Half-assed Buddhist.

Dear Friends,

buddha-lotus-flower-symbol

Today I read this essay by author and LGBTQ activist Dan Savage about the Duggar Family and enjoyed it so much I shared the link on Facebook and Twitter. Fair warning: if you are queasy about matters of sex and religion, don’t read it. Dan is an openly gay man and the Duggars are a conservative Christian family with a reality television show  on TLC (“19 Kids and Counting”), and these two polar opposites mash up in Dan’s essay about like you might imagine. The essay is simultaneously funny and crude and thought-provoking and reminded me that this wild soup we call American culture is indeed fascinating.

As much as I was tickled by the humor in Dan’s essay, I couldn’t help but be bothered by his assertion that families like the Duggars (and, by extension, their beliefs) are “actually pretty scary.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m almost as far removed from the Duggars’ point of view as is Dan, but I’m not frightened by their particular strain of patriarchal theocracy (Dan’s words). I’d just as soon bite off my tongue as advise my daughter (or son) according to Duggar philosophy, but the fact they believe what they believe and live how they live doesn’t frighten me. To each his own, I always say. And, yeah, I get Dan’s point that the family is proselytizing their beliefs, but so is he. Heck, what is this blog but propaganda for my world view?

I could write an entire post about how the temptation to be scared by people unlike ourselves is the root of our world’s problems, but that’s not my point today. My point today is that Dan’s essay reminded me of a season in my life when I spent considerable time examining the issues at play in Dan’s dispute with the Duggars. Many years ago, I wrote an essay on the topic which was published in a now-defunct online forum for female writers, and so I was inspired to pull it out of my archives and share it with you today.

Consider this another fair warning: I write about sex and religion with considerable candor and if that’s not your bag, skip this one. I promise I won’t be the least bit frightened.

With gratitude {for my friends from varied faith traditions — Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Bahai, — including those with no prescribed faith, all of whom accept me just as I am, which is exactly what I think Jesus would do},

Joan, who’s been half-assed at far more than Buddhism but hopes you aren’t keeping track

***

Half-assed Buddhist

I first tried my hand at proselytizing the summer after sixth grade.  I had just spent a week at Vacation Bible School sponsored by our town’s First Baptist Church.  Full of the kind of evangelical zeal one experiences after singing 10 rounds of “This little light of mine” and chugging five Dixie cups of Cool-Aid, I announced to my two best friends that they were going to hell.

“Really? Why?” one friend, a Catholic, said to me as the three of us climbed the high-dive ladder at our city’s swimming pool.

“Because you aren’t Baptist,” I replied matter-of-factly.

The thing is – neither was I.  Oh, sure, I had been baptized months earlier but it was at the First United Methodist Church, which I attended regularly under the watchful and approving gaze of my paternal grandmother.  I don’t recall why I was two-timing with the Baptists that summer, but it wouldn’t be the last time in my life I summarily traded teams.

My other friend, a non-denominational, looked really hurt and simply said “That’s not nice.”

“Well, it’s true,” I retorted, and sometime between leaping off the edge of the diving board and surfacing in the middle of the deep end, I forgot the topic entirely – including the fact that I was going to hell, too, by my own definition.

By the time I was 17, I spent considerable time contemplating damnation.  Still a regular church-goer, I had heard enough sermons to realize I was a sinner.  And the worst part was, I enjoyed every minute of it.  My senior year of high school, I discovered sex . . . glorious, immoderate, sweaty, teenage sex.  Usually in a car, but sometimes in the park or even a bed if my boyfriend and I could score an unoccupied house, sex became my favorite diversion.  Such wanton behavior made church attendance a tad uncomfortable, especially given the mere hours that typically separated fornication from communion. Plus, I was still more than a little confused by the seemingly intractable divisions between Christian denominations – divisions that just a few years earlier had led me to declare my best friends hell-bound.

It just didn’t make sense to me that one group of Christians could be so certain that their path to salvation was absolute while their brethren down the street were damned.  If the jury wasn’t in on this thing, why should I waste my time? So, one Sunday morning, I announced to my mother that my church-going days were over.  “Why?” she asked, stunned.  “Because I don’t enjoy it.  And you don’t go.  So I don’t really think it’s fair for you to tell me I have to.”  She said nothing and I went back to bed where I stayed every Sunday morning for approximately the next five years.

