William H. Dannenmaier is Senior IT Architect at Sunrise Communications in Rümlang, Switzerland.
This letter originally appeared in the April 2001 Newsletter of The Center for Progressive Christianity. Information and resources from the Center for Progressive Christianity are available at www.tcpc.org
This letter was written by a layperson to a woman who asked the only church-going person she knew his opinions about her trying to find a church.
I think you know where I stand on the church front. I have been a strong advocate of such things for a long time. Since you bring the topic up, let me sketch out what I see as the dimensions of the issue for someone who hasn’t experienced a persuasive altar call or revelatory "Road to Damascus" experience. From the perspective that there is no "magic" in the world:
1. Becoming part of a church community gives you a group of people to hang out with who don’t have a vested interest at cross purposes to your own, such as career, inheritance, love of some third party.
2. If you want to have a discussion about the deeper things in life — love, death, aging, loneliness, joy — you are more likely to find someone game for the topic in church than elsewhere.
3. There is a profound and deepening entertainment value to be discovered in the cycle of the church year (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, etc.) which in and of itself is resonant with human experience, kind of like the value of Verdi to the non-Italian speaker.
4. People (I found this out when I was in college) tend to associate mostly with people of their general demographic description — age, income, career field, etc. It is healthy, however, to have meaningful relationships with children not your own, old people who don’t share any of your genome, and people of different ethnic backgrounds and income brackets. Churches are convenient gathering places for such people.
I don’t discount the possibility that there is "magic" in the world, but you haven’t told me that you just witnessed the healing of a leper and want to know if I think the messiah might have shown up in town. I personally have had aspects of my own spiritual brokenness that have been healed in a way every bit as miraculous as the leper thing, but you have to specifically ask for that prior to me scaring you with my own bizarre experiences.
Now, in terms of "which" church I am pretty strongly opinionated. Judaism doesn’t seem fair to me. Islam isn’t a good choice for people like me who prefer to "talk back" to God. I am not deep enough for Hinduism. I am not quiet enough for Buddhism. I think Mormonism is a bunch of hooey (though I appreciate their genealogical help). Scientology is one of the better jokes of the last half of the twentieth century. Bahai seems a little too boundary-less for me. I don’t trust the New Age types. So I am pretty much grounded in the Christian tradition. Among the Christians, the Roman Catholics have entire regions of their theology, liturgy, and practice that are extremely attractive to me, but considering the whole set of their theological ideas, I just can’t stomach the xy-chromosomed hierarchy and the works over faith stuff (I’m with Luther on the point). The fundamentalist-literalists (Baptists, Church of Christ, certain Methodists) have marvelously deep traditions of piety and sincerity, but my study of theology and science has inoculated me from the simplicity of their belief system. The evangelicals, who run through every denomination, are fun to hang out with on occasion, but they anticipate a level of enthusiasm out of me that I just can’t muster up every day — I am a person who is chipper some times and acerbic others; I can’t handle being happy clappy all the time as some sort of faith statement. So I find that the Anglican tradition, which came into existence for political rather than theological reasons, works for me. It strikes a happy compromise of heterogeneous theology, profound liturgy, and no dogma.
Be warned, though, that the Anglican tradition and its Episcopal Church tradition in the U.S. have vast wastelands of conservatism and what can best be characterized as milk-toast, unchallenging practice. The Episcopal church had too much money and power early in the twentieth century and, like the House of Hapsburg manifested in the person of Prince Charles of England (or I could make a bitter allusion to the Bush clan but will refrain), became dull-witted and boring without an infusion of mongrel ideas. So attendance waned as the number of people garish enough to wear furs to church declined through natural selection. But in that decline, the Episcopal church in places has done some interesting things. In DC, St. Mark’s on Capitol Hill is one of those interesting places. When it was about to die in the late 50s, they decided to start doing things differently — lay leadership, challenging theology, real adult education centered on life issues — rather than eliciting statements of faith, etc. By the time I got there in the late 80s, it was humming with a mission of really helping people to get in touch with their presence on the planet.
I don’t know if this thing that I point to as my appropriate place in the broad scheme of religious belief is only in the Anglican tradition. Probably there are Lutheran, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Unitarian, and Presbyterian churches that do the same thing. Somewhere there might be a Catholic church that hits the mark, too. Also, I have probably mischaracterized the theology of churches that I never fully experienced. There is a term for the churches I would recommend, "Progressive Christian", that has lately come about, and there seems to be a growing number of them. –Bill