April 2014: Why bother with church? (2)

For centuries, we knew why we went to church, especially at Easter. Our ‘why’ was the insider’s answer - we went because Christ died for us, and rose again, and this makes all the difference for us. Western civilisation was Christian, after all!

But this ‘insider’ understanding doesn’t help today. Most people are no longer ‘insiders’ as far as matters of faith are concerned. For many of these, theology has been reduced to vague memories of Sunday School stories, and it’s all rather quaint but entirely irrelevant to 21st-century life. Why bother with church, in ‘outsider’ language?

Here’s an answer… it’s a bit unconventional, an analogy really, but maybe it will help somebody answer the question of "why bother with church?” The answer has five parts...

1. Our world is broken. The evidence ranges from corruption in politics to corporate greed to nationalism to pollution to the increasing divide between rich and poor - we just don’t seem to be able to do the right thing by our neighbours our our collective selves. Humanity is tinged with both good and evil at all levels, but the evil seems to win out, and we somehow lack the energy and will to do better (look at the climate change discussions, for example).

2. Left to ourselves, we won’t fix it - because the things that matter most to us as individuals and collectively are greed and selfishness, now rather than tomorrow. We want money and stuff, and if others have it, we want it too (or instead). We get addicted to power or drink or drugs. What is there beyond ourselves to call us to a higher way of life? Science offers answers to the ‘how’ and ‘what’, not the ‘why’ (or at least, not in any way that motivates ordinary people to overcome inertia).

Science Fiction, however, sometimes answers differently. We come across benign power from elsewhere that intervenes to nudge fledgling worlds in the right direction. Take a look at Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, for example. Some stories go the other way too, of course. The 'dark side' is always there. In these stories we pick up a wider view, and dream of possiblity, of benign intervention that changes our direction.

3. If we can get away from the baggage that comes with the word ‘God’, and permit a moment of unconventionality, it is possible to see the story of Ancient Israel as a series of such interventions on the part of a being from beyond this world. These interventions influenced civilisation in certain directions, as was required at different stages of human maturity. We know about them today, but only couched in the language of a different time, when understanding of the universe was less complete than our own (still all too lacking). Too often, we are asked to take these stories at face value - but we lack the world-view of the writers, and the stories look fanciful or silly, especially if we focus on ‘what’ is happening, rather than ‘why’. In the end, if we look at the ‘why’, we find that the stories are about the developing relationship between humanity and the Being beyond, who intervenes in the world for our benefit, and who we struggle to understand. Why should this being care about us? Why do we care about our families? Maybe it’s the same reason.

4. How do we know there has been an intervention? Today we want to know ‘the real story’ of Mary Magdalene, the Turin Shroud, and so on. But this is like examining a tree and failing to perceive the forest! Necessary but insufficient. Ancient Israel’s world was changed. The Roman Empire was changed. Western civilsation was changed. The world was changed, in all sorts of ways that add up to a forest. The changes happened because of relationships between humans and the being beyond, made tangible in Jesus. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus, the world would not have changed. If resurrection is not an intervention, what is?

5. Given all this, my answer to the question, “why bother with church,” using ‘outsider’ language, begins with this: because we want our lives and the world to be somehow better, and it seems that we are not alone in this. The Being beyond desires this too. Christians call this Being ‘God’, but that’s really a title, not a name. God’s name involves existence and mystery. God has intervened in the world to make it better, and offers to do that for us as individuals too.

There is a choice to be made, because there is no proof and never will be. Like the optical illusion in which one can see an old lady or a young lady, some can only see one way, others can only see the other way, and others again can see both. We often see only what we look for. Will we dare look for something different? Everything looks different from the other side. There is a choice to be made, between open and shut, colour or black-and-white, inner-and-outer awareness or outer only, paradox or reason. Relationships are difficult like that.

My answer continues with this: we bother with church, because there is an exciting story that is still being written, and we want to be part of it, and that involves church, for all its foibles and failures, and its tendency to forget its mission of change in the world. Church is all too human, but it can be inspiring too: it is where we find others who want to change the world this way, the Way of Jesus. There may be other ways, in other places and times, but for me, here, now, the story of Jesus is the best motivation for making change, and following Jesus as part of the church is the choice I have made.

Parkdale Church of Christ 2012-18 —A community of faith, hope and compassion.