Church Reimagined

I grew up with church being part of the fabric of the week. We weren’t an especially religious family (meaning very little was said about religion outside of the confines of church), but we were at least a modicum more than socially and culturally Christian.

My older brother began his boycott on this portion of our family identity early, and I followed suit. One Sunday after church, when I was in middle school studying US History, I summoned my parents into my room, and opened up my Houghton Mifflin Harcourt textbook and read my selected portion of The Declaration of Independence to my parents, accusing them of usurping my unalienable right to “liberty and the pursuit of happiness” by making church mandatory.

While my attempt to shake the yoke of familial tradition was effective, it cannot be attributed to my stirring speech in my bedroom that Sunday afternoon. The break with the church followed a far less charming and more insidious path. The truth is, I actually liked church—I was just exerting my pre-teen angst when I made that speech in my bedroom. I was a member of the church choir, and while I wasn’t particularly invested in much of what happened during the service, I loved singing each Sunday up in the choir loft surrounded by sonorous organ pipes.

Our choirmaster was brilliant…far to good to be at a milk toast, mid-sized church. His talents were no doubt squandered on our lack thereof, but he made lemonade out of lemons with grace and dedication. I was in choir throughout elementary school and on into middle school. Around the same time I was being titillated by the Declaration of Independence, a new priest came to our church. This priest was the actual impetus for our departure from the church—for this priest was deeply homophobic, and he made the conditions for our gay choirmaster untenable. Our choirmaster went on to bigger and better things at The National Cathedral, which I am glad for, but his departure, and more specifically the conditions of his departure soured me to the idea of church and organized religion.

This general narrative, with different details, is true for so many of my peers—a souring towards organized religion. But the undercurrent that runs along with this souring is a desire to create, or find, a container that holds the good parts of religion and tosses aside the bad.

Traditions are dear in part because of repetition throughout one’s own life and in part because of the connection they represent to people who have come before you. But traditions are not so dear that they are worth holding onto when they are saddled with hate.

I still want a place in my life where I talk with people I know (or barely know, or am just meeting) about the meaning of life. I want a place where people sing together. I want a place where the big existential questions can be explored.

And I get that fix in my life in two primary ways: Solo runs listening to the latest On Being Podcast and monthly Women’s Circles.  On a long run a few weeks ago, in the wake of the recent presidential election, I re-listened to two particular On Being Episodes: Mahzarin Banaji’s “The Mind Is A Difference Seeking Machine” and James Doty’s “The Magic Shop of The Brain.”

Un-hemmed in by dictated processes, codes, and rulebooks, artists are often our harbingers of truth. Songwriter Robert Lopez and composer Jeff Marx co-conceived and created the musical, Avenue Q, one of the longest running shows in Broadway history. A number from the first act, “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” touches on an uncomfortable truth that bears revealing. One verse of the song goes: “I think everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes/ Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes/ Look around and you will find/ No ones really colorblind/ Maybe it's a fact we all should face/ Everyone makes judgments based on race.” This supposition could easily be extended to myriad other facets of identity beyond race. Ignoring the reality that we can never fully understand the experience of another human being and that we can never approach another human being from beyond our own experience is a form of deleterious idealism. And Dr. Banaji’s research confirms this.

Dr. Banaji is a psychology professor who studies implicit bias, and she is a co-founder of Project Implicit. She starts her conversation saying this: “I do believe that, in our culture and in many cultures, we are at a point where our conscious minds are so ahead of our less conscious minds. We must recognize that, and yet, ask people the question, ‘Are you the good person you yourself want to be?’ And the answer to that is no, you’re not. And that’s just a fact. And we need to deal with that if we want to be on the path of self-improvement.” You can go to Project Implicit and take a number of quizzes that will reveal your own hidden biases. It’s uncomfortable to see them, but in this political arena buzzing with bias, it seems important that each of us take a long, hard look in the mirror before resorting to lamenting and gnashing our teeth over the state of affairs. Even those who are well intentioned and strive to be open and accepting are not, as it turns out, able to bring those intentions to full fruition. The bias of others can feel daunting and debilitating, but work on self is always available, and in fact the only place where a person has full agency to ensure change.

If Dr. Banaji’s episode strips away the veneer of desire and exposes reality, then Dr. Doty’s “The Magic Shop of the Brain” offers a path by which to move reality closer to our ideals. Dr. Doty is a brain surgeon and the founding director of The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. In his interview he speaks of the ways in which modern science is starting to catch up with ancient Buddhist philosophy. He received his first lessons in mindfulness from an earth-mom sort named Ruth in a magic shop by happenstance when he was a child. Interviewer Krista Tippet says this to Dr. Doty: “One of the things that Ruth, your teacher in the magic shop, was teaching you is something we now call neuroplasticity. And yet, that word did not exist in 1968. And that is this simple and astonishing idea that our brains can change across the lifespan, and we can change our brains through our behavior. You must have watched that discovery and the naming of this with a sense of homecoming, I’m imagining.” To which he responds, “…we used to think that the brain and the neurons was all immutable, and nothing could be changed. And, really, the gift that Ruth gave me was my first experience with neuroplasticity. Fundamentally, in the six weeks that I interacted with her, what she taught me truly rewired my brain.”

Krista Tippet and Dr. Doty go on to talk about how our current neural pathways suffer from evolutionary baggage of fight or flight from the "other." Dr. Doty explains, "The problem is that, by the nature of the baggage that we were just talking about, we are oftentimes easily put into a position of being fearful, because when we're fearful, what happens? We have a tendency to shut down, we don't want to have new experiences, we want to have familiarity, which is typically being with people who look like us, act like us, who think like us. And when you shut everything down, it does give you a sense of being safe, but it also keeps you chronically on pins and needles, wondering if you're going to be attacked. And so this is the danger of tribalism. And David Desteno, a neuroscientist, has done work in this area, where you can break down these artificial barriers of separation by looking at another person who may seem very different. Then you start seeing things with more clarity. And, really, what all this is about...is to see ourselves and the world with greater clarity." He goes on in the interview to reference studies where brain scans show various parts of the brain shrinking or growing with the practice of mindfulness--that this skill can alter our brain, and in turn alter the way we interact with the world. 

I don't know what became of the priest who ran off my brilliant choirmaster. I don't know if he's experienced neural shifts or if he has spent the last few decades carving even deeper discriminatory thought patterns into his head and heart. My choirmaster died recently, after several decades of work at The National Cathedral. Every time I chance upon hearing a hymn I think about him. One December, as a child, I asked him if we could throw cotton balls down from the choir loft onto the congregation while we sang, "Let it Snow." He put the kibosh on both the throwing of cotton balls and the singing of a Hollywood song in church. He revered tradition, and I'd like to think we could make tradition worthy of him again someday.