More Adventures in Church Attendance: Whither Escapism?

As is typically the case when I’m at church, I am thinking about other things. To think about things religious amongst religious people, I find, generates deep antipathy and annoyance on my part. This is a moral failing, perhaps, a vice from which I should repent as readily as I might avarice or arrogance; but it is, I suspect, the one I will release last, at last, even, upon my dying breath, when faced with the possibility that it is time to “get serious,” or at the very least “make peace.” This past weekend, the third Sunday of Advent, I once again found my mind elsewhere, despite having arrived late enough in the service to miss the threats of silent, holy nights rudely, if you ask me, interrupted by herald angels singing about glory and newborn kings. As I strained to wrestle my attention into submission, not unlike Jacob grappling (not without pleasure, I’m sure) for a blessing from a divine stranger, I settled for a compromise — that of applying something I’d rather be doing to what I decided to do instead. I found myself, in short, thinking some more about Elias Canetti’s book Crowds & Power, but this time through the filter of my recent experience as a congregant at a local United Church of Christ, which came quite suddenly (randomly, if you were to ask my wife) after a decade of non-attendance that at the time I had considered an obsessively scribbled period, a terminal punctuation punching its way to a troublesomely deep bruise of black and blue, to nearly two decades of participation in evangelical Christianity.

The discharge is denied to the slow crowd. we could say that this was its most important distinguishing mark and, instead of slow crowds, we could speak of crowds which have no discharge. But the first term is preferable, for the discharge cannot be entirely renounced. It will always be contained in the conception of the final state. It is only postponed to a far distance; where the goal is, there too is the discharge. a vision of it is always strongly persist, though its actuality lies at the end of the way.

The slow crowd tends to lengthen and protract the process which leads to the discharge. The great religions have developed a particular mastery of this business of delay. Their concern is to keep the followers they have won and, in order to do this and also to win new ones, they have to assemble them from time to time. Such assemblies will result in violent discharges and, once these have happened, they have to be repeated and, if possible, surpassed in violence. Their regular recurrence, at least, is essential if the unity of the faithful is not to be lost. But the events likely to happen in the course of services enacted, as there are, by rhythmic crowds, cannot be controlled over large distances. The central problem of the universal religions is how to dominate believers spread over wide stretches of the earth. The only way to do it is by a conscious slowing down of crowd events. Distant goals must gain in importance, near ones losing more and more of their weight until, in the end, they appear valueless. An earthly discharge is too brief; only one which is removed into the world beyond has permanence. (p. 41)

I’d read these lines a couple of weeks ago already, and while I have a terrible memory in general the gist of them returned to me as I listened to the sermon. And lest the good Reverend should happen upon this blog — she knows it exists and of my participation — I want to speak plainly here: the sermon itself was fine. Not great, perhaps; but fine. Serviceable for a Sunday morning. But perhaps its propriety is what prompted the connection to vaguely untoward thoughts: namely about why mainline, liberal churches are, if we are to measure these things by volume, are today culturally irrelevant, a virtually unknown quantity in the equation puzzled over by irreligious people trying to piece together what Christianity is about.

Deviating only a bit from Canetti — there’s no rule one has to agree with a book one loves (in fact, disagreement is probably far better) — I concluded that the prominence of evangelical Christianity has nothing to do with the stuff of belief. That is to say, nothing to do with the mainline church’s loosey-goosey way with exegesis, its hot and cold attitude toward homosexuality, or its commitment to social justice. In my experience, you are just as likely to find many of the same confessional traits throughout many an evangelical church, even. The preexisting political and ethical inclinations of their parishioners notwithstanding, I think what really distinguishes evangelical churches is that their highest prizes, things like personal healing, forgiveness, a personal relationship with God, etc., are in fact highly attainable goals. They are rewards that can be enjoyed now, even if the fruits of this possession are not truly realized until some later time (this true possession, the heavenly prize, let’s say, aligns closely to Canetti’s notion of “discharge,” as a kind of release from individualism and differentiation — a radical egalitarianism that can be put off until even after death).

Mainline, liberal churches, on the other hand, are in their own peacenik ways doom-and-gloom to a extent that even the most hell-fire fundamentalist churches can’t quite muster. With the purest of intentions, they are consumed week in and week out with the systemic, societal failings of this world. Faced with the compounding inequity of poverty borne of greed and perpetuated by climate change, one can’t help but wonder sometimes whether it was foolish ever to think knowledge might ever be confused with power. To put it back into the framework of Canetti, one wonders whether the goal is situated too far into an unimaginable future; whether the liberal church is maybe not sufficiently escapist; and whether this is all a feature, rather than a bug.

14 thoughts on “More Adventures in Church Attendance: Whither Escapism?

  1. Would you comment a bit more on your statement, “one can’t help but wonder sometimes whether it was foolish ever to think knowledge might ever be confused with power.” Is this a comment on a false hope of ‘knowledge’ as means of change? If we know the reason for or source of the problem we can address it.

  2. Just to clarify: I am not extolling the tired virtue “ignorance is bliss.” That’s like like equating death with peace, without reflecting on the abrupt violence at work in even the most drawn-out death, the ongoing violence of decay at work within long-dead corpses, and the violent seizure of memory the deceased has on the living.

