Monday, March 15, 2010

Church as school

In her most recent post, Kim Hampton asks Are we afraid of religion? Her thoughts had been inspired by this quote from the GA-listserve: "Advocacy has always been..and will always be…at the core of UU…", and she asks, "Really? ADVOCACY has been, and always will be, at the core of UUism? Really?" I know that many UUs believe it to be. Indeed, if you read the comments to The UUA Presidential Election and The Point of Our Faith at Elizabeth's Little Blog, you'll see that there are people who get incensed at the very idea that anything else could be at the core of our religion.

I was thinking of this when I read the following passage from a story by Neil Gaiman:
Rose Walker's Journal:
I've been making a list of things they don't teach you at school.
They don't teach you how to love somebody.
They don't teach you how to be famous.
They don't teach you how to be rich, or how to be poor.
They don't teach you how to walk away from someone you don't love any longer.
They don't teach you how to know what's going on in someone else's mind.
They don't teach you what to say to someone who's dying.
They don't teach you anything worth knowing.

It struck me hard, because I had made the same list myself many, many years ago. Not in exact detail- for example I did not yet need to know what to say to someone who's dying; at that age, I was more concerned with questions like "How do I accept the responsibility for my actions without being paralyzed by fear of consequences". But the spirit of the list, including the fact that I actually wrote it down, was the same. And I knew, even at that age, that this was the purpose of religion: public schools are the schools where you learn what you need to know to earn a living; churches are the schools where you learn what you need to know to live. And I knew, even then, that the lessons that are the most important are on how to live- Simon and Garfunkel taught me that.

What I didn't know then was that there were two philosophies of religion, just as there are of schools: one teaches you answers, and the other teaches you how to find answers. Religions such as Christianity and Islam are of the first sort; UU and a number of Pagan religions are of the second sort. Or at least that's what I had thought when I first discovered, in order, Paganism and UU. But as I got to know more people in my congregation, and then people from other congregations through travel and the internet, I learned that there was a third school of thought: church was where you went to learn the status of House Joint Resolution 234, and who the committee chair overseeing it was.

I agree with Kim; I hope that the core of our church is not that third sort, "Cuz if it is…friends…we are dead." Not merely because we're not really very good at it, (though as she says, and I have written many times, we're not) but because we'll have forsaken what religion and only religion can do- help us learn how to live. There are a hundred places where one can learn about community organizing, but only one school where you can learn the things on that list- church. And if we aren't there to provide the Montessori school of religion, then where is one to go if the fixed set of answers school of religion doesn't satisfy one's soul? Do we really want a country in which the only school offering the lessons of life is the Religious right? I think that being an alternative religion is the ultimate social service we can perform.


Anonymous said...

I get that you are generalizing about Christianity and Islam, but I think some of the liberal christian churches in my area fit your second category pretty well.

Desmond Ravenstone said...

I share your concern about seeing advocacy at the core of our faith, instead of an expression of it. Even more so, when we limit what we mean by advocacy, as I discussed <a href=">on my blog reccently</a>.

Chalicechick said...

Honestly, I learned a lot about that stuff in school-vicariously through literature.

But I see your point.


Joel Monka said...

CC- I thought I had learned a lot of that through literature, until confronted with it. The literature isn't very interactive, either... but it is better than nothing.

Win said...

I think your "third category" is a misrepresentation of people putting their faith into action. Putting faith into action is a tradition that goes back to the very foundations of Christianity, and has deep roots in Judaism as well. Read the prophets, read Jesus' words in the gospels; you'll find plenty of exhortations to put faith into action. This practice has a long tradition in both Unitarianism and Universalism as well, as attested by the numerous members of both faiths active in the reform movements of the 19th century. Today's advocates are continuing a tradition with deep roots.

We are not alone in this practice of putting faith into action through advocacy. The UCC and Episcopal and Catholic churches practice advocacy ardently, as do many Religious Right organizations.

Where we are weaker is in the religious grounding of our advocacy. The Catholic Church grounds its advocacy in its Magisterium (see for example, the current position of the Catholic bishops on health care reform). The Religious Right grounds its advocacy on its (selective) reading of the Bible. We don't tend to define a religious grounding for our advocacy; we avoid doing so for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that such a grounding would offend some of the more hard-core humanists and atheists in our pews. But not defining a religious grounding for our advocacy makes the advocacy look purely political (UU'ism as "the Democractic Party at prayer") rather than conscientiously putting our faith into action.

Joel Monka said...

Win- Putting faith in action is in the oldest traditions of both our root religions- but putting faith in action through advocacy is a different matter. You'll find plenty of instances of Jesus praising those who help others, be they Jew or Pagan, but you'll find no references to Jesus asking that people write to the Emperor demanding government programs instead. The good Samaritan didn't hold a rally for free healthcare; he took care of the poor victim. Often in UU forums or through blog comments I've seen UUs being contemptuous of the idea of actually feeding the hungry; the modern belief is that real faith in action is attacking the root causes of poverty through government programs. That is what I meant by the "third category", and it is not a misrepresentation; it is a common theme.

And yes, other churches have advocacy programs- but the Catholic church, just to mention one you cited, does that on top of an actual presence on the street. They spend hundreds of dollars actually putting food in mouths and clothes on backs for every dollar they spend faxing congressmen; when we hit that ratio, I'll reassess my position. But the difference I was speaking of is greater than just who has deeper pockets or runs more downtown missions.

The real difference I was getting to is this: neither form of social justice work- food on a plate, or fax to a congressman- is at the core of the Catholic church. The core of the Catholic church is getting right with God, then getting right with man. Social justice work is a byproduct of successfully completing their core mission, one parishioner at a time. They are about how you live every aspect of your life, and they give you tremendous resources to aid you. They give you answers to every question on the lists I discussed. You may not like or accept those answers; I certainly don't. But they're giving them.

So what is at our core? If advocacy is truly our core, then we're miserable failures at our core mission. I mean really, if all we are is a halfassed ACORN, then logically speaking couldn't we be of greater service to mankind by disbanding and devoting all our resources to groups who are actually doing the work we're advocating? Why are we wasting all that money on the overhead of a thousand congregations and a central organizing body when successful advocacy groups for everything we advocate already exist? Why not give to and work for these causes directly? Oh, and if we're "...not defining a religious grounding for our advocacy...", then it doesn't merely appear political, it is political.

If advocacy is not our core, then what is? I have asked the question before, and gotten a hundred answers- but no one answer. UU has no mission statement; we don't even have a universally agreed upon "elevator statement". I've heard it said that if you can't explain something in a series of simple subject-verb-predicate sentences, then you don't understand it yourself- does anyone understand UU?