Behind the Curtain         



“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious texts. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

    - the Buddha


I” do not take any credit to my better-balanced head because I never went crazy on Presbyterianism. We go too slow for that. You never see us ranting and shouting and tearing up the ground, You never heard of a Presbyterian going crazy on religion. Notice us, and you will see how we do. We get up of a Sunday morning and put on the best harness we have got and trip cheerfully down town; we subside into solemnity and enter the church; we stand up and duck our heads and bear down on a hymn book propped on the pew in front when the minister prays; we stand up again while our hired choir are singing, and look in the hymn book and check off the verses to see that they don't shirk any of the stanzas; we sit silent and grave while the minister is preaching, and count the tears and bonnets furtively, and catch flies; we grab our hats and bonnets when the benediction is begun; when it is finished, we shove, so to speak. No frenzy, no fanaticism --no skirmishing; everything perfectly serene. You never see any of us Presbyterians getting in a sweat about religion and trying to massacre the neighbors. Let us all be content with the tried and safe old regular religions, and take no chances on wildcat religions.”

    - Mark Twain



        J. MILTON MILES
        Whenever the Methodist bell
        Was rung by itself,
        I knew it as the Methodist bell.
        But when its sound was mingled
        With the sound of the Christian, the Presbyterian,
        the Baptist and the Congregational,
        I could no longer distinguish it,
        Nor any one from the others.
        And as many voices called to me in life
        Marvel not that I could not tell
        The true from the false,
        Nor even, at last, the voice that I should have known.

    
        - From the Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters,






One long ago Valentine’s day, my valentine and I exchanged cards. She read hers, and her eyes got soft, and she looked at me with something approaching affection. “Dennis”, she said, “I want you to know that lately you have been much less of an ass than usual”.

Two thoughts immediately came to mind. One - “I didn’t see that coming”. and two - “I’m making progress”.

I occasionally meditate with a Buddhist group that meets each week. It is a wonderful group of people, some of whom meditate as part of their quest for enlightenment. My goals are more modest. I just want to be less of an ass.

The fact that I go to a church and belong to a Buddhist group is quite a stretch for me, because, you see, I didn’t go to church for almost 40 years.

Many church goers have a spontaneous awakening - they are born again in an instant. I move a little more slowly than that.

Forty years with no church may sound like a long time but really it’s a blink of the eye. I needed to figure some things out, do some investigating. I wanted to make sure I had things straight, made the right choices. I didn’t want to rush things. I was about 10 years old when I stopped going to church, then some interesting things happened, and one day I realized I was 50. Time is like that.

Even though I didn’t go to church for a soul imperiling length of time, I maintained a fascination with religion and spirituality. It didn’t escape my notice that people are simply batty about religion. This made me so curious about the world’s great religions that I took it upon myself to study them all in some depth over the years. You could say I’ve been examining them to measure their honesty and fairness and insight, quietly trying them on for size.

I couldn’t help but notice how passionate people were about their own religion in comparison to other religions. This is puzzling. Because the most common reason for anyone to embrace a specific religion or denomination is the simple accident of where they were born. Born in the US, the statistical probability points to an embrace of Christianity. Born in Egypt, the probability overwhelmingly points to Islam. Born in Cambodia Buddhist and so on. Religious affiliation seems to be based less on merit than on the geographical spot your ancestors submitted to the siren call of amour.

Because I am a curious soul I ignore the common admonition against discussing religion and politics in social situations. What could be more interesting than these topics? And what has more influence on our lives? To not discuss these things would simply be reckless.
 
Over the years, despite the cultural pressure to avoid religious discussions with acquaintances, I actively engaged folks in discussions of these forbidden things. No risk, no reward is my conversational motto. It became apparent to me that, in spite of professed denominational affiliation, almost everyone has a set of beliefs independent of the religion they officially belong to - beliefs that with stunning regularity contradict fundamental teachings of their beloved religion. Since religion so often deals in absolute truths I found these contradictions fascinating. How does one reconcile these contradictions, I wondered. It seemed to me that if you didn’t believe in the absolute truths of an organization you would remove your name from the rolls. But the vast majority of people I encounter do inhabit this dissonant state. I’m personally unable to embrace an organization that has beliefs contrary to my own - and that goes a long way towards explaining why I went so long without attending church.

