Shattered Monolith: Inbreeding in the Church

In the beginning was the church.

No, not THAT beginning. I’m talking a little under 2000 years ago, when the first people professed belief that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, legitimising all he had claimed to be. It was a ragtag group of followers, that first church, ranging from tax collectors and fishermen to a doctor and even some women (at the time, this was super controversial).

These people told others about what they had experienced and soon this little band of believers had grown enough to intimidate the Jewish leaders of the time. Given some persecution and another couple of decades, the church grew to include the gentiles, non-Jewish believers from places like Antioch, Syria and Athens and Rome. It is basically impossible to imagine a more diverse set of people, but they were united in the affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection and the strange implications it had for those who believed.

Trying to figure out what Jesus’ word meant for them brought many controversies. The people were divided and incensed. They struggled with all the strangeness inherent in the Christian message. It took them 600 years to find the language to try and describe the idea of the trinity, this supremely weird three-in-one God that Jesus and the Jewish scriptures alluded to.

The more we feel we’ve figured something out, the stronger we hold our convictions. This is true of institutions too. As the church grappled with Christ, it hardened into a doctrinal faith, with very specific affirmations of what it entailed. Hard things are very often brittle and the harder the church became, the more easily it shattered. The more intensely the people within the Church enforced their conception of orthodoxy, the more easily it schismed, scattering chips and fragments all over the world…

Gene pools are interesting things. They need diversity to work. If you confine any set of animals to an enclosed gene pool for long enough, it will start imploding. I think this is an apt analogy for the church.

You see, I found a little certificate in my desk drawer a while back. This little slip of paper stated that I had made a confession of faith. Interestingly, it also stated that I had confessed to believing that the Dutch Reformed church’s teaching were all true. Whoah.

Thinking back now, I realise that this has always been the assumption. Whenever I’m asked about the church I attend, there is an implicit question about what I believe. I do it too. Somehow, in the intricate splintering of the church based on the tiniest theological differences, it is expected that the church you attend is the one you agree with completely, but the only people I’ve ever met who completely agree with everything their church espouses are the ones who don’t think very hard about it.

The church has never been homogenous. I don’t think it was ever meant to be. Toeing the theological party line leads to spiritual and theological inbreeding. It’s toxic and dangerous, because that is how cults work. If you have enough people patting each other on the back because they believe the exact same things, you tend to become inflexible and judgemental.

The church is a conversation. That’s how it started, at least. Finite people trying to figure out the infinite (Hint: it can’t be done). And that was OK. They disagreed vehemently before sitting down and sharing meals, because that’s how you figure stuff out. Not by simply affirming what someone says and congratulating ourselves on our similar beliefs.

I want to go to a church where I’m free to disagree, where the conversation is as important as the conclusions we reach. I want a place where I can be shocked and challenged by those who differ wildly from me while still sharing our connection in Christ.

I think that’s what the church was meant to be: chaotic, diverse, challenging, but in the end, because of this, humble, loving, and alive.

Amen.

Staring at Glasses: Seeing Both Sides

I grew up in a house littered with magazines. Not the flimsy gossip-spattered weeklies that crowd many homes, though. My father has a complete collection of National Geographic starting from the 70’s to the present. Scientific Americans and popular mechanics would float through the household now and then, to be read to within an inch of their lives. Every week a new Time magazine would be ripped out of its plastic cover, promising a glimpse into another culture’s worldview.

It was through Time magazine, at age 15, that I had a kind of philosophical epiphany. They were running a feature called the science of happiness. A minor aside in the article mentioned that scientists found that church pushed the happy buttons very well. The journalist balanced the statement with something along the lines of “but we can’t know whether it’s the community aspect, or the presence of God.” He said it much better than me.

What suddenly struck me was similar to the glass-half-full/empty problem. We tend to lean strongly towards explanations that favour our worldviews. Problem is, this makes understanding other points of view really difficult. Our perceptions are shaped by those beliefs that root our universe.

So when we look at anything, we view it through our preconceived ideas. Take the example of church. When an atheist looks at it, he sees an institution based around our herd mentality that pushes the right buttons to give us an endorphin high. When a theist looks at it, he sees an institution based around the creator God’s will for our lives. The fact that it presses all the right buttons just proves the legitimacy of the claim even more.

Problem is, in terms of explanatory scope and internal consistency, both viewpoints could be right. Obviously at least one has to be wrong about the whole God thing, though.

When Nietzsche wrote the genealogy of morals, he put together a consistent framework that explained the origin of Judeo-Christian morality. Many viewed this as a definitive take-down of the status quo. While internally consistent, it disregarded the possibility that a God exists and that the moral code flowed from Him. Of course, Nietzsche was an atheist; it’s only natural that this is the way he’d see it. 

But both sides are equally valid, as long as God’s existence/non-existence remained unproven.  It’s only through our own worldview’s filters that one becomes stronger than the other. Based on our beliefs regarding the existence of God, we’ll see one side or the other clearly, with barely a glimmer of the opposite’s claim to truth.

This glass isn’t half full. It’s filled to the brim or completely empty, but both states look exactly the same. As with an optical illusion, we must try to see both the rabbit and the duck and evaluate each separately. And even then, all we may see is that neither one trumps the other. I have said it before: Choosing one is often not a question of philosophy. It’s a moral existential issue. But both can’t be right. 

And the answer changes everything.