A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Is Church Hazardous To Our Health?

I did not grow up as immersed in church as some.  Yet I am beginning to realize, even if my family did not always attend church and even if we did not discuss religion and faith a whole lot, still I was immersed in Christianity from birth.  I grew up in the midwest of the United States, in the midst of rural and small towns.  I grew up in a country some still try to call Christian denying diversity and endangering the freedoms we hold dear in favor of attempting to arrest the downward spiral of Christian privilege.  Somehow we Christians can manage to simultaneously be privileged enough to claim an entire country in our own name and in the next breath claim persecution when we don’t get our way.  Indeed I have lived my entire life in a culture in which the above words will likely baffle many, and enrage a few because Christian privilege is such a part of our culture we are mostly unaware of it.  

I have come to these realizations through listening to those outside of Christianity.  Thoughtful, well-spoken people with a different point of view.  As I have listened and reflected, rejecting some points and conceding others, I have become open to the possibility church might be hazardous to our health in some ways.  One obvious example might be the harm Christianity (as well as other religions) does to women’s rights.  Scientific arguments supporting sexism have been pretty soundly negated.  Would it still be newsworthy or at all controversial for a woman to be in a leadership role if it weren’t for religion?  But I also have begun to wonder if church encourages apathy and discourages exploration.  

One of the reasons I continue to write about church is because of the potential it holds.  Many, good, caring, passionate people inhabit our churches.  These are people who care so deeply about doing what is good and right they will endure weekly boredom, frequent frustrations and conflict in order to attempt to do the right thing by going to church.  All of this good will is being squandered by the church.  I have written in the past about the noble virtues to be found in our military personnel and how these virtues are often squandered by our country in unnecessary and ill motivated wars.  Similarly, the virtues of our church goers are squandered in extraneous (to following Jesus) worship and meaningless institutional maintenance. 

Does the church also discourage exploration?  Do we restrict folks to sanctioned methods of exploring the divine for fear other methods are wrong or even evil?  Have such restrictions inhibited our spiritual growth and prevented us from being strengthened in ways which would increase our empathy, our sense of community, our peacefulness?  What are the real dangers of exploring the wisdom of other spiritual traditions?  Could we be led astray or will it either work or not work?  

I have many questions and few answers.  What are your thoughts?  Do you think the historical prevalence of Christianity in our culture has been beneficial or negative or both?  What is to be gained or lost through exploring other faiths?  How can we better employ the good will of congregation members?  Is church detrimental to our well being?


Charlene said...

Well, the apostate will obviously answer that yes, the church is detrimental to our well-being. I can point to specific teachings that I think are detrimental, but most of them are specific to conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist churches (those most closely aligned with the teachings of Luther, Calvin, and Arminius), so I don't know if that makes a general case.

And the conservative evangelical will of course point to the danger of eternal Hellfire as a problem with looking too closely at other faiths (or even a more liberal interpretation of their own, quite often). But if you take that out of the equation, I'm not sure there is any danger in looking outside one's own faith for ideas and wisdom.

I'm a big fan of utilitarianism over ideology when it comes to both philosophy and policy, but then, the utility of a particular belief or policy is also dependent on one's goals. If the goal is conversion (or "souls to Heaven"), you're going to get some very different ideas than if the goal is happy, well-adjusted, and productive humans on earth.

Parts of the church certainly discourage exploration: again, the more conservative and fundamentalist parts for sure. I'm not familiar enough with the liberal end to know if it does as well.

Having explored other faiths, I can say that one thing that stands to be gained is perspective, and perhaps empathy (ok, that's two). What stands to be lost is the notion that yours is different from any others in any appreciable way. And that...is scary enough to keep a lot of people from even looking very hard at it.

I'll leave the other questions for someone else, at least for now. :)

Laurie said...

I do not think church is detrimental to our well being. I think most of is have had our own personal journeys away from God. We are all free to study whatever we want. Some people don't want to anyze the pros and cons of various religions. Manyjust want some guidance that is more constructive than that to which human nature would lead us.

Sheri Ellwood said...

Charlene, I absolutely agree the more fundamentalist churches are unhealthy. As far as exploring other religions I am not concerned about conversion and tend to doubt God would send a person to hell for exploring other meditation techniques. But, if spirituality is real are there other dangers? Laurie, I can see where religion can be a more constructive influence than letting our human nature run wild. But I wonder about more subtle influences in Christianity like the underlying message with Jesus everything will be okay which can lead to devastation when tragedy strikes and Jesus doesn't make everything okay, or avoiding meditation because it doesn't seem Christian enough, or encouraging people to think the greatest good they can do is go to church rather than actually helping people. Thank you both for your comments. Helps me to think things through!

Charlene said...

"But, if spirituality is real are there other dangers?"

I'm not sure what you mean by this. I have explored quite a bit, and have done more than a few things I was warned against by the church (group meditation, solo meditation, guided meditation, trance state, aspecting, spellcasting, divination, ritual, yoga, role-playing, etc). I have never once had any problem with any of it. Then again, I am told I have "a strong mind"; I enter and exit altered states of consciousness with relative ease. Some people believe the spirits are real, but I tend to think it all happens in the mind. That doesn't make it less real in the experience, imho (or why would anyone bother), but it does mean that there aren't any powerful and literal demons just waiting to drag your soul into Hell if you engage in the wrong activity. Somewhere I have an essay by Starhawk on "The Dangers of Practicing Magic"; it's very practical and also pretty humorous.

Sheri Ellwood said...

I'm not sure what I mean either and yet you gave me a helpful answer anyway:) Thanks, Charlene!