A skeptical pilgrim visits local churches


I attended Catholic church six days a week for much of my childhood, which deepened my appreciation for the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, seen here, many years later. I saw nothing quite this magnificent during my visits to churches in Billings, but I saw plenty.

Starting a week from today and continuing every Monday for about six months, Last Best News will be running a new feature, At Your Service.

It will consist of a series of reviews, for lack of a better word, of church services—or mostly of services: one review will be of a musical presentation and another of a meeting of humanists—in the Billings area. To avoid blowing my cover, I have already made all my visits and written all my reviews.

I was motivated by a simple curiosity. I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a place with so many and such a variety of churches, and I used to wonder what went on in all those houses of worship. And so, on the last Sunday of 2013, I began my researches.

ServiceI did not attend church every Sunday; far from it. I took off the entire summer and most of last fall, and there were other sizable gaps, but on March 17 of this year I attended my last service, on a Tuesday morning, having arbitrarily decided to stop after 24 expeditions. In this town, it sometimes seemed, I could have continued visiting different churches every week for the rest of my life.

I was mostly interested in finding out what each church had to offer a pilgrim who came in off the street with little or no idea of what to expect. That’s why I resisted the temptation to read up on a denomination or a particular church I knew nothing about, and why I avoided special days like Christmas and Easter. My aim was to describe the service, the music, the preaching, the engagement of the congregation—anything that caught my ear or my eye or my fancy.

Wherever I was, I tried to think of myself as The Respectful Heathen, an unbeliever who nevertheless admires the religious impulse, the seeking spirit that human beings have always had, the wish to give thanks to someone or something greater than ourselves.

When I was a boy growing up in Mahtomedi, Minnesota, I thought the diversity of world religion consisted of Catholics and Lutherans, and most everybody I knew and associated with was Catholic. The only Lutherans I knew well were our next-door neighbors, the Tweets (really).

The Tweets were vaguely unsavory, given to cigarettes at an early age and to all sorts of minor criminal activities. One of the older Tweets once tried talking me into doing something I knew was wrong, and I attempted to excuse myself by saying that my mother would be very displeased. He took a drag off his cigarette and said in a syrupy, cynical voice, “What your mom don’t know can’t hurt her.” I was not a prig, but that shocked me. It was a given that the Tweets, because they were Lutherans, were all going to hell, but the extent to which they seemed to be enjoying their sin took me by surprise.

The only thing I knew about the Lutherans, in terms of doctrine, was that they could skip church on Sunday without committing a mortal sin. I was terribly jealous of that, but I still felt my religion was superior to theirs. They didn’t even follow the pope, so there was no telling where they got their ideas.

I attended a Catholic school and went to church six days a week during the school year through the end of sixth grade. Throw in 12 services during the summer and that works out to roughly 1,200 Masses in just six years. It would take your once-a-week churchgoer 23 years to reach that number.

I paid my dues, is what I’m saying.

It would be misleading to speak of the religious “beliefs” I held as a boy. I believed in God and the Catholic Church in the same sense that I believed in the infallibility of my parents, or in the reality of White Bear Lake, in the waters of which I spent even more time than I did in church.

I did enjoy the ritual and the vestments, the incense and the ornately carved Stations of the Cross that lined the walls of our church. I loved the stained-glass windows and I couldn’t wait for a turn to sing up in the choir loft, which each classroom was allowed to do in rotation.

When I was still quite young, maybe 7 or 8, our church was swept up in the changes affecting Catholic churches everywhere. The murals of cherubs and angels on the ceiling were painted over, the altar was turned around to face the congregation and the Latin was no more.

Electrifying music

And for a time we white-bread Minnesotans welcomed into our church a Trinidadian by the name of Cyril Paul, a singer and enthusiastic Catholic who performed and taught all over the Twin Cities for many years. I didn’t much cotton to the changes in the church or the service, but I was electrified by Paul. I especially remember his playing the congas while singing “Amen” with a fire not previously witnessed in our church.

