Monday, March 30, 2009

Sunday Reflections for March 29, 2009: "I will write it on their hearts"

(This is not my typical Reflections column which is usually unrelated to my Sunday sermon. I did not write a church column this week as I was on vacation but the following is based instead on thoughts from my sermon.)

"The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more." Jeremiah 31:31-34 (First Reading, Fifth Sunday in Lent B)

Several of my previous posts have dealt with the rapidly declining membership and influence of Christianity and religion in general. Churches, of course, view this as a crisis and for them it is, as they struggle with money shortages and closing congregations. In many ways denominations continue to treat this as the elephant in the living room, with little formal conversation or theological interpretation taking place. The possibility that this trend is irreversable, let alone the consequences, is almost never acknowledged.

I have come to believe that the Bible is more often misread than not (a topic for another post). One thing often missed is a subversive thread that runs throughout its texts which questions virtually all forms of organized religion. An example is this well known passage from Jeremiah. In one fell swoop, the writer looks forward to the day when there will be no need for law or ritual, church or clergy. Formal moral/ethical code? Unnecessary because people will simply know. Religious teachers or clergy? Unnecessary because they will have no God to impart that people aren't already aware of. Why will this happen? Because the traditional methods and forms of religion--the old covenant--just don't work.

One of the things stopping a serious conversation about the church's decline, I suspect, is the awareness that the we can't say what we want to say, which is that people need us. It is now too obvious that people outside the church are generally as moral, adjusted, satisfied, healthy, etc. as people within the church. Indeed, the rise of religious inspired violence globally and of right-wing social and political views among conservative Christian churches have led many to say religion is more of a detriment to society than an asset.

Recent surveys as well as annecdotal experience regularly report that the growing ranks of the nonreligious still believe in some kind of spiritual force, or even god, and often have some kind of spiritual practice. Many express admiration for one or more religious founders or teachers, such as Jesus or Buddah, and have some familiarity with traditional religious texts, like the Bible. None of that, however, leads them to see any need to join a religious organization like a church.

Are such people necessarily wrong? This text from Jeremiah could be read to mean that they aren't. Is it possible that the "spiritual, not religious" shouldn't be ridiculed but may actually signify a movement of humanity in the direction imagined here in Jeremiah? It is can be argued whether people are getting "better" over time. And yet at some level civilization certainly has advanced in its professed understanding of human dignity and equality. We are a long way from paradise but the rise of democratic government, the abolition of slavery, the establishment of the UN, and the movements for racial and gender equity all represent real progress in human relations and humanity's self-understanding.

Historically religion has played a significant part in this development. A selective reading of the texts of most if not all the world's great religions support many of humanity's highest aspirations and noblest goals. But religion has also had a dark side which it has never been able to abandon. It can be partisan, divisive, and even destructive--far too often the cause of humanity's problems as their resolution. Increasingly the quest for humanity's betterment, both personally and globally, is seen running independent of religion, and not infrequently in opposition to it.

The "spiritual, not religious" are implicitly asking what useful purpose religion now serves. That this has not been explicitly recognized and debated is itself, I think, a sign of the self-doubt now present in the church and religion generally. Christianity in its traditional form is fading away. Is this a catastrophe to be lamented or the beginning of a fulfillment of this vision in Jeremiah? Is this a process to be resisted or one to nuture and perhaps guide? Increasingly it seems to me that these are more fruitful questions to be discussing than the form of the next evangelism or stewardship effort. And here, perhaps, in considering the church's future, a portion of the Gospel for this day is also appropriate: "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."

No comments: