God and Government 9: Church Government and The Future of Religion in A Time of Institutional Irrelevance

Dilemmas between God and government occur when government forbids what God mandates, and when God forbids what government mandates. When must we resist a mandate, and when should we surrender to one? The issue is centered upon authority, as was illustrated in the stories of Daniel and the three Hebrew worthies we have studied. They did not accept Nebuchadnezzar’s authority to control their worship and dictate to their conscience.

There was a time when the church controlled every aspect of life, both religious and non-religious. It determined what you could eat, how you could relax, how you should spend your money. It controlled your family, your sexuality, procreation, education, death and burial, and—most significantly—what would happen to you after death. People lived in mortal fear of losing eternal life if they crossed the church. Excommunication was eternal damnation. Baptism, communion, last rites, and other sacraments were subject to the church, the gatekeeper of the future.

The essential issue of the Reformation was control of people’s destiny; of salvation. The protestant concept of a priesthood of all believers, whereby anybody could approach God directly, was radical and disruptive. The idea that faith alone was the conduit to God triggered a long, slow disentanglement of believer, church, and salvation. Even so, as recently as my own generation and the one before it (the so-called “greatest generation” that lived through both the Great Depression and WW2), uncommon stock was still placed on the relationship with the institutional church. This led, in many cases, to substantial regulation even by Protestant churches.

Today’s generation, however, is different. For them, the institutional church is more than not feared: It is essentially irrelevant. This brings us to the question of the day: What is the future of religion in a time of institutional irrelevance? What moral compass do we live by if the church is no longer in control? And what, if anything, does the weight of Scripture add to the issue? What will God look like to people a thousand years from now?

A recent Pew poll found that 72% of all US adults believe in heaven, but only 58% believe in hell. In historically black churches, the ratio is 93%–82%. In mainline Protestantism, the split is 80%–60%. For Catholics, it is 85%–63%. It is lowest, among Christians, in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, at 50%–7%.

But by age, only 21% of all US adults aged 18-29 believe in hell. How can the church generate a righteous, motivational fear when only 21% believe that they risk eternal damnation? What is more dangerous for the church: Resistance, or indifference? What does the church want: Our belief, or our practice, or both? What is the future of religion in an age of scepticism, lack of fear, and technology?

Robin: There is a healthy scepticism that searches the Scriptures to read what they have to say on points of doubt. This is not a lack of faith.

Don: When I was a boy, my elders never questioned the church. What the church said was the truth. It was unusual to hear anyone take exception to the church’s decisions. Today, there seems to be much indifference toward church in today’s generation. The data suggest that a central factor behind this is the sense that church no longer controls one’s destiny.

David: If Pew would measure spirituality alongside adherence to religion, I suspect we would find they are negatively correlated.

Don: They often ask respondents: “How often do you wonder?” or “How often do you have a sense of wonderment?”

David: Religion remains relevant if its role is to assist those who wonder—those who are undertaking a spiritual journey by asking questions. But it is irrelevant if its role is to direct, to govern, people in that journey. “Resistance” to authority in these contexts is different.

Donald: One may voluntarily surrender one’s authority to church if one wishes to belong to it. But one may not voluntarily surrender to state authority (the police, etc.) something that is a requirement of citizenship. Citizenship is not an option (for most). So following state law is not an option—it is a requirement. But what about a creed? What about the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh Day Adventism? Is it OK to ignore one or two of them? Or is it all or nothing?

As for institutions: Are Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google, etc., the only institutions that millennials find relevant to them, and to whose authority they are therefore prepared to surrender?

Don: You are suggesting that a new set of institutions is supplanting the old set?

Donald: The old institutions have been leveled, and people seem prepared to give their all to the new ones.

David: The Catholic Nicene Creed must be spoken aloud by celebrants at every mass (if I recall correctly). I believe in its fundamental message but disagree with some of the details, but a Hindu (for example) could not believe any of it. There is no opportunity in the Catholic mass for anyone to speak up and voice doubt about any part of the Creed, yet that would seem to me to be the most valuable opportunity it could give its members—that would be the ideal role for the Church.

