|Does he, though?|
One reason I moved to Lawrence in 2000 -- aside from the newspaper job -- is that I already knew of a lefty Mennonite church in town that I had come to adore. For the first few years I lived here, the congregation was my home. By that time, my late 20s, I had come to define my Christianity as a sort of language: I didn't think it was necessarily the only right language, but it was the language I knew and had grown up in, so it was the language I would use. The congregation was a place where I could be open about that, and it was ok. And the community was terriffic - the most meaningful of my life. Church-goers were my mentors, my friends, the people I watched movies with and drank with and, once or twice, even tried to date. (Unsuccessfully.) I may never find that again, and that hurts.
After 9/11, though, even my loose definition of faith began to feel implausible. Everywhere I looked, it seemed, people were doing terrible things in the name of whatever religious language they possessed. Hindus and Muslims killed each other in India. They didn't ostensibly share my religion, but Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson did, and they blamed the terror attacks on "abortionists, feminists and gays." I didn't want to share the identity of "Christian" with them. Around the same time, my own congregation went through a process that resulted in our welcoming, for the first time, gay and lesbian people into membership -- a necessary and good journey, one that I advocated, but also draining. I didn't want to have to fight over whether the love of my gay friends was somehow legitimate or not. Over time, I began to think that if God condemned those genuine and loving relationships -- as so many of my fellow Christians fiercely believed -- that maybe I couldn't be cool with God. One Sunday morning, singing hymns, I realized that I could not honestly sing or speak the words in front of me. Mark Twain was right. You can't pray a lie.
John Updike is nowhere near my favorite author. But in November 2002, he wrote a short story for The Atlantic about a man who relinquishes his faith after watching the Twin Towers fall.
Thus was Dan, an Episcopalian lawyer of sixty-three, brought late to the realization that comes to children with the death of a pet, to women with the loss of a child, to millions caught in the implacable course of war or plague. His revelation of cosmic emptiness thrilled him, though his own extinction was held within this new truth like one of the white rectangles weightlessly rising and spinning within the boiling column of smoke. He joined at last the run of mankind in its stoic atheism. He had fought this wisdom all his life, with prayer and evasion, with recourse to the piety of his Ohio ancestors and to ingenious and jaunty old books—Kierkegaard, Chesterton—read in adolescence and early manhood. But had he been in that building (its smoothly telescoping collapse in itself a sight of some beauty, like the color-enhanced stellar blooms of telescopically photographed supernovae, yet as quick as the toss of a scarf)—had he been in that building, would the weight of concrete and metal have been an ounce less, or hesitated a microsecond in its crushing, mincing, vaporizing descent?And I felt it.
But I have kept the door open to returning to the church. Art was a big motivator -- the songs of Johnny Cash and Sufjan Stevens, the novels of Marilynne Robinson, the films of Terrence Malick. And I have remained sympathetic to the conservative Christian friends that I made in college, understanding why they are so vociferously opposed to abortion without sharing that view.
The last few years, and the last few weeks, have made that open door feel a bit closer to closed. White American Christianity -- which is not *Christianity*, I realize, but still the faith language I know best -- aligned itself with Donald Trump so thoroughly that it began to look distinctly un-Christian to me. The celebration of vulgarity, the lies, the racism and misogyny ... if this was what people understood that God required of them, wanted of them, I wanted nothing to do with that God, or those people really. More likely, the people who called themselves Christians did what they wanted and told themselves that it was God speaking, but that didn't really make me feel any better.
There is no real complex, intellectual theology for me to offer you, only my sense even now that I lost something when I walked away from the church, but that I cannot embrace what the church -- or, rather, what I knew as my experience of church -- has to offer. I know there are other varieties of religious experience, but they don't speak to me. My old congregation still meets, in a different place than when I was a regular, and I still visit from time to time. The music of the old hymns still stirs me. But I still can't sing the words. Right now, I am not sure that I ever will be able to again.