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In the First Great Awakening, which occurred in colonial British America in the 1730s and 40s, 98 schisms took place in Congregational churches in New England. “New Lights,” who were “awakened” to a heightened personal experience of needing to be redeemed by Jesus Christ, split from the “traditionalists,” who refused to relegate ritual and ceremony. By 1800, a further splintering occurred as many Congregational churches in New England had shifted to a Unitarian basis. Even by the 1750s, several Congregational preachers were preaching universal salvation—a teaching that put those preachers at odds with those of the First Great Awakening. In theory, a New England town could have three Congregational churches (or two plus a Unitarian church) standing side by side on the central green. At the time of any of the schisms, the particular basis of the split must have seemed quite important to Christianity.

More than two hundred years later, the significance of the “conflict” between personal experience and ritual would long have passed, at least with respect to any demand to split off from an established denomination. In the first couple decades of the twentieth century, the matter deemed significant in this sense concerned “social issues,” especially that of homosexuality.

For example, the leadership and two-thirds of the laity of the Episcopal diocese of South Carolina split off from the Episcopal Church in November 2012 due to the denomination’s approval of same-sex unions and the ordination of gay clergy. The break-away conservative group filed suit in a South Carolina court to get ownership of 35 parishes. The matter was also in federal court, where the conservative break-away group argued that the freedom of religion plank of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives the group the right to leave the denomination. “We have the freedom to remove ourselves,” Rev. James Lewis of the break-away group said. That argument is a red herring, however.

The freedom of religion language in the First Amendment maintains that the government cannot tell a citizen (or resident) which religion he or she must sign up with or practice. The language does not apply to the infighting within a denomination. Freedom of association would be a stronger basis for that, but even that constitutional basis would not guarantee that the church property goes along with the dissenters. “We strongly agree with the freedom of religion and the freedom of these folks to go their own way,” Matthew McGill, a lawyer representing the Episcopal Church said. “You simply can’t take it with you.” In other words, freedom to form a new association does not entail the freedom to assume ownership rights of the property of the pre-existing group. In actuality, the issue before the courts is property rights.

As traumatic as the “social issue” ecclesiastical splits may seem in its time, it is by no means the case that the contentious issue will still divide churches even fifty years later. The fighting itself, however, could hurt the image of Christianity, though any long-term decline in membership would likely have more to do with recognition of the cumulative splits—all of which seemed vital at one time only to have this perception defeated by time itself. Put another way, the ecclesiastical splits due to gay rights may someday look just as unnecessary as the splitting during the First Great Awakening looked by the time of the “social issue” splits. For people to assume such significance in matters whose gravity passes so easily with time reflects negatively on the strength of their religion, especially if the fighting takes place in and through the religion. As Nietzsche would say, such a religion would have to be human, all too human.

For more, please see Valerie Bauerlein’s article, “Church Fight Heads to Court,” in the Wall Street Journal of April 14, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324010704578418983895885100.html?mod=ITP_pageone_1

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The question can be unpacked, as religion consists of a number of elements, only some of which may be innate. First, does the human brain have a proclivity to make and find meaning in myth, or sacred narrative? Claude Levi-Strauss thought so. He theorized that myth is a way in which the mind holds without reconciling opposites such as life and death. For example, the notion of resurrection maintains the duality of life and death without resolving their opposition. The resurrected Christ walks through a door but is hungry and eats a fish. The tension in the myth is not resolved; rather, the opposition between life and death is transcended. It is the human discomfort with unresolved basic oppositions that spurs the mind on to mythmaking, according the Levi-Strauss. Just because myth or sacred narrative (e.g., the Passion story) serves a purpose does not mean that mythmaking or believing in a living myth is innate. Automobiles serve a purpose in transporting humans, but cars are not innate. So too, religious story may be an external tool. In fact, a religion’s mythology or sacred story can be distinguished from dreams, which are innate. In other words, myths are formed externally, whereas dreams are entirely manufactured by the mind during sleep. For example, a myth could be created out of a conversation between co-religionists. Their own agendas, and at the very least their intentions, can impact the story. Peter’s followers may have added the part about Jesus giving the keys to Peter, for example. Such strategizing makes the myth at least in part artificial. Moreover, the content of some myths is different from the world in which we live that myth-making may be artificial rather than natural. It is not as if the notion of the world beginning as an egg, as in Hinduism, automatically occurs to Hindu children. The myth must be conveyed externally.

