Saturday, March 22, 2014

What is so bad about unifying your worldview and your self-selected groups?

I was recently conversing with a young woman who is now Catholic but was raised fundamentalist Baptist. It sounds like her fundamentalist Baptist upbringing was even more strict than mine, so I don't want to lean too heavily on the fact that my experience has been different than hers. What I do want to talk about a little is this: She repeatedly said, as if this were definitely a bad thing, that the church groups of her youth were "white, middle-class, and Republican" and that they made one feel that this entire worldview, including economic ideas, was bound up with their Christianity. When pressed, she came down rather heavily on the alleged badness of uniting "right-wing" economic views with Christianity.

Had I been quicker on the uptake (I was too busy trying to think about how to give some pushback while remaining tactful) I would have pointed out that bishops of her own Church repeatedly tie up economics and immigration, neither of which are actually doctrinally essential, with Christianity. Indeed, it is considered to be something of the glory of Catholicism that it has economic views and economic encyclicals, some of which are a bit of an embarrassment to any free-market economists who also happen to be Catholic. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Is it really a baaaad exclusionary tendency for "Bob Jones Baptists" to think of free-market economics, with a strong emphasis on human fallenness, human responsibility, and the dangers of centralized government as, in some sense or other, part of their Christian worldview but inclusive, loving, and not at all an overreach or "tying the gospel up with politics" for the Pope and bishops to think of anti-market economics and "immigration reform" as part of their Christian worldview?

But more: Any particular church or parish is going to be to no small extent a self-selected group, because there are always other places for people to go. It is perfectly normal human behavior to want to be able to talk about a variety of issues with one's friends at church, and it is perfectly normal human sociology for a tightly knit church to come to be to some degree homogenous across a variety of ideological issues. This is no doubt just as true of left-leaning local churches as of right-leaning local churches, especially when they are not "megachurches" and therefore actually have some sort of definite cohesion. Just how comfortable is a "white, middle-class Republican" going to feel in some of the evangelical churches presently catering to hipsters and seekers? How about at a Catholic church where the priest's sermons are often left-leaning in character?

It's important to remember too that to some degree the natural gravitation of like toward like is bound up with the idea that local churches should provide a sense of community. Perhaps one will get more diversity both of ideological and of sociological background if one's church is merely a place for the weekly meeting (e.g. the Mass) itself and is in no sense a larger community. If people scarcely know one another a church's de facto membership may be more diverse, but is that really what we want? Is it something we have a right to demand in the name of encouraging diversity?

Let me make it clear at this point that I actually do see both a tension in the church's goals, whether Protestant or Catholic, and also a distinctive way in which Catholicism is likely to be more diverse. As to the first of these, all churches are indeed trying to evangelize the lost. That evangelistic goal is going to have to mean a willingness to be friendly and welcoming towards those who come to one's church who don't fit in a purely social sense with those who are already there. It may well even mean explicit outreaches to all manner of people. Let me add here that one of the fundamentalist Baptist churches of my own upbringing has a regular outreach to the gospel mission and is by no means exclusionary of those "not like us" who show up at church. It is one of the most diverse churches I know, in economic, social, and racial terms.

As regards Catholicism, the emphasis on the Sacraments is in some ways orthogonal to the emphasis on community. Community is good, but if one is a real sacramentalist one goes to church in no small part to get the Sacraments, not to get together with other members of a club. I suspect that the "here comes everybody" character of Catholicism, of which many Catholics are rather proud, arises from the Sacraments. And that is not a bad thing.

Still, Catholics need community as well. I hear my traditionalist Catholic friends on the Internet talking about this all the time. Especially now, social conservatives are pretty lonely, and if your church (Catholic or Protestant) can be a community to encourage you rather than a place where you have to grit your teeth through left-wing platitudes in the sermon, so much the better.

So color me unimpressed with the complaint that the church of one's upbringing was too full of white, middle-class Republicans who were most comfortable with others like themselves. White, middle-class Republicans need Jesus too, and if they form church groups that look like themselves, they shouldn't be blamed any more than any other identifiable social group that forms church groups that look like themselves. Yes, as Christians we always have the tension created by the Great Commission, and we need to be aware of that. But if the upshot is still that a given church is mostly full of white, middle-class Republicans, it is not clear to me that this is per se cause for scorn or criticism. Yep, even if most of them believe in the free market.


Tony said...

Lydia, this is so true. There is indeed a certain degree of tension between being "a community" and being welcoming to those not (yet) members of the community.

One of the important things to keep in mind is the distinction between differences that are independent of the basic, core meaning of the community, and differences that relate specifically to the core meaning of the community. Here is just a simple example: There are very fine, excellent Catholics from Vietnam. They attend our church because they are Catholic. I rather strongly suspect that they don't get their "community" needs satisfied in doing so. And since there are only a few Vietnamese here, it is hard to see how they COULD.

One of the aspects of forming a truly strong community is that the members share living (even very temporary living, such as 3 hours on Friday nights) even about peripherals, accidentals, and purely ad hoc choices that have nothing to do about the core meaning of why they are a community to begin with. We play poker on Friday nights: playing poker can be done with beer or wine, with potato or nachos, with wild cards or no wild cards, directly with money or with chips, and on and on into ever more accidental accretions. Yet OUR poker group has made choices that specify some of these and exclude others, and anyone walking into our Friday night sessions might feel rather not united with everyone else when he doesn't know all the "rules" (even if they aren't actually rules, they are just the most common ways we do them) and when we do things one way and he is used to doing them a different way. That's not exclusionary of us, that's just simply the sheer meaning of forming a concrete community - a community isn't just everyone doing whatever they feel like with no reference to how others are deciding the same choices. A community, in order to come together in activities, must share living and must mutually act in such ways that they are doing the same things the same way, more or less, even with respect to accidentals, and so the core nature of the community is distinct from the concrete expression of that community after many years of such activities and choices.

I don't like Vietnamese food, and don't particularly like the smell of it cooking, and frankly since so much of the non-essentials of community living end up involving sharing of food, it is unlikely the above Vietnamese and I will ever really feel much unity in community with each other in the normal sense of the word. That's OK, a person doesn't need to feel all of the pleasing aspects of a tight community - feeling loved, cherished, invited, welcome, being part of - in order to actually BE a member of a formal community which is organized along other lines and for different purposes than those feelings. Indeed, other than family, most communities are in fact organized for explicitly more formal purposes than "feeling a part of a community", everything from chess clubs to national political parties exist for reasons that are independent of your feelings. Sure, whites will feel more comfortable at a gathering of Republicans in Orange County CA than blacks will, but that's not because "being Republican" is either formally or materially related to being white or excluding blacks - it is an accidental accretion to being Republican. The accidental accretions arise from place, time, individual personalities, and singularities of historical events or choices that could easily have been different. These don't reflect either an intention or preference to "exclude" those who are not comfortable with all of those accretions.

Lydia McGrew said...

Spot on, Tony. And I note that the Vietnamese keep coming back to your parish. This is presumably because in a larger sense they do feel welcome, even though in various cultural ways the parish isn't "theirs." We all have to learn to roll with this sort of thing. I've read of young people who have said they don't want to go to a church that has primarily older people. In one way I understand that but in another way I want to suggest that they get over it.