Part 3 of a 6-part series. Radical, Militant, Uncompromising Self-Care: A Black Woman’s Manifesto.
I believe; help my unbelief! –Mark 9:24 (NRSV)ag·nos·ticnoun
- a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.
My wife tells me I have a Ph.D. in Sunday School. I can come up with a scripture, even if I can’t remember it exactly, for just about any situation. I probably spent enough hours in Sunday School and church services of various sorts, sat through enough sermons, did enough interpretation, and memorized enough scripture to earn a Ph.D., but I don’t have one. Not in Sunday School anyway.
The story behind the verse from Mark describes a boy overcome with seizures; he has what appears to be epilepsy. After Jesus begrudgingly heals the boy–he was frustrated that his disciples hadn’t already taken care of it by that point–the father proclaims, “I believe; help my unbelief!” That never made any sense to me.
There is so much about Christianity that has never made any sense to me. As I’ve been introduced to other religions, I remain confused and frustrated by them all. I like Judaism a great deal and think Jesus would feel a sense of accomplishment given where some parts of the Jewish world are now. He was a reformer. I particularly like how Jewish people get to ask questions. I always felt like I was on the verge of being punished for my questions. I got kicked out of Sunday School classes and had to spend mornings with my mom, who was Superintendent, walking around checking on classes. I occasionally ended up in classes with her. She let me ask questions. I think she secretly regrets that now.
Yentl was my girl; she asked some big questions about Judaism. I understood her for the most part. I was confused about her determination to be a part of a faith that rejected her humanity, but other than that I related to her desire to learn and her constant questioning. Her persistent belief in the face of her experience baffled me. In a lovely twist of fate, one my closest friends is now a woman rabbi. Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer of the Romemu community in New York City. Experiencing her journey as much as I could as a bystander, was a joy to me. Now she is one of the few people whose perspectives on spirituality I trust.
I’m pretty rational. Sometimes it bites me in the ass because I don’t attend properly to people’s feelings. Some things are just crystal clear to me no matter how foggy they are to others. The things that aren’t clear require me to question them. When I can’t find an answer, I sit comfortably in not knowing. That is where I have been concerning religion for quite some time. Not knowing. Agnostic.
God is unknowable to me. There is no rationality in any representations of God. I’ve done a lot of reading–different translations of the Bible and other theological texts–and find over and over again that the Judeo-Christian God doesn’t appear to be much different from the pantheons of Egyptian, Roman, and Greek gods that preceded monotheism.
The Gods of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian holy books are simultaneously the same and different. How do believers separate or reconcile those disparate personalities? Where do they find the God who will save them from oppression someday? Where do they find the God who will shower them in riches someday? Phrases like “just God” seem hollow in the face of rampant injustice. References to all that beneficence fall flat in the face of such deep economic inequality. And that’s just real life.
Even the Bible, no matter the translation, can’t paint a consistent picture. The anger, brutality, hatred, xenophobia, misogyny, and bloodshed in the Bible are used to justify those things in the world today, while Jesus, arguably the centerpiece of Christianity stands in direct opposition to all of those things, except maybe anger. How is it possible for a Christian to believe both that Jesus is God and that Jesus is the primary example of Christianity and then live and promote lives that have nothing to do with Jesus’ example?
And why is it that the God black people serve is supposed to be the God white people serve but he requires such different behavior from each group? White Christians get to be oppressive and reap the benefits of oppression and black people must be longsuffering. At the same time, black Christians oppress other black folks for all sorts of reasons while bemoaning racial oppression. Again, this is just these two groups; it doesn’t begin to get into the various other racial/ethnic groups in the world. These are things I will never understand.
My mom used to respond to questions like these with Proverbs 3:5-6 (KJV): 5 Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; lean not unto thing own understanding. 6 In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. I have no idea what that means in practice. Never have. How can I put my trust in someone who is represented in holy books as a entirely unstable and capricious?
All of this questioning used to cause me angst, but with the help of Jackie O, I’m going to dig in. Jackie asks excellent questions. In a session during my winter break, she asked, “What does spirituality mean to you?” That seems like a rather simple and obvious question, but I don’t have an answer. I’m on a quest to find one.
Does spirituality exist separate from religion? If so, how? How are spiritual practices different from emotional and mental health practices? What is spirituality?
Are human beings healthier when they can put off the traumas of humanity onto a divinity or a great spirit regardless of what that divinity is? Do some of us just have a need to believe?
In my attempt to be spiritually well, I am doing what I do best–studying. I have decided to take a deep dive into black women’s practices of spirituality, which include Christianity but also some traditional African and diasporic practices. I’m collecting books on black women’s spirituality and womanist theology as well as some general books on non-religious spiritual practice.
I’m also assembling a team. Rabbi Jessica has been my entire team for a long time probably without knowing it; so I’m adding a Baptist preacher, Pastor Earle Fisher of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Memphis, TN, who in one conversation had me thinking very differently about “the black church” and its possibilities. I’m looking for another clergy woman. I know it’s ironic for me to begin my search for the difference between religion and spirituality by relying on clergy, but I see it as defining spirituality initially by what it isn’t–if there is in fact a difference.
I have to admit that I’m only doing this because it was on the self-care plan framework that I used on January 1, 2018 and because I feel a sense of pressure to have something in the box marked “spiritual”. This isn’t the first time it has come up. It typically shows up in professional and personal coaching materials as an area to address; I typically ignore it.
My spiritual self-care has to start with a working definition and some deep study. I don’t know where this particular practice will take me. And I’m completely comfortable not knowing.