Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Value of Religious Affiliation

I made the decision to have my 2 and 3 year old sons baptized at the church where I was christened as a baby. We had the opportunity to celebrate their baptism this past Sunday on a week-long visit to my hometown. Since we do not have a church of our own, my husband and I were grateful for the support of my mother’s Lutheran church community.

When my father asked me why I chose to baptize my children, I began to articulate my individual beliefs. I do not belong to a church and my spiritual practices are in no way institutionalized. This is true for the majority of Americans and applies particularly to my generation. Nonetheless, most parents I know have held some sort of religious ceremony for their infants or young children. In March, I attended a bris for the first time. My twin nephews were recently baptized. Following these events, I thought more seriously about planning a baptism for my own sons.

My father is adamantly opposed to organized religion. I have many friends and acquaintances who agree with him. Religion can be divisive and exclusionary. Fundamentalist religious practices have caused great harm to humanity by spreading fear, hatred and violence. Christianity in particular is associated with intolerance, war and genocide. My Dad wanted to know how it was possible for me to baptize my children into a church that continues to ostracize homosexuals and includes teachings about Hell in its liturgy. Since I had already given it some thought, my answers to his questions came easily.

Institutions are created by and for humans. Human behavior does not follow simple patterns. No person is all good or all bad. Pitting good vs. evil is convenient, but simplistic. I find it impossible to separate institutions from the people that created them. I have yet to see one political, religious or social movement that does no harm. I made a common argument to my father; Christian institutions have acted both beneficially and destructively over history. He replied that I might say the same thing about the Nazis. For obvious reasons, I disagree. I continue to believe that our relationships with institutions are much like our relationships with individuals: we take what good we can from them, attempt to exist peacefully with them and support or oppose them according to our conscience. One iron-clad approach does not fit all. I do not fully condone or contest any person or any group.

I do not oppose any religion. I understand the energy of opposition. Formerly I worked in the law and will likely re-enter the practice in the future. I know how to entrench myself in a cause. Lawyers argue one side of an issue irrespective of their personal beliefs. In litigation and transactional practice, the law requires adherence to one side. Many people who are not lawyers live life in that way, supporting Y and opposing X, an approach that I find myopic. Resistance requires force and the outcome often disappoints. Hence, I try to spend less time resisting and more time cooperating.

Religious rites are acts of tribal affiliation. This is particularly evident in marriage and baptism rituals. Humans find comfort in belonging. We commemorate our belonging to a larger group through adherence to cultural rites. Our spiritual inclinations are organized into religious systems. When we affiliate with a religion, we affirm our belonging to a tribe. Christianity historically united a large number of tribes under one banner. Human tribes go to war with one another; they also create favorable alliances. If we evolve in another direction and tribal loyalties become obsolete, religion may one day disappear. The importance of religion in modern Western society is diminishing, but in many parts of the world religion continues to dominate thought and behavior. Even in our part of the world, most every person interacts with a religious institution on some level. It takes effort to avoid all weddings, funerals, and any other events with a presiding religious official. Religion has an impact on our lives, irrespective of what we believe.

Choosing to baptize a child is a clear and direct action in support of Christianity. When I chose to have my sons baptized in the same church and by the pastor who baptized me, I affirmed my ancestry. I affirmed my cultural heritage. I affirmed a church community. I also affirmed a part of who I am and what I believe. While I do not endorse every belief and practice of the Lutheran church, I cannot dismiss it as the initial source of my religious education. I am very grateful for the education I received and for the love and support that was shown to me as a child in the church where I was confirmed and had my first communion. I will not dismiss the value of affiliation in the nurturance of a child. It is important to belong; this is an undeniable human need. Religious rituals for children are intended to be sweet and memorable occasions, and for our family, this intent was preserved.

In preparation for my sons’ baptism, I promised the two presiding pastors that I would educate my sons in the Christian tradition. Indeed, I intend for my children to learn about the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In addition to the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, I intend for them to study the texts of all spiritual traditions. As they get older, I would like to be able to talk about the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, the Tao Teh Ching, the Yoga Sutras, the Vedas, the Upanishads and any other texts that we can discover together. I will teach them not to hate, exclude or discriminate. I will attempt to raise them in an open and affirming tradition. As a family, we will honor the divine within ourselves through respecting these outward expressions of divinity. At the same time, my sons will benefit from the context of a particular familial and cultural tradition.

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