2012-05-29

The Church We Need Now

Yesterday's Lake Chalice looked at some aspects of Europe. Jeremy Rifkin's description of Europe -- a continent imbued with ecospiritual wisdom where almost everyone is a part of Civil Society Organization that functions like the best possible church -- is provocative. It's a picture worth looking at, even as we must also recognize its distortions. Europe does have strands of the sort of orientation that Rifkin describes, and those strands are a bit thicker than in the US, yet much of day-to-day life is essentially similar. As the US frets about immigration issues, so does Europe -- and European xenophobia about Muslim immigrants is not so different, qualitatively or quantitatively, from US xenophobia about Hispanics. It's not clear that Europe is terrific at celebrating cultural diversity while mitigating assimilationist pressures, nor that the US is much worse at either. Moreover, what Rifkin sees as homey and congenial emphasis on community relationships would feel to many Americans -- as it does to some Europeans -- like a stifling pressure to conform. If honoring and celebrating cultural diversity is a desideratum, what is the optimal level of cultural mobility (the ability of an individual to choose a cultural, or any, identity other than the one they were born into) for a society?

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 that's good. 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 are not meeting their faith community or spiritual fitness needs -- and that's bad. 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 are meeting their faith community and spiritual fitness needs through a spiritually imbued civic life -- and that's good. That's why Europe is doing so well on measures of social health.
  • Europeans meet faith needs through civic life -- and that's bad. This kind of community formation is harmful to what Europeans most need -- more respect for individual autonomy and less tribal loyalty.
(And what are "faith community and spiritual fitness needs"? See the earlier posts in this "Ecclesiology" series, as well as the "Spiritual Practice" series that begins here.)

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

"Ecclesiology" is the branch of theology that deals with the origin of the church, the church's proper role in human life, what it is needed for, and what form it should take (governance, leadership, organizational structure) to best meet its purpose. This Lake Chalice series on ecclesiology has been looking at the light that anthropology and evolutionary psychology shed on the purpose and challenge for "the church" -- broadened to include any form of faith community -- in the 21st century. From the standpoint of biotheology -- that is, an approach to religious questions grounded in and integrated with our understanding of ourselves as revealed in the biological sciences -- what sort of ecclesiology is called for? A relatively new clarity is available to us now about the need and value of faith community, but we are just beginning to discern some clues about what forms of faith community best amplify religion's blessing and best mitigate its curse.

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.

Mammalian forelimbs turned into bat wings – or, going another direction, into dolphin fins. Insect antennae turned into mandibles. A jaw bone in dinosaurs, fish, and reptiles was appropriated and made into an auditory bone in mammals. An ancestor of wasps and bees had an ovipositor (egg-laying tube) that was appropriated and made into a stinger. Before there were land animals, certain fish developed a swim bladder, which they could fill with gas, usually air. This allowed the fish to stay at a given depth without expending energy on swimming. The swim bladder probably was, in some species, also helpful for stability, and maybe also as a resonating chamber to produce or receive sound. The swim bladder evolved into the lung of the earliest lungfish – and from there into the lungs of land animals. Something that evolved for one purpose or set of purposes (buoyancy, stability, sonic resonance) was appropriated for a very different purpose (breathing air). A device for staying at a given depth in water turned into the essential step for moving onto land!

Structures that served one purpose get put to very different purposes. Happens all the time. The fact that we evolved with a given structure or tendency does not obligate us to continue the purpose for which that structure or tendency evolved. Genetic evolution is under no such constraint; if it were, then swim bladders would never have turned into lungs, and we’d all still be fishes.

Building upon its inheritance, the lungfish transcended that inheritance and became a new thing on this earth. Bats and dolphins, mandibular and stinging insects, mammalian auditory systems -- and, one way or another, ultimately every complex feature of every species -- built upon its inheritance to transcend that inheritance and become a new thing on this earth.

Let us do likewise. Transcend our inheritance: put the wiring that enabled cohesive war-fighting to a new use, building peace. The wiring that finds such comfort and delight in the company of friends, the wiring that gets active during spiritual experience, orients us to live in peace within our group. That same wiring is available for being universalized beyond our group. With a little training of the neural structures of social orientation that are already there, we can keep expanding our perceived circle of "us" until there is no “them.” Building upon our inheritance, we can transcend that inheritance and become 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: