I have known numerous members of Christian congregations who are “stealth worshipers.” They do not believe in the truth of their denomination’s doctrinal statements, but they continue to find meaning through membership in the faith community of their heritage. While stealth worshipers secretly reject the superstitions and dogma of their inherited religion, they still find meaning in participating in services and practices that express awe and gratitude, and they find meaning in the communal sharing and activities of the organization.
I have given talks and sermons to a number of diverse religious organizations in Indianapolis and Chicago and have heard “confessions” of these stealth worshipers. Many of these folks feel the need to keep their doubt and disbelief about official doctrines to themselves or to share only with trusted comrades.
A profound difference I experienced at Indianapolis First Friends Meeting was that there was no need for stealth. Howard, the atheist; Duffy, the outspoken evangelical-fundamentalist; and Daud, the Muslim, were all very active and beloved members of the meeting.
Wouldn’t it be better for all concerned if we felt safe to have the courage of our convictions, or lack of convictions, and to be able to openly express them? Although I do not believe in or agree with some of what is spoken, sung, or prayed under the roof of First Friends, I do feel safe to express a contrary view. And I have never felt forced to mouth words I do not believe, as I did for so many years in Presbyterian services and classes.
Services that contain the elements of traditional Christian worship (the hymns, chants, incense, candles, prayers, sermons, meditative silences, confessions), but do not contain any declarations of faith create a more authentic experience for those of us who value the essential religious response of awe and gratitude but not the doctrines and dogma.
So many religious organizations claim to be welcoming to all, but sooner or later a confession of faith or affirmation of doctrine is usually required for full participation in the community. Doctrinal requirements divide and separate.
When religious services are stripped of doctrinal claims, doubters and skeptics can participate without having to be stealth worshipers. Why not truly welcome everyone into the community, so that anyone can enjoy all that is good about religion: the music, prayer and meditation, hearing a good message, supporting social justice causes, and drinking coffee after worship services?
First Friends, following Quaker tradition, has stripped worship services of any overt or implied requirement of a confession of faith. I wish it would take what I see as the next step, and cease and desist making statements about a God that I do not believe exists. But for me to try to impose my animist-agnosticism on the meeting would be to engage in the same sort of doctrinal intolerance that eventually drove me from the Presbyterian Church. So I participate, try to hear with open mind and heart what doesn’t seem right, and speak my own mind and heart when I feel led. It works.
I was once asked by a fellow Presbyterian what I should say when asked about the resurrection. I was a candidate for the ordained ministry, and this respected elder of the church knew a candidate committee was going to examine me about my beliefs. Bill sidled up beside me during the coffee klatch after services, darted suspicious looks in all directions, and then popped the question about the resurrection. He admitted to me that he didn’t believe in it, and he wondered how an educated and rational fellow like me was going to be able to duck the question. He presumed that I did not believe in Christian myths like the virgin birth and resurrection. He understood that we both had to pretend to believe in these myths in order to hold leadership positions within the Presbyterian denomination. It was sad, silly, and hypocritical.
If questions about the resurrection came up in the class I led at First Friends, there would have been no need for stealth in asking or answering the questions.
Because I went to seminary, I came to know quite a few Christian ministers. As an attorney, I represented several churches and Christian ministers in legal matters. Several ministers of Protestant denominations and two Catholic priests came clean with me about their personal beliefs. I discovered that when they were not “on,” many pastors would admit to the same doubts about the dogmas and superstitions of their churches as I had about mine.
As a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry, I was counseled by other ordained ministers to “tell them what they want to hear,” rather than what I really thought and believed, in order to pass the required examinations about my beliefs. I was co-valedictorian of my seminary class, won awards for accomplishments in ancient Greek and Hebrew, and was highly recommended by the psychologist who performed personality tests for our presbytery. But I felt forced to part ways with the Presbyterian Church as a result of the ordination examinations.
I had not followed the advice of my pastoral mentors to “tell them what they want to hear.” So, during my oral examination, a committee member was justified in her exclamation, “Why, you seem more like a Buddhist than a Calvinist!” What non-Calvinistic blasphemies and devilry might have been unleashed within a Presbyterian Church had I been allowed to lead a congregation in chanting, Om mani padme hum (“the jewel is in the lotus”), instead of the Apostles’ Creed!
It makes sense to me to imagine that everything in the world has Spirit. My animistic friends in the Basa area of Nepal tell me that even rocks have Spirit. And it’s true that rocks and all inanimate things are composed of subatomic particles, which have motion and change over time. Is that Spirit?
Regardless of what beliefs one might hold about a possible reality beyond rational proof, surely we can all agree that it is good that our world exists and (unless one is suffering unbearable pain) to be alive in this awesome universe is good. And it is good to share gladness, and sadness, with others. Didn’t George Fox and the founding Quakers discover in the teachings of Jesus that we all share this earth and are all connected in each others’ pain and gladness? Isn’t that the plain and simple meaning of the divine spark in all?
Unfortunately, many of those who have claimed to be followers of Jesus have been unable to resist the temptation to move beyond the primal response of awe, gratitude, and connectedness to create divisive doctrines and belief mandates.
Some Christian and Jewish friends that have trekked with me in Nepal find it amusing that local Hindus actually believe paying homage to Ganesh will bring success in business or on a test in school. Ganesh’s father, Shiva, cut off his son’s head and replaced it with that of an elephant. Ganesh’s usual mode of transportation is to ride a mouse. How successful can that guy with the big ears and trunk riding a mouse be at securing a contract desired by a Hindu performing pujah in that temple!?
Yet, believing the walls of Jericho fell down because the Ark of the Covenant was paraded around for seven days is expected of a good Jew. Christians are to accept that Saul and his companions were blinded by a light on the Damascus Road, but that only Saul heard the voice of Jesus. Considering that hallucinations are a typical symptom of schizophrenia, Christians ought to be careful before laughing at the myths of other religions.
If we can discipline ourselves to respond to the great and fundamental questions of philosophy and theology with a sense of awe and gratitude and then admit our ignorance and inability to answer the unanswerable, then, in my experience, the Quaker understanding of God within all is easier to accept. The response of awe and gratitude is the creative source of beautiful art, literature, temple and cathedral architecture, the worshipful attitude of St. Francis, and the mindfulness of Thich Nhat Hanh. The schismatic and doctrinaire demands of authoritarian religious (and political) regimes have the opposite effect. They divide and conquer.
I first came to the Quakers at First Friends with an ulterior motive (to find fiscal sponsorship for a development project in Nepal). But instead of turning me away, the meeting responded like the Good Samaritan. By treating me as a Friend and listening to my entreaty for Basa Village, these Hoosier Quakers reached halfway round the world to help provide for others in need. And that is how I knew that Quakers were and are followers of Christ.