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I Won't Kneel For Their God Anymore
I sat in the pew, spiraling round and round with what I would do. This was my chance to take the power back from my forced indoctrination into the church. Was this my OCD or moral vexing? At this stage of my life, I didn’t know I had OCD. I thought everyone else dealt with stressful situations by going around in circles in your head about a decision, the proverbial equivalent of completing an endless rubik’s cube in their head.
Little tid bits of the rhythm of the mass floated through the grinding mental machinations: “and this is a reading from the letter of …” Yes, I had split from all this nonsense, just like I split from Toledo. This was my opportunity to show these family members who I really was, because they never bothered to ask. I was always chasing what I thought they would like, so I could belong: Tennis, Catholicism, etc. etc. How much of my life has been spent seeking approval from people who aren’t interested in me by performing? There’s a treatise to be written on how social media cashed in on that very fundamental human vulnerability.
Someone has prolly already written it though and proclaimed that they are the next best thing. That’s what we do in our late stage capitalist culture. We always have to convince people that we are special, unique, or the first to say or do something. It’s a big deal in the whole art and academia scam. It’s all this incredible expenditure of energy to convince enough people that you are this startlingly novel voice. We used to talk about it in academia as the requirement to set the world on fire with your thoughts. Spoiler alert: you aren’t, they aren’t. We are so incredibly special in how alike we really are in this pursuit, especially today. That’s not to depress your pursuits of your own self expression. No, my aim is to tell you to create regardless of how novel or special the world thinks your work is. It’s still a genuine expression of your soul, which no one can match. Even if the message or form is different, your articulation will be different, because you are comprised of those unique sets of experiences that make your voice your own.
“Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is his, almighty father, forever and ever,” the priest, my uncle, intoned. I was kneeling in pew with the rest of my “family.” It was the mass for my grandfather’s funeral. We were winding up to the whole transubstantiation where my uncle, a former sleight of hand magician, was going to whip up some body and blood of christ to imbibe. This was probably his greatest and most well practiced of tricks at this point. It would not be long before I would have to make my final call.
It’s incredible how rote this whole mass experience is after being forced to go to through this ceremony for so long. Literally, the words are etched into my skull, which is pretty shitty given that I never consented to becoming a full member of the catholic church. Honestly, when you really think about it, it’s kinda shocking that christianity even took off the way it did to have its doctrines emblazoned inside peoples’ brains like that. It was a rebellious religious cult based on a charismatic leader that was able to institutionalize itself on a global scale. Props to that, but seriously, could y’all have just chilled with that whole worldwide agenda and indoctrinating kids into the church? Not the worst thing y’all are known for, but also still pretty bad.
With the transubstantiation ceremony complete, my uncle, donning his ceremonial robes, walked to the front of the church with his chalice full of christ body wafers. He beckoned the first row to him to receive communion. I was resolute now in my decision to deny the wafer and receive a blessing instead. I steeled my nerves while kneeling there in that church. This would be the last time I would be on my knees in front of a god I did not accept or believe it. The communion line thinned and it was our row’s turn to file up to my uncle for our bits of body. I walked up in line, a little broken open at finally taking this stand in my late 20s. As I approached my uncle, the same man that told my mother my dad couldn’t help who he loved in response to my dad’s shady relationships, I closed my hands off to denote that I would not be taking communion. His look of shock and failure was validating. Yes, you have failed. I am free of this mess now. I took my blessing and returned to my pew free of the tentacles of the catholic church.
This is where my polytheistic/pagan/druidic path began. It began in this denial of christianity in front of people who are my blood but not my kin. It began in me rubbing this denial in the face of a person who was just another white man who caused problems in my life. For all of you traumatized by the church, I wish the same cathartic release. Know you can also change paths. There is a whole other world out there beyond the christian god. There are so many divine beings just waiting for you to find them and build relationships: beings that haven’t been co-opted into a white supremecist, capitalist, patriarchal, homophobic world view that reaffirms our unequal world.
This whole recollection came out of the excellent discussion that Risa Dickens of Missing Witches had with Yvonne Aburrow about their new book Changing Paths where they offer companionship along the path to changing spiritual traditions. (Listen to the full podcast here) Their candid discussion of how religious trauma is a catalyst for people to seek out more inclusive spaces, typically outside of Christianity, is so useful for so many people who are seeking out alternatives. I just felt so viscerally connected to that experience, having left the church due to it’s complicity in colonization, sexual abuse, and the truly incredible amounts of homophobic and patriarchal views. I, too, was taught liberation theology, but I really just want to be liberated from the dominant christian culture I am surrounded by.
