December 4, 2009

A Recovering Catholic?

Posted in Catholic, faith and doubt, Faith Transformations, Family, feminist theology, Spirituality tagged , , , at 7:08 am by Gina Messina

At the end of September my grandfather passed away.  It was a very difficult time for my family.  My grandfather was an amazing person who gave us all so much love and I miss him dearly.  I traveled home to Ohio to celebrate his life and I was honored when my uncle asked if I would participate in the mass by reading a passage from the Book of Wisdom.  In all the years I was a practicing Catholic, I had never participated in a mass in any way.  This would be my very first time, and even though I no longer considered myself a member of the Church, it felt very special to me to have a role in the mass celebrating my grandfather’s life.

It was a beautiful service and I felt a strong connection to my family and to God/dess as I participated in the rituals.  The mass was a great comfort to me.  Although I have claimed to be a “Recovering Catholic,” on that day I had to wonder if this was really true, am I no longer Catholic?  What does it mean to be Catholic?  Do I have to conform to the Vatican rules, or is it true as Rosemary Radford Ruether says that the “Vatican does not equal Catholicism?” 

So many things about my life as a Catholic has been troubling to me and so much of what the Catholic Church claims to be the way of God/dess I believe to be absolutely false.  I am angry at the Catholic Church. I am bitter towards the Catholic Church.  I believe the Catholic Church is abusive.  But can I still be a Catholic?  Can I hold on to that identity?  Can I remain in the Church and struggle against what I believe to be wrong?  Can I fight the fight or will I simply be perpetuating the victimization of women by continuing to participate in what I view as a violent institution that demands the suffering of women? 

While I believed my struggle with these questions had ended and thought my connection to Catholicism was permanently severed, participating in the celebration of my grandfather’s life through a reading at mass propelled me back to my place of questioning.    Am I Catholic?  Was I ever not a Catholic?  Can I make a clean break or will my upbringing and family heritage always keep me in a place of struggle and questioning?  It seems that every time I think I have the answer, I could not be further from it.  I wonder if perhaps living in the question is the answer.  So for now, although I am not sure that I want to call myself a Catholic or a non Catholic, I want to give myself permission to continue to struggle.  Right now living in the question seems to make far more sense than thinking I will ever have the answer.

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November 12, 2009

Jesus loves Orthodox people too?

Posted in Faith Transformations, interfaith experiences at 7:15 am by Eostre

Mary and JesusI hate to harp on the whole “I was naive and sheltered and now I am an aware and savvy grad student” thing, but with this weeks topic it was too good to pass up. When I started college I made friends with a girl who had been raised Eastern Orthodox, and was still (mostly) a part of that denomination. For me, this was an interfaith experience! We stayed up late many many nights talking over the issues of converting from the Orthodox Church to “Christianity”. That’s right, you read that correctly. To my 18-year-old self Orthodox faith with it’s sad eyed Jesus icons and pedo-baptism was alien and thus, well, unorthodox.

We would stay out all night talking very seriously about whether or not she needed to be re-baptized, and if venerating the saints was idolatry. Of course, the answer we came up with was yes on both counts. With the strict formalities (she had to cover her head when she went to church! Oh no!) and strange liturgies, she might as well have been bowing towards Mecca, and we both felt it.

Now I would like to say that this ended with me going to church with her and realizing that hey, the Orthodox (and even Catholics!) are just like me! But it didn’t. We drifted apart, and as far as I know she is still a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church (which for the record I fully recognize as Christian, now) and it wasn’t until a couple years later, when I was a junior in college, that I accepted that Christianity takes many forms, and wearing a head scarf or using wine instead of grape juice doesn’t really matter in the end. If anything, I identify more with liturgical traditions now than I do with Evangelical denominations.

So this wasn’t an interfaith experience in the strictest sense, but it is what imediately came to mind when I started thinking about this weeks topic. Like Gina said, religious literacy is abysmal in America, and I would add to that by saying that it is even worse in the Church. When presented with a tradition that predated mine by thousands of years I had no idea how to react. I hadn’t even heard of Orthodoxy before I met my friend, and I was attending a religious university!  All of my inter-religious knowledge came from a perspective of evangelism and conversion, which is pretty narrow. I can’t help but think that I missed out, and that thousands of kids just like me did too.  I was lucky, was able to break out and interact with people who actually did have a different faith than I did, but it could just have easily gone the other way.