Second, the act of worship can be distinguished from the cognitive activity in myth-making and believing. Do humans have an innate proclivity to worship? Here belief in the object to be worshipped can be distinguished from worshipping as an activity. Taking the object itself, are the divine attributes and descriptions innate or manufactured? The answer may be found by investigating whether young children untouched by a religion think about a transcendent object of the sort that would be worshipped. I don’t know the answer to this question, but I suspect that the developed theologies of the established religions do not naturally spring from young minds untouched by religious instruction.

For example, viewing God as “Father” does not automatically follow from a sense of God as a power or even as the source of Creation. We don’t view seeds as the fathers of plants. We don’t think of lava as the father of a volcano. To project the concept of father onto metaphysical concepts is anthropomorphic, which means ascribing human characteristics or relations to non-human objects. Even to say “that plant is happy there” is anthropomorphic. To apply a human characteristic to something not of the world is even more of a stretched. Hume suggests that it is difficult for the human mind to hold on to an idea of invisible divine simplicity (e.g. God as the One—Plotinus’s notion) that the mind adds anthropomorphic “layers” onto the pure idea. A religion thus becomes increasingly about us until it is finally discredited as too much “of the world.”

One might be tempted to conclude that divine simplicity is therefore innate. However, if such an idea is difficult for a human mind to embrace, it is not likely that the idea comes from the mind. Rather, it is more likely external to the mind, interlarded from an external source such as a parent or religious teacher. If the human mind naturally has any internally-sourced sense of a religious or spiritual phenomenon, thing or entity, it is likely vague and mostly undefined in a cognitive sense. It is unlikely that “God is one in essence” would spontaneously dawn on a boy as he walks through the woods or down a residential street. Instead, such a lad might be inclined to wonder, and thus have a sense of mystery. “Why does the sun move so regularly?” he might wonder. “Is there a bigger force behind it? Will the sun always rise and set? What happens to me after I die? Grandma died—is she somewhere hidden? I’m just a boy. Is there something larger out there that I don’t see?” The boy might have a sense of himself and even the world he knows as somehow part of something bigger, as when he looks out at all the stars on a clear warm night. “Is there any limit? Any end?” He might have a sense of himself as small relative to what he observes, whether it be the myriad of stars or a powerful storm. He would be apt to have awe for the infinity and power, respectively, even though you or I might tell him that neither infinite space nor forces of nature are themselves divine. When he gets older, he might explain that what he had observed as a child gave him an intuitive sense of bigness, and thus of beyondness. From this standpoint, the emphasis that some religions place on creed is rather contrived, or artificial in nature.

Even if some vague sense of something divine or transcendent comes naturally to mind in the development of the human mind that is untouched by religious instruction, one can ask whether worship activity, such as devotion other than how one would be devoted to one’s parents or family, for instance, is innate. If it is, how much emphasis does the worshipper naturally give to the activity relative to the object? In institutional religions, the tendency is to emphasize the nature of the object even at the expense of the worship experience. Lectures about the deity can cut into worship time in a religious service. So much emphasis can be placed on cognitive assent to a description of the deity that actual communing with it, such as just after taking communion in the Mass, can easily be marginalized.

Before my teenage years, I was raised largely outside of organized religion. The morality stories of Jesus were about all I got from an occasional Sunday School lesson at a Congregational Church in which theology was all but absent. My mother’s parents had both been raised Quaker, which stresses the personal or private aspect of spirituality. My grandfather practiced charity toward neighbor, such as by delivering free produce and eggs to friends on Sundays. Honesty was among the most important virtues, as was genuineness and tolerance. Theology was not required in order to instill these virtues. As a young teenager, I attended a Unitarian Universalist Society for a few years with my parents. Religion was even less in evidence in Sunday School there, as “UUism” was then dominated by humanism. When I was a freshman in high school, I attended Catholic Mass with friends on a regular basis. I found the ritual completely novel and interesting. Watching the laity kneel after receiving communion, I saw sustained and concentrated worship in terms of trying to commune in the sense of transcending. While in college, I became a member of the Catholic Church. In graduate school, I was so interested in the religion thing I had discovered that I thought seriously about a religious vocation. Thinking I would want to eventually marry, I joined the Episcopalians. However, I did not get a sense of worshipping after communion that I had witnessed in Catholic churches.

