Deity and the Feast (Town Church pt 1)

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Several months ago I received a text from a friend informing me that, if interested, I should contact an up and coming pastor named Nate Downey because he’s trying to find someone of contrasting belief systems, perhaps someone without belief, to converse with. At the time Nate was leading a particularly hectic life attempting to balance work, spending time with his wife and kids, and regularly commuting to Seattle to finish seminary with “resurgence” pastor Mark Driscoll. Like many of the younger pastors I’ve had the pleasure to meet, Nate suggested that a brewery would provide the right amount of social liniment to discuss the big questions concerning faith, reason, science, and morality. It did. Since then Nate and I have established a friendship beyond mere beer acquaintances. Our world views are quite incongruous, he’s significantly further right than most of even my other religious friends, and I’m, well, this blog is a statement of my anti-theist position.

Nate Downey speaking at Town Church's October communion feast

Upon completion of his thesis, as part of the Acts 29 movement, Nate founded Town Church with friend Lane Kennard. The church meets Wednesday nights at 6:30pm in the Centerpointe Church building. I told Nate that I wanted to come and write about his approach to the gospel so he invited me to his October communion feast and agreed to send me a recording of one of his sermons. (Part 2 will be up shortly after I receive the recording)

As I pulled up to the house of worship I was reminded of the many houses turned tavern that subtly garnish residential neighborhoods of Midwestern cities such as Milwaukee. Nestled back in a neighborhood of  Eureka California the church is, shall we say, petite. Removed from any internally portentous décor and natural light the chapel feels like a basement. Walking up the steps, Nate, child in arm, welcomed me. Standing roughly a torso taller than your average chap and sporting a beard Grizzly Adams would admire, Nate has a calm presence that reflects the pace of life on the north coast while concealing his corporeal awkwardness.  With a genuinely inquisitive nature Nate listens intently without any external discernment, and if you take the time to listen to him, he will tell you all about the marvelous beer cellar he's been assembling.

Conversing about our day, we walked into a chapel flooded with children. (In fact, if they had the aspiration they surely could overthrow us adults by sheer number.) Fortunately for us, though full of vigor, most were joyous and concerned with playfully chasing each other and eating pizza.

“I don’t know if you’re interested in coffee, but if you head to the back room you can help yourself to some,” offered Nate.

Being my drug of choice next to scotch I headed to the backroom and located the pot warming on the burner. I started to pour myself a cup, when “Bam! Clang! Tsszzzz ttuttut.tut..tut...tttzzzzzz.” echoed off the walls. I turned my head, sharply peering over my tense right shoulder. A blonde little boy edged up on a stool with one knee up on the counter was rapidly downing thimbles of Christ’s blood from a silver communion tray. To his right the silver lid slowly spun to a stop sending beams of light flickering on the walls and across the fridge. Humored by the unrestrained child as he shucked dogmatic symbolism for the simple desire of juice, I thought to inform him that it’s not good to get too in the habit of drinking alone but decided it would be best to notify one of his parents rather than intervene. Besides, who could blame the little tike? Had it been wine, I may have joined him.

Reconvening in the chapel, I grabbed a couple slices of pizza and sat down with Lane, his wife Michele, his sister, and a couple friends. They welcomed me and were intrigued when I told them about Vicarious Redemption. The main response I heard from almost everyone at Town Church was, “I should be doing that myself.”

