Church is our Classroom - Part IV.2 Christ the King

Christ the King Presbyterian Church
Sunday, May 3, 2009

(I am writing this deliberately without referencing or reading Eric’s post about the same church, hopefully we offer different viewpoints).

Those of us that have secular interactions with the world around us often mistake ‘the issue’, and try to argue rationally/left-brained at a situation that is defined by the emotional states it gives its participants. I’ve done the same myself, often led by instances such as The God Delusion or similar tomes.

I’ve come to realize, however, that arguing about the rationality of belief in something is not only ineffective, it is missing the point completely. The point is, attending these rituals really can improve people’s lives emotionally - any rationalization of that feeling is secondary to the feeling itself.

Studying the emotional arc people are brought through when in church seems to be of the utmost importance: the church techniques have evolved over thousands of years into many forms, and we can learn from all of them how to merge those feelings with the thoughts of evolution and the scientific method. There is no reason that evolution would not elevate us to higher states of consciousness.

The key, of course, is the arts. Religion utilizes aesthetic experience to put us into receptive emotional states, which are then merged with ‘ideas’ about how to live life in positive ways. Religion is arguably the highest art. It is not using the arts to ‘help’; its entire efficacy comes from its use of the arts.

Religion exists to make us more functional by healing anxieties and building social bonds: The notion of sin is an extension of the anxieties of death - sin seems to stand for anything agreed to be negative for survivability.

There is something funny about the personification of a god - so natural for humans to do this, but it leads to notions of wanting to please a god, in a human sense, instead of wanting to become part of the pure process, in which case ‘god lives in all and through all’ - a total loss of anxiety.

The notion of hope is important here. In aiding our anxieties and lowering stress reactions, the process of giving hope actually can be emotionally beneficial whether or not it causes any real changes. As Dissanayake might mention, the illusion of control can sometimes stimulate true control.

The function of the pastor is to best spread the ideals in a way that gets them held deeply by many individuals. This is somewhat obvious but his techniques should all be oriented towards spreading that awe as widely and deeply as possible. In this community I repeatedly sense a preference towards depth over breadth - in rituals such as ‘peace be with you’ here people favored singular longer conversations, instead of greeting everyone in their nearby space. Both techniques can work.

Certain techniques are used to help us with those anxieties and bonds, they are tied into the arts fundamentally:
Confession allows the release of these anxieties in a personal way - purge the things that you feel are putting yourself in a negative spin, and someone else will deal with it - someone will bear that burden, so the anxiety can leave your own body and you will become a more effective individual as a result. Programs like the 12 step begin with relinquishing of control over to a ‘higher power’ for exactly this reason.

The program allows everyone a shared experience regardless of their background [how often they go] - it is a conscious choice by some churches to allow more people to connect, while taking some attention from the service itself [imagine the piano concerto - almost always performed without music present, nothing in the way of total focus, and imagine this applied to a church ceremony where everyone knows the full program] - where did programs evolve from anyway?

Techniques of communication: speaking in unison and speaking in turn [congregation, leader, repeat] - these allow us to oscillate between individuality and group cohesion - maybe this play allows us to reach a deeper overall cohesion over time? How do our voices resonating and regulating time with each other build an emotional bond?

The music is key - especially in this case ‘The Church’s One Foundation’, which really had some great use of linearly shifting lines and deceptive cadences. Music causes us to be emotionally open and receptive. This is especially clear in times they are assured to play music, such as during the offering, when they need to receive money to support themselves (in this case Bach). The music is not a side effect or ‘help’ - it is the absolute crucial element that puts us in these emotional states, which then get associated with the ideas and ideals pushed in the service. these lead to ‘better’ behaviors which keep the meme alive. However, and this is of course key: the truth or falsehood of the meme is totally irrelevant!

Changing about 2% of the service rids any disagreements with current scientific knowledge. The experience of being in this space, sharing time and thoughts with others, has the potential to add a depth of meaning to everything we experience. By bracketing the time, putting us into a positive feedback loop while surrounded by members of ‘our community’ - truly we have an extension of the notion of a tribe. And doesn’t religion utilize this separation from other tribes to help build unity?

In the sermon, to allow people to feel better, the pastor shows his own inabilities to achieve unity. He shows his own issues with achieving the process. This gives people a way to connect.. if it’s tough for him, then their toughness is something ok to deal with… once again the lowering of anxieties can actually increase control.

We all worry about the future - the service deliberately puts focus on it, combining focus with positive [artistic and idea-based] experiences about the future, to lower anxieties and thus raise our ability to feel control toward it.

the process vs the promise.
The pastor spent a good deal of time talking about how our goal is to reach the enlightened state, to “set up a situation in which we can thrive.” As he mentioned, “we don’t want to waste time on our anxieties,” and it is precisely these anxieties, these references to the future and to the past, that keep us from being completely happy in our lives. This relates deeply not only to spiritual leaders such as Eckert Tolle, etc, but also to artists such as Keith Jarrett, who constantly speak about trying to remove themselves from the process as much as possible to allow the ‘Creator’ to speak through them, as the pastor said to “let god give you the ability to do his work.”

