Then again, if I only wanted to attend a church that was good, true and without error—according to my transitory ego-stoked beliefs—I’d have to invent my own religion. But wait a moment. There’d be a problem. I’d have to excommunicate the priest and his entire congregation! You see, I know that particular bishop/priest/congregation too well. With apologies to Groucho Marx: I’d never want to join a church that had someone like me for their founding bishop, especially if I was the only member!
I go to church as my means of trying to encounter God, not as a way to look for perfection on earth. I don’t go because I think my church is a better church, let alone the one true church. It’s just where I go. It’s just my means of establishing relationships with people who share my commitment to a liturgical tradition that I am fed by aesthetically and spiritually. Or put it this way: the Dude abides.
In the movie The Big Lebowski, the Dude Lebowski (a single, unemployed slacker living in Venice, California) is mistaken for a millionaire who is also named Lebowski. Thugs break into the Dude’s apartment and try to coerce him into paying a debt he knows nothing about. When he refuses, they pee on his carpet. Later, while considering the immorality of the self-identified Nihilists who desecrated the Dude’s carpet, his friend Walter says, “Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”
Unlike the nihilist carpet wreckers, Walter (played by John Goodman) and the Dude (played by Jeff Bridges) do have an ethos! They embrace this code by bowling. To them, bowling is church, their means of establishing relationships with people who share their commitment to a liturgical tradition in a way that centers their lives. And their church isn’t perfect either but they still go, even though it also includes jerks, like “Jesus Quintana” played by John Turturro. Turturro’s hilarious “Jesus” is a pain in the ass, notwithstanding Walter and the Dude still go bowling with him. They don’t see themselves as too good for whoever else shows up to participate.
The Dude is into liturgical tradition. He practices his rituals religiously, which include smoking marijuana in the bath, drinking White Russians, bowling and remaining faithful to his friends. The Dude abides, because he’s true to his rites and thus, to himself. The Dude does not worry about his motivations, let alone his inner sincerity or the perfection of his bowling-church. The Dude is not trying to change his liturgical rites to make them hipper, progressive or modern. The Dude isn’t a bowler because he believes in bowling but because he bowls!
My life is also shaped by liturgical rites: praying as I walk down the stairs, bringing a cup of coffee to Genie in bed, telling my grandchildren stories, drinking wine with Genie before and during dinner, writing each day before dawn, reading the New Yorker before bed, and having sex with Genie as we push back against mortality’s grasp—while also fulfilling our appetites. And then there’s church.
Like the Dude, “or His Dudeness, or Duder or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing,” the ancient Byzantine liturgies abide. Speaking only for myself, the Liturgy provides the interior space I crave, wherein I may “lay aside all earthly cares,” as the words of the prayer during the Great Entrance instruct.
The Great Entrance is a procession during which the clergy enter the sanctuary through the Holy Doors that lead to the altar. The priest, altar boys (where are the altar girls?) and deacons carry incense and candles, and the angels are said to enter with them. During these rituals, I’m not listening to a sermon or trying to decide if some preacher or other is clever or if I agree with him, let alone wondering if I believe in the angels the choir is singing about. The Liturgy isn’t about being taught, any more than music is about doing math. As Jesus said, it’s all about the spirit, not the geography. Liturgy is about providing a silent space inside me where words are replaced by an experience of another dimension where I may sense the love of God.
What I’m “looking for” in church is inner stillness and peace of the kind my friend Holly Meade lived out as she faced her death, not an adrenaline rush or entertainment, let alone spectacle. I do not need more entertainment! I live in a time and place where I’m bombarded by entertainment 24/7. Nor do I need more celebrity leaders or Bible teachers. I’m not looking for clever new words about so-called theological facts but for the experience of spirituality itself. The last thing I crave is to be exposed to the sort of grandstanding preachers that so many evangelical churches seem to breed with the ubiquity of maggots appearing in road kill. The last thing I want is a new and improved “worship experience.” The last thing I want is for the service to be socially and politically relevant or, worse yet, politicized, as if faith is about who I should vote for according to a moralistic left wing or right wing litmus test. I just want to go bowling!
I no more want my liturgies updated than I want the house I live in knocked down so I can build a better, different or bigger house. What would happen to Lucy’s stair on which I always pray for her? What would happen to the inside of the kitchen dish cupboard where the heights and measurements of my children and grandchildren are marked? What would become of the cabinet door that’s dented from the time Genie threw a salad bowl at me? What would happen to the loose, squeaky floorboard where I knelt the time I asked my daughter Jessica to forgive me for slapping her when she was a child, and where she forgave me?
This has been an excerpt from Chapter 17 of my new book. TO READ MORE OF THIS BOOK PLEASE GO TO AMAZON AND ORDER THE PAPERBACK OR THE E-BOOK (ONLY $3.99)
“The new book, ‘Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God,’ is [a] distillation of wisdom.” Washington Post (June 12, 2014)