Monday, December 02, 2013

Schadenfreude is cheap

And also not just for breakfast anymore.

Remember these guys, the "atheist church?"  Turns out the Preacher was right; there isn't anything new under the sun:

“We get called the ‘atheist church,’ but we are really all the best bits of church but with no religion,” he said, darting his lanky form up and down the aisle, arms flapping like some excitable exotic bird. “Our vision is to help people live the best life possible.”

After some raucous applause, Jones hit the button on a borrowed sound system and kicked off the opening song — Jon Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” As the lyrics were projected on a screen, the crowd — largely, but not entirely, white and male — sang along, jumping and dancing and waving their hands in the air.

Part karaoke, part aerobics class, part comedy show, Sunday Assembly recently wrapped up a nine-city American leg of a fundraising tour but also left a long tail of backlash, as thousands of nonbelievers took to social media and the Internet to express their disdain:

* “Go to the @SundayAssembly website and what’s the first thing you notice?” tweeted someone calling himself AtheistChris17. “‘DONATE.’ Like any good church getting money is their goal.”

* “‘Atheist churches’ like Sunday Assembly do atheism no favors,” tweeted Michael Luciano, who writes a blog called PolicyMic, where he further skewered Sunday Assembly as “fatuous.”

* “Being an atheist and celebrating life without superstition everyday of the week is far more empowering than the wishy washy Sunday Assembly,” wrote blogger and secular humanist Doug Berger.

And, like the many churches that detractors say Sunday Assembly tries to mimic, there’s already been a schism of sorts. New York’s Sunday Assembly split off on its own after becoming frustrated with Jones’ and Evans’ insistence that they not use the word “atheist” to describe themselves, an organizer there said.
There is a history to Protestantism, and the Sunday Assembly is living it in high speed.  Not that unusual, actually; most Protestant churches live it out at high speed, too.  Once the pattern was set, it was very easy to follow.  There is a reason there are so many flavors of Islam in the world; and also a reason so many of those flavors from the Middle East cling tightly to their cultural norms (like burkas, etc.).  It's because Protestantism, by its very nature (and the same seems to be true for Islam) is decentralized, and being so, is tied very closely to contemporary culture (take away the Pradas, there really isn't a lot "contemporary" about the office of the Pope, or the Vatican itself).  Protestantism is built on the structure of the culture it exists in; it takes up the language of that culture.  And "purity" in Protestantism (especially; few Protestant churches have a "tent" large enough to accommodate Franciscans and Jesuits and Cistercians) often means an insistence on not being like other groups.  This, after all, is still in many ways the land of the Puritans.

Which means this comment is, sadly, too often a true expression of the heart and soul of modern Protestantism:

 “Church has been around for a long time and started with religion, but religion is not necessary to doing it,” he said.

It is, actually; but only if you're doing it right.  And then we're right back to the Church of Meaning and Belonging v. the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging.   One of those is right; the other is just a sham.

I do not mention Protestantism lightly in this context.  Aside from a few doctrinal issues, what's being attempted here is merely another Protestant church.  As I noticed before (and as some are noticing now), these similarities are (and should be) disquieting.  There should be a fundamental difference between an atheist assembly and a Christian one.  But my seminary professors asked us what difference Jesus made, effectively asked us the question Jesus asked his disciples:  "Who do you say that I am?"  And that crucial question goes to the fundamental difference between these two groups.

But it isn't a question most Christians could answer except with the most shop-worn of cliches.  They could not answer it existentially, in other words.  Terrorism or Iran having a nuclear bomb may be an existential threat to nations; but an existential issue for individuals is more than most people can grasp.  They live their faith as baptized heathens, for the most part; no more interested in anything beyond how to "live the best life possible" than those leading this atheist assembly.*

If that seems a bit harsh, tell me how many Protestant churches differ from the intentions of this atheist assembly, except that they practice religious rituals such as communion and baptism with no more thought to what they mean except to be sure only the right people are included at the table or the font.  I've seen both of the sacraments of the Protestant churches reduced to mere dumbshows, or in extreme cases assertions of power and family privilege, and conducted marriages where the pastor was reduced to another player in The Show.  It is more common than you might imagine.

Grant that thy Church may be delivered from traditions which have lost their life, from usage which has lost its spirit, from institutions which no longer give life and power to their generation; that the Church may ever shine as a light in the world and be as a city set on a hill.
So the old E&R prayer for Church Anniversary ends; but how far do we take that?  It begins with taking the Church as an object itself, not an extension of one's desires.  Already the protestors of the atheist assembly don't like what it is asking them to do; they do not wish to recognize its authority.  Perhaps they shouldn't; but unless they do, assembly is ultimately impossible.

*that goal, by the way, dates back at least to the Romantics.  It colored all of 19th century European thinking, led Kierkegaard to focus on the "individual" and upon what would wrongly (as derived from his thought, anyway) be understood as "self-actualization," and has in general been a blight on modern existence since Wordsworth decided Nature taught him all he needed to know, which made the child the father to the man, and wasn't that keen?).  It is only slightly different from Tolstoy's famous question "How should we then live?", but I contend that, without the spiritual element, it's just a question of "How can I be happy?"  And Aristotle answered that one a long time ago.

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