January 27, 2018

Churchiness, Decency, & Good Chocolate

I was recently contacted by an old acquaintance, who I haven’t spoken with in well over a decade, who had apparently “been saved,” or “found Jesus,” had “repented,” or undergone some other similar spiritual conversion event. The communication was supposedly for the express purpose of apologizing to me for various past wrongdoings, some of which were pretty bad by even generic or secular standards. But, in this case, those behaviors apparently seemed wrong in light of whatever conversion event had taken place since then—what had been done then was only later perceived as being un-Christian, or “un-Godly.” So, I got to wondering about what is, or should be, the standard for human morality. Is religion the rule to measure morality by? Is our conscience aligned, or should it be aligned, with theological standards? Is a religious person (Christian, Jewish, or whatever) held to a higher standard of basic morality than the average non-Church-goer, just because they believe in this or that system of eternal reward or judgement? Without getting into the eternal ramifications of morality (i.e., heaven, hell, reincarnation, etc.)—which is well above my spiritual paygrade—I’m going to try my best and punch these questions softly in the nose from a more human perspective with a very simple (perhaps over simplified) concept broken into three categories of attitudes, or states of being: holy, religious, and what I call “churchy.”

Those three words might mean something in particular to you, so I’ll define them in the sense that I’m using them. By the way, you won’t find this approach in any respectable book, formal moral system, or even Wikipedia—this is purely my modest opinion based on paltry things like human experience, theological reflection, and philosophical analysis. So, take it or leave it, chew it up, swallow it, spit it out, throw it against the wall and see if it sticks like good chocolate, whatever you like.

When I say a person is "holy," I mean primarily that they're just plain kind.
To say that a person is holy is to say that they’re steeped in virtue, dripping with goodness from head to toe, and generally an awesome person, morally speaking. Personally, I spread this adjective out widely to include not just a sense of Christian or religious holiness (e.g., one who follows the 10 Commandments to the letter, prays and confesses frequently, etc.). After all, every major religious system has its own perception of what it means to be “holy,” and as such, if we’re to think in open-minded terms, we have to address the more human experience, especially since only God knows who’s holy in a religious sense, but anyone can peg a holy person in a human sense just by witnessing their actions in life. So, when I say that someone is holy, I mean primarily that they’re morally virtuous, spiritually consistent, generally strong of character, and… well, just plain kind. As a wise Jewish carpenter once reduced the Judeo-Christian precepts to their essential notes—love God and love your neighbor. It’s pretty simple really, even if you don’t believe in God, per se.

Being what I call religious also carries a whole lot of various connotations, depending on who you talk to. But, to keep it simple, to be religious is to be someone who is thoughtful, prayerful, active, and committed in one religious system or the other, either in a broad sense or a specific one. Obviously, there’s a wide gradient of levels of religiosity. It may surprise you to know that religiosity really doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot to do with morality, virtue, or holiness in anyone’s sense of the word. To say that someone is religious is simply a statement of fact. The person who attends Catholic mass every Sunday is religious in one degree, while the person who attends Buddhist temple meditation services every so often is religious in another degree, while the person who simply prays privately but never attends formal gatherings is religious is yet another degree, none of which indicating a single thing about whether one person would give their life for a total stranger or another is hiding dismembered bodies under their basement—it tells us nothing about a person’s holiness. All you can really say is that religiosity can be an excellent pathway to holiness for some, while perhaps not for others.

The third category is what I not-so-lovingly call churchy. This term may evoke imagery of anything from church-going women with gloriously elaborate hats to the wackadoo guy on the downtown street corner who shouts repentance to passing barflies while he beats a Bible against his fist. While that can be true, we also all know churchy people at every level of the description. They’re the ones who can scarcely utter a sentence without drizzling the words “Jesus,” “the Lord,” or “prayer” all over it like the free sprinkles by the soft serve machine. It doesn’t matter if you’re discussing the deepest depth of theological insight or the most mundane details of how to cook your morning waffles—to the churchy person, God is somehow intimately involved with everything and everyone.

What I’m really talking about here isn’t evangelism or prayerful thinking—it’s pageantry.