My sophomore year of college I briefly contemplated returning to the fold.  I had my eye on a really cute guy in English Lit and I started finagling ways to talk to him before and after class.  It didn’t take long for him to invite me to his place. When I arrived, he offered me a Coke and we sat down at a cramped table that served as both his eating and study space.  He shoved his textbooks aside, pulled out a black flip chart, and announced he was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He told me he liked me a lot, that he thought I was really smart and pretty, and that he wanted to share his faith with me.  I was thrilled.  “He thinks I’m pretty and smart!” I mentally gushed as he opened his guide to the Mormon faith and launched into the most earnest testimony I had ever witnessed.

Somehow – despite the fact that I was imagining him making out with me with the same conviction he was delivering his salvation appeal –his lavishly illustrated flip chart slowly caught my attention.  I wondered how I could have grown up in the Bible Belt and yet never have heard the extraordinary story of Joseph Smith and his golden tablets.  I was mesmerized, and more than a little moved by Joseph’s words:  “So great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was . . . to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.”

“Oh my gosh,” I exclaimed, “I know just how he felt!”  I talked about my lifelong distress over conflicting absolutes.  “How do I know what’s true?” I asked, as sincerely as one could while discussing religious beliefs with a hot new crush.  His eyes gleamed as he continued his story and I was momentarily lost in my imagined future with this guy.  I just might find the remedy to my existential angst and the man of my dreams at the same time!  So eager was I to convert (and cavort!) that I interrupted him before the punch line.   “So where are the golden tablets?” I asked.  “Can I go see them?”  Joseph Smith’s golden tablets were just the kind of confirmation I’d been waiting on and I was ready to sign on the dotted line if I could just glimpse these magnificent and holy relics.

Then my Mormon friend dropped the bomb: the golden tablets had been spirited away by a heavenly messenger.  Faith was required of me to believe Joseph’s testimony and to receive God’s grace through Jesus Christ.

Damn.  I’d been down this road before.  Crushed, I said thanks but no thanks, and Elder Sexy and I parted ways forever.

A couple of years later, I graduated from college and moved as far away from home as a small-town girl could imagine – Boston’s Beacon Hill.  I roomed with two pot-smoking boys my age and explored a fascinating world where old money, new immigrants, and liberal politics were the ingredients for an alluring blend of cultural goulash.  One Saturday night while hanging around Harvard Square, two polite and clean-cut men struck up a conversation with my girlfriend.  I was ready to catch the train home, but my friend was really getting into these guys.  By the time we finally boarded the Red Line back to Boston, she told me she had their phone numbers and had agreed to meet them the next morning.  “For coffee?” I asked.  “No.  For church,” she said.

I would soon learn this was no regular church.  A year later, my family would call it a cult.  Ten years later with a little more perspective and a lot less bitterness, I called it an extremely effective marketing machine.  The Boston Church of Christ (BCC) was the precursor of what is known today as a mega-church.  Insidious, ingenious, infatuating – BCC was a Venus flytrap of spiritual misfits and its church leaders saw me coming.

The Church of Christ claims to be just that – Christ’s original church, free from denominational strife and dogma. This was no “mainline” Church of Christ like the one in my hometown, I was told. This was the Boston Church of Christ – the one true church and a spiritual beacon to the world’s lost souls.

Looking back, I know I was drawn to BCC by its followers. Young and old, American and immigrant, highly educated and blue collar, the 2,000-strong membership reflected Boston’s diverse demographic mix that I so loved.  I worshiped alongside Harvard Ph.D.s and Somerville laborers, all equally fervent in their conviction that BCC offered a panacea for all spiritual ailments.  As much as I had abhorred pat answers in the past, I literally jumped in with both feet, agreeing to a second baptism when church elders suggested my first, administered by Methodists so many years ago, wasn’t valid.  It seemed God wanted me to punch my membership card one more time.  Always a good sport if not a devout parishioner, I said what the hell and gave it a go.  Maybe this one will stick, I thought.  Most religious experience is nothing if not contradictory, so I ignored a personal paradox to satisfy my spiritual wanderlust.

