2.21.2006

That Darn Article

Confession: that whole likes-and-dislikes list I posted the other day was a stall tactic; a cop-out. The whole thing pretty much existed to provide a window to introduce the new bane of my existence: the 13-year-old First Things article I happened upon while preparing for my sermon last week. True to form of late, I've been totally incapable of articulating why it is that this innocuous and outdated article is keeping me up at night. I have two posts saved as drafts - two failed attempts at meaningful engagement with Mainline Congregations: The Real Reason for Decline.

I don't have the energy to offer a proper precis, so I humbly beseech thee to give it a quick skim. From my understanding, the thesis of the article is essentially that the "... problem [with Mainline congregations] is the weakening of the spiritual conviction required to generate the enthusiasm and energy needed to sustain a vigorous communal life." In other (my) words, because folks in so-called "Orthodox" churches are more likely to believe that their affirmation of Christian doctrines literally saves them from hell, they are more likely to volunteer to teach Sunday school and put in hard time filling up the commercial coffee pot. And on the other side of the offertory coin, because Mainline Protestants are more likely to believe in Jesus but affirm that other paths are valid, folks are less likely to make a commitment to participating in religious community. Conviction breeds commitment; ambiguity breeds empty pews.

(Oh, how I could get on the political soapbox here. Echoes of the 2004 election and the ongoing red/blue drama abound. Plowing forward with conviction makes for great soundbytes. Grappling with ambiguity = flip-flopping. I digress.)

The eloquent and discerning comments of two readers, JWD and Snogash, capture the two primary reasons this article makes my blood boil. JWD writes,
Oh, wow. I think I totally get why you dislike that article. It is biased without admitting to its bias. What are orthodox, non-orthodox, and post-orthodox beliefs and believers? What is a dead intellectual? And who are the theologians and seminary lecturers that they refer to when defining "lay liberalism"? Why are they dealing exclusively with theories about the decline in mainline Protestantism that seem to have emerged prior to 1975??? If someone goes to a non-mainline denomination, such as Catholic or Baptist (or any one of the Orthodox Churches (Greek, Russian, etc.), then are they really lost to their statistical analysis?
Lots of official sounding use of statitistics without adequate correlation to their categories or conclusions.
That's just on the first read . . .

Right on, JWD. Right on.

The first irritation with the article is that it is brazenly biased. Now, I, too am brazenly biased. (Bloggers are allowed to be; the presenters of purportedly scientific surveys and studies, not so much.) The brazen bias of any day a beautiful change is that ambiguity is a reality, and that struggling with it is a good and difficult and necessary thing. I reckon that maybe one of the reasons so many people are drawn to "orthodox" (re: conservative and fundamentalist traditions) is that they are really good at providing clear-cut answers. It's no coincidence that fundamentalism blossomed in the 20th century, when the anxieties of modernity were shaking people to the core. It is comforting to go to church on Sunday and hear a preacher delineate precisely How Things Are. It is reassuring to be told that if you believe this and pray that, you'll be saved, period. And what's more, that the people who don't believe this and pray that will not be saved. It is comforting to be told that this book is inerrant - that this book has no errors. "God said it, I believe it, that settles it."

I think that there are people who are spiritually and psychologically well-served by a religious tradition that offers clear guidance, dare-I-say-easy answers, and comfort. And I think that this is wonderful, and I know that such people are likely to be humble and generous, outfitted with hearts of servants and lions.

But I also know that orthodoxy and inerrancy and fundamentals are spiritually hollow for other people: those who can't reconcile a God who would consign the masses to the fiery pits of hell, those who see the glaring contextuality of the Bible (Oh, maybe it was the diverse ancient cultures that produced the scriptures that weren't keen on women's full personhood, not, say, GOD), those who think Revelations is downright creepy, those who have sensed the presence of God a whole seven seconds of their lives, those who believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and proclaim him as the Lord and Savior of their lives - but can't particularly figure out why Buddha was any less marvelous.

Some people struggle with the ambiguity of religious questions and adopt a humble agnosticism when no clear cut answers emerge. I refuse to believe that such persons are "unsaved." I refuse to believe that God would punish someone for rejecting the violence of eternal damnation. I refuse to believe that God isn't just as intimately involved in the spiritual journeys of skeptics and doubters, Muslims and Hindus, etcetera etcetera, as (S)he is in the spiritual journeys of "orthodox" Christians.

Now I want to republish the comments Snogash made the other day, for they perfectly take me where I want to go with this:
I read as much of the article as I could before I had to stop - religious reading of any kind frequently makes my eyes cross. I have to say that the article describes thoroughly the thought process that led me away from Catholicism. I never believed the God I learned about in grade school would consign anyone to a place like hell for eternity. From there everything slowly unraveled: Why are the major religions so alike? Doesn't that point to none of them being 'true'? If there is only one God for all the religions, what does it matter if I practice or don't practice one of the religions? blah blah. Of course, being Catholic the whole infalible pope thing and women not being allowed to be priests also helped in shoving me out of the door. I guess the only point of this post is to ask why you dislike the article?

Dear readers (if you've made it along with me this far): this is the heart of why I am raving about a 13-year-old article on the cusp of midnight. This question of "what does it matter if I practice or don't practice one of the religions" terrifies me. It is a question that I asked a number of years ago, and it is a question that we ask in very good company according to The Article. It is the question that empties pews. Please understand, Snogash and all, that I'm not pointing fingers and saying that this question is wrong, or that making the decision to leave one's faith tradition is unmerited. It is a helpful question - it helps me recognize the fulcrum on which this whole hissy fit swings.

If the struggle with ambiguity naturally leads to the question of "what does it matter if I practice or don't practice one of the religions," and the answer is "it doesn't," then the alternative/progressive/liberal/whatever-you-want-to-call-it forms of Christianity that are integral to Mainline traditions truly are doomed. You're either orthodoxly religious or you aren't at all.

I'm a Christian whose faith is forged in the fires of doubt. I am a pastor that preaches the Word even as I encourage my congregation to recognize the many ways scriptures are tethered to contexts and cultures vastly different than our own. My spiritual life is bound to the table of Communion even as I wrestle with the violent implications of the sacrifice it commemorates.

And despite the puddle of ambiguity that is my faith, I decided that it does matter that I practice a religion. It matters that for the majority of life I have been wading through the questions within the holy space of Mainline congregations. It means I hand over some of my spiritual autonomy. It means that sometimes I sing hymns that are theologically dischordant to me. It means that even during times when my faith was particularly unraveled, I still showed up to guide the youth group on their own faith journeys. I can handle giving over some of that spiritual autonomy for the unparalleled gifts of religious community and corporate worship, the way that God shapes people through the seemingly ordinary relationships, rituals, and rhythms of the church.

I can only handle giving up spiritual autonomy and releasing the death grip of my individualism because of denominations like the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and its brethren. Within such Mainline traditions, I can engage in religious practice and community with integrity. If the only church on the block told me that I had to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and rescind my ordination vows to be a part of the Body of Christ, well, then I'll find a comfy chair in the spirituality section at Borders and resume my old practice of going it alone.

I am afraid that the article is true. Of course I am afraid the article is true. It describes the problem in a different languge and with a different bias. It bemoans a lack of spiritual conviction; I celebrate a mature spirituality that grapples with ambiguity. I am terrified that the Mainline churches will continue to decline, and die. And I'm not just fretting over the terminal illness of an institution. No. To me, to my doubtful, fitful, grateful faith, Mainline congregations are the heartbeat of the Body of Christ.

So to say that I dislike that article is an understatement. It's a frightful diagnosis of a loved one, and I want a second opinion.

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