Monday, 22 April 2019

A Visit to Church

I went to church yesterday morning, a Catholic church as, though I'm not Catholic, the rest of my family is. It was a communion service and the church was overflowing with people of all ages. There were flowers and incense, and the church itself, while not old, was built in a traditional style with some fine stained glass windows above the altar. The choir sang well and the priest seemed kind and friendly.

But there was absolutely no feeling of holiness or even, if that's expecting too much, reverence. Now, you might say this was because it was Easter Sunday and the church was full of people who, like me, only go on special occasions.  That was no doubt a factor but the problem goes much deeper. It is rooted in contemporary religion itself which is usually just an external thing. By that I don't mean believers don't believe but their belief does not affect them anywhere near deeply enough. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon but it does seem worse now. Religion, even where it exists, has just got shallower and more tailored to this world. 

Too often the substance of it is just believe in God and be nice to everyone. Otherwise, live your life just like everyone else, enjoying and valuing what everyone else does. There is no call to deep repentance and reorientation towards the real spiritual. There is no real understanding that rebirth in Christ actually means becoming a totally new, completely different kind of person. So it seems there is basically no fundamental difference between a religious person and a secular one, if the latter is more or less a decent law-abiding type. They both identify themselves with their worldly egos and see themselves in a similar way. One believes in some kind of idea of God and an afterlife and the other doesn't, but they do not really see the world in a different light.

All of which leads me to ask, what does it mean to believe? What is belief? Is it just intellectual assent to a particular proposition or is it something that must turn our life round completely and transform what we are, what we think and how we act? Should it affect every single aspect of our life and how we see ourselves and our purpose or should it leave these largely untouched?  Obviously, it's the former. It must not just be a mental thing. Belief in God must be all-consuming to the point that nothing else matters except how it appears in the light of that. I am going to say that even our relationships with those we love must be seen in the light of the reality of God. If that shocks you, well, Jesus said the same thing.

I'm sure these were all good people in the worldly sense, probably much friendlier and more charitable than me. And I know no man can judge the heart of another. I wasn't sitting there looking for things to feel superior about or criticise. I would rather not have thought what I did. But you cannot escape the fact that even of those people who think themselves religious or spiritual, many are only so superficially. Their focus is on this world and they see themselves as what they appear to be, physical beings, not spirits clothed in flesh come to this world for a brief duration to learn certain lessons before returning to their true home in heaven. This world is not our home and anyone who identifies with it and its goods is not truly a spiritual person, whatever their feelings. That seems a good Easter message to me. If it seems a little too close to Gnosticism for you then consider this. Do you see above in terms of below, spirit in terms of matter, or below in terms of above? If the former then, whatever your beliefs, however deep you might think your faith to be, you are a materialist. Just like many modern Christians.


Chris said...

The more serious minded of spirituality circles make this very same claim. Some would go so far as to say that Christianity, by definition, is "all outside" . That is, the focal point is belief, or the verbal assent to a proposition. There is no real need for inner transformation because everything is external- believe in the identity of Christ, go to church , participate in ritual, and follow the rules. The Protestants takeit a step further with justification by faith alone.

From that perspective, this is the antithesis of true spirituality because it is missing what really matters, transformation of consciousness or gnosis. The heresiologists claim that what "became" orthodox Christianity was more like a coup d'etat perpetrated by Bishops whose primary objective was worldly power. "Outer" religion has value only insofar as it brings about genuine spiritual growth.

For many of the SBNR crowd, religion , being fundamentally "mechanical" and/or legalistic, is more likely to conceal and inhibit gnosis rather than supporting and fostering it.

The Perennialist school helped me to see that this is false. But, I understand how and why many people see it this way.

Chris said...

You hit it right on the head- it all comes down what it means to believe. Non-theists would say that the core of the problem is theism itself. When we think of the Supremely Real as a person and as a distinct other, the natural response is worship and submission as opposed to transformation. Furthermore, to the extent that we are not that "other", is the extent to which we cannot be like the "other". They see belief in God as setting up the ultimate dualism which prevents us from ever becoming whole or "holy".

William Wildblood said...

What I am getting at here is that religion or spirituality, whatever we want to call it, should never be just an add on to what we already are but something that completely reframes what we are and adds extra dimensions to existence instead of just making it a bigger and better version of what it is at the moment.

It is not about change but transformation.

Eric said...

