“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe…What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.” – Flannery O’Connor
Apart from what you see here on the DB, Logan and I are friends who still talk about religion and belief quite often. We do so in funny and serious ways. He also knows what love I harbor for Flannery O’Connor, so he sent me the quote above. I guess it worked, because I’m writing this. It’s also a chance for me to provide my own angle on Logan’s most recent post. Doubt and the ability or desire to believe is something I spend a lot of time wrestling with, which is what makes something like a “non-religious church” an issue for me, particularly for its shallow approach to something that is by its nature paradoxical and mysterious.
I think what we’ve got going here is a battle over terms, over the language of church and religion, which is no small battle as words are all we’ve got to explain what we’re doing. As Logan noted, Sunday Assembly hasn’t done away with religious structures even in their attempt to provide a secular alternative to “church.” This isn’t just another community organization we’re talking about here; otherwise, it wouldn’t have made the news. Rather, it’s an attempt to co-opt and then negate the mysterious connection afforded to us when we attempt to interact with the divine.
Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not saying Sunday Assembly should go away, or that they are wrong in their approach. Do what you want. Being a good person is good. I generally acknowledge that how you choose to experience joy in community isn’t my business. What I’d like to say though, if SA is your cup of tea, is this: don’t cheat yourself.
If we’re going to get at the contention of language presented by trying to separate what church is from what you want church to be, it begins with “feelings.” Church isn’t about making you feel good, which is what O’Connor is getting at in the quote above. Want proof? Christianity, at least, is a religion that houses an execution instrument at the front of, and on the tops of, its buildings. Granted, the effect has been lessened by its shallow usage and smothering frequency on everything from jewelry to coffee mugs, but still. This is a religion about the cross, and that’s not “feel-good.”
There is a public notion at large, one which SA bases itself upon, that being a good person and feeling good about it captures what church is about if you can so conveniently place the “God-talk” by the wayside. Wrong. Church isn’t about feeling good, it’s about confronting mystery and power, confronting a cross and all it represents, and wondering what you should do about it. When people reduce "church" to something you can do non-religiously, you're pigeon-holing religion into something devoid of mystery and power, which is antithetical to the origin of religion itself. The major religions negated by SA’s “feel good, do good” approach [and we’re going beyond Christianity here], and the organization of church as an extension, is about dealing with a truth and a reality which is, often, profoundly uncomfortable. You’re not all there is, how you “feel” isn’t really the center of anything, and what’s more, you’ve got to get over that and do some real work for others with a real eye towards love and obedience. And what makes groups like the SA so inept in their attempt to make a church is this: church is the place where you go to face that and fold yourself, along with your neighbor, into an attempt to live out those uncomfortable truths. Faith and belief are real concepts that those of us committed to living out religious truth must deal with, but church isn’t even really the place we go to do that. Faith, or even the longing for faith, is a foundation upon which church is built. Church is the second step in a religious process. So you can’t separate church from faith. Sorry.
Religion and Cost
This is where the language of struggle and the concept of belief as something painful come into play. O’Connor is right in that “religion costs.” It costs a great deal. I count myself among those who cry out for belief, wishing they had it in a way they used to or can only imagine now. And in my position, I do find it much harder to believe; yet I still strive for it. When confronted by the cross, I no longer truly know what to think or feel. But I don’t go to church to figure it out. That’s work for me to do, painful work, in which I grasp for something I believe truly matters and yet consistently avoids my longing, outstretched fingers. It’s work I do in silence, work I do with friends and family and mentors and professors, work I do in books and on paper and on an awesome blog called Disembodied Beard.
But church? That’s where I go to live out the parts I know are true and struggle to keep my heart and mind open to the parts I’m not sure about. Like, that if God exists, God is love. And love is hard. Loving God and loving neighbor aren’t any easier than loving in romantic or familial relationships. Church is where I learn how to live out that love, where I learn how to express religious truths that inherently speak power to action, where I bind together with a community to buckle down and get things done. Sometimes that makes me feel good, and sometimes it doesn’t. But my “feelies,” my “believies” (Logan already linked the best clip in his article, so go to it) aren’t a factor in all that. My actions are, and they’re predicated on my desire to know more about the divine and myself.
So, do what you want to feel joy, but don't confuse that with what church is supposed to do for you. Church is supposed to confront you with mystery and power and transform you, often in painful ways. And if you want to gather and sing songs and love each other, that’s great. Seriously, it’s great. The world would certainly be a better place if everyone did that. But that's not "church minus religion." That’s a club, and if that’s what you want, name it and own it.