On Christmas and Temples: how the coming of Jesus challenges us to see ourselves as givers not consumers

I went to temple today. A modern, secular, temple where I was surrounded by hindus, and sikhs, and buddhists, and muslims, and atheists… A temple that today was extra glittery, and sparkly, filled with magic, and crowded; oh so crowded. It was packed with worshippers.


Image: A snapshot from my trip to the temple today where I scored a park in front of this sign…

Temples don’t have to be obviously religious, or even obviously connected to a god. Temples are places where we practice our worship together. They are places where our gods; and the image of our gods, is revealed; when we know where to look. They’re places we go for stories about what the good human life looks like. And Christmas is a time for worship. In his famous This Is Water speech, David Foster Wallace said:

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

In a passage in his novel Infinite Jest, Wallace writes a dialogue between two characters, Steeply and Marathe, about temples and worship and a third person’s ‘worship’ (Tine)… it builds on his fundamental insight about the way us humans work… we’re worshippers. Fanatics. Looking to give our love to something that we hope will love us back.

“Marathe had settled back on his bottom in the chair. ‘Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, “fanatic,” do they teach you it comes from the Latin for “temple”? It is meaning, literally, “worshipper at the temple.” ’

‘Oh Jesus now here we go again,’ Steeply said.

‘As, if you will give the permission, does this love you speak of, M. Tine’s grand love. It means only the attachment. Tine is attached, fanatically. Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith.”

Steeply made motions of weary familiarity. ‘Herrrrrre we go.’

Marathe ignored this. ‘Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. only pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you.’

‘How are your wife and kids doing, up there, by the way?

You U.S.A’s do not seem to believe that you may choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self.’

Steeply laid a hand between his misdirected breasts: ‘Ohh… Canada….’

Marathe leaned again forward on his stumps. ‘Make amusement all you wish. But choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice.’

So I went to the temple. The temple to probably the most popular god in Australia; the one that promises and promotes a vision of the good life that I even find myself subscribing to; a picture of humanity that teaches: I consume, therefore I am, or perhaps I am therefore I consume. My local Westfield shopping centre. As I walked through throngs of smiling happy people, ate food from the far flung reaches of the planet alongside families who may have come together from even further afield, as the artificial light bounced off tinsel and sequins and Christmas stars and bathed my fellow humans in its soft glow, as carols pumped through the sound system following us on our pilgrimage, and as I spent my dollars on trinkets and baubles designed to express my love for my family this Christmas season, I did feel like I was having something like a religious experience. There is something beautiful about the way the shopping centre can bring people from all walks of life together in a levelish playing field (I mean, I avoided Myer and the expensive looking jewellers today so it’s not totally level, but you don’t know unless you stare at the collection of shopping bags in someone’s trolley or pay close attention to the quality of their shoes and handbag if someone is your equal or not). The shopping centre aisles feel like an equaliser until you really pay attention; digging beneath the hypnosis the centre foists on you as you walk through the doors. But I wasn’t paying attention to this stuff. I was hypnotised. I was bought in; a sucker for the sales pitch put before me by the centre’s preachers. I spent more; gave more of myself; than I’d planned. I’m not sure if I was manipulated because I certainly feel like I did this willingly as an act of greater love for my family. I did, for a moment, wonder how much my experience echoes the experience of people who might wander into church with us tomorrow for Christmas; perhaps ticking off something else on the Christmas checklist.

James K.A Smith, working with the same fundamental picture of the human being as David Foster Wallace, that we’re, fundamentally, worshippers, talks about the shopping centre (or mall, because he’s American) as a modern temple. He describes how the mall-as-temple shapes us and orients us to see the world, and ourselves, in this particular way; as consumers.

This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us. This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires. It compels us to come, not through dire moralisms, but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life… The symbols and colors and images associated with their religious life are readily recognized the world over. The wide circulation of these icons through various mediums even outside the sanctuary invites us to make the pilgrimage in the first place. This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us.

