Saturday, April 13, 2013

What is the purpose of the church? (Episode MCXXIII)

Why are we all here?   I think we need to continue to ask the question - if only so that we can get it clear in our own minds.  And better still: so we can communicate to others in plain language.

So:  here are some of my reasons - and (I think more importantly) the reasons behind the reasons:
  1. A few weeks back, I was having lunch with some friends; they're culturally Jewish, but not observant/religious.  I realized during our conversation that day that their sense of responsibility to others and to the world comes, in fact, right out of Judaism - and also, I believe, out of the actual experience of having experienced life as a member of a minority.   Their worldview is completely Jewish, whether they are observant or not.   During the same conversation, I realized that, if there is a God, by far the best has got to be the God that demands systematic concern and care for widows and orphans - the God who's the defender of the poor and downtrodden.  The God of the Psalms is definitely the God for me.
  2. I am, really and truly, here "for the sake of my spiritual condition."  If I don't attend to this, I'll sink into an inevitable and powerful internal feedback loop of misapprehension, depression, and darkness - and be forever lost.  A.A. performed this same function for me for years, but as it's primarily geared towards newcomers (as it certainly should be), there comes a time when one moves on to other ways of keeping one's head above water.  I tried the church, and got sucked in, eventually - but it really does work for this purpose.  If it didn't (or doesn't in the future), I'd really have to find something else.  I'm a goner otherwise.
  3. A sense of "being called."  This kept me in the church for about 5 years when nothing else would have or could have.
  4. Bob Dylan wrote:  "You gotta serve somebody."  Not a bad idea, but a little abstract, I think.  I'd put it differently:  "You gotta find some way to live."   Faith/religion is one heavily use-tested way.  Other possibilities include:

    • Absorbing the tenets of, and putting into action as a program of living, some secular philosophy.  I suppose this is a reasonable choice - but so many of these have been fashions that have been popular for awhile and then fallen out of favor and simply disappeared.   Of course:  they were almost always developed by individuals or groups in response to some condition  peculiar to the time in which they lived.  Religions are the only ones that have lasted - and, ironically, that seem far more adaptable than secular systems.  Even Ayn Rand seems awfully dated at this point; how could she not seem that way, since many of her ideas are clearly reactions to certain historical events and conditions that no longer obtain?  The really crazy thing is that people continue to bang on about the "virtue of selfishness" in this heavily capitalistic culture that could really use a corrective to what is in fact already its foundational principle!
    • Creating your own philosophical system.  Wow; way too much work.  Who's got the time?  Lots of people, of course, believe we are doing just this when young.  Unfortunately, there really is not much new under the sun, and most of us find that millions of others have been there before us.  Which means we're wasting years on what we think is sparkling and new - only to find much later that people have been down any particular pathway you care to name thousands or millions of times.  Most of those times, it's been a dead end.  Bummer.
    • Making it up as you go along.  A lot of people are, in fact, choosing this option, I believe; it's the default "spiritual but not religious" and "not spiritual or religious" setting.  Boring, mostly, to me.  Individuals just aren't that fascinating by themselves, nor can they possibly have anything like a complete grasp of reality.  In addition:  individuals aren't really individuals in the first place!  All human beings are almost completely run by the desires of  others; there's literally no way to escape this problem.  We are all products of our early lives, for one thing: of events and circumstances of which we have no memory.  The people around us taught us what they knew and valued - and passed on, too, whatever unconcious stuff their parents had passed on to them - and we absorbed it all.  If we'd been switched at birth, we'd have come out some completely different way - and we'd have no memory of how that happened, either!  Then there's a little something called "peer pressure" - not to mention the particular moment in history into which we were born; we simply cannot have any outlook other than the one we've inherited, nor would this be beneficial.  We have to live when we do.

    So how are people to find a way to live?  Are there any other choices I'm missing here?  Is religion not a pretty good idea, given that it's a long (long!)-term, collaborative effort - one that has taken "revelation" and run with it?  Do we notice that the major religions all (that I'm aware of, anyway) worry openly about and advocate for the poor and beaten-up?  Do we notice that religions are all concerned with human beings and their interactions with one another - and that most are deeply concerned with the "inner person" and his or her welfare as well?
  5. The church is, believe it or not, the seat of a permanent, ongoing revolution.  How else would you describe it, when you are continually, habitually reminded about metanoia - "the changing of one's mind" (or of one's actions)?  What else would you call it, when you read (via the 4th-century monastic Moses the Black) that "A monk must die to his neighbor and never judge him at all in any way whatsoever" and "If you are occupied with your own faults, you have no time to see those of your neighbor."  These simply are not habits that occur to people naturally; on our own, we get grooved into - well, our own groove, and will stay there forever, or until absolutely forced by circumstance to move out of it.  We are interested mainly in our own ideas, our own friends, our own families - and most of the rest of the world simply doesn't exist, most of the time.  Does the God who insistently and continually calls for care for widows and orphans - those being pounded by the circumstances of their lives, IOW - not seem pretty impressive, in comparison?

    Further:  human beings will continually argue and fight with each other, belittling others not like ourselves (see any internet discussion board if you want examples)  - and will sometimes spill over into actual violence and even genocide.  All this, mostly over utter trifles - and, mostly, simply so that we can maintain our own sense of self-worth and superiority.

    So:  how are we supposed to get out of that situation?   Does anybody really want to live that way, for the short, short time we have on earth?   No?  Well, you gotta find some way to live - and the church offers a uniquely beneficial one.  Here, it says:  this is the more excellent way.  It will be painful, but the rewards are great.   You will be able, finally, to get your idiot ego to loosen its death grip upon your mind, heart, soul, and life.  You'll be able, finally, to escape from your small, small world - from the studio apartment of your mind -  and find a home in one of the many mansions prepared for you.  (In A.A. we often talk about the fact that as our alcoholism progressed, our worlds became smaller and smaller - until finally we're living in one small, dirty room in some dingy apartment building on some lost street someplace.  And we only go out to buy booze.  In fact, I still, today, often fall into this behavior - except for the booze thing; it's called "isolating."  I don't mean to do it; it seems to happen on its own.  In any case, it's a great metaphor for the way the ego works to deny us all the ability to open up to the fresh air and light of new ways of thinking.)

    You might actually be able to find your way to some of these things - the mansions, via the  expansion of your mind and soul - if you live long enough.  You could possibly get there via the school of hard knocks and by "learning the hard way" - but by then you'll certainly be too old and tired to actually enjoy the scenery.  So why not give it a go now, while you still have some time to live?  Why not take the proven way, instead of trusting to luck?
  6. Ideas, and art, and music, and beauty.  Does anybody not love those things?  Sure, there are good secular ideas and art and music and beauty, too. Fantastic!  Nothing prevents me from enjoying any of those things - and in addition, I get the religious stuff, too.  Astronomy and the Trinity:  it's totally win-win.
  7. Is there any more fascinating idea than that expressed in Paul's letter to the Philippians:
    Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 
      who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,
      but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant,
      and coming in the likeness of men.

    And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 

    Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
    Talk about revolutionary!   And, BTW, talk about "Revelation"!  Does anybody think that human beings, on our own, would ever have come up with such an idea?  Not bloody likely, I'd say, given the human lust for power and domination and self-justification.
I guess that's all for now; I think I shall continue this later - and will also get back to how Step 3 fits into it all....

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