The only authority that can vouch for the truth of any given creed is God, in the form known as the inner light, or Holy Spirit.

Robin: There are things in Scripture I don’t understand. That does not mean I disbelieve them, or give up on them. My recourse is to ask God to give me that understanding when He knows I am ready to receive it.

Donald: In my observation, the younger generation of churchgoers tends to want membership but does not want to practice what the church preaches. Young people want to define for themselves what they should practice . Some Catholics have abortions, some take contraceptive pills.

David: Hot-button issues, rather than spiritual fundamentals, seem to be what keeps some people in church. Catholics vehemently opposed to abortion readily identify with the Church’s position on it. Could it be that sects and religions use non-spiritual issues to attract and maintain members, in the way that politicians use spiritual issues to attract voters?

Dr. Singh: The Hindu government in India is claiming that all Indians, no matter their faith, have Hindu DNA because they were all converted at some point from Hinduism. This is an example of political use of religion.

Jay: Organized religions, being generally premised upon moral values that existed when they were founded but that have since been modified, are unable to adapt to the times. It gets harder as society grows more globally and cross-culturally enlightened, which results in spiritual dissonance as we realize that religion is a man-made structure designed to help everyone everywhere to relate to God. That makes it difficult for members of a religion to retain the conviction that God prefers or favors their religion over all the others. Our interpretations of things revealed are often humanistic. Inflexible rules about diet, alcohol, abortion, stealing, and so on, are based on such humanistic interpretations. It grows harder to imagine God looking down and saying: “That religion has got it right!”

A human social construct—a community—has inherent characteristics, and a self-definition based on them. A prospective community member either already has the characteristics or is willing to assimilate them. The characteristics and their resultant construct (a religious community, say) are not necessarily bad, but it must be recognized that they are human and therefore unrelated to a spiritual realm whose characteristics are physically insensible. In order to comprehend the spiritual realm, we attribute humanistic attributes to it. We want a picture of it, but an ancient miniature from some dynasty localized in space and time has less appeal, and makes less sense, to a generation whose picture frame encompasses the globe in a setting of eternity.

Mikiko: Humans are imperfect and their thoughts differ one from another. That’s why there are so many religions. The differing translations and interpretations of the Bible have resulted in so many different sects.

We know that we originate with God, but the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one. (1 John 5:19–New World Translation)

Good and bad people alike live in this world, so our differences are not surprising.

The Bible suggests that we do have spiritual DNA:

Your eyes even saw me as an embryo;
All its parts were written in your book
Regarding the days when they were formed,
Before any of them existed. (Psalms 139:16–New World Translation)

Chris: There seem to be two sets of DNA: God’s, and (any given) religion’s. DNA determines characteristics. The characteristics of God—love, grace, kindness, etc.—are timeless. Jesus had them, but the religion of His day had different DNA, just as our religions do today. Even lapsed members of a church retain some of the characteristics of a church member—a vegetarian diet, say. It’s in their religious DNA.

Dr. Singh: Psalm 139 is about seed. When Adam sinned, all seeds in the garden, including human seed, were infected by it. We are a product of infected seed.

Donald: Time changes our perspective. Our lives are short, compared to history. A hundred years ago, no-one knew about DNA. The question is whether spiritual things change. Do faith, hope, and charity change? Do they define religions? We want to wrap spirituality up in a religious context, without which there could be no evangelism. Some religions are more evangelical than others. We must be convinced that our religion is the right lane to be in, if we are to convince others to switch to our lane. We don’t just want our lanes to run in parallel.

Jay: The “right” lane is the issue. Is there really a “right” lane—a “right” religion, a perfect human construct that infallibly and uniquely leads to God? God is timeless and universal, so how can a human construct bound by a specific time and a specific geographic influence work for all people, at all times, everywhere?

But this is not to say that it is a “wrong” or a “bad” lane. A religion can indeed be, and in my experience my religion is, a good lane. Being part of my Adventist community has strengthened my relationship with God and my ability to serve my fellow wo/man. The characteristics of the community include a lack of fear of death, because we believe there is no hell. Death means sleep, nothingness, if we do not make it to heaven; so what is there to fear? The healthy life Adventists believe in, and practice, contributes to the development of our relationship with God and with our fellow human beings.

