Friday, June 18, 2010

Wrap-up: Back to Religulous

For those looking for my report on Gladys Muehlig's funeral at First Presbyterian Church, go here.

In my original introduction to The Itinerant Chorister Project, I mentioned the movie Religulous by Bill Maher (which I recently re-watched) as something that led me to do this project, thinking that Maher had thrown out the baby with the bathwater. I tend to agree with him that the six-day creation and many other things in the Bible are not literally true. I am on board with him that Ken Ham's Creation Museum is absurd, and also that The Holy Land Experience amusement park in Orlando is not the place for me. But I take very seriously Jesus's overall moral message of loving your neighbor as yourself. Maher keeps on stating that he just doesn't know whether God exists or not. And yet with great self-assurance he berates those who do believe in God.

I was asked by a friend this week how I can believe in God when I am a scientist. In all honesty, I've had some real struggles with this. I guess I understand God or The Higher Being as being unknowable, and hope that God is merciful, at least more merciful than Bill Maher, and will not punish me for not believing the parts of books that conflict with the understanding that humans have gained through science, and even harboring doubts about some other parts of those books. I agree with Maher in his skepticism about prominent geneticist Francis Collins, who claims that there is scientific proof that Jesus existed.

In a few cases in the movie, instead of asking people to state their beliefs and debating them, he tells people what they believe, and starts debating from there. He talks to a Muslim about passages in the Koran that seem to advocate violence against non-believers. This person says that the Koran was written a long time ago and that we don't read it in the same way anymore, to which Maher answers that most people read holy texts as literal and permanent. At another point in the movie, he says to a group of Protestants that they believe in the infallibility of the Pope. One of the funniest people in the movie is Father Reginald Foster, a priest at the Vatican, who laughs and jokes about the ostentation of the buildings there and how Jesus himself would probably run away and help people somewhere else. A little later he says, "Pffft. We don't believe in Hell anymore. You're talking about old Catholicism." Maher's assumptions were being dismantled, but it was a funny part of the movie, so he left it in.

It is likely that Maher would object to the kind of faith that I just professed above, but a great many religious believers, lay people and, perhaps even more so, clergy, depart from what he would consider to be the traditional beliefs in ways similar to me. A comedian/filmmaker can't put us in a box!

Maher states that deities from non-Christian traditions, including Krishna from Hinduism, Mithra from Zoroastrianism, and Horus from Egyptian mythology share some of the characteristics of Jesus, including various combinations of being born on December 25, virgin birth, and raising someone from the dead with a name similar to Lazarus, and seems to expect that this will make people turn away from Christianity. These revelations are unlikely to faze believers who are not as hung up on literal understanding of the scriptures, who may already know about these parallels with other belief systems.

Some of Maher's arguments that I find more challenging to counter are the accusations of evil that has been done in the world for the sake of religion. While all religions will say that they are in favor of world peace, some will make it their goal unconditionally, while others may say that peace comes only through bringing all into their religion, and possibly use that to justify violence.

Yes, religion is a human institution and therefore imperfect. Yes, it has often stirred up violence in history, but I believe that was through false interpretation, or maybe over-interpretation. Yes, it has been used to persecute people as groups and individuals; again false interpretation. I'd like to see a campaign not against religion, but against false interpretation of religion. In the meantime, as in my previous post, I can't resist singing, with hope in my heart, "For all the saints who from their labors rest."

A time of sadness, but songs of hope and praise

That through all generations love might last,
As child to man, and man to child God gives,
So love, though yet all die shall live.

Ann Arbor is a transient place, in which many people arrive for a short time and then leave. Despite this, I still considered myself rather new in town after almost two years on September 26, 1994, when my divorce was finalized and my grandmother died on the same day. I found no reason to personally appear in the New Jersey courtroom where the former occurred, but I flew to northwestern Minnesota for visitation in my hometown of Crookston and a funeral in Grandma's longtime home of Gatzke. When I returned to Michigan, the first familiar faces that I saw were in the Detroit Metro Airport--the Muehlig family--Bob, Gladys, Carol, and Gary. If I remember correctly, they were returning from watching the Michigan Wolverines football team play at Iowa. They spoke words of comfort to me because of my problems, and Bob, as a funeral director, was especially familiar with grieving over death.