Modern Christianity is only being reflective of the collective materialism that runs our system. Many Christians are paying lip service to Christ, but underneath they are infected by The Ideology. We can't blame them collectively though since the church lacks real leaders, the Shepherd has been done away with. The modern church is just an act, mimicking a spirituality of the past.

I think this is a collective error of our civilization. Enlightenment protestantism tried to launch us into spiritual adulthood, but things got out of hand as people got too greedy. As a result, our individualism quickly backfired into materialism and alienation. Only awakened individual souls can fix this situation, by transforming themselves, bonding together and trying to initiate a collective response.

Think of a secret military operation to save hostages taken captive by terrorists. This is what is required in spiritual terms. Real Christians who work undercover to save a western society that has been taken hostage by the Devil himself. Even worse, the hostages have been afflicted by the Stockholm syndrome, and will hate the doctor. But this nothing new for Christianity. They will always hate us, but we must still provide the medicine, because it is our duty in Christ.

John Fitzgerald said...

It's always a bit hit and miss at UK Catholic churches on set-piece occasions like Easter Day, or indeed any Sunday or weekday for that matter. The good news is that many churches still retain a palpable sense of holiness. The Oratory churches in London, Birmingham, Manchester, York and Portsmouth are probably the pick of the bunch in my view. Also the Latin Mass-only churches in (off the top of my head) Reading, Warrington, Preston, Shrewsbury and Birkenhead plus a variety of other places. The good news is that things are actually a lot better liturgy-wise than they were in the 70s and 80s and whenever a chuch like those above springs up people turn up in large numbers. That's heartening in another respect in that it shows that people aren't as irremediably corrupt as we sometimes might think and that, given the chance, they will gladly respond to the Divine. It's what they need, after all, and what they were made for. The bad news is that most of the U.K. Bishops are dead-set against this style of worship and don't want to people the opportunity to encounter God in an atmosphere of holiness, reverence and beauty. They want the Mass that you experienced yesterday - banal, human-centred, 'accessible', etc - so in all truth they would probably be very heartened by your report!

William Wildblood said...

Thanks Eric and John, you make good points, both of which I agree with even though they are completely different! That's to say, I would go along with Eric but John, you definitely have more inside knowledge than me and I'm glad to hear what you say. Easter is not a good time to get a good understanding of regular worship. It probably has quantity but not quality in terms of flock.

Eric said...

It's interesting what you say though about what belief really entails. For me, God is reality, so I don't care that much about whether people "believe" or not. I assume God is real which means I see human affairs differently than someone who puts "humanity" first.

God doesn't disappear just because people stop believing in him. Sometimes I think believers have invested so much belief in the theory that they actually believe there will be no God if the concept is forgotten. Either you believe God is the independent creator, or you believe in the theory that he is and you try to patent him.

Belief in the wrong sense could therefore indicate a lack of faith, trust and having the wrong assumptions. Do you have to believe the sun is going to rise tomorrow? If you come to know God you don't really have to believe anymore, it's just a part of what you do and what you are. Belief might replace the actual relationship we seek with Christ. So in the end this is a war about reality and how to orient ourselves toward it, not what advertisement or lifestyle is going to dominate.

Either the damned will win or we bring about the second coming of Christ by aspiring for Christhood.

Bruce Charlton said...

A general comment about Christmas, Easter and other times when the churches are fuller than usual - If I was running a church (!) I would regard these days as exactly the times when I would most aim to raise the atmosphere palpably above the everyday, to the transcendental and sublime - to touch people's hearts, to offer joy rather than jolliness!

A cheery, amusing, singalong experience will pass time pleasantly for most people - but seems to show that the church has nothing whatsoever to 'add' that is qualitatively different from secular materialist society.

(In most cases this is true; but I'm talking about the real Christian churches who do have more to offer.)

Ideally this should be done by spontaneity, responding in the here-and-now to the exact situation as it presents itself - but along the way there would be elevated language (like Latin, or the Book of Common Prayer/ Authorised version of the Bible), etherial choral music, dignified garb and ritual... That kind of thing - out-of-the-ordinary; challenging the everyday.

In general: seriousness and depth, if not all the time then the whole service should be built-around attaining this for at least Some of the time.

William Wildblood said...

