The Limits of Religion

Every institutional religious expression from Shaman rituals to high church–whether it is church or masque, temple or synagogue, or anything beyond or between–dirges and celebrations, everything said and done are aligned with what the people expect to hear and see. The limits of religion are the expectations of the people and the tolerance of the people for having those expectations stretched/expanded/exploded/denied.

The new religion of Christianity had to explain itself in terms of the expectations of both Jews and Gentiles. No religion can stray far from the expectations of the people and have any chance of being the religion of those people. The people will not pay to hear what they do not wish to be told.

The kind of politics that plays well in a local congregation is the only kind that will play well there–or, better perhaps, the only kind that will play at all there. Different congregations will be open to different political positions. Gun control and abortion are out of the question in certain churches, and Confederate flags and racism are out of the question in certain other churches, and no politics of any kind is welcome in still others.

Ministers in those churches play to the whims of the people. “The freedom of the pulpit” is only as free as the people in the congregation are willing to be disappointed/offended. There is a line beyond which a congregation will not go. The same thing applies to seminaries and denominations.

New ideas can only be “just so new.” You can’t take anybody where they do not want to go. Religion is always a compromise between what people need to hear and what they can be told. “Jim, why don’t you talk to us about things we can understand?” remains an apt summation of my career in the ministry. The person who asked that was asking, “Why don’t you tell us what we expect to hear–what we have always been told?” That’s what people look for. And that’s what keeps the church from being the church.

Every outward expression of the experience of “the inward spiritual grace” that is the encounter with the Numen, the ephemeral reality at the heart of religion, and which has always been called “God,” or “Shiva,” or “Tao,” or “Buddha,” or “Great Spirit,” etc. becomes locked into the words that are used to say what cannot be said. The church, when it is being the church, is connecting people with the experience of the Mystery that is more than words can say–and, it has to use words that leave the Mystery intact.

It does that by talking about the symbols at the center of the church’s heritage and life, and connecting them with the lives of the people–re-interpreting the symbols in ways that bring the experiences of the people to life for them, and bring them to life in their daily experience of being alive. Religion connects people to life, to vitality, to wonder and to mystery. When has the church of your experience done that?

The church that is being the church does it all the time. It does it by engaging the people with their experience. By teaching them the art of mindfulness–which is the practice of compassionate, non-judgmental, awareness of themselves and their present situation (what is happening within and without, and of what needs to happen in response, and what would be appropriate and proper to the situation) in each situation as it arises.

The church that is being the church teaches the people to seek out experiences with the Numen in art, music and nature–and to seek to know themselves and the validity, wonder, and authority that comes from self-reflection, self-examination, self-exploration, and self-expression, which form the center and ground of their own being, and is the bedrock which anchors them through the ebbs and flows of life in the world of space and time–and is itself an encounter with the Numen beyond space and time.

The church that is being the church calls people to spend time in silence and solitude, reflecting on their life-experience and forming new realizations. The silence before, during and after, “AUM” says all that can be said–or that needs to be said–about the religious experience at the heart of mystery and wonder. But we can’t build a religion around that. Religion requires sutras, doctrines, dogmas, creeds, rituals, prayers, orders of the day, holy books, and hierarchies without end–all held together with words about words which everyone expects to hear.

Published by jimwdollar

I'm retired, and still finding my way--but now, I don't have to pretend that I know what I'm doing. I retired after 40.5 years as a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, serving churches in Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina. I graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Austin, Texas, and Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. My wife, Judy, and I have three daughters and five granddaughters within about twenty minutes from where we live--and are enjoying our retirement as much as we have ever enjoyed anything.

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