Albert Furtwangler, in his book Bringing Indians to the Book, noted that once missionaries showed up in the Americas with their religion, native religion became a matter of choice, not simply a matter of people’s habits or traditions, and thus defenders of native religion had, in many respects, to develop their own sort of missionizing language to keep people in the fold. In many respects, the process of the Protestant Reformation, and later the various waves of secularization in Europe (and the United States), made Christianity a choice. Where previously one went to church because everyone went to church, and one went to the local church because it was closest and everyone went to church, now one chose a church, and that choice spoke to (or was supposed to speak to) deeply held beliefs, beliefs that often separated one from one’s neighbor. Church became like a book club or group of hobbyists–congregations of people who shared similar interests (in this case, apparently similar doctrinal views). So now, even among Christian populations, “home missions” became a preoccupation, because even in a Christian culture, not everyone might be the right kind of Christian.
Lost during this cultural shift was the ability to take things for granted, to take things as a given, when it came to “matters of the spirit.” Even if you were raised in a church, your adherence to church was regarded as a matter of choice, for there were so many other options available to you. Of course, many believers would say (and this was the substance of Protestantism) that the “laxity” of previous generations of Christians simply spoke to the need for revival and reform, for one must always strive for the truest interpretation of God’s Word and not simply relax into habits because they tend to be the habits of the population at this particular time and place. But even though I am no longer a Christian, I can’t help but to feel that something was lost in this shift–namely, the existence of an institution in which one connects with one’s neighbors outside the cloud of ideology, which can easily poison those relations. What has been lost is the language and symbolism that allows interpersonal connections to flourish in a shared context, especially beyond the ongoing struggle for the necessities of life.
These days, I am absolutely committed to a secular worldview. I find the very idea of church to be unfulfilling, to say the least, because I do not think that religion embodies any form of truth. In fact, my eventual estrangement from all things religious was based upon a developing understanding of the nature of truth and the realization that the truth claims upon which religion is based had no relationship to a reality that could be independently verified–and that I much preferred the uncertainty principle to the “cloud of unknowing.” However, I have realized here lately that my departure from the social enterprise of church has allowed the mental preoccupations that guide my paid employment to creep into more and more facets of our life, and that I have not had much socialization beyond co-workers and comrades in the same field, loosely defined. I have a Swedish-speaking group that meets every other week, but that’s about it unless I make a specific effort.
So while I find the ideology of religious congregations anathema, contrary to the precious idea of truth, I have to recognize that there was another aspect of church that had value–the part of church outside religion, if you can separate those in your mind. There is a bit of a feedback loop going on in the history of religion, with the process of secularization driving the church toward more and more explicit ideology, in order to justify its existence and retain its adherence, which, in turn, drives yet a further wave of secularization, as people distance themselves from this ideology. Certain conservative voices are not wrong when they claim that secularization has left people lonely, but that is simply because what was socially valuable about church has not been replicated in another setting free of ideology. Sweden has largely escaped the secularization blues, but that’s because the nation actively promoted membership in athletic clubs, book circles, and more, thus driving people into groups that could compensate for what was missing.
So here’s the thing. Parishes used to be not only the seats of ecclesiastic authority but also the sites of local governance. Parish councils operated like city councils before systems of government became nationalized and professionalized, and in some places today the parish council still makes decisions about local ordinances. Parish councils organized access to common lands (“the commons”). Parish councils were organizations of great import for people who lived an explicitly local life, bringing neighbors together for tackling issues collectively or debating the future of the community. And so maybe what we need to replace church is not church but, instead, democracy at all levels of our lives: neighborhood associations and town councils and school boards.
After all, only democracy can really bring you together with all of your neighbors to work out your real-world problems. Should we really be surprised that it is under attack so fervently by conservatives?