These are among the good things to be found in our vehicle (perhaps a better metaphor than “lane”), and I am happy to tell others about them. But I don’t doubt that there are other vehicles that also help people relate to God and serve other people. Some vehicles are simply a better fit for some individuals. But I see all the vehicles as being in the “right” lane.

Robin: So is religious conflict simply a matter of competition over passengers?

Jay: That may be so, but it may also be that God is in every vehicle, so that all passengers can relate to Him, no matter which vehicle they are in.

Robin: So we may be attracted to a vehicle by our personality?

Jay: There are timeless, universal principles that drive all vehicles. My vehicle—the Adventist church—helps me and equips me to share the grace of God with others, to serve the hungry, the poor, those in prison, and so on. There are some who find the church judgmental and a deterrent to doing good works. It is not perfect, but it is not bad. There is more good in the world, and in the church, than bad. It’s not wrong to want to share its goodness with others.

Donald: Some religions and sects (the Amish, for instance) seem to want to freeze both knowledge and time.

Don: They do so because there seems to be no way to factor them in. Some religions passionately believe their Scriptures to be immutable and literally God-given. That belief has not changed one iota over centuries and millennia. Today, to many, such belief seems out of touch with a modern civilization that eschews the stoning of adulterers and the chopping off of the hands of thieves. To varying degrees, all organized religions seem to discount God’s timelessness and universality.

David: It would seem, then, critical to decide before joining whether the principles upon which a religion or sect is based are timeless or not. If they are based on a given culture, at a given time in its development, then they are clearly not timeless, and to me are irrelevant to a spiritual world that deals in eternity.

Global knowledge is expanding exponentially in quantity and quality, leading many people to think we know, or will soon know, everything. But I think some of us—including all of us here—know that the more we know, the more we don’t know; that the more we know, the more we realize that we cannot, in principle, know everything. That seems to me to be the ultimate timeless principle. “Everything” is God, I think. It helps the human spirit to seek to know more about everything, but only if our search is tempered by the understanding that we will never know everything; we will never know God fully. We should weigh the observable and measurable fact of the exponential growth in knowledge against the fact that we have no more clue about God than our ancestors did, nor are we any closer (in my view; Big Bang string theory and all) to understanding the origin of the universe. whether that origin is divine or natural.

Don: How does that inform our religious thinking?

David: To me, it consolidates everything as God. God is everything, and God therefore knows everything.

Jay: Perhaps that ought to inform our religious thinking, but the problem is it does not, because ultimately it leaves us with questions, not the answers we seek (and too often get) through religion. Religion makes up the answers and declares them immutable.

Donald: Some believers have difficulty putting technology and religion in the same lane. Technology changes—it is accelerating in its lane; religion does not. Yet they do influence one another. Faith, hope, and charity do not constitute a religion, but they are constituents of spirituality. And yet, it is comforting to travel to distant parts of the world and be able to worship in an Adventist church saying the same prayers and singing the same songs as we do at home. Our understanding of the world is shaped by our own circumstances, which makes it difficult to deal with the concept of other lanes, other circumstances.

Don: The passage we will study next week study introduces the contrast between doctrine and faith, when Jesus challenged the Sadducees to define the greatest concepts in faith, which He tells them are love for God and love for Man.

David: Not to contradict Jesus (who was speaking in a context in which faith was assumed), but before one can love God one must acknowledge His existence—one must believe, have faith, in Him. To me, this is the most fundamental principle of all. It then drives the insatiably curious human to wonder what He is like, what makes Him tick. The first thing we want to know of our God is: Is He good or bad, beneficent or malevolent? In ancient times, and in some folk religions still, evil or merely mischievous gods abound.

I think this is one question we can answer and indeed have answered: the God of the great religions is good. We only have to measure the amount of good in the world against the amount of evil, which we can do in our heads: If evil were ascendant, our world would be in anarchy, total chaos. I believe we all intuit this to be true. Religion can help by reminding us of the questions, while giving us the space and support to seek answers through the spirit. Which, to its great credit, is exactly what Oakwood SDA church is doing for us.

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