Diving into the ocean of religion

Diving into the ocean of religion January 14, 2012

Interesting discussion on yesterday’s post, friends!

In case you missed it, yesterday I responded to the viral video that’s been going around the interwebs lately–Jeffersen Bethke’s “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus.” I argued that religion and Jesus are not incompatible. In fact, in order to have a “relationship” with Jesus, we need to take action–action that, for many people, looks like religion.

I really wrote that post to myself. I do that a lot–write things to myself. Writing is how I figure out life. It’s how I self-evaluate. It’s how I wrestle with tough questions and even how I pray. I write to myself and God, and sometimes I make it public because I’ve learned that there are others our there wrestling with the same questions.

As many of you know, I don’t go to church anymore, and I’ve been wary lately of any kind of organized Christian religion. I experienced too much hurt. Too much sexism and homophobia. Too much anti-intellectualism. Too much judgement. Too much resistance to my questions and concerns.

But my religious experience has been relatively shallow. It’s been mostly limited to Baptist churches and churches that don’t call themselves Baptist churches but might as well.  I’ve treated religion like wading pool. I tried to dive deeper and hit rock bottom. I tried to swim further but people told me it was too dangerous. People told me to be satisfied with my wading pool. They told me that God was in here, not out there

But I couldn’t be satisfied any longer.

And I couldn’t find God anywhere.

So I gave up and swam to shore.

But religion is an ocean.

It’s endless moving waters as far as the eye can see. It’s miles deep and filled with life–some of it beautiful, some of it horrifying. It can be calm and glassy or stormy and violent.

There’s more to religion than I thought.

Right now, I’m standing on the shoreline, letting the foamy waves wash the sand off my toes. And I think I’m ready.

I’m ready to dive into religion again. But not the tide pool that I grew up in. I want the whole ocean. I want to dive and swim and explore. I want to float on my back, get caught up in currents, and be swept under by waves. I want to see religion outside of my tide pool.

So, this year, I hope to do that in several ways:

*Though class work: I’m taking two classes this semester that relate to religion. First, there’s Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. The class is made up of people from various religious backgrounds. Some call themselves Christians. Some would say they are spiritual, but not religious. Some are atheists and agnostics who want to learn how to better relate to their religious peers. There’s even a man whose life goal is to become an ordained Buddhist monk. I’m expecting to learn a lot by looking at religion from a scientific standpoint and by listening to these diverse perspectives in class discussions.

Also, I’m taking a course called Representations of Muslim Women. We hear about Muslim women all the time here in the U.S. But who do we hear it from? White, Christian men. And when we never hear from Muslim women (or men for that matter) themselves, we not only get skewed facts, but we tend to “other” these women. To view them as helpless victims rather than as strong, intelligent, creative, unique human beings. We get stereotypes rather than diversity. The book for this class was written by Muslim women speaking for themselves. Telling their perspectives and their stories and their relationships to the world, to each other, and to God.

*Through reading: Besides the textbooks I’ll be reading for class, I also plan on reading The World’s Religions by Huston Smith. I will also do some reading in the Book of Mormon and the Qu’ran. And, of course, I plan on reading the Bible again and again, hopefully now with a fresh perspective and an open mind. I may add other books to this reading list if I come across them, so if you have any suggestions for me, please let me know!

*Through attending religious services/meetings: I don’t have a church that I attend full-time at the moment, so I’m going to attempt to attend a different type of service each week. I’ll also be trying out different religious groups on campus.

Tomorrow, I’m going to try to get up early enough (wish me luck) to go to an Episcopal church. I also plan on visiting an Orthodox church, a Uniservalist church, a Catholic church, a Mosque, and many others. I will try to write a blog post each week about my experiences and about what I learned.

As always, I will think critically about all of these classes, books, and meetings. I will keep a sharp eye out for hurtful teachings. But my goal will not be to rip apart these different perspectives, nor will it be to decide which one is better/more right (though I hope to find a place that is better and more right for me by the time I’m done).

My goal is to learn from and understand the perspectives of people from all different backgrounds, so that I can view those people as humans–as brothers and sisters, even. Not as outsiders, as others.

