Part I - Why Go To Church?
In the more than fifteen years that I have been a pastor I have stood at the pulpit to look at half empty sanctuaries, spotty attendance, and stagnate growth. I have sat in meeting after meeting listening to members complain that no one goes to church any more, that we don’t have the numbers that we used to have, and wonder where we are wrong. I have looked at other churches that are growing, bursting at the seams, offering a kind of Christianity that I cannot embrace or abide. Yet they seem to be doing well, and I wonder what it is that they are offering.
The majority of those churches will claim that they are offering what the people need, and that need is based in the theological and anthropological presuppositions that can be found in what is commonly known as the four spiritual laws. For the hedonist, liberal, tree-hugging, question-asking, Christians the four spiritual laws are as follows:
- God loves you
- Because of sin you are separate from God
- Christ is the way in which you can bridge that separation
- In accepting Christ you can be with God
This comes out of Bill Bright’s work with the Campus Crusaders for Christ in the 1950s (swords not included). It holds to the aforementioned theological and anthropological presumption through which the sale of Christianity is made; humans are bad. The hook is that we are sinful and thus separated from God. My problem (or at least one of my problems) is that these laws are resting on the assumption that we want to be with God but can’t be because we are bad, as well as the assumption that we are sinful and that Christ is the only way through which we can know God. Ok, I have problems with all the aspects of the spiritual laws. Except maybe the first one, that God loves us. I like the happy thoughts.
How do we know that we want to be with God? Can we assume that we are in the way of our own relationship with God because we are dirty, rotten, scoundrels? Can we even assume that there is a God? Maybe now you can see why I could never really thrive in one of those Evangelical, bursting-at-the-seams, charismatic churches. I have too many questions.
Part II - Trying A Different Way
Rather than starting with a premise that demands faith in the demands of God and the brokenness of humanity which may or may not be supported by experience, I would propose that churches consider a different approach. Start instead with the premise that humans are social creatures. We desire relationships. If you don’t believe me, look at what Aristotle wrote in his Politics:
Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.
If Aristotle wrote it, then it has to be true. Maybe. I think I would back away from elevating the anti-social to god-status, but otherwise like this quote. We are social creatures. We need to be in relationships. As infants we rely on the parents to survive. As we grow we rely on others to teach and lead us in learning how to live, making sure we stay away from certain plants, animals, neighborhoods and pushing us to try other plants, animals, and neighborhoods. As we continue to grow we look to learn from the experiences of others, we are trained and shaped by the community we live in. We need relationships. Those who love virtue ethics (I’m looking at you Alasdair MacIntyre) will fully embrace such a notion, especially the Aristotelian idea that a society precedes the individual. We are shaped by our relationships intimately and as a society. I realize that there is a strong narrative of individualism that is a part of the American ethos. That is a fallacy. We are not born in a societal vacuum and we are not born without parents; we are creatures of relationships whether we like it or not. Even the act of dismissing relationship is a way of admitting that there are relationships in our lives. No matter how individualistic we try to be, we are relational people and have to interact with others.
Perhaps this is why so much time and energy is spent by people looking for relationships and community. We search for people to gather with who can inform us in our identities and our values and morals. We search for community that can give us a sense of identity, purpose, and life. We search for relationships that give us a sense of meaning in our own lives. Recreation, work, and whatever it is that happens in-between is shaped by our community at various levels.
Part III - My Divine Friend
There are those relationships that are surface, that are seen as strictly the level of acquaintance. There are those relationships of enemies, and those that are in passing. Those are interesting in their own ways, but I would like to consider those relationships that are deep, meaningful, and in various ways, intimate. I don’t want to focus on these relationships because I am some kind of creep (although that may be true in its own right), but because I think that in these relationships something is experienced and happens. It is my argument that in those deep and meaningful relationships we are made to be aware of something greater than that which can be seen or conceived.