This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires and compels us to come not with dire moralisms but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life. (Yet one should note that it has its own modes of exclusivity too; because of its overwhelming success in converting the nations, it is increasingly difficult to be an infidel.) And it is a mode of evangelism buoyed by a transnational network of evangelists and outreach, all speaking a kind of unified message that puts other, fractured religions to shame. If unity is a testimony to a religion’s truth and power, it will be hard to find a more powerful religion than this catholic faith. And so we make our sacrifice, leave our donation, but in return receive something with solidity that is wrapped in the colors and symbols of the saints and the season.

This isn’t just a metaphor for Wallace or Smith; they’re actually convinced that participating in life as worshippers shapes us, and what and where we choose to worship has the potential to be very good, or very bad, for us in terms of how we understand ourselves and the world around us. In Smith’s treatment of the ‘mall’ he points out that our experience as shoppers are liturgical; shopping centres work to form our habits in particular ways, forming us as we take part in their vision of the good life, as we participate in the story the marketers are telling us, and so have the rhythms of our lives slightly altered. He points out the shopping centre shapes us so that we think of ourselves as consumers and of consumption as the path to joy, or this good life. Only life as a consumer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It leads us to consume others; it only works if we’re able to be hypnotised to the point that we think the success of our relationships; our families; depends on buying them the right thing, or if we’re able to get past the fact that all the presents we buy at Christmas ultimately don’t deliver the lasting satisfaction we hope for; so we go back day after day, week after week, Christmas after Christmas, looking to scratch this itch. Smith talks about our vain attempts to buy redemption at the shopping centre; to consume our way to happiness; he says it should be evident (because we keep going back) that this is a path that doesn’t satisfy, that never actually delivers a good life and this sort of worship transforms us in harmful ways, but also has us pin our hopes on things we end up sending to landfill:

By our immersion in this liturgy of consumption, we are being trained to both overvalue and undervalue things: we’re being trained to invest them with a meaning and significance as objects of love and desire in which we place disproportionate hopes (Augustine would say we are hoping to enjoy them when we should only be using them) while at the same time treating them (as well as the labor and raw materials that go into them) as easily discarded.— James K.A Smith, Desiring The Kingdom

I know the truth of the ‘landfill’ thing too well, because today as I did my ‘Christmas shopping’ — as I participated in worship Westfield style — I was buying exactly the same present I bought Robyn a few years ago, from the same place, because our kids had destroyed the last one. This stuff is finite; and profoundly geared not to permanently satisfy. How anti-Christmas…

The problem with picking things we’re going to bin as the things we attach ourselves to, and seeing the place we buy them from as our ‘temple’ (whether we know it or not), and participating in Christmas shopping as the ultimate form of modern, consumerist worship, and ourselves as consumers whose happiness depends on our consumption, is that we end up being consumed.

Wallace was aware of the danger of worshipping something like this; things that make us consumers not givers in our sacrifice. In This Is Water he says:

“And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

And then he turns to his own little excursion to the shops, to challenge us to break the way they deform us into selfish people who consume rather than truly love others… he invites us to head into the shopping centre eyes wide open. Into the checkout line where our consumer frustration kicks into gear because in consumer world our fellow shoppers are people in our way, or in competition with us for resources… when you view life as a consumer you tend to view other people a little negatively or judgmentally, and so Wallace invites us to see people differently by paying a different sort of attention; by becoming a different sort of worshipper (this is a passage directly before the bit I quoted above).

“You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying.

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…”

The goal of this sort of worship; and seeing; for Wallace, wasn’t better consuming but a totally different sort of us; it’s about overturning our tendency to see ourselves as consumers, it’s an invitation to think differently about ourselves, the world, others, and perhaps most importantly what the ‘good life’ looks like as we live in the world with others. Wallace wanted his listeners to free themselves from destructive defaults that come from wrong worship, malforming temples, and harmful attachments. He saw the sort of worship cultivated by temples with an agenda to make us see ourselves as consumers as dangerous, and suggested we had to pay attention in order to escape and to relate to others as givers not consumers. That was his vision of the ‘good life,’ at least as he invited others to see it.

“Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.

This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

Seeing the good life; freedom; this way will transform the way you participate in life at your local Westfield; it’s enough to challenge you to think about what you’re doing and to break the hypnosis of the light, and architecture, and sensual bombardment you face when you walk through the doors. But I’m not sure it’s enough to really deliver an answer to that ‘gnawing sense’; that haunting feeling of there being something more out there than Westfield and its retailers can provide for you. The problem with Westfield-as-temple is that what worship there delivers for you are just trinkets and baubles; they’re finite, fleeting, breaking, and boring.

The answer to this problem is in a new sort of worship that changes our sense of who we humans were made to be, how we ideally relate to others, and what a good life really looks like. The answer to this problem is actually to rediscover Christmas not as a consuming holiday, but a giving holy day. When the Apostle Paul wrote about us being worshipping creatures he had a particular picture of the good human life in mind. He had a particular sense of what Christmas is all about in mind too.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2. 

Consumption is a ‘pattern of this world’ and Paul’s answer to this pattern is to change the script; to not be consumers with our bodies, but givers, to be those who ‘offer our bodies as a living sacrifice’… It’s the Christmas story, and a new sense of what a ‘temple’ looks like, that allow us to truly love others, to in Wallace’s words ‘sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways’; to be ‘free’… We need a new temple, new attachments, a new story with a new vision of the good life, in order to become givers at Christmas, rather than destructive consumers. All this, for Paul, is caught up in what Christmas is actually about. It’s amazing how much it’s the anti-thesis of the Westfield ‘gospel’; or Westfield’s implicit and explicit account of what the good life is about; and what Christmas is about. Real worship; worship that doesn’t destroy us; is caught up in worshipping the giver of life. Real worship is caught up with recognising that Christmas is about the word that gave life and light to the world becoming flesh; becoming our temple. The temple isn’t just where we worship; it’s where we meet and see God and the image of the flourishing life; at Westfield that’s the mannequins and the posters and the glitz and glamour, at Christmas it’s the babe born in a stinking stable as a human who’d eventually be nailed to a cross. The Christmas story couldn’t be further from the tinsel and plastic prettiness of the modern Christmas shopping experience. The sacrifice Jesus makes begins in him taking on human form amongst dirty farm animals, first visited by stinking shepherds; it’s a form he still has now, a sacrifice he still makes, on behalf of the dirty and downtrodden who turn to him for hope.

The lie underneath Westfield’s ‘worship’ agenda is that finite things can satisfy the hunger for the infinite that only Christmas can. That Westfield so overtly harnesses and bastardises Christmas for its ends is truly shocking. If worship is, as Wallace puts it, trying to answer that gnawing sense of losing the infinite, Christmas is about us finding what was lost; or rather, it’s about the infinite making himself finite and knowable.

I walked through Westfield and felt empty and hopeless, hopefully people coming to church tomorrow to hear about God with us; who’ll be urged towards this new sort of worship; will walk in and out feeling filled with hope and pushed to love others because our gnawing sense of having lost touch with the infinite is answered when we look to the face of the baby in a manger; the infinite becoming finite as an act of sacrifice for us.

The Christmas story points us to true worship, and true worship is exemplified by those shepherds and later the wise guys from the East who recognised that Jesus really is ‘God With Us’… the real Christmas story stands in stark contrast Westfield’s Christmas; it overthrows Westfield-as-temple, and it points us to a sort of worship-driven ‘good life’ found in following the Christmas king. It makes us givers, not consumers; and involves God giving us life, rather than our false gods consuming us. This is perhaps one of the earliest Christmas Carols (after Mary’s at the birth of Jesus), from Paul in Philippians 2.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. — Philippians 2. 

