Losing My Religion Part III: Heaven Is Other People
Growing up immersed in religion meant there was nothing for me to be converted to, but arriving at adolescence awkward, lonely, and insecure meant I had plenty of things to be converted from. That's probably true of most high school freshmen, fed up with being children, their moods swinging without warning, clearly unready for adult pursuits. The reboot I had hoped would come with baptism never materialized, so I needed something else, something more radical, powerful, effective. It took me two years to find it, two years of privately sobbing into my pillow behind a locked bedroom door, two years of longing for a deeper, more sincere connection than I could find at school or at church. It wasn't even me who found it. My parents learned of a church camp for artistically oriented teens, and sent me to it.
MADD (Music, Art, Drama, and Dance) camp was exactly what I'd needed: a place where I could mingle with (mostly) safe Methodist youth, playing my trumpet, writing, learning to take better pictures with my Instamatic, singing in the camp choir, and really connecting in the heightened, accelerated way teenagers do at arts camps. Everyone there was sensitive, creative, empathic, an outsider back at home. Introvert that I was, I faded somewhat into the background, but I still made friends. This being a church camp, we spent time each day with our "theologian in residence," a popular pastor who had a real knack for preaching to teens. The last night, we had a closing communion at which everybody cried, a final performance of all the things we'd been working on, and a seemingly endless roving warm fuzzy party. The next morning was similar: a short devotion, a goodbye circle that went on and on, and finally the leave-taking.
That camp meant the world to me. It was the first time I had felt emotionally, physically, and spiritually connected to people my own age. Almost forty years later, I can still remember the warmth of standing around the campfire, arm in arm, struggling to sing songs I'd never heard before but which would be my favorites for years to come. This, far more than my baptism, was my spiritual coming of age.
Of course, like all good things, MADD camp couldn't last. It was six days long, in fact. I can't remember how I got home--I know I'd been driven out to Camp Magruder by Ernie Bell, a pastor from a neighboring town taking his own kids to camp who would, many years later, become a mentor to me--but within hours of being back in Philomath, I felt the letdown set in. I remember walking down to the post office to check the mail, and having someone be curt with me, being shocked at how it felt to be back out in the cold, cruel, real world.
Later that summer, I went to Scout camp, and had a fine time doing very different things. It was great fun, marked by earning merit badges, goofy skits at the campfire, long games of "I Doubt It" (Scouts can't say "Bullshit"), and, as one of the privileged older Scouts, getting to lie out late one night watching a meteor shower. Scout camp is typically a great bonding experience for a troop, and it worked that way for mine. But it wasn't MADD camp. I didn't feel once in that week what I'd felt at Magruder: like I was in the presence of God.
I went back to MADD the next year, 1978, and had another shot of redemption. Later that summer, I went to DeMolay leadership camp, and was surprised to find a similar sense of fellowship, including the same spiritual depth I'd experienced at Camp Magruder. After both camps, the real world was, again, a letdown, something I was to feel every time I came home from camp, whether I had been there as camper, counselor, program staff, theologian-in-residence, assistant dean, or dean.
College introduced me to a new way to experience this spiritual high: touring. I toured several times with my college band. In seminary, I toured with the choir. Every tour was, like camp, a growing sense of connection to a small affinity group, some members of which I had been acquainted with prior to the experience, but none of whom I felt deeply in sync with. In a matter of days, the ties grew exponentially, and everyone on the bus was knitted together as never before.
Post-ministerial life has brought me into yet another environment in which such attachments can grow: the Orff world. Orff trainings are a lot like camp, and those who've been through them together often relate to each other like members of a high school or college class who've had four years to get acquainted--as opposed to the two weeks of most Orff courses. I'm still in touch with many of the people I met in Ghana, and seeing a number of them in Nashville was a highlight of that conference.
The Bible has a word for this feeling: koinonia. It refers to the communion of saints, the ties that bind a congregation together. The love associated with this fellowship is called by another Greek word, agape. In Methodist theology, this experience is valued above almost any other. Every meeting is supposed to be a form of "Christian conferencing," during which the business of the church
becomes almost sacramental. As long as I was in ministry, I toed this party line, enjoying Annual Conference as a time to come together with fellow Methodists from across the region, pretending I wasn't bored spitless by the endless reports and the tedious debate of budgetary matters. Leaving ministry, though, I began to realize something: the church did not have a lock on koinonia. In fact, there were plenty of church meetings I'd been present at, some of which I even chaired, when the koinonia had been in short supply, and members had bickered and postured as immaturely as at any secular administrative function. In fact, I soon realized, the wonderful warmth I'd felt at all those camps was not so much a function of God being a part of it as of people coming together in a beautiful place to enjoy each other's company and have some fun. The same was true of tours and, as I mentioned above, of Orff trainings.
In fact, I have come to believe, koinonia is an essential part of being human. It's something we all crave: belonging to a group that believes in us, and that we believe in. We are social creatures, even the most introverted of us, and we crave the company of others. If that company happens to share some of our interests, and we enjoy our time together, a bond develops between us. One could argue that this is how God made us--as Genesis 2:18 tells us, after creating the first man, God decided "it is not good for [him] to be alone," and so woman was created. Of course, there are plenty of social species in the animal world, so it's not as if humans have a lock on togetherness.
If the quest for fellowship was unique to the religions of the Book (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), one could make the claim that this really is a gift of the faith. In fact, though, most religions, and many secular movements, also value koinonia, as do plenty of pagan activities, from music making to sports fandom to Amy's weekly mah jongg night. And it's in realizing this larger truth that I felt the wedge between myself and my faith began to cut deeper.
Fellowship was one of the things I valued most about the church. It had pulled me through some dark times, from job loss to nearly losing a child to divorce to even the end of my ministry, as the Metanoia Peace Community enfolded me in its idiosyncratic arms. Knowing, however, that the well of fellowship ran far deeper than simply the Christian stratum, I began to question what was so special about the church. Looking back on the closest friends I could remember having, the diverse and ecumenical "Element Gang" at Willamette, I saw that the one thing we all had in common was each other. We came from many denominations, some conservative, others progressive, and we had varying degrees of involvement in our church homes. One of us was in a fraternity, the rest fiercely independent. Some of us were Republicans, the rest Democrats. Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, gay, straight, Black, White, majoring in music, psychology, art, political science, economics, forestry--the only thing we had in common was that we loved each other.
The one claim that keeps believers in a religion long after they've grown disillusioned with it is exclusivity: nowhere else can you possess the truth that is known here. "No other name" is how this is often phrased, as in "there is no other name by which you can be saved." To the extent that this bond works, it begins to loosen when the believer realizes other religions or groups can make the same claim.
It took me many years, but I finally came to realize that koinonia was all around me; and when I did, a whole layer of Christian scales fell from my eyes, and I knew I could find spiritual joy beyond the confines of church, Christianity, and even God.