When you grow up with a life that largely rotates around the church, like I did, I don’t think its rhythms ever really leave you. This is just as true of secular institutions and practices, particularly if they had any sort of ritual component: hunting, a day of watching football, Girl Scouts, or just the weekly ordeal of having your hair washed, brushed, and braided. Sometimes those experiences felt annoying or boring; sometimes we came to resent them. But when they’re gone, we yearn for them in ways that are hard to describe.
Thank you asking about "cool church" vibes in the interview. When the concept of Sacred Design Lab first came up that's where my mind went.
The interview also reminded me of the book "The Art of Gathering" by Priya Parker. Similar topics around what it means to gather and hold ritual. Parker's book goes more into specifics about how to design a meaningful gathering, but she does mentions similar touchstones like The Dinner Party.
It's such a tangled knot, figuring what we ache for because it is a communal experience, but simultaneously resent because that communal experience occurred in a place that can be violent like a church.
I was in Austria a few years back, eating dinner in a tavern set atop a hillside vineyard. The person who took us there was an ex-pat, and a professor of history at a local university. He had arranged for his tavern choir to perform for us and somewhere around the fourth glass of wine, they sang. It was perfect, and a few times a year I wish that there were more safe, non-religious options in our (non-pandemic ravaged) country for people to participate in these soul-opening communal endeavors.
I'm an ex-Catholic and ex-vangelical. I left Roman Catholicism at age 15 (2002) when I stopped believing in Catholic tenets and Protestant Evangelicalism in 2015 when I stopped believing in the mainstream Christian version of God altogether. They were incredible losses that I would compare to major deaths. In both cases, I felt disillusioned, like I was deeply in love with someone who didn't even exist. The worst part was how alone I felt - like no one in these communities could understand how I could leave, because I was always known for being uber-religious. But I couldn't stop asking questions, which would lead to more questions, and that was a big no-no!
I'm really thankful that in 2016 I found out about Unitarian Universalism, which is a non-credal religion that evolved from two branches of Protestant Christianity in the mid-20th Century. They have principles that focus on love, spirituality, and social justice and everyone pursuing their own path together in community, and services include elements of many religious traditions (as well as humanism - lots of folks there do not believe in god). I can explore all of the faiths and ask all of the questions and will never be rejected for it.
I'm raising my daughter in UUism because then she will always have a community no matter what she believes. It's a place with traditions that go back 400 years yet able to grow and adapt (and admit and learn from its institutional mistakes) instead of being stuck in a proverbial time capsule from 2,000 years ago. I wanted to have a child dedication for her instead of a baptism as a baby, and then the pandemic ruined things...so we'll have a ceremony when church resumes in person. Having a larger community to celebrate life milestones is part of being human, which is why despite the unbundling from major religious institutions these celebrations live on.
I think you really describe well the particular ache, or itch that is created when you grow up religious and then leave that religion, or at least that form of it, as an adult. I've been trying to figure out how to describe it and you spelled it out really well. Thanks for that.
Me, reading the opening of this: God, I wonder if she's familiar with Sacred Harp singing.
Two paragraphs later, link to Putney sing. Which is...its own thing, I'm guessing based on my familiarity with the school and with shape note singing in Vermont, but literally also that is a song from the Sacred Harp that if I was in a room of people singing it, I could probably sing the notes to without looking at my book. Sacred Harp singing is an experience of community and faith that has anchored a lot of my life (and, uh, was the subject of my dissertation/book https://www.amazon.com/Belong-This-Band-Hallelujah-Spirituality-ebook/dp/B005K7OHOS/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=laura+clawson&qid=1613073256&sr=8-1) even as the Trump years have challenged my experience of that community such that I would have written a really different book had I been doing the work now, but I miss it nonetheless. When my father died I still got a very sweet phone call from someone who I know has posted memes on Facebook about literally killing people like me.
