right. Every tradition that I dabbled in had good things to offer, but none were anything that I could believe in fully the way I wanted to. 

I came across The God Delusion about a year and a half ago and found myself nodding along as Dawkins delineated so many conclusions that I had already come to on my own. I decided that more than likely, God and religion were both inventions of humankind, and if they weren’t “real,” what was their value? Furthermore, I could see the damage done by misguided beliefs in the world at large and in my own life. I have been an honest atheist. I have been anti-religious, and I believe it was helpful for me to allow myself to be angry about all the ways my past experiences with religion have harmed me, but after a few months, I was bored with that. I missed mystery. I missed experiences of sacredness and holiness that I knew I’d had, and my conclusion that these experiences probably had some tidy scientific explanation didn’t diminish my longing for them. I missed striving to be a better person that had been part of my practice of religion. Atheism made perfect logical sense, but it lacked the emotional map for my life that I was craving and I couldn’t find a secular equivalent that filled that void.

But I was skeptical about finding a religious community where I could belong, and I don’t mean socially. I’m quite introverted and am not one to fret much if no one says hi to me. I was worried about finding a place where my beliefs--and lack thereof--wouldn’t be threatened or threatening. I had a friend who said, “Try the Episcopalians.” So I’ve been coming. To be completely honest, I am still incredibly skeptical about how factual the claims of Christianity are, but I don’t think something necessarily has to be factual to be true, if that makes sense, and I perceive deeper truths in the teachings of Christianity. Perhaps I shouldn’t take communion, though I’ve been baptized twice and I love the teachings of Jesus, because I don’t think I’m all that Christian in my personal beliefs (I’m not really comfortable saying the Nicene Creed, for example). But with all my heart I love Christ as a figure of love, peace, healing and hope, and my soul responds to the symbolism of taking His body into mine, of an old self being washed clean in His blood and a new self that is more like Him being born. How beautiful to participate in that ritual of death and renewal every week.

The second town hall meeting was somewhat heated and some might look on that as a bad thing. I personally was thrilled to see a community where you can even have conversations like that. Where I came from, everything was decided by the (all male) priesthood, and their word was final. It came down out of Salt Lake City what music was allowed in church services, which instruments were appropriate for worship. I can tell you for certain, you would never see the likes of a guitar or a tambourine in a Mormon service. There was one Right Way, not just for music, but for just about every detail imaginable, and if you didn’t like it, it meant you were rebelling against God and needed to be more humble. 

I don’t know if you Episcopalians realize how good you have it to belong to a community where you are allowed to disagree and think for yourself, and where your personal life stays personal.

I completely understand and sympathize with the position of atheism. I don’t want anyone thinking I believe in the God I believed in as a child, but I’m not sure I can honestly define myself as an atheist anymore. I’m not sure who or what I think God might be, and I’m not convinced that any God exists outside the human imagination, but if my goal is to change myself, I think that’s the perfect place to engage with Divinity. My views on religion now are that it’s less about believing and more about doing. There is plenty in the music and liturgy at the cathedral for a seeking heart and mind to latch onto, to unearth the deeper truths that can change a person from within. I am not in a place where I want to officially join a church, but there is a peaceful and loving spirit at the cathedral that is good for my soul to be a part of, and so I come. I am grateful to have found the cathedral, and I pray that the doors stay open.


Leah Elliott

The bishop’s reply was kind. He called my letter a blessing and said he thought God was working in my life. Well, maybe, maybe not, but I thought it was refreshing that he didn’t tell me that my doubt was the influence of Satan and I needed to pray it away. I gave him permission to share the letter with board members or others that might find it helpful. Several of them have thanked me for sharing my views. No one has treated me like a scourge for not believing as they do.
Some of this is hard to share on my blog, since I started this blog as a staunch atheist, but I don’t know how to not be honest. I’ve tried to respect other people’s right to define themselves by whatever labels feel right for them, and not to tell any self-defining agnostics that they’re really atheists, or vice versa. I know plenty of atheists who consider themselves spiritual people, but the label “atheist” doesn’t feel authentic for me anymore. I’m not sure “agnostic” is right either. Perhaps “non-literal theist”? All I know is that I feel things when I engage in religious practice, things that I’m sure are psychologically and scientifically explainable, but things that also make me feel more like myself.
I like the path that I’m on, and I’m looking forward to watching this story unfold.


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