Lane and Michele are expecting (Update: Michele just gave birth to a little girl) and proudly muse over their traditional family life. Being a construction worker, Lane puts in his time under the sun while Michele takes care of their son and the preparations for the new addition to the Kinnard family. According to Lane he doesn’t know much about kids but fortunately, Michele has it all figured out.  As the conversation dropped off we settled into eating our dinner.
Every night this week, just as I was this particular evening, I met with old friends and new to converse and share a meal. For several of those dinners I sat down with strangers who wanted to meet me because of this blog and the "Beer me, Jesus" article. Many of the questions asked of me by believers pertained to biology, evolution in particular. (I’m pleased that they’ve been asking questions, but it’s been concerning to see how little most believers know about the basic tenets of evolution or science in general.) Everyone, however, believer and nonbeliever alike, instinctively knew one thing -- the importance of community. No one had to analyze the notion of community; no one engaged with others only because God “told” them to, they did it because they desired to. That’s not to say that a small portion of people in the world don’t exhibit antisocial behavior, or that having a weekly church meeting doesn’t help enforce the desire of community, (although meeting weekly is not mentioned in the Bible), but that it’s important to people across the spectrum of belief to experience the company and support of others.
In biological terms, a community is a group of interdependent species or organisms interacting in a shared habitat.  In regards to human community, we’ve taken it to mean a surplus of different things based on belief, resources, preferences, identity, needs, and companionship, which a number of other conditions may be present that effect people’s degree of cohesiveness.
Two main reasons the religious think one should believe in God, or must believe in God, are: without belief we wouldn’t be able to act morally, and we would disregard community unless, of course, for self-interest. I addressed the first in my last post (and I will revisit morality), but for now I want to focus on the later.
We are highly social beings. The worst punishment for upper primates like ourselves is solitary confinement. Within forty-eight hours of such ghastly castigation the brain starts to disassociate and cognitive reaction times slow. After a couple days, depending on an individual’s mental stability, the experience is qualitative to physical torture and can lead to permanent mental damage.  Some who’ve experienced solitary confinement describe it as feeling like their being slowly suffocated. We must be social, not only because it take cooperation for survival, but also due to the reality that our physical health depends on it. (health is not always at the for front of our consciousness. I state this to differentiate between genetic dependency and selfishness. Genes may be propelling altruism for their survival as Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene suggests, but it doesn't mean the individual the in habit is selfish.)
So for the sake of community do we need one exclusive faith, or even need faith at all? Christianity claims that if you don’t believe in Jesus, eternal damnation awaits. Islam states that although Jesus was a prophet, if you believe him to be the Son of God then you will burn in hell. These faiths are mutually nullifying. One certainty becomes prevalent:  Religions, particularly of Judeo origin, demand to be accredited with transcendence, compassion, forgiveness and the desire for community -- all things that trhive outside of their exclusive traditions.  This statement is not an advocacy for moral relativism, but to highlight that community is indeed bigger than religion or any single faith. To truly value community there is no need for God or faith considering that without community, we wouldn’t exist. Perhaps that is why to say you trust a friend is much more of an acknowledgment than to say you have faith in him.
Someone you’ll never meet had every experience you’re having today. At this very moment every human experience you can think of is occurring. Perhaps after reading this you’ll be on the shore observing the breath of waves until it seems as if the sand is repelling the salty horizon. If so, look up. Perhaps you’ll notice the sun drawing a refracting column unswervingly across the oceans surface of which tapers forming a tip aimed directly towards your eye. That very column of light, at that very angle, is also hitting the eye of every person along the coastline in that very same way. It’s as Italo Calviono’s Palomar asks when viewing the same refracted beam, “Is what we have in common precisely what is given to each of us as something exclusively his?'"
Although for our purposes I’m not at the beach but at a table with a group of people.  My daydream collides with the present and I’m reminded that as all life depends on heat from a star, our survival depends on having others to share our lives with. I give credit to religion for emphasizing community, but in the case of  Judeo originated faiths their exclusivism is in direct conflict with communities outside of the fictional bounds they've created. Part of the constrain that tries to bind by locking people in rather than embrace their differences, is the idealism these faiths impose rather than suggest (Example of suggested: a couple people may tell me that I should burn in hell if I don’t show up to my monthly book group, but I know that they would be at least partially joking) Such social structures and regulations are effective in retaining a congregation but are destructive and damaging to many of the benefits of community.  Many of these constrains are being challenged by the global age and connectedness via the Internet. (The Internet, which is mostly deprived of face-to-face interaction, has many faults as well but that doesn’t mean digital communication will always hold the form we’re now experiencing it in.)
Lane Kennard singing hymns about Christ's blood.

After we finished eating Nate read a from 1 Corinthians 11 in which Paul explains that communion is not only about a personal relationship with Jesus, but also something that brings people from all social constructs together. Someone dimmed the lights and Lane sang songs, mostly about the redeeming power of Jesus’ blood. Flipping through the song book, I was taken back by the inverse metaphors about what Jesus' blood turns into rather than what symbolizes Jesus' blood. I started to wonder if he believes in transubstantiation (based on what I know about Nate’s beliefs, Town Church leaves that to the Catholics). While the sing along continued people gathered in their immediate families and at their leisure approached a corner table adorned with bread and a couple goblets of wine. Most paused for a moment and then took communion. Some fed it to their children, most of whom are too young to understand mortality or the symbolism. For a moment I pondered the question: is raising your child in a religion child abuse? I can answer this in many ways, and typically would answer yes, it is, but what I witnessed tonight didn’t fall in that category.