A lot of my early thinking on the subject of faith and community was informed by the book After Heaven, by Robert Wuthnow, which counterposes a spirituality of dwelling against a spirituality of seeking -- on the one hand, rootedness that can be stifling, on the other hand freedom than can be ungrounded -- and offers a third way of a spirituality of practice. I might wish the book had gone a little further analytically, but the framework was really useful in my thinking.
perfect timing. i have just finished reading _the power of ritual_.
my question is related to unbundling, but related to the unbundling of the family and stereotypical gender roles.
for example many societal rituals now incorporate friends such as "friends-giving". you hear about the person brave enough to attend their "homecoming dance without a date, just with friends." it seems far more common, especially where i live in NYC, to see older single people perfectly content, and possibly happier, not being married nnor considering having a family.
my impression is that the role of "friends as family" has grown over time. is that a trend you have noticed in your research? as we are more disconnected from family and as a result of technology, how much connection do friends bring back or contribute more than they used to?
I grew up in a non-religious family, but attended a private school in which Episcopalian Christianity was practiced in the form of twice-weekly chapel services first thing in the morning, in an old chapel with stained-glass windows and a pipe organ. We sang hymns. I love music, and the Doxology was one of them. I ended up with no real religion, but an affection for the story of Christ and the music and art of European Christianity. At the same time I was acquiring a lot of education in literature, poetry, philosophy, mathematics, science and what we now call "western medicine." Today, at age 69, I have many ideas and methods of living, and I feel comfortable in my world. But all around me I see signs of a terrible disconnect between everyday life and any sort of genuine humanistic practice. I think organized religion has become much less popular and serious, which might be okay, but my concern is that nothing, literally nothing has replaced it. This leaves a void, in some ways a tremendous void. Many people seem to have lost touch with basic ethical thinking. Despite all the science in the world -- of which I am a big fan -- we still cannot get along without at least The Golden Rule.
Something is going to fill in the gap where religion used to be. I fear that one of the candidates to fill the gap may be authoritarian politics, in which a leader, possibly an unfit one, may almost be worshipped.
For that reason I am hoping a new social and ethical organization emerges, one which would indeed include ritual. In the US, at least, I think we are badly in need of some spiritual healing.
I love Casper's work!! These interviews on the newsletter have been awesome IMO.
Just chiming in to say that as a former church person, hearing Sufjan’s “Come Thou Fount” is guaranteed to trigger the waterworks for the exact reasons you mention.
This is such a great interview. I've spent the last year saying Mass on Facebook from my living room (I'm a Jesuit), and it's been such an unexpectedly positive and fascinating experience of community. I don't know that I had quite realized before the degree to which my normal life as a priest is constrained by fears that someone in authority is going to come down on me for trying something new. The pandemic has created so many opportunities to respond in a much more immediate and hopeful way to people's needs.
For the last few years, I've been telling close friends about this pipe dream I have of establishing a low-key, low-stakes chorus where people come together to sing as a group, simply for the joy and catharsis and unifying feeling it provides. Sort of a feel-good group therapy session for the Trump era, was the idea. Not until reading this interview today did it FINALLY dawn on me: this thing already exists! It's called church! And here I thought I was really onto something, lol.
Anyways, yes, I have now googled Sacred Harp and I feel less alone for wanting something like this in my millennial life.
Wonderful interview. I had a passage in the last chapter of my book about this -- about the binding power of a faith community (after visiting the 900-year-old Norwich Cathedral in England), and how interconnected physical communities can begin to fill that space. Faith bonds have filled a human need not just for connection, but also for the complexity of communities. All the arguments and fallings-out and rivalries and makings-up that scar and injure us, but also show us that community requires us to work and live and solve problems together despite the ways in which we don't get along. Faith communities have been strong ways to form these networks in a world where you were most likely to share faith with your physical community, but there is no reason that our actual physical communities can't over time fill that need. (I'm also vividly reminded of all the scenes in the Anne of Green Gables series of books where people wouldn't talk with each other because they were Methodist or Presbyterian or whatever.)
We went to a church in one town growing up that did the weirdest thing with the Doxology and my mom ended up switching us from the Episcopal to the Lutheran church in that town. Though the town I grew up in only really had the Presbyterian so that's where we went. I swear my feet still respond with an ache for baggy tights and hand-me-down dress shoes when I hear church bells in town!