Friday, May 31, 2013

Reaching for Joy

According to by Stanford Anthropology Professor T.M. Luhrmann, in yesterday's New York Times, "the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don't seem good now. That's what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place. (Luhrmann is the author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.)
I was much taken by her column. While not ignoring what she calls "the puzzle of belief" (the "abstract and intellectual" questions which often seem so central in secular observers' impressions of religion), she focuses more on "the practical issue of how to experience the world," which she sees as more fundamental for ordinary people's attachment to religion. "You don't go to church because you believe in God;" she argues (floowing Durkheim), "rather, you believe in God because you go to church."

As anyone who has ever been an integral part of a faith community knows well, the "abstract and intellectual" aspects of belief do matter - more to some than to others, perhaps, and more at some times than at others - but are part of a larger picture of faith and a life lived in hope and in relationship with fellow believers. Christianity, after all, is an historical religion, premised on the facts of Christ's incarnaiton, death, and resurrection. But biblical faith has always been about much more than assenting to philosophical propositions or historical data.

Indeed, Luhrmann cites the late comparative religionist William Cantwell Smith (whose The Meaning and End of Religion I remember reading in grad school) to the effect that "I believe in God" used tomean something like "Given the reality of God as a fact of the universe, I hereby pledge to Him my heart and soul. I committedly opt to live in loyalty to him. I offer my life to be judged by Him, trusitng His mercy." That is certainly a far fuller exposition of faith in the classical Christian sense than an "absrtact and intellectual" position on the controverted question of God's existence.

In fact, the propositional affirmations found, for example, in the Creed, while "abstract and intellectual" formulations of officially agreed upon language," the subjects which they affirm are experienced by believers relationally. Doctrinal statements about Jesus speak directly to the quesiton of whether and how we are saved. Doctrinal statements about Mary matter for how we are related to Jesus (and how Mary continues to help us along in that relationship). Doctrinal statements about the Church (e.g., papal primacy and infallibility) are about who we are as a community, how we are connected and hold together, etc.

Those profound, doctrinal realities come alive, so to speak, in the multitude of grace-filled experiences people have in life. Church-going, sacraments, community all in various ways mediate God's grace and provide the experiential context in which doctrinal affirmations are affirmed and lived. 


No comments:

Post a Comment