Here is where things get amorphous, looking to something that cannot be fully understand or articulated. It is something that cannot be clearly named or claimed, but underpins the emotional commitment in the relationship. I am reminded of a selection of Wittgenstien’s earlier writings that speak of this amorphous aspect of relation. Specifically near the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:
6.522 There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.
Now I recognize that I have taken this quote out of context and that there are scholars of Wittgenstein all around the world having a small myocardial infarction because of the proof-texting that I have just done, as well as using Wittgenstein’s earlier work and not his later work that in part refutes such a statement. Relax, it isn’t the end of the world. I think there is something to this statement. There are those moments within relationships, those experiences that are beyond what we can express and cannot be explained. In those moments of the inexpressible the mystical is experienced.
In those deep and meaningful relationships we come in contact with those things that cannot fully be understood, explained, or described. For those who have children, think of the experience of holding your infant. There is a moment when you realize that you will do anything for that child. Why? You could probably make another one if you need to, it would not be rational to sacrifice yourself for a child, but something is happening when you hold that child. Think about the notion of love between couples. When you get past the silly, romanticism that is sold by Hollywood and Hallmark, you get a sense of a connection that cannot be fully explained. You will act strangely, you will make sacrifices for your love. It is mystical. Think even about the connection of friendship. People will act irrationally for a friend and cannot give a good explanation for such actions. A good friend will drive for three hours in the middle of the night just because he or she is asked. This does not make sense. It is not rational. Such actions speak to something deeper and more profound. In those deep and intimate relationships, something is happening. These are the relationships where people understand each other at a inexpressible level. They are the relationships where, when people speak, they share what linguists like J.L. Austin call a “felicitous” statement. In other words, they understand the speaker, the context, the subtext, and the statement is received with a full awareness and understanding. In those moments, those statements, there is something bigger going on.
I would argue that there is a sense of something greater in those relationships. I would also argue that in that awareness of that something which is greater is the presence of God (or at least that is how I describe that which is greater than we can conceive… me and Anslem). In many of these relationship God may never be directly articulated or recognized, but the Holy Other (thanks Rudolph Otto) is present.
Part IV - Why Church is Good
This is why we need religious community. Because in the religious context, the presence of God is lifted up, is celebrated, and is named in a deliberate way. More pointedly, the religious context offers language and subtext that can shape one’s awareness and understanding of the presence of the divine in people’s relationships and individual lives. In the religious arena, in churches, the potential is there for a felicitous relationship between and among the people to lead one to a profound experience of God than one cannot achieve through isolation, and one is brought to a place where a relationship with the divine can be facilitated. We need the relationships of a religious community to experience God because it is in our relationships with the other that we can come to experience God. I think Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Lacan among others, said something to that effect but in a much more in-depth and dry fashion.
A religious community offers more than simply a place to meet people and have deep, meaningful relationships. It is in the religious community that a particular narrative is shared and owned and experienced which informs the relationships of that community. For example, on the one hand everyone may be talking about how God has loved them and continues to love them, and so it is an easy step to make to go to experiencing a loving God in the present relationships of the community. On the other hand, if the narrative of the community is of a selfish, self-centered God who abuses the people, who is rude, and who doesn’t like to share, then we will no doubt find a community of selfish, self-centered, abusive, rude people who don’t like to share and who claim that in that experience you can find a sense of the divine. We like to call that Congress… or Preschool.
The point is that religious communities come out of a specific narrative that speaks of a specific experience of the divine. It is in the relationships that one has within those religious communities that one can have a deep experience of the divine. I’m not saying that all relationships within a religious community are the same – people have friends, spouses (or maybe just one), Sunday School teachers, acquaintance’s, etc. and all will vary in their own way. Yet even within the diversity of those relationships, the presence of God can be an underlying thread pulling all together.
I recognize that there are a number presuppositions and assumptions that I have thrown out here. All the philosophy majors are probably having a fit because I have jumped from one notion to another without doing establishing various claims. I’m happy to be the one to make philosophy majors upset; it is my gift to society. There is a lot of unpacking that can and probably should be done. My hope is that the reader will consider the various relationships that they have, the way in which something greater can be found/experienced in those relationships, and how connecting and being a part of a religious community can even further deepen an awareness of the presence of the divine. In that, your relationship with the divine will deepen, you will grow closer to God.