What distinguished BCC from all other churches I had previously experienced, indeed what drew me in, was the devotion of its followers.  Unlike the Methodists I had known back home, these guys were serious.  I once attended a revival service where the faithful contributed more than one million dollars.  It still astonishes me today that some 2000 followers put cash, checks, and deeds totaling seven figures in passed collection plates.  I don’t recall how much I gave that evening but I know it wasn’t sacrificial in the way church elders had been encouraging all week; nor in the way that my friend did when she sold her condo and gave a check to BCC for more than $100,000. Long before “What Would Jesus Do?” became a ubiquitous bracelet, the leadership of BCC exploited their version of the concept by encouraging asceticism for the sake of church coffers.  By the time I left the church and moved home, I realized I had mistaken fervor for truth.

In later years, I would approach truth as a human construct that is ever-shifting. I would qualify truth by asking “Whose?”  I quit worrying about the afterlife in favor of the here and now.  Not surprisingly, my focus on “the moment” led me to Buddhism.

A basic Buddhist premise teaches that dualistic thinking – the categorization of the world in black and white terms — is the source of all human suffering.  We self-torment with categories that are sharply drawn and that leave little room for the ineffable. Buddhists see that good and evil are shades of the same color.  We can draw an arbitrary line in the sand if we wish, but perhaps it would serve us well to look inward, to understand why we’re drawing that particular line, grasping for one kind of outcome and afraid of another.

I recently tried to explain this notion to a longtime friend who is as devout and earnest a Christian as I have ever known. I probably seem like a libertine to her  (or worse, a relativist) and she couldn’t understand why – raised a Christian – I couldn’t now continue to play along.  I struggled to provide an answer in her terms, and I finally offered, “I guess I needed a God who’s more expansive than the Christian God I was taught about in my youth.  I needed some new tools and different perspectives to confront and examine the notion of my soul.  And I find that the Buddhist teachings are helping me . . . helping me see myself and all religious thought in a new, more accepting light.”

My friend paused for a moment while she considered my answer, then finally she looked me in the eyes and said with a surprising dose of consternation, “Yeah, but you’re a half-assed Buddhist!  I bet you don’t even go to temple.”

I laughed heartily and hugged her and told her she had no idea how perfect her label is.  My god, what is a Buddhist but one who embraces the haphazard, the unsatisfactory? Her proclamation would be a badge of honor from that moment on, I told her, because it beats the hell out of the skeptical and cynical Christian of my youth.

Yes, my journey inward is sublimely half-assed; but for all its insufficiency and incompetency, it is still magnificently, reverently a journey into me, into the shadows of my heart where I am connected to and commune with both humanity and divinity, in all their definitions. For whatever reason, I never could seem to follow Jesus to the Kingdom of God inside me, but I can’t help but think it’s a good place to end up now and I’m grateful for the tour guide that got me there.

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Comments

  1. I won’t have time this AM to read Dan Savage’s essay (don’t watch the TLC show) so cannot really weigh in on the particulars in this instance. That said, patriarchal theocracy adherents historically have been behind so much of the suffering caused by colonialism and political repression of anybody “other” that I take it as commonsensical to be frightened at the prospects of the world order they advocate. Fervent fundamentalism is scary in any iteration.

  2. Deb — I hear ya on the suffering and repression. So much of it has been inflicted in the name of various religions that I’m always surprised more of the world isn’t stridently atheist. But I’m an optimist, generally, and I believe progress and enlightenment lurches forward, despite the often violent efforts of some to keep us solidly stuck in the middle ages.

  3. It was good to read “Half-assed Buddhist” again. I love that essay.

  4. I know before you say it “is that what you took out of this essay” (and I did enjoy it and see myself having the same questions you do) but I want to know what happened to your friend that sold her house and gave them that money!!

  5. In the short term, my friend got a roommate and an apartment to rent. In the long term, I can’t say because we lost track of each other when I moved away. I often wonder about many of my friends from the church and where they are.

  6. Joan – thank you for sharing some of your faith and religion journey. I have lived with competing Baptist vs Presbyterian influences most of my life…at times it just seems utterly ridiculous to me that being simply “Christian” isn’t enough for many people and churches… And then you bring in Catholics and Mormons…I could go on…I’m in my early 30s now, and have a feeling I still have a lot to learn, break free from, discover, and find peace with…that is my hope anyway. Thanks for sharing.

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