This creator, I believe, is the notion of mutation itself. creation = mutation. We all exist in contexts in which our bodies will react, and we can either be open to those reactions or we can try to temper them by thinking about how those actions will define us in the future or how they have defined us in the past. Removal of these negative feedback loops leads to
happiness. Or does it?

His sermon revolved primarily about the process of reaching this enlightened state, where life is “just easy.” Unfortunately there is a large difference between the process and the promise. As Springsteen said “the door is open but the ride ain’t cheap” - the promise is grand but the process is neither natural nor automatic. It is difficult. This holds true whether Presbyterian or Buddhist. Life is not as easy as this promise.

We are held from this promise fundamentally because of our anxieties. The promise is the loss of these anxieties, at all times. Everything about this sermon is about getting over anxieties, figuring out this process. The irony is that the process is about ‘getting to the promise’ but the real answer is to realize that it is only the process itself that exists and is important!

The hardest part right now, for myself at least, is allowing myself to get beyond the fact that I disagree with some of the things being said, to allow myself to emotionally try to get to the place the other people in the congregation currently reside, spiritually. Just as an anthropologist may want to sample the local spirit-quest drug of a native people, I want to more fully sample the spiritual dose provided by an hour in mass.

Questions brought up from today’s service:
- What is the psychological function of the baptism ritual?
- How does the notion of the trinity play into all this? Does father/son have reference to genetic dispersal or cultural?
- Is anxiety a direct side effect of consciousness? It seems like it is. Is religion the first oscillatory response to that differential equation? Is atheism the second, and is enlightenment the third?

It is difficult to know what it means to be religious without attending a religious ceremony (many). I do not think there is a substitute for the time we’ve spent in church as our classroom.

4 Responses to “Church is our Classroom - Part IV.2 Christ the King”

  1. eric says:

    It would be a great exercise to transcribe and distill the emotional arc people are brought through during each service into a musical score of sorts. What does the arc of each service look like? How similar is it to symphonies we know and love, or other time-based artworks for that matter?

    These techniques of communication you mention: speaking in unison and speaking in turn [congregation, leader, repeat]. These are very musical techniques. Could these larger group structures have evolved directly from the microstructures of music and dancing? We talk about religion harnessing the arts, but perhaps we should talk more about its coevolution with the arts.

  2. lauren says:

    There are many positive feedback mechanisms in the rituals and repetition that reinforce religion, but is there negative reinforcement as well? What role does fear play?

    We’re all gonna die. That can be hard to swallow. Praying, going to church, being reassured weekly that there is heaven and an afterlife and a god can go a long way toward assuaging fears about life and death. A lot of people I know believe in god because the prospect of not believing is scary.

    Once integrated into the church, there are a new set of fears to feed the mechanisms of control and idea propagation. Each religion asks its followers to maintain certain beliefs and lifestyles. The failure to do this, for some religions, results in a fate more terrifying than not believing in the first place: Hell.

    At mass this past Christmas, the priest gave each of us a Christmas gift - a book titled “The 7 Types of Sinners and How We Know Hell Exists”. What is the purpose of the reinforcement of this concept of eternal damnation? Is it necessary? Is it powerful?

    Confession. A time to reflect and relieve oneself of guilt and sin. There are many great things about it, but I can’t forget the overwhelming dread I experienced as a kid every Easter as the time came around for all of us to go with our catechism class to reconciliation.

    …kneeling in a tiny dark room talking to a stern, disembodied voice behind a screen… that feeling in the pit of my stomach… what if the priest recognizes my voice? what if he judges me? what if god does? what if he tells me I’m going to hell? what will everyone think if I’m in here too long? what if I forget the act of contrition? what if I forget to confess everything and god figures out I lied? what if I don’t even know all the ways I’ve sinned…

    Religion has many ways of making us feel unity, togetherness, included. But does this inclusion imply that some will be excluded? Most religions claim to welcome all… except homosexuals or women or sinners or… Would it work if everyone really was welcome? Or does the exclusivity help create the unity we feel?

    How many disagreements/conflicts arise because we see another group of people as different or less deserving than us? Many will vote for politicians, trust doctors, extend friendship based on a shared faith. Is the opposite true also? Are we less willing to trust/relate to others that have a different belief system than us? How/why do differences scare us so much?

    The experience in church last sunday was overall positive. Yet there were times I felt excluded. When we exchanged peace, everyone seemed to already know each other and quickly broke off into private conversations. When it was time for communion, we were asked not to partake. I understand the importance of keeping a ritual special, but I couldn’t help feeling like a total outsider, the other, confronted with my fear that I didn’t fit in/wasn’t accepted.

  3. [...] feel strongly but am ready to drop immediately based on any alternative thinking. This is based on lauren’s comment to the previous entry about our church visit last week. It centers around two themes: the notion of [...]

  4. [...] his post, Jeff talked about the techniques of communication that have evolved in the ritualistic program. [...]

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