Saturday, November 26, 2005

My thoughts on church attendance

In the comment thread of an earlier post, my blog buddy, Hammer, paid me a generous compliment, when he wrote:
One of the reasons I enjoy discussing things with you is your uniqueness. (Is that a word?) Simply put, I meet people every day who claim to be Christians, but don't go to church, because they "don't like organized religion" or have a similar argument. To them all, I have said, "Poppycock."

However, you seem to fit the relatively stringent criteria one would need to fit in order to both be genuinely Christian and genuinely dissatisfied with the church to a point where you forsake it, but do not forsake your faith.

First of all, Hammer, I appreciate the fact that you’ve given me credit for intellectual honesty. It’s not something I typically receive from fellow believers. That said, I suppose it now falls to me to justify my conviction.

I’ll begin by stating what I do not believe, with respect to the various components of—for lack of a better phrase—“a mystical world-view”. A good example of the polar opposite of my thinking (sent to me via e-mail from my old friend Jon, who remains bloggless) appears on the Toronto Sun website, in the Lifestyle section.
[Alex Presenza and Roger Lapointe] founded True World Care Inc. to urge people to "be honest with themselves" about the shortcomings of religion, the "horrors of fundamentalism," and the problems with most of our religious texts.

A world without the Bible, the Koran, the Torah? It's a step in the right direction, say Alex Presenza and Roger Lapointe.

"TWCs founders, two God loving ex-missionaries, could not live within the contradictions, pain and pat answers brought on by blind faith and religious texts namely The Old & New Testaments, and the Koran," they say on their website "We've always heard it said 'it's all a matter of interpretation.' TWC is here to say 'it's the text's themselves!' "

There are several problems here—namely the conflation of the following: religion in general, the three major Abrahamic texts, fundamentalism and blind faith. Moreover, it’s more than a little disingenuous to compare the New Testament with the Koran, as though there were any substantive commonalities between them. This tactic is no more than a thinly-veiled attempt to promulgate a form of spiritual relativism, in that it casts doubt on the notion that objective truth exists.
Author Karen Armstrong (The Battle for God) writes that it is both wrong and dangerous to read literal truth into religious books. Literalism is a product of the modern world, she claimed in an article last August in the Guardian Weekly.

With just one sentence, “literal truth” is dispensed with, if indeed such is put forth in a “religious book”. This is quite misleading, but sadly not unusual, as no distinction is made between the various mystical texts. The other implication is that literalism and truth are mutually exclusive. The fact is that texts in general and the Bible in particular ought to be understood in the sense in which they were intended. This means that a “wooden literal” reading is not always appropriate, but at times it is—it depends on the text. And as I’ve said before: context and intent are always determinative of meaning. The veracity of a given text, however, is another matter altogether.
"Before the modern period, Jews, Christians and Muslims all relished highly allegorical interpretations of scripture. The word of God was infinite and could not be tied down to a single interpretation," writes Armstrong. "Preoccupation with literal truth is the product of the scientific revolution, when reason achieved such spectacular results that mythology was no longer regarded as a valid path to knowledge."

Leaving behind the fact that “all” of any group rarely—if ever—does X, the idea that theologians of the three major religions (generally speaking) relegate the bulk of their texts to high allegory is absurd. It is true, however, that portions of the texts do utilize allegory, in addition to metaphor, parables and poetry. But the intended meaning is not lost (or shouldn’t be) because ideally, a serious student is aware of the various literary tools that have been used.

Perhaps the most egregious error that Armstrong makes (though not uniquely) is the assertion that, ”Before the modern period…The word of God was infinite and could not be tied down to a single interpretation” In other words, Armstrong is suggesting that the Word of God means everything and nothing at once, depending upon ones interpretation. I’m hard-pressed to imagine a more ridiculous proposition. It’s as though logic and reason were optional—as if contradictory interpretations were equally valid.

So, what do I believe about objective truth? Well, I believe that reality exists and that it can, theoretically, be objectively quantified. Reality is what it is. This is not to say that nothing is subjective. Quite the contrary—everyone has their own personal tastes, desires, etc. But ones subjectivity cannot erase objective reality, or if you like, objective truth. Likewise, I don’t think that everything is subjective—that there is no absolute truth. On the other hand, I reject the notion that mere consensus is proof of truth. It matters not whether something has been believed for millennia or a minute. This is because I don’t trust fallible men (or women) to be the final arbiters of truth. For truth is extremely resilient—it can withstand innumerable tests. The only thing that stands to lose from rigorous examination is that which is objectively false.

In light of my cherished (and hopefully healthy) skepticism, I’m very particular about the company I keep. This is especially true when it comes to the consideration of whether or not I will associate myself with a specific church. It’s not something I take lightly. That is, I’ll not attend a church just because “it’s what Christians do”. No, my primary concern is with fidelity to the Bible, the Word of God. Thus far, I’ve been forced to conclude that the mainstream Christian sects have doctrinal positions that, in my view, miss the mark to one degree or another. To be clear, I’m not in search of “the perfect church”, as no such thing exists. I’m just not convinced that regular meetings—in the form that they’ve taken post-Reformation—are a prerequisite for spiritual growth. Moreover, I fear that contrived ritual (i.e. opening prayer, three hymns, sermon, benediction and closing prayer) may actually be a hindrance to spiritual maturity. One cannot be spoon-fed information indefinitely and expect to learn how to think independently. That may be an oversimplification, but I think my point is clear.

More from Hammer in the aforementioned comment thread:
Where I come to a different conclusion from you is this - are these challenges in the church of today worth abandoning the joy of corporate worship and the benefits of accountability and fellowship? Furthermore, and an area which I think would be more important to you, do you allow the "church" to continue to err, or do you attempt to improve it?

There are two separate issues, which I’ll address in order. By the “church of today”, I’m sure he means the physical gathering of Christians, rather than The Church, which consists of all regenerates, regardless of affiliation. So, although I’ve not participated in corporate worship for many years, I’m firmly ensconced within The Church—I have a lifetime membership that was purchased by Christ. But with respect to the benefits that Hammer mentioned, I can honestly say, from personal experience, that those benefits are mitigated by honest theological and doctrinal differences. I should say though, that there was never any animosity between the various groups I’ve visited and myself. They were non-the-wiser, as I typically only made it to a few services before I got a handle on what was being taught (this was in the waning years of my church-going experience).

The reason for that leads to the second issue in Hammer's comment. The truth is that I worry less about correcting the errors of others than I once did. I should qualify that. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that most people join a congregation, initially at least, because of its denominational association. That is, they already accept the core teachings and doctrinal positions of the parent denomination. Therefore, it’s all but impossible to effect a course correction, with respect to entire churches. That would be the responsibility of the Holy Spirit.

Bear in mind that I recognize the sovereignty of God, which relieves me (and others) of the burden of evangelizing the entire world single-handedly. Speaking of which, hyper-evangelism seems to be the driving force behind many Christian sects. And more often than not, evangelical doctrines and teaching do not take “election” into account, which may lead to capacity crowds on Sunday, but not all of whom are regenerates. If the unvarnished truth were delivered from the pulpit, I suspect that there would be more empty seats and far fewer “mega churches”.

As for me, I’m content in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit inspired Philippians 2:13 “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure”.. I not only believe that, I’m eternally grateful for it…literally.