One of the particularly useful bits of boundary magic that Aburrow offers can be very beneficial for anyone trying to move beyond that all-pervasive christian lens. In the interview, Aburrow notes:
“…We should all be able to have more conversations about how to navigate those kind of situations(the tricky family and friend issues that come with leaving a tradition) because it's really difficult, especially when, we live in a majority Christian culture. So the reality is that people are going to be framing things within that paradigm and and somehow you have to like have a strong enough sense of your own spirituality to be able to deal with that. And …it's always tempting when somebody comes at you with (a) Fundamentalist Christian argument that you you frame your reply within that paradigm…. One of the best pieces of advice (related to that problem) that I've seen was from John Beckett saying, don't frame things from within that paradigm. Because it sucks you back into that frame of mind and what you want is to to move away from that framework and into your framework, whatever that is. It's really hard, because sometimes one of my family will say to me something like, oh, what do you think of this, that or the other thing about God, and I'm like, well, I don't think about your God because I don't believe in your God.”
I love the simplicity of Aburrow’s boundary here, because it empowers you to just rest in your own spiritual becoming.1 Indeed, not only do you not need to re-litigate the decision to change your paths, but also you don’t even need to waste any time pondering your previous worldview. I don’t think I have ever encountered such a clear articulation of why it is so foolhardy to engage in the seemingly endless conversations that surround us today of how a different reading of the bible can change the institution of the church. No amount of arguing about interpretations is gonna save that institution, so save your precious headspace for the spirituality you want to grow into. Hold fast to the barricade that blocks those christian nightmares from invading your head space once again.
Look, I am not here to tell you how to or who to worship, because there are obvious counter examples to my own stubborn refusal. That is not my job. I am just trying to work through my own cathartic split with the catholic church in an old rust belt town full of white ethnic autoworkers. So feel free to kick my ideas to the curb if you don’t share my pagan, black-metal-infused proclivities. I am a fallible human who writes his way through the tragedies and triumphs of the human condition. As a sociologist, I would be ignorant to not state the emancipatory potential of strains of catholicism (Ploughshares movement/ Catholic Worker movement) and the many instances where christianity has merged with emancipatory local folk traditions (Appalachia folk magic, the southern black church tradition, Native American Church, Irish christianity, christian witchcraft) to keep lifeways alive. This was a wonderful feature of Aburrow’s discussion at the end of the interview (Look to the 47:00 minute mark). All these examples invite individuals into a more generative relationship in crafting the rules they will live by rather than imposing a set of laws from on high or the some institutional authority.
My path is one of opposition to institutions of control and coercion (religious or political for that matter) that want to do my thinking for me—or as Aburrow adroitly calls them “cult type or high control religions.” As I pondered recently in an essay, “What if we just questioned things more?” No, I am interested in participating in the creation of the rules and values that I will live by, not just taking on a set of commandments or codes codified from a highly-politicized spiritual tract. Guess what? None of my rules and values include excluding anyone based on their identity or seeking to impose my values and rules on other people. I am interested in emancipation of all people and redistribution of resources to repair past harms and create equitable relationships. In short, I am interested in tearing down all barriers to real human flourishing. Art, ethics, and contemplation should all be equally available to all people and no law should be codified that impedes on individual human flourishing and the freedom to choose one’s path. Consequently, no form of health care or individual expression should ever be prohibited full stop, especially not on religious grounds. That’s theocracy, not democracy.
You see I am of those huddled masses, walking anonymously in the smoke of one of one of the world’s metropoles. I am in solidarity with those who have been cast out of these religions, because I, too, have no home in them either. If they are under attack, I am under attack. If they are thrown into the gutter and reviled, I too will throw myself into the gutter with them. I am no different from early 20th century socialist Eugene V. Debs, who noted:
“Years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth... While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
This is what is so heartbreaking about today’s religious trauma. We all want a place to belong. We all want to express who we are. And yet, we are ground down to a pulp repeatedly by voices telling us to be something different, be skinner, be funnier, be happier. And yet, we are forced into these structures of contemporary work where we are fighting for our lives. In such a context, the betrayal of our current dominant religions and the predatory behavior of new age cults offering to sell us salvation cuts that much deeper. Me, I feel Burial captures the mood of our moment perfectly in his song Archangel. We are all just so many people with “nowhere to go … (sitting) in McDonalds late at night, not answering (the) phone,…wanting an angel watching over (us).”2 His warped vocal sample haunts all us still some 16 years later, “Tell me I belong, tell me I belong, tell me I belong.”