 

 

 

 

Church for atheists? What’s the point?


Image Credit: The first Sunday Assembly Meeting, BBC

Meet The Sunday Assembly. An atheist “church”…

“The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that will meet on the first Sunday of every month to hear great talks, sing songs and generally celebrate the wonder of life. It’s a service for anyone who wants to live better, help often and wonder more.

Come on down to hear inspirational speakers and to enjoy a morning that is part-foot stomping show, part-atheist church.”

The atheist church: it’s all about you…

The church’s co-founders wrote a piece as part of the same New York Times conversation as Penn Gillete’s piece I wrote about the other day.

“We started The Sunday Assembly… because the idea of meeting once a month to sing songs, hear great speakers and celebrate the incredible gift of life seems like a fun, and useful, thing to do.

What’s more, church has got so many awesome things going for it (which we’ve shamelessly nicked). Singing together in a group? Super. Hearing interesting things? Rad. (Our first reading was Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena bit.) A moment to think quietly about your life? Wizard. Getting to know your neighbors? Ace.”

This seems to be building on the theme of philosopher Alain De Botton’s Religion for Atheists (incidentally for a more eloquent treatment of De Botton’s work than you’ll find here, or elsewhere, be sure to read Dan Anderson’s observations on a night with De Botton while he was on the Australian leg of his book tour).

De Botton gave this talk at TED.com that spells out his thinking.

Here’s a summary of De Botton’s thesis in the book, from his own website:

Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies. Blending deep respect with total impiety, Alain (a non-believer himself) proposes that we should look to religions for insights into, among other concerns, how to:

  • build a sense of community
  • make our relationships last
  • overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy
  • escape the twenty-four hour media
  • go travelling
  • get more out of art, architecture and music
  • and create new businesses designed to address our emotional needs.

De Botton has taken his idea a little further than the gathering (the ekklesia – which is the word we translate as “church”), he’s planning to build an atheist temple in the middle of London’s finance district.

“Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good. That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective … Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, atheism has become known as a destructive force… De Botton revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence.”

His proposal has been pretty soundly criticised by other atheists who are less willing to buy into anything that uses “atheist” and “religion” in the same sentence without the qualifiers “not a”… Here’s another piece from the Guardian… and the concluding quote about how unnecessary De Botton’s approach is…

“To answer De Botton’s original question, atheists do have their own versions of great churches and cathedrals. If the antithesis of religion is scientific rationalism, then surely its temples are the British Library, theMillau Viaduct and the Large Hadron Collider? If it’s about glorifying creation, then why not the Natural History Museum or the Eden Project? What about the Tate Modern? Or Wembley Stadium? Or the O2? Or the Westfield shopping centre? Perhaps non-believers should decide for themselves what a temple of atheism should be.”

There’s something in that criticism, but it’s the same sort of criticism I might make against the notion of carving out “sacred space” from a sacred creation. If the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it – then why make a church building when you can meet on the beach. I think there are actually good sociological reasons for creating spaces to use and gather for mission, and great reasons for those spaces to look nice and inviting, and even for them to help people grasp something of the God we follow… but that space isn’t really sacred in any magical sense.

It seems from these two examples that some atheists recognise the good and compelling aspects of religion, and they’re trying to copy it by capturing some of the nature of religion, without the essence – it looks like, at this point, the process boils down to two alternative methodologies – trying to capture something transcendent in art and architecture, and trying to capture something more meaningful in human relationships built around a core commitment… and why not, these are fairly consistent with how religions operate in time and space, sociologically.

In recreating a gathering, and recreating a “sacred space,” these newer atheists are following the sort of religious handbook you follow if you believe religion is a purely human invention, and the transcendental aspects of religion are something we create through manipulating the senses and emotions.

These are the worst bits of religion. Not the best bits.

They’re good things – but they’re not the sort of good things that make religious belief worth sticking with.