This observation, that people have beliefs contrary to their religion’s absolute truths, was illustrated in the movie SHE’S THE ONE. A character played by John Mahoney is in his kitchen arguing with his adult son. The son uses a crude expletive, taking the Lord’s name in vain. Mahoney shouts, “Don’t use that kind of language in my house!”. The son shouts back, “Why would you care, you’re an atheist.” Mahoney responds, “Just because I’m an atheist doesn’t mean I can’t be a good Catholic!”

When I was in my mid twenties this idea that people belonged to a church yet had their own independent spiritual belief system fascinated me so much that I embarked on a project. Studs Terkel’s book “Working” was a publishing phenomena at the time. The book consisted of compelling interviews Terkel did with people about their work life. The insights it contained were remarkable. The idea of giving a voice to a cross section of people about significant aspects of their life captivated me and it occurred to me that it would be a perfect structure to gain insight into people’s spiritual life. I could say to people, “I know you are a Methodist, or a Mormon, or Catholic, or an atheist or whatever, but tell me what you really believe, not what others suppose you believe. And tell me what experiences in your life made you believe what you believe. 

I mentioned this idea to a coworker, one of the loveliest, most kindhearted people I’ve ever met. The concept resonated with her and she asked if she could be the first to be interviewed.

I was excited to start bringing this creative idea to fruition and approached the session with great anticipation.

I should note that, at the time, I was a school counselor and had the training and experience to deal with emotional encounter sessions.  

But nothing could have prepared me for the emotion that was laid bare by my coworker when she began to open up about her religion. Most of my religious conundrums were abstractions, they involved observations, conclusions, choices. I was about to learn it wasn’t that way for everyone.

She had been raised in a strident fundamentalist environment. There were countless restrictions on behavior that were an unwelcome part of her upbringing. As a young adult she had stretched her wings and, in her estimation, diplomatically loosened her ties with the church. Her family’s response? They initiated a complete and bitter estrangement that lasted for many years. Her family, the very core of her being, had turned their back on her completely - over a disagreement regarding religious abstraction. She was crushed, shattered. In spite of an eventual partial reconciliation, a painful tension lingered still, the hallmark of which was persistent and cruel reminders of her literally hellish eternal future. The tears began in the middle of her story and, as she described her heartache, eventually was reduced to spasmodic sobs. Soon she could go no further. As the session ended I was a wreck, wondering at the painful memories I had unleashed. I enjoyed the parlor game of studying the vagaries of religion, she had viscerally lived it. Her psychic scars were palpable, the hurt as fresh as the moment it began. 

And this is as good a point as any to mention what I see as a fundamental difference in how people view religion. Many of us view it as a vehicle for wisdom, morality, ethics, compassion, brotherhood, a process for becoming a better person, less of  . . . well, you know. For most however, including my friend’s family, religion is a destination rather than a journey, and the goal isn’t spiritual wisdom, but is instead salvation, concern for an eternal, rather than worldly soul. Because of the cataclysmic stakes for people with this viewpoint, disagreements can be malignant. This doesn’t seem healthy to me. 

I interviewed a few other friends and acquaintances, and while they weren’t as incendiary as my first interview, the emotions expressed were again more intense then I had envisioned.  There was an acquaintance who had been cast out of her church after her divorce. She viewed the church with dark bitterness. She felt she had been robbed of the comfort of her faith by judgments contradictory to the teachings of that faith. 

There was a friend whose love of the Christian legacy, of the compassionate teachings of Jesus, was at the core of his existence. He grew weary of the constant rebukes, the snickers, the red faced judgments of his church toward people like himself, people whom creation had made homosexual. He lost his church, to his everlasting and painful regret. Spiritual life had an unwelcome wistful quality for him. 

I interviewed an acquaintance who was kicked out of his rapidly expanding church because he advised using it’s growing resources to assist the poor, while the minister wanted to build a huge building, a building that inevitably had the minister’s name on the cornerstone. His view of his church became cynical, spiritually unhealthy. 

