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In Defense of Organized Religion

by Garret Keizer

Garret Keizer is the author of No Place But Here and A Dresser of Sycamore Trees. This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 22, 2008, pp. 28-31. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


This article is based on an address to the Heretics Club, an organization established by the chaplainís office at Colgate University for students professing no religious affiliation.

I am generally in sympathy with people who disparage what they call organized religion and I prefer to call "institutional religion." I not only feel that I understand what they mean; I often feel that I understand what they mean better than they do. I worked as a lay and then as an ordained Episcopal minister for more than 20 years. If you want to talk about reasons to distrust organized religion, Iíll give you reasons--your reasons plus reasons beyond your wildest dreams. But that is not my main task here, so I will confine myself to three of the more obvious.

The first is that religious institutions, like all human institutions, have a way of existing for themselves as opposed to the purposes they claim to serve. Churches do it, colleges do it, even legislative bodies do it; letís do it, letís fall in love--with our own organizational structures. Writing in 1962, the American activist theologian William Stringfellow put it this way:

As I find it, religion in America Ö has virtually nothing to do with God and has little to do with the practical lives of men in society. Religion seems, mainly, to have to do with religion.

A second good reason to be leery of so-called organized religion is that with organization comes power, and with power comes the ability to oppress the less powerful and to exclude those whom power deems undesirable. As a general rule of thumb, I would say that religions are at their best whenever they challenge their members to chafe against preexisting identities--for example, when St. Paul says that "in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female." Theyíre at their worst when they become identities--i.e., when the most meaningful part of saying "Iím a Christian" is the implication that youíre not a Christian.

A third flaw of institutional religion is a tendency to distrust and even to stifle the same creative energies that formed the religion in the first place. In the early centuries of the Christian church, for example, there appears to have been a group of women known as subintroductae who lived-and even slept with their monogamous male partners while remaining celibate. The church authorities eventually forbade this interesting experiment in sexual diversity. Writing of that suppression in his eccentric history of Christianity, The Descent of the Dove, Charles Williams said:

It was one of the earliest triumphs of "the weaker brethren," those innocent sheep who by mere volume of imbecility have trampled over many delicate and attractive flowers in Christendom.

This is true not only in Christendom, but wherever religious traditions become ossified. Small wonder, then, that some of the most important events in religious history were acts of rebellion. One thinks of the revolt of the Hebrew prophets against the cultic apparatus of Israel and Judah, Lao-tzuís revolt against Confucian propriety, Buddhaís against Brahman elitism and so on. With that observation we come to the first of what I am calling "the virtues of organized religion," namely that organized religions give their adherents something solid to rebel against.

Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid said: "You cannot strike a match on a crumbling wall." No, and you cannot make a battering ram out of pulp. I have to say that whenever I lapse into my geezer mode of worrying about the younger generation, one of the concerns uppermost in my mind is our cultureís devilish knack for preempting, co-opting and even marketing acts of youthful rebellion. Lob a Molotov cocktail over the battlements and within moments it comes back to you--redesigned, attractively packaged and priced for Christmas. Organized religions provide their adherents not only with a force to rebel against, but a structure to rebel within. That is because most religions contain remnants of the historical struggles that marked their development. The wiser religions even preserve those remnants as part of the tradition. British theologian Kenneth Leech goes so far as to say that "the holding together of apparent contradictions and ambiguities is of the very nature" of what he calls "the orthodox project." For Leech, it is heresy that attempts to oversimplify the problems, to quash the struggle:

The rejection of paradox and ambiguity is the characteristic of heretics in all ages. Heresy is one-dimensional, narrow, over-simplified, and boring. It is straight-line thinking, preferring a pseudo-clarity to the many sidedness of truth, tidiness to the mess and complexity of reality. Orthodoxy by contrast is rooted in the unknowable.

I realize that such a passage may be offensive to some heretics, but imagine how offensive it must be to religious believers who fancy that their heretical simplifications are orthodox!

The second virtue of organized religion is that it gives people a chance to be smarter than they would be on their own. Of course, that is true of culture in general. Euclidian geometry, a stroke of genius for Euclid, is now no more than a math requirement for a high school sophomore. The same goes for Aquinas and Moses Maimonides, though in their case the requirement probably belongs in college. We find a memorable image of cultural transmission in Stanley Kubrickís film 2001: A Space Odyssey. You may recall the famous scene in which a protohuman serendipitously discovers the first tool while smashing a tapirís skeleton with a thigh bone. Charlie Chaplin is said to have wept when he first saw it. But the next scene is no less moving--when we see two little ape-children playing with the same sort of bone. The great epiphany is no longer an epiphany; itís common knowledge. To use a metaphor so old and pervasive that an entire book was written about it, we stand "on the shoulders of giants."

The religious autodidact, on the other hand, stands on the sidewalk. Unless she is a giant herself, she is not likely to see very far. The fate of most autodidacts, a fate I happen to understand only too well, is to be perpetually reinventing the wheel and, in the course of that needless reinvention, never to achieve the wing, the propeller or the time machine.

Some will object that you donít need to belong to an organized religion in order to avoid the fate of the spiritual autodidact. Obviously one doesnít need to be a Hindu to read the Upanishads. But there is a kind of knowledge that can only be lived. That is especially true in the area of personal relationships, and it points to a third virtue of organized religions: their insistence on the primacy of experiential knowing. That is a different kind of knowledge from the type utilized on Jeopardy.