And my goal is to catch glimpses of God that I couldn’t see from my tide pool.

Maybe when I’m done, I’ll find another tide pool to settle in. Or maybe I’ll get sick of swimming and return to the shore. But my hope is that I’ll gain an appreciation for the entire complex, constantly changing, powerful, living ocean that is religion. My hope is that, even if I find a part of that ocean that I fit into better than the other parts, I will be able to see God and humanity in all of the ocean.

What about you, readers? Are you able to find God in organized religion, or do you see him more clearly outside of the doors of the church? Any suggestions for me before I go on this journey? Any books I should read or services I should attend or branches of religion that I should study up on?

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  • Reading through theology books by the Witnesses right now. My best friend is a Witness; I want to understand her faith and understand her heart better. And like you said, I want to see what’s out past the break water. Interested to read what you see ‘out there’. 🙂

    • ah, yes, the Witnesses! Abe has a book given to him by Witnesses. I’ll have to remember to borrow it.

  • Sarah, this is such a beautiful metaphor and describes my own journey so much.

    I grew up Southern Baptist, and went to Wheaton College, where (like many Christian college students) I grew disenchanted with the church. I ended up at an Anglican church, along with many other low-church students, while those who grew up high-church ended up non-denom/Baptist. After my dad died very suddenly after I graduated college, I was done. Just done.

    Then last year, I stepped my toe back into the ocean. Surprisingly, I am now involved in a church that is historically Assemblies of God, but now looks like a non-denom community. I do NOT agree with many of the practices and beliefs of this community, but I reached the point where I was so thirsty for worship and fellowship that I needed to submit myself (ugh, loaded term, but it seems to fit here) to a community of fellow believers. I threw out my litmus tests for the “perfect” church, and have been pleasantly surprised at the wonderful people I’ve gotten to know.

    It took me a long time to get to this point (5+ years), and your journey may be different. Keep yourself open to many things and don’t let labels control so much (I mean, an AoG church? Who woulda thought?!). I look forward to what all you will explore outside of your “tide pool”! 🙂

    • “I threw out my litmus tests for the “perfect” church, and have been pleasantly surprised at the wonderful people I’ve gotten to know.”

      yes! I hope I can do the same.

  • I hear ya. I’ve only just started going back myself, though I do feel a little bad not going to my most recent church. It’s a great group, wonderful people, and surprisingly non-sexist for a Baptist-rooted church (woman deacons?! yes!), a denomination I’ve definitely move away from. So I’m compromising… splitting my time between that church and a closer Episcopalian church that has a young adult (18-45) ministry. While the majority of the attendees at my other church are within that bracket, they’re also almost all married and/or parents, and it kind of prevents some of the closeness I’m craving in friendship.

    It’s an adjustment… and I once again haven’t been anywhere for a couple of weeks. I’m recovering from a car wreck (2 months ago), plus both a sinus infection and the stomach bug within the past month. Most Sundays I’m just too worn down to go, sadly. Tomorrow, (knock on wood), I’m going to try going to both–9:00 at the Episcopal church, 10:30 at Center City. We’ll see if my head explodes from pushing myself too far. 😉

    Good luck, Sarah. I’m pulling for you (and me) to find a safe place to plug in. It’s definitely a journey.

    • Yeah, once sunday comes around, the LAST thing I want to do is go to church. It’s difficult.

      I hope you recover soon! Get well!

      • Thanks, Sarah! And I didn’t make it to church either this morning–I woke up nauseated and in a lot of pain (I couldn’t even paint today), so I figured rest to combat this setback was a leeeeettle bit more important. 🙂

  • Good luck getting up for the Episcopal service. 😉 I’m a convert to the Episcopal Church (my roots are in Reformed Xty w/ a dash of conservative evangelicism), and have really found a home here. Of course TEC has problems; any institutional church does. I still go. I still see God at work in the beautiful, broken parishioners I worship with. I’m still fed by the Eucharist, shaped by the prayers, moved by the music, and upheld by the fellowship.