Now, to be fair, if you’re a religious person, you should acknowledge that God (or whatever you call your particular transcendent divinity) is the source of all things and many thanks are in just order (and that, in that sense, God is intimately involved with everything). But, the hard truth is that not everyone running around in the world has the same beliefs. Hell, not even everyone in your religious social circle does. And, to be realistic, you may want to ask yourself who you’re spraying all that language for anyway. Last I checked, God didn’t have any more difficulty hearing a quiet prayer at a respectful volume than He did getting an ear full of thick preaching shouted from a mountaintop.

Undoubtedly, I have lost a few of you at this point. But, in my defense, what I’m really talking about here isn’t evangelism or prayerful thinking—it’s pageantry. To demonstrate my point, I’ll make use of a passage by JC himself on prayer (and what I would call churchiness):

“When you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.” (Matthew 6:5-7)

I’ll point out a simple example of what I mean by “pageantry” in being churchy. When you go out to a restaurant, there’s a pretty sharp difference between the family at the next table that you may hear modestly praying over their meal before eating and the folks at the table at the other end of the restaurant who pray so loud that the whole restaurant can hear them (whether we like it or not). The former table is praying for God and themselves while the latter is praying for you to hear them—one is likely legitimately prayerful while the other is probably just pageantry. Last I checked, the Big Man upstairs, no matter what religious tradition you come from, didn’t need you to shout about it for Him to hear you (see 1 Kings 18:25-29).

Most of the holiest folks aren’t very churchy, and most of the churchy folks aren’t very holy.
Personally, I wouldn’t call myself a particularly holy man. Although I may try my best, let’s be real, I probably just break even, at best. I am a somewhat religious man, in some ways more or less than others. However, I am not, nor have I ever been, a churchy man. I may teach theology and study religion, etc., etc., but I still can’t find it in the depths of my reasonable brain to be churchy, peppering every other sentence with “God” this or “prayer” that. The hard truth of humanity and the world in general is that not everyone subscribes to the same way of thinking as you do, not even everyone who is a member of your particular religion. So, when you talk churchy to people you don’t know, or even people you don’t know particularly well, you’re really just either making assumptions (at best) or alienating both parties of the encounter (at worst), or perhaps both. Even talking churchy amongst other churchy friends, while socially acceptable, may be a sign of some kind of over-compensation, at least according to Jesus. On a personal note, most of the holiest folks I’ve met over the years weren’t very churchy, most of the churchy folks I’ve known weren’t very holy, and being religious doesn’t seem to necessarily affect either situation too much at all. But, that’s neither here nor there—or is it?

So, by now you may be wondering what the point of all this is, and even wondering why this article is a good deal less professional and more whiney than the others. What it all comes down to is basic human decency and distinguishing what looks awesome from what actually is awesome. Now, I’m not saying by any means that churchy people necessarily aren’t or can’t be holy. But, what I am saying is that the two are totally independent of each other. Furthermore, as another fellow from the days of yore by the name of Saul of Tarsus* may have agreed: if you need religion or a religious text to tell you how to be a minimally decent person, then you’re probably doing basic decency wrong.

"It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them.” (Romans 2:13-15)

All you really need to figure out basic morality is a pulse and a couple of brain waves.
Sure, sacred texts and religion illuminate many spiritual truths about the world and what it means to be a better, holier person. However, there are certain bare-bones basic tenants of simple human morality that even the 10 Commandments really just reiterated or summed up—don’t hurt people, don’t steal their stuff, don’t lie to or about them, and so forth. Such things don’t really need to be chiseled in stone tablets to make sense, and all one really needs to figure those out is a pulse, a scant couple of brain waves, and a few seconds of self-reflective thought.

St. Jerome, in the 5th century, even went so far as to say that if you weren’t personally developed enough to recognize simple human morality and the fundamental rules of living in the world, then you weren’t ready to interpret, or even read religious scripture yet (but, I’m heavily paraphrasing, of course).** Be religious, or don’t, and yes, even be churchy if you must, but above all, be holy and good to your fellow humans. It’s not really that hard. If someone is kind to you, not because their religion taught them to be, but for no other reason than the fact that it’s the right thing to do in this harsh and altogether unforgiving world we live in, then you know it really means something, and that person has the kind of holiness that sticks to the wall like good chocolate.

* Who you may know as St. Paul.
** St. Jerome’s letter to Laeta about the education of her daughter (Ep. 107).