I was a good Bryn Athyn boy once.
Many people reading this will have no idea what that means, but briefly, Bryn Athyn is a suburb of Philadelphia. It is (or was – I haven’t lived there in decades) very much a bubble, a pleasant Christian community centered around a church that is officially called The New Church but more colloquially the Swedenborgian Church. Many families in Bryn Athyn have lived there for generations.
I went to the Bryn Athyn Church Elementary School as it was called at the time, then the Bryn Athyn Boys School. I was valedictorian of my graduating class in eighth grade. I grew up singing in all kinds of Bryn Athyn choirs and ensembles, played trumpet in the Bryn Athyn orchestra, performed in dozens if not hundreds of church and community functions over the years. I believed in, and aspired to everything my neighbors would have associated with the label “good Bryn Athyn boy.”
Now, at 41, I almost never think about Bryn Athyn, or the church.
I moved away soon after graduating from high school, and I didn’t attend church at all for about two decades – really until I started dating a Catholic woman a few years ago. I’m married to her now, and for the last few years I’ve accompanied her to church on the high holidays and around certain special family occasions.
I’m certainly not the only person who grew up in the heart of a church community then left and never looked back, but I’ve been reflecting on my particular journey over the past few weeks, so I thought I’d write about it.
I didn’t shed my “New Churchness” immediately when I moved away. After Bryn Athyn, I lived in New York City, and my roommates were old Bryn Athyn friends. We didn’t attend church at that time, but it still felt very much a part of my DNA. I can’t speak for my roommates, but I think they felt the same way. I’m embarrassed to admit I was still a virgin, and my roommates were as well until they ultimately married each other. I was still very much intending to hold onto my virginity until… well, if not marriage then at least until I met the person I intended to marry.
At the same time, my horizon was rapidly broadening. Our circle of friends in New York was much wider – culturally speaking – than anything we could have cultivated in Bryn Athyn. I had gay friends for the first time in my life – that I was aware of anyway. I also had good friends who were Muslim, Jewish, Buddhists, atheists, pot smokers, political activists. Many of my friends were single and regularly set out to meet – and sleep with – people of the opposite sex (I know, amazing!). I knew many couples who were living together with no plans to marry, as well as couples who were divorced and still living together, and friends who were in uncomfortable (to me) open relationships. I laugh now to remember how new it was and how radical it all seemed at the time.
What I started to learn very quickly though, was that my friends’ “lifestyles” were not really defining principles per se, but merely details in the rich tapestries of their lives. Homosexuality wasn’t the single defining factor of my gay friends for example any more than the fact that they were white or Hispanic or parents or artists or cancer survivors. I didn’t choose (or reject) my friends because of their lifestyles. They were my friends because I admired and enjoyed them for their compassion, kindness, integrity, intellect, creativity, curiosity, humor, humility.
Maybe I felt some initial dissonance when I first considered things about them I ostensibly disagreed with alongside their objectively good qualities, but I don’t remember experiencing any such feeling. I didn’t imagine those friendships as having asterisks. There’s no denying my friends engaged in things I was told were wrong – or even evil. I had been taught that even some of the things they did alone or only with other consenting adults – which affected no one else in any measurable way – were harmful to their souls, and indeed the collective “soul” of any society that permits such things.
At the time I didn’t feel any dissonance between my friends’ supposed badness and their obvious goodness, but I feel it now as I look back, and I can pinpoint this as the time I really began to reject many of the things I’d been taught growing up.
I’d been taught that my friends’ behaviors were things that were corroding them from the inside, like a spiritual cancer. I was just supposed to believe this, even in the face of their many virtues. My New Church friends would have expected me to put asterisks on those friendships or end them entirely, on the basis of behaviors that don’t hurt anyone. It’s qualities like compassion, kindness, humility and integrity that truly make a difference in the world, and it was obvious to me that these qualities are totally disconnected from a person’s sexual orientation, virginity status, opinions about marijuana and so on.
It’s funny to write this now because it has seemed so self-evident to me for so long, and most of my friends would have trouble seeing it any other way. But many of my old New Church friends would totally disagree with the way I see things now.
