Piper Wheeler

If I Told You I Went to Church Because I Hated Capitalism, Would You Believe Me?


If I told you I went to the church because I hated capitalism, would you believe me?

Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe you should. The church, like the post office and the columned crematorium up the hill, was built during a time when the phrase “public works” still had a dignified ring. Their carved cornices, the lilacs on either side of their granite steps, their arched ceilings that optimized neither space nor electricity—these buildings communicated values that, probably, had never been as solid or as central to the town as the golden domes would have us believe. But the city’s rich had once thought it worthwhile to leave behind artifacts of an ideal.

This was in Oakland, in California.

I was new to the city. I was angry that the city was filled with vacant lots and parking lots and the foundation-pits of condos abandoned by investors. I was angry that the city’s buses were always late, that the city’s downtown was deserted after dark, that “Uptown” was being rebranded as a destination for the leisure classes. It wasn’t just that, though—too many of my days were filled with rage and despair at the poor world we live in, at my own mind tuned to internet blather, at the era’s insistence on concentrating wealth among a few and acclimating the masses to exploitation and plastic shoes.

The church stood on a rise above an overbuilt intersection. Across six or eight lanes of traffic was an upscale grocery store, a link in a national chain. A half-block down, on Sunday mornings, the black Baptist church filled with flamboyant hats and hand-claps. The Unitarian congregation up the hill was silent and staunchly white. It was important that my church was between them, at the start of the hill’s rise.

It was important, too, that this was a lay congregation. Their minister had left them during the previous year; now they cobbled together services from guest speakers and congregants’ testimonials. A gay couple had become de facto leaders. The two men, one black and one white, were reassuring in their middle-aged portliness and Dockers. But their leadership was casual; out of the 25 or so regular attendees, there was a wide circle responsible for the church’s affairs. Wednesday night caucuses decided even the messages spelled out in vinyl letters on the outdoor signboard.

Illustration by Tom Tian

Why did I go to the church? I was lonesome. It was January. In September I’d begun graduate school and bought a boat to live on, a 26-foot junker I half-heartedly planned to fix up. Really I was looking for a pure kind of solitude, a room and a half the internet couldn’t reach. It was the first time I’d lived without roommates. I wanted to see what my mind would do without the noise of others.

It turned out that left to itself, my mind spent a lot of time thinking about the noise of others. I was preoccupied by vague yearnings for a social space far from commerce, for self-government and cooperation. Community, though, was a thing I didn’t know how to look for.

And meaning. That winter my mind circled and circled the question of meaning, where it came from and why it seemed everywhere lacking.

I went to the church because going to the church seemed like an honest action. New in town, I spent my time with people I wasn’t sure I cared for. I had signed a contract to spend six years at the university, even though American higher education often seemed to me a machine hungry for profit and doomed to dissolution. My days and nights were devoted to academic pursuits that only intermittently proved worthwhile.

It seemed honest, though, to walk into the church. I sought something, I went among the seekers.

Or the story could be different. It could start in Portland in the summertime, when I was 23 and death was a thing to which I pressed myself close. Despair was in the mirror, in the streets, in the faces of my friends; behind my eyes were nooses and pills and razors. I pressed myself to suicide like to the flank of a horse I couldn’t work up the courage to ride.

By the end of the summer I knew I had to either kill myself or stop thinking about it.

To stop thinking about killing yourself does not necessarily mean to rejoin the living.

I don’t want to tell this story. I want to scrawl “clinical depression” over a year of my life and shut that book.

I took suicide away from myself because I didn’t know how else to save my own life. But that horse had been exciting; it had been full of heat. The sin and thrill and promise of suicide were transfixing. Without it, I felt, maybe, more dead. Life was something I had sentenced myself to, and the living world was very far away.

Things changed very slowly and all at once.

In folktales, the youngest of three brothers must overcome three obstacles to win the princess’s hand. The Trinity is indivisible. Man has three ages and Christ had three temptations and all the best girl groups had three singers.

Illustration by Tom Tian

Three moments brought me to the church.

One day in February, in a trolleybus on Nevsky Prospekt, I faced forward and watched the faces of backward-facing passengers. It was 2011 and I’d been living in St. Petersburg, Russia, all winter. Everyone was bundled in furs and dingy wool. The older woman in front of me had large, lucid eyes. All at once I recognized that her eyes were of a different class of being than her coat was. I recognized that this was consciousness, that she was right then in the act of perceiving, and that perception was individuated and unrepeatable.

This struck me hard. A human being is not an overcoat. A human being is made animate by forces within.

At the Hermitage a month later, in front of a Chagall—a lady, I think, in a red hat—I realized that I was no longer interested in death. I was interested, in fact, in the painting, which suddenly had ceased to be a meaningless scrap of grubby materiality. The museum did not appear to be a falsely sanctified corner of the trash-factory that was the world, and I wasn’t an automaton set on consuming artifacts of previous centuries in order to amass cultural capital. The light had shifted. I was strong and full of nerves and the miracle of my perception met everywhere with the miracle of others’ creation.

