Sunday, October 13, 2013

What's a Church Service For?

Yesterday afternoon, my spouse and I sat by the pool, reading our books.  Eventually, the shadows closed in, and we lost our reading light.  So, we put our books down and talked. 

Our conversation turned, as it often does, to church.  We talked about worship services.  We talked about what they're for.  We come from different angles.

My spouse comes back to the Pentecost message:  go out and make believers of all nations.  I go to church so that I may be equipped to survive in a hostile world of secular empire, so that I can be reminded of who I am and whose I am.

In many ways, we're both right.

Today, on the NPR show On Being, Krista Tippett interviewed Alain de Botton, who has created a gathering space for atheists.  He's refreshing:  an atheist who can see the important aspects of church and religion.  He's got a lot to say about worship service, even for atheists.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"In the same way that Christianity colonized the pagan world absorbing its best elements, so I'm arguing that non-believers today can do a little bit of this with religion just as religion did it with them, because, you know, a lot of what we find in Christianity comes, of course, from Greek philosophy. Even the concept of monasticism was taken from the Epicurean philosophical communities that existed in the Mediterranean world. So an awful lot that seems to us intrinsically religious is not; it's part of the treasury of mankind. These religions at their highest points, at their most complex and subtle moments, are far too interesting to be abandoned merely to those who believe in them."

"Anyway, what religions do which is rather interesting is they recognize that we need to have constant public reminders of all this stuff about being good and kind that all of us probably sign up to in theory, but forget about in practice. This is a real contrast to the secular world, which basically says public space must be neutral and there must be no messages reaching people because that might be an infringement of freedom, to which I say, OK, that's all very well, but the point is, firstly, public space is not neutral because it's dominated … most of which are commercial messages. So, you know, we don't live in the kind of completely neutral public space that's often fantasized about by secular defenders of a kind of neutral liberalism. We are actually assaulted by commercial messages. So religions want to assault us with other messages, messages to be kind and to be good and to forgive and all these things, and they know that having a feeling of being observed, having a public space that is colored by moral atmosphere, all of this can help. I don't know. This intrigues and attracts me."

"Yes. I mean, taking those two, the Day of Atonement, a fascinating moment in the calendar in Judaism where people essentially say sorry to each other and they say sorry against the backdrop of a God who doesn't make mistakes, but humans who do. You are given license, encouragement, structure to do something which would be mightily hard if you were left to do it on your own like, as I say, saying sorry. It's much easier to say sorry if everybody is doing it on a particular day because then there's a sort of cycle of mutual apology and forgiveness which makes the whole thing much more normal. We're very suspicious of ritual in the non-believing world. You know, we think that there shouldn't really be rituals, that the private life should have its own rhythms and that no one should come in from the outside and say, you know, today we're going to say sorry and next week we're going to worship spring and the day after we're going to think about the qualities of humility in a saint or something. The idea is you should do all this on your own in private. I'm coming around to the view that that's nice in theory, but the problem is we'll never get 'round to it."

"That's why, you know, the average cathedral works really well even if you don't believe in any of the liturgy because what's happening in that space is that your eyes rise up to the ceiling and you think, oh, I'm a tiny thing in this vast, rather beautiful, rather fascinating, mysterious universe. And suddenly, you know, the argument you were having with X or Y seems no longer so significant."

Go here to hear the show, read the transcript, and to enjoy a wide range of resources.

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