I heard a program on the Catholic charismatic movement this morning on NPR. The segment said something like 33% of Hispanic Catholics identify as charismatic, compared to 10% of non-Hispanic Catholics.
Charismatic Christians believe they have a special relationship with God through the agency of the Holy Spirit. For more detail, see here. Anyway, the segment was going on about this when it came to the topic of glossolalia. That’s where I lost my religion.
Let me explain. Around 1974, I found myself, a kid from a nominally Jewish, actually agnostic/atheist family, accepting Christ as my personal savior (yes, through the agency of a girl I knew and a “Four Spiritual Laws” pamphlet. Interestingly, the church I quickly became associated with was not charismatic per se, but it had a youth pastor who had come out of one of the most important charismatic congregations in the state, and possibly, in the country—North Heights. There’s no Wikipedia entry for NH per se, but you can start here and find lots more scattered throughout the Wiki and the web.
So—before very long, I was attending not only church on Sundays and youth group on Wednesday night, but also a charismatic worship service on Friday and/or Saturday nights at North Heights.
These services were all enjoyable, but particularly so the weekend evening events at North Heights. They had a great worship service band, and as a lover of folk music and the surviving bits of hippiedom, I found the experience irresistible. It fed me spiritually in a way I had never thought possible. It was a happening of sorts. It was exhausting and fun and amazing. We sang and swayed and worshipped.
And then something happened that sent a chill down my spine.
As we swayed and sang, some people began to speak in tongues. They were not speaking in an recognizable language, but in a sibilant, liquid, bubbling outpouring that you could, if you stopped to think about it, parse into discrete items that might or might not be words. More and more would join in, and before long, most of the people in the large room were babbling.
The first few times I saw it happen, I let it roll over me and stood silent, watching and listening. But there was a subtle pressure to join in, to be “filled with the Holy Spirit.” And so, ashamed as I now am to admit it, I joined in. I spoke in tongues, letting my mind wander. I babbled. But there was a part of my brain that was sitting there watching me, saying “you fraud!”
That was when I started to lose my (charismatic) religion. Being brought up by scientists and teachers makes you good at skepticism, even when you’re a teenager. I continued to attend the services, because I felt the praise portions, the music, the singing, all were good, and were good for me. But the speaking in tongues made me damned uncomfortable.
And so I lost my (charismatic) religion. I left North Heights; I moved away, and stayed involved in the Christian music scene for a while, though I began to recognize that “Christian rock” was all-too-often a safe place for the less talented among musicians. When Dylan did his first Christian album, I felt both exhilarated and cheated.
Subsequently, I studied sociology and learned a few things about human behavior, peer pressure, and the like. And I walled off that part of myself. I tried to wall it off completely, to the extent that I once had dog tags made up that read “I don’t have to fight to prove I’m right/I don’t need to be forgiven.”
I became a full-time skeptic.
And yet I remain, not an atheist, but an agnostic, and a believer that agnosticism—which I define as a lack of certainty, though that’s almost certainly not its textbook definition—is the highest form of worship. That the certainty which allows us to abandon ourselves to an ecstatic babbling that we think comes from God, and to submerge ourselves entirely, I see as fundamentally immature, as an abandonment of what a god who may or may not exist may or may not have given us: the ability to look at the world critically, to evaluate it based on the evidence. The ability to see what is rather than what we want.
Or maybe I just have a stick up my ass.
In any event, I think I’m a better person for it. I go to church with my family, though my spouse knows I’m a skeptic. But I don’t think she can conceive of what that skepticism means, and I’m not sure I can effectively communicate it. Sometimes I wish I could believe like she does. But I can’t.
Am I an atheist? An agnostic? A Jew? A Christian?
I am that which I am.