Sunday, April 14, 2013

More "Why the Church?"

This post is a continuation of the discussion of my own reasons for belonging to the church.  I've realized, though, that since I've been talking about this from my own point of view, I'll have to look at a couple of the conditions in my life that are unique to me.

For instance, when I came to the church, I had some evidence in hand already:  I was already an A.A. member, and was for that reason already thoroughly convinced of the beneficial power of the spiritual life.  I saw it as a total good.  Further:  I had a reason to seek out the church; probably most people don't worry so much about "the maintenance of their spiritual condition" - something I find absolutely essential.   So these may not necessarily be good or convincing reasons for church membership to others, I admit.

But don't most people desire emotional equilibrium (AKA, "the peace that passeth understanding")?  Don't most people need a way to settle themselves when things disturb them, either mentally or emotionally?   Don't most people desire to find a good way to live?  It's kind of the same thing, isn't it?   My desire for these things might feel mandatory, to me - but I've often seen people return to the church after their spouse's death or when they've lost a job or when they've gotten a scary medical diagnosis.  (I do in fact know that some people - not addicts, as far as I can tell - understand and feel the need to "maintain their spiritual condition" at times of powerful stress in their lives; I can tell this from what they say about their felt need to develop a strong, habitual prayer life.)

So even if my situation is a bit more extreme than most, it seems to be a difference in degree and not in kind.

Then, second:  my sense of "being called."  Yes, I had a little encounter with Jesus, all right - and (as I said before) that kept me coming around even in spite of the church itself, and all its mishegoss.   It fascinated me - and deeply, I mean, in the mysterium tremendum et fascinans sense - and kept me a bit on edge and in anticipation of something more:  deeply curious, that is, about what the full meaning of this actually might be.  And I do think that is unusual.  There's no doubt in my mind that I'm sort of wired for "spiritual experience"; I know there are others who just aren't.  So, I guess this one can't be used to communicate to others, necessarily; at least some people will need to be convinced about the church in some other way.  (On the other hand:  this is definitely a good reason to work at inducing religious experiences in those who are hard-wired for them and who are actively seeking them!   And it's funny, but I do believe that's what the liturgy has been trying to do, all this time; in fact, I think this is what it's actually for....)

Good news, in any event, though!  According to Theo Hobson, "Richard Dawkins has lost: meet the new new atheists":
The atheist spring that began just over a decade ago is over, thank God. Richard Dawkins is now seen by many, even many non-believers, as a joke figure, shaking his fist at sky fairies. He’s the Mary Whitehouse of our day.

So what was all that about, then? We can see it a bit more clearly now. It was an outpouring of frustration at the fact that religion is maddeningly complicated and stubbornly irritating, even in largely secular Britain. This frustration had been building for decades: the secular intellectual is likely to feel somewhat bothered by religion, even if it is culturally weak. Oh, she finds it charming and interesting to a large extent, and loves a cosy carol service, but religion really ought to know its place. Instead it dares to accuse the secular world of being somehow -deficient.

The events of 9/11 were the main trigger for the explosion of this latent irritation. There was a desire to see Islamic terrorism as the symbolic synecdoche of all of religion. On one level this makes some sense: does not all religion place faith above reason? Isn’t this intrinsically dangerous? Don’t all religions jeopardise secular freedom, whether through holy wars or faith schools? On another level it is absurd: is the local vicar, struggling to build community and help smelly drunks stay alive, really a force for evil — even if she has some illiberal opinions? When such questions arise, a big bright ‘Complicated’ sign ought to flash in one’s brain. Instead, in the wake of 9/11, many otherwise thoughtful people opted for simplicity over complexity. They managed to convince themselves that religion is basically bad, and that the brave intellectual should talk against it. (This preference for seeming tough and clear over admitting difficult complexity is really cowardice, and believers are prone to it too.)

The success of five or six atheist authors, on both sides of the Atlantic, seemed to herald a strong new movement. It seemed that non-believers were tired of all the nuance surrounding religion, hungry for a tidy narrative that put them neatly in the right.

Atheism is still with us. But the movement that threatened to form has petered out. Crucially, atheism’s younger advocates are reluctant to compete for the role of Dawkins’s disciple. They are more likely to bemoan the new atheist approach and call for large injections of nuance. A good example is the pop-philosopher Julian Baggini. He is a stalwart atheist who likes a bit of a scrap with believers, but he’s also able to admit that religion has its virtues, that humanism needs to learn from it. For example, he has observed that a sense of gratitude is problematically lacking in secular culture, and suggested that humanists should consider ritual practices such as fasting. This is also the approach of the pop-philosopher king, Alain de Botton. His recent book Religion for Atheists rejects the ‘boring’ question of religion’s truth or falsity, and calls for ‘a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts’. If you can take his faux-earnest prose style, he has some interesting insights into religion’s basis in community, practice, habit.

More at the link.  And still more to come from me on "Why the Church," too....

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