I was lucky. I had professors who pushed me to understand different faiths and different perspectives. I wish everyone could be so lucky. And really, with the world the way it is just now, Jesus has a good reason to have sad eyes, so maybe the Orthodox Church got it right.

November 5, 2009

Generation G: Living in a Glocal Town

Posted in Faith Transformations, Generation G(lobal), interfaith experiences, pluralism, religion, technology tagged , , , at 6:53 am by Lakshmi (LaChelle)

interfaithI’m just a small town girl, livin’ in a global world. Well, glocal, really. Because I still live in a bubble. The little area I live in is so immaculate, it looks like a movie set sometimes. And I fail to watch the news like I should. Confessions, confessions. Still, my little bubble is more diverse than the one I remember as a young teenager, when I thought the only history I knew was the US and Ancient Greece and Egyptian and British. Lots of British.

So what happened? I think I owe a lot to my continued education and perhaps (I admit with much guilt) leaving the sweet fields of waving wheat and WASPs. Not that Oklahoma isn’t super diverse, but. . . there is a fabulous Hispanic population as well as Asian. I had best friends of many ethnicities. But I never really learned too much about other religions and other cultures. Everything was in an American, Western context. And I’m not sure why.

Why didn’t we read Asian literature? What about the philosophies of the Dalai Lama or Ghandi or the story of the Gita? Why didn’t we discuss global issues, how capitalism looked from the perspectives of developing countries; why didn’t we do more than just reduce everything to stock characters and settings? Why wasn’t our education more comparative?

It is almost impossible for my generation to not be globally aware, although I still feel I have so much left to learn. I always felt that traveling was a bit more for the privileged than me, but school has helped me travel at least around the country, and helped me to participate in the conversations that have turned my focus outward.

There have been so many benefits to being in a religious studies program specifically, but graduate school in a place different than I grew up in general. I’ve learned not to be afraid of others or my own curiosity, although there is still some residual fear concerning what still doesn’t seem familiar or known. I’ve been blessed to catch a glimpse into the richness that is other cultures and religions and lifestyles. My experiences have helped me live life more fully and helped me understand that, as good and innocent of a person I have always thought myself to be, I need to work harder to understand my interdependence, and contribute to the good of the world.

September 17, 2009

Bonhoeffer is a Secret Feminist

Posted in Faith Transformations, feminist theology tagged , , , at 7:27 am by Eostre

It’s true. Or at least, I believe he is, though he probably wouldn’t agree. And he was my first exposure to ecofeminism. Unlikely, I know, but true. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who was executed on April 9, 1945 in a German concentration camp, and I have a hard time deciding how I feel about him. I absolutely love most of his writings and his theology. He foresaw the post-Christian era, and he wrote a lot about the importance of community and pacifism and lots of other things that I really like and agree with. However…he also participated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. This is where the problem comes in. I am a firm pacifist, but I have a really hard time condemning him, he felt that he was saving lives, and if it meant sinning to do it, he valued the lives (and souls) of others above his own. I can’t ever fully condone or condemn him. But that is beside the point.

The point is that he is a very interesting historical figure and theologian, but he definitely had his biases, and would hardly have considered himself a feminist. But I do. You see, I was reading his book Creation and Fall for a theology class in undergrad, and, even though I was enjoying it, I didn’t really expect the spiritual awakening that it brought on.

It is really a stunning book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. But I was reading and making notes, preparing for an argument I had to present on it, when I came across this passage (please forgive the gender exclusive language, it’s his, not mine):

Man’s origin is in a piece of earth. His bond with the earth belongs to his essential being. The ‘earth is his mother’; he comes out of her womb…from it he has his body. His body belongs to his essential being. Man’s body is not his prison, his shell, his exterior, but man himself. Man does not ‘have’ a body; he does not ‘have’ a soul; rather, he ‘is’ body and soul. Man in the beginning is really his body. He is one, he is his body…the man who renounces his body renounces his existence before God the Creator. The essential point of human existence is its bond with mother earth, its being as a body…He does not come to the earthly world from above, driven and enslaved by a cruel fate. He is…in himself a piece of earth, but earth called into human being by God.

