Saturday, December 28, 2013

No Mere Mockery

During the days leading up to Christmas I suffered a hilarious lapse in my usual cynical pessimism. I went to the morning service at The Church of the Holy Innocents with hardly a thought in my head that I would be uncomfortable there. I wanted to hear Grace sing, and for that I had to go to the service. I suppose that sense of inevitability caused me to sweep any realistic expectations under my mental rug.

Regardless of why my expectations were unrealistic, it didn't take long for the service to disabuse me of them. A sarcastic narrative spooled out in my head. It sounded something like this.
There was this dude with an awesome hat and a fancy white and gold dress with a matching cape, and he had these two other dudes to hold up the cape for him whenever he sat down or stood up. Well, at one point he got up and walked over to this other dude who had this giant metal tea-infuser ball hanging from a chain. The ball must have had something burning inside it, because there was all this smoke coming out. So Cape Dude took the chain, turned to this big book on a lectern, and swung the ball so that the smoke went onto the book. There was lots of chanting during all this.

And I said to myself “Right on, man. Because that is exactly what Christ meant when he never said anything remotely resembling that.”
With each mental draft I relished my wit and anticipated posting it in a private Facebook group I run. I'd created the group as a safe space to say things one isn't comfortable saying in one's public stream--a place where people can share potentially embarrassing or incendiary thoughts and get honest responses without the usual assumption of ill intent that breeds posturing and flame wars. So my little satire seemed like a perfect fit.

But I knew it wasn't. The more I thought of posting it, the more I knew I wouldn't. Even in that place where I trusted myself to say things I couldn't otherwise say without fear of giving offense, I was afraid of giving offense. I knew there was a problem.

By the end of the service, I understood what the problem was. I wasn't being humane. I was taking cheap shots at the structure and ritual without considering it in its historical context, and I know better. To read history from a modern perspective is worse than useless. One can only understand history by placing historical characters in their historical context.

Just a few centuries ago, Christianity was the only game in town: the substrate of physical, social and spiritual existence. That way of life is nearly impossible for the modern agnostic or atheist to fathom, yet if we don't at least try, we'll never see clearly. The church was the only social cushion at a time when humans lived closer to the bone than we can readily imagine.

I despise what religion has wrought. I believe even the most cursory glance at history shows that religion has done more harm than good, and that the world would be a better place without it. Yet lacking a control for reality, I can never prove my beliefs.

For all I know, we couldn't have gotten to where we are without our ancestors having that social cushion. For all I know, the ritual I was mocking had roots in a structure they couldn't have done without.

To dismiss religion and mock religious people would serve nothing but my own in ego. If I were to indulge in such simplistic thinking, I would be no different than those who have lumped me in with misogynists because I don't regurgitate every feminist talking-point. I have to be better than that, my thoughts more granular. I have to be able to parse adjacent concepts.

Neal Stephenson wrote that “the difference between stupid and intelligent people – and this is true whether or not they are well-educated – is that intelligent people can handle subtlety.” That's what my satire was lacking: subtlety.

I'm uncomfortable, scared and angry about the ritual I sat through on Christmas morning. To channel  those feelings into mere mockery would be easy. To respond with measured, contextualized criticism takes an order of magnitude more effort. Yet it's the only honest response. I have to do the work.

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