Sunday, 4 March 2012

Sunday Sermon: The Baby in the Bathwater of Religion (Embodiment 1)

Everything, I pray that my sermon spring from a love of truth and a desire to bring truth to life. If there be wisdom in my words, known or unknown to me, let the wisdom be heard and be fruitful. If there is foolishness in my words, let readers see through the folly. Amen.


The baby in the bathwater of virtually all traditional religion is the embodiment of a community for truth seeking, song and mutual aid. Any society can be described as highly embodied or highly alienated or something in between. Embodiment is a large factor in the health of society.

I'm aware that to those with no religious background at all this is a pretty abstract notion. Millions live their life without such an institution and they will report they are doing just fine without it. They may also think that our society has many problems, and they may even describe one of the modern issues as 'alienation', but these aren't their problems and it is a long way from nothing to see that repertory community worship might be one of the keys to getting society on a healthier keel.

In my experience however, people who have had religious backgrounds and yet have left their religions (generally for very good reasons) will immediately recognise what I'm saying. It's impossible not to occasionally miss the music and singing, the companionship that was taken for granted, the spontaneous acts of mutual aid and support that occurred, the rich content of conversation and just the security of knowing there was always the community of worshipers to turn to.

We experience embodiment in many ways outside religion of course, and it remains what health there is in society. Our family embodies for Christmas, we have parties, events and festivals, we go to sporting contests, concerts and the theatre. Some (I'm told) still gather around a table for meals. In Australia we consider the barbecue a national institution, even though I can't remember ever going to one.

But a repeated, regular embodiment of whole community (not meaning everyone but young and old, rich and poor etc), with ritual and song, is a feature of virtually every society in history, except our own. The word the English translators translated 'church' is the Greek word, ekklessia, which means 'assembly' and is used in the New Testament (and the Old Testament Septuagint) to describe secular gatherings of people as well as church gatherings. Even before the first century however it had a double meaning, but the specific meaning referred to something political, the assembly of people in the polis. The 'Church of Corinth', for example was not a new invention, but a Christian re-invention of an ancient Corinthian institution. Note that these earlier assemblies existed whether or not they had democratic power as in Athens, just as the Forum in Rome existed even though it never attained such power. It is political theorists rather than religious theorists who have recognised community assembly as a feature of every traditional society. But these assemblies were almost all religious to some extent, including the Athenian ekklessia. In our own social formations which emerged from the Europe of the Middle Ages, the remnant of it was the church.

The proposition here is not religious at all in itself. It is that when people form regular embodied community, stuff happens. None of it happens which doesn't otherwise happen outside religion (thankfully, as much of it comprises uncompromising human needs), but it's with regular embodiment that things happen constantly, developmentally (the happening can get better indefinitely over time) and easily.

One of the churches near me has a community garden, for example. Now people start community gardens (wonderful things), and they don't need a church, but it's not easy. You need to organise disparate people, find land (in practice often church land incidentally), source materials and maintain momentum when key people drop out. With an institutionalised body, it's not just that a community garden is easy to get off the ground, it is that an infinite variety of things might get off the ground. It is the collective part of human agency dealt with and assumed.

People meet each other. Yes, courtship happens. Again, people seem to get on with meeting spouses without church, but apparently our society needs a massive dating industry, and loneliness is epidemic, so again, it's not easy.

And courtship is only one reason for people to meet one another. Friendships occur, artistic projects, business ventures. Elderly people have company and the young have a variety of role models. This isn't abstract theory. Anyone who, like myself, has been involved in churches before, recognises all of this.

The local economy is stimulated in fact. If someone has a box of oranges they can't eat and someone else is poor, the connection is made. A small but healthy degree of communism occurs (though don't tell that to a conservative Christian). If an old pensioner needs weeding to be done in their garden, it is no trouble finding the young person who needs some weekend work. Again, this is not abstract unless you've never seen it. People do things for each other for the joy and love of it as well. Even without any ethical motivation, many people really like doing things for others. It's a matter of opportunity.

Music and song are another function of embodiment. But hey, we're surrounded by sound. Why do we need music? Well, apart from a few professionals, are we singing? Are we developing our God given musicality? Unless we're privileged are we learning instruments from an early age? Going a little deeper, are we developing cultures of music? That is, authentic community musical style? Clearly my view is no, and that embodiment facilitates these things.

Again this is not abstract. In terms of musical culture, the pentecostals have become one of the fastest growing and most influential forces in music. (Incidentally, in my mind the key to the current success of pentecostalism is that they get the importance of music.) A music director friend of mine, certainly no Christian, informs me that the best singers he encounters had a church background. It's no mystery. Doing anything repetitively from an early age makes one good at it.

When Christians travel, for fun or for work, they can go to the similar church at their destination and immediately find welcome and community once again. Loneliness, apparently, is for the secular.

The religious institution, ideally with land in a central place and a building, is a refuge and haven, a mobilisation point in a time of crisis and a point of contact for other communities. It performs these functions regardless of the theological teaching.

It is for all of these reasons that I am driven to promote the idea of modernising religion rather than abolishing it. In the end it is about a society that is healthy and fulfilling human needs. It is not the existence of religious institutions that is the problem any more than the existence of governance was the problem in the feudal 18th Century. It is the content that needs critique and reform.

One of the many questions which arrises is whether religion requires reformation or replacement with new institutions. For my part the question isn't closed, though this blog is clearly an attempt to articulate a new religion. But, without such an alternative, would I really encourage people to leave their church or place of worship? The reason I do not, and why I'd encourage others to think very carefully before doing so, is because at this time that church or place of worship is providing for the person's needs in ways that I probably can't imagine. I may vehemently oppose superstitious beliefs, but I'd prefer superstitious beliefs to alienation.


Thank you to anyone who reads my sermons. My authority is the same as everyone else's (ie pretty much none) and if there is anything useful in what I'm saying, what I'm needing to say, I hope that people find it by looking very critically at it. And if my thoughts and conclusions are wrong or unhelpful, then I hope I am properly dismissed. So be it.

No comments:

Post a Comment