Tuesday, March 09, 2010

An Unexpected Apologia for Pentecostalism

A friend of mine sent me an email exchange in which he and some friends in the Unitarian-Universalist tradition are talking about religion. The exchange ends with this comment from my friend’s dialogue partner about finding ways to laugh at tragedy. He said, “The pain you feel when watching holy rollers emote over Jesus. You could choose to make their antics a comedy and laugh at the drama. Ha!”

Now, I’m hardly a defender of Protestant Pentecostal religion even as I find it fascinating from an academic perspective. I have come to understand the cultural roots of this phenomenon (which in part gave rise to the Great Awakenings in America and the Methodist tradition in which I was raised). And I also recognize the class dimensions which inform this approach to religion, class dimensions I do not share. But, I find little in this approach to religion that appeals to me personally.

Yet, something in this comment troubled me. While I have passed up few opportunities to make fun of a wide range of Christian practices in my lifetime, I have also come to recognize the level of condescension that often informs such “humor” revealing the aggressive wish fulfillment aspects that Freud spoke about. And so, I decided to think out loud about what in this post troubled me. Here is what I came up with:

Hi Guys:

My brother is a Pentecostal. We have very little to say to each other about religion. Indeed, we scrupulously avoid the subject in order to spend time together.

I’d describe my own spirituality as mystic and catholic (though NOT Roman). I’m a universalist at heart and historically have found Creation Spirituality of folks like Matthew Fox and the liberation theology of folks like Oscar Romero and the Boffe brothers of Brazil informative of my religious life.

Being a Southerner, I have a very strong protective sense about my families, both biological and my family of choice. Having been raised for a good part of my childhood in the woods of Central Florida (Bushnell, Sumter County) where the cattle and citrus we raised shared space with deer, owls and bobcats under sheltering live oaks and palmetto and pine forest scrub (part of which we cleared to build our home), I have a strong connection to nature. My parents were both public servants, my father a teacher and my mother a clerk in a USDA loan agency for local farmers. My parents modeled hard work, duties to others and respect for all sorts and conditions of human beings (to quote the Book of Common Prayer). These factors would play a major role in determining my own spiritual path as an adult.

My brother was born with a partial cleft palate. He endured five operations prior to his fifth birthday. They left him with a nasality in his speech that is noticeable and which makes him difficult to understand at times. His young life in the redneck farm community where my father had been born and to which we were decamped (from Clearwater) when I was mid first grade was a living hell. He was constantly mocked and picked on. My only fights in elementary school were vain attempts to protect my younger brother from his redneck tormenters.

By late high school he had gotten into alcohol and drugs and was probably in danger of becoming an addict. Then in community college he encountered a Pentecostal church and was, by his description, delivered of his demons. For awhile he was a Jesus Freak with hair down to his ass, a dashiki and an electric guitar in hand, up on the stage of the services in the corrugated steel buildings with names like “Liberty” and “Bible believing” churches. Forty years later, he is a bit more mellow, has had his comeuppance on the gay issue when his oldest child came out last year and moved away to San Francisco, and has become a rather vanilla suburbanite computer programmer in Winter Park.

Frankly, if I had to choose between the addictions, I’d take the more benign choice of religion than the destructive path of addiction on which he was headed in 1972. I’d like to think that there are other options but I don’t think he sees any. And, given the options he sees, he probably chose the more benign.

What my brother has taught me over the years is that spiritual paths depend largely – perhaps almost exclusively – on the needs brought to bear on those paths. My own needs regarding spirituality are for openness, tentativeness, appreciation of mystery and symbols. My tests suggest that while my left and right brain activities are fairly balanced, that makes me much more right brained than most men (not surprising given that I am bisexual and live with my partner of 37 years).

My profession into the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis (Anglican) reflects my creation and social justice orientations and my ordination to the Episcopal priesthood, an order that I cherish even as I do not serve in a parish or make my living under the thumb of the institutional church, reflects my value of language and music but more importantly the symbols of catholic worship. While I value community, I also value autonomy. I don’t worry much about the next world but I am highly focused on making this one as just as possible. Those are some of the needs I bring to bear on my spiritual path.

Not only would my brother not understand those needs, they would no doubt frighten him. For my brother, religion is about security. It’s about an experiential sense that one is affirmed by G-d, a sense gained through charismatic prayer and Pentecostal worship coupled with rigid Calvinist dogma. The perceived need for affirmation and justification before a judging, punishing god  reflects the cruel world my brother has encountered where one is judged by appearances, judgments that often reveal their makers as shallow by the gifted intellect and technical skills my brother commands. Where my concerns are for justice in this world and respect for every aspect of the good Creation, my brother’s concerns are for justification before a harsh deity who clearly tests his flock through hardships, demanding human sacrifice in the forms of moralistic asceticism and tightly maintained tribal boundaries separating the elect from the sea of damned around them. The freedom and tentativeness my own path requires would not provide my brother nearly enough security to meet the needs he brings to bear on his own spiritual path. His religion would stifle, suffocate and ultimately destroy my very spirit. My religion would revive the panic and insecurity of a life my brother left behind in that small town long ago, a possibility he would find anathema.

In all honesty, I find little about my brother’s religious approach appealing. I do not understand it existentially and I would find it untenable as a matter of course. I never attend services at my brother’s church and I don’t invite him to the rare events I attend at Episcopal churches. But even if I have found I cannot respect his religion per se, I have learned to respect the needs that give rise to such a religion and thereby to understand what appeal it holds for him and the many like him.

Sadly, that street runs only one way. I’m sure my brother and many like him would gladly impose their religion, either directly or indirectly through measures like the homophobic Proposition 2 in Florida and Proposition 8 in California in the 2008 elections, if given the chance. And I watch sadly as his oldest child in San Francisco has systematically cut most contact with his family here in Florida.

The Hindu traditions have long asserted that there are many paths but one destination. I strongly resonate with that notion and assume that, whatever that destination might be, my brother and I will both end up there, perhaps much to his surprise. While I have worked long and hard to understand my brother, his spiritual path and the needs that give rise to its particular expression, I am hardly beyond making jokes about an expression of religion I find alien and, when I am being honest with myself, rather stupid. Even so, I have come to believe that respect for the right to believe as one sees fit includes respect for the right to express those beliefs so long as they do not impact others adversely. When the line between Montesquieu’s proverbial swinging arm and the nose of his neighbor's nose  is crossed, that becomes an entirely different matter.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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