    I hate to be that “read about it on my blog!” person, but, well, I have to get up early to make it to choir practice, so you can click here if you want a bit more on why I like TEC. And I wish you all the best on your journey! The seas of religion are, God knows, stormy ones, and rocks are everywhere.


    • I didn’t actually wake up this morning, but I will try again next week! Also, planning on attending the church’s college group this week (it’s at night, so that makes things easier! haha). Thank you for sharing those resources! I will definitely refer to them.

  • When I lived in the US, I loved my local Vineyard church. The church in New Orleans accepted everyone. Bald ladies, guys who chain-smoked, young seekers, old ladies with hearing aids: everybody had a part to play. And I like the Vineyard because the theology is good, but they are contemporary in their approach. Also, they are what I call a group of Supernatural Natural acting people. They don’t scream, punch their fist in your chest, or dance on your toes. But the power of God is working there. Now that I am in a developing country, the Vineyard here seems prosperity gospel. I can’t believe they dangle that false doctrine here in a third world country. It’s disheartening.

    • I’ve heard about Vineyard church–never been to one. I’ll have to add that to my list. Sorry your experience has been mixed.

      • I went to a Wineyard church. The one I went to really tried to push for authentic experiences. I felt people’s hands at my back and and I was like ” Whoa, you guys, stop pushing me! I can see the precipice, I know how this works. I jumped already. I also heard that story of what happened to Jesus physically as he was crucified.” It was not for me.

  • If you’ve not read anything by N.T Wright, you probably should. I like his more academic works. Since you’re used to that sort of reading you might as well. His popular works are also really good. I can’t think of anything of his I’ve ever read that disappointed me. Or if you want to sample some of his work, there’s a site that collects many of the things (papers/talks/lectures) that are available online.


    A short book that provides an overview of the history of the half of Christianity we don’t tend to hear about in this part of the world is “The Orthodox Church” by Timothy Ware (now Metropolitan Kallistos Ware).

    The Qur’an is worth reading at least once. I’m not sure it really helped me understand Islam, but at least I have an idea how much I don’t understand. (Islam never really did anything for me, so it was more of an intellectual exploration.) You should be aware that it’s held the Qur’an can only truly exist in its original Arabic. A translation of the Qur’an is not actually the Qur’an; it’s a commentary on the Qur’an. It’s a different understanding than Christianity, which has held from the beginning that the Scriptures and the Liturgy could and had to be translated into other languages while still retaining their true essence. It’s an extension of the theology of the Incarnation.

    You can reach your only conclusion, but I didn’t even find the Book of Mormon decent literature. It was torture to read. Joseph Smith almost strikes me as a 19th century version of L. Ron Hubbard. Of course, I’ve had a number of Mormon (and ex-Mormon) friends over the years. That’s not an opinion I would express to them, since I always try to respect people, if not necessarily their beliefs. But I thought I would give you my honest appraisal.

    Beyond that, if you’re really going to try to understand world religions, you have to include some of the “Far Eastern” religions. Read the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. Read the Life of Prince Siddhartha (who became Gautama Buddha). I think Hinduism is really the only other religion I’ve encountered besides Christianity that is panentheistic, but it’s extremely different from Christianity. (Christianity panentheism is so different that I’ve heard Wright coin a new word to try to capture it: the-en-panism.) I’m not even sure where to recommend you start with it. I picked up a lot of it starting as a child. I didn’t read about it as much as I experienced at least an Americanized aspect of it. I did read more later, but I’m not sure I could have started with reading and moved to understanding. You can try to tackle the Baghavad Gita, of course.

    The path from there goes as deep as you want to go. Properly understood (which it often isn’t these days) the Christian narrative is a pretty amazing one, especially within the context of other world religions. But I would never have learned that narrative if God hadn’t sought me at every turn. The Christian God was a God I thought I understood and didn’t want (after being asked to leave a service as a teen parent with my infant daughter because we were “disrupting” it), so I wasn’t interested in hearing more about Christianity. But then, that’s one of the intriguing things about the Christian narrative. Its God is the God who pursues human beings rather than the other way around.

    Oh, before you visit an Orthodox Church, you probably want to read the following.


