Why Church Matters – Reason 1: We Need to be Challenged

We are all drawn toward faith. It’s part of being human. Martin Fowler in the second chapter of his book, Stages of Faith, summarizes the findings of the comparative religionist Wilfred Cantwell Smith here:

  1. Faith, rather than belief or religion, is the most fundamental category in the human quest for relation to transcendence. Faith, it appears, is generic, a universal feature of human living, recognizably similar everywhere despite the remarkable variety of forms and contents of religious practice and belief.
  2. Each of the major religious traditions studied speaks about faith in ways that make the same phenomenon visible. In each and all, faith involves an alignment of the will, a resting of the heart, in accordance with a vision of transcendent value and power, one’s ultimate concern.
  3. Faith, classically understood, is not a separate dimension of life, a compartmentalized speciality. Faith is an orientation of the total person, giving purpose and goal to one’s hopes and strivings, thoughts and actions.
  4. The unity and recognizability of faith, despite the myriad variants of religions and beliefs, support the struggle to maintain and develop a theory of religious relativity in which the religions – and the faith they evoke and shape – are seen as relative apprehensions of our relatedness to that which is universal.

Adam Miller in his book, The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace, says something similar in the preface:

What’s to be done? Even if you can’t avoid worship. The impulse to worship is a human problem, not a religious problem. ‘In the day to day trenches of adult life,’ Wallace reminds us, ‘there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships.’ Try as you might, there’s no place to hide from your yen for transcendence. And more, there’s no place to hide from the consequence of its failure. Choose your gods wisely but pretty much anything you worship ‘will eat you alive’. Getting eaten alive by your idols is part of what it means to be human.

(Quote taken from “This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life)

So, no matter what, we will in our day to day living, seek for transcendent experience, search for something to worship, develop a faith in something. We won’t be able to help it. Something in us will drive our faith somewhere. In my introductory post last weekend , I talked about how institutions are taken a beating. People are losing their faith in their religions and are walking away for all sorts of reasons.

But I believe that belonging to an institutional church has a benefit. Here I want to make the case that it provides us a framework to constrain our impulses, to challenge us and to force us to think and even to wrestle, as we confront the tensions between our inward strivings and the dictates of the religion of which we belong.

But why disagree at all? Why can’t we completely align with our church? The problem is that we have other influences as well. As we attend school, listen to the news and read and seek information from the best books, we will have to wrestle with how to fold in all of these ideas, some of which will inevitably conflict. As a Mormon, I have to reconcile evidence against the Book of Mormon’s historicity with my faith in the book as scripture. As a Christian, I have to reconcile the growing evidence questioning Biblical accuracy and even Jesus as Lord with my faith in both the book and the man.As a believer in God as a creator, I have to figure out how that fits in with evolution. The list goes on.

Some respond to this tension by dumping one or the other. Some leave their faith, others choose to ignore or dispute the science. I don’t believe either of these is ideal nor inevitable. I believe we can have our cake and eat it. Let me propose an alternative way to keep these questions in our head while being a bit more careful and humble about the answers. I’m going to borrow a bit from the book How to Think Like Leonard Da Vinci but quote from a blogpost that leans heavily on the book,

Sfumato,” which translates to “going up in smoke,” is a “willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty,” and is the fourth of the da Vinci habits recommended by author Michael Gelb. He writes, “As you awaken your powers of Curiosità, probe the depths of Dimostrazione (experience), and sharpen your senses, you come face to face with the unknown. Keeping your mind open in the face of uncertainty is the single most powerful secret of unleashing your creative potential.” This ability does not come to those who rely solely on their left-brained, analytical thinking capacities.

Gelb writes that the ceaseless application of these practices led da Vinci to many great insights and discoveries, “but they also led him to confront the vastness of the unknown and ultimately the unknowable. Yet his phenomenal ability to hold the tension of opposites, to embrace uncertainty, ambiguity, and paradox was a critical characteristic of his genius.” The theme of the tension of opposites grew in his work over the course of his lifetime – we can see this in even a cursory look at the maestro’s Mona Lisa.

Mona_Lisa,_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci,_from_C2RMF_retouched
I believe churches make a mistake when they make too broad a claim into science or history. We need scientific tools to make scientific claims, we need historical tools to make historical claims. We need religion to develop faith. But as a human being, we need all of this, we need science, history, outlets for creative expression, the ability to engage in relationships, and we need religion. To hold all of this in our heads at the same time requires us to be comfortable with paradox, contradiction and uncertainty. .

In fact, I’ll make the case here, we need this. Being too certain about too many things feels like something we as Mormons have been warned against. The world is too complex, the universe is too vast, eternity is beyond our ability to comprehend. We are small beings trying to make sense of a universe that is beyond all comprehension. But yet we are put here on this earth to try to make the best of it. We need a bit of humility. We need every tool in our toolbox. We need faith and religion.

I don’t believe we can do religion on our own. Where two or three are gathered religion can happen. We do religion with others. But I think we also need theology, doctrine, hierarchy and authority. I don’t believe we need to be in perfect alignment, in fact if we are, than we’re probably doing it wrong. We can and should have our own opinions. But as flawed human beings we need something to check us. We need the rigor and structure and history of doctrine to keep us from wandering too far off into crazy paths. We should not be looking for a religion that is a mirror of ourselves, we should be looking for a religion that helps us become our better selves, that both challenges us when we become too comfortable and comforts us when we feel like giving up.

Ross Douthat in his book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, talks about how Christian orthodoxy played a crucial role in American history in providing necessary dissent and binding the conversation:

But now consider orthodox Christianity’s contribution to America as well. From the beginning, the existence of a Christian center— first exclusively Protestant, and then eventually accommodating Catholicism as well— has helped bind together a teeming, diverse, and fissiparous nation. This binding has often been tangible and concrete: The hierarchy, discipline, and institutional continuity of Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism helped build hospitals and schools, orphanages and universities, and assimilated generation upon generation of immigrants. But our religious center has bound us together in a more mysterious fashion as well. In a country without a national church, the kind of “mere Christianity” has frequently provided an invisible mortar for our culture and a common vocabulary for our great debates. As Jody Bottum put it in a 2008 essay, the major Christian churches have operated “as simultaneously the happy enabler and the unhappy conscience of the American republic— a single source for both national comfort and national unease.” 1

Douthat, Ross (2012-04-17). Bad Religion (Kindle Locations 251-257). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

We need our philosophers, our theologians, our pastors and our prophets. We need people in the national conversation being our “unhappy conscience”. And we need this individually as well. We need an external conscience to check our own compulsions.

We can easily make the mistake of giving our churches too much power, turning it into an obsession to obedience or a judgmental weapon against others we do not approve of. We can easily go overboard one way or the other. But I think religion can and should play a vital role in our lives.