I cheerfully admit that by the standards of some people — the more fundamentalist of them — I am probably destined to go straight to Hell. In some sort of handbasket, I don’t doubt. My understanding of God and my approach to religion and spirituality are by no means traditional or even very conservative. I just feel, sometimes, like God is… well… just a bit too small.
I’ve just returned from midnight mass at my parents’ church. In years past I have always found midnight mass inspiring and exciting, in spite of my less than orthodox faith. But this year, something was different. I found myself feeling short-tempered, grumpy, and irritable. When mass was over I quickly made my excuses and left the church to head straight back to my parents’ house in order to take some medicine that I should have taken earlier anyway. Perhaps it was that I was tired, or that my allergies were starting to kick in along with my asthma. Perhaps it was that my heart is two sizes too small. For whatever reason, my temper was short and I just didn’t find Mass as inspiring as I usually do.
Religion, I admit, frequently puzzles me. While I am nominally a Christian — more specifically, a Methodist — I just don’t find myself entirely moved or inspired by the story of Jesus Christ or the Christmas story. It may be that I just don’t "get it", or that I didn’t pay enough attention in Sunday school when I was a kid… Or perhaps my faith is simply the measure of a mustard seed.
It’s not that I don’t believe in Jesus Christ; I believe that Jesus certainly existed, historically, and that he was a wise and intelligent man. Was he divine or God incarnate? I don’t know. There are times when I think about it and find the idea of Jesus Christ as God an exciting one; the myth made flesh — or, if the Episcopalian catechism is correct and God is love, then Jesus was a physical incarnation of love.
But at Christmas mass I see people moved to tears by the Christmas story, and I can’t identify.
I do consider myself a spiritual person. I have seen too many miracles in my life to not believe that there is something which exists which is bigger than me, which watches over the universe and possibly even set things in motion in the first place. I don’t believe in a personified deity, someone who sits in a throne and passes judgement on us based on our sexuality or our beliefs or who we voted for in the last election (yes, I have met people who have tried to tell me that I am going to hell because I’ve voted Democrat or even Green in past elections). But I’ve had a hard time ever finding a place where I can feel comfortable expressing my own spirituality. I grew up as an Episcopalian, one of the more liberal denominations of Christianity; but in my time I’ve also attended Catholic Masses, Jewish temple, Moslem prayer circles, Baha’i festivals, Buddhist meditation ceremonies… I’ve even taken part in a Wiccan invokation of the four winds, and danced in a circle to honor Shiva. But I haven’t found an expression of spirituality which doesn’t feel, somehow, small and stifling.
While exploring all of these religious traditions, I’ve also read a wide range of holy books; I’ve read several versions of the Bible, of course, as well as the Qur’an, the writings of the Baha’i Faith, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching, the Analects of Confucius, and on and on and on. I have found a lot of wisdom in all of these books, and I can easily believe that many of them were divinely inspired; wisdom is wisdom, after all, no matter where it comes from or what trappings it’s hidden in. But none of the holy books can pass for literal truth; the best way to experience the scriptures of any religious tradition, Christianity included, is as metaphor. God is not a concept that can easily be explained or experienced; metaphor is the best that we can do.
With Christianity, I am most bothered by the notion that eternal life and salvation are reserved for those who believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. It seems to me that this turns Christianity into an exclusive club of some sort, where if you accept the tenets of the club you get to play in the clubhouse; and if you don’t believe in what the club believes, no matter what kind of person you are, you can’t play in the clubhouse. Some people find this inspiring. I don’t. I find it frustrating; some of my favorite playmates, when I was a child, were the ones who couldn’t get into the clubs. I know that there are plenty of Christian flavors that don’t believe this way — the Episcopalian church and the Methodist church both spring to mind — but it is certainly true of an overwhelming number of Christian folks.
None of this, though, really explains my feelings at Christmas Eve mass this year; why I was short-tempered, or why I was uninspired or unmoved at service this year. Perhaps next year, when Jennifer and I are attending service together with my parents, before driving home and spending Christmas Day with her family, I’ll feel better about everything.
"I’ll keep Christmas in my way," said Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. I will, too; by reflecting on the season, by remembering that Christmas is not about the presents or the money or the credit card bills; nor is it about being "the one time of year when everyone loves each other and peace reigns throughout the earth" (because, honestly, in my experience, people are just as cruel and mean to each other at Christmas time as they are during the rest of the year; more so, in some cases); it’s about remembering the presence of the divine in the world and reconnecting to it. For me, that is, even if I don’t really identify heavily with the Christmas tradition. Other people do it in other ways; and that’s all right, too.