Addendum to Hypocritical Churchgoing

Mike’s (my boyfriend, for those of you who don’t know him) comment on the previous post reminded me of a few things I need to add to “hypocritical churchgoing.”

Saying the Creeds
Around the time I first started questioning my faith I wondered what to do about saying the creeds.  They are the pillar of the faith, in the sense that they declare our beliefs as a catholic (in the universal sense) church.  When the church leaders met in Nicea in 325 CE, they needed to unify the beliefs in order to establish the church.  People calling themselves Christian in different parts of the Roman Empire were worshiping different things.  This move also distinctly separated the new gentile religion of Christianity from followers of Jesus within Judaism.   Of course, much more was involved to found the Church than just this one council, but in the Episcopal Church we still use a version of the Nicene Creed every Sunday.  (The creed is usually dated to 381 CE, though from what I’ve always heard the ideas came out of the 325 council.  I just assume it took much longer to get anything done in ancient Rome, since there was no internet…)

For the better part of my adolescence, I stayed silent rather than recite a Creed I didn’t fully believe.  The same went for the Pledge of Allegiance.  I was unsure of my beliefs, so I couldn’t state them aloud.  By the time I started studying religion my understanding of stated belief began to change.  (And I think it still changes.)  Most of religion is formed through metaphor. For much of history, I think creeds have been used as a concrete pinpoint of faith much more easily understood than dogmatic mysteries.  (I don’t know the linguistic history of the Nicene Creed, though there’s a wikipedia article on it, and I assume like most doctrines of early Christianity it was written in Greek originally and then translated to Latin.)

I quelled my uneasiness with the creeds while researching my religion senior project at Bard.  Spring semester of my junior year, I took a seminar with [the now late] Rev Paul Murray called “Belief Within a Religiously Plural World.”  Paul was never known for his stimulating class discussions, but he may have chosen the best reading lists out of any of my professors.  The Pluralism class, as I called it, became the foundation of my bibliography for that senior project.

Most of what was available in 2006 on pluralism (and even still now) is a category of Christian theologians justifying the possibility of correctness of other religions.  I generally abhor that entire theological category, finding it unproductive in the progress towards a real religious pluralism.  Theologically I dislike John Hick‘s encompassing form of pluralism, since  it philosophically references everything back to “The Real”, his term for the God we cannot imagine.  Through his imagination of the Real, he imposes a theological category on unsuspecting religions, and promotes a kind of inclusivism.

However, John Hick redeems himself to me in A Christian Theology of Religions in the very last chapter.  In a section called “A view from the year 2056” he describes what he hopes is the progression of mainline Protestantism in a few generations (pg 134).  He predicts, with every other scholar of religion and secularism today, that there will be no “steady decline” of religion in the postmodern era as was assumed in the middle of the 20th century.  Instead a transformation:

The life of the church continues essentially as in the past, even though the prevailing theology, and therefore some of the language, has been changing during the last fifty years. … The central messages of liberation theology, feminist and womanist theology, and ecological theology have been assimilated and the mainline churches have been increasingly dedicated to working for social justice, gender equality, and a sustainable human life-style which preserves the fragile balance of the global environment. … In those sections of the universal church in which the pluralistic vision has become established, worship is explicitly directed to God, rather than to Jesus, or to the Virgin Mary, or to the saints. This has been the result of a continuous process of liturgical revision…

The “Apostles'” Creed [a version of the Nicene Creed] is still generally used, not, however, as a literal expression of contemporary belief but as a symbol of the continuity of the church through the ages. (Hick Christian Theology of Religions 134-137)

While it’s clearly the last portion of the quote that is important to my own revelation about creeds, that revelation cannot be reached without the background Hick imagines.  Important to note is that for Hick to imagine this transformation of the church, he had to have seen much of it already when he wrote this in 1995.  And almost 15 years later, in many of the mainline churches his writing is already coming true. (I’ll post the entire passage, or a link to it somewhere, possibly exegete it).  The creed cannot be considered metaphor without the progressive theological doctrine Hick describes.

More than just as symbol of continuity though, the creeds are a vehicle of communitas.  They connect the one reciting to the history of the tradition (i think somewhat passively though), yes, but also actively connect her to the rest of the congregation.  So when I recite the Nicene Creed at church on Sunday, I’m not saying “We believe in one God, The Father, Almighty…” I’m saying words that link me to the rest of the church present and historical.  And yes, I’m saying things that link me to the Episcopal Church, which, especially after Mary Glasspool’s election in the Diocese of LA, I’m happy to be a part of.