In each of these interviews tears fell, pulses raced, regret hung in the air.

This was not what I expected to hear.

When I began the project I hoped to find evidence to support my belief that a few simple experiences, seemingly benign to an observer, were the seeds of our moral and spiritual world view. I felt, and feel, that it isn’t dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of experiences that crystallize our moral and spiritual beliefs but rather a handful of experiences. They are the seeds of becoming part of something bigger than yourself, part of something deeply personal, something independent of any church one might eventually join. Independent of a church’s absolute truths. 

But you’ve noticed that my small, random interview group had more dramatic experiences than I expected, experiences that caused them to leave their church - a painful ordeal for each of them. 

In each case they felt they had been robbed unfairly of something of vital importance to them.

Life can be so terribly unfair, but they felt religion should be an island of compassion and fairness in an often cruel world, religion should not be the source of unfairness.

I hoped the drama of my small group of subjects was an aberration but I couldn’t be sure. What to me was an intellectual exercise was an exorcism to my subjects. Fearful of what I had unleashed, I put the project aside.

                        ---

As a child my mother took my brothers and me to the small Lutheran Church in my birthplace of White Hall, Illinois. 

I must confess that I found the Lutheran Church services of my youth unbearably boring. The sermons were confusing to me, usually focused on supernatural events that even then I found to be dissonant, an odd amalgam of superstition and certainty. Walking on water, curing the lame, rising from the dead - these things struck me as curiously contrary to my own everyday experiences. I recall always asking my mother to explain things the preacher said. She was wonderfully patient but her explanations only led to more questions, none with an answer that satisfied me. Our conversations would end with her pledge, “Someday you’ll understand.”

My mind was always wandering during what, to me, were the endless proceedings of the service. The wall behind the pulpit was covered with a background of thick curtains. At some point the curtains became vastly more intriguing than the sermon. I would tune out the preacher and find myself engrossed in the possibilities of what the curtains hid behind their velvet folds. Each week this began to be my focus. Just what was back there?

At some point I began to experience a series of recurring dreams. Every so often I would dream of those mysterious curtains. The dreams unfolded like a David Lynch movie, surreal, filled with odd events that made perfect and terrifying sense in the logic of the dreams. Terrifying because the dream revealed what was behind the curtains. A huge gorilla. 

I apologize for the symbolism overload. I am simply reporting the facts. 

At any rate, each time the dream repeated the gorilla would get more aggressive, and the dream eventually morphed into a nightly orgy of anxiety in which the gorilla would chase me through the familiar surroundings of my youth, but with the geography erratically jumbled. It would always start in the church with the gorilla suddenly jumping from behind the curtains, the congregation scattering in chaos. The gorilla and I would lock eyes, causing him to ignore everyone but me, precipitating a chase that lurched to a neighbors living room, to the orchard at the end of our street, to a friends front yard, to a creek outside of town, and so on. Every evening the gorilla would get closer to me and every night I would wake with a spasm, shivering with anxiety. Each night I would think - is this the night the gorilla catches me?

Is it any wonder I didn’t go to church for almost 40 years?

Another memory from the church. I had been blessedly free as a child from being exposed to infirmaries of the flesh. When I wasn’t focusing on my misguided interest in the curtain I couldn’t help but obsess over a gentlemen who always sat in front of us in the pews. I knew he had an illness but I couldn’t process it’s curious nature. The man’s limbs shook constantly, especially his hands. His head bobbled uncontrollably in a manner that was disconcerting, even a little frightening to my young mind. I now realize the man had a case of advanced Parkinson’s disease, but at the time it seemed to me like the man was the victim of some cruel, demeaning cosmic joke. While the preacher talked about the certainty of an all powerful God’s control over our lives, I couldn’t help but wonder what God had in mind when He intervened in this fellow’s terrible state of being. The God in the services could create the the sun and the earth and the moon and the heavens and raise people from the dead but he couldn’t fix this unfortunate man? Or worse, chose not to. The God the preacher fawned over seemed cruelly indifferent to human suffering as I watched the old man’s struggle.