A grand building is nice, and can be a testimony to the God who provided order and beauty in the creation. But, in the end, Dawkin’s criticism of De Botton’s project (from the article linked above) is essentially the criticism most protestants have when walking through massive and ornate cathedrals in Europe…

“I think there are better things to spend this kind of money on. If you are going to spend money on atheism you could improve secular education and build non-religious schools which teach rational, sceptical critical thinking.”

The Sunday Assembly went for corporate singing as one of the artsy elements of religion that is worth maintaining in a post-Christian (non-Christian) church. And corporate singing is good.

In fact, just to be clear, I’m not saying great architecture, and great music are bad things – they are good things, they’re just some of the worst parts of Christianity.

At this point it’s worth throwing to Dan Anderson’s assessment of De Botton’s plundering of the “gold” of Christianity… and the way it highlights something lacking in how my tradition, and Dan’s, do religious “culture”…

“Too frequently, conservative evangelicalism operates with a truncated theological anthropology. As a product of the rationalist Enlightenment, evangelicalism frequently forgets the power of exactly the kinds of practices that De Botton commends: we jettison liturgical habituation to the truths of the gospel, we fail to engage with the fact that we are creatures of desire, of community, who thrill to beauty, who are inescapably embodied. If the full galleries at the Opera House last night are anything to go by, people are craving the kinds of things that make church ‘churchy’. Ironically, in our passion to make churches as welcoming to outsiders as possible we actively trash our rich heritage of these practices until the church gathering becomes indistinguishable from the philosophical lecture, apart from some vestigial (embarrassed) singing.”

That’s important. But this is silver cutlery stuff. At best. When it comes to the treasures of Christianity.

Restored human relationships, and a bit of perspective about the universe and our place in it – the other, slightly more transcendental aspects of the Sunday Gathering and De Botton’s open air temple, are also great things about Christianity. Probably the slightly better gold plated tableware. But human relationships are really hard – even in a church context where some of our central tenets – that we’re all equals united in Christ, naturally sinners who’ll stuff up, but new creations, called to put others first, called to love our neighbours as ourselves, and to serve a common purpose – should mitigate selfishness and some of the brokenness in how we relate to one another. The church is full of people hurt by how they’ve been treated by other members of the church – who’d leave if these things weren’t true. If we were meeting on the basis of being able to relate well to one another without these central truths of Christianity we’d be splintering into denominations ad infinitum or at least until we had as many churches as there are people. The Sunday Gathering, or any atheist church, loses all of these elements and is pushing a pretty optimistic view of human nature.

That’s beginning to tap into the really good bit of Christianity, and the church, and it’s a good bit that is out of reach for atheists – precisely because atheism is not a religion, or a belief in something. At this point there are two questions I want to explore before wrapping up… the first I think is predominantly something for non-Christians (possibly atheists) to think about when it comes to the exercise of trying to copy the good bits about church, the second is for Christians given that there’s some sort of movement wanting to duplicate the good (but not essential) bits of church…

What is (good about) church?

A lot of this depends on the idea that Christians are gathering around something that is supernatural and true – that there is a God, who revealed himself in Jesus and through the Bible – in fact, those things are so central to what it means to be Christian that there’s no value to be redeemed if they’re not. I reckon Paul’s right at this point, in Corinthians, where he says if Christianity isn’t true, then individual pursuit of pleasure (eat, drink, and be merry) is really where it’s at (though, for extroverts, this might be found in something that looks like church). Because death is the ultimate reality. But if Christianity is true, then death is the penultimate reality – it’s a gateway, to God’s presence.

If there’s no truth to religion then there’s no point for doing anything altruistic, and it’s hard to demonstrate that the good life is tied up in anything other than selfishness – why you’d gather with other people who think this way anyway – unless there is a deeper human yearning for community and connection with something bigger than ourselves – is beyond me, perhaps you can explain in the comments. And if that deeper yearning exists, then it could be explained by an appeal to human nature, but it opens the door for a god to have created humans with this capacity. Anyway. I digress.

