Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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At the risk of self-identifying as grumpy, I’d like to ask, “Why does anyone think it’s a good idea to invent your own religion?” Blogger and UCC pastor Candace Chellew Hodge has tested this in her community college class in comparative religion and come up with some rather predictable results.* She asked her class to create a religion “from whole cloth,” but reminded them that their religion must include some common elements like doctrine, dogma, music, rituals, and reformers. What resulted were highly individualistic, private sets of beliefs and practices aimed at personal growth and enrichment that eschewed religious leaders, dispensed for the most part with community, and avoided any kind of punishment for not following the religion’s prescriptions.
Somehow this sounded vaguely familiar. Does anyone remember H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous admonition in his book The Kingdom of God in America, written in 1937? (OK. Grumpy and old!) In his critique of the naïve theological liberalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he summarized the prevailing temperament: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” If nothing else, this proves that most “inventions” come with a lengthy history!
Admittedly, wrath, sin, and judgment are a tough sell among millenials today. If the various religious opinion surveys tell us anything, it is that the only thing worse than judgmental religion is hypocritical religion. Niebuhr, of course, was not about to endorse the embrace of fire and brimstone religion aimed at bringing us to a point of base humiliation. He was, however, interested in the kind of robust faith that stood some chance of making sense of a world in which sin and evil are not inventions of the fundamentalist, but realities faced daily by those in bondage to oppressions, afflictions, guilt, sufferings and addictions of all sorts. In other words, all of us.
In a provocative essay titled On Thinking Institutionally, political scientist Hugh Heclo identifies “faithful reception” as a mark of institutional thinking:
“As a basic orientation toward life, institutional thinking understands itself to be in a position primarily of receiving rather than of inventing or creating. . . . Faithful reception gives life meaning by establishing a connection with exterior referents from the past that have, in a sense, already gone beyond and outlived you, and done so to your benefit.”
Contrast this, Heclo says, to the one who “rejects all such inherited values as cultural oppressions. Meaning is to be found in self-creation.” Religion, on the other hand, rather than an invention, is quintessentially the practice that “establishes a connection with exterior referents” – community, the world, God.
Consider our practice on Ash Wednesday, a liturgy that for centuries has been a way to acknowledge the finitude we can’t escape but would rather not admit. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Invented religion rarely goes here, even though death, failure, limitation, and sorrow haunt and indeed terrify most of us. The imposition of ashes is a sign not of the world we’d like to invent but of the world in which we actually live. As such it points to a religion worthy of reception, not to a gnostic flight into some spiritual never-never land.
To receive ashes is to receive a religion that touches our deepest and most ultimate concerns. The institutions that have borne it across the centuries have done much to discredit it and those of us who have led those institutions bear significant responsibility for the fact that many in the younger generation imagine better alternatives of their own devising. But invention is a perilous task when it comes to religion, for in its numerous avoidances it misses the very thing that would make it most meaningful.
John H. Thomas
Ash Wednesday, 2014