This insistence on the experiential is especially important in our self-proclaimed "Age of Information," the prevailing attitude of which often strikes me as that of an eight-year-old boy who discovers a skin magazine in his older brotherís dresser drawer and assumes that he now "knows about women." Because here is a picture of one, all bare and in living color, and here are some very important facts about her: Tiffany likes windsurfing, a good Chablis, and the sort of man who knows how to take charge. But the little boy doesnít know about women. He doesnít even know about Tiffany. Knowledge of that sort can only come in relationship. You donít Google a person or a faith tradition. You live with it. You keep faith with it, and sometimes you break up with it. No picnic either way.

And there you have a fourth virtue of organized religion: its ability to disabuse us of our illusions. Another way to put that is to say that organized religions compel their members to embrace history, including historical relativism and human fallibility, including their own limited, historically predetermined selves. In that respect belonging to an organized religion is a lot like living in New Jersey. Iím thinking of something that Richard Ford wrote in his novel The Sportswriter: "Better to come to earth in New Jersey than not to come at all.Ö Illusion will never be your adversary here." All you need to do is replace the name New Jersey with that of some house of worship, and you have as fitting an inscription as I can imagine for placing above its front door.

I am not a Roman Catholic. Like many both inside and outside of that faith tradition, I regard it with a certain ambivalence, a mixture of awe and dismay. I can remember only one time when I wished I was a Roman Catholic, and that was when the church was racked by the abusive-priest scandal. I had little sympathy for the abusive priests, still less for the hierarchy that had connived in their abuses, but I had great sympathy for and a feeling of solidarity with the victims of the abuse and also with rank-and-file members who were devastated by the revelations. To quote William Stringfellow again: "The first place to look for Christ is in hell." The headiest time to belong to an organized religion is when itís going through hell, which it tends to do on a fairly regular basis.

A fifth virtue of organized religions is that they are social phenomena of a radically promiscuous kind. If I were asked to say in one sentence what was the chief benefit of all my years in church, I might say that it forced me to hang out with people Iíd not otherwise have met. (And, to be fair, if I were asked to name the biggest liability of all my years in church, Iíd say the same thing.) This kind of broad association is of particular value to a society like ours, one in which people are increasingly tribalized and segregated and even a laudable value like diversity can be trivialized, as when a mother brags about how her child attends such a "wonderfully diverse" prep school, what with the boy from Senegal whose dad is a UN diplomat and the girl from Sri Lanka whose mom is an officer with the World Bank.

Organized religions, at their best, work for a deeper kind of diversity. They also remind us of the power of communal endeavor in a society that glorifies the individual. Consider the following anecdote from Richard Rodriguezís Days of Obligation:

An old nun, old and as white as a lizard, used to pray in Sacred Heart Church when I was a boy. One day, as I passed her pillar, her hand shot out to catch my sleeve; her regard shone on me in the gloom. "If you are ever in church, and for one reason or another you cannot pray," she whispered, "then ask God to unite your lazy prayers to the good prayers of the people kneeling around you."

Such a piece of advice sounds utterly absurd to modern ears, perhaps even to most believersí ears. But not to those believers who speak of the Communion of Saints or the Vow of the Bodhisattva.

In Toni Morrisonís novel Beloved, Sethe is tormented by the ghost of the infant daughter she killed in order to spare the child from slavery. The phantom child sucks the life from Sethe; even her lover Paul D. can do no more than banish it for a season. Only when all the African-American church women gather and converge on the scene of Setheís desolation is the ghost exorcised from her life. Morrisonís message is clear: there are some personal demons and private neuroses that can be overpowered only by the collective strength of human community.

Finally, organized religions are capable of organizing; that is to say, of mobilizing. The rise of the religious right in this country has, in my view, provided us with a frightful example of that. But organized religion remains a prime mover for positive social change: we have seen that in the civil rights movement, both here and in South Africa; in the Solidarity movement in Poland; and in the current unrest in Burma. We downplay this potential to our peril. It would be presumptuous for me to suggest that people who share my left-leaning politics need to start going to church or synagogue or mosque. I do think they need to start going somewhere besides their favorite blogspot or coffee shop.

In summary, the virtues of organized religions include but are by no means limited to the following: they give their adherents something solid against which to rebel; they allow one to see farther by standing on the shoulders of giants; they insist on the primacy of lived experience; they work against illusion and historical insularity; they point to the power of the collective and the merits of deep diversity; and they are capable of the kind of mobilization that can transform the world.

I suppose that some would say I have erred in my evaluation by not so much as mentioning God or some other absolute, but I assume that God goes with the territory. I also assume that God is not restricted to the territory. To be sure, I have made my remarks as a religious believer, a theist, and as one who has chosen to cast in his lot with an organized religion. But the God I believe in is a God who both creates norms and delights in creating exceptions to norms. Even so unimpeachable a remark as that reptiles lay eggs and mammals birth their young alive needs to reckon with the garter snake and the duckbilled platypus. That means that the most useful thing Iíve said still needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It means that there will always be a need within organized religions, and in spite of organized religions, for the heretical and the heterodox, always a need for people like me to close their remarks and listen carefully to what others have to say.


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