My religious or spiritual experience has not been limited to institutional religion. For two years while I was in High School, I practiced Transcendental Meditation on a regular basis. Although repeating a mantra (a word without meaning) to give one’s mind a rest from thinking (i.e., “pure consciousness”) is not in my view religious or spiritual, I would eventually apply the technique during the “corpse pose” at the end of yoga sessions. I began attending yoga sessions when I was in graduate school. Depending on how the instructor handles the practice and especially the final resting pose, yoga can even be explicitly spiritual without any hint of the existence of the world religions. It dawned on me that institutional religion is not inevitable, even within the religious or spiritual domain. In fact, the institutional religions may not be very good at providing dedicated worship activity.

For example, in the Mass the worshipping just after the Body of Christ is ingested is typically truncated in favor of ending the Mass and getting outside. The ritual, I concluded, is prep rather than the point, but this point had somehow been lost along the way. Similar to Hume’s theory that it is difficult for the mind to hold onto an idea of divine simplicity, it may be difficult for the mind to stay in a pure or unadulterated worship experience. The mind tends to wander, or we get bored or tired reaching to transcend in a religious sense. If so, the worshipping activity is not innate; rather, it must be learned and practiced, not the least of which through socialization.

My experience in institutional religion spanned from the religious left to the traditionalists in Christianity (i.e., not counting UUism), with occasional attendance of “mainstream” Protestant denominations including evangelical meta-churches. In Catholicism alone, my experience ran from the post-Vatican II movement back to the hegemony of the traditionalists. The theology and rituals I was taught were so different from my boyhood “religious wondering” and the spirituality in yoga practice that I have concluded that theology and worshipping must be artificial rather than innate. Put another way, the cognitive and praxis content of a revealed religion is so qualitatively different (i.e., in kind) from the wondering and activity of a child or young adult unschooled in any institutional religion and the spirituality outside the religions that an organized religion is likely constructed rather than natural or innate.

Lest be objected that religious worship is too universal to be a function of externals, religiosity has been far from universal. Only 15 percent of Europeans attend weekly religious services, while most people are just fine leading a secular life. Among hunter-gatherers, the !Kung bushmen of southwestern Africa have a highly developed religious belief-system, while the Hadza of eastern Africa have minimal religion and do not believe in an afterlife. Were the idea of a deity and the action of worshiping innate, the Hadza (and Europeans) would instinctively comply. Prosperity and security would not be inversely related to religiosity, and rough conditions in primitive societies and financial inequality in modern ones would not be associated with increasing religious worship.

Therefore, just as theological concepts such as Trinity do not just dawn on people who are unfamiliar with Christian theology, there is probably not a worshipping instinct in the human brain either. Without being socialized into an organized religion, a person is not apt to spontaneously reconstruct an existing theology or start worshipping. I did not come even close to worshipping when I “wondered” as a kid about “big questions” and had a sense of being a limited being compared with the universe and life itself. Realizing I will die one day and wondering what that means, it did not even occur to me to pray to a divine being so I could continue existing after death or even go to heaven. Belief in an afterlife is not innate to the human mind; the reason many people hold such a belief is probably psychological in nature. Specific worshipping via ritual, including prayer, undoubtedly comes from socialization. Children of Catholic parents are taught that the Virgin Mary exists and should be used as an intercessor in prayer. The children are taught how to pray.

