Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Rejection of the Religious

When talking to others on the subject of faith and belief, one of my favorite cliche's that I hear is "I'm spiritual but not religious."

What that usually means is the person has rejected "organized religion" in favor of the mystical, the obscure, or a syncretism of one's own creation. Sociologically speaking, there really is no distinction. Spirituality or religion is the same thing. We acknowledge something beyond the material. We reach outward to embrace the divine.

In a fascinating article written around Christmas of 2005, Umberto Eco speaks to the universality of religion.
"Human beings are religious animals. It is psychologically very hard to go through life without the justification, and the hope, provided by religion."

and later...
"It is the role of religion to provide that justification. Religions are systems of belief that enable human beings to justify their existence and which reconcile us to death."

Eco was raised Roman Catholic but has rejected the church. Still he accepts the superiority of the Christian religion. He states, "I have a profound respect for the Christian traditions." Moreover, he specifically calls the religious celebration of Christmas, "a clear and coherent absurdity."

This I would argue is the conservative position. Christianity has proven itself as a religion. It is tried and true compared to the occult and more novel beliefs. As a religion, it has a track record. It's influence in the development of Western Civilization has been on whole a positive for all humanity.

However, the Western Church is dying. Eco notes,
We in Europe have faced a fading of organised religion in recent years. Faith in the Christian churches has been declining.

The ideologies such as communism that promised to supplant religion have failed in spectacular and very public fashion. So we're all still looking for something that will reconcile each of us to the inevitability of our own death.

G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: "When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn't believe in nothing. He believes in anything." Whoever said it - he was right. We are supposed to live in a sceptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous credulity.

The "death of God", or at least the dying of the Christian God, has been accompanied by the birth of a plethora of new idols. They have multiplied like bacteria on the corpse of the Christian Church -- from strange pagan cults and sects to the silly, sub-Christian superstitions of The Da Vinci Code.

The conservative position is ultimately weak because the superiority of the Christian religion is no guarantee of it's viability. The appeal made by Eco treats Christianity as one choice among many -- granted a superior choice but still merely a choice. That argument already concedes so much. The God we Christians worship is more than a choice. He is the Lord of lords, King of kings. This God has a legitimate claim over all of our lives. If we fail to praise this God, the very rocks will cry out.

Instead, I would argue that Christianity is not a religion. This is not a new thought. Karl Barth takes this position. Religion is about our reaching upward to God. On the other hand, Christianity is about God reaching downward to us. Religion is a human work. Christianity is a divine grace.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Newsletter: The Process of Discernment

There is no doubt that the First Presbyterian Church of Vernon, Texas is blessed. We, in fact, have always been blessed. Lately, however, our blessings have been more apparent to us. There is an excitement in the air, and we have seen new people, new resources, and new opportunities in our midst. Our congregation could have taken these blessings for granted, but instead the leadership of our church decided that we needed to be good stewards of what God has given. The simple truth is God has blessed us to be blessing.

In January 2006, the congregation commissioned a team to lead our congregation in discernment. Much of the work of this team so far has been behind the scenes. However, starting this fall, the congregation as a whole will be engaged in the hard work of discernment. “Discernment,” I am told, comes from the Latin word, discernere, to separate. Like the farmer who separates the wheat from the chaff, we are called to separate God’s vision from all the competing choices.

God’s vision is not ultimately based on marketing research or the latest fads about church growth. Instead, we believe that God’s vision is a gift of grace only recognized when we allow God to touch, shape, and mold our lives. As a result, Scripture, worship, and prayer must remain at the forefront of our discernment process. The Spirit of Christ will use these means to keep us connected to God.

At the same time, we recognize that congregations come in all shapes and sizes. There is not one way to be the church. A violin sounds different from a saxophone or a tuba. God’s grace will manifest itself in different ways in different congregations. The song that we sing will depend on our context. Already, we are looking at the character and needs of Wilbarger County, and the history, culture, talents and shortcomings of our own congregation. The music that God calls from us will be heard in this place and in this time.

Discernment must include an honest appraisal of ourselves and our surroundings along with an openness to God’s grace.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Humility of Horror

I was reading the New York Times Sunday Book Review this morning. Terrence Rafferty had a review of a number of ghost stories entitled, The Thinking Reader's Guide to Fear. Either my attention span is really short today, or the article was a bore. I couldn't finish it. Perhaps it was the condescending attitude toward the topic.

Nonetheless, there was a quote that intrigued me. After making pains to tell us that respectable people -- "literate, educated, professional-types" -- find horror fiction "repulsive," the author writes...
...the feeling of being at least a little out of control is basic to the experience of horror. What's terrifying in a story by Stephen King or Peter Straub is, finally, nothing less than the sensation of pure helplessness, of confronting something that cannot be conquered — or regulated, or even understood — by reason alone.

At heart, I think that this is correct. I also think that is the reason why the author believes that "literate, educated, professional-types" don't like horror literature. Horror implies a lack of control. Horror suggests that there is more in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Our attempts of controlling the universe, escaping suffering, or cheating death are folly. This would explain why the conservative hero, Russell Kirk, wrote ghost stories. Human beings are limited in knowledge and capacity. Horror teaches humility.

I know that several Christians get uncomfortable with stories of witches, vampires, and ghosts. Many times that concern is warranted. Many of these stories clearly promote a moral universe foreign to the one taught in Scripture. However, the humility that is taught by good horror literature might be valuable.