If you do go to church, that is—most people do not regularly attend religious services of any sort. That is particularly true in the UK and Europe. This question crossed my mind as I was getting ready for church last Sunday morning. I should admit, however, that I do not attend worship services. In that sense I have joined what Robert Funk called "the church alumni association." On the other hand, I regularly participate in a men's Bible Study group every Sunday at a Southern Baptist Church. While tying my tie, I began wondering why I even do that.
As regular readers of this blog will attest about my personal faith—whatever it may be, it is no longer traditional. I affirm very little of the religious concepts I was taught in my youth, and yet I continue to be involved in Baptist Bible study. My colleagues in the group, however, continue to hold traditional views. Recently Bishop John Shelby Spong asked me in front of a small dinner party, "Why do you continue with that church; are you doing mission work?" (I suppose he meant: are you spreading the "gospel of critical thinking"). I have no memory of what I replied that evening, but here are several things that should have come to mind:
I go to Baptist Bible Study because of a sense of community. Church is not really about theology for most people. The major reasons most people "find a church home" are family, friends, a shared common experience, and familiarity with traditions—creeds and theology may attract those considering themselves "true believers," but comfortable sociability is a greater attraction. In short, these are my people, stones off the rock from which I too was hewn. I know them, their songs, and their unwritten traditions. I know whence they came and how they got here. In short, I am one of them—granted a bit odd perhaps, and as one former pastor admitted to a news reporter—"sometimes it is an uncomfortable fit"! I am not sure that a creedal Episcopalian can appreciate the free–church Baptist mentality, but Baptists have no creeds or common theology—at least not formally! In practice "The Baptist Faith and Mission Statement" is as close as it comes to a "creed." This document, however, has changed over time and does not mandate what Baptists must believe, but rather it claims to document what a majority of them do believe. Dissenting ideas and beliefs have always existed between Baptists; mine is one of those dissenting voices.
I go to the Sunday Bible Study for me—not for the church. The reason for my regularity is not to enrich myself spiritually, or to "hear a word from the Lord," or any such maudlin conservative sentiments. In spite of the authoritative claims that all churches make, their confessions and creeds, like the Bible itself, are only human opinions. Christianity has always been a "big tent religion," and the Church as a collective with its various gospels through the centuries has yet to speak the last word on God and things religious. There is still something to be said for the individual conscience and finding one's own way. The issue is too important to be left to the professionals.
I have deliberately set aside one hour each week to reflect on biblical texts that I seldom get to (the Song of Solomon, for example) in order to ponder the human condition, consider my own practical religious behavior, and to ponder the eternal unknowns. Such ideas seldom ever emerge in the course of my professional work in which I am always the critical scholar of religion. In this one hour of the week, however, I try to think about my professional subject a little more personally.
I go to Bible study as opposed to church because I can ask questions and speak my mind freely—worship services do not give me that prerogative. In discussing the texts I can serve as a resource on historical issues, comment on "what are they saying about that in biblical scholarship today?" raise questions, disagree or agree with a class consensus, and always receive polite consideration for what I have to say—not that I sway many minds, but I am not trying to do that. Like I said, I do this for what I get out of it, rather than for what the class gets out of it. Of course one does need a thick skin, but I must admit on the whole they are a tolerant bunch.
Whatever the faults of religious institutions in general and traditional Christianity in particular, as institutions they have at least maintained through the centuries a formal space in society where people may individually or collectively ponder the human condition and the eternal verities—if such there be.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University