Is it possible to get liturgy without scripture?
July 31, 2012 4:52 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible to get liturgy without scripture?

At the ripe old age of 20, I've begun feeling that want to finally settle down. One aspect of such a feeling is that I want to take an active approach to finding a religious community to which I would feel comfortable belonging to. I've been an atheist all my life until the past year or so when I've come to accept that I am a (mono)theist.

The main problem seems to be that I was raised to appreciate strong liturgy (for the tradition and order of it) and strong Biblical exegesis for a sermon (for its embodiment of reason), but yet, I am strongly opposed to Scripture. Even if I were a Christian, I would not believe in the Bible. Despite whatever intentions or meaning Kierkegaard's Climacus had, I don't believe that a historical point of departure (the Bible) can serve as an eternal truth. And so Biblical exegesis is more of a scholarly pleasure than a spiritual fulfillment, yet, if you throw out Scripture, you seem to throw out the cornerstone for everything else. I haven't attended a Universal Unitarian church, but my assumption is that it won't be what I am looking for in a church. Again paradoxically: something that is ordered, but somehow without specific doctrine.

Has anyone else been in such a position? Trying to find a way to incorporate oneself into the spiritual community of another, particularly as a theist into a Christian community? Are there perhaps any Christian denominations that might put less stress on Scripture, or throw it out altogether but retain the liturgy? Are there communities outside of Christianity that I might look into? Right now, my feeling is that I want my cake and to eat it too, and that my best bet is just to find a Church with a strong liturgy and hopefully strong sermons, and a congregation that appreciates such a fact. Not that this would necessarily be a disappointment, I think I could feel comfortable in such a community. In fact, though I haven't really broached the topic, I believe a few of my professors (some of whom I am really close with) are in similar shoes as me, which has inspired me to believe that this tactic is something I could do.
posted by SollosQ to Religion & Philosophy (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure why you think a UU church won't have ceremony and engaging sermons. My experience is that most churches in that tradition have both. You may need to shop around a bit.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:05 PM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

To me, again haven't gone, but it seems too "wishy-washy." I'm not a religious pluralist. Perhaps I should check it out if my assumptions are wrong, but the impression I've always had of their attitude was of the sort: "Let's all sit and share our different beliefs."
posted by SollosQ at 5:28 PM on July 31, 2012

Wow, I actually didn't really like the UU because it felt too much like "real" church, too much liturgy. You should really try it out.
posted by magnetsphere at 5:32 PM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, UU sounds right up your alley...But check out a few different ones in you area. They all have a slightly different makeup. Some are more liturgical than others, for sure.
posted by furnace.heart at 6:09 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're not going to find a church you like without visiting a few in person during their services. Even within a particular religion, the individual churches can vary an incredible amount.
posted by gilrain at 6:11 PM on July 31, 2012

I am not Jewish, I'm an atheist from a nominally Christian background, but by virtue of being married to someone who is Jewish, I am a member and regular attendee at a Reconstructionist havurah that you would probably like. It's full of smart, incisive, spiritually-inclined people, some of whom are also atheists. Services have a traditional structure with singing and Torah reading. At each one, a different member gives a drash (teaching, not exactly a sermon), which is related to the Torah portion but can bring in all sorts of other texts as well. (At a congregation with less lay leadership, it'd usually be a rabbi giving it.) Part of Recon's philosophy is not being locked into one interpretation of scripture. There's a saying, "The past gets a vote, not a veto."

Your temple may vary, of course. Some congregations may offer a learning minyan, where you can get an introduction to the structure and meaning of the liturgy. Like UU churches, there is a wide variety of approaches between different congregations, so you might investigate a few and see if there's one that works for you.
posted by expialidocious at 6:11 PM on July 31, 2012

Also, especially if your interest is in hearing sermons which are intellectually stimulating and scholarly. That need will be fulfilled by a particularly good pastor only, and those can take some looking around to find.
posted by gilrain at 6:12 PM on July 31, 2012

UU churches vary *a lot* in terms of how much they connect to the Christian tradition, including scripture. More traditional UU congregations might have a minister who often references the Christian bible; some less traditional UUs draw more from other faith traditions, like earth-centered religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. It's difficult to generalize.