And then there was the time I went with my dad, as was our tradition on Friday evenings, to a local bar to pick up their delicious fried perch sandwiches. These outings were the only occasions in my youth to enter a drinking establishment. In the few moments it took to pick up the carryout and pay for the fish I caught sight of one of the pillars of the church at the bar with a women who was decidedly not his wife. He was spectacularly red-faced and drunk, regaling the unaccountably hysterical clientele with spastic, drunken gibberish.

Alcohol was not a fixture of our home life, drunkenness as alien as an interlude with an opium fiend. This was a visual image that burned itself into my brain. The message imprinted on this visual memory was as follows: Every thing is shockingly not as it seems in this world. It occurred to me that adults knew this, and they willfully concealed this state of affairs. What other disturbing things, I began to wonder, are they hiding from me? The shock of that realization was so profound the feeling is still fresh over 40 years later.

When Sunday rolled around and I saw the drunk, sitting piously with his wife in his regular spot in the pews, what little chance there was of me embracing the great denomination of Martin Luther was gone once and forever. The spell, fairly or not, was broken. I had seen behind the curtain in the metaphorical sense and I’d had a glimpse into the nature of the illusion. To this day hypocrisy is the sin that disturbs me the most, the one I consider the most difficult to forgive, especially in myself; the sin you recall, that Jesus often emphasized.

These are among the few simple experiences that molded my view of religion, for better or worse. Thus began my career as a religious skeptic.

Imagine for a moment you have taken up my project on finding out the real beliefs people have behind the curtain that is their official religious affiliation. 

Imagine that I have volunteered to be interviewed. Here is what you would discover. I would tell you about the Gorilla, and the man with Parkinson’s, and the drunk in the bar. You would nod thoughtfully, perhaps wondering at the peculiar nature of my memories. 

But this is how my religion was spawned. There were no personal tragedies like the people I interviewed, no loss of family, no cruel rejection by a church because of my sexual orientation or a divorce, no questioning why the minister wanted to build a monument to his ego rather than helping the unfortunate.

My experiences were more modest, but no less important in the construction of my moral and ethical world view.

At your prompting I would continue.

When I was a child I wanted a little metal matchbox car so badly it became an obsession. I would go into the five and dime store and the desire would make me swoon. But I had no money. So one day, in a feverish state of desire and fear I put it in my pocket. As I walked out I was in terror of hearing the owner shout for me to stop, but he didn’t. And when I got home the car was impossible to play with. It literally haunted me, it mocked me. It was the tangible evidence that I had done a terrible thing. This, I decided, is an experience I never want to have again. I threw the tainted car away in shame. 

Some time later I got a BB gun for Christmas. I practiced shooting at cans, and trees, and apples. Then one day, while shooting in the back yard, I spied a robin in a tree. Without considering the consequences I took aim and pulled the trigger. To my  astonishment I hit the robin, it hadn’t occurred to me that I would. It dropped like a bean bag from the tree. I picked it up. It was limp, limp in the way that only a creature that has lost the spark of life is. Blood leaked from it’s beak. I knew immediately in the core of my being that I had done a terrible thing. I had killed a beautiful creature for a pointless moment’s entertainment. Although I lived in a small town where hunting was a way of life, I would never aspire to go hunting. The emptiness at the core of killing for entertainment was burned into my soul. 

Around the same time I was walking to grade school after a snowstorm. High School kids walked towards me spanning the entire sidewalk. I was shocked that they made me walk off the sidewalk into the deep snow even though they were big and I was small. But something else stuck in my mind that day that resonates over 40 years later - the total indifference to my plight, looking past me as if I didn’t exist. I was overwhelmed at the lack of courtesy, at the lack of acknowledgment. It broke my heart. I literally made a vow that day that I would never, for the rest of my life, knowingly treat another person with the casual disregard shown me. I haven’t always lived up to that vow, but I’ve tried my best. To this day I am a crank on courtesy and treating people with dignity. I’m miserable on the rare occasion when I fall short.

The careful listener this morning will note that my formative experiences have corollaries in the Bible. Thou shall not steal, thou shall not kill, treat others as you want to be treated, and so on. Kind of ironic for a religious skeptic wouldn’t you say? But, of course, this is evidence of moral universals, which I feel in my bones are independent of denominational dogma. And note that I reached these conclusions internally, as we all must, before they become anything more than a memorized list. 

