Monday, August 31, 2009

in between...

I have been fielding questions of late because of my “Religious” description on Facebook: it says “between Atheism and Pentecost.” This description has been, no doubt, disheartening for many, particularly those who have known me since I was a child. But this description is not glib in any sense and it was not written to be overly provocative without care. So since I’ve been getting the question (or some iteration thereof) “what does that mean,” please allow me a bit of an indulgence to explain it.

As many of you know, I am the product of the Black Pentecostal tradition, particularly the Church of God in Christ. I was (am?) a singer, songwriter, choir director, organist, and faux preacher. My father is a pastor and my mother is an evangelist/missionary and we were always in church. And I wasn’t one of those kids who disdained going to church because, especially when other churches visited our home church or we visited others, it was even more fun to see new people, hear new music and to be moved…moved…moved. I loved (and still do love) the music, the singing, the dancing, the preaching style (though some of the theology is very, very problematic for me), the fellowship and the community. But as a person who was always in church, I also became acutely aware of the disjoints, the disagreements, the disputes and the doubts of others; these realities were a touchstone for my own doubts as well. But more on that below.

The history of American Pentecostalism is a history of movement – both forced and inspired, unwarranted and spirited. Beginning around 1895 (though hints of this movement were experienced during earlier periods with things like Tent Revivals and, I'd argue, Baby Suggs-like persons who told folks to cry and dance and laugh as a precursor to self and community love), the modern-day Pentecostal movement sent folks from Arkansas to Texas, from Texas to Azusa and from bouts of belief to the unbelievable. Folks like William Seymour and Charles Harrison Mason moved, literally their bodies, across the country to access the Spirit of God so that God could in turn, move their bodies. But this movement cannot be thought outside of the economic conditions of the early 1900s, the conditions of post-emancipation, a politics of respectability that told black folks not to behave rambunctiously in churches. To choose to be loud, to choose to dance, to choose to recover “slave religion” (which was Mason’s desire, stated in his biography written in 1924), to choose to “read signs” in potatoes and chicken parts and other root vegetables was to choose to be, literally, against normalizing practices of religion. In other words, Mason created a method for resistance that should be studied a lot more because he wasn’t trying to simply create a new denomination but a different way of inhabiting the world.

So I love the movement of the Pentecostal Movement but I have also been moved, forcibly, to question that which I cam to know as truth. This is not simply about women wearing makeup or pants or even gay folks and our place in churches. Though these three issues were also part of the contradictory fabric I came to know as “going to church,” issues that helped me question fundamental “truths” and doctrine, my questioning is much more expansive.

To be “between Atheism and Pentecost” is to take seriously both poles, though they are not situated on the same axes. When I state that I am “between,” I mean that I approach both Atheism and Pentecost at the same velocity, with the same passion, but have recoiled from both equally as well. As a friend reminded me this morning, I’m more of an agnostic than an atheist, though I do believe this is a question of semantics: to believe that if god exists, then that god is unknowable and unknown is almost the same thing as to believe that god doesn’t exist, though the latter is more assured about its position. For me (and this is definitely not orthodox) atheism is more precisely a poverty and impoverishment of belief in god. Keep in mind that atheism is a way to believe (or, disbelieve) whereas Pentecost is a moment and, importantly, particular historical moments in my life – similar to Pentecost as an historical moment – have charged my mind towards the posture of disbelief. Moments when I was called a faggot in church or when I told people that it was sinful to be gay while living in my own contradiction. These moments are illustrative of what made me doubt, on the personal level, doctrinal adherence.

But to arrive at the very question of god’s existence is different. I arrive at the question of god’s existence through the question of free will and the gross amount of injustice encountered in the world. Free will is normally a gauntlet thrown down by folks to say that the world isn’t messed up because God created it that way (then they foray into some story about Adam and Eve…and I stop listening), but because humans messed it up…because humans have free will but chose to disobey and not listen to God. So…right, if this is true, it really makes me angry about someone who would bring people into existence who did not ask to exist; that is, existence is something that people would need to be “called into” and can never escape…which is sorta effed up if you’re gonna believe in “free” will. In other words, one’s existence is never “free,” so how can one’s “will” be free? If God does exist, then both one’s will and one’s existence is contingent upon the “called into” from the one that creates. Hmm…that to say that if God exists and God created everything, then God created both gravity and “will”…so if it’s a result of God’s creation and not something that is prior to the fact of God, then it ain’t free. (This is, as you see, not easy to explain).

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