Posted by: Harold Knight | 04/01/2010

Thank you, Judith Shulevitz, Terry Gross, and St. John Chrysostom

This morning I posted my “status” on Facebook as:

I want my PC back withOUT Firefox. I’m an 18th-century person. Yesterday Terry Gross interviewed Judith Shulevits, a Sabbath-(almost strict)-observant Jew who doesn’t believe in god and doesn’t know how to pray. My kind of religious fanatic. If I could find an over-the-top-high-church Episcopal parish where I didn’t have to believe in god, pray, or look for “god’s will,” I’d stay in the church. Otherwise. . . .

Facebook owns my status and can do anything they want with it in perpetuity, including giving it to the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, or (worse) the Bank of America. We all know that’s not an Urban Legend. And Facebook can go snooping and find out everything else there is to know about me. So what? You’re reading my blog, aren’t you? Duh!

But I do want my PC back without Firefox. Firefox is evil. And laptop computers are uncomfortable—too small, fragile, and insidiously ubiquitous. At least with a PC you have to go where it is to use it. It does not follow you around ready to pounce on you and hold you captive for hours on end reading about other peoples’ lives on Facebook—stuff about themselves they’d never say face to face because it’s too personal, but they will tell the entire world, including the CIA and the FBI. A PC at least has years of tradition behind it. Not like the new i-thing that’s about to be unveiled.

Judith Shulevits’ book sounds worth a read. She told Terry Gross she observes the Sabbath, not because she believes in god, but because of the history, the tradition, the ritual. Well, I’m sorry, but Judaism doesn’t know what ritual is. You have to go high-church Episcopal to get ritual. Even the Pope with his minions can’t match a good high-church Episcopal priest who knows what she’s doing).

The other characteristic of high-church Episcopal parishes (besides not having to believe in god or know how to pray) that I like is that the ones I know don’t give a by-your-leave about the language of the business world. I’ve never heard, in a high-church church, anything about SMART Goals, or Mission Statements, or Asset Mapping, or any of that crap. I may be wrong, of course. And high-church parishes may do those things but have quaint Medieval-sounding names for them. But I’ve never been to an event at a high-church church that felt like a meeting of the Board of Directors of a corporation. Silly me. That can’t be true. All institutions are alike.

My little Lutheran church is closing in two months because we flunked Asset Mapping and SMART Goals, and the Synod decided we weren’t pulling our weight. I really don’t give a hoot. What the church does to itself is of no interest to me. No interest except that little church has been under my skin since October of 1994, and I love the people—even though the board of directors of the Synod know that a church our size is incapable of survival with fewer members than a number THEY have determined, which is much greater than our little church. THEY have said that out of one side of their mouths while out of the other side they piously talk about how THEY are seeking “god’s will,” and perhaps it means closing my little church. (If god exists, then god can do anything, can she not? even keep a tiny church open for reasons only she knows.) Seeking “god’s will” sounds exactly like a corporation deciding to “downsize” and close offices because they are not profitable. That’s what the church in America is doing to itself.

In the period B.C. (by that I mean Before Constantine) the church was religiously (and perhaps even spiritually) viable. People were actually seeking “god’s will” because they had a spiritual hunger. They hadn’t yet been told by the imperial world what “god’s will” was—so the church readily admitted they didn’t know how to describe god. What were all those “councils” about, anyway? Well, they began to describe god and spirituality died. Nicea in 325 CE, for example, when the church finally got around to the theology of the Trinity, the most man-made of all of the doctrines of the church; but I digress.

Why am I writing about the church, anyway? I don’t even believe in god, so why bother? I don’t know. Old habits die hard, I guess. The scientific evidence is piling up:

Many acts that we perform regularly become so routine that we carry them out almost without conscious effort. We depend on these habits to free us to think and to react to new events in the environment. Clinical and behavioral evidence suggests that the basal ganglia are centrally involved in the procedural learning that leads to habit formation and in the performance of routinized behaviors once they are learned [1].

So I’m writing about the church because my basal ganglia demand it. Or because Mick Jagger tells me so:

Old habits die hard
Old soldiers just fade away
Old habits die hard
Harder than November rain
Old habits die hard
Old soldiers just fade away
Old habits die hard
Hard enough to feel the pain

I’m with Judith Shulevits. If religion is in any way real, it’s because it’s an old habit. Judith Shulevits’ habit is keeping the Sabbath—meticulously, as a spiritual discipline for her in spite of (or perhaps because of) her lack of belief in god and her not knowing how to pray. She goes to Synagogue because she loves the music and the readings from the Torah, she loves hearing the stories.

I go to church in spite of (or perhaps because of), my wavering belief in god and my inability to pray. The habit of hearing the music, participating in the ritual, being with my religious community dies hard. It will never die completely. And it does not need help from the corporate world—it does not need SMART Goals, or Asset Mapping, or a Mission Statement. And it sure as hell doesn’t need Firefox. And it doesn’t need people who are convinced they know “god’s will.” It needs consistency. And it needs history. And it needs ritual. That’s all it needs.

It doesn’t even need new members. It needs to give up on Firefox and all the other new stuff. It needs to give up its addiction to corporate “modernity.” Old St. John Chrysostom was living right at the time the church was giving up spirituality in exchange for leading the world. He had the guts to tell the Empress Eudoxia to butt out of spiritual matters. She fixed him! But not before he wrote:

In the matter of piety, poverty serves us better than wealth, and work better than idleness, especially since wealth becomes an obstacle even for those who do not devote themselves to it. Yet, when we must put aside our wrath, quench our envy, soften our anger, offer our prayers, and show a disposition which is reasonable, mild, kindly, and loving, how could poverty stand in our way? For we accomplish these things not by spending money but by making the correct choice.

No Asset Mapping here.


[1.]  Jog, Mandar S., et al. “Building Neural Representations of Habits.” Science 286.5445 (1999): 1745.
[2.]  Mick Jagger, words, David Stewart, music. From the film “Alfie,” (2004) starring Jude Law.
[3.]  St. John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions (c. 390, Antioch).


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