For many different reasons church-goers are withdrawing from their religious communities. In Catholic communities, attendance at Sunday Mass, for example, has declined to the point of shock and disbelief. The behavior of some priests and their handling by bishops caused scandal, and the response of many was to quit going to church.
Those Catholics who still attend have to struggle to participate in a liturgy which seems designed to reduce participation. The liturgical language has all the characteristics of an artificial discourse which, instead of pulling persons together, makes difficult any sense of real community.
Earlier this month, a priest I know, in a letter to a newspaper, wrote about the problem he faces of contacting sick and dying members of his parish, whom he no longer sees in church. He depends on someone telling him about their particular conditions and doing so in time for him to help.
There are similar situations in all the major denominations. Today’s widespread diminishing church attendance calls for some questioning and some reflection.
When human beings evolved, they became distinguished from other bi-pedal species by their higher level of consciousness, intelligence and communication capacity. They created things for certain purposes and looked at their environment as created and purposeful. Everything which they encountered raised questions. Who created the world? Who created us? Why are we here? What is our meaning and purpose? How do we communicate with the Creator?
Communication through language expressed in symbols was a distinctly human development, and the first humans used this symbolic discourse to communicate with their Creator. From the very beginning, they assembled in groups and developed ritual forms for communicating with the Creator. The Creator responded often over the years through verbal revelation and miracles. Wherever remains of ancient human communities are discovered, symbolic religious relics are also found. These uniquely human religious practices have continued to the present day, but are increasingly being abandoned by many modern persons.
Does it make sense for human beings today to discontinue uniquely human religious practices? Younger-generation Americans do so rather easily because they look at church attendance as entertainment, and if they are not entertained, they stop going. Older people tend to look at church attendance in financial terms and have to decide if attending church is worth their time. These attitudes leave human history out of consideration: the thousands of years that humans have experienced concern about their existence and communicated with a transcendent creative force. The behavior of some clergy members should not separate human beings from their human nature, their history, and from uniquely human practices. People who withdraw from church diminish themselves and break a uniquely human bond both with the Creator and with their fellow humans. They should give this some serious thought.
One way to start the thought process is to put present reasons for quitting church in a broader context. People today are members of a community which goes back thousands of years; a community which has always faced certain problems. To cut oneself off from deeply rooted human ways of being, because of superficial reasons or because of the bad behavior of some human beings is not reasonable. Diminishing one’s humanness is not an effective remedy for the unpleasant or offensive behaviors of other persons.
Human beings have to be understanding beings. Nothing is worse than to lose understanding. To retain understanding, however, requires that we continue to think about the core questions and basic issues which all human beings face. Keeping in touch with sacred texts and the lives of sacred persons helps with this reflection. To cut oneself off from reflection, prayer, sacraments and communication with the Creator is a serious move.
To gain better understanding of material reality, humans need science: theory and investigation and the accumulation of sound data. To gain better understanding of human existence, humans need continuing deep reflection and contact with classical sources of wisdom. Humans in effect need both science and religion. To continue to have both, humans need to retain contact with certain ways of being which go back to human origins. To leave aside religion, prayer, reflection, church attendance and contact with scripture inflicts a serious loss.
Quitting church cannot be for superficial reasons. I suggest that the reasons for quitting church be looked at in the context of a broader cosmic perspective.
When we human beings go out at night, we see little specks of light in the sky. The light from the nearest star which we see took 4.3 years to reach us, traveling at 186,000 miles per second. The total number of stars in just our galaxy is maybe 400 billion. Beyond our galaxy are other galaxies, hundreds of billions of other galaxies. Our beautiful planet circling around our star is 4.6 billion years old. The whole universe is 13.7 billion years old and is still expanding. Everything in the universe evolved, and human beings, the peak of evolution, evolved about 150,000 years ago. There may be other forms of intelligent and religious life, but we have yet to make contact with them.
All this is only an outline of our broader context. It puts the things which we don’t like about church today in some perspective. Is what I don’t like today so important that it justifies cutting off communication with the Creator and the Creator’s many responses. Does it justify discontinuing the uniquely human questioning and reflection about the meaning and purpose of life which has been going on for about 150,000 years?
Do today’s complaints and discomforts justify abandonment of uniquely human religious reflection and communication with God that might deprive me of eternal joy and happiness?
Drane is Russell B. Roth Professor of Bioethics at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.