There’s really nothing good about the Christian church, in my opinion, if you take out the core bits of Christianity. This is especially true if most of the non-core bits of Christianity are shaped by human culture. And they basically are. Any good sociologist should be able to show that… it’s why churches look and feel different in different times and places. If you want to build a society around the best bits of culture then it’s only worth pillaging the church so long as Christians are doing our job and creating the best bits of culture. I’m not sure that’s been really true of the church since Bach (or maybe Tolkein and Lewis). Which is a tragedy, and reflects a bit of a failing of the church in terms of how we think about creation.

One of the really powerful movements from the Old Testament – where the Temple was kind of important – to the New Testament, is the movement in how Sacred space is understood. This is one of those cool things where seeing how something develops across the whole Bible, and into the future, is really cool – and it’s pretty foundational to how we define church, and what the “good” essential bit of church is.

It all starts in the beginning… one of the fun things about Genesis 1 and 2, and the Garden of Eden, is that the Garden is described using the same sort of language and setting that is later used for the Temple in Jerusalem. You can read more on this in this article “Eden, the Temple, and the Church’s Mission” which is a nice summary of Beale’s book The Temple and the Church’s Mission. Basically Adam and Eve were given the job of being priests, expanding God’s temple over all of creation (the verbs used when God gives Adam a job in Genesis 2 are used of the priests later). When things go badly, part of the restoration story of the Old Testament is pushing towards recapturing God’s presence with humanity – sacred space is represented in the Tabernacle, then the Temple… if people want to capture something good and transcendental the Old Testament centres this around the city of Jerusalem, which is part of the tragedy of Exile. Sacred space was really important in the Old Testament, because access to a sacred space was a measure of how things were going for the sacred people – when they were being faithful to God they’d have access to this space, and good things would happen, when they were bad, they’d lose access to that space and bad things would happen.

Then we get to the New Testament. And everything changes. First God dwells with the world in the person of Jesus (read John 1). Then, Jesus makes it clear who God’s people are, after he leaves, because they’re given his Spirit (see the closing chapters of John, and all of Acts). Sacred space isn’t a big deal for the early church. They’re meeting in houses, town halls, the mini-sacred spaces of the Jews (synagogues)… and the word “church” is being used for the gathering – and Paul freely uses temple language to describe individuals (we’re the dwelling place of God) and the church more corporately. There has been a movement. The people are sacred, the dwelling place of God, and space is relatively unimportant.

The church gathering – the people – is good because it anticipates where we’re heading in the long term, the Bible ends with a description of the church of the future – and in some ways this is the aspirational standard we’re struggling to meet now, as broken humans in a broken world.

“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Temples and religious spaces are pretty important to the sociology of religion, but they’re not really important in Christianity in terms of what it is to be part of the church. Where God dwells in us, in a way that unites us.

Gatherings of people around a purpose in a way that breaks down hostility and creates love are good things, and again hugely important when it comes to explaining religion as a social phenomenon – but unless the purpose is really big, and people are so bought into it that they’re able to overcome personality differences, or perhaps alternatively there’s either some really good external help for dealing with differences, or an internal change in nature, my guess is people will stay while it suits them.

The great and important bit of Christianity and being the church is that we gather around the ultimate purpose, not around an absence of purpose, or the purpose of trying to “live better” in a broken and frustrated world where tears, death, mourning, crying and pain are penultimate realities.

The better news is that our understanding of humanity changes – not only to give us a pessimism about human organisations and how individuals will react to situations, but because we’re united in Jesus, and our nature is changed through the Holy Spirit – we can truly love others and appreciate gathering together only if we’re cognisant of the God who is there, who we’re gathering to celebrate, and the work he’s done in bringing a bunch of broken people together. Church is fundamentally not really about self-improvement (though that might be a bi-product), but about thankfulness to God, and service of others in the hope that other broken people will know God too. We gather around a story that makes us something, connects us to something – each other, sure, but ultimately we gather because we have been connected to God, through Jesus, with an amazing future. Our narrative is pretty powerful.