Anyway, from New York I moved to Phoenix and eventually to Tucson, where there was a thriving New Church community. I didn’t participate though. I never even found myself in the neighborhood of the church until more than a year after I arrived, when another Bryn Athyn friend moved to Tucson with his wife. They were active in the church, and I attended once or twice with them.
I didn’t avoid the church out of any kind of principle. I had simply drifted away from it, and it hardly seemed relevant to my life anymore.
My occasional contact with that church and others, however, often left a bad taste. The pastors in their sermons, and my church acquaintences in conversations, would pronounce sweeping judgments against people based on the lifestyles I’d come to see as benign details of my friends’ private lives. They would also speak with utter certainty about things I’d come to see as fuzzy and unknowable.
As an aside, it’s fair to say I distrust certainty by default. Certainty without evidence or logic is dangerous. Without evidence or logic, “certainty” is really just ideology, and ideology has led humanity to dark dark places.
Also, one group’s ideology can so easily collide with another group’s, which is what the landscape of religion feels like to me. Every religion claims to be the one true religion, which means that almost everyone is wrong by definition. On top of that, most religions would reject or damn a lot of people I truly admire, based on details that don’t remotely define them as people.
On the other hand, I recognize that church communities do a lot of great things. A coworker of mine, for example, is involved with a group through his church that sponsors schools for autistic children in poor countries – where such children are otherwise abused and neglected. I’m a big fan of churches as a vehicle for this kind of enterprise, and churches are arguably the most effective possbile means of mobilizing people toward good deeds.
Of course, churches have historically engaged in these kinds of pursuits partly as a way to spread themselves, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I imagine much of this is motivated by a belief in their own righteousness and a genuine desire to “save” people who would otherwise go to hell. On the other hand, I imagine there is also a certain amount of pure profit motive there too.
My church was somewhat different in the sense that it didn’t work very hard to spread itself. We were taught that divine providence was at work everywhere, and that the “church” is really an internal thing within every individual. We were taught, of course, that our church alone held the whole story – that it was the one true religion – but also that it wasn’t necessary to know or even believe the whole story or belong to our church to be saved.
This is the essence of my response when religious people ask, “what if you’re wrong?” By this they mean, what if you – an atheist – are wrong in thinking that god does not exist. Most of these people think that people like me are bound for hell, but I believe that if I’m wrong and there is a god, then god is like the one I learned about in my church. This god doesn’t require me to belong to any particular church or subscribe to a particular set of beliefs; this god only requires that I do my best to act with compassion, kindness, integrity, humility…
These days I go to church a few times a year, and mostly it affirms my disinterest in the whole thing, for the reasons I’ve already stated, and also for its unrelenting mediocrity. To put it bluntly, most ministers and priests suck at preaching. They have large captive audiences week after week, and so often they drone through academic dissections of doctrine or trot out tired clichés. I don’t know which is worse, but it irks me to see such wasted opportunities.
In my church, there was always a lot of abstract discussion about what we called “correspondences” in the bible. References to “water” for example were really talking about “truth,” but it was the rare sermon that succeeded in connecting this abstract notion of “truth” to the real challenges and questions in our daily lives. What does “truth” really mean? What are some concrete examples? It’s sad how few ministers and priests are capable of telling a compelling story and making it stick.
I live in San Francisco now, and I’m as solid in my non-belief as ever. My experience continues to confirm that religion doesn’t have any kind of monopoly on goodness or principled living (and non-belief has no correlation to the contrary). Many of my non-religious friends work more tirelessly on behalf of their fellow man than anyone I knew growing up in my church community. And many people in our culture – religious and otherwise – go to work every day knowing on some level that their employers are complicit in various evils and abuses. In short, goodness and badness in all of us.
My Christian past feels like a dream of a former life. A mostly happy dream that opened my mind in certain ways (while keeping it closed in others). I’ve awakened from that dream, and I’ll never belong to a church again. Luckily my Catholic wife is OK with that. I’m happy in my non-belief, but I’m no less good for not believing.