A friend recently shared that he does not go to church because he does not believe in Jesus or God. This entwinement of churchgoing with belief expresses a popular belief itself: the central motivation for attending church is commonly thought to be belief.
Within evangelical Christianity, the tradition in which I was raised, the common assumption is that one goes to church as an expression of belief in Jesus as God’s only begotten Son. In this framework, those who believe can often feel called to persuade others’ beliefs toward this version of Jesus. Those whose beliefs dwell elsewhere resist conversion and stand firm in their own beliefs. Belief, it is believed, divides an “us” from a “them.” No matter the side, if only we believed in the same things, so the dream goes, this “us” versus “them” would become smaller and evaporate. Peace would become possible.
belief is just one aspect of why people might attend church, and perhaps a small aspect.
Opposition rooted in ideas about belief is not specific to Christianity or even religion, but is instead pervasive across modern life, from sports (Ohio State versus University of Michigan), politics (Republicans versus Democrats), and nation (United States versus Russia). One side of each respective scenario is held up as good, moral, and deserving. The other side, though often believed to be deserving of love and compassion, is nonetheless often considered suspect or even evil. In other words, an Ohio State Buckeye fan might believe in Ohio State football the way an evangelical Christian might believe in Jesus. You commit even while you doubt. You return again and again to the symbols (buckeye or cross), songs (“Buckeye Battle Cry” or “Onward Christian Soldier”), and community (players and congregants) of your team because you believe in the traditions and futures your coterie stands for.
But belief is just one aspect of why people might attend church, and perhaps a small aspect. Just as some people might go to an Ohio State football game hoping their team will win, others might go less interested in the game’s outcome and more interested in people-watching. Others might go to spend time with friends or family. Others might go to honor a memory with a loved one who passed away. Others might barely notice the football players and focus instead on cheerleaders’ athleticism or the marching band’s music. Others might go for the pizza. Others might go to get out of the house. Look across the crowd at a football game, and there may be as many motivations to be there as there are people.
Look across a church lobby, and there are equally diverse motivations for being there. Some are there in the name of a belief. But others are less so. Some might be there for free coffee. Or the chance to contemplate. Or the intergenerational energy when so much of modern life – from education to the workplace to new apartments designed for single millennials – segregates the human family by age.
...[the Nicene Creed] moves on to include myriad motivations for gathering... it moves from the singular to the infinite
Revered church documents suggest the proliferation rather than uniformity of reasons to attend church. I was raised in an evangelical Christian tradition in which congregants recited aloud the Nicene Creed each Sunday. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.” The word “belief” repeats several times: “We believe in one God”; “We believe in the Holy Spirit.” Rather than consolidating belief, the Nicene Creed – even if unintentionally – proliferates possible beliefs. You don’t believe in Jesus as the Only Son of God? Well, we’ve got another idea for you: what about just God? You don’t believe in God? Well, we’ve got another idea that might interest you: the Holy Spirit. Even the Nicene Creed’s beliefs are many instead of one.
Though the Nicene Creed might put some people off, like my friend, for its language of belief, the creed’s language does not dwell in belief. It moves on to include myriad motivations for gathering. If you need belief, the creed states, the church has this experience for you. If you don’t need belief and are looking for something different, we’ve got that, too. For instance, the creed might seem to limit ideas (“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ”), but this same sentence ends in mystery (“God,” the ultimate word for the unknowable infinite). Put another way, this line moves from the singular to the infinite; it holds both dimensions in one sentence. Those who yearn for constraints in an overwhelming world find what they need: “one Lord.” Those who ache for immensity and mystery in a world overrun by restrictions find what they need: cosmic grandeur, what some might call “God.” The line is vast enough to hold different, even contrasting ways of being.
Don’t we all ache for “hope and a future”?
The Nicene Creed, like an Ohio State football game, has a little something for everyone if one is open to noticing it. If you are drawn less to believing in Jesus and more to exploring a wider perspective beyond one’s person’s influence, the creed offers vastness: “heaven and earth,” “all that is, seen and unseen.” For those who feel weighted by burdens, the creed offers lightness, literally, “Light from Light.” It offers ideas of rescue and hope, “salvation.” It offers company in the dark nights of the soul for those who “suffer” and are “buried” under the gravity of any number of hardships. It tells a specific story about one man, Jesus who “suffered death and was buried.” But this same language offers something beyond the story of an individual man and toward an experience cosmically symbolic: after a period of darkness or a dark night of the soul, there is resurrection, stepping once more into the wild but fragrant garden of life. “On the third day, he rose again” and gained “ascendance into heaven,” a new peace and joy. No matter the darkness, literal or symbolic, there is “life of the world to come.”Don’t we all ache, as the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah who never knew Jesus wrote, for “hope and a future”? Don’t we all long to know that an experience of thriving awaits us, whether we are evangelical Christians or atheists, Ohio State fans or disinterested in football, Trump supporters or Marxist feminists? Some might come to church not because they believe in Jesus, but because they believe in hope and a future.
This is part one of Ben's thoughtful reflection on belonging. Stay tuned for part 2 and 3, where Ben shares his personal experience in church and longing for belonging.
Part 2 of Can We Gather? In this article, Genevieve addresses shame.
Genevieve take's a pilgrimage of churches and tackles the question, can we gather without harming one another?