Confession
This is what Mike actually brought up in his comment on my last post.  Confession is one thing for which no intercessor is required, thankfully.  Your confession is between you and God.  No one likes being told that they are sinful and there is nothing to do about it but accept Christ as Savior.  I don’t believe in that.  But my sins are real.  There is no one who cannot make themselves a better person in some way.  I believe that the seven deadly sins are sins, but that it is our nature to want to lust, glut, or sloth at some point.  (Are glut and sloth appropriate verbs?  I’m guessing no.)  And I believe that it is my responsibility as a human to confess my sins, admitting to myself (and sometimes to a version of God?) that i’ve wronged people.

What I don’t believe is that my sins will prevent me from attaining glory in the next world.  And I don’t believe that Christ really can erase everything that I have done.  If I am truly repentant of my sins, I will be able to live out my life as a better person: loving, forgiving, kind.  If not, I won’t burn in fire and brimstone, but more likely be a miserable person.

I also believe that I forget to contemplate my wrongdoings on a frequent basis.  Every once in a while, I find it productive to sit and think about everything I’ve done wrong to others and to myself and ways in which to ask them for forgiveness.  Sometimes, I need an external imposition to remind myself to think about those things.  (Hence the beauty of Lent.) So to confess silently to myself for fifteen seconds on a Sunday morning is a brief way of reminding myself that I need to work a little harder, not to have someone tell me how awful of a person I’ve been.  (Besides, I know if I make it to Santa Claus’s “naughty” list.)

Communion
If I don’t believe in a strict version of the Incarnation or of Christ, is it hypocritical of me to receive communion?  Technically, no. No matter my beliefs, as far as I understand, as a baptized Christian I’m welcome to take communion at an Episcopal church.  I suppose that theologically I can justify my participation via panentheism–the belief that God is in everything–which is something process theology resembles in many ways.  If I’ve considered everything at least somewhat divine, then taking the Host at communion is taking a part of God, just like any other meal.  (One of my favorite things the Cathedral does is a Maundy Thursday Agape meal, in which we share a vegetarian Mediterranean dinner and give one another communion–instead of from a priest–as a representation of the Last Supper.)

More important than the differences between transubstantiation and consubstantiation and what exactly I believe it is that I am eating (homemade bread at my church, gluten free crackers for those who need it) is with whom I take communion: the community with whom I worship.  To Episcopalians in general (as far as I understand my religion) and to me specifically, participating in communion is the pinnacle of the faith.  It is a celebration together with one another of being together.

The symbolic aspect (transubstantiation squared?) of the body also plays out here.  Bodies are under regarded in Christian theology.  (I’m guessing in all religions, too, with the possible exception of some aspects of Hinduism through prakṛti and tantra.) I did not give as detailed an explanation of Grace Jantzen in the first “Hypocritical Churchgoing” post as I hope to later, but what I did mention is her emphasis on the body in Christianity.  Once we regard flourishing as a viable religious option, we can respect the idea of bodies as a religious asset instead of detriment.  In turn, we can look upon women and upon the earth via feminist and ecological theology as real beings deserving of respect not only within a political but within a religious realm.

The physical body is one aspect, the communal body is another.  The body of the congregation, of the community.  These are defined and brought together by communion.  I absolutely believe there are other ways in which to define a community, even a religious one, but to me communion (and singing, i think) is the strongest means of binding people together.  [Aside: you scholars of religion out there should know that the Latin root religio means “to bind together” for that is the ultimate goal of a religion.]  To eat the “body” as the “body” holds significant theological implications.

I’m sure I’ll think of more things in the future about the theological hypocrisy that is an atheist in the pews, but the more I talk to people, the more I find I’m in good company. Especially in an Episcopal Church.

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5 Responses to “Addendum to Hypocritical Churchgoing”

  1. Josh Says:

    Just a note on the Council of Nicaea–not only would most of the participants been native Greek speakers, but so too would most of the patriarchs there and the general community, Nicaea being in Asia Minor. Really the big reason that the early church relied so heavily on Greek, especially Koine was that it was the lingua franca, and what the early participants and converts all spoke.

