28 March 2012

More Ramblings of a Religious Nature

Marley was dead: to begin with. I'm not entirely comfortable with the punctuation, or the preposition at the end, but who am I to criticize Dickens? He has certainly never criticized me. The point is, Marley had been dead, Scrooge had had his Christmas adventure, and we had all enjoyed a very good story. Even the Muppets made a movie.

That sets the scene, doesn't it? After all, here we are, not in the following century, but the one after that. The twenty-first century, by all the gods! Not that I believe in all the gods. Not that anyone does, really. Quite a few contradictions involved, if one tried to do that. One is generally enough, though for some, even that is too many. One could take atheism a step further and say there are a negative number of gods, but it is difficult to determine how that would look. I imagine a multitude of black holes, excessive division by zero, and a word processor with white text on a black background.

Notice how I used the word “black” twice in the same sentence? I thought about changing it, to avoid redundancy, but then I thought to myself, “Can't I just use that fact to start the next paragraph?” The answer is yes. Yes, I can.

Let us imagine, for the moment, that I have a friend named Struthiomimus Altus. Struthiomimus calls himself an atheist. He looks at the various holy books put forth by the multitudes and thinks it all a mass of rubbish. He trusts in reason and science, and he heaps scorn on all reports of the supernatural. He believes he can be moral without religion. He also thinks it is acceptable to kill babies in the womb and within the first year after their birth. He thinks the elderly and handicapped, and those otherwise unable to care for themselves, should submit to euthanasia, for the good of society. He laments the suffering of the poor in the third world, and believes the solution is reducing the number of the poor through abortion, contraception and the prohibition of fertilizer and insecticide. He is often heard quoting Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. His car has a Flying Spaghetti Monster, instead of a Jesus fish. Struthiomimus starts every day by looking at himself in the mirror and telling himself how clever he is.

Another friend, going by the name of Milton Freewater III, believes in God and would mark “Christian” on a religious survey. However, he has no use for creeds, and he believes, along with his church, that the Bible and Christian doctrine should keep up with the times. His church is losing members every year. The increasingly accurately named elders insist the young will stay, if only the church will stop clinging so desperately to orthodoxy. In reality, the young have decided that if a church doesn't require anything of them and makes no exclusive claim to truth, there is no point in attending. Those who desired orthodoxy sought it elsewhere. Milton is often heard stating “Christianity must change or die.” On Sunday, he sits alone in a pew, and his former coreligionists spend some extra time in bed. He is outraged by patriarchal elements in more conservative Christian bodies, and he is a great admirer of Islam.

Calvin Scofield attends a mega-church in the suburbs. Every Sunday, the rock band plays the latest hits from Christian radio, while a power point display plays on giant screens. The church operates approximately eighty-seven separate ministries, not including the hundreds of small groups that meet throughout the week. The pastor is young and hip, sipping the finest espresso during pauses in his sermons. Calvin has never recited any creeds, he receives a purely symbolic communion twice a year, and he has never been baptized. His knowledge of church history is almost exclusively confined to the past decade, with a vague awareness of a Reformation that occurred centuries ago. He has been taught that salvation is by faith alone, and that the elect are eternally secure. He is not aware that any other Christians have ever taught differently. He is often heard saying his faith is a “relationship, not a religion,” and he has watched the “I'm a Christ follower, not a Christian” videos on YouTube countless times. He does not own a suit.

Augustine Methodius is a recent convert to Catholicism. He had grown up imagining medieval cathedrals, Gregorian chant, and the Latin mass. However, he meets in a bare whitewashed chapel, with felt banners on the wall, and a few aging hippies playing vague, affirming hymns on guitar. Part of what drew Augustine to Catholicism was its steadfast moral teachings, which had stood unchanged for centuries. And yet, most everyone in his parish, including the priest and nuns, assure him it will all change in time, and the Catholic Church will be just like the gutted shell attended by Milton Freewater and company. Augustine wonders if he has made a mistake, and he often sneaks to the nearest Orthodox church right after mass, just for the beauty and reverence. He feels a bit guilty for this, but he does not know what else to do.

These are a few people who inhabit the spiritual landscape. That is, they would inhabit it, if I had not just made them up. Where do I fit in all of this? Where do you?

I cannot number myself among the brethren of Struthiomimus. Despite my doubts, and despite some sympathetic reading of Bertrand Russell and Mark Twain (not just the Mississippi River stuff) and the like, I need only associate with Struthiomimus for a brief time to smell the stench of blood. He can rail against violence in the Bible all day long, but at the end of the day, it is he and his ilk who are waving the dark banners of the culture of death.

Milton's church merits even less consideration. If Christianity is not true, or if it is one of many equally valid truths, what is the point? If our values are to be dictated by the secular world, why not just admit it and be secular? If Jesus is just a precursor to Marx, why not just read Marx and skip all the embarrassing supernatural tales?

I am far from comfortable in Calvin's church. It strikes me as entertainment, not worship. The service style seeks to win over the secular world with a Christ-influenced imitation of the secular world. Why should the devil have all the good music? Because his music is not trying to disguise itself as something else. In Calvin's church, there is no connection with our predecessors in the faith, no solid link binding us to those who learned from the apostles. The doctrine can change with a new pastor or with a congregational vote. In a matter of decades, Calvin's church will either be closed or it will cease to be recognizably orthodox.

I do fear becoming like Augustine, which is one of the main reasons I have not already become Catholic. However, with the increased availability of the Latin mass, the improved translation of the ordinary form, and a younger generation more orthodox than their elders, perhaps Augustine's fears are misplaced? Perhaps mine are, as well?