Free To Think…Bound to Serve
Christianity is more Doing than Doctrine:
Half of every relationship with God is the individual. God, who is timeless and constant, is known “as in a mirror dimly” while we live. We, who change and die, find our knowledge of God change throughout our lives. And we not only differ from our younger selves or who we shall become. We differ from each other. Temperament, experience, inclination give our approach to life different emphases. We each have our own perspective.
Some Christian traditions address this fact by establishing doctrine as definitive. Individuals subscribe to set teachings, by an act of will, and forgive themselves privately for being puzzled or unpersuaded by some of the formulations. Personal conviction is in the authority of the church which has decreed dogma.
Our tradition takes a different approach. We urge that for religion to be real, it must be based on a person’s honest beliefs. This means that each individual trusts himself or herself as a reader of scripture and a thinker about what is revealed there about God. We know we shall each understand God a bit differently from each other, and that the inevitable limitation of our understanding will carry through all the concepts which are part of our religious life. We trust God’s grace and the Spirit’s work to keep us in community, and to keep us ministering to the world.
We are required, as followers of Jesus Christ, to love others. Feeding, healing, forgiving, clothing, and paying attention to those with needs is the way Jesus embodied God’s approach to life. We must do the same. The twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel states that it is caring for other people, and not profession of religious views, which counts with God.
The church long has aimed to make its Christianity a matter of active service, and long has accepted open, earnest inquiry as part of its character. For twenty years we’ve summed up this approach to discipleship with the credo “Free to Think, Bound to Serve.”
THIS MONTH’S ESSAY FROM THE PASTOR
On an outing the English religious historian Henry Chadwick discovered a shop selling old books. He went in to browse. The proprietor, the only other person present, watched him for a while, and then approached. In a confidential voice he said he felt he had something in his back room that Chadwick might find especially interesting. Intrigued, the historian followed the shop owner through a curtain at the rear. Shelf after shelf of books on astrology met his gaze, and the evident surprise he felt made the bookseller realize he’d read his customer wrong. The owner of the books hastily said, gesturing to the astrology books, “Oh–It’s not like it’s a religion to me. I just live my life by it.”
Had the bookstore owner known that Chadwick was a priest in the Church of England, he might have considered his words more carefully. Everyone knows the church insists that religion is the thing by which persons are supposed to live. The embarrassed, unreflective admission by which the shopkeeper revealed that he followed the guidance of the stars and distinguished the real authority in his life from religion, however, is truer to human nature. People understand how they are supposed to think about things, but they often have a different, private perspective by which they lead their lives.
Chadwick had the advantage of an outsider’s eyes and ears in learning this about the man in the bookstore. His own interest in religion–the scrutiny of the more obscure old volumes concerning which must have misled the other man–meant that the difference between religion and the source of guidance for the other man’s life rang out to him in a way in might not have done to another person. The word “religion” often is used merely to convey something habitual, which people feel compelled to do–like “brushing one’s teeth religiously.”
The bookman may have subsequently reviewed the scene in his mind and realized what he’d said. He was taken by surprise, and forced to regard his own accustomed way of life through another’s eyes. Insight into ourselves by introspection is harder to gain than the accidental self-knowledge gotten when we discover what another person thinks.
What is our religion? What is it by which we live our lives? People are famously bad at recognizing how they value different things, particularly when some have strong social approval. People will over-report worship attendance, not in order to fool the survey taker, but deceiving themselves.
How can we begin to weigh which of the demands of being a church has been most important to us? We might count up how many hours and how many dollars are invested in what. The gospels tell us, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” That doesn’t mean that we’re to give our time and money to what means the most to us. That means that where we’ve put our time and money already shows us what’s most important to us.
It’s a hard world in which to keep our focus on the main thing. It’s easy to stand for the importance of forgiveness but bear a grudge, to espouse “whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good report, think about these things” and spend our time thinking about things which anger us, to aspire to living by something important and trustworthy and make our decisions based on personal whims and material considerations. It’s very human to be like this. God help us be better, and not only to know, but through our time in prayer and with others, make