Just as you say, Bruce, a person's experience in church should be qualitatively different to all other experiences, not just a religious version of normal life appealing to the same emotions. It must be, in essence if not all the way through, solemn and reverential. Bringing God down to our level is spiritually disastrous and yet that's what so many churches today seek to do.

dearieme said...

At least they've stopped slaughtering Albigensians and Protestants, so there is that.

Eric said...

Unfortunately, today's adults do not even believe there is any 'magical' atmosphere to be raised. The magical feelings tied to Christmas, Easter, sacred sites and lands are all dismissed as childish fantasies or even racism. The world is just a place, an empty space, a sterile random flux of nothing.. The entire globe is equally meaningless, and can only be enjoyed for touristic, sensory purposes. There is no qualitative difference that distinguishes a place or time from another. Everyone is the same. Since meaning can't be found in the outside world, we must find it by creating a human bubble of social meaning.. But the world in itself can't be trusted. It is evil, only humans are good. The world must be controlled and tamed until even the climate becomes predictable.

These are the deeply anti-Christian ethics of our time, and our church has been hijacked by these.

William Wildblood said...

dearieme, very true but that was probably the politicians even when the politicians were cardinals.

AnteB said...


This question is off topic, but have you read anything from Emanuel Swedenborg?
After reading about him in Colin Wilson"s "Religion and the Rebel" I think he´s quite an interesting figure.

He seemed to have some ideas/experiences that correspond somewhat to yours about the spiritual realm, what spirits are and how they "work". It would be interesting to know if you have encountered his writings?

Francis Berger said...

William, I have experienced what you describe in this post innumerable times in the past. In many ways, it turned me off church altogether. When I moved to the village where I have settled down, I resisted going to church for two years to avoid the same kind of disappointment. Finally one day, I went.

What an amazing surprise! Perhaps the smallness of the community has something to do with it, but I feel the Holy Spirit still resides in this church in this little village. Though I concur with your overall evaluation of contemporary churches and their services, there are still a few "real" churches out there . . . but these are becoming increasingly difficult to find, no doubt about it.

William Wildblood said...

AnteB, I've read about Swedenborg but not read him. To me like so many of his type he seems a mixture of true and false. I can't remember exactly now but I seem to recall that his description of the heavenly world was rather materialistic. I suppose he was of his time and had genuine spiritual intuitions and visions but translated these through the medium of his mind. Thus, as with anyone of that type, one must use one's discrimination.

Francis, I'm pleased to hear of your experience. Perhaps in communities less corrupted by the leftist deviations of modernity there is still a good and honest faith existing that sees God as the eternal truth beyond this world not as something that must be seen in terms of this world's current fashions.

Avro G said...

I think true belief in our time often results from an epiphany of visceral revulsion at the modern condition and an accompanying realization that there is no other source of goodness or decency than in the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe because the alternative is too hideous. Here is a particularly lurid but powerful example:

William Wildblood said...

That's a good point. There really is no goodness except in God of whom Jesus is the human face. And when we realise the sickness of the world he is the only cure.

Eric said...

"I think true belief in our time often results from an epiphany of visceral revulsion at the modern condition"

And if we contrast that to modern belief we see mainstream Christians who use Christianity as an add-on to cope with the modern world rather than a spiritual refuge and breathing space from it. It's the same thing with westerners turning to eastern practices such as yoga. Yoga or meditation is the spiritual Mc Donald's of the west, where people can pause, refuel and keep on driving to hell.

edwin said...

There may be a greater sense of holiness in Latin Masses but there is also a sense of nostalgia that makes people want to retreat from the present and return to a time when they imagine spiritual life was less of a struggle and the Church was there to support it. But every liturgical form bears the mark of its time. The Tridentine rite of Mass is not timeless but culturally embedded in a particular epoch, that of the counter-Reformation. It has great beauty and offers spiritual nourishment, but it is not the future, nor even the real present. It is tempting to seek refuge in forms and formulas rooted in a past in which Faith was seldom questioned, but the Catholic Church will not spring to life again with a restoration of its former liturgy or a new imposition of defined dogmas. Among the modern churches, there are flowers among the weeds, but the garden has grown wild and cannot be reclaimed. I think we are, for now, more or less on our own. And it seems that's as it should be. We can have spiritual friendships, but the possibility of a vital Church movement does not appear on the horizon.

William Wildblood said...

What you write coincides precisely with my view, edwin. We can't go back and nor should we. We have to go on and we have to do so, as you say, more or less on our own. For the time being anyway.