As to the feeling that it's wishy-washy, maybe it helps to think of Unitarian Universalism as a religion based on community, rather than a set of agreed-upon ideas about who/what God is. We've heard a lot lately at our church about the idea is that liberal religion (including Unitarianism and liberal Christianity) is based on these ideas: continuous revelation, covenental relationships, the beloved community, good works, and hope. I know it's not quite the Nicene creed, but it's also not "anything goes."

Okay, I'll quite proselytizing now... you may also want to look into liberal Christian traditions like UCC.
posted by tuesdayschild at 6:13 PM on July 31, 2012

I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian, so we are all about liturgy.

I have read your question several times, but I do not know what you what. This may be because you do not know what you want. Liturgy is from the Greek λειτουργία, the "common act" or "work of the people". The idea is that the people who gather to constitute the church are united in their belief. If they were not, they would not be able to perform the liturgy.

I do not know if there can be the ordered institution without doctrine that you seek. If there is no doctrine, what is the source of the order? I wonder why you did not seek out the UU as an atheist. The UU have no creed regarding deity, so your atheism would not have prevented you from joining then. Does the deity you believe in even care if you worship?

I hope it does not appear that I am giving you a hard time, but these are questions that came to mind as I read your post. Perhaps you could explain further, but right now I think you do not know what you want. You may wish to reflect some more upon reading comments in this thread that are certainly wiser than mine.

If I could give any advice, I would say this: do not look for an assembly that wants you for who you are. Seek an assembly that wants you for who you will become.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:15 PM on July 31, 2012

What you want sounds a little like the Episcopalian environment I grew up in, though of course scripture is used. But it's much more strongly liturgical and ritualistic than scripture-focused.
posted by Sara C. at 6:16 PM on July 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

To me, again haven't gone, but it seems too "wishy-washy."

I'm not sure I have a specific recommendation for you* but you are probably going to have to overcome this attitude a little bit. You're not going to know unless you go, and (perhaps particularly with the less doctrinaire organizations like UU) every single church and parish and synagogue and friends meeting and mosque and Socrates' cafe and meditation group and drum circle is different. Sometimes radically so. You will sit through a number of sermons and meetings that you're not thrilled with before you find a place that's right for you, and only you can decide whether that's worth your time, but this really is not going to be something that you find without trying on a whole bunch of them to see what fits.

Think of it as cultural anthropology, and have fun with it if you can. Leave as quietly as you can if you're uncomfortable. People do that all the time. Good luck!

* Although I barely can't recall hearing about a literary humanist group that seemed kind of churchy and is just on the other side of my mind...stay tuned!
posted by gauche at 6:18 PM on July 31, 2012

Tanizaki: You are probably right on the money on that I do not know what I want and certainly don't know the proper way to use the terms I used to properly express myself.

I'll definitely be exploring around when I get back to university, to get a taste of what's out there.

I also wasn't sure how to frame the question. Originally I was going to ask for people to contribute their stories if they ever felt they had been in similar shoes, just to see how they approached a lot of things, but I was worried maybe the turnout wouldn't have been so high so I wrote something shorter just to get some quick advice.

But you're right: "I do not know if there can be the ordered institution without doctrine that you seek. If there is no doctrine, what is the source of the order?" That's the problem I seem to be somewhat stuck in. Though as I think about it, I was too quick to think that there'd be an incompatibility in a doctrinal church.

Gilrain: Unfortunately right. My hometown church went through a few pastors during a crisis, and it's amazing the quality they were. When I'm visiting another locale I've always used as an excuse from visiting the local Episcopal church there, that I shouldn't bother because what are the chances their pastor will be as good? Of course, this is obviously a self-defeating attitude that needs to go.
posted by SollosQ at 6:30 PM on July 31, 2012

I can't tell from your question whether you want to go to a service/community with biblical scripture and Christian doctrine or not, but for liturgy, ritual, and an underlying current of liberal theism, I'll echo the recommendation of slightly high-church-of-center (but not anglo-Catholic) Episcopalianism. The low-church parishes in my area that I visited seemed to be more conservative in general, I have no idea if this is a general trend.

