Tremendum Or Social Club?
What is it that draws people to religion?
We hear contemporary couples with young children expressing the idea that they
want to find a good church where the children can learn about God.
Some of these couples have not set foot in a church since they themselves were
children. Other folks come to churches seeking an alternative to spiritual and
psychological attitudes that have not served them well. Some are drawn to religion
and to churches after some sort of personal trauma or loss, seeking answers to questions to which they’d never given
conscious prior attention.
There are also those who seek an opportunity to give service, expecting that the
social circle within a church congregation will provide that opportunity as well as one for greater social contact and interaction.
Opportunities to give service in contexts other than church congregations are abundant and I would not suggest that the primary
appeal of religion is an opportunity to perform some good work in a formalized moral setting.
Just what is it that our Christian congregations offer in their communities –
and does that offering have a real potential of satisfying the needs or hungers of those looking through the doors and windows?
The enduring power of religion is not as a social club. Rather, it lies in the
realm of the needs for meaning and purpose in living. The venue in life that seems to require endurance is more in the perceptive
realm of mind and spirit and is not better countered by an approach of moralizing and exhortation to conscious believing with
strict conformity to tradition and doctrine.
When our non-physiological internal hungers flare up, the void to be filled is
not satisfied by lasagna, a hot bath or a good night’s sleep. These hungers generate not a weakness in body, but a powerful
uneasiness or restlessness with life. Often we think we are just worried about things, wanting things we don’t have,
dissatisfied with work, with marriage, with friends, our community, the economy or even our favorite pro team that’s
never going to win a championship.
We may even mislabel internal spiritual restlessness as being the above kinds of
dissatisfactions or worse, as some sort of depression.
TV ads are now tempting us to a kind of self-diagnosis where we are encouraged
to take a predisposition toward depression to a medical provider in hopes of a prescription of the advertised “feel-better-medicine.”
Christianity ought to hold out the possibility to the internally restless that
there is something available that fills the void – something more than just Sunday worship, potluck suppers, and clichéd
generalities around believing. It should be no surprise that a hunger for something more powerful arouses not just laity,
but the clergy as well. If being Christian means more than just going through weekly motions and repeating worn out slogans
then what ought to be offered is something responsive to that internal hunger, what Alan Watts called a “non-verbal
experience of the divine.”
However, such an objective currently seems out of place. In Watts’ words,
“The Church is still overwhelmingly didactic and verbose.”
The power behind our beliefs is not our ability to become educated in what the
Bible SAYS, thereby permitting us opportunities to publicly display how well we can read or memorize famous verses.
Power lies in what scripture, prayer, tradition and reason prompt within and I’m
not talking about being prompted to obey, conform and donate.
The non-verbal experience of the divine lies within the potential of every Christian
congregation but remains somewhat elusive – even perhaps hidden - while the emphasis is more on social behavior and
an effort to cause or resist change by religious rhetoric.
Working in a mystical venue has always been a part of living. Farmers plant corn
because in their minds eye they see a field of ripe corn. Buildings are constructed because an architect visualized in his
mind what he later designed on paper. Meals are prepared from scratch by mothers who know recipes by heart, bring together
separate materials and turn them into tasty and satisfying dishes. What is visualized internally is the source of what is
Martin Buber, referring to a non-verbal experience of the divine, wrote, “God
is the mysterium tremendum that appears and overthrows, but he is also the mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than
That which we have labeled “the mystical” is in reality a part of most
everything we ourselves create and accomplish. Can we not truly say that the Mysterium Tremendum is the ultimate end we seek
in actively involving ourselves in a Christian life?
Without a mystical sense and approach to both worship and daily living, do our
congregations busy themselves as social clubs more concerned about public opinion and conformity, perceiving themselves as
an island surrounded by a sea of hostile, stupid or indifferent waters?
So long as our active participation is limited to a purely social venue where participation
is mentally easy, almost a lazy alternative to a personal pursuit of the kind of intimacy with God portrayed by Jesus, we
will go through life running the risk of doing what we do out of social habit. Perhaps even worse, we will ultimately suffer
a church-social burnout.
Clergy – all ministers – ought to openly seek a growth of independence
from themselves within their congregations. Publicly telling God what to do and the people how to behave is a poor substitute
for teaching and modeling spiritual independence and spiritual self-sustenance.
We hopefully raise our children with the object of their future independence from
their need for us – as we will not always be with them while they will always be themselves.
Gibran wrote of this in The Prophet:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love
but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls.
For their souls
dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek
not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bend you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves
the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”
Can we not say that our ministers do not possess their congregations any more than
we, as parents “own” our children?
Can we not say that the minister who nurtures independence and reliance on him
or her by restricting ministry to doctrine and precept is doing more harm than good?
People return to a source again and again when the source not only nourishes, but
also causes or facilitates growth and expansion. It’s not where you find and maintain your water, it’s what you
do with the water to create the fields of corn. It’s what your children will do with the water to continue providing
Unity in worship and group sustenance is an attribute of strength in any congregation.
A united experience of the divine where congregational members each have a deep, powerful AND intimate sense of their relationship
to God is directly connected to the ministry of Jesus as the Christ.
Sermons on saving and redeeming, on gratitude and guilt are not sufficient.
Sermons on faith and prayer are more important and ought to include very strong
encouragement to meditation, personal reflection and internal visualization – the sort of thing that produces cornfields
where none existed before.
Sermons on righteousness must not be sermons on self-righteousness.
Sermons on judgment day should not be given in such a way as to incite thoughts
of how righteous it feels to be judgmental.
Goodness should be taught as something desired rather than something by which salvation
For every sermon on obedience, there ought to be ten sermons on compassion.
For every sermon on The Rapture, there ought to be ten sermons on “The Kingdom
of God is Within You.”
Jesus did not teach conformity, but lived a life of non-conformity. Jesus did not
teach obedience as a primary virtue, rather, love – of God and our neighbors.
Mysticism as a personal practice does not have complex formulas or step-by-step
instructions. It requires what Christians are already aware of – faith, prayer, meditation, personal reflection and
Without those five assets, a lack of constancy in awareness of the Holy Spirit
as the non-verbal experience of God, the Mysterium Tremendum, is unavoidable.