When I read that I felt like my eyes had been opened, that something my soul had been yearning to express was suddenly on the page in front of me. he says it so plainly, we are inextricably tied to the earth, She is in us. The beauty of his language carried me away and I began to type furiously. I suddenly had new passageways open to my mind, and I felt alive and excited in the way that only comes when you read something and say “Yes, that is it, that is what I feel, but didn’t know how to say”, when you connect with an author on a level so intimate that it feels like falling in love. I could never fall in love with Bonhoeffer, of course, he was far too stuffy for me in real life, but his writing is another matter entirely. He had awoken me.

The next day (for I am the constant procrastinator, and had been working on my argument the night before it was due) I walked into class and felt that everyone surely must see the difference. I felt like a goddess, with vines twined in my hair and a gown of leaves and petals. And this is what I presented (abridged, this is just the intro and the conclusion, but it gives you the basic idea):

Introduction: It is essential to humanities created being that we are  creatures of both spirit and Earth. This is a counter to Platonic thought, which would have man’s spirit to be disconnected with his flesh. Common Christian doctrine has taught of the evil of flesh, following Platonic lines of thinking that make the spirit the ultimate thing, which is in some way punished by being linked to a body. The creation story of Genesis does not in any way reflect that. In the Creation myth of Genesis, spirit and flesh do not exist independently, but instead are co-dependent. No where in the creation story, even after the fall, does God elevate the spirit into a position of superiority to the body. Both are essential for the human, made together and for each other.

Conclusion: It is dangerous to try and separate God’s creation. We are tied indelibly to the Earth, and we must conclude that we are meant to be a part of the Earth. This has great implications for how we view our “flesh”, and how we view the world in which we live. If we are truly a part of the Earth than we have a certain responsibility to it. Bonhoeffer aptly states that we are a creation of both Father God and Mother Earth.

I can read it now and see the earnestness and naivete that colored every aspect of my life then, and even now I can remember the triumphant feeling I had, that I had used their own language and arguments against them. But the lasting implications are very different. Bonhoeffer opened my mind to a million possibilities and responsibilities, and it was like plunging head first into the ocean. He gave me the first push, and I am still swimming.

August 26, 2009

Recollections of a Catholic Girl-Womanhood

Posted in Faith Transformations tagged , , , , at 8:34 am by Gina Messina

Catholicism was a major part of my upbringing.  My entire family is Sicilian/Italian and from the “Old Country,” I was a first generation American; being Catholic was simply who we were.  I received the Catholic sacraments, attended Catholic schools, including graduate school, and was married in the Catholic Church.  When I was a child, being Catholic gave me a sense of pride.  I was mesmerized by the rituals and regularly had theological conversations with my father about why Easter was the more important holiday.  I felt very connected to the Catholic community and spent much time wondering why anyone would not be Catholic.  However, once I reached school age, everything began to change and slowly but surely I started to question everything I had been taught.

My brother, sister and I attended Catholic school and started learning about the Catholic faith in school in the first grade.  After my first week of school I came home terrified believing that Satan would burn our home down because we were good Catholics.  I still wonder why a teacher would be discussing concepts like this with first graders, but they did and I was traumatized.  I started refusing to get out of the car each morning because I was fearful of what I might learn next, I nearly failed the first grade because I had so many absences.

During this time it was still acceptable for the nuns to hit their students.  While we had some kind and compassionate teachers, we had several nuns who can only be described as being cruel.  My poor brother vomited every morning of his second grade year because he was so terrified of his teacher. I often wondered why the nuns did not have to follow the rules of the Church like I did, I also wondered if they acknowledged hitting us as a sin when they went to confession.

Growing up I distinctly remember thinking about the concept of the Trinity, acknowledging that it did not make sense, and then accepting that it was not my place to question.  I thought about faith quite frequently and what exactly that word meant, and for me it implied that I should always accept what I was told and never think about anything outside of it.  That line of thought worked for a while, but once I made my First Confession, I started to have questions.  By the time I was twelve I started to make stances.

In the Catholic tradition, you must confess your sins with a priest before receiving Communion.  Confession was a ritual that I found incredibly problematic. Why should I confess my sins to a man, priest or not, who was clearly also a sinner?  Why could I not simply keep my sins between me and God?  Confessing to God made much more sense to me and because of that I refused to go to Confession.  At the age of thirteen I was becoming a rebel in the Church. 

Receiving the Eucharist in the Catholic Church also became a major struggle for me.  My parents divorced when I was twelve and were refused Communion from that point on, I was devastated.  I felt that the Church had labeled my parents sinners and refused them the opportunity to be nourished spiritually and develop a closer relationship with God.  How could I possibly participate in this sacrament when my parents were being so unfairly denied?  After the divorce, our church attendance was scattered and did not spend as much time thinking about how I felt that our family had been rejected by the church or whether or not I should go to communion.