The atheist church, especially as the Sunday Gathering defines it, is far too self-serving to be a long term proposition – perhaps that’s why they’ve set the bar pretty low at monthly, as opposed to the picture of what it means to be the church in the Bible, which sees the gathering as a regular expression of a permanent reality.

The other big problem I see with the atheist church is the complete and definitive absence of a positive narrative. By its very nature, atheism, and corporate atheism, is a lack of belief, or a gathering around a lack of belief. The strength of Christianity is the story it involves – of a God who creates the world, and redeems it from brokenness, through sacrifice, for each person who wants to become part of the story, and it offers a future. It interweaves with our history and resonates with our experience. We’re people who live lives as stories, and communicate in stories – and there’s nothing compelling about the atheist narrative. The story De Botton’s atheist temple tells is depressing. You are a small dot in a big and infinite amount of time and space. You are, essentially, nothing. How can you live a more fulfilling life if that’s the meta-narrative you’re buying into. You might be a bigger bit of nothing than other individuals if you do something great. But it’s a pretty hard sell. Who’d want to be a teller of that story? Who’d want to wake up with that story defining their choices. Believe nothing if you like – but gathering as a celebration of this belief doesn’t seem like the path to happiness. It doesn’t make any sense. Better to gather in an association that celebrates something positive – a wine club, a music club, an Epicurean society… If you really want to capture the essence of the church without its core, it’s tied up in the power of our narrative – this is true for other religious belief systems too, it’s why oppressed minorities are amongst the first to flock to Islam, it’s why Mormonism is big in the US… while De Botton is essentially trying to do this in the design of his temple which functions as an ode to the complexity of the human genome but simultaneously highlights our insignificance in the scheme of things –  the qualitative aspects of that story (the facts of which other religions acknowledge) aren’t all that compelling, they lack direction. A good story has a plot.

What can Christians learn from the Atheist Church?

300 people went along to the first Sunday Gathering – it is capturing something, at least initially, that humans are geared to look for. It’s sad that they appear to have a better doctrine of creation than we do, it’s sad that they’re interested in the ephemeral nature of music, the arts, and even science while we’ve, largely, abdicated the responsibility to be not just workers in creation but people who want to make good things that reflect who God is… There’s a balance here, but there are two reasons I think we should be returning to the abandoned field of producing good works – even good works that appear to have little value outside the cultural sphere – because when they’re not turned into some sort of idol, which is what this Sunday Gathering is basically doing, they testify to the God who revealed himself in Christ, in the best story ever told. Good art (and living a good life) is a good response to this story, and doing art (or life) well is a good way of telling this story.

I don’t mean making Christian sub-culture versions of current art either, they’re sub-standard by nature. I mean making the best versions of art, as Christians, having healthy theologies of creation, culture, and work… people are wired to appreciate that, especially post-modern people who have moved a little beyond the idea that we sway people with just the bare facts – which is where we’ve kind of found ourselves in the conservative evangelical circles that I’ve been shaped by. Dan’s quote that I posted above says this better than I will – or at least positions us to be thinking this through, but if these things are naturally attractive to humans, and not contrary to the gospel, then why aren’t we using them?

They can be a distraction from the main thing – the story that we’re on about – but they can be used to help tell our story in a more powerful way that resonates with people and tugs at more than the part of their brain that’s geared towards listening to a boring monologue.

Most idols are good parts of creation that we turn to when we should be turning to God – these things are the objects of idolatry, but they were gold created by God before we turned them into golden cows.

We’ve over-corrected in response to the insidious idolatry that tends to turn good cultural things into ultimate things, and it’s probably time to get the good golden dinnerware out of the closet and start using it, lest it get plundered, copied, and cheapened because of the glut of replicas in the market.