Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Human Thing

Some people like to see faith, religion and spirituality as separate things, often ranking them as spirituality = free spirited awesomeness to religion = conservative compliance and dull, with faith kind of bobbling along in the middle.

It is true that the three words came into the English language from the same source, Latin via Old French since you ask, and they have different meanings.
  • religion - from "religare" meaning "to bind fast", the modern meaning, "recognition of, obedience to, and worship of an unseen, higher power" dates from the 1530s
  • faith - from "fides" meaning "trust, reliance, credence, belief", the term entered the theological sphere in the 14th century as a synonym for "religion"
  • spirituality - from "spiritualis" meaning "of concerning the spirit" though from the 14th century it meant "of concerning the church"
What is evident though from that little survey of the words is that they covered the same ground, and are essentially synonymous terms. Faith is religion is spirituality. Looking though at the origins of the words, it is easy to reverse the modern popular order of preference and see spirituality as some vague nebulous concept not requiring action, while religion is pinning your flag to the mast and living a life defined by your spirituality. I wonder if this is what the Evangelist had in mind with the parable of the sheep and the goats? Your vague spiritual wafflings will ultimately not help you one jot in the Christian view of an after life, it is all about how you live and what you do.

Personally I am convinced that faith, religion and spirituality are all one and the same thing, expressions of a human need to understand the world around them. There isn't a single human culture in history that didn't have some form of belief system to explain their environment and the things that went on within it. Religion ultimately says more about the society that created it than it does about any external deity. I suppose that is why religion is so endlessly fascinating to me, because humans are endlessly fascinating.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Putting Culture Before Convictions

Conflict and paradox, two words which sum up the life and thinking of the majority of people in the world, I was going to say "the modern world" but I guess it has ever been thus. Nowhere are these two experiences more evident in the Church than when it comes to politics, where preachers regularly abuse their pulpit in order to support, however tacit and indirect, a given political standpoint, which is essentially Christianised and then presented as the only way to think for the genuine "Bible believing Christian".

Most often this politicised Christianity is a right-wing phenomena, again it is tempting to say "far-right" phenomena, but that would be unfair given that the centre point of politics in America is so clearly in a different place. One of the most shocking things about living here is discovering that although in Europe Mrs Velkyal and I are pretty centrist and middle of the road in our politics, over here we are perceived by many as out and out Socialists, bordering on Communists. This may be a slight exaggeration, but to be labelled a Marxist in early 21st Century America requires only that you stand slightly to the left of Genghis Khan.

I would however venture, returning to my theme, that right wing politics and the teachings presented in the Gospels are uneasy and even un-natural bedfellows.

Let's think for a moment about the death penalty, a cruel and unusual form of punishment which is the ultimate sanction in all but 13 of the 50 states of the Union, including the Commonwealth of Virginia. The current frontrunner in the race to be the Republican candidate is Rick Perry, an enthusiastic supporter of execution, having notched up 234 deaths in 11 years as governor of Texas. At the same time, Perry, as is common with most people hoping to get the Republican nomination, is unabashedly Christian. How is it possible to square away believing that the death penalty is just with belief in a man who told those wanting to stone a woman caught in adultery that "he who is without sin, cast the first stone"?

I often have the feeling that the right's appeal to religion as a basis of legitimacy is to entirely misunderstand, or worse wilfully neglect, the teachings found in the Gospels. I find it interesting that you rarely hear those on the right, or the left for that matter, discussing their belief in the Jesus as presented by the Evangelists, preferring the more nebulous belief in "God". This lack of definition allows their followers to project their own concept of God onto the politician and to assume that they think just like them. Those that believe in the death penalty usually quote the Old Testament concept of an "eye for an eye", preferring to ignore that the Gospel writer has Jesus overturn it with a message of mercy. This is not to suggest that crime should go unpunished, but rather that mercy should be the guiding principle of a Christian legal system.