Burials music embraces that brokenness. These aren’t the sonic domains of certitude or dogma. These aren’t praise songs, asking jesu to fill us with his love. No, these are the disembodied ethereal moans of a generation sent up the river with no hope for the collective utopian deliverance offered to past generations. In Burial’s “Untrue” song a warped Beyoncé sample repeats over and over again:
“To the way, I feel inside
And it's all, because you lied”
Yes, we are stuck in that time where all the dreams came crashing down, where all the seductive illusions that ensnared past generation in our current death spiral turn out to be lies. It certainly feels that way to me with the fundamental assaults on human life that we see from state legislatures like Florida and the lack of aid we from our federal government. Freedom—a lie. Equality—a lie. And here I am left feeling so seen, so heard, so deeply understood in this lonely, dark music, because it gives me the atmospheric space to feel through all the brokenness that surrounds us. Yes, I can just sit with it and feel out its jagged, broken contours in the dark.
This brokenness is where my magic flows out of, so I just let the sadness that accompanies it envelop me. I had to be completely cracked open, utterly broken before I found my own magic. I was for many years like so many lost men, robotically running toward the light, productivity, and success. Seeking, seeking, seeking somewhere to belong. I only found my own divine light inside myself when I felt like I had no one else that I could rely on. With my mom dead due to the absence of a social safety net in the US, a nonexistant father, and our social structures ossifying, I was left in the dark to suss out who I would become next. I found that the spark inside me became a conflagration when I stayed with all the troubles of the world, one of the special divinatory traits associated with sociologists the world over. So, I decided to never leave the brokenness of the world. I decided to stay with all its sadness and let it break me over and over again. Like Burial in his song "Homeless," I have to remind the world,
“Dontcha know I sit around with my head hangin' down,”
because its in the darkness that I find my true power.
Now, this brief poetic prose/musical criticism interlude provides my own personal example of one of the key differences that Aburrow noted in the spiritual journeys of paganism and christianity. When responding to Risa’s excellent point about how the spiritual journey of christianity is to “burn yourself out trying to save everybody all the time,” Aburrow noted how very different the end points for the christian and pagan spiritual journeys are:
“So the Christian model of, of the spiritual journey is this. And I find it deeply harmful. It is that we must pour out our humanity on the altar of the divine. And that process is called kenosis. And in return God will fill us up with divine essence, and that is called theosis. But in order to get to theosis, you have to do kenosis, right? And kenosis is not a healthy thing to do cause people have burned themselves out in the service of others, and that's not good. Whereas I think the pagan paradigm is we, our genuine, authentic self lives within us. And that is our, our wild animist witchy inner inner child in the best possible sense of that word.
You know, the authentic self is, is our, the, the purest, and I don't mean christian pure, I mean pure, as in the unalloyed version of ourselves, right? And what happens when we move through the world is that other things get encrusted on us by other people putting another image of ourselves onto us. And our job as, as our spiritual journey is to scrape away those accretions that we don't want and get to the, the real version of who we are. And once we've done that, we've achieved something called apotheosis, which is becoming a God. And that, as you can see, that's a completely different journey than the kenosis Theosis one.”
Yes, we have no other work here than to pursue that which allows us to set out own inner flame into an uncontrollable divine conflagration, than that which allows us the ability to work into our own articulation of the divine. Is not this very writing project just a public declaration of a person casting off the accretions that Aburrow discusses in seeking apotheosis? Is not sharing the moment I cast off the yoke of christianity and began again just an example of rejecting the kenosis scam and getting down with my own serious journey toward apotheosis? I think so and I cannot reiterate this enough: You should never have to earn your spirituality or your living. These are scams (especially traditional wage labor work). You deserve to live in abundance while you make yourself into a god. This is certainly the pagan way, ya dig?
Thanks to Missing Witches and Yvonne Aburrow for this absolutely electrifying conversation and Burial for his music.
Until next time, dear reader,
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This is another beautiful aspect of their thoughts on changing paths. Aburrow explictly denotes one should rest before changing paths:
“Okay, now you are thinking about joining Paganism. And what I say to people as well is like, you know, have, have a period of rest between, yeah. Don't just like, leave one tradition and immediately join another one. Take some time to smell the flowers, paint the town red. Just, you know, have a good time and find out who you really are because one of the interesting things about cult type or high control religions, as I prefer to call them Is that they actually impose a sort of false personality on top of your real one.”
Quoted in Simon Reynold’s retrospective review of Burial’s Untrue album in 2017.