(On preview, sounds like you might have grown up with exposure to the Episcopal church? Even so, they are a diverse bunch.)

It's a denomination with a huge variety of both beliefs and presentation, but the fairly formal, eucharist-every-week big-city Episcopal cathedral I grew up in would welcome you. (At least) one of my youth group leaders was in retrospect almost certainly an atheist, and there were lots of people around who, if you scratched the surface even lightly, had pretty unorthodox views about the divinity of Jesus, origin of morality, etc. Lots of Spong devotees. I'm in the agnostic/anti-interventionist god camp these days, and I would feel comfortable going there, but I'm not sure how much of that is influenced by that denomination still being a known environment for me.

If you're at all musically inclined, church choirs are also a sub-community that seems in my experience to attract some people who, while sympathetic enough to religious litany to want to show up at 9am on Sunday mornings, are sometimes more there for the music and ritual than their traditional religious beliefs. (I do not think my parents were necessarily aware of this when they allowed my sixteen-year-old self to switch over to the adult choir at my church.)

And as Gilrain also says, you'll almost certainly have to 'shop' any denomination you want to check out, but it might be helpful to try and meet with pastors/rabbis one-on-one if you can. If you tell them your goals & beliefs, and you meet and they seem like they can meet you where you are (rather than attempt conversion or anything else that makes you uncomfortable), that might be a good start. You'll certainly have some interesting conversations either way, and as a plus it might help you clarify what you are looking for.
posted by heyforfour at 6:44 PM on July 31, 2012

I'll agree with everyone before me and say that Unitarian Universalist congregations vary wildly from congregation to congregation on how "wishy-washy" they are. I've been a member of three, and each has been VASTLY different in terms of ritual and structure.

One of the things I've noticed in my time with Unitarian Universalism is that there seems to be a growing movement of Christian Universalist congregations that aren't officially associated with Unitarian Universalism. The basic tenant of those congregations is Universalism -- so no belief in hell or universal salvation. If there is a Universalist Congregation near you, I would suggest checking it out. Unfortunately, they're not connected to the larger UUA, so they're harder to find.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 7:08 PM on July 31, 2012

Is there an Insight Meditation group in your city? Those vary as well but some bring in a Buddhist tradition which can give you some of the ritual you are looking for.
posted by dawkins_7 at 7:36 PM on July 31, 2012

Jodo Shinshu is a Japanese Buddhist sect that's very much on the universalist side of the spectrum and also has services that incorporate semi-westernized elements into their services, like singing and organ music (this, along with the practice of referring to their temples as "Buddhist Churches" has historical reasons going back to the persecution of Japanese-Americans during World War Two).

The doctrine is obviously different from Christianity, but it's more like "church" than you'd probably expect. It's much more devotional in character and doesn't emphasize meditation, but rather reliance on Amida Buddha (a sort of personification of the idea of ultimate light, life and mercy), humility and gratitude. It has scriptures (three sutras in particular) but they're not viewed as literal truth. Jodo Shinshu churches are also very family and community-oriented and accepting, and arose from a similar spirit to the protestant reformation; Shinran Shonin, who founded the tradition, was a former monk who felt that traditional, monastic Buddhism sects were too removed from the common people to offer them any help or guidance in their lives.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:20 PM on July 31, 2012

I'm going to take your secondary question of what I have done in similar shoes...

First, I highly and whole-heartedly recommend you read Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. He was a Trappist monk with a style of writing that delves deep into the soul and comes back out with the simplest truths. This book is his autobiographical account of his calling to become a monk. The reason I recommend it to you (besides it being one of my favorite books ever) is that he falls in love with the Roman Catholic Mass and the mysteries it portrays. As a child indoctrinated into the Roman Catholic church I am by no means pushing Catholicism, but what draws the young Merton into the fold is what I think you may be describing as 'liturgy.'
The other thing about him is that he is the closest thing to a Zen Buddhist that a Christian monk can be. Most of his later books delve into the mysteries of the monastic life and meditation. This leads to:

Secondly, I happened to stumble across a monastary (in the suburbs of Atlanta, Ga of all places) that was giving a weekend retreat on the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. That may be the single most peaceful weekend of my life. Ingesting the residual thoughts written by a humble monk, fellowship and liturgical ritual, and spending time strolling the grounds or meditating in my room to digest them. My point: perhaps a retreat of some sort could focus your wants and desires in this endeavor more. There are a variety of retreat centers, be it Christian influenced, Buddhist meditation, etc.