    As it is my wont to do, I am interested in qualifying, if not clarifying, things. That is to say, I would agree that knowledge is an aspect of power, while all the same wondering whether it is as responsible for the possibility & occurrence of power as those with knowledge might think. Now, of course, there is a certain level of power, that of the will, where some measure knowledge is crucial — without it you have just ignorant acting out. But doesn’t the latter seem a little hypothetical? Our wills are all informed to some extent by knowledge, no? At any rate, on this level, knowledge does harness agency into a coherent act, if not necessarily one with the desired effect. (Surely we could all reel off a litany of examples where the over-thought-out act flopped horribly, and compare it unfavorably to the ill-informed, if informed at all, act that happened to fall “ass-backward” into success to which it wasn’t even aspiring.)

  3. I think as you read Canetti, you may decide that poverty is not “borne of greed”, but is an outcome deemed acceptable by beings consumed with survival and significance. Greed is a symptom of a much deeper and broader problem.

  4. Bruce, you may well be right, re: Canetti and the “deeper and broader problem” that is greed. Maybe I’ll get to that in another post. For the sake of further clarification, though, in that sentence you cite I was referring not to my own deeply held convictions, though I suppose they are not totally alien to me, but rather to a summary version of what is preached, prayed about, etc. at my church on a weekly basis. Re-reading it, I see there is some ambiguity there.

  5. I wonder if there’s a sense in which liberal churches are more meaningfully apocalyptic as well, insofar as the gap between social reality and the utopia of “social justice” seems so unbridgeable in practice.

  6. Thanks for posting this.

    Is there any tinge of apocalyptic thinking in your corner of the UCC-universe? Is it only passed through as it is on the liturgical calendar and revised lectionary between Christ the King Sunday (or “Christ the Ruler” in UCC talk) and Advent?

    Traditionally in mainline churches, and I am thinking of their Wesleyan leanings, isn’t what is “unveiled” is the program for or of social holiness, that the “New Creation” may be realized through social change? The problem with this is that “social holiness” is a muted form of “social justice,” and usually gets caught up in sexuality and the debates usually end there. Mainliners like to argue about homosexuality because this issue successfully limits debates about true justice. This is not to say that there is not injustice on this issue, but it has been constructed to be such a huge issue on both sides that poverty, racism, etc. now gets framed by the language, politics, and limitations of this issue and its debate.

    The one time I ever attended a United Methodist annual conference was in Northern Illinois in 2003. They actually debated for nearly an hour the inclusion of Tombstone Pizza on a resolution calling for a boycott of foods produced by Philip-Morris. This didn’t solve anything, and I doubt that it accomplished anything other than keeping the church from really being the church. But yet this issue was presided over by a bishop who championed the cause of social justice and had just survived, and perhaps narrowly survived, a chage of heresey. But by the church being the church, complete with its curia and voting delegates present, again, the church failed to be the church.

    One thing I have been thinking about as I am constructing an outline for a collaborative project a colleague and I are gearing up to write together is Jacob Taubes’ critique of Christianity in his book Occidental Eschatology. Essentially my appropriation is this: The liturgical calendar and liturgical time prevents any sense of Parousia. The church and its worship cause those of us who still participate to live in green time, ordinary time, even while passing through the extraordinariness of the high church seasons. We have allowed the culture to mesh Christmas and Advent together, so that not only do neither have any apocalyptic meaning but they no longer have any religious meaning, either. And the discourse of many churches during this time of year is one of lament to fully realize the absence of religion from this religious season.

    OK, sorry to rant, and I’m thinking out loud about this, so this discussion is helpful for me…

  7. Chris, that last section on your project is very intriguing. I used to be a strong proponent of liturgical ordering of time (a phrase that could be debated on definition I suppose). This Advent, however, I have been preaching through the Romans passages and of course there is no ‘Christmas story’ in Paul. The reading, for me, then becomes the work of Paul birthing Christ in his churches (Gal 4:19). Advent is the immediate story of birth, miscarriage, abortion, etc. within present communities as opposed to the hopeless ‘repetition’ of trying to ‘create’ a sense of anticipation by recycling the old narrative and artificially trying to shove it into a context that will not receive it.
    In any event, the comment made me want to take a look at Taubes’s text. Thanks.

  8. Isn’t this a problem highlighted by Machiavelli? That is, the truly ideal political realm is something that Christianity makes so ideal that it is impossible. That in turn means that Christians tend to ignore concrete politics because their ideal realm is so implausible. Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) thus actually make humankind unpolitical, permanently dissatisified with real-life politics, and unable to pinpoint any intermediary steps between bad to mediocre to good regimes. I.E. all political entities end up being more or less equally bad compared to the time of the Messiah (or David) for Judaism, or the end times for Christians, etc.

    I think Maimonides might be hinting at the same thing in his Letter on Astrology.

  9. David: Fantastic idea and information, which I will have to think through for next cycle. The Matthew readings for Advent aren’t as juicy as in Year C. One of the best sermons I think I’ve ever preached was on the circumcision of John the Baptist, which is Year C, Advent 2, I think.

    The Taubes text is stunning. I discovered his work through some obscure stuff he wrote on Tillich years ago.

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