Thursday, 21 July 2011

On Denominations and Preferance

[Apologies for ugly white space errors. I seem unable to remove them.]

The other day I wrote a post explaining one reason I prefered liturgical churches, and received some positive feedback on it. In this post I am not contradicting that, but I am going to suggest that that preference, though obviously shared by others, is still personal and non-objective. In so doing, I am going to explain one way that I envision denominationalism, which is mainly wild speculation on my part. Don't expect much reasoned argument. On an entirely separate note, I will begin this post with a brief discussion of Hinduism, because it was in my readings of Hinduism that I begin to think this way about denominations.

In The World's Religions, Huston Smith writes of Hinduism the following:

The spiritual trails that Hindus have blazed toward this goal [to unite the human spirit with God] are four. At first this may seem surprising. If there is one goal, should there not be one path to it? This might be the case if we were all starting from the same point [...]. As it is, people approach the goal from different directions, so there must be multiple trails to the common destination.
Where one starts from depends on the kind of person one is. The point has not been lost on Western spiritual directors. One of the most noted of these, Father Surin, for example, criticized "directors who get a plan into their heads which they apply to all the souls who come to them, trying to bring them into line with it like one who should wish all to wear the same clothes." St. John of the Cross called attention to the same danger when he wrote in The Living Flame that the aim of spiritual directors should "not be to guide souls by a way suitable to themselves, but to ascertain the way by which God Himself is pointing them." What is distinctive in Hinduism is the amount of attention it has devoted to identifying basic spiritual personality types and the disciplines that are most likely to work for each. The result is a recognition, pervading the entire religion, that there are multiple paths to God, each calling for its
distinctive mode of travel.

From which recognition develops the four different yogas in Hinduism. (Actual Hindu yoga is a different order of thing than the sort of lululemon yoga we see in North America; one kind of yoga, for instance, mainly concerns study of Scriptures, while another involves working hard. Body positions are limited to one facet of a certain kind of yoga.) At any rate, what is interesting is the fundamental recognition in Hinduism that "People are different." [Note: that Brahma is often depicted with four faces, as in the photo above, is not to my knowledge related to the existence of four yogas.]

I've done a little denomination hopping in my twenty-and-so years so far, and I can see strengths and weaknesses in each. As I recently outlined, I think that the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses of some ways of doing things and that that's less the case for other ways of doing things. But I constantly find myself coming back to this point that people are different and that these different people have different needs. That is, I know that some people are in such a position that they can't find God in "ceremony." I think this is a bloody shame in the same way I think it's a shame that some people don't like to eat raisins or don't like looking at insects, but I nonetheless sympathize. (Well, I have a hard time sympathizing with anti-insect sentiments. They're just so cute.) I especially sympathize because abuses from whatever church they grew up in could be part of why they can't tolerate that sort of service.

For this reason, while I would not want to attend the sort of church with lots of hand-raising and spontaneous hallelujahs and dancing in the aisles (I cannot emphasize how much I would not want to attend such a chuch), I do encourage their existence. There may be people for whom this is the best path to God, and it is not my place to decide that they must instead sit still in a pew when we sing and must walk calmly and quietly when coming up to receive Eucharist. And I'll also thank-you very much for not calling the way I do things mystifying and bloodless.

So even though I sympathize with the desire to universalize all church services, to insist that churches all incorporate more responsive reading/ Scripture/ spontaneity/ traditional hymns/ what have you, I want to suggest that that's a bad idea. Basic human variation, locally and across geographies, suggests that we should have different churches that have different ways of worshipping God. Of course, we already have this: denominations. The bonus with denominations is that this allows for difference within a region but similarity across regions; in my last post, Leah commented that she liked universal liturgy because you could go to any Catholic church in the country and know what to expect. Of course that's not always true of Protestant or Anglican churches, but you'll still know that Anglicans and Lutherans will be more litugical while Baptist and Pentacostal churchs will be far less so.

The trouble, however, with taking denominations as simply different in worship style is that that's outright false. Different denominations--different parishes, even--differ not only in practice but in doctrine. I have always found that it is easier to disagree with doctrine than with service style, but there are some doctrines I find too odious to put up with. I have a low tolerance for sexism or homophobia, for instance, and this rather limits my choices. And, unfortunately, certain political positions tend for whatever reason to congregate around certain worship styles. To take denominations as entirely aesthetic and not semantic in difference would be an enormous factual error.

Nonetheless, I will continue to defend the right to worship in ways I find incomprehensible, so long as churches do not violate issues of social justice, and I will tend to choose churches more on worship style than on doctrinal content, beyond certain cut-off points. (This may in part be due to the knowledge that I am probably heterodox in almost any church I enter. But there are places where doctrine crosses over into practice and politics and I am unwilling to tolerate some of those consequences.) This also means that I place a high value on ecumenism, but not on dissolving all denominational distinctions. Due to doctrinal differences, we must have theological conversations across denominations, and due to differences in practice, we can learn practical things from one another as well. But I do not think I would, given the chance, remove the system of denominations wholesale. After all, people are different.

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