For me the communion part of the gathering was an activity at the party, but by no means a necessary reason to gather. I know that’s not how the people taking it felt. I know this because when I was a child and took communion -- I felt something. Consequently, a couple years later when I was baptized for the second time, I felt it again, only this time the substantiality was escalated a notch. (I had been baptized as a baby, but I was concerned because I had not heard the voice of God so I requested to be baptized again at around the age of seven)

 

As I now picture the eyes of the pastor turning into chlorine scented bulbs silhouetted by ripples of amber, violet, and emerald stained glass, I remember what I was thinking at that very moment. I was reflecting on nearly drowning a year prior. How I lost track of the distance from the tips of my fingers to the surface; how my compulsion to breathe asphyxiated the desire to keep water out of my lungs. While what felt like shards of glass undulating through my upper body, anxiety formed an impermeable noose and slipped it over the sharpest angles of my jaw. I gave in. The struggle ceased; I simply floated, neither rising nor falling. I readily embraced a fatalist perspective, a defense mechanism for my hopelessness. I was pure. I was saved from my humanity. There was no need for hope because hope in the face of an immediate struggle is merely a catalyst for action. I doubt at the time I could fully comprehend death, but I had lived enough to know that I couldn’t bear the hopelessness. I had to break the surface and get someone’s attention. With every muscle fiber vomiting disapproval I launched an arm into the air and slapped the flat of my hand down onto the water’s surface. Through the ripples of my perceived fate I could see my mother’s dress flitter as she sprinted to the edge of the pool. I could hear her cries for help. Then, because I refused to give in, hands of a negligent swimming instructor pulled me up to the surface and set me on dry land. The pastor pulled me out of initiation. I was part of God's family. Everyone clapped; my mother wept with joy. The stained glass beamed with the cheap smirk of imitation.
As a child I first interpreted my experience of Baptism to be an encounter with God. After I had dried off and we headed home I sat silently, eyes closed, at the end of my bed. I was listening for the voice of God. When I didn’t hear it, I started to wonder if my thoughts, or at least particular ones, were God’s voice. But then again my thoughts could be the voice of the devil, because, even if they where removed from Satan, I was a sinful human with a mind that could betray at any moment. This left me wondering, if my thoughts are in motion and I wanted them to be pure, but they can be either good or bad, how do I control them to always be good?  To do so I have to  depend on the Bible and my pastor to distinguish what's right and wrong. But then, I'm made in God's image so part of my nature must be good as well. Right? Wrong? I could look out for "signs" but how could I tell the difference between coincidence and a sign from God? Perhaps my consciousness was God communicating with me. The problem is that would take omnipotence, which only God possesses -- and I’m surely not God.
I decided it would be best to ignore my critical mind and put my faith in the teachings of Jesus, because if the four gospels are not accurate and true, then knowing what God deems good would be impossible. I had been Christian my whole life, but at this moment I felt I was on a path towards a deeper transcendence; a calling as many Christians claim. I had many questions. The next day I went to school (Calvary Christian School) and started asking every teacher, pastor, and authority figure about their experiences with God. I asked them an abundance of questions about  life, death, resurrection, atonement, compassion, acceptance, and most importantly -- about how they communicate with God. Some honest people, such as the third grade teacher’s aid, admitted that God doesn’t speak to her directly but through signs. I wondered how she knew it was God speaking to her because I already questioned my own judgment on the ability to interpret “signs.”
So I asked to talk to the pastor. When I got into his office I sat down and asked him to pray with me. I then asked him if he’s ever spoken to God. He said he does on a regular basis “How?” I inquired. He told me that sometimes it’s through events, moments that go against the odds, but most the time it’s through prayer where he listens and God directly speaks to him. I then asked him about dinosaurs because, like to most children, they’re fascinating. Why would God kill all of them? Why did God create them before us? He told me that they weren’t created first. I started to rebuke, “But I read in my Zoobooks magazine that they died hundreds of thousands of yea…”
“Those magazines lie,” He informed me. “If you love God you should read the Bible and stay away from that other nonsense.”
I spent another couple years trying to listen for God’s voice. I looked out for signs figuring that if something seems really obvious, then it may be God showing me the way. When I came to terms that God wasn’t going to speak directly to me I started to wonder if, perhaps, those who speak for God are listening to the wrong voice, and if so, what they say may not be the truth. I concluded that I should rely on the Bible as the voice of Gods and anything that challenges it must surely be evil. However, no matter what, I couldn’t stop reading my Zoobooks.

