Searching for Sunday
What is the point of going to church? I ask myself this question weekly. I didn't grow up going to any sort of regular religious services, but I'm becoming increasingly religious as an adult. I'm inclined to think that church should be a part of my faith journey, but mostly because going to church is just what religious people do. I've never understood the point, and have experienced quite a mixed bag of emotions venturing in and out of a handful of different faith communities over the past couple of years.
This is the subject of Rachel Held Evans' book "Searching for Sunday". It's a story of her own faith journey and a call to the rest of us on a similar path to keep searching. I struggle to find the motivation to continue exploring religion and spending time on faith-related ventures. In a season where I'm wondering whether religion has any purpose at all, I found this book inspiring.
Diversity in the church
One of the most refreshing things about this book was her sincere exploration of the diversity of faith traditions. This resonated with me. I've spent the most time with a Reform Jewish community, but have also been involved to varying degrees with Baptist, Presbyterian, United, Anglican, generic non-denominational evangelical, Unitarian, Jesuit, Roman Catholic, and Quaker communities over the past couple of years, and I'm deeply confused about how we got here.
When I read about the life of Jesus and what he taught, I hear a call to unity. And it's not just an empty plea. He teaches us how to get there; we're called to love the outcast and welcome the stranger. I don't understand how we ever got to a place where churches have literal rules about who's allowed in and who's not. It seems to me that there's no bigger obstacle to achieving Jesus' vision for humanity than the Church itself. He came to condemn legalistic Jews, but instead of taking that message to heart and focusing on the substance of his teachings, his followers have just replaced one set of rules for another.
Rachel observes this phenomenon, too, and calls us to understand what grace really is.
Perhaps we’re afraid that if we move, God might use people and methods we don’t approve of, that rules will be broken and theologies questioned. Perhaps we’re afraid that if we get out of the way, this grace thing might get out of hand. Well, guess what? It already has.
It's inevitable that we will have differences. But in a community that claims to revere a man who came here to love and befriend those who were excluded for their differences, homogeneity should be a warning sign that we're doing it wrong. I don't just mean ethnic homogeneity, although there's no doubt you'll have a hard time finding a church with members from more than a couple of different ethnic backgrounds. I mean that we should find was to embrace diversity of opinion. Isolating ourselves into sheltered communities divided along doctrinal lines cannot be the point of spirituality.
What is spirit like?
This is another question that fuels my faith journey. I believe there are things we can experience that aren't attributable to our normal sensory inputs. I call these spiritual or mystical experiences. Other people use more religious language, but however you to describe it, spirituality appears to be a persistent and ubiquitous part of the human experience.
I experience it as a sense of relentless forward progress, a source of strength in my darkest moments, a seemingly source-less inspiration to be more generous and loving, and an outlet for my gratitude when I'm amazed at how beautiful life can be. Some people call this force/source/motivator God, but there are literally thousands of traditions and cultures from every corner of the earth that have similar and genuine descriptions of experiencing something bigger than themselves. I call it spirit. I find the idea that this phenomenon can be boiled down to a list of faith statements and church doctrines repulsive. Seeking is worthwhile. Encoding the results of any one community's search in law is exactly what Jesus insisted we stop doing.
Many religions have claimed a monopoly on this phenomenon of spirituality. Some Christian denominations today insist they know what spirit is like and that it really matters that everyone else agrees with them. They are so keen on this that they have been willing to trample the core values of the gospel in order to spread their ideas about what God is like. From Rachel:
It seems those most likely to miss God’s work in the world are those most convinced they know exactly what to look for, the ones who expect God to play by the rules.
In the meantime, spirit is at work in the world every day, but we cling to the past like our lives depend on it for the sake of preserving an approach to spirituality that Jesus told us is all wrong. In their desperate attempts to hang on to rules and social constructs that are fundamentally incompatible with our ever evolving reality, religious communities forsake the very God of love and mercy who they claim to worship.
It's probably already transparent, but I'm extremely cynical about religion. Part of the reason is because I know its truth claims are bullshit and its smug moral superiority is a sham. Yet something keeps me seeking. For all the failings of its followers, I think the Jesus movement has a lot to teach us about things that our world desperately needs to know. Things like love and reconciliation, acceptance and friendship, grief and pain.
Rachel talks about what keeps her seeking, and I found this insight inspiring:
Cynicism is a powerful anesthetic we use to numb ourselves to pain, but which also, by its nature, numbs us to truth and joy. Grief is healthy. Even anger can be healthy. But numbing ourselves with cynicism in an effort to avoid feeling those things is not.
For most of my life this was my approach to religion -- complete rejection as a result of pure cynicism. It allowed me to get over the anger and frustration I felt toward religious communities, but it also prevented me from seeing anything positive at all in them. Letting down that guard has been very hard, and it still doesn't take much to send me spiralling back to my former indifferent and contemptuous approach to the whole thing.
On most days even approaching these topics with an open mind requires me to tap into my deepest reserves of empathy and mercy. Getting over the cynicism is hard, but I believe it's the first step toward spiritual growth.
Continuing the journey
I grew up as an outsider to faith and religious communities. Most of the people I know are atheists, but they are more Christ-like than any Christian I've met so far. Their love is sincere and unprejudiced. Strangers and outcasts are always welcome at their tables. From my perspective, religion has nothing to offer them, but could definitely learn a bit about love from them.
I wonder sometimes if this just points to a triumph of those progressive values Jesus espoused. Maybe our culture has been so steeped in Christian tradition for so long that some of it has finally started to sink in. Not that we don't have a long way to go, but I see examples daily of strangers being welcomed with open arms and communities coming together to lift up the least among them. Isn't that kind of the whole point?
It's hard for a newcomer to understand what the point of church is. All of the ceremony and expense of running a church just seems obscene most of the time, not to mention hypocritical. As an outsider, it appears to be nothing more than a relic of a bygone era -- the last bastion of misogyny and homophobia in a society that is finally growing out of those harmful attitudes, a stronghold for regressive politics, a cash cow for manipulative and greedy men to line their own pockets.
Then I realize that these issues have always plagued human institutions. I wonder how many people before us have had the same struggles with organized religion but, like me, were incapable of shaking the feeling that there's something worth paying attention to there.
The church as we know it is dying, and I can't help but have any feeling about it other than "good riddance". But I don't think our desire for connection with something beyond ourselves is going anywhere. When I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that I'm pretty excited to see what emerges from these ruins.