On finding a church

Dear M,

I tend to have a problem with authority.  Not generally with my boss (why argue with a paycheck?) or the police (why end up in jail?), but with anyone who tells me what to think.  I could swallow anyone's opinion if the reasons behind it seem good, and in fact I do: it makes little difference to me when or where or who it comes from.  But if I have to accept it based not on the delivery but on the delivery boy, I probably won't accept it.  Not from my parents, not from a pastor, not from a President, and not from the Pope* -- although I might fake it if I have to.  

Who else's lights am I supposed to go by?  Say I pick a man to pick an idea for me and the idea turns out bad.  Unless I'm held at gunpoint, it's double the wrong, not half.  I still had to pick him and then I had to swallow his failure.  Even if I claim the Bible as my authority**, why would I trust someone else's interpretation of it?  Unless their interpretation becomes mine I have no choice but to believe it's the wrong interpretation.  There is no church, no government, no school who shifts this responsibility to anybody but me.  I can be an accomplice or a dupe, but never Pontius Pilate.  I don't believe he gets much of a pass from anybody anyway, but he tried, God bless him.

Why believe a pastor's thoughts are higher than my thoughts?  Which of us is fit to be the arbiter of what's God's and what isn't?  And if there is inspiration, why can it come only from the organ known as the church?  Isn't the Bible a record of an official church or theocracy -- and God constantly pulling outsiders in to correct it?  Isn't it in many cases written by the outsiders?  

There are answers to this issue of spiritual authority, and the first is that the early church had miracles.  It also had a leadership hand-picked by Jesus Christ.  Not much of a Bible as we know it today, or many dogmas, but still a real feel of authority.  Where else are we supposed to find this?  Go to any Protestant church and you'll find, in 90% of the cases, that the man in charge (or at least, the man in front) is someone picked off the street, many times unknown to even the church itself, whose theology comes from a random school (oftentimes ran by unknown men), and who speaks with little real genius, or charisma.  Not a bad man or a moron, necessarily, but just a man.  Am I supposed to take orders from him?  Does he know more than me about life or about God -- because he went to school for four, six, maybe ten years?  Is school where you learn about God -- about life?***

Despite this position I still strongly believe in authority, and thus in conformity.  If God is speaking to more than two of us we have to agree on something He says.  If God is speaking to lots of us then the message should be relatively coherent.  You get enough messages and there has to be an interpretation of them.  You have to organize them and then organize yourselves.  You need to know who's true to the message and who isn't.  You need to know who's new and who's experienced.  You need to know who has a proven track record in being godly and who needs to be punished, or kicked out.  Thus whatever the "spiritual" people say about organized religion, spirituality without organization isn't spirituality -- it's pantomime.  The end result of all spirituality, especially once it touches morality, is sociability.  Spirituality gives us evangelists and prophets, and the children of the prophets are the bishops and archbishops.  But do bishops and archbishops ever give us evangelists and prophets?  

Selfie of St Augustine (IPhone 2)
What I need is a church that believes in miracles -- and claims to still have them.  I need something that feels ancient -- not something that was invented yesterday and reeks of the suburbs.  I'm no better than anyone else: I need the aura of holiness, the weight of history, a catalogue of the saints, old prayers to recite, songs my forefathers sang, things (like kneeling and crossing) to do physically in unison with others, the knowledge that my church, where I receive my teachings, is teaching the same things all over the globe -- that I'm not in a fringe sect, but in the sect; that my doctrine and flavor isn't American, Republican, even Western but global, and timeless.  Is this all an illusion?  Much of it, probably.  But it's what I think I need -- what I feel I need -- and so far as I'm aware, there's only one church offering it.  But I doubt I can believe in Pope Francis or the Vatican.  

I strongly believe that God is talking to people out there, and that God wants me to find them.  I believe that there's such a thing as goodness, that God's ways are higher than our ways, and that I can find out what those ways are, because He's trying to tell us.  I believe those ways must necessarily come in conflict with our ways, and that obedience, not just reason, is the way you find out who speaks for God.  But how am I supposed to put my faith in God first?  Unless He speaks to me personally, won't that require putting some faith in a man?  

My search for church begins in two weeks.  I'm taking a pay-cut to have Sundays off to do it.  I'm asking for divine intervention and we'll see if God answers -- or if the Protestants are right, and the miracle I've been looking for is my brain.


