Sequia TreeBeen reflecting on some old themes lately, in particular the church/consumer/community issues that have occupied a number of posts on this blog. Basically, it feels like I am “between churches,” when in reality I am in no such position. I’m a member of one place, where I attend during the academic year and where my wife is an Elder, and during the summers I go to the place we’ve gone since 2001 and where we were members before moving away. Without a doubt, these two churches are my immediate church families. The two of them are so very different from each other, as two sets of parents may be very different from each other between spouses in a marriage. One is considerably to the left of the other; one is a deeply traditional evangelical church right out of the 1950’s. There are people that I love and dearly cherish in both.

And yet.

I feel the pull, indeed the temptation, to engage in that favorite American pasttime for lifelong (Protestant) church-goers, which is the temptation to visit another section of the religious superstore that is America and shop for something else. And the thing is that I know which section of the superstore I’d visit, kind of like I know what kind of computer I’d buy right now if I could afford to get one at all.

The problem is that I feel much more part of a particular religious tradition that I’m not even a member of than the ones I am officially involved with. As someone who views religions as communities of memory, to use Robert Bellah’s phrase, this perplexes me, especially because the very “community” I feel so drawn to is not one where I have a storehouse of individual memories. Most of my individual memories in religious communities vis-a-vis my religious upbringing are in evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Yet I no longer feel at home in these “isms,” for a variety of reasons, and with my present left-leaning mainline church I have no mnemonic links whatsoever. I’m not part of the community where most of my community memory lies, and I’m not part of the community where I am a member of because I share nothing with the communal memory of the place, although I do sympathize with much there from a purely intellectual standpoint, which is not (and has never been, at least for me) an adequate reason for becoming involved in a community of faith of any sort. In the one tradition, my mnemonic roots run deep, but the tree is dead, where in the other, the tree struggles to survive because the roots, though green, are only penetrating through cracks in the concrete, if they penetrate at all.

I think that one reason so many of us feel unsatisfied by our particular church communities is because our experience with the community memory is incomplete. It is incomplete because the memory is either not perpetuated, or it is not understood, or is incomplete (as in missing important parts). Many of us, likewise, feel like we are unconnected to community memory in our faith traditions because we have other social and interpersonal relationships with people outside those particular communities that nurture “alternative” memory that, for whatever reason, are more compelling than those maintained by our faith traditions. I suspect it is a combination of all of these, with some aspects being more dominant than others in life.

We have a tendency to think of “memory” only insofar as it helps us with something. We can probably blame Freud for this more narrow view, who saw memory as an aid for therapy of the individual and frequently as the source of individual and collective neuroses. When we think of memory only in this “therapeutic” way, we neglect other important aspects of community memory; we ignore various stories, rites, liturgies and litanies, language, and physical and sensory experiences. People who value sensory, physical, and bodily representation and expression of our participation in a community are not likely to be much impressed with worship in many Protestant denominations, such as most Baptist traditions (my own), that place little or no spiritual value in elements of worship that aid in re/presenting community memory in these ways. Similarly, for “think-tank” denominations, such as presbyterian and numerous fundamentalist traditions who perpetuate a more logical and systematic presentation of the community memory, liturgy that involves anything more than a book and the mind is usually going to be regarded as so much excess baggage that is little more than a distraction from the real work of the mind and the spirit.

I dunno. Mostly just “thinking out loud” here. I’m very much a sensualist who places a tremendous amount of value in the role that the body and the senses play in being a full participant in individual and community memory. I value the stories, both the positive and the negative, of community memory. I value the work of the mind to be analytical and critical even while an engaged and full participant in community work. I also value the companionship of like-minded individuals, of whom I have met many, but (alas!) few in my own geographic area. Are our communities of faith able to incorporate a more “total” or “wholistic” approach to representing and expressing their memory so as to permit membership that doesn’t, at the same time, leave an empty component in our experience in that memory?

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