The European example does not, alas, provide us with a final answer on the best way for our postmodern world to address human needs for faith community and spiritual fitness. Given Europe's very low attendance at traditional Catholic and Protestant churches, any of several different hypotheses might be argued:
- Europeans are not meeting their faith community and spiritual fitness needs, and Europe is doing much better than the US on measures of social health, which shows that faith community and spiritual fitness aren't really all that important.
- Europeans meet their faith community and spiritual fitness needs through a spiritually imbued civic life, and that's why Europe is doing so well on measures of social health.
- Europeans are not meeting their faith community or spiritual fitness needs, and this failure is connected with various social problems and anomie in Europe. (Or: Europeans' civic lives partly meet their religious needs, but a more robust attention to communities and practices cultivating the spiritual values would do them good.)
- Europeans meet faith needs through civic life, and this kind of community formation is harmful to what Europeans most need -- more respect for individual autonomy and less tribal loyalty.
Religion came to early humans as both a blessing and a curse. Faith community provided a feeling of connection, of at-home-ness, of being with our people, and in a world that made sense, just where we belonged. This blessing made early communities cohesive, and that cohesiveness proved essential to survival. At the same time, the US-ness of tribal identification also entailed a THEM-ness of antipathy toward those outside one's community. We need the blessing today as much as ever: overcoming alienation with community belonging and overcoming stress and greed with greater spiritual awakening. At the same time, we need forms of religion that minimize the concomitants of tribalism: intolerance and distrust of outsiders. The situation in Europe offers us some clues, but no ultimate blueprint.
Religion Must Now Transcend Its Origins
Seeing the origin of religion, it’s easy to see how religion can become evil – how the yearning for a shared story becomes a commitment to absolutes. But the future holds to us the possibility of expanding the circle. We can learn to take our sense of US-ness that evolution wired into us, and keep expanding it until it takes in . . . well, everything. And there is no THEM left.
Just as nature wired into us a need for faith community, so it wired into us a propensity for going further with that capacity. Our inherited structures that made us able to bind together for war are available to be appropriated to connect us to live in peace and justice, without domination, or mastery, or hegemony. What evolution created for one purpose can now be put to a new purpose. This is nature’s method of transcendence, and the history of life on this planet is full of examples.
Behold the earliest prehistoric form of lungfish. It had evolved a sac of air for the purpose of giving it buoyancy in the water. Its original purpose had nothing to do with what then happened: that sac turned into a lung and allowed respiration of air, letting animals move onto land. Building upon its inheritance, it transcended that inheritance and became a new thing on this earth.
Behold the bat. Its ancestors evolved a little webbing between the fingers in order to catch flies better. The webbing’s original purpose had nothing to do with what then happened: that webbing allowed the animal to take flight. Building upon its inheritance, it transcended that inheritance and became a new thing on this earth.
Our spiritual perception can plumb more deeply, can see more than just what selective pressures once needed our ancestors to see. My awareness can be trained to know, more thoroughly than cognition alone can know, that all humans are I, all sentient beings are I; all bugs and plants, all amoebas, paramecia, bacteria, and fungi are I; all rocks and dirt, rivers and oceans; air and fire; sun, moon, and stars are I.
Church, huh? What is it good for? “Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.” And strength that joins our strength to do the work of building “a land that binds up the broken, where the captive go free, where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an everflowing stream.”
What is it good for? Absolutely everything.
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This is part 5 of 5 of "Ecclesiology: What Is Church Good For"
Previous: Part 4: "How's Europe?"
Beginning: Part 1: "Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?"
Audio (with some nice slides) of an edited excerpt of an earlier version of "Ecclesiology." Thanks to Shelby Havens for putting together the slides and creating this Youtube video: