An Atheist Visits Ecclesiax

I received an invitation from one of my partners to attend their Sunday service at Ecclesiax, a church in downtown Ottawa, and out of curiosity, I attended. It was an interesting visit, and I’m glad I added this unusual event to the series of religious presentations I have personally experienced. Like all the others, though, it’s not one I’ll be repeating if I can avoid it.

The front door of Ecclesiax, showing its trademark blue sign and unusual font.

Ecclesiax presents itself as modern alternative to stuffy older traditions, and in many ways, it lives up to this claim. Instead of pews or rows of ordinary chairs, much of the seating is cozy couches brought close to the pastor. Protestant churches in general deliberately create more intimate, personal atmospheres than the Catholic churches of my youth, as part of their different notion of the appropriate relationship between the worshippers, the preacher, and the divine, and Ecclesiax takes this farther than most. The podium, presumably used more conventionally by the other churches that rent this space, was set off to one side, and served only to hold the pastor’s tablet computer, which held his notes and which transmitted his PowerPoint slides to a large wall screen, when he wasn’t holding it himself. Side areas provided child-sized tables, chairs, toys, sketchpads, and colored pencils (pencil crayons to Canadians), and the handful of children attending the service made use of them or ran playfully about without being seen as unwelcome, distracting, or irreverent. The lack of Catholic-style attention to acoustics almost certainly contributed to the close placement of the seating. The atmosphere suggested a seminar or discussion group more than a church service, which was a refreshing alternative to being expected and, by architecture, incentivized to passively accept a designated preacher’s authoritative description of the day’s topic.

The interior of Ecclesiax, showing the chairs serving as additional seating outside the ring of couches as well as the very informal position of the pastor.

This church’s place in Christian phylogeny encourages this defiance, though the hierarchs it defies with some of its habits and teachings would wince at this fact. Ecclesiax is a branch of the Free Methodist Church in Canada, descended in turn from the United States’s Free Methodist Church and, several iterations back, from English Methodism. These churches became famous for being major stops on the Underground Railroad while other churches were defending chattel slavery and for eschewing some of the theological and hierarchical rigidity of their predecessors. This spirit of forward-thinking autonomy has persisted throughout the church’s history. Fitting the pattern I have gotten used to from religious establishments, it is therefore predominantly white, and no visibly non-white people were in attendance in the service I observed. (Immigrant-focused churches have a habit of turning hidebound in the name of “cultural preservation,” resisting efforts at modernization that more secure culture groups embrace, while black churches are their own tradition.)

With all of this in mind, the service itself was both more and less refreshing than I’d hoped. The presentation focused on Chapter 10 of the Book of Acts, a sequence in which Peter experiences visions and becomes an enthusiastic, somewhat off-the-cuff evangelist for the newly-coalescing idea of Christianity. Central to this sequence is the point where Peter insists that Christianity, rather than being another Jewish sect with Jewish-style rules governing its membership, would accept converts from among non-Jews just as easily as it would from among Jews. While this kind of inclusiveness was hardly rare in the world religious landscape, and if anything was less welcoming than Roman-style orthopraxy, it conflicted greatly with prior Jewish notions of the “uncleanliness” of associating with “gentiles”/“goyim.” This set out a major difference between Christianity and its predecessors that would help turn Christianity into a totally separate Abrahamic faith.

Where this lesson in Roman-era Judean history and the evolution of early Christianity began to go off the rails was when the pastor connected it to the behavior of the Old Testament god. The distinction between the Old Testament god’s rampant bloodlust and intense focus on one specific tribe, versus the usually (but far from always) more peaceful and more broadly interested New Testament god is not rare knowledge, and most Christian sects interested in downplaying the provincial viciousness of the Old Testament god claim that one or more lines by Jesus or others nullify whatever parts of Old Testament law that specific denomination wishes to ignore (but not the other ones; exceptions for the Leviticus prohibition against sex between men are almost always retained). In this instance, the atrocities of the Old Testament are held up as necessary for their specific context, and rendered unnecessary when the New Testament’s ideas began unfolding to reveal a new manner of Abrahamic conduct. In particular, this new message of evangelism is held as the solution to the problems the Old Testament god solved by subjecting this or that Levantine people to genocide. The dangers the deity once addressed by inciting his favorite people to murder every adult and child of any group that threatened or inconvenienced them, it would now address by bringing these outsiders into the fold, removing the danger by turning them into us.

This is a common failing in liberal Christianity, and one that the system cannot fix without radically restructuring its relationship to its source material. The material is presented as a basis from which to elucidate the deity’s desires and as a historical account of a specific people’s goings-on told through their own views and biases, simultaneously. Each view of the nature of the Bible is used to patch the holes created by the other. Acts of unambiguous horror are either handwaved as contextually necessary and therefore forgiveable or understood as the depicted people wrongly claiming divine favor over purely human actions, or both, while the actions that remain palatable to modern morals are claimed as divine instruction, with no clearer guide than this heuristic distinguishing the two and with this standard transparently shifting through time with the moral winds. Similarly, the possibilities attributed to the deity grow and shrink between stories, with the very same capabilities seen as canonical in one instance and nonsense in others, as needed to make sure that whatever action the deity is accepted as taking in each instance is as much as it could have done.

