Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Soporific Ethics, and a Great Central Park View: The Society for Ethical Culture, Manhattan

It’s taken me a long time to get around to writing about my experiences at the Society for Ethical Culture this weekend. The reason for this, unfortunately, is that it just wasn’t very interesting. And it was also a little depressing.

The Ethical Culturists own a truly gigantic building right on Central Park West. Their view of the park is fabulous. Their deal is that every Sunday, instead of a worship service, they have a lecture from an academic or somesuch person about an important ethical topic. Their slogan – displayed prominently in their sanctuary – is “Where People Come To Seek The Highest is Holy Ground.” They’d changed it to “People” from “Mankind” 20 years ago, and they were still talking about it. Three different Ethical Culturists referred to this change on three separate occasions over the course of 75 minutes. This gives you some idea of the glacial pace of change at the Society for Ethical Culture.

I walked into the ceremonial hall. Plain, simple, dark brown wood. Chairs instead of pews. Stained glass windows depicting families standing in noble postures of familial concern. (At the front of the room, instead of any kind of altar, they have a mirror…. You get it, right? You yourself are what is holy.)

There were about 35 people there. The demographic breakdown was as follows:

People in their 20s: me and my friend and another member’s young son (3 total)
People in their 30s: 0 total
People in their 40s: maybe 2 total
People in their 50s: maybe 2 total
People in their 60s, 70s, or 80s: maybe 28 total.

That was it.

Last week was the anniversary of the establishment of their Society, so they had an open afternoon lecture where members of the Society gave testimony about why they joined it. “Ooh, testimony!” I thought to myself. “Surely, through testimony, I will learn about the burning heart of this tradition – what draws people to participate in it and what binds them to it.” I thought about the Mormon testimonials I’d seen, where desperately sincere 20somethings stood up and talked about how Jesus and the Mormon Church had changed their entire lives, saved their souls, brought them deep spiritual contentment. I thought that this was going to be great.

Instead, five elderly members of the church got up and told very boring five minute stories about when they were young children on the Upper West Side, they realized that God didn’t exist, so they didn’t know where to go to find people like themselves, and then they found the Society, and everyone was so friendly, and everyone was so ethical, and now they sing in the choir.

That was it.

It’s too bad, really. You couldn’t find a nicer, gentler group of people who were more dedicated to left wing principles and to not doing anybody any harm. According to their literature – though I saw no evidence of this – they have a long tradition of social justice and social action. But what I saw was more like a group of kind elderly friends who agree on the principles of right living, and who gather and discuss these principles now and again. Well, honestly, even more passive than that - they listen to lectures on these principles. I saw no passion, no strength, nothing directed outward to the world.

The “Senior Leader” (pastor) seemed aware that this was an issue. He’d structured the afternoon meeting as an open house, so more people “from the community” would want to walk in and learn about what the Ethical Culturists did (in a gentle, non-judgmental, non-intrusive fashion). But there was nothing to draw us in. And the Senior Leader hardly seemed upset. Coming from the Jewish community, where testimonials about impending demographic catastrophe serve as preambles to just about every single goddamn communal conversation, I was totally startled by the Ethical Culturists’ calm in the face of their certain extinction. Particularly since most of them were Jewish.

Before the boring stories started, I actually asked the one member who seemed aware that newcomers were in the house, “Why is everyone here so old?” (Though I asked it more politely than that). She nodded thoughtfully and said that it was true, that virtually all the children and grandchildren of the Ethical Culturists had either become completely secular, or they had reverted to the religions of their grandparents or great-grandparents. She was not really sure why this was the case.

Are we really such primitive people that ethical behavior without any kind of smells, bells, rituals or supernatural beings holds no appeal for us beyond a single generation? I saw a dying culture last weekend. I saw a group that represented not the start of an enlightened new tradition, but that represented the end, the remnants of a progressive idea that had failed to perpetuate itself.

To tell the truth, I didn’t find it very appealing either. It was a bunch of Jews who’d built for themselves a very gentle, very secular kind of something that gave off a very polite little odor of twice-shampooed Episcopalianism or Methodism. I wish them the best of luck, but I’m never going back.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Order, Disorder, and a Brief Encounter with a Messianic Jew

"It takes a lot more awareness to be a Jewish Catholic than to be an Irish Catholic," the guy with the Jewish mom and the Catholic dad told me earnestly last night at Mary Help of Christians Church, which is closing its doors permanently this coming weekend. (Well, actually, it's going to become a "Church of Convenience," under the auspices of the surviving neighboring parish, but none of the locals seemed to know what that meant. Nor did they much care for the idea.)

The thing was, I kind of got what he was saying.

I can listen to anybody. I ask the right questions, and when I concentrate, I can put myself in anybody's shoes. I am Little Miss Pluralism. When bright-eyed youngsters tell me that the practicing Catholic ("Jewish Catholic") guy is Jewish and I'm not (because his mom was born Jewish and mine wasn't) I can nod thoughtfully and smile. I can nod thoughtfully and smile at anybody.

Except... except the Messianic Jew who I also met last night at Mary Help of Christians, who'd been worshiping with his Catholic fiancee at this East Village church since their college graduation. "Finding Jesus just enhanced my Jewishness," he told me thoughtfully, widening his big, earnest blue eyes for emphasis. "I'd been a Jew all my life, but I always felt like I was never good enough. And now I do."

