Church and church

In this post we use a peculiar convention in capitalization: Big C Church refers to the non-profit corporation or a collection of them, duly constituted under the laws of the state. Small c church refers to the body of Christ, which needs no dignifying, and lives with or without states.

Sociological studies of religion closely resemble the demographic studies that underlie commercial advertising. This supports a temptation which is ever present in the Church, to become one of the elements of culture, rather than stand over against it. Christian behavior turns into ordinary good social behavior, and Christian ethics turns out to be whatever one’s peers admire.

Wade Clark Roof’s books, American Mainline Religion (1987), and A Generation of Seekers (1993), are sociological studies of religion in the United States. They are interesting, well-written, and doubtless well researched. However, it is disheartening to see how thoroughly the religious ground can be covered in their terms. One is driven to the question: What, if anything, is left of religion after the sociology is removed? Is there a point of view from which this can be asked? If so, what is its footing? theological or something else? If faith is faith, and not just habit, it must be driven by something outside the self and the social milieu. We seem to have a rather poor vocabulary for that something.

If the Church is to offer Gospel to the world, it needs a vocabulary of its own, distinct from those of sociologists, politicians, and advertisers, which are already dinning in our ears. To attract members—or better, to perform its sacred task of evangelism—it has to remember the outlandishness of its vocation. Instead, it prides itself on validating all co(nsu)mers, whatever their spiritual condition. You want non-dogmatic? We got non-dogmatic. You think Christianity is or ought to be synonymous with self-fulfillment? We got that too. You got questions? Ask away—but don’t expect an answer; that would be dogmatic. It is as though merely eating our potato salad (cheese cake if we’re Episcopalians) makes a person one of us.

Then the Church adds two further mistakes. The first is based on a fallacy of composition; the second is a species of distraction, or, to take a phrase from social work, secondary gain.

The fallacy of composition arises when we consider those within our walls to be our natural constituency, an indication of what we do well. If we just do it more, we will attract more of the right people—people like ourselves. A slight variation on this is to look at what our more successful competition does better than we do, and try to imitate that, so as to attract people a little bit—but not too much—unlike ourselves. No wonder most congregations are more homogeneous than the groups to which we belong during the rest of the week.

Secondary gain is harder to explain. It is a large factor in any kind of social service work, but it operates in Church as much as it does elsewhere. We are susceptible to its temptations all the time because we carry the most fundamental human needs with us, unappeased, everywhere we go.

Building an analogy here: In social work, we can read people’s unappeased wants in the emotional terms they use to describe their work. A significant fraction of all disability is the somatization of the ordinary frustrations that almost everyone finds at work. People often say they would work in spite of painful symptoms if they could just get work they like to do. The converse of this is obvious: they are susceptible to disabilities because they don’t like what they are doing. The reasons for this are clear enough. They get no respect; they produce a product they don’t think is worthwhile or honest; the company treats them unfairly. The primary complaint is seldom low pay, or inability to buy consumer goods. Quite otherwise, the complaints are genuine spiritual and moral frustrations. The terms sound quaint, but here they are: what people want out of daily life and work is moral assurance of God’s favor.

It is a commonplace to say, our society gives these desires little encouragement or acknowledgment. In fact, spiritual desires have taken the place that sexual desire had in Freud’s time. They are the great unmentionable thing, and they are making us crazy. We are supposed to be satisfied by consuming; we are supposed to define our individuality in terms of style—never mind that style for the lumpen majority is only a sad choice among mass market products. The privation in this is not obvious even to the sufferer, but it is painfully real. Once we get it out where we can discuss it, it seems obvious that it is the source of much of the anger that surrounds us. Unfortunately, even if the sufferer were more self-aware, there would not be much he could do about it but buy more distractions, giving another push to the wheel that is grinding him to death.

At this point, however, he still has a choice. People can still seek the thing they really want, the love of God; or they may despair of it, thinking without thinking, that this fundamental wish is out of the question. If it is out of the question, then they will seek a suitable recompense for the loss. That is the definition of secondary gain. Our system has two broad categories of gains to offer: education, and gadgets. Among us, education confers social prestige. Gadgets do too, but it takes only money, not discipline, to get them. Best of all is to grab both: a community college course in multi-media technology, and the gadget on which to run the software. Such is the fulfillment that awaits a working-poor seeker after upward mobility.

If a seekers are slightly more aware of themselves, and decide to heed rather than stifle the Augustinian gnawing in the bowels, they may come more appropriately, even truly hopefully, to Church. They may scarcely be able to describe the longing, even to themselves. We indoors are often not much more able to address it; we may even be intimidated by it. We have just met the newcomer, after all, and scarcely dare to lay the painful thing bare at the coffee hour. Instead we offer our peculiar bag of tricks: aesthetically pleasing liturgy, righteous causes, and fellowship. These are somewhat related to our core enterprise, as education is somewhat related to wisdom. They can keep us busy for as long as necessary, for a temporary solution is all we need in this life. They relieve us of our duty to address the real reason the person came.

For some seekers, aesthetics, righteousness, and fellowship are sufficient. They might remain for years, make their pledges, share their potluck recipes, drink their coffee or their sherry, and conclude that must be all there is. The Church abets this by assuring newcomers they belong simply by being present. One worries about them, and about the clergy who allow this to happen. Others are not so easily palliated. One who is not palliated either drops out completely, or moves. Those who stay behind attribute the departure to some defect: wrong politics, wrong musical taste, wrong demographics—anyway, not our problem.

While in Church, our seeker will probably have heard little that could not be heard from public media at home. Roof’s discussion of switchers to no religious preference suggests this. Forgetting its commission, the Church has evidently decided to compete with public media, to embrace one political posture or another, in order to retain the member who (it imagines) thinks that is how faith is defined.

If we embrace seekers’ politics (liberal or conservative, it makes no difference for the purpose of this argument), we will retain them. But is that really the solution? Is that really what the seeker was hoping to find? If so, it is available on TV, or on any street corner. Apparently the question is seldom asked, for the Church continues with this strategy, until it becomes a caricature of itself and a travesty to faith.

If there is hope for the Church, it starts with addressing the seeker’s true longing. It depends not on our attractiveness or our politics, but on the power of Jesus Christ, with or without help from Churches, to preach Gospel. Granted, the political vision of what ought to be, and the contrast between that and the world as we know it, are elements of the Gospel. Something there is within us that knows we are made to live a different way; and something there is as well that knows the solution is not merely political—at least not in the mundane sense.

In the 1960s, for which so many—even many who were not yet born—have such nostalgia, the tension between hopes and realities was acutely painful. If it weren’t so painful still, we might pay attention to the tension and learn from it. It is the same which runs unrelieved through the Psalms, and through the rest of scripture. There have been many passages in our history like the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem, when “the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of weeping” (Ezra 3:13). This is the moment of dis-illusion, therefore of entry for realism—that is, for eschatological faith, the business we have been in since Jesus announced to Israel that we are citizens of a kingdom not obvious to sight.

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