Although it felt as if my family’s relationship with the church changed following the divorce, my father still referred to himself as a strict Catholic and demanded that we maintain our Catholic identity and be married in the Church as adults; after all, a marriage would not be valid had it occurred in any other fashion.  My brother, much braver than I, chose to be married outside of the Church and had the wedding performed by his World Religions professor.  He and his wife had chosen prayers from different traditions and crafted an incredibly unique and beautiful ceremony. Rather than being appreciated for its spirituality and celebration of the bride and groom’s relationship, it was the gossip of our family for quite some time.      

I was married in the Catholic Church three weeks shy of my twenty-sixth birthday.  Naturally, we had to attend the Pre-Cana course before receiving permission to marry. I was shocked when I was told by the priest that it was expected by the Church that I quit my job and stay home to have children immediately, anything less would be frowned upon.  The work I was doing as an advocate for rape and domestic violence survivors was not nearly as important as bearing children to bring up in the faith.  On our wedding day, as my husband and I received the sacrament of marriage in the Catholic Church, a marriage that of course would be recognized in the eyes of God, my husband was denied the right to receive the Eucharist.  He had been baptized a Lutheran and therefore was not a welcomed member of the Catholic community. 

It is interesting to note that the priest who was supposed to marry us did not because he had committed suicide after two children he had molested came forward.  While the Church was very concerned with whether or not I was going to work or have children and that my husband not receive the Eucharist because of his Lutheran background, our pastor was sexually abusing children. 

Following our wedding, because I felt strongly that the Church clearly did not practice what it preached, repeatedly discriminating against its members and labeling them as it chose, I decided to no longer attend mass or receive the Eucharist.  With that action I let go of part of my cultural identity and wondered if I was distancing or perhaps even severing my relationship with God.  Regardless, I had to stand firm and not participate in a system that seemed broken. 

There were so many reasons I felt that I just could no longer be proud of being Catholic; the Church’s refusal to ordain women, its patriarchal structure, condemnation of the use of birth control, the sex abuse scandal, the new ultra conservative Pope Benedict XVI, and my list continues.  I began to question my faith and eventually felt comfortable calling myself an agnostic at best, but likely an atheist.  If truly there was a God, why is there so much evil in the world?  How could God stand by and watch the brutality, oppression, poverty, and death that transpired continuously?  I took my faith and put it in myself and believed that if I wanted to see change in the world I needed to act responsibly and be part of the process rather than saying prayers that fell on deaf ears.

 I did not receive the Eucharist again until my Great Uncle Stash’s funeral in April, 2007.  I attended the Catholic service and as I stood watching the lines for Communion form, I wondered if I could again partake in this ritual; if I could celebrate the life of Uncle Stash and commune in his honor.  It was at that moment that I decided that I did not have to abide by the rules of the Catholic Church.  It did not matter that I had not been to confession in more than ten years nor did it matter that the Church said that my parents and my husband could not participate in the ritual.  At that moment the Church had no authority over me and I received the Eucharist. I began to heal my relationship with God, not through the Catholic Church, but through my own agency. 

Agency to leave the Church and then reclaim a spiritual life on my terms is what has been my saving grace.  Coming to California gave me the freedom to explore Christianity outside of Catholicism and to explore spirituality outside Christianity.  I am still fumbling around trying to figure out exactly what spirituality in my life is.  I have found the Goddess tradition to be very redemptive in my personal struggles and honestly feel that I am in prayer when I am listening to a good DMB song.   I find that living in the question and continuously exploring my beliefs is where I need to be.  My graduate school experience and the community of women I have found here has offered me a greater spiritual awareness than I ever had in the years I belonged to the Catholic Church.  I feel that I am finally in a place where I can grow and evolve and although I still sometimes question my identity as Catholic, I know that I have an incredible spiritual journey ahead of me.

