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Friday, February 6, 2015

What You Need Is a Cup

We had an interesting time last night in the Presbyterian Polity course I teach at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. I’d handed out a review by Anthony B. Robinson from a recent issue of The Christian Century of sociologist Nancy Ammerman’s book, Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes (Oxford, 2013). One of the things Ammerman does is assess the category of people who describe themselves as SBNR (“spiritual but not religious”).

That category is, Ammerman asserts, “a unicorn” — something you never see in the wild. A major sociological research project she’s conducted demonstrates that people who are active in organized religion are the “most committed to spiritual practices and a spiritual view of the world.”

As for those who claim the SBNR label for themselves, rejecting organized religion, Ammerman found that (as a group, on the average) they’re not really very spiritual either — at least not according to the evidence she, as a sociologist, can objectively measure. Mostly, she speculates, the SBNR language is a way to lay down boundaries so as not to have to discuss religious questions with churchgoers. It’s a subtle way of saying, “Don’t bug me.”

From The Christian Century’s review: “To sum up her team’s findings, one might say that with a congregation a person is more likely to be spiritual, and without such a community of spiritual discourse and practice, individuals tend to be less spiritual or not spiritual at all. ‘The people with the most robust sense of sacred presence are those who participate in religious activities that allow for conversation and relationship,’ concludes the author.”

The class received and thoughtfully commented on the book review. Then, a little later, as we were discussing a recent PC(USA) ordination-exam question, our discussion got very lively. In the case study that's at the heart of that exam question, a man asks, “Pastor, does someone need to be a member of a church in order to be a good Christian?”

The question, of course, goes to the heart of the whole SBNR phenomenon. Some members of the class defended church involvement as essential to Christian discipleship. Others were not so sure. Some of these spoke poignantly of people they’ve known who feel grievously hurt by the church, having been excluded from full participation for one reason or another. Regretfully, they keep their distance.

Historically, we Presbyterians display a “high” conception of the church, holding up the importance of Christian community - including regular worship - as essential to the Christian life. We also observe that nearly everybody Jesus heals, in the Bible, either sticks around to join his band of disciples or goes back to rejoin their original community, telling of what they’ve heard, seen and experienced.

Jesus calls people not into private, do-it-yourself spirituality, but directly into community.

One of the students pointed out a line from the Book of Order's section, "The Meaning of Membership and Baptism," that says: "In Jesus Christ, God calls people to faith and to membership in the church, the body of Christ" (G-1.0301). That's an "and," not an "or." The two are bound together.

"Good eye," I said to her, commending her for picking out that passage. (I love it when they do that.)

I liken it to taking a drink of water — even “living water,” to apply a metaphor Jesus uses in the scriptures. Anyone who’s ever been out camping in the wilderness knows it’s possible to kneel down beside a stream, cup one’s hands and take a drink.

It’s far easier, of course, if you have a cup. Try to drink without one, and you only get one small swallow at a time. The greater part of the water you scoop up will leak out through your fingers. If you have a cup, though, it’s very different. As a container for holding water, a cup is far more efficient than the hands.

Even the language we use reflects that. When we speak of “cupping” our hands, we’re subtly pointing out that a cup (or similar drinking vessel) is the natural way to take a drink. When the hands try to do it, they’re aspiring to be a cup. They don’t do a very good job.

I see the church as like a cup that holds water. The cup itself is not what refreshes and sustains life. Only living water can do that. It’s far easier to drink of that living water, though, if we do make use of a cup. It is in community that we both learn how to practice the faith and receive the encouragement and support that enables us to actually do that.

Sadly, some people mistake the cup for the water it contains, and end up worshiping it instead. The cup, though, is not the point; the water is. But without a cup, we’re likely to be a lot thirstier.