Groups inside Churches

Why, why do people have this impulse to form religious groups within their churches? Women’s groups that are chapters of the such and such association of women. Men’s groups that have men’s breakfasts and luncheons. Men’s “business” groups that either seem to be about networking or about reinforcing attitudes toward work that are drawn from the culture and merely bronzed with religious platitudes – honor your boss, who might be a violent screwball – don’t disobey, because “god” will be unhappy. Or worse yet – the thinly veiled dating societies that megachurches put together – the thirty somethings, etc – dim lighting and alcohol (dimmed wits) provided.

I mean, I suppose on the surface I’m sympathetic to people getting together to help one another with their lives. That’s what marriage is like. It was various wise monastics who explained to me, before and after Holy Matrimony, that the Western mediaeval gospel of romantic love, which is a poetic, chivalrous veil for a feudal contractual exchange of male property rights for female exclusive sex, isn’t why God gave a man and a woman to each other – it’s to be a help to each other, for one another’s salvation. It’s eminently practical. It’s the stuff of households, not date movies.

But I can’t help but feel these groups inside the churches, however well-intentioned they often seem, and however purely they seem to start out, become inevitably very religious, in a way I don’t like. – And that they deepens the divide between and artificial definitions of genders, age groups, wed and celibate, and various social classes distributed between degrees of wealth, types of employment, or whatever.

And that has the resultant effect not only of stigmatizing any communication I might have with, for the best example, members of another gender, but especially of another gender in my own age group! Try being an independently-minded married man who finds himself engrossed in an intellectual discussion with a single woman who is a member of whatever designated decade-group we both fit in. Now, this has not happened any time recently that I can recall, and there’s nothing illicit going on that motivates my concern – it’s just years of experience with religiosity. Try likewise being a young, single man who isn’t interested in the young “singles” group (God-forbid), which can be a prettified organizational meat market for marriage – designed to perpetuate membership and fidelity by keeping procreation in-house, and wasn’t interested in the “youth” group eithern (which is usually led by a dope-smoking pedophile just a couple years older than the “youth”, and who the parents think is doing a wonderful job of “relating” to the kids – yeah, I’ll say). Try telling a bunch of ingrained corporate bosses in pastel shirts and bad ties that you told your boss to take a short walk off a shorter pier and that you’re not letting him bully you, because it makes it just that much easier to create an atmosphere of intimidation for everyone else, and yes you think Christ would have you act exactly that way. Fun stuff – you’ll fit in so well with that squinty-eyed prayer that we’ll all be more “submissive” to whatever little Napoleon “god” has appointed “over” us (despite the heterodox and fascist notions in that kind of hierarchical mentality).

In other words, these groups always seem to reify experiences as being proper to one or another gender or age or class or societal role. There’s no coincidence that political uniformity often seems to result, not to mention the more subtle devotional unformity – the Faith gets processed and becomes a particular kind of faithness – a consistent, predictable, comprehensible faith product – the equivalent of the fettucini at Olive Garden, with none of the edgy roar of real Italian food. If I’m a man, it’s presumed I have X experiences (in marriage, in work, in economic pursuits, in aspirations) that will be relate-able, share-able, overlap-able with other men. Maybe we’re all working for the four keys of success the WWII generation instilled in their successors as the proper end and aim, heart’s desire, fascination and preoccupation, and general badge of maleness: the wife, the house, the career, the cars or investments.

And even if there’s nothing wrong with someone, or even 90% of someones, wanting and deciding that’s the look, shape, and feel of their salvation – let’s be honest, what we spend most of our time and attention on is what we mean by working out our salvation, in Orthodox thinking, contrary to the notion that it’s something holy we tack on to the “mundane” pursuits (Roman Catholic thinking) that are derived wholly from the culture – Still, the inevitable result of religion is to reinforce the idea that somehow the most common experience is the right experience – in other words that the most cliched gender roles, cultural pursuits, social (and even political) views, relationship scripts, and religious platitudes (all those likewise para-Faith catchphrases that either do not appear in our holy writings or are quoted from them with creative recontextualization) are the ones somehow backed by God. In other words, classification makes uniformity seem like the divine will and dissidence and difference seem anomalous to piety. Classification gently (or perhaps ungently) transforms religious experience into stereotyp by casting common experience as expected experience. And the result can be actually, opposite of the original intent, intolerance, increased misunderstanding, and undue pressure to uniformity. Those with common experience – the 90% – will feel very comfortable – indeed more comfortable within than absent such an environment. But that’s precisely why it further reinforces the transformation of the exceptional into the common.