It was perhaps not much more than a year after that when Bob Muehlig died, and today, I attended the funeral of Gladys Muehlig at First Presbyterian Church. In a sense, the Itinerant Chorister Project was coming full circle, this being the site of my first stop. The choir that assembled had First Presbyterian's choir at its core, with quite a few other people brought in as a pick-up choir; I was not the only one visiting. Altogether, I counted fifty singers, which rivaled the number of other attendees sitting in the pews. This was testament to the tradition of the Muehlig family in church music.

This was a capable choir, highly confident, and edging into being show-offs, as evidenced by director Susan Boggs needing to shush everyone down during rehearsal in their humming beneath Sally Carpenter's solo in "Beautiful Savior." Another musical centerpiece was "He Shall Feed His Flock/Come Unto Him" from The Messiah by G. F. Handel, performed as a duet by Sally Carpenter and Lorna Hidebrandt. The service also featured the choir performing "God Fashioned Love" with text by Gladys's daughter Linda and music by her daughter Carol, and a solo performed by Kevin Simons.

For me, this is one of the greatest strengths of religion--to look in the face of sadness, without denying that sadness, and yet sing about hope. In my opening manifesto for The Itinerant Chorister Project, I made mention that the entire project was inspired as having some potential for rebutting Bill Maher's movie Religulous which, although I resonated with many of his criticisms of religion, often threw out the baby with the bathwater. One of the strongest arguments for me in favor of religion, despite its shortcomings as a human institution, is the endless hope that it instills.

The homily delivered by Rev. Melissa Anne Rogers told the story of Gladys Muehlig's life. She depicted it as mostly positive, mentioning the positive influence that her husband Bob had on the community as a funeral director, her love of travel and Michigan football, as well as how her family have stayed close. However, she also mentioned the rift that occurred at Zion Lutheran Church, where both Bob's and Gladys's families had been members for a very long time, which caused her to leave that church in the mid-1990s. I lived through much of this episode with the Muehligs, and it is an example of the dark side of religion--people using religion to get their own way, and often using the claim that they know the will of God better than others in order to make others yield. In the internal conflict at Zion at that time, claims to be representing God's will reached fearsome heights, and caused much damage to many people. I have encountered the same thing in other contexts, too, and sometimes been seriously hurt by it. The potential for religion to be used to damage other people's spirits is all too real.

The final hymn was "For All the Saints" with music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (see here about my favorite hymn of all). Unfortunately, the Presbyterian hymnal has only four stanzas for this hymn, compared to the Lutherans' eight. No "But now there breaks a yet more glorious day" today. I'm not someone who cries very often at all, but put me in a funeral singing "For All the Saints" and...yeah. At my own funeral, I want eight stanzas, and for good measure, go back at the end and repeat the one that starts with "You were their rock, their fortress and their might." I mean it! In plain everyday English, too; no "thou wert" like today. [Note to readers, perhaps especially Roman Catholics--I interpret this hymn in the context of the Lutheran doctrine of the sainthood of all believers, so it's about all believers who have died.]

A couple of amusing things from today: While the clergy and choir were getting settled in, I was the person sitting closest to Pastor Melissa Anne Rogers, with the exception of Susan Boggs, who was busy at the organ console that was located between us. I realized that Pastor Melissa was trying to get my attention, and it turned out that she didn't have a hymnal and needed one. It would have been too conspicuous for her to get up and grab one, so I handed my hymnal to her across the organ console. I sat in almost exactly the same place as when I previously reported from this church, and again the fire extinguisher, book of matches, and large jug of hand sanitizer were there, although it seems that the amount of hand sanitizer inside it has been depleted. The reception following the funeral featured maize and blue napkins. I also met a man named Ben Helmke, and when I explained to him the Itinerant Chorister Project, he said that he had come up with the same idea about 25 years ago, but had never actually done it.