A joke goes, “Two young fish are swimming along, and they meet an older fish swimming the other way who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then one of them looks over at the other and says, ‘What the heck is water?’ ”
The point is that most of the time we are unaware of the “water” – the mental atmosphere we live in, the beliefs we tacitly accept as reality. When I was growing up, religion was a given. All the children I played with came from families who went to some church or temple every week. Over time, without a lot of thought, most of my peers drifted away from organized religion; the “water” changed without our much noticing.
Columnist Ross Douthat has chronicled that shift in his new book, “Bad Religion,” described in a Monitor review as “Douthat’s sweeping attempt to explain the sea change that has washed over American religious culture since the 1950s and to assess what’s been lost and gained.” In a recent New York Times op-ed, Douthat asked, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” and received more than 300 comments, impelling him to write a follow-up companion piece to answer readers’ questions.
We may be having a collective moment when we can notice and consider our assumptions about the meaning and uses of religion. Having observed that both blind adherence to creed and socially progressive religion based in social trends have proved equally ineffective in attracting 21st-century adherents, Douthat urges readers to consider what it is in primitive Christianity that a church could be built and thrive on. It’s a good question!
When Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, Simon Bar-jona answered, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus then gave Simon the name of Peter (Petros, which is Greek for “rock”) and said that he would found his church on that solid foundation. Mary Baker Eddy gives the spiritual sense of this word-play: “In other words, Jesus purposed founding his society, not on the personal Peter as a mortal, but on the God-power which lay behind Peter’s confession of the true Messiah” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 138). She writes elsewhere in Science and Health: “Christianity will never be based on a divine Principle and so found to be unerring, until its absolute Science is reached. When this is accomplished, neither pride, prejudice, bigotry, nor envy can wash away its foundation, for it is built upon the rock, Christ” (pp. 483-484).
Authentic Christianity, involving a spiritual understanding of life, requires that we actively practice beginning our thoughts and actions with an awareness of consistent, always present divine good. Church is less a noun than a verb; it’s God-inspired thought and action taking place in the here and now of our lives. It was the early Christians’ wide-awake sense of God’s presence and power that energized that movement. They were living from the assumption that divine Spirit was the biggest, most important thing in the room wherever they were.
Paul told the Christians at Corinth, “[Y]e are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (II Corinthians 6:16). This exhortation is all the more interesting when you consider that the Corinthian Christians were living in the shadow of the classical temple of Aphrodite, and the ancient city included famous temples to the gods and goddesses Apollo, Poseidon, Hermes, Venus, Isis, and Demeter. In a place where religion was all about the temple, Paul gave Jesus’ followers a deeper, more spiritual sense of what it meant to be a church member.
Science and Health describes Church as “The structure of Truth and Love; whatever rests upon and proceeds from divine Principle.
“The Church is that institution, which affords proof of its utility and is found elevating the race, rousing the dormant understanding from material beliefs to the apprehension of spiritual ideas and the demonstration of divine Science, thereby casting out devils, or error, and healing the sick” (p. 583).
Every thought and action that begins with this primitive, original sense of Christianity (the conscious awareness of God’s ever-present love, which Jesus taught and lived) opens our eyes to the real atmosphere where we “live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). It is now becoming clear that to “save” Christianity and recover its healing influence on humanity, divine – not merely human – ways and means are needed. As we practice living from the theology at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, we will find the church that stands intact regardless of times and conditions.