Personal Theology – Mary Ann Higgs

Why Do Good People Need To Go To Church?

I feel like a bit of a phony – making a Statement of Faith – as if I’ve got myself sorted out on any deep level, when I can assure you, I’m just as confused as anybody but just don’t have the sense to let that slow me down very much. I’d rather this was entitled, a “Continued Plan of Action”, however flawed.

I consider myself lucky to have been as fortunate as I’ve been, to have been tutored as a child by people whose faith wasn’t complex nor controlling but certainly was motivated by great love and compassion, recognizing our good fortune to have a home, to have strong family, to have each other, and who led by example in terms of giving back, showing thanks and supporting the dignity of others.

I was raised as a protestant, a United Church of Canada adherent, actually a member as of age 12 I suppose, although I had my fingers crossed behind my back during my First Communion with Welch’s grape juice representing the blood of Christ and Wonder Bread cubes representing the body of Christ. I’ve told people that as a very young person I was confused about whether my grandfather, Levi Higgs, was actually one of the famous disciples since he seemed to know so much about all of them and chose to read us Bible stories at bedtime and his prayers before we ate breakfast were so long the porridge got cold. I also noticed that my grandmother seemed exempt and could continue to turn slices of bread over in the toaster, stacking up many pieces as if that was far more important than whatever Levi was droning on about.

I knew that my parents’ families were Christian, some of my mother’s family would historically also have been Orange Lodge members with a strong feeling that Catholics were quite misguided and more importantly, and embarrassingly to my relatives, controlled by priests, something we would never be. Our relationship with clergy was, in contrast, always a congenial one. My grandfather’s memoirs speak of going to Presbytery to choose a new minister and deciding only after praying together. Once they made a commitment, they stayed loyal and supportive and the connections over the years and across related congregations were extensive. It seemed completely natural to just like the “God is love” aspect and not worry too much about the credibility of the Bible story miracles. We were given children’s books with titles like “As Jesus passed By” which charmed us by telling of the child who never cried, always showed empathy and kindness, and taught people to settle their differences peaceably. I had nothing against any of that. Jesus, it was said, went around doing “Good”. Again, a great plan.

I was fortunate that my parents and relatives were progressive and were open to the United Church’s shift during my teens to a non-literal interpretation of the scriptures. There were splits in our community and sparks of judgments including a memorable moment when a Sunday School Classmate claimed to know that my uncle (our shy, man of few words teacher) would go to Hell for suggesting that every Word wasn’t that of GOD. One of my older brothers came home from University and shared that apparently there were creation myths in every culture, so much for Adam and Eve or Noah. Helpful constructs for us to deal with such mammoth uncertainties as “Why are we here?”

My “faith” has always been more to stay in good relationship with a community which supports my spiritual journey through life, not one that told me what to think or exactly how to behave. Having grown up in a family which encouraged perfect attendance and full attention at Sunday School and Church, we nonetheless accepted difference. My mother modeled for me how to speak calmly to a Jehovah’s Witness neighbour and wish them well but point out that we were doing just fine and clearly weren’t without moral bearings, thanks just the same.

My limited musical talent drew me into being an every week choir practice, every Sunday service keyboardist until I left for University. I needed a couple part time jobs in my first year and one was to play for services at the Queen’s University Chapel with Padre Laverty. I recognized the patterns of the liturgy, the sense of the need to reinforce one’s beliefs on a regular basis for fear that your faith would slip but also the joy and satisfaction that those who seemingly held a deep faith could find in their religious attendances. I admired church organs as musical instruments and had several years of lessons as a Bachelor of Music student, which gave me the opportunity to play for many churches on a supply basis around Kingston when a regular organist got a holiday. Doing the rotations gave me sharper insight from a practical perspective into how many religions kept their parishioners in fear of a vengeful God I completely rejected. My political analysis wouldn’t let me believe in a higher power that knew of all of the pain and suffering in the world and somehow thought it had to be so.

So, I’m a flawed and hopefully, “good atheist”, one who isn’t self-righteously superior, or rude to people of faith, who appreciates that non-believers can be every bit as cruel and fascist as hateful zealots and fundamentalists so faith or the absence of a faith affiliation isn’t the answer.

Without then being defensive about any attempt at greater clarity about who I am at this point in my life, I’d like to share some insights of Allegra Sloman from her blog which I recently found helpful:

A Good Atheist is one who understands the process by which she became an atheist; she can speak up about her religious rights; she can logically defend her beliefs; she understand that she may have cognitive barriers to being sympathetic to religious people and makes allowances for it; she understand that religion is both deeply useful and deeply meaningful to many of us, whether it can be demonstrated to be delusional or not, and she can talk about all of these things without recourse to name-calling or disrespect.

And, a tweet from a comedian who uses the Twitter id of “God”: “Practice basic human decency, and then, after you’ve mastered it, try advanced human decency.” I’m working on “basic”, and wish everyone else the best on their own journey.