As I mentioned previously, my journal focus for this week will be on the nature of Christian community. Theologically the study of this topic is known as ecclesiology and the task becomes to answer questions like, “what is the church,” “why did God create the church,” “what is the role of the church,” “what is the individual’s role in the life of the church,” and “what is the church’s role in the life of the individual?” As is usually the case in theology, the questions are easier to formulate than the answers. And any answers generated invariably lead to more difficult questions. I’m not promising that my answers will any better than anyone else’s, and I’m sure that plenty of you will disagree with me, but I’m going to make an effort.
I’m going to compare both the tradition from which I come (Southern Baptist, though I think the problems cross denominational lines) with what I know about Benedictine life. Some of the difficulty in talking about this comes from separating a theological position from a cultural position. That is, much of our attitudes and beliefs about the church may be more of a function of where we live than of actual theological doctrine. One of the blessings of America is the wide latitude of personal belief and behavior that one is allowed – the focus of much of our culture is on the individual. It can be argued that this strong individualism is very much the source of America’s strength. However, one must wonder how well this level of intense individualism works in the church.
Today I’d like to spell out what I see as the problems that exist in our churches now. First, religious commitment tends to be viewed as something that is for the benefit of the individual. So we see people who constantly are moving from one church to another because they “aren’t being fed” spiritually at their present church, or because they do not like the pastor, or because someone has said something mean to them. The religious experience for these people is all about them, the commitment is not to something greater than them, but only to their own needs. This spiritual narcissism leads to a kind of spiritual commercialism that is best summarized in people talking about how they “are shopping for a church home.”
Second, this individualistic bent seems to have lent itself to the idea that someone can be “spiritual, but not religious.” Some of this comes quite naturally and correctly from people’s revulsion against churches that have done great spiritual damage to members of their congregation – one can imagine how those victims who were abused by priests might have good reason to be hostile to religion. Others may oppose the idea of being religious because they see much religious practice as being empty or a liturgical façade that hides the nastiness of members of the congregation. However, I would argue that for most of us, the real issue is one of accountability. It is much easier to be committed to oneself than to a community that might hold us accountable for what we do and what we believe. By practicing a set of spiritual practices that satisfy only our own needs, we end up avoiding the sheer messiness of having to deal with other people, and we end up avoiding practices that challenge us to grow and/or change our behavior. Likewise, when we only have to be accountable to ourselves, the human mind is quite capable of justifying any number of things that we might not be able to get away with in a religious community. Much of this idea about being spiritual seems to have to do with finding something that makes us feel good rather than something that transforms our lives. It becomes a quest for a spiritual Disneyland, where everything is perfect. But is religious experience only about feeling good?
Third, the cultural individualism in which we swim creates serious issues with authority. Anyone who knows me knows that this is my weakness. No human community of more than about three people can exist for long without resolving issues of power and authority. Authority structures are visible throughout nature, not just in human life – even chickens have authority structures, thus the genesis of the term “pecking order.” Yet most of us are only comfortable with authority when we are the ones wielding it; it is as if somehow we think humans are exempt from the need for authority. In our culture we rarely care to be subject to authority or to anyone telling us what we should or should not be doing. Because almost all Christian denominations have worked out authority structures, many people withdraw from the church rather than be subject to the church’s authority, though often using some other excuse. Or, sometimes even more destructively, individuals take their authority issues out on the church leadership by undermining or harassing the pastor.
There are, of course, extremes at which we may need to break with community – churches can be spiritually abusive (or even in rare cases physically abusive), at which point the moral thing to do may be to leave if things cannot be changed. But I would argue that most of us withdraw from religious life more for selfish and individualistic reasons than because of any real harm that is being done to us.
Tomorrow I’m going to talk about how community is conceived of in Benedictine life and in my tradition. But this is enough for now.