Feel free to MeMail me if you want to chat more about such things. I took this user-name for a reason!
posted by iurodivii at 9:22 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think that perhaps really bean plating your view on the bible might help you to perhaps broaden your search.

There are really three major camps in conducting biblical exegesis, and they are divided by their adherence or lack thereof to two adjectives as they relate to the bible, inerrant and infallible. While it seems there are almost as many definitions for these two words as theologians, making these sorts of conversations difficult, the least idiosyncratic are that "infalliblity" is a stronger term than "inerrancy." "'Inerrant' means there are no errors; 'infallible' means there can be no errors." The biggest hallmark of fundamentalism is to apply both, the historical and present orthodoxy is to apply inerrant but not infallible, while the biggest hallmark of liberal Christianity is to apply neither.

Your question reads like you have staked out a fourth more extreme position, that there can be no eternal truth in the bible or that it is fundamentally in error and of no use. If this is where you're at, it is certainly heterodox and the UU sounds like a great fit, though its not like any liberal churches would give a shit much less love you any less. If you can find some use for the bible, or aspects (even emotional ones) not in error, then you would be in roughly the same spot as the majority of folks who have gone to a proper seminary and taken it seriously.

From the location in your profile it looks like your geography might be limiting, but I would recommend a liberal methodist church, as the services always follow the same predictable liturgy heavy format. Larger churches in general also tend to have better sermons.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:11 AM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might look into the writings of Marcus Borg to see if you can come to appreciate the Bible in a new light other than the "infallible, inerrant" model Blasdelb describes above.

Good ones to try:
Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally

Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith

The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion To A More Authenthic Contemporary Faith

Also, if it's the hellfire-damnation, judgemental segment of Christianity that turns you off, read Love Wins by Rob Bell who makes a really good case for Universalism (God eventually reconciling everything and everyone to himself.) It's a much more joyful and hopeful view of Christianity than the "get saved or else" version I grew up with.

Also, nthing the Episcopal church. My current church offers a beautiful liturgy with uplifting sermons but very little in the way of doctrine.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:50 AM on August 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'll echo what others have already said about UUism and add that some Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) Meetings are not particularly dogmatic about the Christian aspects of their faith (there are, in fact, Quakers who are non-Christian or even atheists, though I think that they're rare). However, my understanding is that most of the more liberal Quakers use the traditional "silent meeting" format, so this may not be for you.
posted by asnider at 9:35 AM on August 1, 2012

Oops! I hit post too soon. Here are some links that I meant to include in my previous post:

- Nontheist Friends
- Quaker Universalist Fellowship
- Waiting worship ("silent" meetings)
posted by asnider at 9:38 AM on August 1, 2012

Another plug for checking out an Eastern Orthodox Church. The church is liturgically rich; the understanding of scripture is guided by the traditions of the church, rather than an individual's interpretation of it (see also, sola scriptura).
posted by magolia_mystery at 6:31 PM on August 1, 2012

Why not attend one of the ancient churches (all of which have a strong liturgical tradition) whose services are not in your native language (presumably English)? You'll get all the benefit of the symbolic structure and mystery inherent in liturgy, but, even if there is scripture, it'll be lost on you since it'll be proclaimed/read in another language.

So find a Traditional Latin Mass at a Catholic parish (added bonus for you: preaching is in English), an ethnic Eastern liturgy (you've got your Greeks, Russians, Maronites, Armenians, Ukranians, etc., etc.--homily may be in English or not), or even one of the African ones (Ethiopian, etc.).

I would think this would meet all your criteria.
posted by resurrexit at 12:40 PM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

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