    I am not an expert on biblical language, although I could probably poke around and find someone who is, however your discussion of changes and the literal aspect of Christ reminded me of last years Easter sermon at my mother’s Episcopal Church (Hardwick, Vermont), given by an interim pastor, and just an all around interesting person. Basically it was a history lesson on the changes in biblical language, especially in Matthew where the original text ended with the women arriving at the cave and discover that Jesus had risen, but never actually meeting him. Further it discussed the perfectly valid reason for putting the body in the cave from Friday-Sunday in that it was the Sabbath.

    Now if I had to describe myself, I would fall somewhere on the agnostic/to each his own/Ignostic/higher power everywhere, but very little direct impact/individualist spectrum, but I am willing to attend churches/temple (my uncle is a Rabbi) without qualm because of the community and because I strongly believe that to each, their own. That said, we have a lot of religious history people in my history department, many of whom are quite devout, with varying levels of volume. Perhaps the most interesting bit about that, though, is to see SDA’s who have weekly bible study and church, but seemingly little literalism, one Catholic with no literalism, and then a spectrum from Baptist onwards (I don’t actually know where some of them attend) some quite literal and some not so much.

  2. JohnO Says:

    Josh,

    That is the end of Mark 16:8 is the original ending.

    Meg,

    Coming from some unorthodox beliefs the saying of the creed has been an issue for me. As I engage critical scholarship, some of it is actually creating a more orthodox view within myself. That said, I’ve been able to prayerfully say more and more of the creed. One of my joys behind such a high liturgy is the communal aspect from mutual resicitation, both the creed, and confession, and then the eucharist. So yes, I think we’d agree the present communal aspect.

    But when it comes to two of Hick’s statements I find problems. First, I know of no mainline Protestantism, or Catholicism which has moved away from a community of saints worship or of Jesus towards a uniquely monotheistic worship. Second, while I would agree that saying the creed doesn’t necessarily mean one agrees in exactly the same concepts or understanding as the writers – it does imply some definite continuity with their belief. An analogous idea would be apostolic succession, one you break it, it’s broken. And of course that gets sticky if one gets into statements of excommunication. But one has to demonstrate some wish to stay in continuity with such expressions of faith to declare continuity. And I think the mainline denominations would concur.

  3. Meg Gatza Says:

    John
    At some point in the near future (possibly when I bring Hick’s Christian Theology of World Religions with me to work), i’m going to look at the passage exegetically. I mentioned that this is possibly the only aspect of Hick’s book that I agree with. His outlook is a projection for the year 2056 (which is 60 years after he wrote it, not 50, despite him calling it 50). Can we really begin to imagine everything that will happen between now and then theologically? Praxis-oriented? Even demographically? We’ve been ordaining women in the Episcopal church for only 35 years at this point. When my mother was starting college, becoming a priest wasn’t an option for her, yet a year after she graduated she started seminary and has now been ordained for 29 years. With the consecration of Katherine Jefforts Schori as our Presiding Bishop we took another step that most of the world cannot believe and with the election of longtime family friend Mary Glasspool, a partnered Lesbian, as the first Lesbian bishop and the first LGBTQ person elected since the ban was lifted, we took steps that are only logical but that couldn’t have been imagined even 10 years ago. (And that have sparked outrage elsewhere.)

    What I’m saying is that 50 years is a lot of time for something to happen. 50 years ago it was predicted that religion in the United States/secular countries would decline rapidly towards extinction. Instead, religion is only growing here. (I just read something saying that Wicca may be the third largest religion in the US by 2012… http://www.prweb.com/releases/2005/04/prweb231351.htm)

    I need to think further on relating the creeds to apostolic succession; I know there is connection, and that once the chain is broken it’s broken. But I’m not sure that there needs to be as much theological continuity as there needs to be communitas-continuity (for lack of better phrasing). Theology is continuously revised with the input of new strains: liberation, feminist, womanist, queer, ecological, etc. Eventually those theologies make it into mainstream practice. Example: for most of my childhood, I still remember masculine pronouns being used for God in the Eucharist. Now, the Eucharist renders God gender neutral, though I’ve heard feminine pronouns used occasionally too.

    just more to think about.

  4. Dewitt Espinoza Says:

    If only more than 99 people would read this.

  5. Shauna West Says:

    megonreligion.wordpress.com’s done it again! Great writing!

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