Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?

Absolutely Nothing?

In 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam war, Edwin Starr made the charts with a protest song: “War (What is it Good For?)”

“Absolutely nothing,” was the song’s answer.

Suppose we ask the question about church. For what is it good? Might the answer be the same? As we shall see, there are some surprising connections between war and church (or synagogue, mosque, temple, sangha, vihara – faith community in any form).

What Yency Said

For what is church good? In 2005, when we were living in El Paso, I asked Yency that question. Yency’s church is Pentecostal. He said church helps you feel better. You feel happy. You feel better with God, he said – which one might interpret as meaning better adjusted to life’s conditions. He said, “You don’t have to be all the time alone in your house.” Wise words.

What Religion is About

Religion is not about what you believe. Your religion is about three things:
  • How you live: the ethics and values that guide your action; 
  • Community: connection with others by and through sharing of practices and rituals;
  • Experience: the "direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder."
Faith communities are for bringing these three functions together, presenting and awakening them in such a way that each of those three functions reinforces the other two. As the old “Cheers” theme song said:
“Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name,
And they're always glad you came.”

Or, as Starhawk said:
“Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats.
Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us,
eyes will light up as we enter,
voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our power.”
We have a need for some way to come together so that “I” can become “we”; “me” can become “us.”

Getting Wired for Religion: Competition Fuels Cooperation

We are wired to have this need. Religion has always included stories that told us things like where we came from, what is our role in the universe – and why we get together with others to practice our religion. If we draw on evolution for our story, then we begin with the emergence of society itself among early primates.

The process begins with reciprocal altruism. My survival chances were enhanced if I did favors for associates who would later do favors for me – although, if I went too far, allowed myself to be taken advantage of by doing favors for associates who would never reciprocate, then my survival odds diminished. In order for a reciprocity system to work, we had to have brains
“capable of carefully tracking the behavior of the other organisms with which [we] interact.” (William Irons, “Why Are Humans Religious? An Inquiry into the Evolutionary Origin of Religion.” Currents in Theology and Mission 28: 3-4, 2001, 359)
The selective pressure to develop cooperation networks was made much, much greater than it otherwise would have been by competition between groups. It may seem paradoxical, but competition fuels cooperation. Individuals had to cooperate to form a group that could out-compete other groups. Bands of primates, generally males, competed violently with other bands for food, for territory, for access to females. We see that going on in chimps today – and on campuses. This group-group competition, as Richard Alexander has detailed in The Biology of Moral Systems, was a powerful force driving us toward formation of larger and better-united groups.

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This is part 1 of 5 of "Ecclesiology: What Is Church Good For?"
Next: Part 2: "Gossip, Agency, and the Lesson of Communes"

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