Gather Us In, or A Rant in Defense of Organized Religion

I'm sorry, I can't write this any other way.  I am sick to death of people (white people, enlightened seekers, well-meaning agnostics who were scarred by the experiences of growing up in less than forgiving communities) bleating about how they dislike "organized religion."  As if they know the first thing about what it means to participate in a tradition or belong to a Church.

There, I said it.  Now stone me.  But, first, listen for a moment.  Please.  Because maybe, just maybe what Krishnamurti so famously told the Theosophists when they hoped to recognize him as the World Teacher wasn't the whole of the story about what it means to be a Church.  Maybe there is a point to participating in a tradition, a community of worship, following others in the journey of life.

No, I can tell you aren't listening, don't want to listen, know that what I am going to say will make you frustrated and upset.  You don't want to be told what to think--nor do I--and for you, that is all that a Church (a.k.a. "organized religion") is ever going to be.  A conduit for oppression, corruption and fear.  You've been there, I know it.  Feeling yourself oppressed by what others think, wanting to doubt and explore and find truth through experience, and there everyone in the Church was, telling you that they already had all of the answers, that you were lost, fallen, damned for wanting to be free.

But free of what?  The wisdom of thousands of years of thinking about the deep problem of what it means to human, mortal, capable of suffering and of inflicting suffering on others?  The tradition of worship built up over centuries, with all of its art, music, architecture and liturgy, the ages jostling together week after week as the Church lifts her voice in praise of God?  The mixture of cultures to which the Church has adapted herself, following St. Gregory's advice to St. Augustine of Canterbury not to destroy the shrines of the old religion, but rather reconsecrate them to the worship of God, such that now God is worshiped in all the languages of humanity on all the continents of the earth?

"Oh," but you'll say, "what about the Crusades?  The Inquisition?  The Puritans?  What about all of the wars fought in the name of God, the Lilliputian squabbles over matters of doctrine, the small town gossips putting unwed mothers and free thinkers to shame? Wouldn't it be better for everyone just to believe what he wants and not try to force anybody else to believe?"  Well, yes, so why are you trying to convince me that belonging to a community (a.k.a. "organized religion") is a slippery slope to war, murder, social ostracism and fear?  And why are you so sure that everybody within the Church thinks that he knows all of the answers?

Our bishop Jeffrey Lee put it best a few weeks ago in the sermon that he gave while visiting our parish.  "The opposite of faith," he observed, "is not doubt, but certainty."  That is, having doubts is a part of faith; being absolutely certain is the opposite of faith.  The question is, where do you look for answers?  Some might choose to go off into the desert to look for God for themselves.  Others look to the scriptures, the writings of the ancients, the prophets, the enlightened, the Buddha.  Yet others look to the larger tradition of interpretation, argument, philosophizing, questioning that we call the history of doctrine and theology.  And yet others look to the community of worship that has built up over the centuries in faith--not certainty, but faith--that God has revealed Himself truthfully through His incarnation, His teaching, His death and resurrection, His apostles and saints, and that when the Church gathers together to celebrate communion, it comes together with this community as a whole, over time and across the world, to thank Him for the blessings of life and salvation that He has given His children.

"But why," I can hear you asking, "should I worship God in the way that anybody else does?*  Why should I do it in a group?  Why can't I just worship God in my own way, without all the trappings and structure?"  Well, you can.  Nobody--literally, nobody--is stopping you.  You can set up your shrine or prayer corner or book rest and worship (or not) and pray (or not) and meditate (or not) exactly as you choose.  The Church itself recognizes a long tradition of private prayer and devotions; even monks, immersed as they were (and are) in the liturgy of the Hours, spent (and spend) hours in private reading, meditation and prayer.  You can try centering prayer, read the great spiritual classics of other traditions, go on solitary pilgrimages and retreats.  You can do everything you want to make God personally your own--but in so doing, you will hardly be unique, or alone.

This is the great mystery and joy of worshiping with and in the Church: even as it lifts its voice in chorus with the angels in praise of God ("Glory to God in the highest"), it sings not as one voice, but as many, every soul unique in the sight of God, every soul precious and different, every soul called upon--yes--to doubt and question and seek and wonder because no one soul could ever encompass the whole of what it means to understand God.  As Augustine put it, "If you can understand it, it is not God."  And if others disagree with you, well, that is part of the chorus, too.  God gave us reason for a reason: not so that we would go bleating to the altar like so many sheep, but so that we would question and think and grow in understanding over our individual lifetimes and over the lifetime of the Church.