*Regarding theology students, there's a beautiful passage from Anna Karenina about how things are supposed to go and how they do go.  
He was not of a jealous disposition. Jealousy in his opinion insulted a wife, and a man should have confidence in his wife. Why he should have confidence — that is, a full conviction that his young wife would always love him — he never asked himself; but he felt no distrust, and therefore had confidence, and assured himself that it was right to have it. Now, though his conviction that jealousy is a shameful feeling, and that one ought to have confidence, had not been destroyed, he felt that he was face to face with something illogical and stupid, and he did not know what to do. Karenin was being confronted with life — with the possibility of his wife’s loving somebody else, and this seemed stupid and incomprehensible to him, because it was life itself. He had lived and worked all his days in official spheres, which deal with reflections of life, and every time he had knocked up against life itself he had stepped out of its way. He now experienced a sensation such as a man might feel who, while quietly crossing a bridge over an abyss, suddenly sees that the bridge is being taken to pieces and that he is facing the abyss. The abyss was real life; the bridge was the artificial life Karenin had been living. It was the first time that the possibility of his wife’s falling in love with anybody had occurred to him, and he was horrified.
This happened to an man who'd been making Russia laws for years, maybe decades.  How bad could it happen to a theology student?  And about how many more aspects of life?  A serious question to ask about any pastor -- but was that how Paul felt about Timothy?   Between Timothy and David, it's clear that a man's heart and his mind are two things given by God, and no amount of training or rubber-stamping can substitute for either of them.    

As such, Kant's Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals is poison if swallowed whole, but this passage is the good food it was hidden in:
There is no possibility of thinking of anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be regarded as good without qualification, except a good will. Intelligence, wit, judgment, and whatever talents of the mind one might want to name are doubtless in many respects good and desirable, as are such qualities of temperament as courage, resolution, perseverance. But they can also become extremely bad and harmful if the will, which is to make use of these gifts of nature and which in its special constitution is called character, is not good. The same holds with gifts of fortune; power, riches, honor, even health, and that complete well-being and contentment with one's condition which is called happiness make for pride and often hereby even arrogance, unless there is a good will to correct their influence on the mind and herewith also to rectify the whole principle of action and make it universally conformable to its end. The sight of a being who is not graced by any touch of a pure and good will but who yet enjoys an uninterrupted prosperity can never delight a rational and impartial spectator. Thus a good will seems to constitute the indispensable condition of being even worthy of happiness.
*The PEW Research Center says that only 99% of Christians believe in God, which leads me to an important question: does the PEW Research Center know what Christian means?  

In fairness to statisticians the question is a tough one.  Augustine's rule was that anyone who held to the core doctrines of Christianity would be considered a "real" Christian.  But who decided which doctrines were superfluous?  Augustine did, of course (if he ever did clearly) and if you didn't listen to Augustine, you were (ostensibly) rejected by Jesus.  

Quite an ego on Augustine, but it's the same authority each man appropriates to himself.  To say you know who's saved by God and who isn't directly goes against the teachings of Jesus (see: The Parable of the Tares and the Wheat).  But to say all professing Christians are Christians is to destroy Christianity.  You say you know which doctrines are "essential" and you're slapping God in the face.  After all, which of His words don't matter?  But you say you don't know which ones are essential and you don't have a church.  

Which man, which country, which council decides this question?  Every single one, from First Baptist Church of Valdosta Georgia to the Russian Orthodox -- and at best, the guilty voters hide their audacity under the guise of democracy.  It wasn't me -- the decision we settled on was us.  Typical, and the same evasion that gives such a low approval rating to congress.     

**It should be noted that almost everyone who accepts the authority of the Bible does it without reading it first.  Quite a move -- not too unlike we should pass the bill to find out what's in it.  But who would ever read it seriously if we didn't have that attitude?

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  1. John 7:17 and James 1:5-6 are the keys for me. Following a doctrine and asking God with faith are how to know if something is true. (I believe, like the X Files, the truth is out there.)
    You know which church I am a member of. I feel like it fits to a T everything this letter says you're searching for - authority, miracles, ancient rites (temple worship especially), same doctrine over the world, all of it.
    But I'm just your cousin - you're the one who gets to figure out what's best for you and your family. I pray that God's grace will accompany you and on your spiritual journey (I'm certain He wants you to succeed, whichever path you take) and please let me know if I can help in anyway.
    Oh and thank you for quoting Anna Karenina, my favorite novel.

  2. This is a wonderful essay, and it mirrors, in many ways, my own thoughts. I see all the folks who claim to be "born-again" Christians, and I keep thinking that it must be a profound spiritual experience.... Or, is it a profoundly emotional experience disguised as a true spiritual experience. I too much prefer the ancient traditions... and these mega-churches with a rock band, lyrics to banal songs projected on a screen, and, of course, plenty of espresso, just don't do it for me. At all.

    I think perhaps Jesus Christ was sent by God to try to make the inexplicable clear. By any measures, The reality of God is so vast, so unimaginible, that we just cannot comprehend. So it's made simple: The church dogma will point the way, and it's understandable.

    Anyway, thanks so much for this!

  3. Lovely letter. I feel that "church" is important, and I love the history and mystery it can convey. I'm not sure that God cares which particular "ism" we follow, though one of the best messages we have been sent was surely delivered by Jesus. But to take some time out of our lives to simply focus on the numinous, even if it's just to take a deep breath and wonder about it all, seems a thing to valuable to lose.


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