Like blood returns with pins and needles to a limb that’s gone numb, the world filled again with life, very slowly, over the course of months.

By the next autumn I’d moved to the Bay Area. On a BART train, on a section of above-ground rails in Oakland, the sun was strong over the Berkeley hills. Light fell on my face and on the faces of the passengers. I was happy and I felt very alive and a sentence came fully formed into my head: The world is made animate by benevolent forces.

When I was very small, shows of religious feeling struck me with the same exquisite, squeamish horror as did enthusiastic singing and dancing. If my mother were in the room, I’d be writhing with weird shame during the musical numbers on Sesame Street. Religion and song-and-dance seemed to share a showiness that was somehow scandalous, fascinating and repugnant. The closest my family came to real religious devotion was channel-surfing past sermons on Christian television or AM radio stations. And radio noise is what comes to mind when I think of childhood impressions of Christianity: impassioned cries of Lord Jesus! that came and went in static-bound snippets, jarring as the whoosh and thunder of an 18-wheeler on the highway.

But I knew a few things. People who cried out the name of Jesus were likely to decorate their houses with needlepoint plaques. Their toilet seats would have little pastel-colored shag carpet-covers; their refrigerators would feature pre-sliced lunchmeat and name-brand mayonnaise; they would purchase cars from dealers and send out store-bought Christmas cards. They would, in other words, represent the Type of Person that my siblings and I had been trained from birth not necessarily to dislike, but to look on with astonishment and sometimes with pity.

My parents didn’t raise us with religion, but my family’s worldview came close to some kind of dogma. We—I should say I—had radical faith in our own exceptionalism. We were convinced of our own inherent virtue in a fallen and hostile world. Poor kids who were inexplicably smart, we felt specially blessed and selected, but simultaneously under siege by the dominant forces of chintz and ignorance.

Predictably, this childish certainty eroded and left behind traces of arrogance, unfriendliness and social ineptitude. The world of ordinary people didn’t stop seeming perplexing and inaccessible. There, in that world, lived people who knew how to apply eye makeup correctly, have conversations about professional sports, and put their faith in God.

I read Augustine, William James, Gerard Manley Hopkins. I thought a great deal about the word “faith.” It seemed that behind that word were rooms I couldn’t enter, whose contents I couldn’t imagine. Being a man, or a heroin addict, or speaking Chinese—all this I could imagine, but the experience of having religion was, somehow, impenetrable. So behind the desire for faith was some amount of puerile jealousy: those who have faith throw the word around chummily, but tend to get squirrely when pressed for a definition. An Evangelical told me, “If you want to accept Jesus into your heart you’ve got to get on your knees every day and pray to God for guidance.” But if you never learned to pray, if despite all your best efforts you can’t bring yourself to posit a God—then being on your knees is no different from sitting in a chair, and praying for guidance is no different from giving yourself a pep-talk. There was a gap in the logic that I couldn’t overcome, and that none of the Christians I’d interrogate, after a few drinks, at parties (I haven’t been great company during some of these periods) seemed willing to acknowledge.

Illustration by Tom Tian

So last winter on the BART train, when the sun shot through the plexiglass and brought to the world some sudden kind of unity, I seized it. This was exactly the kind of invisible, instantaneous transformation I’d been waiting for, and because I wanted fellowship as well as peace, and because I wanted to know a God that was wholly human and wholly divine, and because the writer and the sentimentalist in me had always adored the stories of how the stone rolled from Jesus’ tomb, I went one Sunday to First Congregational.

The sky had changed. It was somehow very deep and very full. Air was no longer merely air, but a substance trembling with light that communicated my own living essence to that tree down the block, to that building in the distance, to the clutch of janitors on their smoke break and the rack of half-priced cardigans outside a boutique. Grass, human skin and the fur of cats were clearly filled to bursting with brightness and heat. Having entered communion with the air’s visible energy, every sprout and mammalian limb was miraculously tensile and upright.

Above all else, depression—if that’s what we ought to call months of listlessness and desperate confusion—had robbed me of the sense of reality. The streets and people that surrounded me in the physical world had been indistinguishable from a computer screen or a movie: neither one could touch me, and, if anything, virtual worlds were likelier to make me laugh or cry. More than once I dreamed of Gmail. Evenings in Petersburg, I’d wander along the Fontanka and wonder whether the bridge in the distance was made of stones or of a billion pixels.

