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The Focus of Faith

18 Nov

Schleiermacher: “We should have fewer complaints of the increase of the sectarian spirit and of factious religious associations, if so many of the clergy were not without understanding of religious wants and emotions. Their stand-point generally is too low.”

A bit earlier Schleiermacher makes the point that one would not go to an art enthusiast or critic to understand the true spirit of art, but rather to a genuine artist, one who actually creates the work that these others only observe – from the outside, as it were. When observed from an objective standpoint, religion is a “production” of sort, a more or less complex arrangement of doctrinal beliefs, ritual practices, and moral precepts that support and justify a way of life.

If you were to interview a professing member of such a religious society – what I refer to as a “tribe” – and inquire into the essence of his or her faith, most would respond with observations concerning this arrangement. These particular doctrines trace back in time to a founding figure (a mystic seer, inspired prophet, or divine savior) or forward in time to the Final Days; these specific rituals unify the members and confirm their shared identity; and these rules for life maintain good order and improve one’s prospects in the life hereafter.

Schleiermacher was an ordained minister in the Reformed tradition, a heritage that stresses order and compliance with orthodoxy. His own insider experience made him realize how many of his fellow clergy were serving as little more than house managers of “the faith.” All of this outward expression – the external arrangement of religion – has accumulated over time into what might be called the “denominational set,” and it is the pastor’s job to be sure that the joints are tight and the gears properly oiled.

As in the analogy with art, faith can be viewed from the outside by enthusiasts and critics, where it is some “thing” observed – an objective arrangement, a denominational set, a noun. But if you should inquire with a living artist, or in this case with an individual for whom religion is a dynamic process and profound experience, you would hear more references to the mystery in it and the movement of it. Faith, from this internal vantage-point of experience – the phenomenon and phenomenology of it – is a verb: fluid, moving and alive.

Is it fair to lay responsibility for the sectarian spirit and factious religious associations on the shoulders of clergy? Of course not. But Schleiermacher is only saying that we would have less of these things if only our clergy (religious leaders) were more in touch with the internal lives of people than they are concerned about butts in the pews and budget bottom lines.

What do people really want? What are we looking for? Toward the beginning of this First Speech, Schleiermacher summarizes the twin preoccupations of external religion (the faith as noun) as “providence and immortality.” Outer religion – the one that is managed by the clergy-as-custodian – comforts people with the teaching that God is in control, that God loves us and will take care of us. What’s more, hanging on and waiting it out will eventually win for us the heavenly Door Prize of everlasting life. Just believe, and you’re good.

Personally, I believe that providence and immortality are more like “positive illusions” that help people cope with the changing nature of our lives, with our limited control over how things go, and with the general burden of existence – specifically with the inescapable fate of death. At one level, the two preoccupations of religion provide an important service to culture by helping us keep our sanity and stay in the game. There are countless clergy who are in that same space and feel called to manage the denominational status quo.

But what about the rest of us – and there is a rising number – who have come to appreciate freedom and flow, mystery and depth, spontaneity and change in their lives? What about those of us who don’t need to stretch our life-lines into an endless future in order to hold and celebrate the value of this moment in time? What about those who, like Henry David Thoreau, want to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” – not as mere pleasure-seekers but in order to take on the full mystery of what it is to be human, in our particular time and place?

What are the “religious wants and emotions” that move our lives, before we get to church or even join a religion? For now, at least this much can be said: Faith is deeper than religion, it preexists doctrines, and it may or may not benefit from what organized religion has to offer. It’s about experience and what you do with the mystery at the center and all around your precious passing life.

It’s time to pay attention.

 

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One response to “The Focus of Faith

  1. Kris M

    November 19, 2012 at 11:50 pm

    >>Is it fair to lay responsibility for the sectarian spirit and factious religious associations on the shoulders of clergy?
    I think it is. Here’s why:
    From my point of view, there are many levels of religion:
    – Gravity
    – Bouncing Ball
    – Basketball game

    Gravity affects us whether we believe in it or not. You can experience its presence without understanding it (Mystery).
    The bouncing ball is aware of gravity and uses the presence of gravity. To me, this is like “faith”. I have to be aware of “something” to believe in “something”. I’m not sure why it works, but it does.
    Organized religion is the basketball game. Faith is used, experienced, tossed around by those who do it well (Michael Jordan) and those who don’t (apparently anyone on this list http://www.aolnews.com/2011/01/24/the-works-who-are-the-nbas-worst-players/).

    If the rules aren’t being followed, hard to follow, or shouldn’t be followed in a basketball game, the NBA (in some form or fashion) is blamed. I make the same analogy.

    >>It’s about experience and what you do with the mystery at the center and all around your precious passing life.
    Agreed. Since I have no skills in the third and very little in the second, I’ll stick with accepting the existence of the first and keep living.

     

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