Our personal belief system works best when we embrace universals as opposed to absolutes. Universals reflects primal insights, absolutes the accumulated neurosis of a denomination.

Some years went by and I found myself in my 20’s. A friend suggested I read a book called the Dharma Bums. This was the follow up to the famous book On the Road by Jack Kerouac. In the Dharma Bums Kerouac wrote of the adventures of he and his friends as they embraced a westernized form of Buddhism.

I learned that Buddhism’s fundamental insight is that Life is an exercise in suffering, and that the source of suffering is desire in it’s many forms. Forms that include lusting after material things, like a toy car, and wishing that a BB hadn’t killed a bird, and wishing that people didn’t treat us with indifference, and that a church didn’t endorse bigotry, and that families didn’t turn their back on loved ones, and most of all that our loved ones and ourselves didn’t have to suffer and inevitably die. Wishing and desiring that life didn’t involve the suffering that is inevitable for every human who has ever lived. 

Fortunately Buddhism teaches that suffering and desire can be mitigated and even overcome by following a set of teachings called the 8 fold Noble Path. It is a set of instructions, a brief manual, if you will, for human life. The 8 Fold path has no supernatural elements, no deity, no narrative built upon beautiful but confusing parables. It focuses on compassion and kindness and the cleansing qualities of meditation. I have a background in Psychology and it occurred to me that the it is a 2500 year old doctrine of metaphysical psychology, quantum psychology if you will. The 8 Fold Path is a wonder of simplicity, brevity, and insight. It embodies Buddhism’s fundamental lesson - the inevitability of suffering and heartache is beyond our control, but our reaction to suffering is not.

And so I had a time tested 2500 year old philosophical framework for ethics, morality, and behavior that didn’t require me to believe in something I knew couldn’t be true. No supernatural mumbo jumbo, no small minded bigotry masquerading as divine truths, no divine creature with an insecure, petty, sadistic streak, no arbitrary rules for a hedonistic afterlife. But most importantly, a philosophy built on kindness, courtesy, compassion, and positive behavior. A spiritual philosophy that was fairness itself. A philosophy that meshed perfectly with my experiences, observations, and conclusions. Isn’t that nice?

While Buddhism enriched me in countless ways, I was unable to find a Buddhist group providing the sort of weekly service and sense of community provided by the traditional Christian church so familiar to us all. 

Finding a Christian church to fulfill the need for a spiritual community seemed quite impossible given my fervent rejection of the supernatural theology that makes up the bulk of sermon topics in almost all Christian churches. The world is so filled with wonder, I puzzle at the need for theology based on sleight of hand. Life itself it’s a miracle beyond imagination, so why the need for parlor tricks?

Years passed and one day a friend and colleague mentioned his church to me, the Unitarian church. I knew of the Unitarian denomination via two of my heroes, Frank Lloyd Wright and Kurt Vonnegut. I came, and listened, and mingled, and read literature, and knew very quickly that the UU church was the place for me. While it doesn’t reject the supernatural, it doesn’t emphasize it, instead focusing on the core ideals expressed in the Christian Manifesto, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, as well as the ideals of Buddha’s Eight Fold Noble Path. There is an emphasis on compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness, just as the Jesus and Buddha taught. What more can we ask of a church?

I’m a slow study. It took nearly 40 years but I’ve found a home at a church where natural human qualities are badges of honor rather than eternal tickets to warmer climes. 

It is abundantly obvious that we are part of something grandly bigger than ourselves. We are reminded of this in countless ways each day. How we acknowledge that truth is a personal matter, defined by our experiences, by our minds and hearts. The German philosopher Goethe said that in the end we all construct our own religion. Amen. The building blocks of this construction don’t come out of thin air. They are bits and pieces of various philosophies, observations, and experiences we all gather over the years. There is nothing new under the sun - we all work with the same set of cosmic building materials - but with our experiences as a guide, each of us put them together in a different way, regardless of our denomination.

This internal edifice, with you and the cosmos as architects, is what makes you and me and everyone what we are - an entirely unique miracle of personal theology. 



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