August 16, 2009

The Christianities I’ve Lived

Posted in Faith Transformations, feminist theology, Relationships, religion, Soul tagged , , , , , at 9:54 pm by Lakshmi (LaChelle)

Since 6th grade, I have grown up in the protestant evangelical charismatic movement. For all of you who don’t know, or need to be reminded of what that means, well, for me at least it included the following: mission trips, FIRE (which was a 6 month period of no television, no music or reading not Christian-focused, and weekly meetings), Bible Quiz, youth church on Wednesday nights, Sunday morning and night services (where the night service was more Holy Spirit filled and might go on until who knew when), raising hands and falling slain in the spirit, speaking in tongues, dancing and waving flags around or whatever you wanted to do during praise time in the church, sorrowful deep weeping confessions, loving Jesus more than anything, revivals, big televangelists coming as visiting preachers, MY preacher on television, prosperity preaching (preachers with big beautiful white houses and large Washington D.C sized gated lawns), the Left Behind books, Christian romance, praying and telling other people about Jesus, speaking about abstinence at Youth Leadership Conference, listening to on the radio and singing at school talent shows CCM (Christian Contemporary Music), buying clothing at Mardel Christian bookstore, knowing that it was creation and not evolution that caused the world that breathed God, understanding the devil was a real entity that wanted to bring you down and especially would be after you the more you belonged to Jesus, being awed and terrified of my literal reading of Revelation, and reading the Bible everyday and everywhere, and praying/talking to God as much as I could.

Christianity, in some ways, is a culture with language and dress and behavior, definitely a worldview, of its own. Like a person from any country will have adopted and understand the codes of her country’s culture/society, the Christian culture has been inside of me, and I have not and will not probably reject it. That said, where I am at now in my late 20s is a very different place than I was ages 12-18. How?

UNDERGRAD: I went to a private Christian church that allowed my evangelism to pause since everyone around me was already a Christian (scotch-taping the “footprints” poem to the inside of bathroom stalls would be “sweet” and not subversive). And the conservatism of the school (women were not really allowed a leadership role, Christian music was actually of the devil) allowed me to see myself not as self-righteously more conservative/pure/godly (I just couldn’t be!) than those around me, but rather as more liberal. Which in a way, pushed me to a certain freedom to explore that liberality. Also, (thank godde), my professors were progressive Christians. They challenged me to question the assumed male gender of “god” and asked me to respond to the parallels between the stories from the Bible I had known to be sacred and absolute and the stories from classical Greek and Roman and even earlier mythologies; they allowed me to see evolution and sexuality as something other than a threat to my faith. And just being in college in general helped me realize that there were so many ideas out there and so much knowledge I didn’t know, uncertainties that were real.

GRAD SCHOOL: I moved from the midwest to the east coast and came into contact with people very different than me. My Christian undergrad was a safe place to start wandering around in possibilities because I knew that my professors and the people around me were exploring and they were so strong in their faith. In graduate school, I did not have any Christians around me. I was forced to look at people of different religions and views or no religion at all and see them as okay people, even good (whatever that meant), even more moral than I. Which was a new idea, because I had been taught growing up that it was religion, the Christian religion specifically, which made people moral. I took an interest, via my feminist classes, in feminist theology (I hadn’t even known there was such a field), and started to let myself be critical of my faith tradition, understanding that the sacred text was also a historical text in the sense that it was created in a specific time and has been used for specific reasons not necessarily inclusive or liberating for everyone. Graduate school was a rich time of awakenings and explorations, and so it was also a gorgeous time of fear and depression too. But it was something I needed to go through.

MY RETURN TO UNDERGRAD: But this time as a professor. And as a professor, I was to integrate faith and learning, which I enjoyed doing, especially since Christianity had started to become so nuanced for me. I tried out serious theological issues with my students and encouraged them to consider alternatives to what they had thoughtlessly assumed previously. During my time there (about two years), I realized that I wanted to completely focus on religion, but this time, from a feminist standpoint.

NOW, NEW GRAD SCHOOL: So here I am, in a Women’s Studies and Religion program, with girls and professors who are all together considering the endless possibilities of what godde, spirituality, Jesus, and our relationship to other faiths and people mean. I love this exploration, and it feels good and safe and right. And I want to continue to see where it leads. My theology now is more defined by social justice and Jesus not as one who wants to be worshiped, but as one who gave up being God for a moment to show us that idolatrous worship was not what he wanted. He demonstrated the message of liberation for the impoverished, for women, for all who are oppressed. And my theology is also pluralistic, because I feel, even though Christianity is the right path for me, other faiths carry a similar message. Evangelism is no longer a part of my Christian faith. That is just how it is, and I’m sorry if you don’t agree with it or feel that it is wayward or something. But evangelism does not feel ethical for me personally.