I don’t like it. Yeah, I know there’s lip service to “bring your diversity and we’ll be enriched by it” – but come on, there’s diversity, and there’s diversity within the bounds of commonality, and those are not the same thing. Within the bounds of “manly” or “womanly” things, there’s plenty of room, even to the point of illicit behavior – bring your accursed freemasonry and we’ll ‘understand’ – be the single, hormone-filled guy who is dating that nice Lutheran girl (“Who knows, maybe she’ll see the light that way.” – That’s right, bed her into the Faith), etc. But what if you don’t bring any of the attitudes these groups seem to foster, and quite a few that suggest the bulk of their assumptions are superfluous? In my experience, that’s less welcome. It’s a one-way ticket not to the group widening its expectations, transforming itself by realizing its assumptions are too limited and don’t account for everything (i.e. are *not* God’s thinking), but rather to oddballness if you’re lucky and rather serious stigmatization as a conflicted, troubled, unholy person if you’re not.

And no, it’s not just me, I’ve seen it happen to plenty of others. Women who just aren’t interested in talking about their babies and shopping and their husbands all day – women who’d feel more comfortable with the men at the “Men’s Breakfast” – but of course they can’t freaking go, because talk about stigmatizing you in one of those penis-rallies, try being the one with no penis at all! That’s the fun part, though – being a living testament to the question ‘What does having a penis have to do with preferring sports to shopping, talk of work (and never of one’s penis) to constant talk of one’s uterus and related products and dependencies as almost the sole measure of life? Or what if you’re the house-husband, and your penis makes you a member of the wrong group?

Sure, there’s always “one” on the team, right? We’ve got a black guy, and an Asian, and a Democrat, and a feminist, etc. Next time you see them, give them that kiss of peace and say “Hi, Token.” Come on, be real. There’s tokenism within certain bounds for certain acceptable minorities (as long as they stay minorities, of course). But try just being freakishly incoherent to any of the cultural expectations. How “embracing”, “loving”, “tolerant”, and “accepting” is your group at that point? I’ve seen the lingo, the beautiful words, but I’ve seen far less of the real thing. In fact, the real thing doesn’t seem to stand a chance – I’m trying to say that it’s a structural problem, as the academic criticism would render it. There’s something about the way these groups are chopped up, and you’re funneled to the ‘right’ one, that spoils any chance for the individual groups being routinely challenged, continually enriched, and constantly expanded by unknown diversity, the diversity that can’t be classed, identified, or put in a tolerance care package, the micro-minorities. The latter are the ones who, as the cliche goes, “fall through the cracks” of religion – not because someone didn’t scoop them up into a group (“We men are all getting together on Monday mornings down at the…”) – that’s exactly the thing that will push them all the way through the cracks and out the other side.

When you’re given that corporate-ish visitor’s packet that feels like a job application, or cornered for that visitor’s handshake and exchange of biographical data (in the smaller, friendlier communities), how long (you can time it) does it take for someone to look at (or listen to) the data and then pair it with a ‘group’ that matches that data? Isn’t that the purpose of collecting it? “You’re married, in your 30s, and female. Great, the Couples Seminars are Wednesday nights (my Bill and I lead the class), the Women’s Group meets Friday mornings (so we can bake recipes for Sunday), the Midlife Warriors have a dinner on Thursday nights (never on weekends, because it’s mostly singles, and they’re all pairing up and going out), and by the way have you met Susan – she leads a crafts luncheon with prayer in her home on…” Holy farking crap, can you picture it? If you have a soul left that hasn’t been sharpened down to a nub by your religion, would you not say it’s pretty bleak?

