Today I attended services at a local Korean Baptist church, invited by a friend. It was a worthwhile experience, though not in the way it was intended to be, and I don't expect to go back. The people were friendly and welcoming, but while it would be a way to find a commuity of Korean friends -- the reason my friend invited me along -- as an atheist I have no real place there.
The service was more accessible than I expected. It was, of course, conducted in Korean, which I understand very little, but much of the material was projected on the wall in English; scripture passages and hymns likewise, but in Korean and English. Again, this would be a great way for me to improve my Korean, if I were a Christian. But the point is that I was able to understand what was going on much more than I'd expected, without my friend having to interpret for me, and I was intrigued by the glimpse I got into vernacular Protestantism.
Recently I read Georges Bernanos' novel The Diary of a Country Priest (1936, English translation 1937), a classic of pre-Vatican-II piety. I'm not sure why I chose to read it just now; it has been recommended often, and I don't recall which one moved me to check it out of the library last month. If I didn't know better from the author's own declarations, I'd have suspected it was meant as satire: the title character is a drama queen, full of anxiety and sentimentality. As one Catholic blogger wrote, the book "might seem at first to be a devil’s parody of a nice Catholic novel. The children are afflicted with lust. The peasants are envious and worldly. The servant is prideful. A noblewoman who is outwardly pious secretly plots her revenge against God. The Catholic Church in France of this time (the 1930s) is riddled with careerism, worldliness, and complacency. Yet under all the seeming appearances the work of God finds a way to fulfillment through the weak vessel of a country priest."
I could not see any "fulfillment" in the book. Regardless of Bernanos' intentions, I think the Diary can be read as a satire of religious pretension, and the diarist as an unreliable narrator; it was that suspicion that kept me reading to the end, to see how it all came together, or not. I concluded that an against-the-grain reading doesn't really work, however; Bernanos didn't really know more than his characters did. Leaving aside the narrator's own theological ramblings, there are long monologues by his wise mentors, on the theme of the Church's steadfast survival against the onslaughts of modernity and mere human weakness. I think it would be too kind to dismiss these even as platitudes. Yet it's clear from the testimonies I've seen that many people find them reassuring. Well, platitudes can be just that, reassuring.
Also recently I finally got around to reading the Dhammapada, a Buddhist scripture consisting of versified sayings of the Buddha. In form it resembles the non-canonical gospel of Thomas: the sayings stand alone without context or explanation. Indeed there's a much later commentary, the Buddhaghosa, which purports to describe the situation in which Gautama delivered these teachings. but I haven't read that. As I read the Dhammapada, it occurred to me that most of the sayings were platitudes, not unlike Polonius' infamous homilies in Hamlet: Do this, but sometimes do that; be moderate yet extreme; and so on. Maybe they weren't cliches when they were originally uttered, but I wondered even about that. I'm sympathetic to the Buddhist worldview, which in the Dhammapada is non-theistic, but I don't believe that it required a miraculous, earth-shaking Enlightenment to come up with these sayings, nor that following their teaching will bring Enlightenment.
So, back to church today. The pastor sermonized on a few verses from the first letter of John, which also were platitudes. Love God, love others (though as I know from the rest of these letters, one need not love "false," i.e., dissenting Christian teachers and their followers, but one may throw a hissyfit if they treat one as one means to treat them); follow God's commandments, which are not "burdensome" (though Jesus set very stringent -- probably impossible -- requirements, and commanded his followers to take up their crosses, which are burdensome almost by definition); believe steadfastly that Jesus is the son of God, and you will "overcome the world." Again, these are platitudes. They could only be useful to someone who's already in the organization, but then such people are the intended audience both for John's letter and for this sermon.
One funny thing: the pastor used a sermon illustration about two American Civil War soldiers who, returning home at war's end, found themselves in conflict. One wanted to go to church and give thanks; the other wanted to go to a saloon and get drunk. They went their respective ways, and the the drinker sank into sin and degradation. But twenty years later he heard that his pious comrade, Grover Cleveland, had become President of the United States.
Now, never mind that Grover Cleveland didn't serve in the Union Army: he paid a substitute to take his place, as many did. During the war he stayed in New York state and built his resume "as assistant district attorney for Erie County." Never mind that one well-known military drunk, Ulysses S. Grant, became President of the United States; use that in a sermon! These parables aren't meant to be true. Like the equally bogus story of young Albert Einstein giving an atheist professor his comeuppance by "proving" the existence of God, the people who tell them don't care whether they're true. They're "true in a higher sense."
What I think is significant about this story is that the reward for faith and piety turns out to be thoroughly secular. What could be more worldly than becoming head of state? I often have encountered this sort of apologetic move. One traveling evangelist for Campus Crusade for Christ liked to tell how, before he was saved, he didn't want to be a Christian because he believed all Christian girls were ugly and the guys were nerds; when he found out they were cute and cool, he converted. But what if they weren't? George Bernanos would have been appalled by this appeal to lust and the herd instinct, though he'd probably have been secretly gratified by its confirmation of Protestant perfidy. The promise of secular success is biblical -- Jesus promised his followers "a hundredfold" rewards in this life for what they gave up for his sake -- though probably false far more often than it turns out to be true. But again, no one much cares.
Maybe this sort of thing has more meaning for people who've hit bottom in their lives. I never have; I've had my ups and downs, but (so far) never to the point that I couldn't carry on. Eventually, of course, that is bound to change, if only when I die. I don't know how much such teachings actually help them; Christian lore is chock-full of stories about people who fell off the wagon repeatedly and died in the gutter, leaving their families to beg for pennies and eventually die of hunger, cold, and consumption, because God needed another angel in Heaven. But what difference does it make, really? Does anyone have any better comfort to offer? Saying that doesn't make religion any more attractive to me, and I'm frankly baffled by what does console so many other people.