Yes, the Church (as an institution) has made (social and political) mistakes in the past.  But the Church knows more now than it did a hundred or five hundred or a thousand or two thousand years ago because the Church has been enriched by the thinking and questioning and doubting of millions upon millions of believers.  Like Peter and Paul and Origen and Augustine and Gregory and Bede and John of Damascus and Paschasius and Peter Damian and Abelard and Heloise and Hildegard and Bernard and William of Newburgh and Jacques de Vitry and Francis and Dominic and Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus and William of Occam and Brigit of Sweden and Catherine of Siena and Jean Gerson and Jan Mombaer and Martin Luther and John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley and Cardinal Newman and Friedrich Schleiermacher and Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar and Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis and Marilynn Robinson--to name only a few of the ones that I can remember off the top of my head.

And yet, when we gather together in church to sing hymns, listen to our pastors preach, and take communion together, we are all there as one, struggling, doubting, questioning that which we cannot know for certain but nevertheless believe.  And, yes, there are tensions when one group of believers starts to think that it has determined the answers more clearly than others, but that is only a sign that the Church is still learning, still questioning and wondering and seeking the truth.  Heaven forbid that we should all agree--as if it were possible to solve the mystery of understanding God.

The real question is, with so many who have gone on this journey of understanding before us as an example (and a caution), why would we want to go it alone?

As Marty Haugen put it in his beautiful communion hymn,
Here in this place new light is streaming.
Now is the darkness vanished away,
See in this space our fears and our dreaming,
Brought here to you in the light of this day.
Gather us in: the lost and forsaken,
gather us in: the blind and the lame;
Call to us now, and we shall awaken,
we shall arise at the sound of our name.

We are the young; our lives are a myst'ry,
We are the old, who yearn for your face,
We have been sung throughout all of hist'ry,
Called to be light to the whole human race.
Gather us in: the rich and the haughty,
gather us in: the proud and the strong;
give us a heart so meek and so lowly,
give us the courage to enter the song.

Here we will take the wine and the water,
here we will take the bread of new birth,
here you shall call your sons and your daughters,
call us anew to be salt for the earth.
Give us to drink the wine of compassion,
give us to eat the bread that is you;
nourish us well, and teach us to fashion
lives that are holy and hearts that are true.

Not in the dark of buildings confining,
not in some heaven, light years away,
but here in this place the new light is shining,
now is the Kingdom, now is the day.
Gather us in and hold us forever,
Gather us in and make us your own;
Gather us in: all peoples together,
fire of love in our flesh and our bone.

--"Gather Us In" (GIA Publications, Inc., 1982).

*I am assuming here, simply for the sake of argument, that you actually want to worship God in some fashion or other. If you have no theology (i.e. no thoughts about God, no sense that you should engage in worship), that would of course be a different argument altogether.


  1. Speaking as a non-believer who feels no need to believe or worship, I found this an interesting essay on what you get out of congregation and worship. Feeling part of something larger and longer must be a warm, enveloping experience :)

    I would suggest though that doubt isn't part of faith, it's just part of being alive, if we're honest with ourselves. Faith is one way of addressing that doubt, but it's possible to just live in the impasse and recognize that some things just don't have answers.

  2. Thanks, Allison, but also, arrrgh! This is why I don't tend to like writing apologetics. It is so hard to get the tone and argument right. I never meant to suggest that doubt is exclusive to faith, just that faith is not to be equated with certainty. Indeed, to go with your suggestion, I would say that living with faith is in fact living with constant doubt. That is what is so hard to get across to those (like yourself) who identify themselves as non-believers. It is not that those of us who are (as one of our fellow fencers has described it to me) doomed to have faith feel like we know anything more; it is rather that we are stuck constantly asking the questions.

    But you are right: feeling oneself part of something larger is a wonderful, enveloping experience. That was definitely my main point in this post!

  3. From a white guy, who incidentally never said a word about being against organized religion since my blog is specifically referenced above.

    I'm all about an informed apology, so thanks Fencing Bear.

    I like Krishnamurti because of what he says about education. What he told the Theosophists was spot on, that organization was defunct, needed to be disbanded.

    I just believe that he only began becoming a teacher when he stopped having people tell him a bogus destiny. Or, did he become the World Teacher because he left them with them yaps hanging open?

  4. @Robert: I think Krishnamurti was probably very definitely right to be wary of the role that the Theosophists were trying to give him. (See Peter Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America [1996]). The problem is that the label "organized religion" has since been used more or less indiscriminately to condemn all forms of communal worship, never mind the historical, institutional, and theological differences between such organizations as the Theosophical Society and the Church. Just count this as one of my red flags!

  5. I agree with you that faith != certainty. I think the frustration of non-believers is that we've run into too many believers that DO treat faith as a substitute for certainty. Clearly you come from a much more thoughtful perspective :)

  6. @Allison: Ah, the benefits of being an Episcopalian! But, yes, I am fortunate to belong to a very thoughtful parish as well as having a thoughtful bishop for our diocese. We were even featured in a video on the national website.

  7. Point taken, red flag acknowledged.


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