It may be the lingering reverberations of Paul’s transformative music that made me so particular about what I would hear at all these Billings churches. I had no idea, at the outset, how large a part music would play in so many services, nor how much space I would devote to my impressions of it.

I don’t remember any specific feelings in regard to being read to from the Bible six days a week, mostly from the New Testament, but a lot of it stuck. Years later, when my wife and I visited the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, we were both surprised at how quickly we could identify virtually every New Testament scene painted in panels all over the arched ceiling of the shrine. We went along putting 100-lire coins in little boxes that would light one small portion of the ceiling at a time, and we couldn’t stop. The paintings were beautiful, for one thing, but so was the rush of memories from our Catholic childhoods.

And yet somehow I fell away from it all. There was no violent break, no declaration of independence or exclamation point. It was, to draw an impious comparison, similar to my break with television. I used to watch a lot of TV, but when I moved out on my own at 18 and discovered a big world with so much to do and explore, I quit watching TV and never did go back, except sporadically.

I don’t consider myself an enemy of TV, or superior to those who watch it. Ditto with religion. I would never dream of trying to talk someone out of the consolation of religion, much less the ecstasy of conviction. For a variety of reasons every agnostic is familiar with and every believer can at least imagine, I cannot convince myself of the existence of a god, much less a god in active communication with human beings.

I take no pride in my lack of belief. William James, the great philosopher of religion, might have been speaking to me personally when he said that a happy, healthy-minded person might sail through life without having to account for the existence of evil. But for those who “naturally feel life as a tragic mystery,” James said, “such optimism is a shallow dodge or mean evasion.” In the face of the great tragedy presented by the spectacle of history, he continued, an unbeliever must suspect that he is “not really inside the game, that he may lack the great initiation.”

But that’s the thing. I find myself outside so many games, and at my age I don’t lose any sleep over being insufficiently profound. Likewise, should I pine over the misfortune of being a happy, healthy-minded individual? It’s the way I am, and that is the person I was when I visited all these churches.

The idea that I should ever again become a believer strikes me as improbable as the possibility that I should ever visit the moon. Which is to acknowledge that it is at least a possibility, and why I identify as an agnostic rather than an atheist. It has always struck me as odd that an atheist could believe so strongly in the absence of religious belief.

Defensive measure

I was married in a Catholic church in 1977, but had little other engagement with churches for many years. A few years after we moved to Billings in 1989, I gravitated toward church-going as a defensive measure, because it seemed that so many of our children’s friends were deeply into one church or another. We wanted them to be able to say that they already had a church, thank you, one that we were happy with.

We settled on the First Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Billings. The service was vaguely familiar to a born-once Catholic, the hymns were suitably antique and the politics were decidedly progressive. I enjoyed it well enough for five or six years, but even there I chafed under the yoke of belonging.

I have always felt this strong need to stay outside of groups, to be an observer rather than a participant, a critic rather than a consensus-builder. And, to be honest, I grew tired of the Bible. I love books, and this obsession with just one book, week after week, year after year, finally struck me as untenable. Once again, there was no dramatic break, just a gradual weaning and an end.

So those are my biases. I thought I should lay them out before starting this series. Some people may think my lack of belief disqualifies me from the task of fairly evaluating church services, but wouldn’t a fervent member of any of these many churches have much more trouble being fair than I?

That’s a question readers will have to answer for themselves. I only hope that they will believe that I approached this project with an open mind and no preconceived ideas. Well, there were some, since I’m human, but I have tried to note them when they cropped up in the course of my spiritual peregrinations.

One last thing: I proceeded with no real game plan, except the desire to visit some of the biggest churches in Billings, including Faith Chapel, Faith Evangelical and Harvest Church. Beyond that vague goal, I went mostly by whim, picking a church on Saturday evening or even Sunday morning.

When I reached my arbitrary goal of 24, I quickly realized there were churches I should have attended, denominations I should have explored. But life, as more than a few preachers have noted during my researches, is fleeting. And who knows? I may someday get the urge to take up where I left off.

Next week: Chapter 1—St. Patrick Co-Cathedral.

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