Go Back to Church

This article appeared in a newspaper during my visit to Germany in July of this year. It refers to the increasing number of Germans who declare themselves non-believers, withdraw their membership from the church, and opt out of paying a church tax for the maintenance of religious buildings and schools. To exempt themselves from the church-tax, they receive a Kirchenaustrittsbescheinigung, a certificate from the government that declares them officially unchurched. If an official catches them attending church anyway, can the government invalidate the Kirchenaustrittsbescheinigung? Will you have to start paying the church-tax again? The article does not say.

I no longer read the Bible, pray, or go to church, myself, but my point-of-view remains essentially Christian, inasmuch as I believe that a philosophy, doctrine, and some version of unalterable truth defines a person, and that human-kind needs that self-definition, need a form of corporate identity. Pastors, priests, and the Bible itself dictate that members shall celebrate their faith communally, so that they can maintain a sense of direction, strengthen their disciplined approach to the faith, and live a value-based life. Church-leders warned against the lone-wolf Christian approach.

Human beings should recognize their limits. A value-based life needs encouragement from time to time, wheher you remain a practicing Christian, Buddhist, or whatever. Humans need a doctrine and some instructive materials to help them interpret the insights of the doctrine, whether you make the Desiderata of Max Ehrmann, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, or On Walden Pond by Henry David Thoreau the document that tells people who you are. Say what you will about Christianity, church attendance shods people in sturdy ideological boots, an orientation to life that makes them willing to risk death for their faith.

If non-believers have nothing to take the place of Christianity, no philosophy to fall back on, they might want to consider going back to church, God or no God! Someone has to remind you who are, who your friends are, what your enemies look like, to give you a sense of direction in order to keep you moving forward going, and to keep you mindful about your personal values in the hub-bub of daily life—since you are likely to forget, under pressure from others.

Religious faith has to co-exist uneasily with an individual's intellect. He has to process experiences and sermons to some extent empirically, even if he doesn't consciously think about it. As the writer Artur Koestler wrote, "Faith is not only capable of moving mountains, but also making you believe that a herring is a race-horse." The tension between the two poles may aggravate us. It also defines us as people.

Without a personal philosophy, or faith in something, we make ourselves vulnerable to an authority  figure. With no one to maintain your orientation, the authority figure defines you. Often, he hectors you from a chip on his shoulder; and his resentment will gradually make you follow his orientation rather than your own. His resentment will turn you against wealthy people, insurance companies, Jews, Blacks, your own country, or some other target. He convinces you, in a manner of speaking, and you parrot his invective.

This scenario comes out in the novel The Walking Stick, published in 1964 by the British novelist Winston Graham, author of the better-known Marnie and the Poldark novels. The Walking Stick tells the story of Deborah, an antiques-appraiser, who falls in love with Leigh, a frustrated artist in London, England. In the photograph, Samantha Eggar plays Deborah; David Hemmings plays the charming Leigh, from The Walking Stick, filmed in 1970.

Leigh rants about the power of wealth, how the wealthy can keep starving painters like him down. He proposes a measure of payback to Deborah, asking her if she will help him and his crew rob the auction-house in London where she works. She has misgivings about it but agrees out of sympathy for Leigh. Her misgivings and sympathy work against each other in this remarkable story. It would help, of course, to have a community of believers supporting her.