I loved everyone at school and my church. I was told that love was Christ working through me, so I decided that I wanted to be around the unbelievers who, if showed Christ’s love, I could help save. I was warned that nonbelievers didn’t care for others in the same way as Christians, and were not capable of true compassion since they were distant from God. I didn’t care; I wanted to see for myself.

At CCS I received a decent education despite being infused with Christian propaganda (Math problem: You have $30 and you must tithe %10 percent to the church. How much do you tithe?) so when testing into public school I scored a couple grades higher than my age group. Being that I already started school a year earlier than I would have had I initially gone to public school, and because I was small for my age, they left me in the third grade.
Already knowing the curriculum in the class, the teacher allowed me to go to the library and grab whatever books I wanted. I read them while she taught the class how to multiply and divide. I read a book of my choosing nearly everyday. As I progressed through public school I made friends just as I had at the Christian school. Yes, I came across bullies. People, who do to maladaptive responses to tragedies in their lives would have been kicked out of my old school. But that’s just it -- they would have been kicked out! How is that compassionate or showing God’s forgiveness? Another year or so passed and by the time I was about ten or eleven, through a process of education and analysis, along with observance and experience, I realized that what my pastor had told me years ago was completely backwards. I realized what utter nonsense religion was. I continued to go to church anyway, but why I went was for reasons other than a belief in God. (Sometime later, if readers would like, I’ll explain my path from Christian schoolboy, high school relativist, and then anti-theist. As of now I’ve gone on so long that I’ve probably lost most readers interest just in this post)
In reality what overcame me when I took communion and was baptized wasn’t what everyone was trying to fasten to my consciousness. I thought it was at the time, but in the attempt to truly experience God’s love I realized that no matter how much I wanted it to be true; my heart was not being filled with the love of a character of fiction: Jesus. (Now, with the knowledge and perspective I’ve gained I’m very pleased that such a horrific dictatorship isn’t true.)  Much of the feeling people interpret as God’s love consists of being accepted by a group. No, actually thee group, and most importantly, by those in the church who speak for and represent God. They’re the ones closest to Christ and who claim to be guiding followers closer to him. It’s even more solidifying if either/or your family is involved in the process or you have regrets you want to shed.  That's why being "born again" is so effective as a reformation.

 

The cohesiveness of pertaining rituals solidifies group think, and although some people use ritualistic methods to install justice, the faiths that utilize such rituals are constructed around many flawed morals. I imagine that’s why, from what I’ve seen, the larger a church is the more often they call people up to the front to confess and be prayed for. I wouldn’t be surprised if this routine of "laying on hands" increases church loyalty as well as allows for God's hands to reach into more pockets.

From there many thoughts and feelings are anthropomorphized into being Jesus. We synthesize our happiness, and through the ability of our frontal lobes to work as "simulator machines," we have authentic emotional responses. (Daniel Gilbert Stumbling on Happiness)

As a seven year old I wanted to be a pastor, spread God’s word, and save the world with God's love. Communion was a reformation of this within my mind. Now I know that that experience, which is a trigger and reinforcer of religious belief, is a subjective manifestation of a collective delusion.  If that delusion remained in settings no bigger than a family BBQ or pizza party, it wouldn’t be a threat to the world; unfortunately, that’s not the case.
After the service ended I chatted with people at town church for a half hour or so. I enjoyed the company of everyone. Nate handed me the bottle of Merlot which starred as the blood of Christ that evening and told me to take it because he’s more of a beer drinker. I thanked him and made my way home. Although Nate and I will probably never agree on Christianity, I really appreciate his company. I thought about the new people I met at Town Church the rest of the night as my fiancé and I shared the rest of the bottle Merlot with friends.