Part 6 in a series. Read Part 1.
Institutional consequences of belief
I believe that one of the fundamental impulses that has driven me to move towards the concept of missional liberal churches is my experience of institutions as incarnate expressions of religion. In our postmodern world, we hear over and over again people saying how they are “spiritual but not religious,” meaning that they see no need to participate in a religious institution in order to carry out their spiritual lives — so many people are saying this that we are inclined to believe that it must be true.
Yet in postmodern mass society, we are increasingly atomized, separated from one another by divisions of time and space. One of the givens of postmodern life is that most of us no longer have any real roots in a place; the globalized economy means that we may have to move to a new location every few years, or if we are restricted to staying in one location, we may have to change employers every few years, so that we are commuting an hour away from home, now in one direction, now in another direction. For most of us, home life and work life are so separate that the people we see at home are completely different from the people we see at work; and completely different from the people whom we might see when we go shopping, or when we engage in leisure activities. There are very few people in the postmodern world whose daily activities fully integrate home, work, and all aspects of life.
One reason we come together into voluntary associations in the postmodern world is to find something of the sense of community that used to exist in actual communities where people lived, worked, and played together. This reason is added to the other reasons why we might come together into voluntary associations: to clear a metaphorical space for ourselves; to join our voices together to affect public policy; and, in the case of the voluntary associations that are missional liberal churches, to incarnate our religious visions. But those who claim that they are “spiritual but not religious” challenge us to consider whether we might be able to do this on our own, without any church at all.
James Luther Adams proposes that we should look for “God” (the quotes are his), not in individual practice, but in communities:
Charles Peirce, the American logician and teacher of William James, has proposed that an idea becomes clear only when we determine the habits of behavior that follow from it. We have seen that the meaning of the religious-ethical idea of Agape becomes clear only when we determine the habits, personal and institutional, that follow from it.
On the basis of this method of observation we may state a general principle: The meaning of “God” for human experience, and the meaning of response to the power of God, is to be determined in large part by observing the institutional consequences, the aspects of institutional life which the “believers” wish to retain or change. Paul, Aquinas, Luther, Munzer, and Roger Williams all use the words God, Spirit, love. But these realities and concepts assume quite different meanings for these men, differences that can be discriminated in their various conceptions of the appropriate forms of state, church, family, school, and society, and in the corresponding interpretations of social responsibility. Adams, ed. Beach (1998), 160-161
One obvious consequence of what Adams says is that anyone engaged in an individual spiritual practice must be careful to remain self-aware and monitor what habits of behavior are developing from the individual spiritual practice; those of us who remain in religious communities will also receive such feedback from others in that community. but this is a minor consequence.
There is also a major consequence that arises when persons eschew religious community in favor of solely engaging in an individual spiritual practice. As Adams points out, we can determine the meaning of “God” for someone by observing the institutional consequences and the aspects of institutional life which the “believers” wish to retain or change. At the extreme, someone who does not participate in religious community may express by his or her habits of behavior that “God” means only personal experience; thus “God” becomes solely effective in terms of personal salvation, but is rendered ineffective in any kind of redemption for humankind in general. This represents one extreme of American evangelical religion, where the only concern is with personal salvation, and there is no concern with the social gospel or the social efficacy of religion.
Next: Conclusion: missional liberal churches