Several generations ago, Friedrich Schleiermacher, a prominent Protestant theologian, wrote a book with a curious but revealing title. It translates something like: Speeches on Religion for those among the Cultured who despise it.
The book defends the churches against those who believe that institutionalized religion compromises true faith, that is, those who believe in God, but not in the church; those who have faith in Christ, but not in institutionalized religion; and those who in a now-famous expression, believe that Christ came and preached a kingdom of love and we, by some tragic misinterpretation of that, ended up with the church.
The perennial temptation of the cultured (those of us who are educated, sophisticated and move within politically correct circles), the book contends, is to despise institutionalized religion, seeing it as a hindrance to true worship in spirit and to true community.
Schleiermacher submits that this kind of rejection of the churches is religiously false and is often a very sophisticated form of rationalization. Away from actual historical church community, whatever its faults, we have an open field to live the un-confronted life, to make of religion a private faith that we selectively share only with a few like-minded individuals who will never confront us where we most need challenge.
Faith in God and faith in Christ, he argues, are inseparable from actual involvement within an historical church of men and women who, like ourselves, are sinners, petty, narrow, in need of redemption—and not overly reticent to confront!
We need a Schleiermacher today. There is a dangerous viral heresy floating around that would have us believe that living out our faith means leaving our churches or, at best, tolerating them. This heresy makes a too-easy distinction between spirituality and ecclesial practice, between praying and living out a religious life and going to church.
Hence we are witnessing an explosion of interest within spirituality even as we are seeing a steady and rapid decline in church attendance. We are also witnessing a most curious phenomenon in which more than a few religious leaders and teachers see no incongruity in the fact that they themselves are no longer vitally committed to a concrete local church community.
Very common today is the argument that true faith is compromised by religion—and true religion itself is compromised by the churches.
This argument has a variety of expressions, ranging from the unsophisticated (“I don’t go to church because those who go are hypocrites—they sin all week and then trot off to church, holier-than-thou, on Sundays!”) to the sophisticated (“When I look at the church as an institution, I cannot, in conscience, believe that Christ intended this kind of community to be a normative vehicle for grace and salvation. My own spiritual integrity demands that I do not support this kind of ecclesial community by my involvement and my worship in and through it. I deeply believe in Christ and in ecclesial community… but I cannot believe in this kind of ecclesial community!”)
On the basis of these kinds of arguments is drawn the distinction between faith in God and actual church involvement, between spirituality and ecclesiology—with the former denigrating the latter.
More precisely, what is denigrated is not the concept of the church or of ecclesial community per se, but the church and ecclesial communities as they actually exist. Our spiritualities would more easily extend themselves into ecclesiology if the church communities that actually existed fit perfectly into our own overly-idealized notions of what a church should be.
But, given that around us are only very flawed and imperfect churches, we will not compromise the purity of our faith with actual involvement in so tainted and petty a community—at least not without considerable anger and resentment.
We are poorer for this kind of thinking. For many of us, church community is a diffuse and disembodied word.
We long for a community to fire our imaginations, but refuse to let any real community confront our actual lives; we take spiritual refuge in some higher form of mystical community, but are not enough involved in the actual problem of human relationships; and we criticize actual existing communities even as we no longer let ourselves be defined by our participation within them.
When faith, in the name of conscience and community, forsakes the churches for something it calls spirituality, much that is essential to Christianity gets lost, not the least of which is fact that religion is not, in the end, a private search, for what’s highest in oneself, but a communal search for the face of God.