The conclusions here do not mean that I have rejected religious or spiritual experience. Just because I do not view them as a necessary part of me or as obligatory does not mean that I recognize no value in worship. Having been socialized into specific worshipping techniques, I have found value in the experience. From my experience, I have found that the specific characteristics of the object being worshipped are less important than that the yearning to transcend in the direction of the mysterious beyond, or “beyondness,” is the worshipper’s sustained focus during the activity. I have found that regular experiencing of this sort heightens sensitivity outside of the worshipping experience. The world having been transcended is seen clearer or more distinctly, hence the heightened sensitivity to subtle things such as another person’s change in mood. The added sensitivity in turn naturally renders the regular worshipper more compassionate to others. Rather than being innate, the external tool impacts something natural. So there is value in a worship activity even though it is difficult for the human mind to do. While theology provides a background or context for the activity, worshipping can transcend even theological concepts of God. Those concepts may be useful as a launching pad, after which concentration can turn to the experience itself—the action of yearning to transcend. If I am right, it is the experience of yearning that is the religious experience, with compassion as a byproduct.

 

For additional material, see Gregory Paul’s “Why Belief in God Is Not Innate,” in the Wall Street Journal of April 10, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304222504575173890997846742.html

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A Unitarian minister told me matter-of-factly that “certain social structures” are part of his faith. Faith? Social justice, yes, but religious faith? I was skeptical. I replied that distinctively religious faith has the element of transcendence, and thus a Wholly Otherness quality, rather than being based in a human artifact such as a particular social structure. I think the minister was actually referring to social justice and mislabeling his passion for it as his faith. In other words, he was conflating ideology with theology, or, more accurately, treating his ideology as though it were his god.

While laudable in political activism, advocating a particular social structure does not constitute religious experience. In fact, from the point of view of the latter, an ideological agenda such as advocating a particular arrangement for a society would essentially be self-idolatry (i.e., self-worship). As Hume and even Augustine have pointed out, thinking of the divine in terms of things or relations in the human realm is idolatrous. Hume in particular points out in History of Natural Religion that it is difficult for the human mind to embrace divine simplicity without succumbing to constructing God in a visible form. Pure, invisible unity, beyond even God being a being (according to Plotinus), is difficult for the human mind to hold on to, let alone embrace. This is Hume’s main point regarding religion. I would add that it is difficult for a human being to achieve the distinctively religious intensity needed for religious experience, whether in worship, medication, prayer, or adoration.

We seem easily distracted, and thus tend to drag in other, less intense, “religious activities.” Religious functionaries and even institutions can inadvertently enable this proclivity, ironically even eclipsing religious experience itself. This may be why, according to the Barna Group (see USA Today below), in spite of about 95% of all Americans consistently saying they believe in God or a higher power, the percentage of Americans who have not attended a religious service (other than a wedding or funeral) within six months increased from 24% in 1991 to 37% in 2011. While religious functionaries may have no problem bringing themselves into religious experience, they may be missing the ball concerning how it can be part of a religious service. I suspect part of the problem may be an overemphasis on formal structure, or “the program,” in effect crowding out rather than isolating incubating and protecting religious experience within the structure or program.

For example, concentrated spiritual contemplation in stillness is rarely part of a Church service. In the Catholic Mass, for example, little time is allowed for just “intense transcending” following the distribution of the Eucharist. The consecration and ingesting are taken as the central acts of the second half of the Mass. I contend that the ritual and the theological-concept-applied-ingestion are means by which pure (i.e., nothing else going on) religious (i.e., transcendence) experience may occur. In other words, the smells and bells can prep or stimulate the worshipper to go into a state in which concentrated religious experience is itself the only action—transcending even the symbol, myth and ritual of the service, as well as the outside world (and even ourselves). The object of the transcending being by definition beyond the limits of human cognition and perception, it is the experience of the transcending that is the religious experience.

Sometimes religious functionaries can actually get in the way—mostly quite unintentionally I’m sure. At such times, they would be better off simply sitting down and trying to keep quiet—actively practicing non-attention-getting. I heard once about the vocations director of a Catholic diocese saying Mass as a visiting priest at a parish. After distributing Communion, as he was “doing the dishes” at the table/altar, he thought it appropriate to tell the congregation a joke—presumably to loosen the people up even though they were undoubtedly “somewhere else.” He might as well have said, “Hey, stop transcending! Pay attention to me!

