Well, gang, it would appear that America’s various Christian churches have seen better days.
By now you may have heard about the religious research conducted at a college in New England. It interviewed more than 50,000 adults and found the number of Americans claiming some religious affiliation has dropped 20 percent since 1990.
I’m not sure what to make of this statistic. It’s surely understandable that people would get disillusioned by the rampant hypocrisy in some churches; for example, the sexual indiscretions and financial chicanery of evangelicals like Jim and Tammy Bakker or the surprising number of Catholic priests fooling around with alter boys. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that Americans have less spiritual depth in their lives simply because they’re abandoning organized religions.
I’m a perfect case in point.
The first church I ever entered was a Catholic parish somewhere in West Seattle. I might have been 6 years old. Though I was initially excited and interested, I soon became quite bored and disenchanted. Much of the service was in Latin, my knees got sore from humbling myself on a wooden rail and, even at that tender age, the priest’s “costume” seemed ridiculous to me. A few years later, I started attending the local Calvary Presbyterian Church and continued to do so throughout high school on such a regular basis I acquired more “merit” awards than hell would have, which I guess was the purpose of such laurels. I rarely went to actual church services. Rather, I only attended Sunday School, where my religious indoctrination was handled by a bunch of old ladies and, in later years, by some middle-aged men, neither of which was especially skilled in the art of persuasion. Despite my eight-year string of awards, the entire episode didn’t make much of an impression on me.
Thereafter, I stepped out into the real world. Except for a couple of funerals and a few weddings, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say I haven’t been in a church since.
However, this doesn’’t mean I haven’t been thoroughly shaken and disrupted by some pretty profound metaphysical trips along the way. Indeed, from roughly 1960 through 1973, there were some life-altering, mind-blowing realizations and insights, which I’ve no intention of exploring in this feeble newspaper column. When I finally emerged from this crazy maelstrom – luckily, because it wasn’t always a bed of roses – my life was firmly anchored on a very solid, spiritual base.
It seems to me churches are social institutions founded, in large part, on strict, authoritarian hierarchies and dogmas, neither of which has ever appealed much to me. Yet, generally speaking, I have nothing against churches or the people who go there. In fact, most church-goers appear to be very peaceful, affectionate, family-oriented types, who try to live very charitable and admirable lives. But personally, I believe a real, existential, spiritual experience has little to do with a definite code of tenets.
I recall the motion picture “Oh God,” which contains one of the cleverest little zingers ever offered on film. The movie starred George Burns as God in human form and John Denver, who was just a normal citizen. At one point in the film, Denver confesses that he doesn’t go to church. Replies God (Burns): “Neither do I!”