    • Thanks for all the resources! I will definitely refer back to them.

      I’ve been reading the Quran. You’re right that it’s not helping me understand Islam (which helps me understand the perspectives of non-Christians–handing them a Bible isn’t going to help them much unless they’ve been raised in Christianity, is it?). It reminds me a lot of the Old Testament of the Bible, both in good ways and bad ways. Beautiful message about God’s love and mercy, but like the OT, so patriarchal in its approach to women that it makes me cringe. I’ve also been reading elsewhere about Muslim feminists trying to reconcil their faith with feminism. It definitely made me feel more connected to those women, since I have had the same struggles with my own faith.

  • I grew up Methodist and its always been a wonderful church home for me. A lot of Methodist churches outside of the south are reconciling (http://www.rmnetwork.org/) so they might have the inclusive community you’re searching for. Wherever you end up, I really hope you can find a great church home. Christian community so is important 🙂

    • There’s a Methodist church in Toledo that I absolutely LOVE! I went there when I was about to give up on church completely. It was a last ditch effort on my part, and it really is what made me believe in church/religion again. Unfortunately, without a job, I can’t afford to drive a half hour to Toledo every week to go there. But yes, very thankful for that church. I’ll have to try out some Methodist churches here in Bowling Green.

  • In my faith journey I had found God both inside and outside the doors of organized religion. I had grown up in a non-denominational evangelical megachurch made (in)famous by Ted Haggard. A year after that incident I had quit going to church and was just about done with Christianity, or at least the brand of Christianity I grew up with. Thankfully I had a community of friends who had been through similar experiences/upbringings. We would get together on Sundays, enjoy a meal (often with homebrewed beer) and tackle serious questions and issues we had with Christianity.
    Now I find myself in a much smaller church service that is still evangelical in its setting but also incorporates more liturgical elements like corporate prayer/confession and the Nicene Creed and teachings inspired by Eugene Peterson and N.T. Wright. It’s not perfect and I haven’t made a lot of connections yet, but I really enjoy the service and the theology presented.
    If you still plan on attending the Episcopalian church you mentioned, I would recommend literature by Robert Farrar Capon. He’s an Episcopalian priest, and though he obviously doesn’t speak for all of the Episcopal Church, I have felt enriched by his books. I have currently finished his writings on the parables of Jesus, which is collected in a volume entitled Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment, and they are a worthwhile (if not exhausting!) read.

  • Steven Mehlhose

    Now I know you are trying to get away from the Baptist stuff but if you want a tremendous book to read by one of my favorite authors then try either The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer or For His Utmost by Oswald Chambers

  • Good luck with your search. Don’t stop when think you found the answer. This is a journey and the only way to fail at it is to think you have arrived. It is like the pilgrims progress. keep moving, keep learning and keep walking with God.

  • What an interesting discussion! I have not found myself at peace yet as I struggle with the restricted nature of the evangelic community. I still struggle with whether I believe the bible is God inspired, man inspired,man manipulated or actually to be taken as Gods word.
    Heres my dilema..
    Grew up Jewish, dad converted to christianity. While in school I was just like you. I took psychology of religion, visited the church of scientist,and visited with hindu priests. I read about the mormon faith and actually …I was so interested in finding GOD. But my mother kept telling me my dad was in a “cult”. So I searched for myself. I did not want to believe unless I was sure!
    I prayed and asked God if Jesus was God. One month later I had a supernatural experience where I felt a warm sensation come upon me and I reached out my arm in the air( I was in bed) and a hand (YES A HAND!!!) took hold of my hand. I knew at that moment that God was answering my prayer. I became a christian that moment. It was a complete change as u can imagine being Jewish!
    I bought a bible and found a church and then married a christina man. I never questioned dogma at first because of the incredible experience I had of God.
    now….20 years later..I began not to question God…but the way evangelical church’s are so exclusive. I believe in the affirming and loving nature of God but then I am shown scriptures about how this is a sin and that is a sin!
    I guess you would say that I have become a more liberal christian Jew…who probably would fit nicely in a united church.
    I still believe …its just I maybe dont take all of the bible literally anymore…