God and Government 10: No Sense of Time or Place

A recent article in the Adventist magazine Lake Union Herald argues that the SDA church and its official publications should be politically neutral, expressing preference for neither conservative nor liberal views. In essence, the article author is arguing for the separation called for by Jesus in His “render” statement (given in the three synoptic Gospels, quoted in our first post on the topic of God and Government). Last week we too applied the church vs. God context to our study of the “render”statement.

Early in our discussion of the general topic we imagined God’s and Caesar’s realms as two overlapping circles (a Venn diagram) and sought to analyze the areas of overlap and non-overlap. I propose we now repeat the analysis, but with circles for God and Religion instead of God and Caesar, and taking the story of Jesus overturning tables in the temple (Matthew 21) as a potential example of overlap between church and God. He told the merchants selling wares and changing money that the temple was a “house of prayer,” not “a robber’s den.” The story as recounted in John 2 quotes Jesus as telling them: “Stop making my Father’s house a place of business.”

Does that story help us to determine what is to be rendered to the church and to God, respectively? If so, what are they; and is there any legitimate overlap—are there any elements common to both church and God? Any and all elements of God are universal and timeless. Can we say the same of any and all elements of religion? In His “render” statement, Jesus has us focus on Caesar’s image on the coin. Is “image” a common element of Caesar and God; or, in the present discussion, of religion and God?

David: In the temple, what Jesus seemed to be getting at was that the merchants were obstructing worshipers from reaching God. The temple is a place people go to in the belief that they will find God there. And by their faith, God is there. The temple is His house. His presence does seem (to me and many others) to be enhanced by the grandeur of the building—the world’s great cathedrals, mosques, and temples can awe us into humble silence. Jesus clearly had no problem whatsoever with the concept of a house of God. On the other hand, a temple costs money to build and maintain, so the temple builders and keepers are not wrong to ask worshipers to help pay for it—unless (as Jesus was distressed to find) they charge for entry. The worshipers belong to God, not to the temple and its authorities.

Robin: The temple was designed as a sacred place for people to meet and commune with God. In Jesus’s time, it was full of noise and distractions—animals for sacrifice, and so on—that would have inhibited that meeting and communion.

Donald: The fact that Jesus Himself went to the temple shows that He acknowledged the value in it. But a temple (and a religion) takes organization and financing and regulation. Jesus always had issues with the Pharisees, but not with their temple—does that tell us something? If Jesus came back down today, whose temple would he choose to visit?

Jay: So a place can instill a sense of awe, of sacredness, a stirring in the soul, a sense of “something there.” In our discussion so far, “place” has meant a temple, a church—a building that requires organization and management. Does it have to be such a place? At the time of Jesus, it seems to have been so. The Jewish nation had received very specific instructions from God to build and maintain a temple. But what about the rest of the world, in other eras—considering that God is universal and timeless?

Donald: I’ve been privileged to have traveled to many parts of the world, and can attest to the fact that there are natural places, with no organized religious affiliation, that inspire a sense of sacredness and awe. Yosemite and the Serengeti, for instance, are pages in God’s second book that show us the beauty and grandeur of Creation.

David: Of course, many (perhaps most) people in the world have no access to anything as inspiring as Yosemite or the Serengeti, and even those who have regular access—the people who live their lives in such places—perhaps fail to see the grandeur in what, to them, is commonplace.

Statistics show that attendance at religious services as a whole is declining, so the attraction of wood, stone, or brick-and-mortar “temples” for worshipers must be weakening. Today’s (and, increasingly, tomorrow’s) young people get their grandeur—they seek and find their sense of spiritual place—in other-worldly fantasy games on screens and in virtual reality headsets.

Jay: Does church help or impede us in giving to God the things that are God’s?

David: It served to help the contemporaries of Jesus give their worship to God (hence His anger at the merchants for obstructing it). Tithes are intended to provide the buildings and the pastors that help people get closer to God. If tithing promotes rather than impedes worship (and it appears to promote it) then tithing is in the overlap but is not in conflict with God’s realm.

Robin: The Old Testament was extremely detailed about the construction and furnishing of the tabernacle, suggesting that God knew that people needed an awe-inspiring environment to draw them to Him—that dilapidated hovels would not cut it for most people. But some religions and sects aim for unadorned settings to invoke humility. Some forbid music or singing. But these reflect human ideas of spiritual value, not the divine ideas of the God of the Old Testament.

