Is church relevant?

Wolseley in Summer - (Dustin Beniston)
Wolseley in Summer – Winnipeg, Manitoba (Dustin Beniston)

Does church matter?

I remember witnessing a collective state of shock at the University of Winnipeg, when Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor made an unsuspected argument in support of religious communities. They could be very important in buttressing the environmental movement, for the simple fact that they have stronger vision of the Cosmos, and a model of communal will as opposed to the atrophied individualism of the secular regime.

My psychology textbook reports lower incidences of depression among young people who are part of a community because they are engaged in a life that is said to have meaning. Volunteerism, public service, a vision of the Good – these are powerful reasons to be “religious”. Not to mention the life affirming rituals at every stage in the arc of one’s life.

gravestone - andrew siebert

This kind of rational argument for the organizational strengths of religion has been made recently by other philosophers such as Alain de Botton and Roger Scruton. In psychology, Carl Jung emphasized the need to get in touch with one’s unconscious through myth and religion. Science deals only with conscious thought, whereas myth is required to express the unity of our whole self. He built a contemplative retreat in Switzerland – the “tower” – which represented this unity in its architecture and symbols, and where he could encounter nature in a simple way.  I showed my AP Psych students This BBC documentary on Jung’s view of religion called “Sea of Faith” and asked them to reflect on the materialist Darwinian/Freudian view of the psyche versus Jung’s mystical/mythical view :

I have experienced first hand the benefits of a church community – I got my first job as an editor after starting up an independent publication supported by my church. Regular potlucks, book clubs, even philosophy groups were formed. As a member of the choir, I brushed shoulders with lawyers, architects, doctors, and artists – professions I would never have considered prior to these friendships.

This year my wife had her appendix out at 26 weeks pregnant. Church members responded by providing two weeks worth of meals – a welcome gift. Rachel had a tough year trying to finish university, get through a pregnancy, and raise a two year old with a husband in his first year of teaching. The stress of life was greatly reduced by going for breakfast with a friend. We discussed writing, fatherhood, Wendell Berry, and how to live without Facebook.

Over the last ten years I’ve also been lucky to be part of a fairly illustrious lecture series started at St. Margaret’s – the Slater Maguire Lectures. This year I’ll get to meet the Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson. Where else would I have met and learned from the likes of Bill Blaikie, Margaret Visser, Stanley Hauerwas, and Oliver O’Donovan? All this from sitting in a comittee room together dreaming of people we’d like to talk to – and being part of a vision much larger than ourselves.

According to a new study by the University of Saskatchewan which interviewed 12,583 people repeatedly over 14 years, religiosity is correlated with lower rates of depression. Macleans’ Colby Cosh questions:

The future depression risk of monthly attendees was significantly (though not enormously) lowered—by about 22 per cent, compared to never-attendees. What may be most interesting about this finding is that one of the factors controlled for in the model was “social support.” Frequent churchgoers were not less depressed just because going to church (or mosque or temple) gave them someone to confide in, count on, or consult with. Those things defend against depression too, but the benefit from church attendance is independent of them.

Being religious didn’t seem to make a difference, it was the doing of religion that counted. Something about the physical practice of community made the difference, not even community itself. Cosh pushes back:

There seems to be something about the mere showing up that makes one less likely to become depressed. Of course, even a longitudinal study, particularly one based on self-reports, can’t eliminate questions of causality. Maybe A doesn’t determine B, but both are determined by C; the kind of person who can drag himself to Mass reasonably often may be the gloom-resistant, constitutionally robust kind.

I suspect something like this is the case, and it makes me wish we could run a properly controlled experiment using what doctors call a “sham intervention.” Make a bunch of atheists turn up in person someplace every seven days, to perform various non-believing rituals and maybe have some coffee, and contrast those who stick closely to the regimen with equally assiduous church attendees. It might, in fact, look much like de Botton’s oddball plans for atheist temples, feasts, and Sunday schools.

Sure, be as organized as you want. What about meaning? What about belief? Here is my hipster urbanist blogger friend Robert Galston describing in the Spectator Tribune why he still goes to church:

There’s a value in just showing up and physically doing something; in performing a task or repeating an action even when you’re not emotionally feeling it. This might seem hollow and hypocritical, but if it was up to feelings at any particular moment, day, or year, I would hardly ever show up to this or any other place. And so I kneel, stand, sing, sit down, and walk up to the Alter and kneel again, taking the bread and wine and signing myself with the cross.

Sometimes on Sunday mornings the words just fall out. Sometimes out of nowhere, a few of them will jump up and hit me in the face.

“Fill us with the courage and love of Jesus.”

I don’t often have much of either, and that’s why I keep coming here.

Earlier in the piece, Galston quotes C.S. Lewis:

“I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that.”

And before that…

…what has changed for me is the understanding that it’s ultimately not about me and my weaknesses or strengths, but about the strength of Christ and His victory over death. I can be as weak or as strong as I want, but the triumph over death isn’t contingent on what I do because it already happened on the Cross.

That is the kind of humility I’ve admired in other writers like Andrew Sullivan, who are realistic of the practical benefits of their faith, but also acknowledge the mystery behind it.

This morning as I sat in the pew, I asked myself where else I could hear the voice of Wendell Berry calling me to “live resurrection.” The sermon was masterful, a meditation on the difficulties of modern science to understand the given fact of life. And then, we reached the climax of the service where we performed the Eucharist together.

So I leave you with the Manifesto of the Mad Farmer Liberation Front, by Wendell Berry:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

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