Faith Works 1-7-17
Tangible actions vs. spiritual understandings
Welcome, 2017; the new year has begun, and the completion of twelve years here with this "Faith Works" column.
Aimed as it always has been at people of good will, no matter what their particular belief system, we're looking together at how faith works in the lives of Licking Countians. We're a more diverse group than demographics might lead you to think, but this is a predominately Christian community, and even our atheism tends to be Judeo-Christian in outlook.
I try to make no bones about the fact that I am a Christian, indeed even a Protestant pastor, with all the assumptions and expectations that might come with that role; my training and experience and practice are out of that background, and they make for a certain lens through which I focus my interests around faith and religion and spirituality.
What I hope I am able to do in this space, and I offer up these sorts of reflections every year or so as a reminder, is to create a forum for mutual understanding and communication between varieties of religious experience, as William James might put it. My first editor at this, Michael Shearer, was interested in how we might create a platform for not just the 25-30% of local residents who are active members of churches, but an opening through which the 70% who don't express their faith in that way might see and be seen as well.
If my email and the occasional piece of written mail are any indication, this column frustrates both those certain their is no such thing as a spiritual side to life, and those who are absolutely certain that there is but one way to comprehend and relate in practice to the divine intention, and they have it down pat. It's risky to say if I'm irritating both those camps, I'm doing this right, but it does seem to be a good sign.
Truth be told, sometimes I say good things about groups that I don't agree with, and I also feel like I need to poke hard at my own side in debates and discussions. I come out of the mainline/oldline Protestant tradition, which has not had a good century; my formative influences have been evangelical enough for me to speak the language, but my life in ministry has tracked with the rise, fall, and resurgence of a political religious right whose assumptions leave me disgruntled at best, disturbed at worst.
And for everyone who says to me — and yes, I hear this again and again — that they don't need to attend worship in a building or join a church to know God, I hope I've been consistent in this space in saying "you're right . . . but do you?" God is "out" there, but a worship service is for me and many a necessary tool to sharpen and refine my spiritual meanderings if left to my own internal devices. Churches are indeed full of hypocrites, of whom I am the foremost (sorry, Paul). But it's that jostling and rubbing of shoulders and opinions and certainties that helps me become more aware of how my personal faith can become a private obsession, drifting farther away from the true good, from God alone.
So there will, as long as this column runs, be a bias towards what is sometimes dismissively called "organized religion." Those of us who practice it always chuckle at that phrase, since we know just how organized we are. (Sigh.) And I am acutely aware that more and more, the words "religion" and even "church" provoke some strong reactions. One of the areas I hope to explore in 2017, with those of you both inside and outside of those terms, is why this reaction continues to gather strength.
Because in my own experience, the church as an intentionally gathered body of believers has worked pretty hard in the last generation to be more accountable, less hierarchical, and truly faithful to the teachings of Jesus. But I hear from those who are at work in congregational life who claim a faithfulness to Buddha, or Muhammad, or simply to HaShem, Adonai . . . that there's an anti-institutional urge in today's culture that pushes against us all.
That's one of the reasons that, though my faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is firm, I am more than willing to be open in dialogue and discussion and the occasional debate with those whose experience is different than my own. I think we all might learn from such conversations in 2017!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what conversations have been fruitful in your faith life at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.