I suspect that many priests simply are not aware of where religious experience is for the laity during the Mass; I refuse to believe that a priest would knowingly truncate the point of the ritual (in terms of religious experience) just because the Mass is nearly over. On the laity side, taking Communion and making a beeline for the door is also to eviscerate the opportunity thus afforded for isolating and concentrating on religious experience, such as in the form of intense prayer, meditation, adoration or felt-sanctification. Ritual can condition or prepare a person for such an experience while bracketing out all others. Similarly, thinking a mantra over and over in meditation ideally stops the train of thoughts such that “pure” awareness (i.e., nothing else going on) and even transcendence itself can be isolated and thus experienced in their “pure” states. Experience of time itself can be lost in such transcendence.  The Eucharistic ritual too can facilitate such a spiritual state unless cut short, which is typically the case. Lest the length of the entire Mass be a concern, priorities and time-allotment could also be revisited to reflect the value of isolated religious experience.

In worship services whose main elements are readings, songs and a sermon, these too can serve as prep for dedicated or raw religious transcending, assuming sufficient room is made in the program of activities. Once again, the key is sustained religious experience without anything else as a potential rarifying distraction. In some evangelical Christian services, for example, a song after the sermon is elongated to enable people to achieve a worship-state wherein one literally reaches out for Jesus directly. The period is long enough that the worshipper can “get into” the reaching itself and come to experience it more self-consciously. Unfortunately, as in the Mass (and Protestant services that include Communion), the worship in a “worship song” is rarely acknowledged as the pinnacle of the ritual, and thus what should be emphasized is typically truncated in the time allotted. Typically, the point becomes the sermon itself and the liturgy becomes, in effect, a class.

Moving even further away from religious experience, some churches gravitate to activities or topics in other domains even further away, and thus dilute the religiosity even more. Such churches essentially secularize religion. I suspect that this is a major reason for the increasing percentage of the “unchurched.”

For instance, the Rev. Michael Minor at Oak Hill Baptist Church in Hernando, Mississippi, “has waged war against obesity and bad health.” In fact, the National Baptist Convention “is ramping up a far-reaching health campaign devised by Mr. Minor.” Seek Well Baptist Church in Lula, Mississippi has a garden for members. To be sure, this is a good cause, particularly in Mississippi, which is first in the U.S. in the percentage of kids who are obese. That country is first in rates of heart disease, second in the number of adults with diabetes, second in adult obesity, and near last in the percentage of adults who participate in physical activity, according to the New York Times. So the cause is certainly needed, and of great value. However, it is not religious. More particularly, preaching on good diet is not prep for intense transcending experience, wherein everything else, including what is for lunch, is bracketed out. In fact, bringing other domains into the “worship” service—even in making announcements!—diverts or undercuts the “prep.” To more strongly serve as “prep,” a liturgy can itself be approached as sacred space and time. It is no accident that the ancient Greeks had their theatres at their temple complexes. Similarly, a liturgy, from start to end, can be encased in sacred time and space and not interrupted even for intermission.

As David Hume observed, it is all too easy—all too human—to get distracted in approaching the divine. Even focusing on religious experience itself while bracketing out everything else is notoriously difficult, given how we are hard-wired as a species to be oriented to concrete objects in the world. We may be in God’s image, but getting back to it without images from our experience can be quite daunting. Lest we suppose that we can afford our digressions and distractions and still worship, we might want to remember that pure religious experience transcends even the images we have of God. As Joseph Campbell said, one’s conception of God is the final obstacle in transcending to the religious experience. Campbell studied religious myth around the world and found common motifs and symbols, yet he knew that from a religious vantage-point they are not to be taken as ends in themselves. I suspect that worship services could be much better if we would dare to let go, if only while transcending, of our symbols, myths and even rituals. This would involve ritual standing outside itself to make room for something greater within itself. In Christian terms, such ritual can be described as self-emptying. One might even say that, as in forgetting about the door once inside a room, at some point on the way to entering into intense and isolated religious experience, religion itself must give way.

Sources:

 Campbell Robertson, “Preaching a Healthy Diet in the Deep-Fried Delta,” New York Times, August 22, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/22/us/22delta.html

 Cathy L. Grossman, “Ripples Touch Spiritual Lives,” USA Today, August 22, 2011.

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