Chris: We are beings that need things to be tangible, that can be seen, heard, smelled, and touched. Things in God’s realm are intangible, so are harder for us to comprehend. Organized religion can give us a tangible hold on the intangibles of God—love, kindness, peace—but the experience is different for every individual.

David: Whether it’s an austere Quaker meeting room, a comfortable but plain Kingdom Hall, or a grand mosque, temple, synagogue, or cathedral, they all serve to bring the individual worshiper closer to God.

Donald: To me, the joy of Sabbath morning is in getting together with our group to share thoughts and ideas that stimulate my spiritual experience, even though it is conducted amid filing cabinets! We don’t dress up, we are very casual, and yet it’s a sacred experience. It’s unfortunate that in general, organized religion seems to see its role as to define parameters rather than bring us closer to God.

Jay: God seems to have been very specific about the setting for worship. It involves all the senses—materials beautiful to the eyes and touch, music pleasing to the ears, incense pleasing to the nose. It must have a purpose, and I think it is to serve as the overlap, the interface between God and Man. Jesus took major issue with anything that obstructed access to it. If God went to such lengths to specify the setting for worship, why don’t Christians, for the most part, build churches like that any more?

Donald: The answer is: The New Testament. The congregation that listened to God deliver His Sermon on the Mount stood or sat on a bare hillside. As long as the focus is love, charity, and other divine attributes, the setting seems unimportant.

Robin: I think we can assume that Jesus did not preach during rainstorms or sandstorms or under the burning mid-day sun. In Michigan, we would need a sheltered place in the depths of Winter. God’s second book is not always open for worship, at least not without extreme discomfort at times!

Jay: Did the group gathered for the Sermon on the Mount constitute a church?

David: Jesus said He is present “wherever two or three are gathered” in HIs name, but He said nothing about a church. As I read it, His aggression against the merchants in the temple was not because they obstructed assembly or ritual communal worship; it was because they obstructed personal worship—individual communion with God. To God, ultimately, it’s the individual sheep that count. The flock is just a handy organizing principle.

Rimon: He was angry also because the merchants were self-serving, with no regard for their fellow Man.

Jay: Was Jesus protecting the individual or the group? Isn’t the wellbeing of the group a greater good than the wellbeing of the individual?

David: I think it’s the individual, but I could be wrong!

Donald: Music can inspire. Not much more than a hundred years ago, to hear music you generally had to go somewhere, like a church, where musical performance was organized. Now, we can listen to any music anytime, anywhere, in the highest fidelity. We accept virtual concert space. Will we soon accept virtual worship space? I join class in a virtual place: A Skype screen. As worship grows more universal in this way, then perhaps it becomes more difficult to discriminate among religions.

Jay: God prescribed how the tabernacle was to be built at a time and in a place where He knew that such a temple would inspire awe in worshipers. But times change. We can now be awed by sitting in my armchair and watching and listening to Handel’s Messiah performed (awesomely) on YouTube by the choir and orchestra of King’s College, Cambridge, and other famous ensembles worldwide. People no longer have to go to church to hear good music and song. The world is growing flat, knowledge and information is increasing—and is increasingly available everywhere. Technology enables people to be “virtually” anywhere they want, in an instant. What does that say for “place” today?

Mikiko: It’s nice to get together to worship our Father and is pleasing to God. But some people—the sick, for example—cannot get to church or congregation. Jesus taught us how to worship individually in Matthew 6:9—by shutting oneself into a private room and praying in secret.

Jay: Praying in private is a universal way of worship, unbound by time, place, or culture.

David: The temple prescribed by the God of the Old Testament came with an appointed hereditary priesthood. That may have been appropriate for the time, but it was outdated (at least in the view of protestants) by the time of the Reformation, whose central radical idea was “a priesthood of all believers.” This is essentially the same radical idea Jesus had about the temple: Every individual worshiper should have access to God, with no middleman, whether merchant or priest, to stand in the way. Protestant lay clergy serve to help with that access, not to impede it. [Postscript: I am sure this is true of Catholic priests today, too; but it was the corruption of medieval priests selling indulgences (essentially, selling access to God) that brought about the Reformation.]

KB: God has given clear principles and specific instructions about how to serve and worship Him—how to render to Him that which is His. We don’t always have the resources to do it exactly as prescribed, but can substitute whatever we may have at hand to achieve the same goal. The materials to build a tabernacle are not available to villagers living in the jungles of Africa, but a palm-thatched rustic hut can serve equally well as a place of worship.

Donald: Is God OK with informal worship?

Jay: Good question.

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