I actually had to leave church today. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt uncomfortable with the way the worship service was conducted, or that I had a strong disagreement with the pastor on any subject.
I consider myself a pretty good Christian; my spirituality is primarily Christian, though I suppose it’s been heavily influenced over the years by my study of other religious traditions in the world, such as Buddhism (particularly Zen Buddhism), Islám, Judaism, and even Wicca. My approach to religion these days is not so much as to insist that my way is the right way, but that I have only partial access to the Truth (whatever that is). Not everyone who disagrees with me is wrong, I learned a long time ago, and I always try to keep in mind that I’m not necessarily right. I chose Christianity because, when properly exercised, it is a moral imperative that I can accept and because the theology makes sense to me on intellectual, moral, and spiritual levels. Christianity, for me, is a way of loving people, a way of relating to God, and not a way of imposing judgement on others. The two most important commandments in the Bible are Jesus’: “The first great commandment is this: to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. The second is like unto it: To love your neighbor as yourself. This is the sum of all the prophets.” And just in case you have any doubts about who your neighbor is, read Matthew 5-7, where he lays out explicitly that we are to do things like pray for our enemies, etc. I could go on and on about this but I won’t, not here.
However strong I feel about my faith, however, I know that it rests on shaky intellectual grounds. I cannot provide any logical or syllogistic or Aristotlean proof that God exists, that Jesus is our Savior, or that certain moral choices are right and others wrong (and besides, moral choices are often ambiguous anyway). But I do know that because my faith is not intellectual, I cannot use it to justify intellectual sloppiness. I try to be a skeptic with regards to claims of the supernatural or paranormal, or even with bits of folklore that I receive over the Internet or by word of mouth from friends and family. I can’t take these things at face value. When my sister received an e-mail a few years ago purporting to contain a recipe from Mrs. Smith’s Cookies (with the old saw about how the sender had been overcharged for a cookie, etc.), I immediately did some research online to find out the veracity of the e-mail, and found that it is a classic urban legend.
So today our church is basing an entire service on the traditional Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. The rationale is that the song is an old one which was invented in England to help Catholic children learn the tenets of their faith in order to keep them safe from English persecution (for many years after the Reformation, it was illegal to practice Catholicism in England). This is nonsense, of course. A moment of common sense will urge you to ask why the Catholics had to codify their beliefs in a song like this when they were so similar to the belief of the Anglican church? But someone on our worship committee heard the legend and didn’t investigate it, and today there was an entire service based on it.
I’ve been uncomfortable with this ever since I heard that it was going to happen. My faith is an odd one, I know, and part of it means that it’s simply immoral to use faith to justify untruth. Scientific Creationism, in this context, is simply wrong; you don’t use faith to justify bad science. And you don’t excuse your lack of research into an urban legend just because some other church said it was true. How can you possibly assert moral and spiritual truths, I feel, when you blindly accept intellectual falsehoods?
Ther sevice would have twelve little speeches about the symbolism of the song, followed by twelve special carols. I was asked to sing along with the carols, and this morning I went to the church early to rehearse. But when I saw the insert and the program, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to stay. I was going to fidget uncomfortably during the entire service, and I was going to feel like a hypocrite and a liar. I don’t like feeling this way, especially not in church.
A couple of weeks ago I went to Snopes and found a long entry about this urban legend. I printed it out, complete with resources, and dropped it off anonymously to our pastor. As far as I know, no good came of it.
I don’t blame anyone; I try not to. I know better than to think for an instant that anyone in our church went out of their way to knowingly present bad information simply because it makes Christianity look better. I know it’s just laziness. But I couldn’t be there and be a part of it.
And that’s why I had to leave church this morning.
Update: 3:00 p.m., December 28, 2003: Jennifer, who went to the service, informs me that our pastor did emphasize that the full truth of the urban legend is ultimately unknown. I feel better now.