Belief, Belonging, and the Guy in Pew 18’s Trouble Moving Further Up and Further In
The pews in our historic sanctuary are numbered, a vestige of the days when members paid a pew tax to reserve their seats.
I might as well reserve my pew because I sit in the same place every week. You can find me smack dab in the middle on the left as you enter. When we returned recently after a couple of weeks away, a friend joked, “We didn’t let anyone sit in your seat while you were gone.”
But things aren’t as fixed as they seem. Left on her own, my wife would sit closer to the front. She’d rather be further up and further in, to borrow C.S. Lewis’s phrase. Not me. I’m close enough. I’m an introvert, comfortable in my spot between Marcia and Rich in the pew ahead and Randy behind. I’ve gotten used to Randy’s intonations during the Creed and Lord’s Prayer. Moving closer would disorient me.
(Before I go on, a brief excursus: What’s the deal grammatically with “further up, further in”? Shouldn’t it be “farther up, farther in”? Farther refers to distance, further means “more.” Is Port Huron farther than Lansing? Do you have any further instructions? I feel inadequate questioning C.S. Lewis on grammar, but isn’t this wrong? Or is this just a case of British English being different than American English? Or maybe is Lewis subtly showing us heaven isn’t a matter of geography but of the heart, and we can get more heaven if our heart wants to go further up and further in?)
Either way, I don’t want to go any farther or further at church. I’ve never been much of a joiner. If it were entirely up to me, I’d sit closer to the back, by the exit. I’m always restless. What was it that Groucho Marx said about not wanting to belong to a club that would have him as a member? But don’t misunderstand—even though I don’t want to sit up close, I love my church. I’m struggling with the church.
My struggles are a micro version of a macro issue. We’re in the midst of a great sorting, where many are wondering if they belong in church anymore. At issue are matters of belief. One response, typically from progressives, is to say belonging is more vital than belief.
Over the years, though, if you didn’t believe the right things, you didn’t belong. A century ago, William Butler Yeats wrote that “The worst are full of passionate intensity,” and passionate intensity about right belief has been on display of late. The machinations over right belief in the Christian Reformed Church this summer and last have been well documented by the Reformed Journal. About the same time as this summer’s CRC Synod, the Southern Baptists booted out Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church and its 23,000+ members because they ordain women. It’s hard to understand a move like that. Denominations are already in decline—this just speeds things up. But the Southern Baptists could not tolerate Rick Warren’s beliefs.
(Note to Rick Warren: I have a strong hunch the Reformed Church in America would welcome your
assessment dollars many members.)
At least one of my problems is I don’t think “what” matters anywhere near as much as “how.” I don’t care what people believe as much as how they believe. I’m stuck on Paul in Colossians 3 saying that God’s people should clothe themselves in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, peace, and, above all, love.
And I wonder if those who trade in passionate intensity aren’t motivated by belonging as well. Word is the most reliable predictor of whether an RCA congregation would stay in the denomination during its recent sorting was the make-up of the consistory. If the consistory was all white males, the congregation left. If the consistory included women and people of color, the congregation stayed. This certainly suggests holding onto power and control in a rapidly-changing world is at play more than right belief. I’m left to conclude the splintering of the RCA is about who gets to belong rather than belief.
After all, for over a century the RCA and CRC more or less believed the same things but had decided they didn’t belong together.
What is belief anyway? Most of the things I say I believe when we recite the creeds are more hopes than rock solid convictions. I hope the story about Jesus is true. I hope in the resurrection of the dead. I hope there is a heaven. Do I believe those things? Most of the time.
Some have found freedom leaving the church, yet for me to stop believing doesn’t feel like liberation, it feels like an invitation to a pit of despair. I fight despair by attending worship. In worship I am pulled along by the others in our community. I join my voice with Marcia and Rich and Randy and everyone else and they help me believe.
Still, belief seems like a shaky foundation to build so much on. There are people who believe the world is flat. There are people who believe the moon landing was staged. There are people who believe the universe is 6000 years old. There are people who believe the Holocaust was a hoax. Facts, in the form of visual and scientific evidence, don’t make any difference. They have their beliefs. There are people who believe arming everyone will reduce gun violence. As the world has the hottest summer on record, there are people who do not believe in climate change. In the post-QAnon world of alternative facts, how reliable is belief?
Closer to home, a friend of mine was asked if he was a five point Calvinist. “About three and a half,” was his reply.
Me too. I’d go further up and further in with Jesus anytime. But the body of Christ as it is being expressed these days? I can’t go further. Or farther.