The Suns We Orbit: Lessons Learned From Leaving the Church

Today, I’m offering a piece I’ve been working on for months. It’s yet another piece I’ve considered pitching to a publication, though I haven’t found a home for it yet. I hope you’ll find something valuable in it.

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The Suns We Orbit: Lessons Learned From Leaving the Church

“You don’t know how important church is until you leave it for eight years and then come back.”

It was a simple comment made over Torchy’s tacos on a back porch in Fayetteville. The group of friends who’d shared two decades of church struggle nodded. He was right, and we knew it, even though most of us never walked away from organized religion. More, we just migrated to different organized religious spaces.

“Why do we make church so hard?” he asked.

“Because humans,” another said, “of which I am one, so...”

“So maybe humans shouldn’t be the center of the show.” (This was a collective quote, a sort of summation of several comments.)

Amber, my wife, took the torch. We’ve entered the age of American Narcissism, she said. Cool guys running cool churches. Trying to be relevant. Trying to build platforms to stay in the center of a conversation people are no longer having. But that kind of center can’t hold, she said. It will blow itself to smithereens—this was more of an implication than a statement. There has to be a more impervious center than the human ego, she said.

Losing Gravity

What is the impervious center? This is the question behind the questions, the problem behind the problems. We’ve built on threadbare centers over the years—personalities, political ideologies, personal interpretations, the pragmatisms of the day—and what threads remained began pulling loose years before the pandemic. Now, we find ourselves in a changed world, one in which many have survived without the religious gathering (which is to say nothing of spirituality) for over year. The result? We’re struggling to answer this question: Why did we do this whole church-thing in the first place?

It’s a question not born of cynicism or snark or laziness or boredom. Instead, it’s a practical question, one born from the recognition that life was a little more relaxed without the religious gathering. It was less hectic, less anxiety-inducing, less measured, less judged.

You’ve felt this; right? 

So, could it be that, for many of us—especially those who began their faith journey in evangelical churches in the 1990s—the center of our religious communities had nothing to do with true spirituality? Were they centered on a persona? Did they orbit around shared sets of rules or political ideologies? Could our centers die, be voted out of office, or be manipulated by misinformation? If so, I’d pose a second question: Along the way, did we replace the impervious center with something less gravitational?

Orbiting Ego or Politics or Whatever

I spent years mired in a church that lost its way. It was a tiny planet whose early orbit was good and sacramental and, for lack of a better terminology, Catholic-lite. But somewhere along the way, we found ourselves orbiting less and less around our sacramental belief and more and more around a personality, a sun-sized ego. This ego wore vestments as a badge of honor (Protestant vestments though they were). He peddled confusing spiritual-growth models, created new ways of talking about community and propped up novel interpretations of scriptures (interpretations others had gotten wrong for thousands of years, Church Fathers included, mind you). He created isolated pockets of communication, managed his image with something like fauxnerability, and stoked outrage against those who questioned his authority or the health of the church. (There were other, more serious issues, but this is not the forum for the airing of those grievances; not yet, anyway.) It came to a head when he could no longer manipulate, manage his image, or control the narrative, which is to say, when he was called on the carpet. He and the church parted ways. And as for me and my house, we boarded a life raft and set out across the Tiber.

There were a good many things the church had right, but a critical wrong undermined it all: It was a church orbiting an ego, and in the great history of man, no human ego has had enough mass to hold any church in orbit. And to be clear, had I been the leader of that tiny community in those days, had I been the one tasked with holding it together with my ideas, my shadow side, my own penchants toward self-centering, the results might have been the same. 

Give me a church, task me being The Man, see how I well I do. Watch my gravity wane; see the planets of people spiraling off, dead rocks drifting out into the cosmos.

Personality—it is a false center. Aren’t so many other things? Aren’t there other gas balls that hope to hold us in place?

Consider the political ideologies that have taken center stage in our modern churches. Self-acclaimed prophets cry out in self-made desserts, declare “Prepare the way of the Politician.” This politician can save us from a slow slide into socialism or communism or moral relativism or fascism or whatever. This Party du jour that can level the playing field for religious liberty or the unborn or social justice or whatever. And so, these Political Prophets align themselves and their churches with the politicians of the day, decrying the other side as evil.