Arguing about the existence or nature of such a deity is ultimately fruitless. It is not omnipotent, omniscient, or even omnibenevolent, nor is it clearly evil. Instead, it is deliberately incoherent. Rather than serving as a description of a thing that exists or events that happen, it is a fluid glue holding together ideas that do not, in fact, fit together and which do not withstand empirical or, often, even logical scrutiny. This is how it can so easily accommodate updated morals: the flow of meaning is not from the deity to the prophet to the text to the believer, but exactly the opposite. With the a priori conclusion that goodness follows from Christian practice and is found in Christian canon firmly in place, everything else is rearranged to make it work, including the deity’s ongoing, bafflingly evil refusal to clearly articulate improved morality before humans start figuring it out on their own. Shockingly, the pastor acknowledged the breakpoints of this pattern. He admitted that he himself was unsatisfied, and expected us to be unsatisfied, with any of the “pat” answers he had been taught for why the Canaanite genocide was not an evil act, regarding it as an atrocity even in its own context despite a few minutes earlier justifying it on the basis that Peter’s insight hadn’t yet rendered it “unnecessary,” and was visibly dissatisfied with (but did not directly challenge) an attendee’s offer of one of those very reasons. Would that the pastor had gone farther, and acknowledged that he was in fact reading his own moral sense, honed on his own observations of what does and does not benefit his fellow people, into the text, rather than deriving his moral sense from a source he clearly exceeded long ago.

Such acknowledgement would make Ecclesiax’s tense, nearly heretical relationship with its parent church much easier to resolve. Unlike the Free Methodist Church of Canada at large, Ecclesiax endeavors to be a safe place for gender and sexual minorities. The FMCC’s official attitude on gay and transgender people is roughly identical to that of the Roman Catholic Church, claiming to welcome us but declaring us “fundamentally disordered” for having desires other than living as our binary doctor-assigned genders in relationships with people with the opposite binary doctor-assigned gender, and sinful for acting on those desires. Further, like the Catholic Church, it pointedly excludes from its understanding why gay and trans people have nouns (“labels”) by which we recognize ourselves, misrepresents what it means to claim a label (it does not mean the label represents everything we are), and claims that the only godly approach to this manner of sexual “deviance” is to eschew all relevant nouns and endeavor to live according to the church’s heteronormative, cisnormative vision. In this way, the Free Methodist Church of Canada aligns with broader Christian orthodoxy and does not align with a number of other Methodist churches around the world. In this, Ecclesiax makes its hesitant, historically-based defiance. The current handful of non-cishet members attend in obscurity, officially barred from defying the FMCC’s edict against same-gender relations (and thus from authority even within Ecclesiax if they engage in such). The pastor delivers insistent messages of support, which go farther than most in acknowledging that other Christian sects, including its own parent church, are wrong on this issue, rather than reiterating the FMCC’s insistence that they pretend at straightness for Jesus. While these welcoming messages could easily be concealing a more covert regime of insisting on the sinfulness of being a non-celibate gay person or of transitioning while “welcoming” such sinners, I will for now acknowledge that the public face is saying the right things and hope that Ecclesiax can more effectively defy, and then change, its parent’s mind.

Perhaps, in this same process of bringing ancient texts into line with morality that isn’t derived therefrom but must now pretend to be, the Free Methodist Church of Canada can devise a communion ritual that matches its cheerful intimacy rather than being mired in the dour helplessness of phrases like “hopeless without your grace” and “have mercy upon us.” This would fit better with the fact that they offer gluten-free communion crackers in addition to chunks of communion baguette.

I didn’t need another confirmation that liberal Christianity consists of liberal morality reaching into Christianity to impress a world that needs moral intuitions to be justified with religion more than it needs them to be right, but I found one, and I’m glad I was able to observe this process in the wild. And I’m also glad that my partner found a place that suits her and her husband’s needs, full of people who seem genuinely friendly and decent, that they can prod toward ever-greater improvements in how they treat the gay and trans people in their midst.

If every church looked like this one, atheist conversations about religion would look very different. I’m sad we don’t have that world, and instead have a world where pointing out the fundamental non-empirical illogic of basic religious thought and the way it leads people down all manner of unhelpful and potentially self-injurious paths necessarily takes second fiddle to dealing with how religious thought is so often used to justify utter evil.

I’m still not going back, though. Spending hours in an event premised on taking the truth claims in the Bible seriously is exhausting, even if that place doesn’t also hate everything I am.

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An Atheist Visits Ecclesiax

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