Because of this, I had no truck with the supposition that religion impeded one’s perception of reality. Or perhaps because that supposition had always seemed misguided, I chose to call my return to the world “religion.” Anyway, I disliked the hypocrisy and stubbornness of anti-religious discourse; it was all too clear that human beings needed a grand narrative by which to order the world, and Christianity seemed no more tainted than so-called empirical science, capitalist economics, or analytic philosophy. If God would teach me to love others, to spend my life in the living world and to forgive myself for weakness and blindness and greed, then I wanted to put my faith in God.

A very large man named Moses took my hand in both his enormous mitts. A blonde soprano shut her eyes and sang “Amazing Grace.” An older butch lady pulled her bifocals from her shirt pocket and read from a xeroxed sheet: Behold, I cry out, “Violence!” but I am not answered; I call for help, but there is no justice. He breaks me down on every side, and I am gone, and my hope he has pulled up like a tree. An old man didn’t budge from his pew but banged his cane on the carpet and shouted, uh-huh! praise! praise! A skinny hippy with a profile like Nefertiti lifted her hands and swayed from side to side.

When people testified and told stories, they pointed at the stained-glass bearded Jesus above the altar and I thought, I know what they are doing. They are pointing to that cross because for them it has become the center of all the life and excitement and unity that the air holds.

I wanted to gather up my new trust in the living world and pin it to that center, too. I didn’t trust the air to continue to vibrate with love, and it seemed like a wonderful idea to find a community and a dogma and a set of rituals that would steer me away from the dim life I’d only just escaped.

It was difficult to join in the life of the church, however, because almost as soon as services started I would begin to weep uncontrollably, and every 20 minutes or so would have to duck out the back to wash my face in the ladies’ room and grab another handful of toilet paper.

Over chat from Berlin, I’m telling a man I’m in love with how I’ve been trying to write this essay.

He says, Are you fucking with me? It’s not fair to fuck with me, I can’t tell if you’re kidding when I can’t see your face.

No, no, this really happened.

I tell him about the sun and the BART train. I tell him how for two months of Sundays I went to church and cried.

He’s an atheist. Everyone I know is an atheist, almost.

You were mourning, he says. What were you mourning?

I hadn’t put it in those words. I type: that’s true.

After a minute he decides: Hard childhood, hard adolescence, you grew up too fast. Nostalgia.

I don’t want to agree with this.

The mother-father God who will never leave, who understands everything you’ve ever thought or done, who is everywhere and in all things and who casts a benevolent gaze upon the most depraved of all the world’s dirty corners—the idea that this god could exist was one of the things that had me drenching wads of Kleenex. And the longing to nestle to that god’s heavenly bosom does smack of nostalgia for some Big Other-mother.

But if I was mourning anything, it wasn’t the chaos and fear of my childhood; it wasn’t my parents’ mistakes. It was the death of a certainty that’s associated with childhood but that persisted long afterward: the certainty that I would grow only stronger, wiser and kinder; that I would join the world and that the world would make sense. That reality would become less rapacious and terrifying. That getting out of bed in the morning wouldn’t entail underwriting clearcuts in the Amazon and oil spills in the Gulf, the three million Americans who live in prisons and the two billion people who live in destitution.

To mourn, I guess, is to forgive. We mourn because we have to forgive the dead for their human weakness, and forgive the world for the humiliation and injustice of mortality.

For months and months I’d lost the smell and taste of life, and if killing yourself in spirit or in fact isn’t a sin, I don’t know what is. I cried in church because I had wanted to die and I had been blind to all the bright mystery that really might exist in the world.

My dad, 20 years sober, had always declared that suicide is the most selfish thing a person can do. I thought he meant the pain an actual suicide would introduce into a family or a town. The misery of not wanting to live, though, had come from its total solitude and self-obsession, from the untouchable nature of that state and from the way it makes other people cease to matter. I was furious with myself for that year or so of not loving anybody.

What were you mourning? Your sin.

I go bowling in Alameda with the church’s “under-40” club. I’ve been reading Anne Lamott and I’m really excited to make friends with hip Christians. Because we are people of faith, our friendships will pulse with secret understanding, and we’ll have very soulful conversations even when we aren’t at all drunk.

Going bowling with the under-40 club is very much like going bowling with any group of near-strangers. I’m self-conscious because these particular near-strangers have been privy to my muffled blubbering for the past few Sundays, but for a couple hours I chat with them about moving to the Bay Area and getting a Ph.D. in Russian literature and how very excellent the produce selection is at the Berkeley Bowl. They are slightly nicer than most people I hardly know. After the Christians and I have finished bowling and a meal of avocado maki, I meet up with my atheist friends in Oakland and get very, very drunk.

There’s no serious disillusionment. I stay out too late one Saturday night and the next day I lie in my boat’s V-berth until noon, drinking coffee and watching clouds move across the sun through the companionway hatch. The rigging clatters on the mast; the crane who hangs out on my dock dries his wings. I can hear the man who owns the boat next to mine telling his kid how to read the wind. It seems just fine to stay exactly where I am.

I don’t go to church the next week, either.

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