As I must have mentioned, I'm a little bit of a junkie for uncomfortable religious situations. Every time I go into into a house of worship - whether of my own religion or of someone else's - I get this little tingly feeling of "I really don't belong here. God lives here. Wait, what is God? This is creepy." It took a long time for me to figure out why I'm attracted to this feeling, but I think I finally get it - I''m trying to really get in touch with my own prejudice. Because I was so gently reared. After eight years of Quaker school, six years of politically correct prep school, four years at a global university with students of all different backgrounds, and two years of working at an organization promoting religious pluralism, I really shouldn't have any prejudice left.

But oh, I promise you, I've still got plenty. And a lot of it came to the surface last night talking to the Messianic Jew. The Evil Demon of Prejudging Somebody For Their Religion leapt onto my shoulder, and I froze, and I couldn't think of any more thoughtful questions to ask him, any way to find out more about his religious journey without showing him my profound dismay.

I was raised to despise and fear Messianic Jews. I'm sorry, but I just was. My hometown rabbi was perfectly respectful of Christians, but he always sort of feared that when he sent his young flock off to college, Jesus might get them, and particularly Jesus might get them through the sophisticated wiles of the Jews for Jesus, with whom we could dance a hearty hora and then - lulled by this familiarity - with whom we might show a monumental lapse of good judgment and accept the Lamb of God into our hearts.

Jewish leadership talks about pluralism and openness and cultural exchange constantly - but when they think nobody's looking, they're still counting heads. Who married out? Who married in? How many kids are they having? How many are we gaining? How many are we losing? Why is it taking her so long to finish her Ph. D.? Doesn't she know how fast her eggs go stale after the age of 30?

The Jews for Jesus (they are just one particular organization of Messianic Jews, with a strong brand identity) freak us out because they think they're in - but really, they believe in Jesus, which pretty much makes them Christians.

Oddly, the Jewish community as a whole is far more tolerant of the Chabad-Lubavich, who maintain that the rabbi came and his name was Menachem Mendel Schneerson and he died in the early 90s but maybe he didn't really die and maybe he's actually coming back. According to the Companionable Atheist, whose dictum is that the absurdity of a religion is directly proportional to how recently it claims to have witnessed miraculous acts, this makes the Chabad-Lubavich even crazier than the Scientologists (and way crazier than Christians as a whole). But mainstream Jews tolerate the Jews-Who-Think-Schneerson-Is-Christ in our midst; allow them to hang out at our schools and give us super-kosher matzahs and harass us about performing mitzvot that most of us never even heard of, whereas we really, really, really don't care for the Jews-Who-Think-Jesus-Is-Christ.

I was once taught that Jewish cosmogony and Jewish practice identified the holy as that which is divided from the ordinary, or even the dividing force itself. God divided day from night, men from women, the sabbath from the week day. In our religious practice (which most of us don't practice), we are told to divide milk from meat, menstrual days from child-conceiving days, wool thread from linen thread, men from women. The OCD part of my brain finds these divisions very appealing. Each thing in its place. The world and the calendar take shape, fighting chaos. The mixing of Jewish stuff and Christian stuff? To a, like, profound religious thinker, this creates a truly profound chaos.

Although really, to most people, it's like, what's the big God damn deal if you want to have a Christmas tree. And, of course, I see that point of view too.

If pluralism only flourishes in public spaces - if you can attend Catholic Mass with a messianic Jew and be welcomed with open arms and discover you share many of the same values and you're really just all humans striving to do the best - but if all of this Sharing really just fills you with the uncontrollable urge to run home and share the experience with all the people who are most like you and laugh and tear your hair and laugh some more - does this kind of pluralism really count?

Let me be a poser annoying academic here and answer No and Yes.

No, it doesn't count, because in my heart of hearts, I'm not that comfortable with people who are different than me.

Yes, it does count, because we're not chasing each other with swords, and while pluralism may give you a headache, a guy with a sword would certainly give you a worse one.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Religious Symbols the US Army Will Put On Your Tombstone, Part II

If you scroll down to the bottom of this list, most recently made famous for its inclusion of the Wiccan pentacle, you will see the following "fine print:"

No graphics (logos, symbols, etc.) are permitted on Government-furnished headstones or markers other than the approved emblems of belief, the Civil War Union Shield, the Civil War Confederate Southern Cross of Honor, and the Medal of Honor insignias.

In other words - the US Government will acknowledge your membership in any of the following groups:

1.) Your religious community
4.) Group of soldiers who are very brave in battle.

Obviously, the way we live is more important than what we put on our tombstones. But if you are given the chance to sum it all up - to declare your allegiance to one group, for once and for all, after paying the ultimate price, in the year 2007 - why are you allowed to declare what side you'd have joined in a war that ended in 1865? Is this declaration a statement of equivalent value to a statement of religious faith?

We live in a very strange country.

Joseph Smith and his Times

"Any theory of the origins of the Book of Mormon that spotlights the prophet and blacks out the stage on which he performed is certain to be a distortion. For the book can best be explained, not by Joseph's ignorance nor by his delusions, but by his responsiveness to the provincial opinions ofhis time. He had neither the diligence nor the constancy to master reality. But his mind was open to all intellectual influences, from whatever province they might blow. if his book is monotonous today, it is because the frontier fires are long since dead and the burning questions that the book answered are ashes."

-Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History