Religion, a particularly warped form of it, has played a large role in American life, and in mine. And I have spent entirely too much time, I’m thinking these days, raging against the phonies, the hypocrites, and insecure petty folk who are manipulated by it and who use it to manipulate others.
I was raised in a Christian environment. In the small town where I grew up most people went to church or synagogue, and I have to credit that cultural life for many of my fundamental values. There was pettiness and meanness enough to go around, to be sure, but there were also lots of very decent people who took solace in their religious faith and credited it with the kindness and compassion they took to be essential for a life of substance and meaning.
I lost that faith sometime after my twentieth birthday when I went to Germany and discovered how different German Lutherans in Germany were from German Lutherans in America. That led me to question the degree to which religion was tied to culture and come to see how arbitrary were the dictates of any given culture. It was the arbitrariness of it all that made me think I’d be better off searching for things that are true, rather than buy any longer into any packaged set of truth claims that demanded belief without evidence, especially those notions that laid claim to universality but clearly reflected local varieties of groupthink.
Also, I developed an intense loathing for organized religion at some point early on as I came to recognize that I was gay and that religion had inculcated in me a self-loathing that pushed me to the edge of suicide. I have never forgiven religion for that, and I probably never will. Eventually I recognized that all religious doctrines are cherry-picked, and that it’s the cherry pickers, not the religion itself necessarily, that is to be blamed for religion's dark side. That freed me up from what had become an obsession to do all I can to root out religious influences around me.
I had a friend who was raised a Mormon. His name was Merrill. We met in the 1960s, way before the sea change in America that made acceptance of gay people the norm. One stayed in the closet if one wanted to be able to move comfortably in the larger world. One lived a lie. Laughed at jokes about fags. Many of us became violent toward other gays so that others would not “mistake” us for being gay ourselves. The deception was unbearable to many. Forty-two years ago this week Merrill got hold of a rifle and blew his brains out.
I called his sister, who had raised him. Stumbling in the dark, desperate for words, I said something like, “I guess we’ll never know why he did it.” I knew full well why he did it. He wanted to be part of his large Mormon family of twelve kids, but the older six rejected him and he found that unbearable. To my surprise, his sister responded, “I know exactly who killed him. The Mormon Church killed him.” She was one of the younger six and - it shouldn't have surprised me - she knew him even better than I did.
My animosity toward religion was already pretty solid by this time, so Merrill’s suicide was not the source of it. But it solidified and intensified it.
It took me some time to separate my resentment of the scriptural injunction against same-sex relations – at least as it is interpreted by most literal-minded Christians, Muslims and Jews – from my resentment of the soul-killing way so many of these people actually practiced their religion. I didn’t believe the myths that had grown up over the centuries, the exodus out of Egypt, the Virgin Birth, Mohammed’s ascent into heaven on a white horse from Jerusalem and all the rest of it. It wasn’t really my anger at the religion-based homophobia that made me a church-basher. It was the fact that I simply could not get behind the claims that there is a God, that he created a man and a woman and put them in a garden and told them not to eat of the tree of knowledge. And then punished all their descendants when they disobeyed him until he changed his mind and decided it was time to come to earth as a human being and make himself a sacrificial lamb to “redeem” us from that inherited sin. How, I've always wondered, does anybody in their wildest drug-induced fantasy life make sense of all that shit? I mean never mind the obvious fact that once you reach age six (eight, sometimes ten, if you grow up with a vitamin deficiency) you learn to read the story allegorically and not literally. What is "original sin" all about allegorically if not a mechanism to encourage submission to authority?
So I have two distinct reasons for not being religious. One, I simply don’t believe the stories, and two, it looks for all the world like the gatekeepers of the religions include some pretty awful types of people. People you should run from. Once I learned that Jerry Falwell was going to heaven, I tore up my ticket.
And that means I’m up against some serious challenges. One is I know people, some of them mighty fine people, who do believe the stories. And who are fighting what I take to be a losing fight to free their religious organizations from the hypocrites and purveyors of violence and deceit who run them. The challenge is to remain open and honest about my disdain without disrespecting the earnest attempts of these seekers to make sense of the universe the best they can.
When I rejected the church because I couldn’t buy into the doctrines, I also came to lose respect for people who held onto the church for non-doctrinal reasons. Pascal's wager types, people who don't really believe, but don't want to risk it. Grandma's good little boys and girls, for example. People for whom family and community are everything and who fear that to reject the religion of their birth could well mean being ostracized from the community itself. Or, as a friend of mine in high school put it, “I have to go to church. It would break my grandmother’s heart if I didn’t.”
