Going to Church
Often when I get up in front of the congregation I am a part of on Sunday morning, I will silently wonder why each person has come to church that morning. Did they come hungering for an encounter with the living God? Out of grim duty or rusty habit? For their kids’ sake? To worship? To hang out with friends? Because there were rumours of a soup lunch afterward? There are likely as many different reasons (or combinations of reasons) as there are people in the pews on a given Sunday. One Sunday a number of years ago, I began the service by saying, “I’m not sure what brought you here today…” but before I could finish the sentence, a middle-aged man with a penchant for loudly and delightedly answering any and all rhetorical questions posed from the front blurted out, “The bus!!” Like I said, many responses…
One response which, in my entirely unscientific and purely anecdotal estimation, seems to be appearing more and more frequently, is voiced by Andrew Brown in a recent post over at The Guardian. It is the, “Of course I don’t believe any of this religious nonsense, but I go for the sake of ‘humanity’ and in the hopes that some of this outdated ritual and symbolism might play a positive role in my own well-being and personal improvement” approach. Here’s a quote:
I’m happy to kneel in prayer even though I can’t believe there’s anyone out there: not even the congregation, who are too busy lost in their own ritual. But it’s a cure for haste and pride and self-pity just to wait and listen, even if there is no one to hear. I even went up to the communion rail to take a blessing. Why not? What harm can blessing do? I don’t suppose that most, or any, of the congregation were theologians, and in any case I am never quite sure what theology means: it always appears to me as a purely rhetorical performance. So I didn’t wonder what it was like to believe in the Trinity, or even the resurrection, or any of the miracles. I’ve no idea if anyone in the church was really capable of such things, in any sense that I can understand.
When I first read this post, my temptation was write it off as yet another self-important post-Christian making hay off of his conflicted engagement with/dismissal of religion. One more heroic rejection of faith, one more socially approved and laudable expression of appreciation for the social and personal benefits of religion, minimal though they might be. One more fashionable embrace of this curious relic of the past, one more deliciously detached and nakedly condescending reduction of the historic faith to a tangentially useful and selectively accessible self-help technique. Ho hum.
But I decided that this would be a very boring blog post indeed.
My thoughts turned, strangely, to the Parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21:28-32. Both sons are told by their father to go and work in the vineyard. The first says no, but later changes his mind and goes. The second says he will go, but does not. “Which one did what the Father wanted?” Jesus asked the chief priests and the elders. The response seemed as obvious to them as it likely does to us. The first, of course. It’s better to go and to do, regardless of one’s professed intentions. Or, we might add, regardless of one’s attitude in the going. Did the first son have a complete change of heart? Or did he go grumbling and grudgingly? We’re not told, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The important thing is the going and the doing.
There is surely a yawning exegetical and hermeneutical chasm to be leaped across in order to make Jesus’ parable mean anything like, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you go to church.” And who would want to make that point anyway? What could be less interesting or useful than a bunch of people grudgingly sitting in church week after week out of a sense of wearisome and misguided obligation? Jesus is not addressing life in the twenty-first century post-Christian wasteland, after all; he is, rather, delivering a pointed critique and challenge to the self-appointed guardians of Israel’s religious and cultural identity.
Surely, operating somewhere on the periphery of this parable, is the basic truth that we humans often act our way into believing and thinking and professing rather than the other way around. And I know that it is easy—far too easy—to sit soullessly in the pew each week, mouthing mostly empty words about what we “believe” and why we believe it, with these words having precisely zero impact on how we live. I know that belief is not a binary category, that it is experienced in differing degrees and shades throughout the course of an individual journey. I know that some Sundays we come to church vibrant, expectant, and alive to the Spirit, while other Sundays we are convinced that our prayers are simply bouncing off the walls.
We may not all be as transparent as Andrew Brown about our decidedly “unspiritual” reasons for trudging off to church each week, but I suspect that each of us is familiar with at least some of his sentiments, at least some of the time. None of us come to church with unmixed motives. At our best, though, we keep going, because we believe that it is in the going and the doing that the believing and the professing is shaped, sustained, rehabilitated and enlivened. And, of course, out of the hope that it is not finally the strength or the constancy of our cognitive conviction that will save us, but the goodness and mercy of God.