I don’t know whether to scratch my head or give two thumbs up or—to use the language of texts and email—SMH or “face-palm.” Recent news from Iceland says some Icelanders are building a shrine to Odin, Thor, and Frigg. As we know from grade-school history, worship of these deities went out about the time of Leif Ericson.
However, it seems that starting in the 1970s, the old Norse faith underwent a revival under the new name of Ásatrúarfélagið, however that is pronounced. ..if indeed it can be pronounced. We are reassured that no animals will be sacrificed in the new shrine—but there will be “music, eating, drinking, and reading.” And worship services of some sort—I have not found a description of them—and the usual weddings, funerals, and the like. Apparently they believe the proclamation, “Thor promised the end of all ice giants…” (Truthfully, I don’t see many ice giants around anymore.)
ThisÁsatrúarfélagið group is not the strangest faith to emerge in recent years. Northern Ireland recently granted official recognition to a Pagan church and its priests. The Order of the Golden River claims to lie somewhere in the “traditional Celtic shamanic” tradition, and its “Sovereign and Founder,” one Patrick Carberry, is now entitled to perform marriages and other rites within that body.
You don’t have to go that far. America is about as diverse as it gets. It has its Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, for instance, which—among other benefits—allows you to get your driver’s ID photo taken with a colander on your head. And there’s the Universal Life Monastery, famous for its online ordination and allowing the newly ordained to select whatever exalted title he/she chooses. Newer than that is the Church of Bacon, rapidly becoming a favorite of mine. The church is popular with same-sex couples, holding unofficial weddings for a number of years and now, official ones since 2013.
And there’s the Church of the Latter-day Dude, possibly the only church in the world based on a fictitious church in a movie. In fact, we’ve been a very inventive people, we Americans, coming up with more faiths in 300 years than just about anywhere else on earth. Pennsylvania, long a haven for dissenting souls, is now home to the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary: “a safe and scared ceremonial space for the modern practice of ancient religion” in the beautiful Alleghenies. It has everything from Indian sweat lodges to the poor man’s Stonehenge—“47 multi-ton stones semi-circling an open-air altar.” It is basically a home to nature-centered faiths; its small permanent population grows exponentially by believers who gather to celebrate the major quarter and cross-quarter seasonal occasions: Yule, Beltane, Samhain, and the like.
New into the fray is the “Church of the Sword,” 280 strong in independence-loving New Hampshire: “Its’ hymnals are called ‘jams,’ it lets its followers keep several other faiths, and its customs—like the Ritual of Combat, in which service-goes duel each other with fake sword to symbolize the defense of personal opinions—may seem more like eccentric social club activities than sacred rituals.” It wants to be recognized as a religion, and claims it meets most of the fourteen points the IRS requires. Its home town, Westmoreland, doesn’t recognize it as such, because the “church” does not recognize a supreme being, and the case is now going to the N.H. Supreme Court. A curious stance by the city, as Daoism and Buddhism do not recognize a supreme being, either, and apparently both faiths are recognized as religions across the world. The case will go to federal court if the church (and several others which do not recognize supreme beings) loses—where I suspect it will win. And we recall that in the U.K. the highest court has specifically ruled that such as belief is unnecessary.
Closer home—Richmond, Virginia, is now home to the “Temple of the Cosmic Mothership.” Originally the spot in the Manchester area was “a sometimes-raucous performance space” named Love Bomb, but the owner-manager kept running into conflicts with zoning requirements and building codes. Observing that churches usually had a great deal more freedom, the founder, Heide Trepaniere, got ordained and founded this non-denominational “church.” She did some minimal upgrades—exits signs, a handicapped-accessible bathroom, and the like—and now holds services on Sundays, which consist of beer-drinking, gardening, quiet art shows and exhibitions—no noisy bands or raucous shows. I’ve found nothing about a “creed.” So far, the city has not bothered the group, which, if hassled, would claim infringement on their religious freedom. Likely, they’d win. America has always had a spacious definition of what constitutes a church.
We do like variety, and we’ve been known to have churches as small as a single family, or even as small as a single individual. We are the world’s great individualists, we Americans. And today’s church will not be tomorrow’s, bet on it. We may not have seen the strangest yet.
And maybe “strange” is way too negative a term. It implies that my norm is some kind of absolute, that my tribe is the one all should belong to. Maybe that is the way God or god or gods intend it to be, but for sure it does not fit human nature. History says we are way too contrary for that. History says you yourself may occupy a different pew tomorrow or no pew at all.