Perhaps it really is too much to ask that those on the religious right seek to interpret their politics through the prism of the teachings found in the Gospels, rather than the other way round.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

So Much Chatter

One of the big differences between life in Europe and life in the United States is the proliferation of churches, or at least churches which are used for their intended purpose. I still find it remarkable that a town the size of Charlottesville has so many churches of various types, both denominational and non. According to a church directory website, Charlottesville has:
  • 8 Baptist congregations
  • 2 Independent Baptist congregations
  • 1 Southern Baptist congregation
  • 6 Roman Catholic congregations
  • 2 Christian Disciples of Christ congregations
  • 6 Episcopalian congregations
  • 2 Lutheran congregations
  • 5 United Methodist congregations
  • 7 Non-denominational congregations
  • 1 Greek Orthodox congregation
  • 1 Pentecostal congregation
  • 5 Presbyterian congregations
That's 46 congregations on a church directory, and I am sure there are a few missing from that particular source. The thing is, Charlottesville has a population of only about 43,000, so that is at least 1 church for every 930 people. There is one street in Charlottesville which has at least 5 churches on it, about twice as many as my home island of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides. This post though isn't about the proliferation of churches in American cities, but rather about the titles those organisations give themselves.

Lately, the trend seems to be ditching the world "church" and branding yourself a "worship center". Perhaps it is an attempt to make church seem a bit more approachable and "customer friendly", but I can't help but think it is an attempt to be trendy and "relevant". It also makes me wonder what is understood by "worship", and the cynical side of me is fairly sure that it is the touchy-feely, U2-lite sing song version of "worship" that prevails.

On my way in to the office this morning, I drove past a church, sorry "worship center", with a sign saying at said meeting place you could "enjoy Christ-centered worship here". Perhaps I am over egging the pudding a bit, but I find that sign mildly disturbing. Let's start with the idea of that worship is something you "enjoy". When you look at the dictionary definition of "worship" there are words like "pay homage", "reverence", "honour" and "adore", there isn't anything about actually "enjoying" the act of worship, especially given that "enjoy" means to "experience pleasure for oneself". The very thought of "enjoying" worship seems almost antithetical, if not downright oxymoronic. That's not to say that worship should be dull and lifeless, but rather that to "enjoy" it is to bring the focus on the individual rather than the object of worship.

The second part of the slogan again seems pretty innocuous, but could also be read as a sly dig at other churches, I mean "worship centers" (please note I am only using the American spelling of "centre" because that is the context in which I have seen these titles). Is the worship at the meeting place in question more Christian than at other churches which don't feel the need to state the obvious? Surely for Christian congregations, all worship is "Christ-centered" because Jesus of Nazareth is the basis of the religion?

Again then we come back to that word "worship" and its meaning, but first a little etymology. The origins of the word lie back in the days of Old English and the word "weorthscipe", which can itself be broken into "weorþ" and "scieppan". The word "weorþ" when used as an adjective means "worthy, honoured, noble, honourable, of high rank; valued, dear, precious; fit, capable", while "scieppan" is a verb that means "to shape, form, make, create". Put the two words together and you have the idea of making something honourable, something worthy, something precious. Note, there is no enjoyment here, but rather paying due homage to a superior. Eventually "weorthscipe" morphed into "worthship" and from there the modern "worship".

So what would be a good definition of "worship"? Well, I would propose something along the lines of "paying due homage to a person worthy of receiving it", hence the word "worship" does not have a uniquely ecclesiastical usage. Going back to the time of Chaucer, at the very beginnings of English literature, "worship" was used as an honorific title for mayors, which was eventually extended also to Justices of the Peace and magistrates. As such, worship is an act of respect, not something from which to gain gratification.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Must Try Harder

I was recently asked if I had given up writing this blog, which is understandable given the last time I posted some thoughts was back in March, and that to tell people that I was tinkering with the design.

I write much less on this blog than I do for Fuggled largely because I prefer to write longer, more in-depth posts than I do other there. It is quite easy to write for Fuggled at times, simply because I am writing about something I do rather than something I think about in great depth. I am sure this is a sign of being a zythophilic dilentante, but I simply don't spending ages reflecting on the nature of a hop pellet or similar.

Thinking though on things philosophical and religious is something that potters through my head an awful lot, and my opinions are constantly being challenged and melded, as such I post when I have worked through the process more thoroughly. Perhaps though, that should change? Perhaps I should post my half baked thoughts and ideas in the hope that people will comment and a discussion ensue? Perhaps the blog should become less a pulpit from which to pontificate and more a forum for conversation (kind of the point of Web 2.0 anyway)?

So, in 2011 I will try to post more regularly, and hope that readers will engage with the posts by commenting, even if you disagree viciously with me - tell me why and try to present a reasoned argument - aggressive, bigoted and offensive comments will be simply deleted.