This is no new thing, I suppose. In my childhood Baptist church, a ceiling-sized flag hung over us during the God-and-Country Sunday festivities. The choir led God-and-Country songs. We pledged allegiance to God and Country, not necessarily in that order. The preacher preached a God-and-Sunday sermon. And to say I remember the content of those songs and sermons would be imaginative fiction. Still, I was left with the distinct impression: Morality, Christianity, the Republican Party, and the success of the American experiment were inextricably linked. If it wasn’t directly spouted from the pulpit, it was implied with little art. It was this political ideology that seemed to hold a central position in the gravitational pull of church life, though some would take issue with this characterization.

The years have worn on, and I am in my forties now. I’ve watched as many in the church of youth continued their orbits around the sun of politics. They’ve been led like a bull by the nose to darker corners of the internet. They’ve fed at the trough of conspiracy theories. They’ve believe petty, angry fictions. They’ve said we’re in a war of good versus evil, and those who do not agree with this syncretism of political ideology and Christianity are enemies of the Cross. I’ve noted the way anger has taken root, the way the words of Christ—blessed are the peacemakers—seem long forgotten.

Of course, regard my criticism with no small degree of skepticism. I can be just as politically stubborn, just as vicious in the ways I center my own political ideologies. And if you were a priest, if we were in confession, I might say this: Bless me father for I have sinned; I have judged my brother and sister with differing political opinions as something less than Christian. Put another way, on occasion, I make my own politics the sun.

Can political ideologies form the church’s impervious center? Can they collect us, hold us together? Or do the centering of those ideologies lead to a church orbiting the great gas giants of hate, untruth, and arrogance?

Orbiting The Sun

I am a Catholic now, just over a year in the making, and I am probably not what some would call a “good Catholic.” I have not mastered the rosary, and I do not know all my Saints. I’ve never attended a pro-life rally outside an abortion clinic, and I am not vocal about the decisions people make in their bedrooms. I’ve never attended a Latin mass. 

I may not be a “good Catholic,” but I know this much: The weekly gathering, the celebration of the mass, is a thing of great gravity. The locus of this gravity is not in an emotive musical act or a charismatic stage presence. It’s not found in a style or vibe or atmosphere. It’s not centered in intellection or exegesis or isogesis or the whims of news cycle. It is not found in a political ideology, to the chagrin of some. The locus of the gravity is in the mystery at the altar, the mystery of Corpus Christi. Everything else—the tunes, the prayers, the passing of the peace, the benediction, all the dull days before doing it all over again—orbits around that moment when the Priest again pronounces that Christ is with us.

The center of the celebration of the mass is a sun—a center, which, by its very nature, is not dependent on our action, creativity, personalities, our politics. This, I think, creates a much more compelling story, one with an eternal gravitational pull.

The writer George Saunders—perhaps also not a “good Catholic” since leaving the church in 1972 and becoming enamored with Tibetan Buddhism—understands the importance of a gravitational center in a sustaining a story, and particularly in any church ceremony like the mass. In his most recent book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he writes:

“We might think of a story as a kind of ceremony, like the Catholic Mass, or a coronation, or a wedding. We understand the heart of the Mass to be communion, the heart of a coronation to be the moment the crown goes on, the heart of the wedding to be the exchanging of the vows. All of those other parts (the processionals, the songs, the recitations, and so on) will be felt as beautiful and necessary to the extent that they serve the heart of the ceremony.”

I do not think Saunders set out to comment on the current status of worship in the American church. Still, he did. Every story, and therefore every ceremony, needs a transcendent, gravitational center. Everything else within the story or ceremony should serve that center. If it does not, if it serves some ego or ancillary political aim or imagined dogma or whatever, it will not be “felt as beautiful.” It will, over time, become grotesque.

This cuts to the heart of the modern American Church story; doesn’t it? We’ve centered ego, persona, and politics in ways that don’t serve “the heart of the ceremony.” Instead, they serve us. And if there’s one thing the Christian faith teaches us—most faiths, in fact—it is that humans are not weighty enough to serve as a transcendent center of an eternal story. Our desires, styles, political aims, beliefs—whatever—are fickle at best, and fickle suns do not have the gravity of Divine Love, of Corpus Christi.

Here Comes the Sun

“You don’t know how important church is until you leave it for eight years and then come back.” He said this again, between bites of his greasy taco. We knew what he meant. He’s finished with the cool-church or personality-driven church or political-church or issue-du-jour-church. He gave up on chasing fickle suns eight years ago. Now, he’s coming back to something with a more impervious center, something with a more gravitational pull. He’s coming back to find the sun of Divine Love. These are his words, not mine.

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