Let’s translate, shall we? “Women belong largely with other women, especially if you’re married – hanging around with men other than your husband would be improper. While we don’t judge you if you work in corporate life and eat out a lot, really the standard is cooking and keeping house to enable the men to go out and do that sort of thing. At your age, too, don’t expect to go out and have a lot of independent fun – you know that part of your life is over, hon, don’t ya – those of us that are past that, and haven’t really found another particular point in life, have got to stick together so we don’t fall apart. At least we can look at the people that haven’t gotten the house, the husband, the kid and feel gratified that we’re no longer running around with their busy, desperate lives. There are a couple of people who really sum all of this up in their lives, the ones that have it all figured out, and they’re who we should mimic – it’s what God wants, and that’s how we fit in here.”

Did you hear it? Well, a lot of people do hear it, and hear it with crystal clarity. And even if that’s not exactly what you mean, or you wouldn’t say it like that, or even if it’s not what you intend, that’s the message coming over the loudspeaker as surely as if you’re walking around inside a barbed wire fence to the tune of “Conform. Your individuality is an illusion. Your leaders are your parents. Give up the self.” And instead of communism, it’s “god” waving at you on that red flag. I at least want little emblems to sew onto my shirt. “St. Smithereens Men’s Group – Putting the Sausage in Salvation” or “The Faithful Forties – Half Way to Heaven and Feeling Like Hell”. I need the stripes to aspire to.

All this said, I’m quite certain that a lot of good is done by these groups. I don’t think that’s a justification of their existence (we can conceive of other kinds of groups – why not just “People Who Want to Get Together and Pray”. I know, I know that people want to hang with the likeminded. In fact, sometimes you even see that taken to its logical conclusions – religious chess clubs – the “softball game” (if you tack “men’s” on it, you’re back to square one) or “the baking society” (which has its token man). I find these annoying for entirely different reasons. Maybe a future post. But I certainly don’t think the good a group does is a justification of its exclusivity, intended or not, of its core assumptions, which often as not are heretical, or its underlying structure. Again, it is possible to conceive of groups who don’t create these issues – it’s just extremely hard to find any. As a concession to human frailty, I acknowledge that any group is likely to be imperfect (though I disagree with those who suggest ridiculously that that’s part of the desirable allure). But likewise, what’s open to criticism is open to criticism, and criticism too may be imperfect and yet have some benefit. I’m sure this critique is overly this or that. Still, there’s something real there, prevalent enough that it bears talking about.

Personally, I tend to weigh in on the side of not wanting any of these groups, though in fact I’ve started more than one – just not within the context of an official offering on a bulletin somewhere – they’ve always been informal (and no, not one of those heretical gatherings of the really and truly true people that tries to get a “church” of the correct or of a higher consciousness going inside a church – that stuff lacks honor and is forbidden). I prefer to get together with who I want to get together with, not with who I don’t, and not to feel any need to pair up on the basis of demographics, or to pair up at all if I just want to get my coffee and go home. I want what’s real in my experience, and nothing if there’s nothing. Sure, I want to ‘belong’, but I’m just not willing to pay the usual fare for it. Where I am now, I haven’t been pressured, which is good. I don’t know – maybe some people are pressured – I haven’t seen it, but then I don’t stick around much. I just know what I do see, and find people describing, explaining, discussing in general all over the spectrum of religious experience. And it reaffirms my basic thesis – while Holy Orthodoxy is as distinct from say Protestantism or Roman Catholicism as sailing is from golf, religion (as a characteristic attitude of transforming the tenets of the dominant culture into liturgical and traditional constructs) is ubiquitous in attaching itself to anything it can. Call it “spirituality” or whatever canard you want – there’s something that follows around anyone who prays – it’s not integral or endemic – it’s something that stalks the experience, an emissary from the culture, and it begins to transform all it touches into something far less charitable, hopeful, and faithful while dressing it up in the language and recontextualized concepts and constructs of its host. It often even engages in benign acts, but underneath there are things worth questioning that bring into doubt the whole process. For whatever reason, some of these articles seem aimed to draw out these relationships and to argue in favor of de-religionized religion, or at least question what it might look like and how it might be accessible within our various confessional boundaries and in true fidelity to those boundaries as its first premise. Lord have mercy. The sinner writes this. And at the risk of repetition, just to be clear, I’m interested in an Orthodox religion that’s more free of religion – I’m not trying to construct a “Faith” – we Orthodox don’t do that. I’m trying to think in terms of the actual fish without the flukes (for you non-anglers – those are the little black parasites that burrow into the animal), not of crafting some custom-built Frankenfish.

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