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“Why do you think I do all this?”
That was Stephanie’s answer to my question, “Tell me, do you believe all this stuff?”
I was just getting to know her, and I was trying to get a read on her faith. We were sitting in the front office of her auto repair and tow-truck shop a mile off the Thruway interchange. The shop was founded by her grandfather, an immigrant from Alsace, and she inherited it from her parents. She knows every cop and public official in the township. She is down-to-earth, she drives a truck, she doesn’t do piety-signaling, and she didn’t strike me as “spiritual.” But she’s an elder and consistory clerk, and she quietly volunteers in a number of charity and public service projects in Saugerties. I learned, to my surprise, that she is intimate with the Bruderhof, a radical Anabaptist community a few miles away. That I was surprised is a judgment on me.
We were meeting on church business, and the whole time she was also managing her mechanics and taking calls from her drivers, one of whom was towing a school bus. We were discussing how to raise money to repair the windows of the Katsbaan Reformed Church, a tiny, ancient congregation in rural Ulster County, New York, that I supervise for our classis. The church has an exquisite colonial sanctuary built of local stone. The congregation numbers no more than a dozen most Sundays (which is plenty for a synagogue), and is served by a lay preacher. Finding the requisite funds will be a problem, and we’re going to have to apply for grants.
When Stephanie said, “Why do you think I do all this?” I noted her word “do.” I mean nothing negative when I think of her as “religious but not spiritual,” to use the illuminating and liberating terminology of our editor on these pages last summer. She spends much of her free time keeping an old church going in this post-Christian culture of Upstate New York. Her parents had joined the church and raised her there. None of her friends and few of her family join her in her efforts and attendance, but that’s fine, she doesn’t judge anyone.
These days, when people want spirituality they go to the hip village of Woodstock, just up the road, the counterculture capital of New York, where you can get any kind of spirituality you want, from Astral to Zen. But what Stephanie does, in my judgment, is more countercultural than all that is labeled spirituality. She cheerfully maintains, against the odds, an enduring public witness to the Lord Jesus Christ, a public sanctuary where anyone can pray, and a public space where the Word of God is proclaimed and the sacraments freely offered. How weird is that!
I have colleagues who want to close down churches like Katsbaan, because the only mission of their congregations seems to be to maintain their own survival. (Not unlike the churches of Iraq.) It’s probably true that if not for their dear old buildings, they would have disbanded years ago (as happened to the little Anglican Church that I supported in Ontario). Of course we’d all prefer to have vital, dynamic congregations where peoples’ lives can be transformed. One of my colleagues suggests consolidating the six small Reformed churches of the Township of Saugerties into one regional congregation of sufficient size and strength, and then let these old buildings go to historical societies or whatever.
Is it overly romantic to value a piece of holy ground, a sanctuary where people have prayed, and been baptized, and converted, and married, and buried from, for almost three hundred years, and where people know they can go when they want to get close to God? I am reminded of those well-known lines by Philip Larkin:
“A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete.”
Lovely words, but is the ambiguous esteem of an atheist worth any real good for mission?
I count twenty-six Reformed churches in Ulster County, New York. That’s twenty-six congregations that belong to the Reformed Church in America (RCA). That’s a remarkable concentration for our denomination, even compared to the Midwest! The Reformed Church is the default Protestant denomination in Ulster County. These congregations are all the oldest in their areas, with many dating back to colonial times. Most of them are small, and have always been small, but they are tough and resilient and they are deeply rooted in their locations. All but a few of them are still in their original buildings, with cemeteries around them.
Ulster County is in the Hudson Valley, between the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains. Albany is an hour north and “the City” is two hours south. The landscape is scenic and most beautiful, with high ridges, rock faces, waterfalls, rivers, fertile bottom-lands, orchards, farm-stands, historic towns and villages, a few ugly commercial strips, and the New York Thruway.
And yet these churches are direct descendants of the established “state” church of the Netherlands, without any intervening secession, afscheiding, or Kuyperian Doleantie. Like the village and rural churches of the Netherlands, they are generally “religious but not spiritual,” and again, I do not mean that negatively. They were founded, roughly speaking, as the established church of a Christian culture. They were “public church,” for the whole population (the issue of Natives and African-Americans has to be reckoned with). Their Calvinism was for their preachers, and being Protestant was sufficient for their laity. On their buildings you can see the initials “R.P.D.C.”, for “Reformed Protestant Dutch Church.
The Practice of Piety
I don’t mean that they lacked for piety. We know from merchants’ records that the books of the Pietist writers Hellenbroek and á Brakel were sold up and down the Hudson. They built their parish schools and they strongly supported denominational missions. They sent money and teachers to help out in Holland, Michigan.
I’ve been doing pulpit supply in Shawangunk and Port Ewen and the hymns are generally evangelical. Their chief difference from the RCA and CRC churches of the Midwest is their lack of a hermeneutic of purity. They don’t judge. Their habit, for better or worse, is to live and let live. Like Stephanie, they aim to be faithful to what they do while not judging anyone else. Church is public, and piety is private. This is not all good, I know. But it’s a relief.
What I mean by “religious but not spiritual” is that the practices of going to church and supporting the church are the chief expressions of piety. The expected experience is institutional.
There have certainly been attempts in some of the congregations to get more spiritual, most notably by having Tres Dias groups, which is a Protestant version of the Roman Catholic Cursillo. Characteristically these are ecumenical, however, and are not about purity. What intrigues me about these attempts is that, according to sources in a couple of congregations, these groups were divisive.
I am not saying that “religious but not spiritual” is necessarily positive. One of the best compliments I ever received from a parishioner, after guest preaching in a former charge ten years after I had left it, was, “I remember now, you made us feel spiritual.” (I like to think that’s because of how physical I tried to make our worship.) I have a colleague who brought both passion and expectations to one of these Ulster churches and it resulted in some established members opposing him and his ministry. Their families had been members of that church for generations, and who was he to challenge them.
What I am saying is that “religious but not spiritual” is neutral, at least, and maybe a welcome break.
It is easy for us to speak negatively of “religion,” whether from a revivalist standpoint against its typical shallow formalism, or from the Barthian critique of religion as the antithesis of the Gospel, or from the wannabe Bonhoeffer message of “religion-less Christianity.”
True enough, religion is not what Our Lord gives to the world, but religion as a human practice is how we embrace and respond to what Our Lord gives to the world. The religion that I see in a woman like Stephanie strikes me as an embrace of the Gospel no less credible than what we call spirituality. I watch in her a costly and countercultural discipleship.
Christendom is over in Ulster County. If she wants to keep her little church in good repair, for a public sacred space where she can exercise her priesthood as she sees fit, then I will help her however I can.