I remember the first time I walked into the cathedral at Chartres. It was a sunny day and the light coming through those stained-glass windows nearly knocked me to the floor. If living by grandma's rules doesn't do it for you, the other-worldly beauty of a cathedral can keep you in the loop.
In my case, if anything would make a believer of me again, it would be the music.
I remember the time I attended Harvey Milk’s funeral at Temple Emmanuel in San Francisco. I had never heard the mourner’s kaddish before and was unprepared for the beauty and the power of it. I only half-jokingly told friends afterwards that I converted to Judaism in that instant. I had a musical background and was no stranger to the idea that music had power. But in that moment, I became convinced I could hear the thousands of years of Jewish suffering in what to my protestant ears was almost embarrassingly raw emotion expressed so exquisitely in song. I felt a powerful draw, a desire to attach myself to a community of people who had clearly figured out some of the big questions of life and death. And had the skill to express that knowledge in an honest and creative way. I have no doubt there must also be people in the world who are believers because of a good performance of Mozart’s Requiem.
My friends Craig and Harriet, both gone now, were for most of the time I knew them pretty much on the same wave length I was on when it came to religion. So when they told me they had started attending church services at a local church my instant question was, “Are you out of your mind!?” “No,” Harriet answered me. “I’m not there for the doctrine. I have just come to realize that there are times when I want to be in the company of other seekers. It’s not their truth claims that I'm interested in; it’s the fact that they are seekers.”
Builders of cathedrals may say, I suppose, that they do what they do “for the glory of God.” I filter that through my humanist take on the world and find I have no trouble feeling gratitude that there are seekers who want to express their spiritual longings through the creation of beauty. Chartres may make you look to the heavens where you think God dwells, and a cantorial chant – or a Gregorian chant – may make you better able to process your feelings of grief or loneliness or simply your mystification at how time flies by and you have come from childhood to senility in the blinking of an eye.
On a superficial level, there are religious crackpots that make me roll on the floor in hysterics. I’m talking Cindy Jacobs and Pat Robertson here. I would not want to get rid of them. They provide as much entertainment as a Saturday Night Live skit. And on a serious level, there are also people who have managed to channel their religious impulses into music and that music has not just enriched my life but kept me sane and able to fight off the slings and arrows of a sometimes quite hostile reality. I am grateful beyond words for this music.
Music doesn’t have to be religion-centered to be lofty. Consider Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, for example, which inolves embracing the death that will come to us all with no mention of a deity. But often the most profound human emotions are expressed religiously, whether it’s in that wonderful piece in Les Misérables where Jean Valjean asks God to protect a boy, his future son-in-law, that he has come to love as a son. Especially as Alfie Boe sings it.
Or almost any of what must be hundreds of good versions of Amazing Grace. Here’s one of my favorites, by Il Divo. The bagpipes are like Mexican food. Can be awful. But when done right – as in this video – they’re the musical equivalent of food for the gods. (And, speaking of gods, you might want to stay with that YouTube link. Il Divo moves on next to that Leonard Cohen piece that has circled the world countless times now, and regularly reduces all kinds of people to tears, Hallelujah.)
Or all the Ave Marias, Bach chorales, and requiem masses. And not just the big ones, like Mozart and Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem. (Here's a nice version done by the Danes.) But also the requiem by Camille Saint-Saëns, who proved you don’t have to be a believer to write a beautiful requiem. Verdi, I’m told, wasn’t a believer, either, and he too pulled off a good requiem. Gounod, Dvorak, Gabriel Faure, seems everybody got in on the act, and we’re the richer for it.
Something about death, I guess, clears the throat. It’s hard to be puffed up and insincere when facing eternity, and it seems to make people want to do their best.
And I keep discovering more and more examples of beauty at death's door.
This week it was Azi Schwartz, the cantor at Park Avenue Synagogue.
Here he is performing at a 9/11 memorial service.
Also in the picture, as if some Renaissance artist had composed it to enhance beauty by juxtaposing it with ugliness, is that sleaze bag Cardinal Dolan, the incarnation of the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church, standing two down from the pope. Mr. Dolan spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to hush up the child abuse details, paying off the priests and protecting the church and throwing the kids to the wolves, then later passing himself off as the man who fixed the problem. He also urged Catholics to civil disobedience to protest granting the right of LGBT people to marry.
But let’s not be distracted by corruption. Focus on young Azi. Beautiful face. And even more beautiful voice. Has a wife and three kids, I understand. Cantoring his heart out and reminding me why I converted to Judaism in that instant back in the 70s when Milk was shot.
I never stay Jewish, of course. But I convert every time I hear a cantor sing.
How could you not?
Have a listen: here